Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

16 October 2003 Edition

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The Great Experiment


I see the ongoing revolution in Ireland as an amazing, extraordinary, path breaking project on the world stage of the struggle for justice. However, I am not sure that everyone sees it like this. This article is to explain, and put the amazing events of the last 30 years in context - so that we can stand back and see the wood for the trees.

False Debates

Some are moaning: "Sure the GFA - wow that wasn't much of a treaty to come out of a long hard war, so much sacrifice, so many dead. Was that what it was all for? If so, I don't think much of it!" And perhaps they go on to say: "And look, even on that they are reneging day after day. We've not got the Assembly back, the institutions aren't working - might never work, really we're still tied in to the Union and its politics of instilling divisions and sectarianism, which has allowed the Brits to rule our country down the years. What's changed?" And some add the question: "What's better now for the people - are there more jobs, more houses, better health, education, better quality of life for those who suffered so much? Was it worthwhile - if that is all we got?"

And on the other side of the story there are those saying, "Ah wait. Now at last we're doing politics" (whatever else did they think they were doing all these years?) "Sinn Féin is getting elected. Let's keep our politics a bit middle of the road, easy on the 'socialism', and then behold we will come into power, and then we'll have a Republic!"

And the rejoinder to this position comes quickly: "Ah! That's what Fianna Fáil did. What makes Sinn Féin today different from the Fianna Fáil of the '30s, '40s and then today?"

What have we got? We have an internationally recognised Agreement, the GFA. It is not a blueprint for utopia, nor was intended to be. But it's an architecture for an all-Ireland government which incorporates some very important ideas.

On the one hand, there's a Bill of Rights, drawn up by commissions on Human Rights, which holds out the idea that all-Ireland governance will be subject to legally enforceable rights. Like what rights? The UN Charter for Human Rights establishes the right to life, a job, a home, free education, free health for all - everyone. Do we have these things now? No. Most definitely not, in either part of this island.

In fact, it could be said government today is based on just how to pacify those who lack these basic rights, to enable those who do have them to carry on regardless - keeping power, justice and wealth - which means houses, health, education, jobs, quality of life - unequally shared, to themselves.

A legally enforceable Bill of Rights maybe holds out the way towards making progression of this class struggle, between the haves and the have-nots, judiciable.

The Good Friday Agreement also makes provision for an All-Ireland Consultative Civic Forum - whereby those who have been excluded - who don't have rights - have a voice to impact on governance. A meaningful All-Ireland Consultative Civic forum, provided for in the institutions of governance, would mean their voice would be heard - to advise and monitor and maybe use the office of a Bill of Rights to promote appropriate legislation to implement those rights.

Charters for Equality

This is an amazing achievement. Not that the British wanted to concede any such thing - that is not the Mother of All Parliament's way of doing business. But these are the institutions that were negotiated and agreed in the framework for all Ireland governance set out in the GFA.

And there are other items easy to dismiss, quickly forgotten about, like the Targeting Social Need provisions, or the anti-discrimination charters that all government and statutory agents had to draw up and enforce, to ensure there was no discrimination against Catholics, or disabled people, or gays, or blacks, or whatever category you identify.

The GFA makes provision for Equality Impact Assessments - that all legislation must be rigorously equality proofed. Amazing stuff - you can't miss the revolutionary potential of all of this if you set it in the context of what we have today in both parts of our divided Ireland.

And this anti-discrimination is mirrored in the Equality Authority set up in the South, which is pursuing the fight to widen the grounds of discrimination to ex-prisoners, trade union membership, and the socially and economically disadvantaged. It too is a beginning.

Parallels in South Africa

This is heady stuff. It immediately calls to mind what is happening in South Africa, where even one minister may use the Bill of Rights - which came out of the Freedom Charter drawn up by the people in 1957 as a base line of the struggle against Apartheid - to enforce human rights on other government Ministers of the day.

Anti-discrimination charters are perhaps comparable to Black Economic Empowerment legislation, which has been introduced to reverse continuing apartheid in business sectors. Equality between black and white cannot be brought about by decree, any more than equality between nationalist and unionist, or Catholic and Protestant can. Discrimination is an historical reality, which can only be overcome through the contest for equality and human rights, within a legislative framework that enshrines human rights and equality.

Now the fact that black rights, or rights to equality, are enshrined in legislation doesn't mean they are realised or effected. But it's a new approach to what must by its very nature be an ongoing struggle - which may not leave dead bodies, broken lives and authoritarianism all over the stage and still deliver the equality that the people are entitled to.

This is about changing society, radically, from the grass roots up and from government down. It's a two-way process.

All-Ireland institutions

Now the Good Friday didn't change society on the instant of its international endorsement. It didn't do that - of course it didn't - but the Agreement nevertheless provides for these institutions of governance - and what is more it set up some all-Ireland government institutions.

The GFA delineated areas where ministers, North and South, were to work in co-operation, and it set up implementation bodies, with executive functions, to implement all-Ireland policies on the language, trade, food safety, Ireland's waterways and so on.

Now these mightn't have looked the absolute kernel of all-Ireland good governance, which would bring at one blow houses, education, health, a job and so on, for everyone. The actual remit of these all-Ireland institutions was negotiated down from the sublime to the ridiculous. But they were "a start", and had great importance in themselves in their own restricted way, towards eroding the border through creating all-Ireland institutions for self-determination.

For example you may not care about the waterways of Ireland, but lots of people do: those who live beside them, fish in them, draw their income from them and so on. It's a tiny little start for to see what all Ireland governance could look like, looking at developments from an All Ireland point of view, and exploiting the opportunities this offers us all.

The existing All-Ireland institutions are part of a seed that could grow into all-Ireland governance: the possibility of all-Ireland justice and policing, accountable to all the people; an all-Ireland economic strategy, or growth path, for a human rights based economy; all-Ireland governance of environmental, health, rural development, education - not just a united Ireland, but a New Ireland of Equals, of Human Rights.

Where does all that leave us?

Of course, it doesn't leave us where we want to be. Who ever thought the British were going to pull out and leave a just and equal society behind them? But it left a framework through the tempestuous negotiating process - an architecture through which to move forward. It's a skeleton that needs flesh on its bones. In a word, it is the space for further struggle.

But how? There is the question.

Building on the framework

Support for Sinn Féin has moved forward in leaps and bounds - it has been a remarkable achievement. But public opinion is notoriously fickle. Casting a vote for the party every few years, or as it is now a few times throughout the year, is an important measure of support, but building political strength is about something deeper than that.

Republicans have always said they are about empowering people. Sinn Féin elected representatives, of course, will work to promote a legislative framework that fosters human rights, that protects the disempowered and aims to end discrimination - but that in itself is only a part of the story. If we want to end years of discrimination, then the demand for equality has to go through society itself. It cannot be enforced, driven from the top, ourselves alone.

A huge majority of working people in this state may vote for Sinn Féin, but will that bring democratisation in the work place, or in the communities? Will that empower workers to have a voice in the decisions that affect them in their working lives? No.

The new South African Government is wedded to ending Apartheid, but that does not mean that at the snap of the fingers suddenly the blacks that have been excluded and discriminated against are empowered to own, manage, or even work at all in jobs - in the economy.

The demand for equality cannot be inculcated by fiat or decree at government level: it must grow amongst the people themselves. A revolution is a process, progressively involving the people in governing their own social, cultural and economic lives. It is not a category of event that occurs in October 1917 - or October 2003.

Empowering equals demanding rights. You can't give people rights. People have to take them.


Elections are crucial - government needs to be able to create the situation of forwarding this contest throughout society, of creating the equality legislation that is the necessary platform for people to struggle to take their rights, but we have to see that that is all a government can do. It does not build or make a revolution. That has to be built from the ground up. Government can help set the stage for this process, facilitate it, make it possible, support it from the top, and create the space for struggle. Maybe the legislation for Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa makes sense of what we are talking about here.

This has an immediate bearing on how we use election victories, how we use the political support, or if you like, the power we already have. The template is set so clearly by the instance of the 11+ in the Assembly, where the minister, far from simply declaring the 11+ was ended, opened the issue out for discussion throughout the whole community, and used his power as minister to forward this discussion through the communities. It meant people - parents, teachers, and communities -discussing together equality and justice in education.

Everyone who is elected, no matter how big or small the constituency, can follow this model - calling meetings in local areas, communities, villages, asking people what they need if they are to have equal rights - the right to free education for all the children, the right to accessible free health care, the right to accommodation, the right to a job. Finding the answers to these questions and going after them is about laying the groundwork for the empowerment of civil society.

As people begin to demand their rights so they are empowered to speak for themselves to claim the rights that should be theirs. They become less marginalised because they become more aware as communities of what is denied them.

Using the political institutions to which a candidate is elected is using that most limited power in a way that deepens and widens support not just for Sinn Féin, but for the republican project to build a united Ireland of Equals.

Using Power

Getting elected does not empower you to do much on behalf of people - but it does enable you to help foster the contest for rights within the broad community of civil society - the power (as measured by a vote) to build political strength in the community. That is what building an Ireland of Equals is about, and that mightily differentiates our objectives and ways of working from those of such parties as Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

Their way of using power was to help their own, the politics of patronage: be it getting supporters cutting the fences at Christmas time, or getting planning permissions for bigger supporters, or running the neo-liberal economy to suit 'their own' - whatever, but keeping well away from democracy and human rights.

On the world stage

In the last century, the revolutionary visions were, broadly speaking, of an ideologically 'correct' party which would lead the 'workers', lined up against those in bowler hats, to victory, often through armed struggle. Times have moved on, through the Contras, the Chiles, the Guatemalas, the Palestines, the Guantanamo Bays - through the killing squads, the torture rooms, the genocides, the crimes against humanity, which so-called global capitalism brings with regularity and impunity to the smallest of villages.

The voice of the indigenous, the marginalised, the villagers, their involvement in Bolivarian circles, in Chiapas, in new ways of engagement, in democracy, the experiences of the social forums, they are all awakenings in ways to struggle for a world of equals in the 21st Century.

The republican project is not just about votes - that won't and couldn't provide us with a united Ireland of Equals. We have to build a community that demands its rights, demands an Ireland of Equals - We have to build a community for reunification. Even if we took government tomorrow, we could not impose an Ireland of equals.

We can build political strength, deepening and strengthening our vote and in so doing - using the "democratic" framework within which the transitional model of the GFA derives - we can build a revolutionary project and the Ireland of Equals that all of us are charged to create.

Wake up to the smell of the coffee.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1