Tag Archives: six counties

Martin McGuinness & dispelling sectarianism

On my way back to Dublin with a parcel of other 13-year-olds from a three-month stay in the Gweedore Gaeltacht in 1961, I paid my first visit to Derry to switch from bus to train.

Even for a boy who was well used to seeing the Dublin tenements, Derry was like something out of the distant past. No sign of development or modernisation but all the signs of poverty. I particularly remember a street of single-storey cottages of the sort featured in old photos of 19th century evictions, maybe mud-walled. Hovels. Ragged children, and ragged mothers. Another country.

My parents had told me about that other country. During the war, freshly married and with no ready employment in Dublin, my father had got work with Thompson & Nutt’s motor works in Garvagh in Derry, reconditioning truck bodies at a time when no new trucks were available because of the war effort.

Son of a 1916 Volunteer, and a committed republican, he worked with a mainly Protestant work-force without any problems at all. When he was the subject of a serious external death-threat, it was his Protestant workmates who sent out the message that not a hair on his head was to be touched, and that was the end of the matter.

He stayed in touch with Thompson, Nutt and his workmates for decades after, and he and my mother made regular trips north of the border from then on.

So, they made sure their children knew from an early age what the set-up in the Protestant State for a Protestant people was, and the conditions I saw in Derry in 1961 confirmed that there was no place at the table for Catholic nationalists.

The six-counties didn’t have to be a sectarian state. That was a choice, and it wasn’t made just by six-county unionists, it was a choice made in Westminster, and sustained by Westminster. And it was a choice made in Dublin and sustained through studied neglect by Dublin. Better a hegemonic conservative Catholic 26-county state than a 32-county state in which Protestants would have to be accommodated.

When the civil rights marchers were assaulted by the RUC and Loyalists at Burntollet Bridge in 1969, no surprise. When Sammy Devenney died as a result of a gratuitous beating from the RUC in Derry, no surprise. When Bombay Street in Belfast was burned to the ground in the same year by a Loyalist mob with RUC support and we had a refugee family living with us in a normal three-bedroomed house in Dublin, no surprise. When Harold Wilson sent in the British Army and it turned on the nationalist community, no surprise. When that army slaughtered civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry, no surprise. When internment of nationalists, and torture, were carried out, no surprise. When the RUC, British Army and Loyalists colluded in the murders of nationalists, no surprise. When the Orange Order repeatedly paraded their bigotry on the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree Church year after year, without state sanction, no surprise.

When Martin McGuinness and others stood up to that repression having, of necessity, armed themselves to defend their people, no surprise.

And there is no surprise either in the brutality that ensued. That is war, wherever it occurs, and civilians always bear the brunt of it. The real crime is that it lasted for decades. That was the politics of failure. Or, more exactly, it was the politics of imperialist obduracy. Westminster was going to beat Irish nationalists back come hell or high water. Hell came and went, and high water too, but the republican movement was still standing its ground, still undefeated but without the possibility of fighting the sort of decisive battle that would drive the obdurate imperialists from Ireland. And even if that had been possible, full-blown civil war would have ensued, and the imperialists would have stoked that. They have form on this island in doing that.

Stalemate is not a solution. Achieving your ultimate ambition is a solution. For republicans, that ambition is the establishment of a true 32-county republic.

Every year republicans go to Bodenstown, to the grave of Wolfe Tone, one of the principal architects of Irish republicanism. They don’t go as a single body of republicans, but in separate groups because they have fallen out with one another. Internecine disputes become more important than realising the republican ambition.

Wolfe Tone, and the other Protestant men who founded the republican movement in Ireland, left a fundamental tenet of republicanism for us to follow. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”.

There is no other way to create a true republic encompassing all of this island than by following that tenet. No republican could over-ride the will of unionists by imposing a republic on them without their assent. No republican could even contemplate expelling the unionist population from the land so as to create a republic. If they did either of those things it would be self-defeating. It would not be a republic. It is therefore necessary to persuade unionists that they have nothing to fear from the sort of republic that their Protestant ancestors laid out in Belfast in 1791, but that they have much to gain from it.

That is the project that Martin McGuinness and the rest of the willing republican leadership and rank-and-file set out on over two decades ago. Others had and have a right to a different opinion and a right to resile from that decision. Many of us have had to swallow very hard when symbolic gestures were made by republicans that went against the grain, other than as part of an overall strategy of moving towards a ‘brotherhood of affection’, or to put it the other way a ’parity of esteem’.

As Sinn Féin engaged with the political process, the party was rightly criticised for not being sufficiently ‘of the left’. Republicanism is intrinsically of the left. James Connolly stated that to be republican was to be socialist and to be socialist was to be republican, that the two are the same in terms of the social, economic and political outcomes that they should produce if they are true to their doctrines.

But political progress depends on public support, and the fact is that on either side of the border the population is conservative in outlook and cautious in the face of change, the result of a century and more of exposure to right-wing, anti-republican, anti-socialist propaganda from church, state and press. Many of the social and economic problems that people on both sides of the border endure would be solved by the left, but still the left struggles for support.

One reason for that is the presence of often bitter internecine disputes across the left, between socialists and republicans but also within socialism and republicanism. The right unites to hold power, the left fractures all over the place to avoid power. Another crucial reason is the absence of any form of progressive national media, not just now but since the imposition of partition and the creation of two sectarian states. Solving the latter is probably far easier than solving the former.

Has progress been made north of the border over the past two decades? Have attitudes changed? Has sectarianism diminished? Have the two sides moved towards better accommodating one another? Has Brexit made a difference to the question of the border? Could Scottish independence play a part in moving the border question on? Would the English ditch the six-counties to concentrate on their own post-Brexit situation? Has the 26-county political class been forced to engage with the border question in a realistic way for the first time since 1922? Is it within the left’s capability, republican and socialist, to make significant political advances over the next five or ten years on either side of the ridiculous border? Is it more possible than it was twenty years ago to imagine that republican vision that Tone and the other Protestant republicans had, coming into being?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is yes.

Are we significantly closer to “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”?


His detractors will not acknowledge Martin McGuinness’s contribution to that progress, but I do.

That snapshot I saw of a filthy sectarian six-county state in 1961, and the filthy sectarian 26-county state that I was going home to, are memories.

It is a very different country.

And I am grateful for that.

Work done, Martin McGuinness. Rest in peace.

Work to do, for the rest of us.

Forge unity to create Irish Republic – a moral duty

In a recent video interview, Liam Sutcliffe, veteran republican activist with the IRA and Saor Éire, and one of those responsible for removing the blight of Nelson’s Column from outside the GPO in 1966, was asked how he felt about the split between the Provisionals and the Officials. His answer was that “I thought the whole thing was wrong…I’d never take part in any split again in my life…the thing about it was there were great men on both sides…in the long run we never got an extra blade of grass, and all the deaths, all the hunger strikers…we’re still twenty-six and six”.

The lack of unity, the tendency to split, the failure to forge suitable alliances, the absence of clear purpose and strategy, the failure to do the nuts and bolts work, the concentration on ending partition by driving the English out of Ireland as if that on its own was the means to some end worth having, has meant that we are still twenty-six and six, two failed statelets, instead of the 32 county Irish Republic that republicans claim to be committed to achieving.

It is not as if Irish republicans have not had enough time to correct these tendencies, to produce a tangible explanation of the sort of republic they had in mind, and to communicate these ideas in an effective way to all of the people on both sides of the border. It is now almost 98 years since the Irish Republic was proclaimed, 95 years since the National Programme was agreed, and 92 years since the start of the counter-revolution following the signing and ratification of the Treaty.

But it is not just Irish republicans who are at fault. Irish socialists have demonstrated the same propensity for a lack of unity, a tendency to split, a failure to forge suitable alliances, an absence of clear purpose and strategy, and a failure to do the nuts and bolts work to create the sort of society they claim to be in favour of. Presumably the political framework of that society would be, at least until some better model might be found sometime in the future, a republic.

What should bind republicans and socialists are James Connolly, Liam Mellows and other socialist republican thinkers and activists who shared the common vision of the Workers’ Republic. In fact, as Connolly put it – to be a republican is to be a socialist, and to be a socialist is to be a republican. When Connolly signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic he did so as a socialist republican, and in that document, with his ideological fingerprints all over it, he left the ways and means of achieving the Workers’ Republic to us, republicans and socialists. Thus far we have failed to live up to the task.

In 1897, Connolly published an important piece, ‘Érin’s Hope’, a taste of his writings yet to come. In that, Connolly addressed the issue that some misguided people on the left have found fault with him on, making the spurious charge that he abandoned socialism for nationalism – a risible charge. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin later agreed with Connolly’s position, stating that in history there had never been one example of a ‘pure’ revolution. Discussing the requirements for successful revolution Connolly wrote “we will have based our revolutionary movement upon a correct appreciation of the needs of the hour, as well as upon the vital principles of economic justice and uncompromising nationality; we will, as the true revolutionist should ever do, have called into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent”.

In 1916, the ‘forces and factors’ were present: republicans, socialists, feminists, militant-separatists, advanced nationalists, cultural nationalists and so on. They united in common cause, and representatives of each of these tendencies share a common plot in Glasnevin Cemetery – the Republican Plot.

Those “forces and factors of social and political discontent” have never been absent during the 92 years of hegemonic right-wing counter-revolution since the signing of the Treaty. They are present today in abundance – various republican parties and groups, socialist parties and groups, social, economic and political grassroots movements, feminists, human rights and peace activists, environmentalists, resources and sovereignty activists, and so on. It is possible to craft a unity of purpose among many or even most of these strands of discontent and dissidence provided a common platform based on a vision of justice, freedom, equality and sovereignty can be agreed. The Irish Republic is the ideal starting point for that.

Today, there is no call for any to sacrifice their lives for the Irish Republic. Instead there is a need to sacrifice: personal pride and ego; rigid political dogma; antagonism based on real or imagined hurt or on misunderstanding or misapprehension; the desire to continue an armed struggle that can achieve nothing of use at this time.

The fight to end partition needs to move south of the border, and needs to move from the physical to the intellectual. It requires the ending of counter-revolutionary misgovernment of the twenty-six and the creation of an ideal model of citizen-driven government to trump colonial government in the six. Who could seriously suggest to the Unionist/Loyalist minority on the island that they should be part of the banana-non-republic of the south? Certainly not any republican or socialist in their right minds. But putting in place a proper republic, with all of the necessary guarantees and all of the obvious advantages in plain view, is the most efficacious strategy for withering partition and uniting the people of the 32 counties. Scottish Independence, if it can be achieved, will help in that.

Achieving a rapid transformation in the twenty-six will require clear communication to the public of both the existence of a workable strategy to put in place a proper republic and of the benefits that would flow to the great majority from such a republic. That requirement entails working around and in confrontation with existing main-stream media using creative communications strategies. That does not present a problem, but is just an important issue to be dealt with.

History has given us a significant centenary in two years time to use to our advantage in moving public opinion towards the development of a proper republic of equals. We can take advantage of that over the two short years leading up to it, or, as has been the case with other opportunities over the past 92 years, we can squander it. It is to our advantage that even among those who have not read the Proclamation yet, or who have forgotten its wording, or who have not had its promises and implications explained to them, there is still a strong emotional bond with it on the part of many citizens.

Taking advantage of the Centenary of the 1916 Revolution requires us to lay out precisely what sort of republic we have in mind. The principles of that republic are contained in the Proclamation and in the National Programme that was created from that template. If we are to demonstrate our serious intent, our openness and our honesty, these principles need to be expanded in a new, comprehensive Peoples’ Constitution of the Irish Republic.

Writing a new constitution is not rocket science, nor should it be a task entrusted to some ‘elite’ group. There are various constitutions already in place elsewhere in the world to be used as examples, but none more suitable as a model or in its content than the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, initiated by Hugo Chavez but drawn up with the input of the people at every stage. Irish republicans and socialists would do well to read that great socialist-republican constitution from the source of the New Enlightenment – Latin America.

In 14 years of dedicated work underpinned by a vision of a better life for all, Chavez and his people transformed the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the abused, the marginalised of Venezuelan society in a way that was unimaginable at the beginning of the revolution. By contrast, in 92 years since quasi-independence, Irish republicans and Irish socialists have failed to lift the poor, the oppressed, the abused and the marginalised of Irish society out of their collective miserable grind – on both sides of the border. That failure is inexcusable. That failure cannot persist.

The first stage in dispelling that failure requires a concerted effort to drive from power the reactionaries who have between them held power in the twenty-six since 1922. Making that effort was never just an option – it was a moral duty, and it is still, today, a moral duty. It demands the putting aside of childish one-upmanship, the spurious notion that ‘my ideas are better than your ideas and my ideas must prevail’, opting instead for the creation of an agreed, shared, broad-left platform designed to complete the revolution for the benefit of all of the people of this island, equally.

Let us take our lead from James Connolly. Let us call “into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent”. Let us start that work now.

Create the Republic to Unify the People

A conundrum that seems to beset some Irish republicans concerns both the Irish Republic and reunification of the island, and the issue of which of these must come first. Some argue that the republic can only exist in a unified 32 County Irish State. They most often use the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as justification for that stance, but to do so allows Britain, or more precisely the English establishment, to maintain a semi-permanent barrier to both the republic and reunification by continuing to manipulate public opinion in the Six Counties, and political opinion, and consequently public opinion, in the 26 Counties.

The Proclamation states ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people’. Adopting the approach to resolving the conundrum of ‘republic first or unification first?’ that is suggested in this article does not alter that declaration one jot, or the desire that is evidently present among a significant majority of the Irish people that it should so come to pass.

It is an unfortunate, inescapable fact that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, imposed under threat of terrible war, partitioned Ireland by creating a border between the six north-eastern counties and the rest of the island. Despite the desire of a majority of the people on this island ever since to see the border removed, and despite almost three decades of war between the republican movement and Britain in the most recent campaign, there has been no change to the territorial status of either entity.

It has suited the political class north and south of the border to maintain this status quo. In the north, unionist domination of a nationalist minority prevailed from partition to the Good Friday Agreement when its worst aspects were ameliorated, while in the south what was effectively an ultra-conservative Catholic State was maintained through from 1922 to the 1990s when it finally morphed into a full-blown plutarchy, a combination of plutocracy and oligarchy – never a republic, despite the spurious description. This situation allowed for a carving up of political, administrative and professional posts along sectarian lines on either side of the border, and allowed for two entities in which right-wing regressive policies could be pursued, benefiting the upper middle class, large farmers and business, and the wealthy in both societies.

To any rational mind, the border must have seemed, from the outset, a ridiculous concept – unless the selfish interests of the English establishment and local self-interest in both parts of Ireland demanded the suspension of rational thought. For the English, the border provided a way to weaken any prospect of an independent Irish economy threatening British economic interests. For the northern unionists, the border provided the means by which the Unionist Party could maintain its hold on power, its dispensing of privilege and therefore wealth on a social class basis, and its domination of an antagonistic minority –  northern nationalists including republicans. For the southern political class, from independence through to today, the border allowed for the creation of a hegemonic capitalist state aided by an extreme form of the Catholic church, organised along ultramontanist lines, whose use to the political class was, among other things, its capacity and determination to inculcate obedience to authority into the citizens of the state, the vast majority of whom were Catholics, and its absolute rejection of the validity of either socialism or republicanism which suited the interests of the political, professional and business ‘elite’.

What partition has given us today is a small island with a contrived, porous border that distorts the political, social and economic life of both entities, demands two separate civil administrations and a duplication of the full range of public services, operates with two different currencies and tax systems, and two often very different legal systems and sets of legislation and regulation. That porous border creates a black economy on both sides, damaging local business and farming interests, diminishing tax revenue receipts, and thereby cumulatively affecting employment and economic expansion. It separates cities, towns and villages from their natural hinterlands. But worst of all, that border has divided the Irish people, not just northern Protestants and Dissenters from their southern Catholic counterparts, but as the recent presidential debates in the South showed, the citizens of the 26 Counties from those ‘north of the border’. Over the past 90 years partitionist thinking, and suspicion of the ‘other’ has become embedded among elements on both sides of the border.

In those circumstances, getting rid of that border so as to reunify the island is impossible in the short term, highly unlikely in the medium term and problematic in the long term – as long as the status quo in both parts of the island remains more or less the same. What would change that is a radical transformation in either or both parts of the island. There has been change north of the border in recent years, not enough to satisfy some, but it is incremental and reasonably progressive. If the North wrests economic independence from Whitehall that could speed up the rate of change. But south of the border, despite the virtual annihilation of Fianna Fáil at the recent general election, no change. The emperor is dead, long live the emperor. The right-wing political hegemony persists, albeit wearing the fig-leaf of Labour Party participation in a government determined to follow the diktats of the Goldman Sachs dominated EU.

If those ‘republicans’ who insist on no Irish Republic prior to the eradication of the border have their way, then not only will the border stay put for a very long time, but the 26 Counties will likely remain a hegemonic right-wing plutarchy. If the border is an absurdity, then equally absurd is the belief that a northern unionist, or a northern nationalist for that matter, would want to be part of such a corrupt, regressive plutarchy as is the southern state, that falsely describes itself as a republic when it is patently not.

There is a way of speeding up the whole process. It involves a radical transformation that lies within the collective power of the citizens of the southern state to achieve, if they have a mind to do it. Given the on-going destruction of our economy and with it the extreme social disruption that that has caused a sufficient number of citizens may be much more amenable to consider radical options than they might have been in the past. That way of speeding up transformational change is to put back into place in the 26 Counties the Irish Republic as outlined in the Proclamation of 1916, ratified in the Declaration of the first Dáil in 1919, and in suspension since the passing into law of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922.

In the history of the independent Irish state there has never been a more auspicious time to place the Irish Republic on the table as a major part of the process of reunifying the people of this small island. The election of a new president whose main election pledge was to work towards creating for the first time since independence a ‘true republic’ provides one opening for discussing what the Irish Republic outlined in paragraph four of the Proclamation might offer, not just to the citizens of the southern state, but to the people of the island as a whole. A series of centenaries of key moments and events in modern Irish history will occur over the next four years which will inevitably involve consideration of the various ‘isms’ – nationalism and unionism, republicanism and socialism, feminism, sectarianism, and so on.

In considering these things, it will be important to go further back in history, to the late 18th century and to the aims and objectives of the Society of the United Irishmen, and the Society’s origins among Protestants and Dissenters, mainly in the northeast of the island. Arising out of that, the imp of sectarianism will need to be confronted, and its origins in the machinations of the English coloniser , acknowledged in paragraph four of the Proclamation. In other words, the English succeeded through fomenting sectarianism from 1795 using the newly created Orange Order to turn the importers into Ireland of Enlightenment republicanism, Protestants and Dissenters, into becoming unionists, dividing them in the process from the Catholic majority. There lies the origins of partition.

The ethos of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic springs directly from the ethos of the United Irishmen of – “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”. Written in the main by Protestants and Dissenters, it is echoed in the text of paragraph four of the Proclamation, updated to address Irish women as well as Irish men – ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’. No better guarantee of Liberty, Equality and Community than this to be found, and it is a legacy left by the Protestants and Dissenters – and Catholics – of the 18th century to all of the people of the island today.

None of the above should be taken to imply that the process of bringing the northern unionist population to consider the potential of having direct input into the shaping of a new republic will be simple or easy. There is the central question of personal and national identity, no simple thing to deal with in any community. Understanding why and how unionism in its modern maifestation came into being and how it was developed through to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and beyond, and whether its central aim can be realised at a time when the British government is implicitly showing a willingness to disengage from the northern state for, of course, its own selfish reasons, can and should be explored during the centenary of the Ulster Covenant in 2012. The question to be asked of Ulster unionists is what ‘ism’ will replace unionism if the link with Britain is substantially broken, as it will be.

Ulster unionists are descended substantially from the Plantation of Ulster by mainly Scottish ‘settlers’ imposed by the English on lands owned by the indigenous Irish people. The Protestant people of the six counties are most often described as ‘Ulster-Scots’. It is well worth exploring the possibilities of forging a strong alliance between an independent Scotland – with the possibility that it will be a Scottish Republic – and a 32 county Irish Republic,  and of this connection being the source of a realignment of the main source of identity for northern unionists while simultaneously acknowledging the very strong connection over thousands of years between the people of Scotland and the people of Ireland. Such a solution, part of a very progressive Green Party policy document on resolving the conflict in the north in the mid 1990s, that regrettably fell at the last hurdle of ratification by the party, would represent a win-win solution for Irish nationalists and unionists and for Scottish nationalists and unionists.

How to engage Ulster unionists in the process of dismantling an absurd border? The answer lies in demonstrating serious intent to construct in the 26 counties a true republic that protects religious and civil liberties, that aims to create the conditions not just for prosperity for its citizens but their happiness too, that guarantees to treat all citizens equally and in a just and fair manner, and that sees all of the children of the nation – all of them – as the greatest resource for the future, to be encouraged and fostered in their development to full citizenship through progressive and enlightened policies.

The greatest prize for the republic would be the active participation in all decision-making and implementation of policy of the people of the six north-eastern counties, Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter and people of other religions and none, with their particular attributes and characteristics adding to the governance of a republic owned by its citizens for the benefit of all and the exclusion of none. When those voices from the north are part of a national parliament and administration the revolution will be complete, and the vision of the United Irishmen, kept alive by the revolutionaries of 1916 in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, can at last be realised.

The conundrum resolved, and important work to be done. The prize is worth it. Let’s start talking.

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