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28 September 2000 Edition

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Republicanism after Good Friday

We carry here an extract from Daltún Ó Ceallaigh's book `Irish Republicanism - Good Friday and After'.

Illegitimacy of `Northern Ireland'

A military analogy would be to say that to parachute behind enemy lines is not to surrender
Before the Good Friday Document, the six counties were an undemocratic, illegitimate and failed political entity, and after it they remain so. The Document is a testament to that. Its special provisions for power-sharing in the Executive, checks and balances in the Assembly, measures against discrimination, and an all-Ireland Ministerial Council confirm the true nature, status and dysfunctionality of `Northern Ireland'. Nowhere else in `these islands' and almost nowhere else in Europe can such distinctive arrangements be found. And all this is not surprising. It follows from what Professor Joe Lee of UCC constantly reminds us: that `Northern Ireland' was created by naked force against the will of the Irish people in general and northern nationalists in particular, and on the basis of seizing the largest amount of territory which unionists could safely dominate, irrespective of the wishes of the local inhabitants, most markedly in counties such as Fermanagh and Tyrone. So, does the Good Friday Document nonetheless open up possibilities for progressing the republican cause?

Good Friday Document and Consent

The Document commences with a Declaration which is largely rhetorical, yet useful in setting a tone of hope, initiative, reconciliation and commitment.

The Declaration also goes beyond this in one Paragraph to confirm the interlocking and interdependent character of institutional and constitutional structures, such as the Assembly and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council, a point which is repeated and emphasised elsewhere in the Document.

Then it proceeds to Constitutional Issues. Among other things, this Part calls for recognition of ``the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland''. It goes on to say that ``it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland''.

Next it requires acknowledgement that ``the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people''.

Republican Position

This view of consent and self-determination is impossible for a republican to accept; to do so would amount to political abjuration and ideological suicide. Gerry Adams summed up the appropriate reaction at the reconvened Ard Fheis of Sinn Féin in May 1998 when he said: ``When the vote was taken [on the Good Friday Document on that day in 1998] I did not vote'' and ``we do not accept the legitimacy of the six county statelet. And we never will.'' This is because, as he later indicated, it ``rests on the gerrymander of partition and is thus a violation of the principle of democracy and a denial of the right of the Irish people as a whole to freely resolve their own destiny. We held, and hold, that Ireland is the valid constituency for mapping out the future of the people of the island, and without external interference. However, it is not feasible to proceed in that way immediately, not least because of the attitude of the British government. So, we must see how we can advance the position without a negation of principle. No other party has been asked to abandon its philosophy and analysis. Nor will we abandon ours and there is nothing in the Document which compels us do so. There is no affirmation or action required in it which can be construed as binding one to the Document's flawed definition of self-determination.''

Seeking the endorsement by republicans of this section without qualification is like asking unionists to subscribe unreservedly to the Declaration of Independence of 1919. In particular, the reference to the absence of ``external impediment'' is belied by the imposition of bifurcated ballots and majorities on the Irish people.

In response to Gerry Adams' speech, Labour luminary Dick Spring was characteristically first out to defend the unionist veto and suggested that all those who had voted ``yes'' had definitely endorsed the pseudo-self-determination of the Good Friday Document. Bertie Ahern had not been much better when he came on television after the referenda to say that the Irish people had accepted partition, but then this may be true enough for the leadership of Fianna Fáil. In fact, to portray the votes of 22 May 1998 as an instance of self-determination by the people of Ireland is an attempt at a massive exercise in public deception along the lines of Joseph Goebbels that if you tell a lie, tell a big enough one and tell it often enough, especially through mass media, it will come to be believed through a process of sheer mental weariness.

The conflict in Ireland has been about the establishment of a sovereign, united, all-island State. Yet, that was the one option not put to the people in the superimposed separate constituencies. Even the rabidly anti-republican Eilis O'Hanlon had to admit that the vote was ``one heavily circumscribed so as not to alarm sensitive orange souls''.

Media & Mowlam on Document

John Waters spelt it out more fully. ``It seems obvious to me that what happened on May 22nd was not an exercise in national self-determination. Such an exercise would have required the same questions about the nature of government on this island to be asked North and South, and would have been followed by a pooling of the results in both jurisdictions to provide a single answer.

``If May 22nd had been a genuine exercise in national self-determination, the British army would now be in the process of withdrawing from the North, because a majority of the Irish nation would have expressed a democratic desire for this to occur.''

Both Waters and even some other, less critical, media commentators have grasped that the Document does not have to be fully affirmed in order to be positively utilised. Mo Mowlam also effectively conceded this in the British House of Commons when she said that ``most of the people will, in their heart of hearts, cherry-pick. No one is signing up to 100 per cent''.

In fact, If there is a ``right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means'', there is also a logical right to adhere to an interpretation justifying such change, viz that `Northern Ireland' is an unjust fabrication which should be superseded. It is in that light that the institutions and progressive constitutional opportunities in the Document should be taken advantage of as far as possible.

Referenda & Self-determination

The point about the defective nature of the referenda is brought out more specifically by reference to the situation in the twenty-six counties. The people there were deprived of the opportunity to choose among key elements of the Document (e.g. amendment of Articles 2 & 3 of the Constitution, on the one hand, and of Article 29 to establish a North-South Ministerial Council, on the other). The majority of people throughout Ireland who voted ``yes'' actually included many (probably most) republicans because of the further diminution in the Act of Union entailed in the Ministerial Council.

It is thus impossible to deduce from such an affirmative result that everybody so voting accepted the unionist veto and the measure of British power that will continue to be exercised over the six counties in the immediate future. Therefore, to say that those who continue to reject the veto and such British interference are thus going against the democratic wishes of a majority of the people of Ireland is an unsustainable argument.

Indeed, many of them would then be accused in effect of going against their own vote!

In other words, in their anxiety to secure endorsement of the Document, the powers that be produced a state of affairs whereby they cannot soundly claim that all aspects of it, including key ones for them, have been agreed to.

All that can be safely concluded is that a majority saw in the Document hopes of moving the situation forward. Probably, for some this meant assenting to the entire text, while for others it signified accepting only parts of it. But it will not be feasible to ascertain how many ended up in either camp. Such a vote cannot therefore be construed as a signal that the Document is generally viewed as a final settlement as distinct from an interim accommodation.

However, if a coup de grace were needed for the pretence of Irish national self-determination on 22 May 1998, it was given on 11 February 2000 when a British Secretary of State unilaterally, and thus against the wishes of nationalists and the Irish Government, suspended the main institutions set up as a result of the Good Friday Document.

Republican Participation in Assembly

And republican participation in the Assembly, Executive, and so on, is not an acquiescence in `Northern Ireland's' legitimacy so much as a limited and realistic step taken in a transition towards national democracy and not without linkage to all-Ireland provisions. A distinction should be drawn between the illegitimacy of the entity and the legitimacy of the exceptional arrangements (power-sharing etc) instituted for the conduct of public affairs. In other words, the first is confirmed by the second. Looked at another way, what is involved is a paradox of decolonisation. A military analogy would be to say that to parachute behind enemy lines is not to surrender.

Nonetheless, it has been alleged by dissident republicans that Sinn Féin is actually helping to implement British rule in the north. But that is false in more ways than one. Sinn Féin Ministers have had to take no oath of allegiance to the Crown (unlike their counterparts in Scotland and Wales); they give no other fealty to it; and they will implement no policy and perform no act (including flag-flying) which will serve to confirm or consolidate Crown rule. But there is day to day administration to be carried out in any form of polity under the headings of education and health, and so on. Children have to be taught to read and write; the sick have to be cared

for. That has nothing essentially to do with Crown rule. But it is still better that in Ireland it should be done by Irish people. More generally, just as Sinn Féin Ministers will otherwise contribute to nothing in the Executive to entrench British rule, neither will any Sinn Féin member in the Assembly.

Consent & Majority

In continuing to reject British interference in Ireland, it has also been alleged by some unionists that their presence is thus being rejected. That is not so now anymore than it was previously. There is no desire on the part of republicans to eject any native of Ireland or prevent whoever on the island wants to call him or her-self British from doing so or from attempting to realise that attitude socially, culturally and politically by any legal and democratic means, including the holding of British citizenship. Repudiating British interference means opposing the exercise of power by the British Government and Parliament to any extent over any part of Ireland. Such power is a distinct fact and quite different from the rights and entitlements of unionists and those who choose to classify themselves as British.

However, while republicans cannot accept that the consent of a majority in the six counties is necessary in principle in order to bring about Irish unity, should it be achievable in practice, it is hardly objectionable as a means towards an end. Insofar as Irish unity is not going to come into being tomorrow, whatever about the diminution of British sovereignty over the north involved in the Ministerial Council, consideration ought to be given to how potentially to make progress towards northern majority consent. Some commentators purport to see this outlook as convoluted. However, there is nothing really complicated about it. A simple analogy will suffice. If something is stolen from a person and the offender can be induced to give it back, well and good. But that does not mean that an offence has not been committed in the first place and that restitution is not needed. That is the basic situation regarding the national democratic rights of northern nationalists.

It seems obvious to me that what happened on May 22nd was not an exercise in national self-determination. Such an exercise would have required the same questions about the nature of government on this island to be asked North and South

There is no desire on the part of republicans to eject any native of Ireland or prevent whoever on the island wants to call him or her self British from doing so


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