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Reading between the lines

Sinn Fein is fast becoming the New Labour of Northern Ireland, writes Brendan O'Neill

When Gerry met Tony

  • Provos: The IRA And Sinn Fein
    Peter Taylor, Bloomsbury, £16.99 hbk

  • An Irish Voice: The Quest For Peace
    Gerry Adams, Roberts Rinehart, $14.95 pbk

  • Man Of War, Man Of Peace?: The Unauthorised Biography Of Gerry Adams
    David Sharrock and Mark Devenport, Macmillan, £16.99 hbk

  • Peace Or War?: Understanding The Peace Process In Northern Ireland
    Chris Gilligan and Jon Tonge (eds), Ashgate, £35 hbk

The Sinn Fein leadership has made a remarkable journey over the past five years - from the nationalist ghettos of Northern Ireland to the parlours of the White House, from smoke-filled rooms in West Belfast to the smoke-free offices of 10 Downing Street. Gerry Adams and his entourage now rub shoulders with world statesmen such as Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. Forget Ian Paisley's increasingly paranoid rantings about a 'terrorist threat': today's Sinn Fein is more New Labour than Old IRA. The Blair-Adams summit at the end of last year was a symbolic meeting of minds, British prime minister and Sinn Fein president greeting each other on first name terms and engaging in friendly conversation.

Many commentators, including some of those under review, welcome the peace process and the inclusion of Sinn Fein in the all-party talks, but underestimate the change which has taken place within republican thinking. Many suggest that the republican movement has simply put a new spin on an old story and remains committed to the goal of a United Ireland and to armed struggle. But the truth is that the political trajectory which Sinn Fein has followed over the past 20 years has successfully transformed it into a radically new organisation. Far from posing a violent threat to the peace process, Sinn Fein stands at the entrance to the corridors of power, set to play the role of gendarme in the government of Northern Ireland.

In his book Provos, veteran Northern Ireland reporter Peter Taylor perceptively notes that Sinn Fein started on the road to constitutional politics long before there was talk of a peace process. It was during the hunger strike of 1981 that Sinn Fein first made moves towards electoral politics. 'The hunger strike is a watershed in the history of the republican movement', writes Taylor. 'Although the deaths of 10 men made it clear to the British government that the IRA was determined to see its "struggle" through to the end, regardless of the cost, its real historical significance lies in the election of Bobby Sands and Owen Carron to Westminster. Their victories laid the foundation for the political base that Gerry Adams knew had to be built if the "struggle" were to progress.'

The election of Adams as president of Sinn Fein two years later was another important moment for the republican movement. Adams was regarded as an ardent moderniser who wanted to transform Sinn Fein from newspaper sellers on street corners in the shadow of the IRA into a formidable political party which could challenge the constitutional nationalists of the SDLP. 'Gerry Adams' triumph was crowned on 13 November 1983 when he was elected president in succession to Ruairi O Bradaigh', writes Taylor. 'For the old Southern leadership, the writing was on the walls of Belfast and Derry as Adams, McGuinness and those around them gradually began jettisoning much of what they regarded as historical baggage which they now felt hindered, not advanced, the cause.' (p283)

In the ensuing years Adams initiated important changes at two republican conferences. The first was the Ard Fheis of October 1986 where Sinn Fein voted to abandon the policy of abstentionism in relation to the Twenty-Six Counties, meaning that republicans elected in the Irish Republic could now take their seats in the Dail (Irish parliament). For the first time the modern republican movement was recognising the legitimacy of the Southern Irish government - and by implication the partition of Ireland that brought that government into being. The second important conference was the Ard Fheis of February 1992 at which Sinn Fein adopted the document 'Towards a Lasting Peace' and embarked on the current peace process. The new policy document marked a significant step forward for Sinn Fein as it attempted to redefine the conflict in Northern Ireland, away from being one between British imperialism and Irish liberation, and towards one between Unionism and nationalism: a culture clash which could be resolved with 'parity of esteem' between those two communities rather than a British withdrawal. Sinn Fein began to describe the British government not as the problem in Ireland, but as part of the potential solution.

The development of modern republican politics from 1981 to the present day shows that Sinn Fein's involvement in the current peace process is not the result of some sudden expediency. The republican movement's current position as a mainstream party with the ear of the British, Irish and American governments is the result of its own political trajectory. Over the last 20 years, since the onset of the military impasse in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has been heading towards the peace process.

In the 1990s that process was speeded up as a result of broader changes in the international political landscape. 'The world had been undergoing change', writes Taylor. 'On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, heralding the end of the Cold War era. There was movement towards resolving the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East and South Africa.' (p315) The end of the Cold War had a demoralising effect on national liberation movements, all of which were forced to abandon their struggles and accept compromising settlements. New Sinn Fein is a result of its own political trajectory, while also reflecting a global trend.

Peter Taylor convincingly traces the assimilation of Sinn Fein into the political process in the 1990s, culminating in the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and the party's acceptance into all-party talks in 1997. But Taylor concludes that the threat of violence still lurks behind today's republican movement. This reflects a common misperception about the relationship between the republican movement and physical force. In the early 1980s the IRA was clearly the most powerful wing of the republican movement, with Sinn Fein little more than a small group of activists. But the development of Sinn Fein into an almost respectable political party means that physical force has become redundant. By the early 1990s, the new Sinn Fein had become the most powerful wing of the republican movement and violence became a tactical barrier to the further push towards main-stream politics. The winding down of armed struggle was the final prerequisite for Sinn Fein's full involvement in the peace process.

Many commentators will point to Gerry Adams' longevity as leader of the republican movement as evidence that the party has changed little and remains committed to its age-old principles. This is the premise of David Sharrock and Mark Devenport's unauthorised biography, Man of War, Man of Peace?. The biography begins with the failed IRA activities of Adams' father, Gerry senior and ends with Gerry junior waiting to take his rightful place as a negotiator at the historic all-party talks, implying a consistency in the movement's priorities and principles. In between we are treated to Adams' well-rehearsed life story: from civil rights activist to IRA commander, from prisoner of war to leader of Sinn Fein. Sharrock and Devenport ascribe a consistent approach to the republican movement:

'[Adams] urges that he should not be left alone in the negotiating room, but should be backed up by a militant campaign of street protests. After the 1997 ceasefire he said that "side by side with the demands for talks, nationalists should mobilise and agitate".' (p465)

The clear implication is that Adams is continuing the struggle for Irish independence by different means. In reality Sinn Fein party policy is no longer directed by the grassroots desire for independence, but by the need for respectability at the all-party talks. Like the other main parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein's primary responsibility today is to the peace process itself. Far from threatening stability by 'having its guns under the talks table', Sinn Fein is now a fully-fledged party of the peace process, a qualitatively different organisation from the one Gerry Adams senior joined in the 1940s.

Gerry Adams' current thinking is best gauged from his new book An Irish Voice: The Quest for Peace, published in America. The book is a compilation of columns written by Adams for the American newspaper The Irish Voice between 1993 and the present day, and offers a unique insight into the thinking of the repub-lican movement's most prominent leader. More than anything the book illustrates the increasing influence that Bill Clinton and the American establishment are having on Ireland's republican movement. It is significant that Adams should have a weekly column outlining republican strategy at such an important time in an Irish-American newspaper, widely read by Clintonites in the White House.

Sinn Fein party policy is increasingly being directed towards the Clinton administration at the expense of traditional grassroots democracy. Gerry Adams candidly admitted in 1995 that when he heard the IRA was about (temporarily) to end its ceasefire he phoned the White House (he now has a direct line) instead of going to talk to his supporters (p203).

It is clear that Sinn Fein has become a respectable political party in recent years - but at a price. The republican movement has demobilised its base of popular support in favour of developing new political alliances with the British government and Bill Clinton. It is ironic that at the same time as the republican movement became publicly more reliant on its supporters by moving into electoral politics, it started to cut itself off from its political base in the nationalist working class.

In his contribution to Peace or War?: Understanding the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Mark Ryan traces Sinn Fein's assimilation into mainstream politics. According to Ryan, Sinn Fein's acceptance of the 'politics of identity' and its accommodation to community politics has sounded the death-knell for traditional republicanism. While many writers and commentators are keen to point out that behind New Sinn Fein lurks Old IRA, the reality is that, in accepting its marginal position within Irish society as the representative of a minority within a minority, the republican movement has given up on the struggle for Irish independence. Ryan points to a richly symbolic handshake between Mary Robinson and Gerry Adams in 1993 which illustrated this fact:

'Adams was received by the Irish president, an illegitimate title according to traditional republican doctrine, not as the head of a movement committed to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, but as one humble West Belfast community representative among 30 others. In conferring a handshake on Adams, Robinson was indicating to the wider republican movement that in return for dropping the broader claim to national leadership and accepting community status, Sinn Fein could at last become a part of the mainstream.' (p82)

Only by ditching its claim to be the centre of Irish politics, as the custodian of Irish sovereignty entrusted in it by the Dail of 1921, and by accepting its real status as a minority constitutional party has Sinn Fein been embraced into the mainstream. The irony is that now Sinn Fein is returning to the centre of Irish politics, but as a centre party of the peace process, not as the party which will overthrow British rule in Ireland.

Ryan's incisive chapter appears in a book which takes a critical look at different aspects of the peace process. Editors Chris Gilligan and Jon Tonge have done an excellent job in bringing together articles which raise important questions about recent developments in Anglo-Irish affairs. Gilligan's own chapter 'Peace or pacification process?: A brief critique of the peace process' challenges the repressive nature of the current 'peace' in Northern Ireland which has been achieved through the 'pacification of the population'. 'It is likely to make the last quarter of a century appear positively liberating by comparison', writes Gilligan. Also noteworthy is Kevin Rooney's exposé of the idea that education can be a panacea for Northern Ireland's sectarian ills, and Jon Tonge's contribution on 'The origins and development of the peace process'.

'An Ireland without traditional republicanism is difficult to imagine', concludes Mark Ryan. 'Yet that is what we will have to get used to in the years to come.' Today, Sinn Fein can claim to be one of the most important peace process parties. Republicans have a genuine link with the most historic political tradition in Ireland and at the same time have adapted to the new politics of identity and community in a way that no other Irish party has. It is the combination of these two factors which makes Sinn Fein an attractive candidate to fill a void in Irish politics.

Like New Labour, Sinn Fein has turned away from its traditional base of support and is now set to turn the strong arm of repression against its own electorate. Republicans have already joined in a debate about updating the RUC and making the police force more acceptable to nationalists. In its submission to Strands One and Two of the peace talks (10 November 1997), Sinn Fein writes: 'A new police service which is representative of the society it serves should be created.' The new police force should, according to republicans, 'reflect a civilian ethos' and give 'equal prominence to nationalist symbols'.

Such concern for the reputation of the forces of law and order is a long way from the days when the Royal Ulster Constabulary were greeted with a Sieg Heil from nationalist protesters. And who should serve in this police force? 'Participation in the former armed conflict should not debar applicants from recruitment to a new policing service', writes Sinn Fein. Republicans clearly see no contradiction in former opponents of British rule taking on a role in policing the New Northern Ireland. Such discussions will confer on Northern Ireland's paramilitary police force a legitimacy it has not enjoyed for 30 years.

Sinn Fein is also at the forefront of making the Parades Commission palatable to nationalists in the Six Counties. The Parades Commission presents itself as protecting the two communities from offence and intimidation, while getting on with its real job of outlawing dissident politics, undermining the right to protest and telling people how to behave (see 'Mo Mowlam's marching orders', LM, December 1997/January 1998). By standing up for the right of residents to 'live in peace and security' Sinn Fein has paved the way for this attack on the right to free assembly by the security forces.

The modern republican movement emerged in response to the British state's violent repression of civil rights protests in the late sixties. Now Sinn Fein loudly supports a British state commission which decides who can and cannot march. Gerry Adams and his cronies are second only to Tony Blair in using the new vacuous language of 'rights' ('the right to live in peace', 'the right to privacy', 'the right to be consulted') to undermine civil liberties in the here and now. What Sinn Fein is demanding today are not rights at all, but protection. The movement that once fought for independence now calls on the British state to protect it from the extremists.

And it was only five years ago that the symbolic handshake between Adams and Mary Robinson took place. Today Mary McAleese, a nationalist from West Belfast, can be elected president of Ireland with Sinn Fein's backing. McAleese states her aim to be the creation of 'an island where difference is celebrated with joyful curiosity and generous respect and where in the words of John Hewitt, "each may grasp his neighbour's hand"'. No wonder Sinn Fein supported McAleese's candidature. Their aim is also the creation of an inclusive, pluralist agreed Ireland, where every culture is cherished and respected: an Ireland where the need to reach agreement and celebrate diversity takes precedence over independence and the protection of political rights.

'Inequality and social exclusion are the enemies of peace', Sinn Fein has told the all-party talks. 'We need a partnership, based on equality, which will empower and improve the quality of life of citizens by being open, inclusive and democratic.' Far from posing a threat to stability, Sinn Fein uses the Blairite language of inclusion and empowerment to put the case for a new form of ruling Northern Ireland more effectively than any other party. With the Unionist parties in disarray and the nationalist SDLP increasingly looking like it has exhausted its political programme, Sinn Fein could yet prove to be New Labour's most useful ally in Ireland.

Read On

  • Staying sane: how to make your mind work for you
    Dr Raj Persaud, Metro Books, £17.99 pbk

Dr Raj Persaud, one of the youngest doctors ever appointed as Consultant Psychiatrist at the prestigious Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals, is a man with a vision. 'Think of this book as the mental equivalent of regular diet and healthy exercise', he urges. 'So let's get into shape. Stop worrying and beating yourself up, face your fears, select sensible, dependable friends, and acquire charm, poise and grace for social occasions. Take time out to engage in a little "pleasant activity" training, or consider the Fourteen Fundamentals programme to long-term happiness: (1) Keep Busy... (5) Lower Your Expectations....'

Persaud's well-balanced world would shudder at the idea that dicing with distress may be worth it: going with the 'wrong' friends rather than a safer but duller selection, or pursuing a driving ambition to the edge of distraction. His cognitive cogniscenti lead a square life, loyal to the comforts of home, a steady job, and a little spiritual conviction, which points to the problem with health promotion, physical and mental - its star rises precisely as more challenging, worldly ideas about what we might do with our good health wane. (As he says himself in a memorable sentence, 'anti-boredom strategies would seem more urgent than ever before'.)

Thankfully, a mental work-out is not all that he offers. Read this book for its blow-by-blow demolition of the merits of the counselling culture. As befits an author urging us to take responsibility for our mental state, he calls on society to overcome its dependency on the priests of the modern age. What sort of people become counsellors?, he asks. Answer: sadists and masochists, the socially inhibited, and the rigidly intellectual. He warns against the 'clandestine conspiracy to extend indefinitely the boundaries of mental illness so that anyone suffering from life's problems needs expert intervention'. Counselling detaches us from the world, inviting us on a personal quest for mental contentedness that owes nothing to our relations with the rest of society.

Persaud is also strong on tackling the fatalism which cites genes or aspects of our past, such as traumatic events, as masters of our present. He would certainly applaud yachtsman Tony Bullimore who, waving aside insistent invitations to trauma counselling following a harrowing three days in his upturned boat, went for a pint instead. The book, however, gives succour to one of today's terrible ailments, the preoccupation with personal health by the personally healthy. I'd be nuts wholly to commend it.

Ian Pegg

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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