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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Thesis Antithesis


"Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing."
- Karl Marx
Paul Dunne • 30 January 2003

Ireland is at a fork in the road. There are two possible ways into the future. As a determinist, I must, strictly speaking, hold that the question "which road?" has already been answered; but strict determinism is no practical philosophy for living by, so I continue, pace Schopenhauer, to live my life as though I were free, and to write about history as though there were choices. Here, then, are two possible visions of Ireland's future, "thesis" and "antithesis" if you will.

Thesis

This piece began as "Comments on A Nation Sundered: Ireland's Counter-Revolution", an article by Des Dalton which I saw on the Republican Sinn Féin website some weeks ago.

As ever, the Republican Sinn Féin analysis of past and present is clear and cogent. There's only one problem with it. It remains totally in the realm of ideas; there is no link between it and day-to-day activity. Des has told us where we've come from, and what's wrong with where we are; but how does he propose to get us any nearer to where we want to go? How exactly is the 32-county Republic at last to be achieved? On that, RSF is... well, not silent, but it's fair to say devoid of practical ideas. Perhaps the current IRA strategy is flawed. But what I fail to hear from any of its critics is any coherent description of the alternative. Back to war? The Reals and the Continuity Army have tried that; it hasn't worked too well. We should face facts. The Brits didn't defeat the IRA; but neither did the IRA drive the British out of Ireland. They fought their way to the negotiating table, though. That's not ideal, but it's better than nothing. "Half a loaf is better than no bread" may not be the most inspiring of slogans, but at least we're sitting down to dine.

And what has the negotiating table given us? Is the "peace process" just a re-run of the infamous Treaty? Des Dalton thinks so.

"The signing of the "Stormont Agreement" in April 1998 was but the latest in a series of attempts by Britain to consolidate the political structures which it imposed on Ireland by means of the Westminster "Government of Ireland Act" in 1920 and the "Anglo-Irish Treaty" of 1921."

This is formally correct. From the British point of view, the Good Friday Agreement is an attempt "to consolidate the political structures" imposed earlier. But the key point is, that whether this attempt is successful or not depends on what Republicans do to effectively prevent the consolidation of said political structures. The "peace process" is just that, a process. It is more than the Good Friday Agreement or the institutions at Stormont. Those are the beginning of the process. The end which is aimed at is a united Ireland; more, a free Ireland, a true Irish Republic at last. By taking part in a real political development, Republicans can attempt to change reality, to move the future in the direction they want to see it go. The alternative? If republicans don't effectively intervene, they may be assured that history will go on quite happily without them.

Are there any grounds for believing that political activity this time round will deliver?

I believe there are. Firstly, there is the changing demography of the six counties. Sooner rather than later, the people there are going to vote themselves into a united Ireland. This would have been considered out of the question in the dark days of the 30s and 40s, even in the 70s. Then, it looked as though the Unionist veto was here to stay; and so it was the bomb and the bullet, or nothing. Now, that is all changing. Now, head counting begins to work in Ireland's favour. Oh, of course a vote for reunification is not necessarily a vote for Republicanism. But it is a vote for one very important strand of that belief.

Secondly, there is Britain's desire to disengage. I am conscious, having written that phrase, that maybe I am as naïve as those who thought that Commonwealth status and partition was somehow a "stepping stone" to the Republic. Well, perhaps history does sometimes repeat itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce"; but I don't think this is one of those times. With the cold war over, Britain's role in the world much reduced, and another European war inconceivable, Britain certainly has no objective interest in covering the Atlantic flank any more -- the first time for centuries. The Irish economy, though British firms are still over-represented, is certainly not so dominated by British capital that British economic interests would be seriously threatened by a free and united Ireland. Is there still any great subjective attachment to the presence in Ireland? Not that I can discern. There may be hold-outs in some sections of the establishment, and the editor of the Spectator may rant and rave for some time to come, But I think mainstream opinion in the British establishment is firmly in favour of "disengagement without disgrace". In any case, even if they weren't, they have signed an international treaty which compels them to respect the wishes of the majority in the six counties, and we've just seen what that will entail in the not so distant future. If Irish America stays on board, a firm tap on the shoulder from big brother across the water will ensure that the British do not renege on their commitments.

Of course, the hard-line Republican will insist that the Southern régime remains illegitimate. I agree, in principle. Principles, however, "butter no parsnips". While there may have been some hope among the adherents of the physical force tradition that the Brits could be driven out of the North, and while that might still be desirable "if only", who still believes that Republicanism could or should dissolve the Leinster House government by force? History has moved on. But that doesn't mean
that we simply want "Anschluß", the annexation of the North by the South. Re-unification is important for many reasons, but one important one is that it cannot but disrupt the established order of things in the South. That gives opportunity for political action to dislodge the present band of bribe-takers and chancers who exploit the place, and build a Republic truly "of the people, by the people, for the people".

It is true that there have been past attempts to advance the Republican agenda by purely political means. In the Free State elections of 1948, Clann na Poblachta gained ten seats and two ministerial positions in the ensuing coalition government, including the important post of Minister for External Affairs, filled by the redoubtable Seán Mac Bride. But it was a false dawn. The next election, in 1951, saw the party's seats reduced to two. After that, the history of the party is short in the telling. In subsequent elections, it won one seat in 1961, and one seat in 1965
— and thereafter vanished. But here, surely, there are key points of difference. Clann na Poblachta did not organise in the North; nor did it have the guaranteed position SF does in the Stormont parliament, and the extra power and influence that goes with this; nor that party's formidable fund-raising machine. SF is the first relevant cross-border party since partition. This is a real breakthrough; and glib historical analogies won't wash in this new situation.

It may be that the traditional goal of Republicans, an Irish Ireland, united, Gaelic and free, has receded over the horizon of possibility. The time of the European nation-state may be over. Who knows? Second-guessing the future is a futile game. We can but do our best.


Antithesis


If it does turn out that the IRA is defeated and must disband, I can't see that there will be that much to write about about Irish politics any more. What would there be to write about? Politics is about power. The political forces of Irish nationalism have usually been weak, but that weakness has normally been counterbalanced by an armed wing — latterly the Irish Republican Army in its Provisional incarnation. With the army gone, the last party to show even verbal attachment to nationalism, Sinn Féin, is fundamentally powerless. Being powerless, it must follow in the wake of more powerful currents. The party's future is therefore predictable: it will be a fly in the ointment, an occasional irritant to the major players, but not really in the big game. It will follow the main course, if not the details, of the path followed in the past by similar political off-shoots from the Republican movement: De Valera's Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta, Official Sinn Féin. It may win a few more seats in the South, and probably displace the SDLP as the biggest "nationalist" party in the North; but eventually, and sooner rather than later, their performance will peak and then decline, for without the spiritual commitment to the absolute right of the Irish nation to self-determination, and therefore the right to take up arms, it offers nothing except a variant on the "hand-out" mentality that makes the Irish in general so fond of foreign rule, whether direct as in the North or indirect as in the South.

In the North: a jumped-up county council at Stormont, a slightly-reformed RUC overseen by a toothless policing board, a few token bodies for cross-border co-operation, some hand-outs for "community activists", and Sesame Street characters teaching the "wogs from the bog" how to behave like decent white folks... in a word, "normalisation". In the South: business as usual. An economy dominated by foreign capital; natural resources, from fish to gas, exploited primarily for foreign profit; the continuing erosion of national identity; the ceding of whatever sovereignty the Free State ever had to a new master; and all the while, four identical parties playing musical chairs while the brown paper parcels full of fresh new banknotes pass from hand to hand.

It is rather ironic that both parts of the island are now to enjoy a limited form of home rule under foreign dominance: it is as though it took us 100 years to get more or less right back to where we started. The long history of the national struggle has drawn to a close. Ireland will be further integrated in the EU, which, despite the rhetoric, is itself little more than a grand region of the Imperium Americanum. In the Guardian last year, in an article on nations and nationality, Hilary Mantel opined,

"The greatest hope of minorities, I think, is that they can find a refuge in an imagined Europe of the regions: not in a superstate, a Europe created on the model of past nation states, but within a Europe of diversity in which plural identities can flourish: in which a man is free to define himself as a member of such a group or nation, but also to define himself as a European."

And indeed, such is our future. We are free to "define ourselves". Just as a citizen of the Roman Empire was "free" to "define himself" as a Celt or a Greek or a Purple People Eater, for all the good it did him — he remained a Roman subject in reality. National identify will be reduced to an individual lifestyle choice, to the "I'm one-third Celt, one-third German, one-third Cherokee" syndrome so prevelant, and so meaningless, in the USA.

What will "Irish" mean a hundred years from now? Students poring over a Yeats text will read "Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?", and need, not only a footnote explaining the historical facts to which Yeats refers, but a footnote to the footnote, explaining the ideas without which the historical facts remain incomprehensible, ideas about nationhood, about identity, about freedom. I am reminded of an essay by George Steiner in which, bemoaning the decline in Classical studies, he points out that large parts of English literature lose whole layers of meaning without the familiarity with Latin and Greek literature, even if only in translation, that they assume. Irishness too will suffer this fate, will be reduced to meaningless words in dead books. A wilderness of empty symbols: "Irish Pubs"(™), "Celtic" sworls in tattoo shops, "Irish" tap-dancing.

The Irish people have proved that they will not stand and fight for control over their own land. The island of Ireland, and the people inhabiting it, will remain despite that, but it and they will be Irish only in a Disneyland sense, their country a place for the strangers to come and indulge in a bit of "caint agus craic" before returning to the real world, where decisions are made about the level of investment in the island, or where on the ould sod to site the military bases that will be needed for the never-ending "war against terror". The natives will take what they're given: TV shows, pop songs, American English — the modern equivalent of coloured beads and blankets and lengths of cotton — and be damned grateful for them too.

Over the body of the dying acrobat, Nietzsche's Zarathustra declaimed:

"There is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: therefore fear nothing any more!"

And indeed, while the body, the island and its people, is still here, the soul is already dead.

 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



26 January 2003

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

Drugadair and the Drugadiers
Anthony McIntyre

 

Thesis Antithesis
Paul Dunne

 

The Hungry Continent
Terence McMenamin

 

Thanksgiving
Sean Torain

 

Do They Talk to You?
Annie Higgins

 

Fight Against American Hyper-Imperialism and Oppression

Sean Matthews

 

The Letters page has been updated.

 

23 January 2003

 

Sinn Féin's International Perspective: From Conservative to Radical in the Blink of an Eye
Deaglán Ó Donghaile

 

Northern Ireland's Political Goodwill Games
Paul A. Fitzsimmons

 

New Year's Greetings

Jimmy Sands

 

Why Ireland is Unfree; Continued
Chris Fogarty

 

Youth Against the Dictatorship of the Clerics
Anthony McIntyre

 

West Belfast Anti-War Meeting - Belfast March
Davy Carlin

 

Conversation with a State Assassin

TAYAD

 

 

 

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