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6 September 2007 Edition

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Desmond Greaves Summer School : Achieving an Irish national democracy

Tom Hartley

Tom Hartley

‘National conversation’ on Irish unity required

The 19th Desmond Greaves Summer School took place in Dublin’s ATGWU Hall on Sunday, 26 August. This year’s theme was Labour and Republicanism – The Way Forward?
Topics included Republicanism – A Subversive Ideology; the 1930s Republican Congress; and Socialism, Nationalism and Republicanism: Ideologies in Conflict?
As part of the Summer School, a symposium on the Sunday addressed the issue of Republicanism and Labour in Ireland today: Interaction and Potential.
The symposium was addressed by Eamon Gilmore TD, the most likely successor to Pat Rabbitte as leader of the 26-County Labour Party; Fianna Fáil Senator Martin Mansergh, who is also a historian and who has played a leading role in the formulation of Fianna Fáil policy on the Six Counties; and Eddie Glackin, a leading official with SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union; and Sinn Féin Belfast City Councillor Tom Hartley, a former Chairperson and General Secretary of Sinn Féin. Tom Hartley is also the author of Written in Stone: The History of Belfast City Cemetery.
Here is an edited version of Tom Hartley’s address.

This afternoon I would like to share with you a brief assessment of recent political developments which, I believe, provide space for Sinn Féin, its activists and supporters to develop politically through an examination of their current position.
Central to my assessment are my thoughts on the topic of an Irish national Democracy. Its essential characteristics are national territorial reunification, political independence and sovereignty, achieved through the unfettered exercise of our right to self-determination.
Sinn Féin has just emerged from a general election with the loss of a Dáil seat. The overall result was, without a doubt, disappointing. It represents, in my view, a temporary setback. And yet, if we take a closer look at the results, we can see that not all is doom and gloom: in many constituencies, our vote remained solid; in some, it actually increased. We had a good election in Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and Donegal.
Sinn Féin, like other political parties, will critically assess its performance and the effectiveness of its political message in the aftermath of the election. This assessment is anchored in the strategy of a long-term approach to party building and development. We will continue to build a strong, locally based organisation, which is rooted and active in the politics of local communities. We will continue to produce and nurture a local leadership capable of utilising their experience to contest and win Dáil seats.
In all of this we must remind ourselves that party building and gaining public support is a long-term project. In 1992 Sinn Féin obtained 700 votes in North Kerry. It took ten years before Martin Ferris was elected a TD. It was 11 years after we ended our policy of abstention before our first TD was elected.
Undoubtedly, we need to broaden our political appeal, we need to establish links across the whole spectrum of progressive social movements. Above all, we need to work with like-minded parties on a whole range of national, democratic and progressive issues.
Given that political outlook, it was heartening to see agreement between Labour and Sinn Féin on the issue of the Seanad elections. This co-operation is hopefully the beginning of a relationship that seeks to find common ground on a wide range of issues beneficial to the electorate. For me, such a relationship could be the foundation of a politics which gives an impetus to the ending of partition and to the creation of an Irish national democracy.
In the North, our membership of the newly elected Assembly and Executive represents the culmination of many years of strategic planning and hard work by republicans. This achievement locates Sinn Féin at the very heart of the decision-making processes of the Northern administration. The journey to reach this political juncture has its political foundations in campaigns for economic, cultural and political equality, for fair employment and an end to religious discrimination in the workplace, for transparent and democratic local government, for better housing and health care, for the truth on collusion, and from the mid-1980s for the building of a peace process and an engagement with the unionist community.
For many republicans, this journey was often difficult and painful. From the ending of the armed conflict to the decision on policing, republicans have grappled with difficult and challenging political decisions. In summary, we fought hard to move the Northern nationalist and republican community out of its status as second-class citizens and into its role as a vibrant, confident and central element of Northern society.
Today the political expectation of the Northern nationalist and republican community has advanced to the point where their expectations have become the motor of change, driving the Northern political agenda. It is therefore imperative that we now focus on the next period of political development – the end of English Government in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish national democracy.
Current political trends in the North are conducive for the achievement of this goal. Political Unionism is coming to terms with a vibrant nationalist community. The Northern business class, and in particular its unionist element, increasingly looks to and connects with the Southern economy. For all Northern political parties, the current economic policies of the British Government are a source of increasing political tension. There is a widespread perception across the Northern political spectrum that London is oblivious to the economic concerns of the North, reinforcing the belief that the North has moved further from the centre of power in Westminster and is peripheral to the concerns of the British political establishment. Arguably the economic centre of gravity is slowly moving away from London and towards Dublin.
Those of us with a national and democratic agenda have the task of pushing the political centre of gravity in that direction also. One change above all others might suggest the nature of the change in the North – for the first time in over 200 years there is no local militia to defend the interests of a unionist elite.
As a member of the Northern nationalist and republican community, I believe that a united and independent Ireland is an aspiration held by many Irish people and Irish exiles. The political core of this historical aspiration is sourced in the conviction that national independence will deliver democracy, prosperity, equality and freedom. In my view these core beliefs constitute a powerful engine for political change.
This aspiration also contains a view of English rule as oppressive, unjust, divisive and exploitative. The demand for a united and independent Ireland therefore contains the hope of my delivery from English rule, and the achievement of my political, social and economic liberation.
Undoubtedly, this political view has a deep resonance across a republican community that straddles all political interests and parties on the island of Ireland. It has been on the Irish political agenda since the United Irish rebellion of the 1790s, and has been reinforced by the long history of struggle against English Government in Ireland
It is such a powerful idea that even today all the major Irish political parties pay lip-service to the concept. For ‘United Irelanders’ the task is to turn this widespread emotional and historical aspiration into a dynamic and widespread instrument of political change, and to popularise the view that lasting peace and prosperity for all who live on the island of Ireland will come by the ending of partition and the creation of a national democracy.
Of course, this is not an easy task. I am acutely aware of the effects of that fault line in the politics of this island – partition. Since its imposition, two separate and distinct political entities have emerged, each with its own distinct politics. Each creating its own distinct conditions, conditions which by their nature inhibit the erosion of the fault line.
Many on this island who hold nationalists and republican views are unsure of how a united and independent Ireland would emerge. They wonder whether the transition to it would be peaceful, how it would be financed, whether it would be economically viable, or whether the North, with its economic dependence on the public sector, would be a burden? They also wonder about the position of unionists, and hence about the stability and feasibility of such a political entity. What is to be done, then?
In the North we need to convince unionists that a united Ireland will enhance their democratic role in Irish society, protect their human rights, release them from the stranglehold of an oppressive and negative role in Irish political life and realise the potential to utilise the democratic traditions to be found in their Protestant faith.
In the South we need to instill in Southern public opinion a sense of their historic responsibility in completing the nation-building process. We need to present a convincing case that the transition to a united Ireland will be peaceful and that their political, social and economic interests would be best served in a united Ireland.
In all of this I do not ignore the fact that popular opinion is also key for those vested interests in the establishments North and South who benefit or perceive themselves to benefit from partition. They will continue in my view to oppose and undermine those of us who work to complete the nation-building process.
How then do we move from where we are today to at least understanding what a national democracy might look like, how it might be achieved and what type of political engagement is required to put it on the political agenda of all the Irish political parties?
Presently through the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement we see increased all-Ireland social and economic initiatives by the Irish Government. The Irish Government is involved in the affairs of the North on a daily basis. Is this creeping influence the road to unity and independence? I don’t think so. Of course, the role of the Irish Government is positive and needs to be supported. But we need, across the political and social spectrum of this island, a conversation which addresses the uncertainties and questions which arise out of the politics of ending partition. The challenge is to develop a democratic platform that popularises the appeal of a united and independent Ireland.
It is essential that we move the concept of Irish unity away from its aspirational status on the periphery of public consciousness, and transform it into a live political issue at the centre of everyday political life. We need a national conversation on the matter. That conversation must develop the economic, political and cultural arguments for a united Ireland. We need to give shape to what this political entity may look like, what it will deliver in terms of economic prosperity, why it will be a better democratic model than the current partitionist entities, the shape of its justice system and the nature of its sovereignty.
Lurking in the undergrowth of this debate is the fear of political instability and economic disintegration for any new Irish state. Might the way to confront this fear be the construction of a broad political template which seeks to impose some degree of certainty on a transitional process? Might such a template contain an outline of the political, economic and institutional change which would characterise the shape of a transitional path? Could it outline how the transition from partition to unity would be peaceful, and emphasise, that any potential for political instability and economic disintegration can be avoided by a planned and well-managed process?
In this respect the role of the Irish Government is crucial. Through an engagement with all Irish political parties it has the resources to frame a strategic policy that outlines the actions required to bring about the achievement of a united Ireland. It could provide for the British Government the possible structure of a transitional process, the type of economic package required and guarantee the peaceful nature of the transition.
The type of debate and conversation I envisage has a special relevance to the Irish in Britain. With their support we need to build a broad lobby across British public opinion which seeks to build support for a united and independent Ireland. We need to seek the support of every political party in Britain to move the British Government into accepting a positive responsibility for helping to create the long-term peace, political stability, economic prosperity and the potential benefits for the Northern Protestant community as an essential part of an Irish national democracy.
To conclude, now is the time to pro-actively begin to build public awareness throughout Ireland and Britain on the shape of an Irish National Democracy and on how that might be achieved. Ninety years ago there was the concept that ‘Labour must wait’. Today I believe this should be changed to the slogan ‘Labour must lead’.

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