Changed Utterly

As Sinn Fein take their places in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, Joe Reilly argues why this signals continued subversion not sell-out.

If a week can be a long time in politics, the converse can be equally valid: a decade can be a short time. Less than a decade ago Sinn Fein was forced to hold its annual Ard Fheis in a community centre in a run-down estate on the outskirts of Dublin. Prior to the August 1994 cease-fire Adams was dismissed by British commentators as 'Mr 10%'. Following the Assembly elections on June 25, Sinn Fein lay claim to be the third biggest party behind Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael in the entire country. Republican fortunes have been transformed: changed utterly and with them the political landscape of the island as a whole.

This transformation is not merely as a result of the recent Assembly elections, instead it is the undeniable impact of the republican strategy in all areas and on all levels. From the first cease-fire in 1994 everything has been turned upside down. Majorities have become minorities, the demonised are in government and Britain's historic conundrum has been resolved. This is not to say that a republican victory is in the bag, but who can deny that they have the momentum, have grasped the initiative and set the agenda for a resolution to the conflict. Strategically, electorally and even morally republicans are in the ascendant. And because of this, even though not politically dominant, their destiny is surely in their own hands.

Outside of republican circles this is not a view that is widely shared. Almost as much has been written about the war in the last four years since the cease-fire, as in the previous twenty four when militarily everything was in full swing. War is politics by other means and the war reflected a political impasse. It was the IRA not the British who broke the stalemate. But not as many contend, by blinking first. On August 31 1994 all the blinking was done in the opposition trenches; Major was gobsmacked, Molyneaux visibly distraught and so on. Significantly it was British Trotskyism, rather than the British Establishment, who shouted 'surrender' loudest and longest. Significant in the sense that fundamentally they call it wrong on everything else.

It has often been said that the British have never really understood, never got inside, the republican psyche. This applies as much to the so-called revolutionaries as to the establishment and the securocrats. Too often perhaps they judge them by their own standards. For above all else the IRA and Sinn Fein are revolutionaries. Nationalists of course but the stamp is unquestioningly insurrectionary. It is this drive; the determination to get to the root of the problem that has at different times awed, stunned and bewitched a watching world.

In I981 a five year no wash protest against criminalisation in the jails burst upon the world stage with the Provos upping of the ante: the hunger strike, the election of Bobby Sands and subsequently ten men dead. Heroic and dramatic as the hunger strike saga was for millions, the real republican ingenuity and resolve was illustrated by the traumatised survivors picking up the pieces in the aftermath, both inside and outside Long Kesh. The prisoners had won many of their demands: the right to wear their own clothes, right to [limited] association, right to normal visits, letters and parcels, but there was no concessions on prison work or remission lost through protest. If republicans came off protest, they would be required to do prison work; effectively to conform. 'Conforming' would also mean going into mixed Blocks with loyalists. By mixing the Blocks, the authorities figured that if no side controlled them, then they would.

But by refusing to work prisoners were locked in their cells and were clearly going nowhere. The arguments for and against coming off were bitter and divisive. Those who wanted to continue thought it was a 'sell-out' to the men who had died. Additionally the Provos were also split into those who had protested and those who had not taken part In any protest.

In any case, in November 1982 the no-work protest officially ended and on that date Provos were offered work throughout the prison. The making of garden gnomes was one scheme. Tables and chairs another. But it never quite worked out as intended: there was always too much sand or too much water; the gnomes fell to pieces, the frames were also too long or too short. Productivity was very low and in the end the quota was made up by the screws, just for a quiet life. Subsequently any attempts to get the Provos to conform ceased, and they got their way on the work issue without open confrontation. Next, segregation and then control of the Blocks was achieved with a mixture of ruthless mind games, violence and intimidation.

After Loyalists were driven out the IRA set about provoking a division between the screws. So instead of looking for revenge as expected they offered to let bygones be bygones. Delighted, the screws who knew what they were capable of jumped at the chance of reconciliation. Hardliners who smelled a rat were sidelined by the authorities. Once everything was in position - the provos broke out. Broke out in a literal sense with a mass, morale boosting escape, and broke out of the impasse imposed by the policy of criminalisation.

Jailed for life in 1973 Gerry Kelly was one of the architects of the 'breakout' in 1983. A decade later, Kelly represented the IRA in initial pre-ceasefire discussions with the British. On June 27 1998 he was elected to the Assembly. In the same way that 'coming off protest' wrong footed their opponents inside the jails, setting aside armed struggle as a tactic, is having a similar effect on the political criminalisation of Republicanism outside the jails. As anticipated all is in disarray.

Unionism is irrevocably split. Divided against itself, on ideological, class and paramilitary lines. Trimble, who was elected as a 'not an inch' hardliner was forced into constitutional negotiations, or as was predicted faced being " represented by a surrogate" i.e. the British government" (Red Action issue 69 Autumn 1994.)

His failure to prepare his constituency for constitutional change he knew was inevitable, has split his party. For the first time ever the UUP failed to top the poll. And the problems for Trimble are only beginning. Paisley is no position to take advantage. Instead the DUP is doomed to be a dwindling minority within unionism, in the same way it was invisaged republicans would, pre-ceasefire, be contained as a permanent minority within nationalism.

On the face of it the SDLP, the largest party in the Six Counties are in the ascendancy. On closer examination, the vote of 22% does not represent growth but stagnancy. For some time the SDLP has been recognised as a 'one saint band'. Hume is very much a spent force; his political vision reduced as a wag put it, 'to the one transferable speech.' As a consequence of government, the SDLP can expect a short term boost from an influx of young, personally ambitious, middle class careerists. This, aligned to a class alliance with the UUP will destroy any remaining vestiges of credibility in working class nationalist circles.

Working class nationalism is the same constituency Republican Sinn Fein, the Sovereignty Committee, the 'real' IRA and so on, expect to be drawn to them like a 'magnet' once a Provo capitulation is gradgrind fact, rather than prophecy. Of course, the dissidents are the same people who regarded standing for election as a 'deviation from principle, coming off protest was a 'sellout' and the cease-fire 'surrender'. They are afraid of change and devoid of strategy. Revolutionaries cannot be frightened by change: organisations frightened by change are not revolutionary.

In place of 'a strategy rooted in objective reality' they have ideology: in place of ambition they have obstinacy. This culminates in an inability to distinguish tactic from cherished principle. Result: muddle-headed thinking and confusion. Ironically for all the ultra nationalist stance, they seem to credit the British for every fresh innovation. The peace strategy was a 'cunning British trap which the IRA leadership walked into' and so on.

The British establishment are of course nothing if not cunning. Their support for the peace strategy, is not in the belief that it copper fastens the union. Rather the opposite. In the Agreement, the establishment (if not all, at least those Blair represents) sees the opportunity, to solve the age old British conundrum: 'how to leave without being seen to have left.' Or as Martin McGuinness puts it: "[The Agreement] is a bit like a partner in a relationship saying that the relationship is over, but that she is willing to wait until the children have grown up."

And the children of '68 have indeed grown up. As a teenager in the mid-60's Adams became involved in the Republican Movement. He folded leaflets for candidates who lost deposits, and saw service in the agitation for Civil Rights. He, like others was routinely batoned from the streets. Of the current leadership Adams is almost unique, in the sense that he was political prior to the 'Troubles', rather than the likes of McGuinness, McFarlane, Kelly, who as kids were politicised by the reemergence of conflict.

It is important to remember that this generation of republicans did not 'resort to violence' they responded, admittedly with relish, to Unionist and then British violence. Consequently the thinking behind the 1986 peace strategy was not merely to extricate themselves from an unwinnable military conflict, not of their making, but to extricate the British from the impasse as well. Rather than continue blaming British intransigence for the conflict, they instead assumed political responsibility for its resolution. And so it was Adams who went to Hume. And so it will be Adams who will replace him.

With 17.6% in the Assembly elections Sinn Fein realised their highest vote since 1981. They now command 45% of the nationalist vote in the North; almost one in two, compared to less than one in three six years ago. An emergence of a class alliance of the SDLP/UUP in the North, will force Republicanism to seek class allies of its own, in the South. With the fortuitous collapse of Democratic Left, a ready made constituency is theirs to inherit. And consequently the new phase of struggle will for the first time since partition, return to an all Ireland dimension.

Not because of any 'cross border legislation' but because Sinn Fein are the only all Ireland party, and it is in their immediate and longterm strategic interests to make it so.

"In 1998 we are at a high point where Sinn Fein and republicanism are pivotal and a growing force in Irish politics. We need to be confident about our own strength. We need to build our struggle right across this island. Our task is to develop the core republican positions in a way that is attractive to the broad mass of the Irish people. This cannot be a northern struggle with the south tagged on. It has to be a truly national struggle. That is your responsibility" (Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, 1998). As has been stated from the beginning the motive force for change, would not and could not be found in any interim agreement. As always, the revolutionary dynamic is found not in the particular circumstance but in republicanism itself.

Reproduced from RA Vol 3, Issue 2, August/September 1999