Tradition: “A thing some of us do here when the political going gets tough…”

I was asked this morning by a senior party official whether there would be any positive effect in Sinn Fein’s voter numbers because of the dissident campaign. Will it? I don’t rightly know. At this stage you might think that everyone who had planned to jump ship from the SDLP has already done so. But may be not.

However, in the Guardian Glenn Patterson gets close to the nub of the problem of the IRA. It is not an organisation as such, but an idea, or in a more historical context as Glenn puts it, a tradition, or:

…a thing some of us do here when the political going gets tough or just not to our liking. (Some of us do a thing called UVF too; we have in the past done a great many other things in the name of the state.) All the adherents to this tradition style themselves Óglaigh na hÉireann – “Irish Volunteers” or “Soldiers of Ireland” (and the official name of the Irish Defence Forces, which is a whole other civil war story) – and they have all committed acts on a par with the murder of Constable Kerr.

We have dignified such events in our recent past, or at least sanitised them by saying that they occurred in particular circumstances, circumstances that our peace process will help us all to understand and, if not forgive one another for, at least accept at face value. The implication is that the participants in the conflict were not so much acting, as being forced to act: “History made me do it”, the very argument of course that the various Óglaigh new kids (or not so new kids) are using now. Even in the most extreme circumstances there are choices to be made.

Martin McGuinness’s forthrightness has, as I say, been welcome and refreshing. But someone, some time soon, has to have the courage to say that while the aspiration to Irish unity was always legitimate, the means employed – the under-car bombs, the vans filled with explosives, the shootings of informers and civilians as well as members of the armed forces – were always wrong. Not unfortunate, not “to be regretted”. Wrong.

It may not in itself stop this version of the IRA, but it ought at least put clear blue water between those who really do believe that politics is the only way to effect change, and those who believe it is the only way when they have decided for the rest of us that it is.

I recently spoke to another senior politician who thought that the troubles would always be with us whilst there is partition (or from a unionist perspective, substantial alienation from the joys of the Union). Which may be one reason why there is unlikely to be any big, single, glorious prizes on offer within Northern Irish politics for the foreseeable future.

  • Mick et al, here’s the link to the Patterson article.

  • Alias

    Since partition didn’t exist in 1916, the purpose of the IRA’s campaign could not have been unity. The purpose was to assert the right of the Irish nation to national self-determination.

    Unity is therefore a post-partition objective. In taking the emphasis off self-determination and placing it onto unity, the British state was able to use the GFA to hoodwink the gullible Irish into trading self-determination for unity, thereby defeating the purpose of he exercise.

    If unity were to occur under the terms of the GFA then it must occur only in a constitutional construction were the veto that the British state holds over the Irish nation is to be internalised so that the British nation instead holds this veto over the Irish nation in the unified entity. Therefore, the Irish nation must agree to give up its right to national self-determination and subject itself to this reconstructed British veto.

    So it isn’t simply the means to an end that has been changed but rather the end itself. That is not a nationalist agenda and not even a post-nationalist agenda: it is an anti-Irish nationalist agenda.

  • Henry94


    The problem of unity preceded the problem of partition. hence the tricolour flying over the GPO in 1916. Unionists are completely missing from your contribution. It’s all about our right to self-determination and the British attempts to block it.

    The traditional republican answer was to force the British to sell out the unionists. If we could manage that we would solve the self-determination problem but not the real unity problem. The tricolour is not a suitable flag for such an exercise.

    I think we have found a better way.

  • AGlassOfHine

    Self determination is a myth. Decisions,and hand outs are handled in Brussels.

    Of course Marty and Gerry should come clean,in the spirit of truth and reconciliation,and say their murder campaign was wrong. But they won;’t/can’t/daren’t. So they will continue to be despised in the eyes of the ‘dissidents’,for being the hypocrites they are.

  • SDLP supporter

    Henry 94, for the vast bulk of Easter Week 1916 the Irish tricolour did not fly over the GPO. Indeed, there is no firm evidence that it was ever flown during the Rising. The flag used was green, with a golden Irish harp.

    Alias, please read the Good Friday Agreement again. There is no re-constructed British veto on the right of the people of Ireland (thirty two counties) to self-determination. The wording is in line with Hume’s reasoning that people on the island (nationalist/unionist) were divided among themselves on the exercise of self-determination. Once there is agreement in the two jurisdictions on Irish unification, the UK must legislate. Everything is in an all-island context, as it should be.

    Your position is as contradictory as that of Bernadette McAliskey and others who were opposed to the 1937 Constitution because it had not been ratified on an all-island basis (logical) but yet were opposed to dropping Articles 2 and 3 of the self-same constitution (illogical).

    Having said all this, as the older people among us will remember, back in April 1998 Sinn Fein neither endorsed the Good Friday Agreement at the conclusion of negotiations nor lifted a finger to call for a ‘Yes’ vote in the subsequent referendum.

  • Politico68

    The flaw in the article is in the fact that it attempts to look at history through contemporary eyes. With the benefit of hindsight practically everything can be seen as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with very little grey areas. War, in any shape can be described as ‘wrong’ simply on the basis that it has catastrophic consequences for all involved, be it the victors, the losers and indeed the frustration of stale- mate can compound the pain of conflict as we have seen in the North. It is almost childish to think that Republicans or Loyalists or indeed the British army could at this time say that their part in the conflict was ‘wrong’ when the pain runs so deep through the victims who still struggle with the consequences every day. They can be forgiven if they sneer at verbal regrets or reject vacuous statements accepting blame. Isolated apologetic incidences such as David Cameron and Bloody Sunday are of course to be welcomed, but these apologies are specific in their presentation and pointed in the fact that they target a particular group concerning a particular time.
    It is cynical to suggest that if McGuinness were to say he or they had been ‘wrong’ that it would somehow put further pressure on the Dissidents to stand down. In fact it smacks of an effort to humiliate him and make him more of a fleshy target for the dissidents to aim at. Wherever we stand regarding our history we should at least know this much; conflict prevails where reason has failed. Our experience alone is not the only indicator of this, every conflict springs from the same platform. This basic Human flaw is endemic in our nature, why else would there be a need for International involvement in practically every global argument. Some of us may enjoy looking at the past and judging it from high on an arrogant horse. But it solves nothing and it never has.
    In the North, reason has prevailed, agreement has been reached and aspirations allowed room to breathe. As for the dissidents, they will wither as long as there is no quiet admiration sleeping in the homes of their community, as was the case in the past. If we want to hand them a reason to Kill and maim in vain, it’s easily done. Keep hammering the ones who brought us to the gates of reason with calls for public penance and empty declarations of regret, until you can convince enough people that nothing is enough, no progression acceptable, no regret appropriate, no outreach satisfactory and no agreement acknowledged until those who were ‘wrong’ fulfil the requirements of those who simply can’t or won’t accept that the War is Over.

  • Henry94

    SDLP supporter

    If your claim is correct someone wasted 600k.

  • Whilst I do agree that as long as a British military presence remains on the island of Ireland, there will be armed attacks made against it – this is not to defend those attacks.

    It seems to me that the dizzy rascal advocates on here like to use that line as an attempt to weasel out of defending the actions of these armed groups.

    Even if the status-quo survives a hundred years, you can be guaranteed a misguided sole will still be firing off the odd shot thinking he’s fighting for Ireland.

    What’s important however, is for every one of them, there are a hundred others these people aren’t firing guns, but they are teaching Irish in primary schools, they are tearing down peace-walls and building cross community groups, they are getting up at six in the morning to remove offensive graffiti, they are playing a session in a mixed community bar and maybe even ordering their pints in Irish whilst they’re at it.

    I’m confident I know who’s doing more for the Irish tradition.

  • Patterson; ‘Not unfortunate, not to be regretted. Wrong’.

    I can’t speak for the republican movement, but i suppose they would answer with this. If it was wrong for them to use the violence and murder to end a colonial power’s [Britain in this case]presence and rule on their land, why was it alright for the colonial power to use exactly the same brutal methods to invade and control?

  • John Ó Néill

    I think the phrase “… at least sanitised them by saying that they occurred in particular circumstances…” is merely short hand for how it is often politically inconvenient to put some things in context (since when was anyone employing violence on the political stage in NI not wrong?). It is subtle(-ish) but clearly the piece is just another trying to lever some form of political advantage over SF out of the actions of other republicans.

    The irony here is that one of the strategic aims of the other republicans is try and isolate SF or erect sufficient obstacles to make political pursuit of a united Ireland project even more difficult. Peculiarly, the ‘dissident’ republicans will find some comfort and in the promotion of the narrative Patterson is following to an extent that, once upon a time, he and others would have ruled as being that of fellow travellers. Rather than grasp the realities of the past there are many who have refused to confront what occured nevermind sanitised them by saying that they occurred in particular circumstances.

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    Is Patterson stating he is a pacifist? Is he stating that it is the responsibilty solely of republicans to state that violent means are wrong?
    Who acts as the arbiter to state when violence is necessary, is it the Glenn Patterson’s of this world? Is it done via a Guardian editorial?

  • Republic of Connaught

    Yes it is easy NOW in 2011 for any non Sinn Fein person to say the P-IRA were clearly wrong. In the end they murdered so many people for little more than a revamped Sunningdale Agreement. But if the British government had announced a withdrawal date during the ’70s or 1980s and a united Ireland plan was drafted, would history have judged the P-IRA wrong then? Would it have judged them wrong for removing from their country what history has long recorded as a famed, and often ruthless, colonial power? Did America escape Britain’s colonial rule without using gruesome murder and violence? Were Americans wrong? Or were they right to murder simply because they won?

    The IRA volunteers at the time couldn’t have known
    for certain the British government would not pull out. And neither, I’m sure, were the British government themselves certain they would stay under any circumstances. Unionists were clearly terrified they would pull out. The P-IRA thus played their military hand with all its bloody consequences and in the end still didn’t reach checkmate. So they were clearly wrong in hindsight – because their violent tactics didn’t succeed, is what Mr Patterson means (whether he knows it or not). I’m sure many ex IRA volunteers wish they knew it back then.

    Of course it would also have been wrong to force the Unionists into a United Ireland against their will anyway. But considering Unionists did it to so many unwilling Nationalists in the six counties, two of which were majority nationalist even in 1921, that argument is much more valid in 2011 than it was in the 1980s.

    The modern dissidents are truly dinosaurs because the P-IRA in a pre 9/11 less globalised, more politically ignorant (in Ireland anyway) age better suited to terrorism with far more numbers and capacity for violence PROVED beyond any reasonable doubt the British government won’t pull out of the north because of Republican violence. So what’s the point of violence if it’s proven it can’t force the British government out and only hardens Unionist alienation from the concept of a united Ireland? Zero genuine purpose except old habits die hard for some gunmen.