The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

An Open Letter To
The Leadership Of
The Irish Republican Army

Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 9 June 2004


From time to time over the past decade particularly, I have written and spoken, publicly and privately, on the heretical subject of possible negotiated independence for Northern Ireland. These exchanges have been with people and parties of many political stripes and colors in Belfast, Dublin, London, Washington, and elsewhere.�������������������������������������������������������������������������������

Early on, though, into this unusual and regrettably long letter, I would like to make plain my abiding appreciation of the fact that the Irish Republican Army is not a proponent of negotiated six-county independence. In a May 1999 note, the esteemed Professor Richard Rose voiced that already evident point, to which I replied:

Although you are, of course, quite correct in observing that the IRA has not taken up guns to obtain an independent Northern Ireland, you go on to write: �While Protestants might accept an independent Northern Ireland, the Republican movement would settle for �Brits out� plus a 32-county Ireland � whose unity would be far from complete.� (Emphasis in original.) Were such the case, it would seem to present an a fortiori case for the failure of the Good Friday Agreement, as Republicans would thereunder obtain neither �Brits out� nor a 32-county Ireland. However, and as reflected[ in my small book] at pages 197-204, I have long felt that, if truly �fair and workable,� the new context of Northern independence would present a situation wherein the Republican movement would not be able to sustain its �armed struggle,� basically for two reasons. First, whom would Republicans bomb and to what end? Second, and perhaps more to the point, if indeed a plebiscite were ever developed such that a polling date was imminent, the public would vociferously ask whether that scheme would suffice; unless the �P. O�Neill� response was unequivocally affirmative, indicating too that decommissioning would timeously follow, it seems rather likely that Republicans could and would thereby indirectly �veto� independence by scaring away Unionists who might otherwise be inclined to vote in favor; yet, in this light and as suggested in the introduction to my enclosed letter of the twenty-third to Dr. FitzGerald (with whom I corresponded substantively during the second half of 1997), I would urge[ the basketball philosophy]: �Never up, never in.�

Due to the exceedingly poor condition of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement�resulting from the intervening half-decade-long failure to make adequate progress based on that manifoldly deficient scheme, the Assembly and Executive components of which are approaching the third year of their fourth suspension�I write this letter to determine whether the IRA�s leadership would take a public position on the controversial issue of formally studying Northern Ireland�s possible independence, as described herein.

It is not simply the lengthy and rudderless free fall in which the �peace process� finds itself that motivates this letter, however. (In that respect, for example, the Church and Government Committee of Ireland�s Presbyterian Church observed just two weeks ago: �Even the review of the [Good Friday] Agreement has largely disappeared from public consciousness, and there appears to be little expectation that it will lead to a restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.� At least one of the root causes of that failure is globally apparent: �Like many [Israeli-Palestinian] agreements, the Good Friday Agreement is deeply flawed, based on constructive ambiguity that made it possible for adversaries to work together and develop trust. But now, that ambiguity�especially with regard to the IRA�s decommissioning (disarming)�actually hinders, rather than promotes the process.� Eetta Prince-Gibson, �How the Irish are solving their �troubles�� (Jerusalem Post, 11 May 2004).)

The motivation behind this letter is, instead, that free fall�termed a �trough of despair� by Presbyterian Moderator The Reverend Ken Newell (BBC, 8 June 2004) (cf.�Life worse now than 1968� says Mgr Faul� (Sharon O'Neill, Irish News, 8 June 2004))�combined with two other sets of facts.

During the last couple of years, I have sought either to advance this two-decade-long independence project or to end this uphill battle appropriately by establishing, to a reasonable degree of certainty, that additional efforts would be essentially pointless.

Relatedly, but more importantly, two of the four main political parties in Northern Ireland have indicated�through backchannel exchanges with me over the course of the past year�that they would examine the notion of independence were a formal initiative undertaken thereon; being unrepresented at such talks is, it seems, regarded by those groups as strategically disadvantageous, so long as each community has a veto to wield at the polls. Furthermore, based on other data, it is my view that, were such an inquiry held, one other or perhaps even both others from among those largest four would likewise elect to participate, naturally with each and all reserving their final judgments. (However, I would respectfully invite those first two political parties to feel free, if now pressed, to disavow our behind-the-parapets discussions. There seems little reason for them to feel obliged to run a �we�ll stick our heads up first� risk with their respective constituencies when the leadership of even the ostensibly non-nationalistic Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has rejected calls to take such a step with its own small group of supporters.)

These �free fall,� �ahead-or-done,� and �nods behind the parapets� considerations together cause me to write this open letter in order, most specifically, to pose to your group the following question:

Would the Irish Republican Army disarm and stand down promptly in the event that a plebiscite in Northern Ireland on six-county independence were approved by at least 70 percent of those voting?

Shaping that question are two factors particularly.

First, Northern Ireland�s Unionist/Loyalist community could reject a plebiscite proposal regardless of whether the minimum for approval were set at a bare majority or at a supermajority level, but history proves that the six counties� Nationalist/Republican community must also be able to veto any such proposal. With this 70-percent requirement, both would have that power.

Second, for better or worse, circumstances in Ireland and Britain throw this question into the IRA�s lap. It has been no great surprise that Ireland�s political groups have been reluctant to do above-the-parapets nodding on this issue: each is concerned with whether its being �too voluntarily� associated with this radical notion might hurt its electoral standings. (Cf. a similar conclusion in my small book, written in the mid-1980�s, at 196 (emphasis in original): �Any movement by any of these [political parties] puts itself at risk.�) By contrast, such standings would seem of less direct concern to the IRA. Similarly, while I had hoped that the British government would itself have been more proactive on this point, initiating unorthodox political efforts is, in all candor, not a trait for which Great Britain is renown. Thus, among the current impasse�s main participants, this spotlight turns, by process of elimination, to the IRA.

Before, though, considering how the IRA might itself officially respond to this question, I would respectfully suggest that Ireland�s politicians, in advance of learning of that response, would be unwise to denounce the gist of this letter.

In an independence inquiry of the sort discussed in this letter, there would be various opportunities to scupper a possible deal, most notably at the final, and demanding, supermajority plebiscite stage.

However, for politicians in Ireland, North or South, to reject this proposal out of hand could�especially if done by Unionists�squander a chance to let history well mark whether the IRA would squarely accept this public challenge to retire in circumstances before 32‑county reunion. More specifically, a rejection here by the IRA would constitute substantial proof that it is uninterested in fully accepting a middle‑ground solution to your region�s long conflicts even within the unprecedented context of a workable and broadly acceptable settlement which left all of Ireland outside Westminster�s political control. A related advantage in those politicians� awaiting the IRA�s decision would be that its rejection would take them off the hook by obviating any later need to respond in turn to this proposal.

(To any, within Northern Ireland or without, who would facilely assert that a even single year spent studying and testing this independence possibility would be a year wasted, an obvious retort is that (i) decades have already been wasted on different initiatives which, unlike possible independence, were facially deficient in their structures and which�to the surprise of some more than others�uniformly failed in their operation and (ii) decades more of undemocratic direct rule are already almost two years underway, as many still dogmatically presume that �there is no alternative� to this tried-and-failed GFA. Indeed, informed commentary on the GFA, such as �SDLP warns serious political talks could be a year away� (Noel McAdam, Belfast Telegraph, 22 May 2004), reveals that Ireland and Britain have immediately on their hands a large block of time to �waste� on investigating settlement avenues to date unexplored by them. One of the related thoughts behind looking formally into possible independence may itself be regarded as revolutionary although, frankly, it ought not to be: it is better (a) to take the time to study and test an honest, workable, and somewhat painful�but mutually painful�settlement proposal which surely might be rejected at the polls than either (b) to waste time trying to con an electorate desperate for real peace into sanctioning a half-baked, all-things-to-all-men �solution� which will in fact not work or (c) to waste more time supinely accepting the abject failure of democracy, objectively manifested through the direct rule of Northern Ireland. Distilled a bit: a workable and possibly acceptable settlement proposal would be vastly superior to an acceptable but unworkable scheme or to an undemocratic period of craven political lassitude.)

For these reasons, the bright politicians in Ireland�and most of them are bright or better�may indeed await your group�s answer to this question before stating unqualifiedly negative reactions that they might have. (They may well also regard it as impolitic to reject this approach brashly without consulting the leadership of their respective parties.)

Turning to your own response, and assuming your group would be disinclined to support six-county independence, the IRA might nonetheless reflect closely on whether it should answer this key question in the affirmative, in light of these considerations especially:

(i) after the IRA received praise for expressly committing, radically if reluctantly, to its own termination short of 32‑county political reunion, Downing Street�whether in its infinite wisdom or otherwise�might yet refuse to initiate any formal independence inquiry;

(ii) were a plebiscite on independence ever held, 70-percent support at the polls would obviously be very difficult to achieve, even with a well-constructed and properly-financed proposal; and

(iii) if, by some minor miracle, an independence plan were investigated, proposed, and approved via such a supermajority, the IRA�s acceding to that verdict�with Ireland thereby finally �free,� after generations of tribulation�could only be regarded as morally correct. Cf. Rev. Newell�s recent comments on the general obligations of the churches, governments, and politicians in the current setting:

Whether we choose to embrace it or not, our future will be shared with those who have caused us hurt and who have been hurt by us. Can we not as Churches create a shared space, a forum, where we start dealing with that hurt and foster healing?

Whatever form this might take, it lies at the heart of building trust among traumatised people.

Governments and politicians need to make tough choices.

They should not squander further the hope of people for a better future. The Churches need to engage with them in this challenge.

Call to begin healing process� (Alf McCreary, Belfast Telegraph, 8 June 2004).

(It should go without saying, but I�ll say anyway, that an affirmative response hereto by the IRA would not preclude opposition by Sinn F�in to any independence proposal.)

Taking those several considerations one step more, your group might employ some reverse psychology in publishing an affirmative answer: the IRA could present a �Yes� with such alacrity as to suggest to particularly nervous Unionists that the fix was in from the start, that they were cunningly being sold down the river, causing them to recoil reflexively from thoughtfully examining this challenging approach towards a possible settlement.

Less cynically, I would point out that a straight �No� from your group would at least dispositively spare Ireland from developing false hopes for whatever slender chance of genuine success this approach might otherwise afford.

These overall thoughts move me also to discuss briefly here a related idea�a �constitutional mercies� theory on disarmament�developed mainly through the following The Blanket articles:

The Fundamental Problem Of Non-Constitutional Law Vis-�-Vis The Northern Ireland Question� (9 March 2003);

Republicans� Big Risk� (17 March 2003);

�In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash�� (13 April 2003);

Republicans� Big Risk Redux: Walker Stumbles Too� (19 April 2003);

Trust Without Honesty In The Peace Process?� (2 November 2003); and

Horses Or Zebras?(14 January 2004).

In those articles, I tried to analyze why the Republican movement has rejected innumerable post-GFA entreaties to disarm completely. The resultant �constitutional mercies� theory basically boils down to the conclusion that the so-called �Agreement� hatched on that famed Good Friday is not and has never been in any meaningful sense enforceable by the respective parties�especially by the non-Unionist parties�in Northern Ireland. Instead, the GFA was and remains a largely aspirational and inappropriately malleable document whose implementation is unhelpfully dependant (a) on the fickle goodwill of political opponents in the North and (b) upon, ever and always, the inherently unreliable constitutional mercies of the Parliament at Westminster. (Noted Belfast pundit Brian Feeney similarly concluded in �Citizenship risk cuts both ways� (Irish News, 2 June 2004): �[I]t doesn't matter what it says in the [GFA] if the two governments cobble together a �joint understanding� on any issue. So much for the 1998 referendum in both parts of the island.�)

For these reasons, the GFA has from the beginning seemed too defective and unsettled in its fundamental nature to cause the IRA and others to feel sufficiently resolute about beating all their swords into plowshares. (One staunchly pro-Republican commentator recently wrote: �If[ �final�] decommissioning happens[,] the British government needs to quickly move to shore up their side of the bargain[:] the many issues that they have failed to deliver on[,] despite assurances, in the peace process.� Although that writer did not go on to reference the old saw �Fool me once, shame on you � fool me twice, shame on me,� that admonition would be superfluous if the above-referenced �constitutional mercies� theory is in fact valid.)

As your group will have concluded, however, I strongly believe that a fair and workable independence plan could be fashioned which would not suffer from those same grievous constitutional infirmities and which, therefore, might form the basis for an actual settlement of these longstanding socio-political disputes and conflicts. See, e.g., �The Whys and Hows of �Independence for Northern Ireland�� (The Blanket, 10 September 2001) and �Yes, there is an alternative to the GFA� (Irish News, 29 October 2002).

Though it is perhaps already quite clear, I would nonetheless also emphasize that the main question presented in this letter does not ask whether your group shares that strong belief, nor does it attempt to convince your group to adopt that belief.

Instead, that question essentially asks whether the Irish Republican Army would now, through a negative response hereto, effectively block the people of Ireland and the governments of Britain and Ireland from fruitfully studying, and perhaps ultimately voting upon, this untested possibility.

As well, I would observe that the IRA�s rejecting this independence inquiry would seem incongruous if the IRA also led others to believe it would �decommission� completely and disband where Westminster had merely devolved provisionally, through the GFA or otherwise, some form of local governance. While six-county independence could certainly be entirely compatible with republican-form-of-government concepts, limited and ever revocable six-county devolution within the United Kingdom could not similarly be. But cf. �Disarm Redundant Weapons Now� (The Blanket: 21 January 2002), as well as, e.g., Archbishop Sean Brady�s May 2004 call for the IRA�s disbandment.

In sum, I hope your group will publish an unambiguous answer to the central question herein posed, whatever that answer might be. Unsurprisingly, I further hope the IRA�s considered response will be �In principle, yes,� so that the people in Ireland might thereafter get the chance, which they will never otherwise have, to examine formally this potential way forward.


Paul A. Fitzsimmons

cc (by telecopy):

Mr. Blair
Mr. Rycroft

Mr. Ahern

Rev. Paisley
Mr. Adams
Mr. Trimble
Mr. Durkan

Prof. Rose

Mr. Reiss

PS: Over the past several months, I had intended to mark my otherwise little-observed departure from the Northern Ireland scene through publication of an article along the lines of the draft below, which lays at Tony Blair�s feet the blame for the loss of this rare settlement possibility.

In truth, though, London�s modest inclinations towards investigating this difficult approach have been tempered, understandably, by the fact that few in Ireland have made public calls for this sort of inquiry. However, as a matter of Realpolitik, and as suggested above, many politicians in Ireland have had their hands tied in this respect. (That catch-22 might and should be resolved unilaterally by London, but it has not been and apparently will not be.)

Also in truth, the Irish Republican Army does not suffer from those same constraints. Unlike many others�whether public servants or private citizens�in Ireland, the IRA has an unfettered ability to state openly and straightforwardly that it does not want six-county independence, that it does not endorse such independence, but that, nevertheless, it would accept that result were the voters to give at least 70-percent approval thereto.

Thus, and somewhat ironically, although it may have no desire at all to help make possible Northern Ireland�s negotiated independence, the IRA now has the power to end that possibility permanently through its rejection of these proposals (noting, too, that unbecoming silence will be correctly scored as rejection).

Your group also has�itself alone�the power to put this ball conspicuously into its chief opponent�s court, whereupon the famed hand of history would remove itself from Mr. Blair�s shoulder for at least long enough to transcribe his government�s response.

A circumspect answer thereto from Mr. Blair�cf. his judgment that �[i]t would be tragic, wrong, and foolish for us to pass up the chance of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland� (K. Smith, �Blair urges caution on Ulster talks� (Reuters, 19 April 2000))�could completely belie the unhopeful view behind a rather snide question I recently posed publicly concerning those �in charge� of Northern Ireland�s troubles, travails, and turmoils: �Which do the �cognoscenti� lack more: competence or bravery?�

��������������������������������������������������������� P.A.F.


Exit Stage Right
by Paul A. Fitzsimmons

In a 17 February 2003 letter (excerpted below) faxed to Matthew Rycroft�whose acquaintance I made at the British Embassy here in Washington and who has been, over the several years since, an adviser in Downing Street�I discussed the topic of possible Northern Ireland independence:

Dear Matthew:

A British pundit yesterday opined that, for all our many faults, �Americans come from a culture which still believes in taking action,� whereas �British phlegm is the response of a nation that has lost the capacity to mould events, and decides, instead, to endure them.� David Thomas, �British phlegm is an excuse for sheer apathy,� Sunday Telegraph, 16 February 2003.

Hoping Mr. Thomas to have been at least in part wrong, I send my regards and a copy of a small article entitled �A �Plan B� for Tony Blair and Northern Ireland,� published yesterday in Belfast�s The Blanket.

Skeptical that, on 3 March 2003, Mr. Blair will depart Northern Ireland with much positive to show for his extensive efforts and attention, I would take this opportunity to emphasize that he might indeed do something which would allow him simultaneously to take dramatic charge in this situation and get Northern Ireland off his crowded plate, at least for the time being: i.e., undertake the independence-related steps earlier discussed. As you are aware, Mr. Blair could take such steps virtually unilaterally, particularly with the small aid and assistance that the United States government would, in a heartbeat, offer him.

While I�ve long been sympathetic with Britain�s predicament vis-�-vis Northern Ireland, I confess that, somewhat like your Mr. Thomas, I wonder whether your Government would unbravely prefer to try to stiff‑upper-lip its way through another generation or two with Northern Ireland as an acute appendage rather than actually to attempt imaginatively to address the bottommost aspects of that problem.

Should you care to discuss further these various thoughts, you of course know where to reach me: I haven�t gone away yet, to coin a phrase.

Best wishes,


Many years ago, knowing that then Prime Minister Thatcher lacked any inclination to contemplate such a dramatic tack, I thought it nonetheless worthwhile to try to chart a course on possible negotiated independence, for the time when the overall problem remained unresolved after all other efforts had failed.

That time is at hand: the Good Friday Agreement�that to which, supposedly, �there is no alternative��has been cadaverous for years, and another round of direct rule from London looks otherwise set to continue for decades more.

With his abilities, his political outlook, and his impressive parliamentary strength, Tony Blair may have been heaven-sent to initiate a first-and-last-ever formal inquiry into possible fair and workable independence, a radical approach towards a genuine settlement of this generations-old conflict.

Recently, Mr. Blair even had the distinct benefit of some discreet nods in this independence direction from some of the leading political powers in Northern Ireland, as well as a confirmation of valuable support from other key venues.

Yet, while he preaches that Britons are �at [their] best when at [their] boldest,� in practice the Prime Minister himself shies away from even looking formally at possible independence, instead unboldly acquiescing in undemocratic rule from London and the maintenance of Northern Ireland�s chasmic socio-political rifts.

Mr. Blair may have difficulty admitting even to himself that his own timorousness here could cost the North another painful generation or more.

In any event, if the apparently heaven-sent Mr. Blair dares not to examine formally this challenging middle-ground settlement approach, one can reasonably conclude that no subsequent British premier would do so either. Without such leadership, negotiated independence for Northern Ireland is impossible.

As a result, and somewhat sadly but with my best wishes, I bid my Protestant and Catholic sisters and brothers in Northern Ireland a fond and sincere farewell.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

13 June 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Irish Republican Army
Paul Fitzsimmons

Fred Wilcox

Something rotten at the core of US body politic
Mick Hall

Father Mc Manus Replies to Mrs. O'Loan, Urges Proof in Abundance
Father Sean Mc Manus

The Armed Peace
Anthony McIntyre

An Irish Wake for Ronnie Reagan
Radio Free Eireann

Gareth McConnell

Venezuela: terrorist snipers, their media allies and defence of democracy
Toni Solo

11 June 2004

US Nationwide Irish American Group Holds 2004 Convention in Belfast
Sean Mc Aughey

The Chen Case @ the European Court of Justice - Money Talks and a Government Lies
John Meehan

A Left Vote for the Right Person
Anthony McIntyre

John Martin

Response to:
"Irish Americans"

Peter Urban

Sri Lanka: up country with the Tamil Tigers
Cedric Gouverneur

The Letters page has been updated.



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