I have now drafted two responses to Andy Pollak’s book review: The Long Game: Inside Sinn Fein… – Once, a couple of days ago on his own blog Two Irelands Together, and once on Slugger O’Toole. The first disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again, and I hadn’t the heart to try and re-write it. The second fell on deaf ears as the column had been closed for comments by the time I pressed publish. So much for allowing commentators more time for more considered comments!
So, I decided to follow Brian’s advice and submit it as an OP instead. I do so with some trepidation because it makes no attempt at “balance” or “moderation.” It is a “top of the head” response rather than a substantial piece in its own right. I have no doubt it could elicit a robust response, but sometimes it may be best just to say it as you see it. There is little point in beating about the bush. So here goes:
I think the PIRA campaign was a huge mistake, both morally and in its practical effects, although I have to admit even Gandhi and his followers would have struggled to maintain a non-violent response in the face the loyalist and police violence and provocation in the lead-up to the IRA campaign.
I tend not to judge those who turned to violence as I doubt I could have maintained a non-violent response in the face of such provocation and violence if it were directed at me personally, although I hope I would have been strong enough to do so. John Hume and those who bore the brunt of that violence without a violent response are absolute saints.
In many ways those who directed their violence against civil rights marchers and the nationalist community generally succeeded in eliciting their desired response. By provoking a violent response, they split the nationalist community into pro and anti-IRA factions and enabled the RUC, B-Specials, and then British army to go full bore military – violence being their speciality and training and what they were good at. At last, the Empire had an opponent they knew how to deal with having done so many times before in the colonies.
I think it was Paulo Freire who argued that it is always a mistake for the oppressed to turn to violence because they are then playing the game on their oppressors terms, with their oppressors having the upper hand in training, technology, resources and weaponry.
However, the very fact it was a huge mistake makes it all the more of an achievement for Gerry Adams and some of the leadership to have eventually turned it around and returned the IRA to a political strategy. I suspect they had to face down many death threats and accusations of betrayal from their own hard men to achieve that turnaround.
One of the hardest things in life is to admit that you got something profoundly wrong, especially when so many lives had been lost pursuing that mistake. You are telling your own people their sons died in vain in pursuit of a mistaken strategy.
The past 25 years haven’t been perfect and there has been uneven progress towards a more just society, decommissioning, and a much reduced level of violence. But it has still been an extraordinary achievement to have held the line with all but a few isolated dissident factions.
But instead of celebrating this fact, some seem all the more concerned to try and drag SF back to their IRA roots. It is almost as if they are more comfortable dealing with the IRA/SF as they were then than they are with dealing with SF now. If only they could get back to the good old days when they could target them all as terrorists.
Their problem now is that they see SF winning the political battle. If only they could re-marginalise them by enticing them back into violence… They wouldn’t then have to face up to losing their political power to their bête noires.
How can you face up to losing a political battle against people you regard as ignorant gangsters (at best)? What sort of a loser does that make you?
Britain has never faced up to the fact that its partition of Ireland (under threat of immediate and terrible war) was fundamentally unjust and designed to shore up an undemocratic minority against a majority.
When that historical wrong is corrected the time will come for SF to admit that the IRA campaign was utterly wrong and that they should have put a stop to it much sooner.
But then Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern weren’t in power in the 1970’s either. It took a long time for everyone to learn that their chosen means – of violence and counter violence – was utterly counterproductive to all their aims.
Frank Kitson remains a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire and was eulogised in many an obituary, despite having got it wrong in every colonial theatre he ever operated in. Some still haven’t got the message.
But it is easy to sit in judgement now of all that went before, or rage at the prospect of the wrong side winning. But where is the leadership now to match that of Blair, Ahern, Trimble, and Hume? There is, frankly, none, by comparison.
Instead of continuously re-litigating old atrocities, why not open a new (peaceful) battlefront? Where are the protestant leaders brave enough to admit the Union isn’t working and it is time to consider alternatives? Where are the protestant leaders willing to engage with an Irish government to design a better future or at least develop other options?
That need not include a united Ireland as traditionally understood. It could just mean better cooperation and coordination between both states in Ireland on infrastructure, healthcare, education, industrial development, and sustainable energy production.
The truth is that if they will not engage with an Irish government which did as much to defeat the IRA as anyone, they could well end up with an Irish government made up of their former enemies.
And then they will complain about the lack of “moderation” and “engagement” in and with the Irish government. But they didn’t engage with positive and respectful Irish governments when they had the chance.
They, more than anyone, will be responsible if SF eventually come to power in the south. They gave the moderates no chance. Micheál Martin is speaking largely to himself. The GFA’s north south bodies remain boycotted despite the many opportunities for mutual advancement and shared progress they could facilitate.
And then we will have the usual complaints about a SF dominated Republic to replace the old priest ridden Rome ruled one.
Political unionism often seems more comfortable hating on someone than actually engaging positively with others to ensure better outcomes for all. Even a worse NI today seems preferable to them to a better alternative where everyone benefits. Themmums cannot be seen to gain anything. Ulster belongs to ussians, and we will do with it as we please.
Some are better at blaming than doing and it’s always someone else’s fault. But they are neither British nor Irish when they do this, they are just nobodies of no value to anyone, least of all themselves. Mature peoples take responsibility for themselves and the lives of their communities and engage with their neighbours.
And if they are not careful, they will eventually be disowned by both Britain and Ireland, as having nothing positive to contribute to anyone. That is the road Jeffrey Donaldson is currently on, and most of political unionism seems happy, lemming like, to follow him into oblivion.
Indeed, political unionism seems to be uniting around a policy of doing absolutely nothing and blaming everyone else – Dublin, Brussels, London, Washington – for their troubles, while joyriding on the benefits of having unfettered access to the growing Irish and huge European markets most countries outside the EU would give their eye tooth for.
So yeah political unionism, – have another go at SF for the sins of 25-55 years ago if that makes you feel any better, ignoring your own role in the violence of the foundation of Northern Ireland leading right up to the start of the Troubles when IRA stood for I Ran Away.
Ignore the fact that violent suppression was the standard British imperial response to legitimate protest by conquered peoples the world over. Suggest that that should all be forgotten now, as it is long in the past, even if the outcomes linger.
Remember only the violence that was directed at you, when your whole way of life was built on the legacy and fruits of violence, discrimination, expropriation, and exploitation.
And the funny thing is that the vast majority of Irish people are willing to forgive and forget, to consign all that to history. But political unionism will not forget, because without someone else to hate and blame political unionism is nothing. It hasn’t had a creative or positive idea in years.
I sincerely hope that liberal, generous, politics survives in Ireland for many more years to come, and that people will look to build a more positive future rather than reinforce the divisions of the past. As things stand that unfortunately means ignoring political unionism and doing our own thing until such time as some positive leadership emerges from the northern protestant communities.
Irish Protestantism has produced many extraordinary leaders, scientists, writers, artists, and businesspeople over the past century, but somehow the well north of the border seems to be running dry. Perhaps all the best talent has gone to study abroad and stayed there, leaving a spiritual slum behind.
It is time political unionism was released from its own self-imposed ghetto and gave its people a chance to rediscover their own creative roots, quite regardless of whatever political structures emerge.
Both Britain and Ireland deserve better. Northern protestants are capable of much better. They have just allowed their worst instincts and elements to rule the roost.