10 February 2005 Edition
Repression and resistance
BY LAURA FRIEL
There's a sense of resolve amongst republicans and nationalists across the Six Counties, with the anticipation of a period of overt repression, a familiar corollary to a vicious political campaign of vilification. As one republican source told the media, although we might not choose confrontation, "if they want a row, then I don't think there's any better group of people on this island who could give them one". And I guess that's the mood which best sums up the feelings of many people this week.
It was certainly the mood at Sinn Féin's Six-County AGM held last weekend in Gulladuff, County Derry, where chairperson Declan Kearney told representatives of the party's leadership from throughout the North that "everything we do, politically, organisationally, electorally and strategically, needs to be geared towards opposing efforts to undermine our party".
The scale of Sinn Féin's electoral gains provides the keyhole through which we can evaluate and understand the present political crisis, Kearney told the audience.
"In response to the rise in popular support for our party, our opponents appear to be presently setting themselves on a political collision course with Sinn Féin, without any regard to the greater good of the Peace Process, or unfulfilled potential and opportunity contained in the Good Friday Agreement," said Kearney.
"There is a deliberate political coincidence between the demand for photographs in early December and the political fallout attaching to a robbery in Belfast in late December. Each has become a pretext for stalling the momentum of the political process created by the preceding phase of negotiations. Each has also now become a proxy for attempting to put Sinn Féin on a strategic back foot.
"The British and Dublin Governments, the unionists and conservative nationalism have moved into a political offensive in which they are all tactically unified by their objective to role back the rise of Sinn Féin. Our priority must be to recognise the gravity of the situation, to resist their offensive and continue to grow in political strength," said Kearney.
"In the coming months we will need to think imaginatively about how we influence and mobilise popular opinion against this offensive. This will be work for every activist and not only a few. It will be against this backdrop, this heightened battle for hearts and minds, that we will be fighting the forthcoming Westminster and local government elections," said Kearney.
"Republicans often cynically regale each other with the mantra that the next election is always the most important. However, on this occasion no one should be under any illusions that the elections in May will be unrivaled in their strategic significance," said Kearney.
Addressing party activists North Belfast, Assembly member Gerry Kelly said that in response to the current crisis, Sinn Féin is preparing to launch a campaign of "democratic resistance", which will begin with a series of rallies across the North. Mobilisation is to take place within the Six Counties as well as in a number of other counties, including County Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, Leitrim and Louth.
The first rally is set to take place in Ballyconnell on Thursday 17 February, with a second rally the following day in Newry on Friday 18. On 21 February rallies will take place in Belfast and Derry City and two days later, on 23 February, one will be held in Galbally.
The rallies will be addressed by Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams or Gerry Kelly, and are being seen as the first stage in an ongoing campaign of political resistance.
"Republicans need to respond by complete commitment to a policy of democratic resistance in the time ahead," said Kelly.
IMC sanctions rejected
Focusing on the Bertie Ahern and his government's attitude to the imposition of the IMC, Kelly said it had been a "serious error for the Irish Government to support the establishment of the so-called Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) and to nominate a member to it".
"The decision of the SDLP to acquiesce to the establishment and function of the IMC also displayed a lack of political judgement," said Kelly.
"In it's short lifespan, the IMC has already been used by the British Government to sanction the Sinn Féin electorate. This sanction was imposed after the IMC reproduced allegations from spooks, spies and securocrats. The IMC operated outside the norms of basic legal process and removes the requirement for proof or natural justice," he said.
Commenting on the recent announcement by Ahern's government that they oppose sanctions against Sinn Féin, Kelly pointed out that the Irish Government had a "responsibility to defend the rights of Irish citizens living in the British occupied part of this country.
"If the next IMC report again demands further sanctions against the Sinn Féin electorate," said Kelly, "is the Irish Government going to remove its appointed representative from it and repeal the legislation it passed giving rise to it?
"This is the only option available to them if their opposition to discrimination and sanctions is to be anything more than talk and their position as a co-equal partner in the overall peace process is not to be totally undermined," said Kelly.
But if Ahern's government had flagged up its opposition to sanctions, it hadn't been a pro-active response designed to support the rights of the majority of the northern nationalist electorate. The news was broken by arch anti-republican Michael McDowell. Dublin was against sanctions because they allowed Sinn Féin to portray itself as a victim, McDowell told the Sunday Times.
Dismissing the imposition of sanctions as a "sideshow" and "purely symbolic" and "a distraction", McDowell said they only allowed republicans to "take advantage of these symbolic sanctions to claim that they are being discriminated against and go further into victim mode". As if discrimination against the Sinn Féin electorate was anything other than discrimination.
But while the discrimination is real, voiced opposition without further action by the Dublin Government is no more than symbolic. Of course, the hidden message in McDowell's comments is no real action is required because the problem doesn't really exist, it's symbolic. The fact that republicans have a long history of overcoming obstacles doesn't mean those obstacles don't exist; it just means that political focus and hard work often carries the day.
Meanwhile, last week's media agenda of criminalisation moved on to demoralisation, with this week's political commentators imagining all sorts of 'splits' and 'tensions' and 'assaults' within the republican family and Sinn Féin. Some commentators went even further, by advocating republican disunity as a positive contribution. They were less keen to indicate the nature of such a contribution, to what and for whom.
The Sunday Business Post does not see the imposition of sanctions by the British Government as "purely symbolic". Such a move is "expected to increase pressure on the leadership, as grassroots disaffection in the republican movement continues to grow," says the Post.
For the SBP it's all "warnings about a split" and "unrest within the republican movement" and "hostility to leadership growing". But while the commentators are attempting to undermine republicans, the editorial remains more focused on the political realities. "All sides should step back," says the editorial.
"The peace process is one of the greatest achievements of politics on this island. The two governments need to realise that there is a long game to play and that without active republican involvement the transition to democratic and political norms will be impossible." Failure in the north is not an option, concludes the SBP.
Predictably for the editorial of the Sunday Times, engagement with republicans isn't a key element in the political process; republicans are simply the "primary obstacle" to be overcome. The Times conveniently forgets that the entire Peace Process emerged out of the Britain's inability to 'overcome' republicans, always their first and favoured option.
The way forward is for all parties to demand that "Sinn Féin stops wrecking the Good Friday Agreement and starts implementing it," says the Sunday Times. Conveniently, the Times forgets that this current crisis can be traced to the largest anti-Agreement party in the North, the DUP, refusing to share power with the largest pro-Agreement party, Sinn Féin, by demanding the public humiliation of republicans.