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Principles and Tactics

Liam O Ruairc • 16 July 2006

Last year, Irish journalist Kevin Rafter published an insightful book on Sinn Fein. (Kevin Rafter, Sinn Fein 1905-2005: In the Shadow of Gunmen, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2005) Rafter's fundamental thesis is that under the Adams leadership, the rule book of Irish republicanism was fundamentally rewritten, ideological purity was jettissoned in favour of electoral advancement:

"The trade-off has been between a position of principle combined with isolation or opting for pragmatism married to political success. In the 'era of pragmatism', the Adams leadership ensured which choice was made." (p.5)

The problem with Rafter's characterisation is that it tends to confuse pragmatism and opportunism. Pragmatism is about temporarily setting aside a minor ideal to achieve some higher ideal. Opportunism is abandoning some important political principles in the process of trying to increase one's political power and influence. With pragmatism, there is unity between means and ends; whereas with opportunism, political means have become ends in themselves and the orginal relation between means and ends is lost.

Just before Adams succeeded him as President of Sinn Fein, Ruairi O Bradaigh declared: "No splits or splinters -long may it remain so provided we stick by our basic principles." (APRN 17 Nov 83)

But those 'basic principles' are they really principles or are they just tactics? The question was not new. At its 1975 Ard Fheis, Sinn Fein debated the recognition of the courts: was it a tactic, or was it a principle? (AP, 7 November 1975) The confusion of principles and tactics opens the road to opportunism.

"The record of the Adams era shows that everything in the republican code is now a tactic...He has displayed a total disregard for traditional republican dogma and has refused to be hamstrung by historical principles like abstentionism and decommissioning..." (p.242)

Take the example of abstentionism. According to O Bradaigh: "Discussing going into Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster is as foreign and as alien as that the IRA would sit down and discuss surrender of arms." (APRN 17 Nov 83)

Rafter comments:

"In the mid-1980s, O Bradaigh may not have guessed at how accurate his crystal-ball gazing would be. But just over a decade later, Sinn Fein would indeed take seats in all but the Westminster parliament, while the IRA would sanction two acts of decommissioning before ordering an end to its armed campaign in July 2005." (p.122)

Dropping abstentionism in the context of Leinster House was sold as a tactic, however abstention from Stormont or Westminster grass roots were told, was a matter of principle.

Martin McGuiness then declared: 'I can give a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont. (...) Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved. (...) We will lead you to the Republic.' (The Politics Of Revolution, The main speeches and debates from the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis including the presidential address of Gerry Adams) Eight years later, the 'war against British rule' was over, and five years after that Martin McGuiness was a British Minister of Education in the Stormont assembly. This again was sold as a 'tactic'.

Some time ago, Adams stated: "There will never, ever be Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the British Houses of Parliament." (House of Commons, SN/PC1667, p.17)

However, interestingly enough, in 2000, Mitchel McLaughlin claimed that his party was not in Westminster not because abstention from that institution was a fundamental Republican principle, but because 'there was no strategic value in going to Westminster' (Gerald Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP: From Alientation to Participation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p.228). Everything is now reduced to a 'tactic'.

Tom Hartley argued twenty years ago that "There is a principle rising above all principles and that is the principle of success." (APRN 7 Nov 85) The movement is everything, principles nothing; or at least the movement and its growth come first, principles second.

In terms of international comparison, Rafter cannot find any other example of political movements who have gone so far in the dillution of their core principles:

"No other political party in Europe has undergone such a radical overhaul of its basic principles, not even the former communist parties in Central and Eastern Europe that transformed themselves into social democratic entities in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet bloc." (p.15)

More significantly, in an Irish context, there are no historical precedents of a Republican organisation going so far. Take for example the Provisional movement abandoning abstentionism from Stormont:

"It was a departure no previous republican had endorsed. Not even de Valera when he departed Sinn Fein in 1926 argued that republicans should end abstentionism in the context of parliamentary representation in Northern Ireland. The so-called compromisers in 1926, who re-emerged as Fianna Fail, and those in in the post-1970 Official movement who evolved into the Workers Party, broke ranks with republican dogma purely in the context of taking seats in Dail Eireann. The idea of republican representatives sitting in an assembly of a partitioned Northern Ireland was never an issue. In effect, with the 1998 decision, Adams moved his Sinn Fein organisation even further away from the party that called itself Sinn Fein after the 1921 Treaty split." (p.138)

The same goes for decommissioning. Even the hated 'Sticks' never decommissioned a single bullet of their arsenal...

Danny Morrison recently wrote some interesting reflections on principles and tactics:

"There are many republicans who feel that the IRA leadership went too far ... I myself think that whilst there have been mistakes they got the balance just about right. But it has been a difficult road given that the armed struggle was waged - and could only have been waged - with idealistic zeal and for fundamental demands. Independence and a socialist Ireland are what Volunteers signed up for and for which many laid down their lives. We demanded a British withdrawal within the lifetime of a government. We demanded that Britain recognise the right of the Irish people as a unit to national self-determination. We demanded an amnesty for the political prisoners. And we fought one hell of a long struggle and paid a heavy price in pursuit of those demands. But there were many lessons learnt along the way. The exigencies of survival meant that republicans couldn't allow themselves to be constrained by their principles. And so, the IRA began 'recognising' courts, particularly in the South where the unchallenged word of a garda superintendent was enough to imprison a Volunteer. Volunteers fought court cases, took the witness stand and refuted allegations of membership and IRA activity. In miscellaneous, political and quasi-political court cases republicans paid fines and some individuals - again quoting pragmatism, but against republican policy - pleaded guilty in court to minimise their sentences. After the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order was introduced in 1987, republican activists 'filed' for marches, albeit insulating themselves from direct dealings with the RUC through using solicitors. (...) Republicans have used the courts and judicial reviews to sue the state or compel unionists to obey equality laws. Purists will argue that this dilutes one's republicanism - but purists rarely have anything to show for struggle and sacrifice. Life is complex, circumstances change, battles are won and lost, opportunities arise, and, as in nature, it is those who can adapt who survive and thrive. In fact, to use and exploit the system in a considered way, both in its contradictions or whatever advantages it offers to achieve one's ultimate aims is often to do the revolutionary thing. And this, to me, is the story of the peace process, and the peace process to me is a phase of struggle." (Danny Morrison, "Paisley just a blip in the ongoing peace process", Daily Ireland, 9 February 2006)

The recognition of the courts is a matter of pragmatism. Abandoning 'fundamental demands' is an example of opportunism. Questions of principles become confused with questions of tactics. Presenting this as part of a 'new phase of the struggle' is simply a device to hide the Provisional movement's strategic failure.






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19 July 2006

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