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|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: November, 2015|
|By: Brendan Clifford|
The Adventures of Sinn Fein
|The Adventures of Sinn Fein
Irish Times columnist and Professor of History at UCD, Diarmaid Ferriter exhorts us to Resist The Hijacking Of History During Centenary Events (IT, 26 Sept.).
What hijacker is lurking about and plotting to take the Insurrection, the Election, and the War of Independence away from us? What force has developed in the state forged by those events that has the interest and the ability to hijack them if we are not on the alert to prevent it?.
We can only think of the History Department of Trinity College—an institution of the State that was broken by the events whose centenaries are coming, but which kept hanging on. It has the interest certainly. But the ability? It shot its bolt too soon. David Fitzpatrick, Peter Hart, Joost Augusteijn bombarded us with the concocted revelations of the Trinity History Workshop ten or fifteen years ago and the effects of their explosions has dissipated.
It seems that the events will be celebrated in accordance with the understanding that everybody had of them before "modern scholarship" got to work on them.
The middle event of the three will not be celebrated of course—the Election. But that too is traditional. The Election, in these times of pedantic democracy, should be regarded as the most important of the three. But it is also the most awkward of the three because of questions it raises about Britain.
1916 and 1919-21 were "armed struggle", and Britain has no difficulty with that. Armed rebellion—Bang,Bang,Bang—compromise. And for the past thirty years Britain has been re-writing our history of it to its own advantage, and Irish academics have on the whole played along. Armed rebels cannot be given what they demand straight away. They must be resisted, if only to discover how much they really represent, before a settlement is made with them. But—— an Election ? Can voters be put on a par with gunmen? Especially in an Election called by Britain a few days after it had won the Great War for democracy and the rights of small nations?
Britain made war on the Irish electorate after it voted to establish independent government in Ireland. And what can be said about that in an academic situation substantially hegemonised by British academia? It is an awkward moral fact about Britain, the effusively moral founder of modern democracy.
The inclination is to grant Britain itself an exemption from the rules of the democracy which it devised for the modern world, and which it has been actively imposing on the world by armed struggle in recent times. But, for decency's sake, the exemption should be granted discreetly, under cover of a fig leaf. And how can that be done with an Election organised and policed by Britain itself at the moment when, at the cost of a dozen million lives, it had made democracy and the rights of small nations the dominant order of things in the world?
It can't be done. So the best thing for all concerned is to drop the Election from the historiographical record, and just deal with the Bang-Bang aspect of things, with which the British conscience can rest easy. The morality of the moralist should not be probed too closely.
An English Professor at University College Cork, Geoffrey Roberts, suggested, as a measure of reconciliation, that a memorial at the site of the Kilmichael Ambush should honour the Auxiliaries who were shooting up the countryside for good money alongside the IRA men who put a stop to them. That proved to be a step too far, or too soon, but it is the direction in which things have been progressing for a generation.
Professor Roberts is, or was, a member of the British Communist Party. In his basic British dimension he is a strict anti-revisionist. In the Irish context he is a thorough revisionist. What anti-revisionism means in England is upholding the Churchillian view of things with regard to the period in question. Translated into an Irish context that becomes a thoroughgoing revisionism.
The subordinating of Irish history to English interest, especially with regard to the 1916-21 period, has been interrupted by the surge of patriotic feeling that has suddenly overcome so many of the time-servers. But, in order that the revisionist process might resume in few years, the patriotism must impose limits on itself. It can wave flags with abandon. But it must not allow itself to stray into the realm of thought. Professor Ferriter's warning about hijackers is timely.
The substance of the warning is that Sinn Fein must not be allowed to hijack the Sinn Fein revolution during the next few centenary years when a degree of prudent patriotism is in order.
Why did a varnish of patriotism suddenly become desirable? Obviously because of the resurgence of Sinn Fein.
A resurgence of Sinn Fein in the 21st century! How could such a thing have happened? Sinn Fein is obsolete—comprehensively superseded. It had its moment, and then history moved on to better things. Isn't that what we thought—what we think—even though it is patently not the case?
The Sinn Fein Party founded in 1918 won the 1918 Election and between 1919 and 1921 it set up an Irish state. In the first half of 1922 that Sinn Fein Party was broken by the British Government by a combination of concession and extreme intimidation. The State of 1919-21 was set up without British permission and did not recognise British authority. That State was destroyed in 1922-3 and a new State was set up in its place by a section of Sinn Fein acting on British authority and supplied with British arms.
The section of Sinn Fein that set up the Treaty State in 1922 ceased to be Sinn Fein in the course of doing so, but it never after quite knew what else it was.
The opponents of the Treaty remained Sinn Fein until the mid-1920s. They were crushed militarily in the Treaty War but quickly began to pick up popular support again at the end of it. But a proposal to destroy the Treaty State from within, by participating in its Parliament with a view to republicanising it, led to a split. The supporters of this policy, failing to get a majority in the party for it, withdrew and formed Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein supported Fianna Fail during the next few years, until it won the 1932 Election in the Treaty State, consolidated its position with victory in the 1933 Election, and set about repealing all traces of the Crown from public life.
The Treaty Party (Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael) during its last period in Government (1927-31) conducted a fierce "law and order" campaign against Fianna Fail/IRA. This campaign led to a decisive shift of the body politic away from the Treaty to Fianna Fail/IRA.
The object of that last Treatyite campaign was no delusion. Fianna Fail/IRA actually existed as a functional de facto alliance.
There was a peaceful transition of political power from the Treaty Party to the Anti-Treaty Party in 1932. The existence of a well-organised and highly motivated IRA was an element that was conducive to peaceful transition.
The Treaty Government did not have an actual monopoly of military force. It had defeated the IRA in territorial warfare in 1922-23 but had failed to achieve the unconditional surrender on which its heart was set. All it achieved was a de facto Ceasefire and Dump Arms by the IRA.
The Fianna Fail split with Sinn Fein then produced a very irritating situation for the Government. Fianna Fail entered the Constitutional politics of the Treaty State by subterfuge without losing the support of an Army that was not the Army of the state whose political life it had entered.
The Treatyites might say "Fianna Fail/IRA", and be right about it in substance—but Fianna Fail was not the IRA. It was in the happy position of being able to be constitutional within the Treaty State without being powerless against the Treaty Army if ever the need to contest the issue with it by force arose.
And the Treaty Army was not what it had been when Michael Collins put it together in 1922. He had cajoled part of the IRA into the Treaty Army with the story that, once he got the British off his back, and was his own man in the Free State, he would begin to dismantle the Treatyite form of the State and re-republicanise it. But soon after he launched the Treaty War, he seemed to be disoriented by the way it was working out, and he got himself killed in a wild escapade by which he hoped to end it. His successors repudiated his schemes. And those to whom the Treaty had been sold as a Republican manoeuvre were disillusioned.
The actual condition of peaceful transition in 1932 was a confrontation of two Parties, each of which had an Army at its disposal. The Treaty Party could not have chosen to use its Government monopoly of military force to keep Fianna Fail out of Office after it gained a Dail majority, because it did not have a monopoly of physical force—and by its conduct it had been demoralising its own army.
After the Treaty Party lost the 1933 Election, it reorganised itself into a Fascist party, Fine Gael, and raised a Fascist militia, the Blueshirts. The purpose of this was to prevent Communism from taking over the State. The Treaty leaders seem to have convinced themselves, on the basis of very little evidence, that the IRA had become the Irish agent of Moscow Communism and that it was using Fianna Fail as a respectable front behind which it could get control of the State.
With such an understanding of the situation, how could they have justified themselves in allowing Fianna Fail to slip into Office in 1932 as a minority Government, if they were confident that they had the military means to prevent it without a risk of Civil War—real Civil War this time, unlike the spurious affair of 1922, which had been brought about by British manipulation of Collins?
Treatyite commitment to Parliamentary government by parties elected at regular intervals was not the reason for peaceful transition in 1932. That was proved in 1933.
As Fianna Fail went about the business of making the 26 Counties independent, it suggested that Sinn Fein should merge with it. That suggestion was rejected. Significant individuals did move from the IRA into constitutional politics in the Free State in the late 1930s on the basis of the substantial Fianna Fail alteration of the state's relationship with Britain, Sean MacBride being the outstanding instance. But the IRA continued in independent existence as the formal enemy of both the Southern State and the provocative Northern Ireland system of the British State, but sometimes as the political ally once more of the Fianna Fail Government.
If the threat of British invasion of the Free State in the early 1940s had been implemented, it would have been met by a combined Fianna Fail/IRA resistance, but meanwhile the IRA was waging its independent war on Britain, and seeking arms form Germany, and with regard to these activities it was curbed (oppressed) by Fianna Fail.
The IRA came close to being a shambles in that period, through internal disputes, inspired from outside no doubt.
After the World War, the Treaty Party returned to Office for the first time since 1932. It had purged itself of Fascism, and had so far discarded its Treatyism that it formed a Coalition with a new party, Clann na Poblachta, formed by Sean MacBride, an IRA Chief of Staff in the 1930s. The Coalition launched a world-wide Anti-Partition campaign, and it broke the last Treatyite link with Britain by declaring the State to be a Republic, and formally withdrawing from the Empire/Commonwealth—which Fianna Fail had neither participated in nor withdrawn from.
The Coalition's Anti-Partition campaign naturally led to some revival in the fortunes of Sinn Fein/IRA, and in 1956 there was an IRA invasion of the North from the Free State. It was a formal invasion and it was not accompanied by a call to insurrection in the North. The invasion force reached North Antrim. There was skirmishing along the Border. There was widespread sentimental support for the invasion in the South, but this did not interfere with the clamp down on the IRA by the Fianna Fail Government.
There was Internment in the North. Sinn Fein prisoners were elected to the Westminster Parliament but their election was declared invalid. A Sinn Fein TD was also elected in the Free State. Then the whole thing blew over, leaving a mood of despondency behind. But the IRA still existed. And, small though it had become, it acted the part of being the legitimate State established in 1919-21. And it enjoyed a kind of privileged existence as the illegal organisation of the state, both for old times' sake and because of the North.
In the mid-1950s I worked in Boherbue Creamery with the only active Sinn Feiner in the Parish. I assumed he was also in the Army. It could be said that he was not taken seriously. Nearly everyone there had been a Sinn Feiner once. (The Redmondites did not bother to contest the constituency with Sinn Fein in 1918.) Then, through the dominance of Sinn Fein, and still within the medium of Sinn Fein, people had taken their particular places in the party-division that is considered necessary to democracy in modern states.
North Cork around 1950 was a three-seat constituency and it returned Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour TDs. That was practical politics. (I do not recall that Clann na Poblachta made any impression there.)
But my Sinn Fein friend Mick Jack Mack—surnames were not much used—was not despised. He was a reminder of origins—as was the ultra-Republican Brian O'Higgins of the Wolfe Tone Annual, whose Christmas Cards were always bought. And he was a reminder of the North. So there was a continuing Sinn Fein stratum in life beneath, or above, the practicalities of party politics. It existed as little more than nostalgic sentiment for the time being, but things were not so fixed and certain that one could not be sure that a reversion to Sinn Fein as such would not again be necessary.
Sinn Fein denial of the legitimacy of the Treaty State, even in its amended form, was not regarded as an actual danger to the State by the people of the two preceding generations, amongst whom I grew up and from whom I got my sense of the reality of these things. They had been through the twists and turns of the preceding thirty or forty years and therefore their understanding was pragmatic rather than doctrinaire—very unlike that of intellectuals shaped by the patronage system of the rat-race of mass University education.
The re-making of Sinn Fein to be a class struggle organisation, after the ramifications of the 1956 Campaign had petered out, obviously threatened its privileged position within nationalist culture. It was something I had no knowledge of, except by way of third-hand rumours. I gathered that a Chief of Staff had got the assistance of Desmond Greaves of the British Communist Party and its Connolly Association front organisation to help with the ideological re-ordering of the Party and Army, so that they would become practical organisations of class politics, with the Republican mystique discarded.
Practical reform politics within a stable Parliamentary regime required that Sinn Fein should sit in the Dail and accept its authority. And I gathered that Northern Ireland was to be regarded as a kind of Irish state and Sinn Fein would sit in Stormont too.
There was resistance to this normalising of Sinn Fein into the Treaty system. There were purges. The conflict came to a head in 1970 at the Ard Fheis. The modernisers won the vote, and the traditionalist minority withdrew from the party.
Modernity triumphed six months too late. The local instruments of the British State in the North, provoked by the 'Civil Rights' activities of Republicans and other modernisers and normalisers which they interpreted as an anti-Partitionist feint to take them off-guard—and which was that to some extent—broke loose in Derry and Belfast, attacked Nationalist areas, were held in check by extemporised defences, and an insurrection that nobody had planned became an accomplished fact which changed everything.
The pedantic decision, in January 1970, of Marxistising Sinn Fein to become a normal Dail Party, related to a condition of things that had just ceased to exist.
The British State in the Six Counties, which had always been undemocratic—in the basic sense of being excluded from the basic political institutions of the general British state, but which in 1923 had been broken into a routine of sectarian head-counting—threw itself into political flux by its actions in August 1969. The Ulster Unionist Party began to fragment. The Nationalist Party dissolved. The atmosphere was saturated with the imported radicalism of Student Revolution. There was in the subordinate local political life of the state a revolutionary situation, while the general administrative institution of the State directed by Whitehall and sealed off from local politics, continued without interruption.
The pedestrian ideology of the British Communist Party, which had become the ideology of what was about to become Official Sinn Fein, was geared to understanding socio-political affairs in terms of long-range, slow-moving economic determinism. So it proceeded in January 1970 to carry through a reform that had been conceived in a situation that no longer existed. The defeated traditionalists left the party, engaged with the Northern flux, and became the Provos.
Official Republicanism has long gone. After committing itself to constitutionalism in January 1970, it embarked on a bizarre war in what it conceived to be proper Marxist terms but which had no grounds in existing social realities. After indulging in a few atrocities it called a Ceasefire, slowly reverted to constitutionalism, and disappeared into the Labour Party.
Provisional Republicanism—which continued to be so called, even though it soon became the only actual Republicanism—flourished as a simple anti-Partitionist, anti-Treaty movement for a few years. Its strength in that period was that it refused to be diverted into local war in what came to be called 'the Northern Ireland state'. (Intellectuals of the Official IRA invented 'the Northern Ireland state'.) It remained focussed on the British State, which was the only actual State in the North.
An insurrection against the local arrangements of the British State, supported by a third of the population, proved to be sustainable. But the ending of Partition, taking the Six Counties out of the British state and into the Republic, with two-thirds of the local population (as it was at that time) actively committed to maintaining "the British connection" was not achievable.
Sinn Fein therefore adopted the immediate aim of formalising the de facto situation of sustainable Nationalist insurrection into an interim Constitutional arrangement. It achieved this in alliance with John Hume—who acted against doctrinaire elements in his own party—and it became the dominant electoral force in the Six County Nationalist community under the 1998 Agreement.
Having consolidated its position constitutionally in the North Sinn Fein extended its constitutional activity to the South, quickly overtook the sad remnant of the Officials, and displaced the Labour Party as the third party in the state.
What part did the Free State play in all of this? (The Free State was the name of the 26-County state in common usage amongst Northern nationalists, whether Republican or not.)
It could play no part. It denied the legitimacy of Partition right from the start, and never bothered to understand the local Six County arrangement that accompanied it.
When Collins took command of 26 Co. affairs in December 1921, he signed the 'Treaty' on his own authority (or that of the Irish Republican Brotherhood), hustled the other delegates into signing it, and then hustled the Dail Government and the Dail itself into accepting it. But he failed to do more than split the IRA, leaving the greater part in opposition. By his signature on the 'Treaty' he formally accepted both Partition and the new 6-County arrangements.
But then, for reasons which he never explained and which his supporters did not care to examine closely, he made war on Northern Ireland in May 1922, and drew Northern Republicans into the open in support of that war, leaving them to be crushed when he changed tack in June 1922 and made war on the anti-Treaty IRA which had been collaborating with him on the war in the North.
Did he not understand that, in making war on Northern Ireland, he was making war on the British State—with which he had signed a Treaty recognising Partition?
The British Government let him make war on its subordinate local forces in the North for a while, but he overreached himself when he occupied Pettigo, across the Border. He was then met by the British Army. And he was told to go back to Dublin and launch the war for which Britain had given him an Army.
When he got himself killed, his followers dropped his policy of financing Nationalist discontent in the North. His offer to finance Nationalist schools from Dublin was forgotten. In 1925 the ploy of the Boundary Commission, invented by Westminster to help Collins carry the Treaty, was set aside by Dublin in exchange for a bribe. In 1925 there were more signatures implying recognition of the North. But it never went beyond formalities. And, when the Treatyites became Fascist in opposition to the Fianna Fail Government's repeal of the Treaty Oath and its degrading of the Governor Generalship, it did so in strongly anti-Partition terms.
In 1937 Fianna Fail drew up a new Constitution, to replace the Treaty Constitution, and put it to referendum. The Treatyite party (now called Fine Gael) opposed it, on the grounds that its purpose was to establish a Presidential dictatorship, but did not dispute its assertion of de jure sovereignty over the Six Counties.
Dublin politicians, journalists and academics never asked why Britain had set up the strange political entity of Northern Ireland in the Irish corner of its state, instead of simply Partitioning the country and having normal British government and politics in the part which it retained. If it had asked, the obvious answer would have been to deter the independent development of the 26 County state by offering the illusion of unity if the South was conciliatory.
De Valera must have understood this ploy, and the Northern set-up, better than he pretended to, because he chose independence unhesitatingly, ignoring the will o' the wisp of negotiated unity.
In 1966 his successor, Lemass, met the new Ulster Unionist leader, Captain O'Neill, and he put pressure on the Six County Nationalist Party to take up the role of Official Opposition (Loyal Opposition?) in the Stormont Parliament. But Lemass did not propose to delete the assertion of sovereignty over the North from the Southern Constitution. And there was nothing for the Nationalist Party to do as Loyal Opposition, because Stormont was not the Parliament of a state; and all the major business of legislation for the Northern Ireland region of the British state was done at Westminster.
Captain O'Neill, by acting as if he was Prime Minister of a state, put the Northern system to a test it could not bear, and generated the illusory medium in which the collapse of 1969 occurred.
The new IRA which grew out of the collapse of the devolved Northern system—the Provisional IRA which long outlasted the Official one—at first directed its efforts directly at Partition. When it became evident that that was unachievable, it aimed for an interim arrangement within the Northern Ireland system. The changes made by that re-arrangement were felt as real in the experience of actual life in the North, regardless of what theorists thought of them. Doctrinaire anti-Partitionists for whom the ending of Partition immediately was an all or nothing issue—e.g. Anthony McIntyre and Mairia Cahill—went into diehard opposition to the settlement and set out to damage Sinn Fein by exposés, in alliance with anyone who would ally with them against the traitor, Gerry Adams.
Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fail in its condition of post-traumatic stress disorder, lent them a sympathetic ear. Sinn Fein is his constitutional rival and he finds it difficult to cope with it constitutionally. His only recourse seems to be to try to undermine the Northern arrangement with the help of die-hard dissidents from the Provos and blame it on Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein has spread out beyond its Northern fastness. And so Professor Ferriter warns us that Sinn Fein will probably hijack the centenary of the Sinn Fein revolution.
Others should be allowed to play a part in it too, since they played a part in the event itself. There's the Irish Times, which in 1916 urged the Government to cut deeply into the Republican cancer that had appeared in the Home Rule body politic—not that it actually approved of Home Rule, you understand. And there's the Irish Independent, which was angry about the delay in shooting James Connolly . . .
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