31 July 2008 Edition
A signpost towards modern Ireland
The IRA’s declaration, three years on
BY DECLAN KEARNEY
THREE YEARS AGO this week, the IRA ended its armed campaign, assumed a new mode and committed its Volunteers to pursuing political and democratic programmes.
We are probably still too close to that declaration to properly gauge its strategic significance. In time, it will arguably be assessed as historically epoch-making.
But we can be sure of this. The 28 July statement unequivocally established the primacy of political and democratic struggle; and it established the primacy of Sinn Féin as the vehicle to advance republicanism.
For these reasons, it catapulted Sinn Féin right into dealing with the political economy of the North and the South, new sets of realities and contradictions, and the interplay of regional, national and geo-political challenges, the sum of all which make up the melting-pot of 21st century Ireland.
The IRA opened a door and pointed Sinn Féin in the direction of modern Ireland.
Contemporary Ireland has come through dramatic economic, political, and cultural change in the last 10 years. Community and individual aspirations and values have been shaped by economic and political developments, South and North; wider globalisation; and the explosion in electronic communications. The life ambitions of today’s 20-somethings and 30-somethings are entirely different to that of their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s.
The corollary to the new mode in these circumstances is to popularise republican politics in a way which makes common sense and to build a party which is both fit for purpose and attracts a mass appeal.
Struggle is fluid. Political conditions change. Phases develop, end, and subsume each other.
The new phase and conditions of struggle faced by Sinn Féin activists today have outworked their way from the dynamics released by the 28 July statement.
The IRA displayed a foresight and courage in 2005 which can only be properly matched by republican supporters and activists today relying upon our cool-headed resolve and engaging pragmatically with the realities of modern Ireland to achieve national and democratic objectives.
Present-day republican politics have to be built in a context shaped by the popular expectations and popular opinion of 21st century Irish society.
If republicanism is to successfully change society, then it has to begin where Irish society is at. The Sinn Féin project needs to have the political maturity to adapt to the evolving nature of society and constantly evaluate the relevance of our position and message. That will mean building a political strength which is forged on the anvil of ‘real world’ issues and campaigns.
In an Ireland where for many people the cost of living will increasingly compete with the cause of the Republic, a priority for successfully popularising a republican agenda in the South must be to equip Sinn Féin with the capacity to adapt so as to ensure that modern-day republicans are in tune with modern-day Ireland.
To do otherwise, would be anathema to the fearlessness and risk-taking of generations of IRA Volunteers. Sinn Féin now has to balance a seasoned revolutionary purpose with an intelligent grasp of realpolitik.
Regaining political momentum in the South will be a long-term project. Our political strength has to become solid and permanent in this state. Achieving that means making our national and democratic objectives – as well as our economic, social and cultural policies – relevant to the largest possible section of public opinion and gaining more popular support.
This next phase will be defined by post-Lisbon Treaty politics and deepening economic recession. The economy will assume the dominant national focus.
The political setback for the Fianna Fáil administration from the ‘No’ vote – and our role in that campaign allied to the tactic of shifting blame for the recession onto the ‘No’ vote – will inevitably provoke a renewed anti-Sinn Féin offensive.
The predicted post-Lisbon media black-out of the party has already begun. While we temporarily broke the Establishment’s isolation strategy against us during the Lisbon campaign, Section 31 state censorship hasn’t gone away – it’s just been repackaged and we will now need to find new initiatives to prevent it being reimposed.
Last year’s general election woke us up to the reality that the popularity of the Peace Process won’t cut it as a catch-all brand for Sinn Féin.
We realised there was a false bottom to our perceived political strength.
And despite Gerry Adams’s consistent popularity as a leader, the politics which he personifies and the party embodies don’t make enough commonsense to enough citizens here.
The burgeoning economic recession can either magnify that contradiction or become an opportunity for us, depending on what we do as a party.
As this recession leads to economic and fiscal austerity, popular expectations for solutions will intensify. Sinn Féin needs to be positioned with a commonsense, republican, economic and political agenda. It needs to communicate how change is achievable.
Our ability to do this is essential. It is a stark fact that throughout the Mahon Tribunal, the Lisbon campaign and since, popular support for Fianna Fáil has remained solid.
We will need to avoid reductionist and lazy assumptions that economic bust and slump will be bad for Fianna Fáil – and that it will somehow benefit our project. Sinn Féin has to make commonsense, and be relevant both in times of economic boom and bust.
In this new phase, the party has to move with the times and recognise the dangers of remaining static. Republican politics in the 26 Counties needs to be redefined with political mobility, energy and a commonsense which identifies with the actual economic and social priorities of citizens across the state.
The political language of the new mode should be synonymous with the denial of livelihoods to coastal fishing communities, spiralling unemployment in the construction industry, pay freezes in the public sector, increased costs of living for families and pensioners, and higher energy charges and credit moratoriums for small and medium-sized businesses.
The roar of the Celtic Tiger has been silenced by a modern Ireland which craves solutions.
Our priority in the coming months should be to identify the correct political position from which to strategically promote a macro-economic and fiscal road map for the South and to illustrate the constraints partition places on that. We need to become solution-driven, with a distinctive focus on the Southern economy while demonstrating that full stability and prosperity are only sustainable with economic and fiscal harmonisation, North and South.
Three years on from the Army’s announcement, this work encompasses the logic of political and democratic struggle.
But it needs to be brought to life with intelligent analysis and campaigns which both matter and make sense. Through campaigns and political discourse at community level, the party’s policy and political relevance will grow – even against neo-censorship. By proving the relevance of our message, republican activists can demonstrate that cost of living issues and the cause of the Republic are in fact indivisible.
A new phase of complex struggle is simultaneously developing in the North.
Whilst the North is a beachhead from which to build south, it cannot be taken for granted. Properly understanding the changing nature of popular opinion in the Six Counties is more crucial now to our strategic task in the North than ever before.
Our move on policing and justice – bringing the DUP across the line – and restoration of the Northern institutions, have all combined over one year later to shape new politics in the North.
Nationalist and unionist popular opinion have an expectation of delivery on the economic and social fronts. Nationalist and republican people expect us to do big things in the Assembly. Understanding that reality and how wider opinion, North and South, currently perceive or interpret the political situation in the Six Counties must constantly govern our strategic decision-making and particularly at this time.
A new era has opened up within unionism. However, neither the future progress of the institutions nor previously-affirmed political agreements with the DUP can be held hostage to the volatility within wider unionism. Conducting a DUP negotiations strategy on the basis of internal party management style or short-term tactics is akin to driving up a one-way street blindfolded. Car wrecks waiting to happen come to mind.
The leadership qualities of the new DUP leader are yet to be tested. Will he be a real leader or simply a chairman of the board, like his UUP predecessor, as the First Minister? This remains to be seen.
Popular opinion has already been alerted to the fact that all is not well within the political institutions. While it is to be hoped that new negotiations will be successful, it is also possible they will fail. In that event, popular opinion will certainly shift once more. Herein lies the complexity of the next phase for republicans in the North.
In these new politics, with increased cost of living pressures, Sinn Féin has to assert the transitional nature of the institutions and ensure they deliver in the here and now. We need to maximise real change on policing and justice. We need to ensure the DUP does not misinterpret our genuine commitment to equal partnership as a sign that we’ll be pushed around. And all the time we must continue to grow popular support for republicanism on the ground.
In these fluid circumstances we have to be prepared for any scenario and ensure the party is correctly positioned. Sinn Féin in the Six Counties has to be able to lift its game and consolidate our political and electoral strength.
These developing phases and challenges, South and North, all impact upon the approach which we now need to take towards regaining political momentum in the 26 Counties.
What we are attempting nationally is massive.
Our success will depend upon whether we adopt the correct strategies, tactics, political message and political position to win the battle for ideas, in both parts of Ireland.
This isn’t push-over politics. It is about changing hearts and minds across the island. And the frontline for that work now is in the South. Consider this: more citizens vote for Fianna Fáil in the South than vote overall in the North; Sinn Féin’s total national vote is roughly 42.5 per cent of Fianna Fáil’s vote in the 26 Counties. The message is clear.
Popular opinion in the 26 Counties is key to the critical mass of popular support we need to achieve our primary and ultimate aims. That means we have to vastly grow our voter base in this state. Sinn Féin must get to the point where we have more electoral support in the South than we currently enjoy in the North... and then some, for more than two thirds of Ireland’s population live and vote in the 26 Counties. Regaining political momentum is about putting our party onto that trajectory.
The next eight months are pivotal. More of the same will not be good enough. The republican struggle needs a step change in the South. And a whole new standard of leadership is essential to that.
In the Six Counties, sections of unionism, as predicted, want to jump back from the implementation of agreed democratic change. A renewed level of political vigilance is required.
Just as the IRA used great prescience to embark on the new mode of 2005, now Sinn Féin needs 20:20 vision to see through the economic and societal complexities and global influences which define 21st century Ireland.
As the island currently lurches towards new crossroads, Sinn Féin needs to be positioned with the correct analysis and leadership. We need to be in tune with current popular opinion but strategically focussed upon all our tactical options. This is a time for ensuring we keep the initiative. We need to keep following the signpost!