Flags, parades and the past cannot be easily disentangled from the high levels of social discontent that currently exist. However, there is no reason why these issues of identity cannot be addressed in parallel with an assault on the vast social and economic problems that show no sign of receding.
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By Seán Byers
I was always prepared for defeat, for none of our leaders seemed to me perfectly acquainted with the main cause of social derangement, if I except Neilson, McCracken, Russell, and Emmet. It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and we specially directed to the restoration of the natural right of the people, the right of deriving a subsistence from the soil on which their labour was expended.
Jemmy Hope, Belfast weaver and United Irishman, speaking in the aftermath of the defeated 1798 rebellion
As the dust slowly settles on the Haass/O’Sullivan talks, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Executive parties cannot agree to disagree, let alone find a way of implementing specific aspects of draft seven. Despite Martin McGuinness’ protestations to the contrary, a new round of negotiations seems inevitable, though without the involvement of Richard Haass or Meghan O’Sullivan. Future negotiations are likely to take place under the supervision of British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and a representative of the Irish government. Meanwhile, the stuff of government – health, housing, education, unemployment, welfare reform and the environment – will proceed gradually, interrupted by the tribalism that has become part and parcel of electoral politics in the North.
In an interview with Mark Carruthers, a frustrated Haass laid the blame squarely at the door of Alliance and the Unionist parties for their failure to ‘step up and make a decision’ in favour of proposals that contain ‘something for everyone in Northern Ireland, including Unionists’ – the abolition of the Parades Commission being one example. Firmly in election mode, the DUP and UUP appear to be looking over their shoulder at the PUP, which has enjoyed something of a political rebirth on the back of the flag protests and events at Twaddell Avenue, and the Paisleyite rejectionists of the Orange Order, TUV, UVF and Protestant Coalition, which have assumed the traditional role of ‘spoilers’ in peace studies terms. Indeed it says something about the state of Unionism that representatives of its anti-Agreement, religious fundamentalist fringe claim to have been briefed by one or both of the main parties at crucial junctures of the all-party talks. The current malaise is symptomatic of Unionism’s remarkable knack for painting victory as defeat and reverting to a siege mentality at the first sight of compromise. Moreover, Eamonn Maillie’s revealing two-part documentary on Ian Paisley promises to create further headaches for the DUP. If, as it appears they will, May’s local council and European Parliament elections become a consolidation exercise for party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, the chances of achieving tangible progress on flags, parades and the past could be significantly reduced in the interim.
By contrast, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have been unequivocal in their support for the Haass proposals, calling for their full implementation. In the light of pressure brought to bear on the party by recent documentaries on ‘the Disappeared’, for instance, and the dogged determination of victims’ groups, Sinn Féin has little option but to support a twin-track process involving both criminal accountability for past actions and a truth recovery process. In fact, as the Arkiv group of academics has warned, the proposed thematic approaches to truth recovery and historical enquiry contain “the very real potential to politicise the past and to achieve the reverse of what Haass and O’Sullivan intend: that they do imply prejudgements (they already pre-exist the evidence); that they contradict the engagement to consider only what the evidence obliges one to believe; that there will be intense political pressure to support particular hypotheses; that this will encourage ideological-led rather than investigative-led history; and as a consequence the ‘past’ will not be taken out of politics but drawn very much into the centre of it.”
In other words, although this affords former combatants the opportunity to ease the suffering of victims under the cover of ‘limited immunity’, the truth recovery process could conceivably become a sectarian carve-up, characterised by competing political narratives that place subjective experience over historical fact, attach equivalence to different interpretations of the conflict, and thus ‘reinforce ethno-national divisions and perpetuate historic grievances’. That is not to say that republicans have won the most recent round of negotiations: nothing is agreed until all the Executive parties agree, and presently there is virtually nothing in ‘flags’ or ‘parading’ for republicans to write home about. However the section on contending with the past, which consumes nearly half of the forty page Haass/O’Sullivan document, is sufficiently ambiguous to permit differential interpretation and therefore earn the endorsement of Sinn Féin’s traditional support base and its growing middle class constituency.
With the SDLP moving in tandem for fear of being outflanked by its nationalist rival, Sinn Féin is with some justification using the outcome of the Haass/OSullivan talks to contrast its moderation and willingness to compromise with the intransigence of Unionism. As the journalist and socialist activist Eamonn McCann has noted with customary insight, this represents the latest milestone in Sinn Féin’s transformation into a party of constitutional nationalist respectability:
“The main reason there was a fitful peace to begin with is that a substantial majority of the Catholic working class, the constituency which sustained the Provo war, has long ago reverted to its traditional position of rejecting violence to bring about a united Ireland. Thus the increased support for Sinn Féin as it retreated from the objective which the IRA campaign had been designed to attain. And thus, too, the luxury of being able to make concessions more comfortably than was the case with the DUP … So Sinn Féin comes out as the relative good guys; the DUP, which has never had a paramilitary wing, as, again, the villains of the piece.”
One might add that, since its first foray into electoral politics in 1981, Sinn Féin has incrementally stolen the SDLP’s clothes and won considerable Catholic middle-class support (Murray & Tonge, 2005). It is evident that Provisional republican movement’s overarching political strategy in the North is to breach the electoral glass ceiling it has encountered and become a catch-all nationalist party through securing the support of ambivalent nationalists and a larger section of SDLP voters. The party has in its sights gains in constituencies such as North Belfast and South Down, for example, at the SDLP’s expense. If continues in this vein, Sinn Féin is likely to attain the position of dominance coveted by its aging, legacy-oriented leadership. The danger inherent in this is that, as the generation of ‘69 vacates the scene, Sinn Féin becomes, with a few honourable exceptions, just another neo-Redmondite, Hibernian nationalist party shorn of all radicalism, which has its corollary in the formation of a reactive – and reactionary – Orange populist bloc led by the dominant voices of Unionism.
The balancing act being performed by Sinn Féin involves recourse to both traditionalist republican rhetoric and criticisms of militant republican tactics. In the first respect, the rather underwhelming Border Poll campaign launched by party members and fellow travellers acts as a sop to wavering supporters who require convincing that a united Ireland remains the agenda; in the other respect, former combatants such as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have continued to release statements endorsing the PSNI and fiercely condemning the methods of armed ‘dissident’ groups (a thoroughly inadequate term). Yet the same individuals refuse to countenance the widely held belief that the Provisional IRA’s campaign was a futile exercise that arguably caused irreparable damage to the radical-democratic, non-sectarian message advanced by the founders of Irish republicanism. This position is not, however, sustainable in the long term. Recent months have witnessed a number of prominent ex-IRA volunteers not only declaring publicly against post-1998 violence but also insisting that the republican armed struggle that occurred between 1969 and 1994 signally failed to achieve its main objectives (here and here). McGuinness has been forthright in his condemnation of ‘dissident’ violence, but future leaders of the party – perhaps those of the emerging post-conflict generation – may eventually feel compelled to renounce the non-mandated use of arms in pursuit of political objectives.
For members of the public and large sections of the media, the convenient, all-encompassing ‘dissident’ label refers to republicans who are hell-bent on destroying the peace process. In lieu of a better term, it is also widely used by academics, although research on the subject is beginning to capture the nuances of anti-Agreement republicanism. While a number of groups are linked to recent acts of violence, the revolutionary socialist republican party éirígí maintains a critical distance from paramilitarism and devotes much of its energy to campaigning on a range of social and economic issues. With a strong dose of crude anti-partitionism and anti-Britishness, éirígí dismissed the Haass/O’Sullivan talks as a ‘pantomime’ designed to divert attention away from the ‘very real socio-economic problems that face all working class communities’. These problems include: the obscene levels of child and working-age poverty that persist in many areas of Northern Ireland; a long term trend of rising unemployment and underemployment relative to the UK, including record levels of youth and female unemployment; educational underachievement in disadvantaged areas; and a health service that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis under the direction of gaffe-prone DUP minister Edwin Poots.
Éirígí has attempted to address these material concerns politically, arguing with some conviction that the sectarian institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement are ill-equipped to deal with them. The same party is a strong advocate for public services and the welfare state, opposing the austerity measures handed down to Stormont by the Tory-led government at Westminster. Drawing on research carried out by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), éirígí has joined the chorus of voices warning that the Welfare Reform Bill will have devastating consequences for Northern Ireland, removing £750m from the local economy and heaping further misery upon some of Britain and Ireland’s most deprived communities Significantly, working-class Catholic disillusionment with neoliberal peacebuilding is showing signs of manifesting itself in a minor challenge to Sinn Féin hegemony. In the 2011 local elections, éirígí polled 1,415 votes in the Sinn Féin stronghold of Upper Falls, West Belfast, just missing out on a council seat. Similarly, in the Assembly elections of that year, the People Before Profit candidate took 1,661 votes (4.8%) in the West Belfast constituency. In the event that Sinn Féin MLAs vote to implement welfare reforms, even in diluted form, the party’s credibility in working-class constituencies is likely to suffer.
Social justice, argues the respected sociologist and peace studies theorist Johan Galtung (1996), is the chief component of ‘positive’ peace and reconciliation in post-conflict societies, not an optional add-on. This view is echoed by the veteran socialist republican Tommy McKearney who, like éirígí, opposes the tendecy to elevate the tactical armed struggle to a principle and at the same time openly dissents from Sinn Féin orthodoxy. In his book detailing the Provisional republicanism’s transformation from armed insurrectionary to junior partner in devolved government, McKearney laments the opportunities missed to move away from sectarian politics and build a mass movement, particularly during Sinn Féin’s transition to electoralism in the 1980s. Why not, left-wing prisoners in the H-Blocks asked, attempt to align republican politics with the labour movement in ‘a long struggle for socialism?’ (2011: 164-171). This presents a counterfactual for researchers of the period to contend with. Of greater significance is McKearney’s analysis of prevailing conditions, which departs from the whole gamut of republican groups on the question of partition:
Radical Republicanism cannot survive in any meaningful sense if it insists on confining its programme to achieving something that is not deemed a pressing necessity by more than a small minority. Nor is it realistic to argue that a significantly large section of society can be persuaded of the need for the political unification of Ireland in the abstract (209).
Without dismissing entirely the border as a factor in shaping sectarian divisions, McKearney places the emphasis on the effects of economic crisis on both states of Ireland, noting that the northern polity is characterised by ‘a constitutional inability to bring redress to the region’s problems coupled with a political hysteresis arising from sectarian community politics’ (210). Consequently, he argues that republicans ought to actively support the development of normal class politics, on which basis the the movement can attempt to engage with the Protestant working class in earnest. A socialist or social-democratic Northern Ireland does not preclude the realisation of a united Ireland; quite the opposite in fact.
It is one thing to reject the dogma of austerity in theory, another to oppose it in practice. While it would be remiss to ignore Sinn Féin’s efforts to champion the rights of marginalised groups (women, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community) and address the root causes of inequality (tackling social segregation in education), the fact remains that the party is hidebound by the system it embraces. Modern republicanism stands at a crossroads. One path leads to centrist or centre-right green nationalism, whereby Sinn Féin makes ostensibly responsible decisions in government while upping the ante on cultural and constitutional questions at crucial junctures. This ensures the survival of the consociational model and rewards the incumbent political class with enhanced power and prestige, but condemns future generations to the toxic green-orange structural conditions that have entrenched sectarian divisions and proved incapable of producing the social transformation required to redress the material grievances that perpetuate ethno-national conflict.
The other path available is the long and arduous struggle towards class politics, which may cause disquiet among the middle classes and result in short-term electoral losses. More importantly, though, it would represent a break with zero-sum tribalism, giving substance to Sinn Féin’s identification with the dispossessed majority. Flags, parades and the past cannot be easily disentangled from the high levels of social discontent that currently exist. However, there is no reason why these issues of identity cannot be addressed in parallel with an assault on the vast social and economic problems that show no sign of receding. In fact, this understanding is implicit in the DUP/Sinn Féin arrangement at Stormont, as evidenced by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ united front for potential investors in New York last September. Doubtless the Welfare Reform Bill will serve as a litmus test of Sinn Féin’s progressive credentials. If the party cannot find a way of developing an economic alternative to neoliberalism and austerity in cooperation with the DUP, then perhaps it ought to look elsewhere for partners, whether in the broad labour movement and civil society, or – idealistic in the present circumstances – across the sectarian divide, in the residual Protestant labour tradition of the PUP. Admittedly, this project is long in the making, requiring a gradual overhaul of the devolved institutions and the cultivation of new relationships. However, posterity demands a new vision for Northern Ireland, and republicanism can only survive if it advances a democratic, non-sectarian programme with social justice at its core.
Seán Byers received his PhD from the University of Ulster and is presently conducting research on Republican Youth in post-conflict (Northern) Ireland. His research interests include Irish labour and international socialist history. Twitter: @Sean_Byers84
Galtung, J. (1996) Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization, Oslo: International Peace Research Institute.
McKearney, T. (2011) The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, London: Pluto.
Murray, G. & Tonge, J. (2005) Sinn Féin and the SDLP: From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst.