14 September 2006 Edition
OPINION: Republicans should make political plans fit the circumstances
The context for using political strength
This week DOMHNALL Ó COBHTHAIGH argues that Sinn Féin needs to look critically at where party structures have failed to maximise the opportunities to drive forward an agenda of change with the power we have had.
Context determines the strategy for the use of political strength to achieve our goals. Strategy is more than simply knowing how best to deal with situations as they approach us, blind to the context. It is about projecting plans that, over time, will maximise and focus the full impact of our political strength - plans that are not static, but change with changing circumstances.
A strategy worthy of the name must assess all circumstances to evaluate the relative potential and risk of all outcomes on the table. We must not start by seeking to make circumstances fit our plans, but rather make our plans to fit circumstances.
Having republicans in Executive power, as per the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, is the most effective way to push things forward. It is best for nationalists and it is best, despite themselves, for unionists. Huge opportunities present themselves for us to make common cause with unionists on the basis of our demand for the restoration of Executive authority.
We must not be blinded, however, to those strategic opportunities that will continue to exist even in the circumstances where the two governments continue to frustrate the implementation of the precise terms of the Agreement. Furthermore, we cannot consider Sinn Féin as a political party in splendid isolation from the huge variety of groups in wider Irish society who would benefit from a fuller implementation of the Agreement. We cannot adopt a sectarian attitude to other groups in Irish society to focus exclusively on our own party-political strength. Political change is only part of a wider and deeper matrix. We must seek to box beyond our weight by bringing others into the fight.
As a party, we should have called for the Good Friday Agreement to be included in the Social Partnership discussions. Why should trade unions and the community/voluntary sector be restricted to discussing wage increases, when there are issues as fundamental as an All-Ireland Charter of Fundamental Rights in an Agreement co-sponsored by the Dublin Government? Why was the forthcoming National Development Plan excluded, despite it being an issue which affects every worker and citizen on this island? We need to provoke and stimulate discussions that will raise the level of political consciousness within society - specifically within the trade union movement. Trade union bureaucracies don't like to raise political issues and restrict themselves to playing for crumbs from the table in terms of wage increments. The achievement of our primary objective will be driven forward far quicker if we mobilise the self-interest of broader civil society for the implementation of the potential within the Good Friday Agreement itself.
No one should fixate on a Plan B overtaking Plan A - no more than we should fixate about anything. But we should all be aware and think about the implications of these big changes for our project. We have said, rightfully and for years, that the structures of the GFA itself provide the best road forward. Yet now are we to remain unperturbed when the strategic context changes utterly?
It is clear, however, that even if the Assembly is prorogued there is a wealth of opportunities remaining open to us. If necessary, these must be fully and carefully explored to chart the best and most effective course forwards. Central to these opportunities must be a guarantee and a role for the free agency of Sinn Féin as the only unfailing voice for change. We must find ways to involve society in making these demands as they share an objective interest in the re-establishment of the GFA and our place in delivering that change. We must seek ways to make the promise of the Agreement itself and the parallel process of national reconciliation a central issue in the forthcoming election in the 26 Counties.
The Good Friday Agreement model took great care to parallel every representative structure with a participatory structure: the Six County Assembly with the Civic Forum, the All-Ireland Ministerial Council with the All-Ireland Civic Consultative Forum. The relevance and potential of these 'Social Partnership'-type structures to the past Social Partnership discussions are obvious yet went unnoticed across Irish civil society.
I read Declan Kearney's article (An Phoblacht 24 August). He correctly pointed to the ongoing counter-strategies that the two Governments have long been applying to the process. He also correctly pointed to two principal weaknesses we face: the lack of political consciousness of the strategy within the party, and popular disengagement. We need to further analyse these factors. Are they simply engineered by the two Governments and their media? I believe that this is too simple. Such social or cultural impediments have a material basis in our relative enrichment as a society but are also a result of our failure, not all our own fault, to make the Agreement relevant to the more deprived sectors of our society. Our failure to flesh out the social benefits of the Agreement on a localised basis itself reflects a lack of internalisation.
With a positive and generous spirit, we need to look critically at where party structures have failed to maximise the opportunities to drive forward an agenda of change with the power we have had, as well as where they have failed to stimulate the internalisation of strategy. Given the 'leadership-led' nature of the strategy to date, disengagement was an obvious risk and was widely anticipated. Attempts to engage at a local level and stimulate discussion on the All-Ireland and strategic aspects of the Agreement have, I believe, been relatively successful. However, the scale of the challenge facing the process of strategic internalisation might be illustrated by the fact that even some leadership figures saw the All-Ireland aspects and process as publicity adjuncts to party structural strategies. Overcoming our organisational gaps and strategic blanks and inculcating a more democratic and open means of party management to raise internal politicisation will help us reverse these negative factors.
To finish with the chess game metaphor: openings largely consist of developing all the pieces to bring them into the game - this is key to building success. The most complicated part of the game, however, is the mid-game where we move from the development of pieces to their collective strategic use, thereby forcing the opponent into a weaker position from which we can commence the endgame.