Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Taking the gun out of Irish politics – again

In contrast to de Valera, the Adams leadership never enjoyed the same freedom of manoeuvre. The fact that the political and military wings of the Provisional movement were not – like Fianna Fáil and the IRA – fraternal elements within a broad republican family but rather two wings of the same movement has rendered the current peace process a much more precarious and painstaking affair. While de Valera could immediately announce his belief, at the end of the Irish Civil War, that future progress would depend on political rather than military struggle, it took the Provisional movement years of torturous internal negotiations to float such a potentially heretical possibility. When the Adams leadership wished to drop abstentionism in the 1980s, it could do so only after securing the approval of decisive majorities of Sinn Féin and the IRA. While de Valera could happily break away from the IRA and Sinn Fein's die-hards, Adams could never leave behind anything other than a tiny rump without risking the fate of an earlier republican leader, Micheal Collins.

On the other hand, the intertwined nature of the political and military wings of republicanism has given the Adams leadership some advantages which it has been able to exercise until recently. Firstly, the republican leadership has been able to utilise the IRA's military ethos to create a disciplined party machine and marginalise internal dissent. Sinn Féin politicians never publicly disagree with the party line, and few of those republicans who do become disillusioned by the policies or methods of the Provisional leadership express their objections in public. To do so, as writers such as Anthony McIntyre (whose website, The Blanket, remains one of the few voices of alternative republican opinion) have found, requires a willingness to confront intimidation and accusations of betrayal. A second advantage is that because all parties to the peace process (except, it would appear, Sinn Féin) accept that the Adams leadership speaks for the Provisional IRA, the party has been accorded a privileged position in the conduct of the peace process, effectively exercising a veto over its progress.

The painfully slow progress of the peace process before 1998 was partly due to the necessity to move at a pace acceptable to the IRA. (It should be emphasised that this was not the only reason for its slow pace: Unionists and the British government have repeatedly applied the brakes when they deemed it in their interests to do so.) That Adams, no less than de Valera, had to wrestle with the metaphysical legacy of republican theology during this period was clearly understood by the Irish and British governments. However, in recent years, the impatience of both governments and other key observers, such as Irish-America, has grown.

Why, if the Provisional leadership signed up to a range of genuinely historic concessions – ranging from the acceptance of a partitionist settlement to decommissioning – have the last seven years witnessed only cautious inching towards the less substantial issues, such as membership of police boards, necessary for the agreement's full implementation? The frequently rehearsed republican answers are well-known: the malign influence of securocrats, the unwillingness of Unionism to share power with Catholics, the British government's failure to fully implement the agreement, the Irish government's fear of the electoral challenge from Sinn Féin, and so on. Many of these individual grievances are rooted in a degree of reality but unless the peace process is viewed as a conspiracy by all of its other participants to ensnare the Provisional movement in perpetual limbo, they lack persuasiveness as an overall explanation for the deadlock. Moreover, while republicans blame all the other participants in the process (except Irish-America) for the failure, all the other participants (including Irish-American politicians) currently regard the republican movement as most responsible.

Put another way, why – having negotiated the deal – have republicans not yet closed it? Perhaps because Sinn Féin's political power has been maximised by the peace process rather than by peace itself. The short period since the Belfast Agreement has, for the first time, seen republicans replace constitutional nationalists as the leading party of northern Catholics. But what lies beyond the peace process? For de Valera, the prize was clear: a parliamentary majority, which allowed him to win (rather than share) power, create a republican State, and claim political vindication. Whatever the present republican leadership's shortcomings, it can not be accused of lacking de Valera's qualities of patience or strategic thinking. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin has evolved from being a participant in the peace process to near ownership (or, as Adams more elegantly describes it, 'stewardship') of the process with all its attendant perks. A once ostracised republican leadership has enjoyed ready access to taoiseachs, prime ministers and presidents, lavish national and international media attention rather than censorship, growing electoral support, north and south, rather than marginalisation, while simultaneously retaining the practical advantages offered by possession of a private army. In short: the peace process has delivered republicans more power than they enjoyed at any stage of the conflict.

What happens after the disbandment of the IRA and the full implementation of the agreement? Whereas de Valera could recast the Free State to reflect Catholic, Gaelic and nationalist aspirations, Sinn Féin will become one of four parties on the relatively level playing field of a power-sharing executive – capable of only minor adjustments to the administration of a partitionist State. It will also secure its niche as a minor force in southern politics. Not the most glamorous future, perhaps, but one which few people living in the north – republican or otherwise – would object to, and one which would place Sinn Féin in a stronger position to achieve its ultimate objectives than any of the less palatable alternatives. Moreover, recent events – including the DUP's refusal to strike a deal with republicans to revive the peace process, the robbery of the Northern Bank, and the apparent willingness of the British and Irish governments to rethink a strategy which, while initially successful, has placed Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party at the centre of northern politics – had signalled that the peace process, no matter how much it

delivered for the Republicans, could not be strung out indefinitely. If the disbandment of the IRA and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement come about sooner rather than later – which now seems likely – the murder of Robert McCartney will be remembered as the breaking point.

Fearghal McGarry is a lecturer in Irish History, Queen’s University, Belfast

Eoin O’Duffy

A Self-Made Hero by Fearghal McGarry will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2005.

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