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5 July 2007 Edition

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OPINION : North can radicalise the rest of Ireland

Exporting hope from North to South

BY DOMHNALL Ó COBHTHAIGH

The failure to achieve our political goals in this last election could be an occasion for losing confidence. We seem locked into structures in the North which are at ‘go slow’ speed and our vision of accelerating towards a roll-out of a radical all-Ireland agenda through Sinn Féin Ministers on both sides of the border seem stymied. For many this has been a testing time for their belief in the strategy.
Yet, there is great hope in the air. The fact of Ian Paisley sitting down with Martin McGuinness and doing business is of undeniable historic proportions. Our political opponents in the 26 Counties succeeded in portraying that as a happy outcome but of limited relevance to the everyday political life of their state. In the resulting election we encountered much goodwill but little else by way of electoral support.
Having seen this setback many are advocating a return to localised work on the ground as ways to rebuild more slowly. I don’t disagree but feel that they are missing the big project. Similarly, those attempts fail to engage with the fact that our policy programme was unavoidably unrealistic at a time when we have not collectively answered the big economics questions. We might bootstrap ourselves up gradually all we like but with ideological flux we will end up opportunistically coat-tailing our opponents. The big questions need answered: not least how as a country which continues to be dependent on foreign-direct investment we will afford either unity or equality.
There are answers to be found to these questions. In their absence, our strategies have for far too long proceeded in splendid isolation to the realities of the economic base. Their lack of rigour is expressed in national strategic objectives which would not pass muster in a medium-sized business let alone a revolutionary party. We have tactics-as-process not tactics-as-plan. We urgently need to adopt more effective methods of strategic management and party development.
We face a daunting task in the 26 Counties. We are facing powerful and efficient opponents who control both state and media. Unlike the British state in the struggle in the North this is life or death for their ‘place in the sun’. The same class of people demanded that the British kill Connolly to safeguard their interests back in 1916. We can expect no favours in this political struggle. It is clear that they already plan to target our remaining Leinster House seats.
Yet, the North star shows the way. The rapproachment on the ground that is possible in the context of power-sharing at the top offers huge potential for radical grassroots organising, even more so in a context where Sinn Féin have a central place in state power. The sky’s the limit to us implementing imaginative yet commonsense initiatives which act to raise consciousness and empower local communities both politically and economically.
I believe that the radical politics that has arisen and will arise in the North as a result of the peace strategy can be exported throughout the rest of Ireland. That will not happen overnight. It might take years. But to some extent that process is potentially irreversible already. The dominant factor in all this - the all-Ireland economy - is already a reality that politicians are only gradually catching up with. As every new All-Ireland Implementation Body or Area of Cooperation is established this will act to further radicalise popular awareness of the all-Ireland agenda.
Fianna Fáil already shares power with Sinn Féin through the All-Ireland Ministerial Council. They just won’t share power with us in ‘their’ state. However, the problem for them is that the GFA itself and global economics began the process of changing and challenging that state. To date their response has produced what might be expected - solutions which remain within the neo-liberalist paradigm - as expressed in Chapter 5 of the new ‘32 County’ National Development Plan. Our role must be to welcome that but to challenge its failings and then export the radicalised hybrid which results, elsewhere across Ireland - perhaps first to border counties and then to the West and deprived urban areas.
It is true that it is very difficult to sell that agenda in the here and now to communities in the likes of Cork or Waterford or perhaps even Dublin. It can seem of little immediate or obvious relevance. But be sure that it will come over time. Successfully prosecuting our struggle in the 26 Counties is dependent on ensuring that our electoral power in the north is used fully to expand the radical all-Ireland agenda across the island. We must link our activists across Ireland in strategic, all-Ireland programmes with the progress we are making in the north.
Nowhere is that radical edge as visible as the engagement that is happening right across the community/voluntary sector across the border counties on the All-Ireland Civic Consultative Forum. Such a platform could empower communities at a level of national politics previously unheard of - right across the island. At conferences it is all too obvious to see that many within the community and voluntary sector understand the potential that this structure could hold forth. This body will be as relevant to communities in Cork as it is to those in Cavan or Craigavon - and this is a structure which we need to begin to build a popular demand for in all these places. Of course, what we get will fall short of what we want but it is a developmental process and structures have a natural tendency to aggregate power and authority around themselves. An all-Ireland Participative Forum could be a Pandora’s box for radicalising Irish society.
Paralleling this empowerment structure there are advances towards a Bill of Rights in the north which could feed into an All-Ireland Fundamental Charter of Rights. Again, it is clear that there is a burning appetite for this outcome within civil society and in particular with those with an interest in radicalising popular politics. Republicans need to start making noise on these issues across Ireland. If we can ensconce the right to a job or the right to withhold labour within a legislative Fundamental Charter then it is as immediately relevant to workers in Limerick as it is to those in Leitrim or Limavady. This is all coming like a train at those in the Twenty-six Counties who would rather not see it but we need to be alive to it and organising around it.
Similarly, the politics of bad example that we heard so much about from English commentators looking at more left wing politics spreading from the ‘regions’ to Westminster has a parallel in all-Ireland terms. Section 75 duties which demand that all government policies be rigorously equality-tested are as relevant to disadvantaged groups in Dundalk as they are to those in Down. If in the north, civil society succeeds in demanding that the nine categories be increased to include socio-economic class then that will open the door to examining the negative impacts of all policies on the working class. If we can succeed in shaping the new institutions arising out of the Good Friday Agreement, the North will radicalise the rest of Ireland.
All of this needs underpinned by a radical, yet realistic, strategic economic platform which can set out a vision of how to pay for this new Ireland. That too must be based on the solid ground of the all-Ireland Agenda and a rigorous examination of ‘all that is’ in the public sector today. It behoves us as Republicans to once again re-examine what we have achieved in the negotiations and to set out how we proceed from here to our primary and ultimate objectives.

• Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh is a member of Sinn Féin’s All-Ireland Department.

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