15 May 2008 Edition
Ireland Institute Public Meetings: The State of the Nation
Realising the aspirations of the United Irishmen
BY ELLA O’DWYER
THE second of two public meetings held in the Ireland Institute last Thursday, 8 May, heard the views of prominent journalist Frank Connolly and historian Dr Mary Cullen on ‘The State of the Nation’.
The meeting was chaired by the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Eugene McCartan.
Journalist Frank Connolly recalled his role as Northern editor of The Sunday Business Post in the years leading up to and after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He also referred to Irish Times former Northern Editor Deaglán de Bréadún’s recently republished book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, and the approach of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and senior officials in Dublin during the tortuous negotiations leading to and in the years since the agreement.
“Deaglán de Bréadún records unnamed senior Dublin sources as stating that the key objective of the government was to stop the killing and that almost any concession could be promised if republicans, in particular, would stop the armed campaign,” Frank Connolly said.
“Now this might be a noble objective but it was certainly less than the aspirations outlined in a sequence of documents stretching from the Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Document of 1994 and (after the disastrous introduction of the John Bruton-endorsed Mayhew Three Washington Principles) subsequently in the Good Friday and Weston Park agreements.
“It is worth noting that at crucial times in recent years the process has been characterised by a withdrawal by Dublin, and by Bertie Ahern in particular, from the process to such an extent that Sinn Féin even complained that it was being left up to them to negotiate with the Blair government on behalf of Irish nationalism.
“The early promise of the ‘pan nationalist front’, which first emanated from the Hume/Adams discussions in the late 1980s has long since been abandoned and the basis upon which republicans and indeed nationalists across the island were asked to abandon the historic claim in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution has equally disappeared.
“That may not all be bad and indeed no Irish government had ever sought to actively enforce the constitutional claim in any meaningful way since de Valera introduced it in his 1937 Constitution and it can be argued that the deal currently on the table, but as yet undelivered, remains the best on offer.
“If the promised devolution of justice and policing powers are transferred in a reasonably short time frame, we could be closer to the type of acceptable agreement envisaged all those years ago.”
The critical parts that Peter Robinson’s attitude as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and the equally new Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s consistency were crucial aspects touched on by Frank Connolly.
“If Peter Robinson can face down the same elements that prematurely ended the political career of Ian Paisley, and if he does not revert to a cautious unionist or a ‘battle a day’ approach, then continued progress can be made.
“In particular, if the new administration led by Brian Cowen can do what he promised as Foreign Minister to do – and urgently and enthusiastically delivers an all-island economic, political, social and cultural agenda – then the concerns of many that the Irish Government took its foot off the pedal after achieving its aim of an IRA ceasefire and decommissioning may be eased.”
Taoiseach Charles J Haughey’s historic failure to engage with Sinn Féin was raised by Frank Connolly.
“De Breadún also mentions the failure of Charles Haughey to make the moves, as advised by Tim Pat Coogan and others, to at least contact Sinn Féin during his time as Taoiseach from 1987 to 1992.
“Haughey was afraid to make the move and said he would disown even the ‘at length’ contacts with Gerry Adams finally agreed through Fr Alex Reid and others.
“De Breadún speculates that perhaps Haughey was influenced by the knowledge that he had secreted millions of pounds in hidden accounts in the British-controlled Cayman Islands. Perhaps he feared some form of retribution if he pushed his self-professed nationalist ideals too far, the author suggests. Now that is an interesting observation given recent tribunal inquiries about alleged dollar and sterling amounts floating through Bertie Ahern’s various accounts during his time as Finance Minister between 1992 and 1994, and since.”
Dr Mary Cullen brought an historian’s perspective to the analysis of ‘The State of the Nation’ in modern times when she traced the aspiration for the achievement of the ‘common good’ that she identified as a core principle of republicanism from the United Irishmen to the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. She challenged us all to take a proactive role in the establishment of policies that would secure that aspiration.
Dr Cullen also addressed the “us and them” factor that has, for generations, militated against the realisation of that aspiration in this country.
Mary Cullen asked what, if anything, can people in the 26 Counties do to address the mentality of “us and them” and suggested that we look at the origins of that mind-set.
“There is a kind of Catholic versus Protestant, nationalist versus unionist, divide in the North in terms of identity going back a very long way. Religion became a political issue in Ireland at the time of the Reformation for various political and economic reasons. Governments were trying to consolidate their areas and their power.”
Cullen identifies “the social, political and economic factors” at work at the time as very much the source of the “us and them” mentality she referred to.
Cullen then looked at the history of Irish republicanism and Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen.
“They were aiming at securing better government, to get rid of widespread corruption existing all over Europe even then and to unite the people of Ireland, replacing the names Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter by the common name of Irish.”
She referred to a fellow historian, the late Desmond Greaves, whose analysis of the political make-up of society of Ireland in the early part of the 20th century identified “a bourgeois Home Rule movement, the socialist strand of the trade union movement as spearheaded by the likes of James Connolly and then the in- between group: the petit bourgeoisie who wanted independence and change but had no policies to do it.
“We need much more analysis of the interaction between these groups,” Dr Cullen said. “So much of what is written about history has been intensely divided between political, economic and social historical categories, which to me really doesn’t make much sense.
“The history of Irish republicanism is many-faceted. The interaction of the social, political and economic realities and ideas are intertwined and can’t be put in separate categories.”
Mary Cullen said “ideas of the common good and inclusion” run right through Irish republican history.
“We can make our best contribution to the realisation of that aspiration by trying to develop the kinds of policies that can bring it about.”
And by taking part in public debate, she added, “we’re making our own contribution to the development of political thought”.