On the night of 23 December 1939 the IRA raided the central arsenal of the 26 Counties army in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
The organisation had started to set off bombs in British cities at the beginning of that year, and, believing itself to be the legitimate government of Ireland, north and south, had concluded a formal alliance against Britain with Hitler’s Germany.
The Phoenix Park raid was a spectacular success. The IRA got away with lorry-loads of material — with most of the state’s stock of guns and ammunition! It did them no good. It provoked a ferocious response from the Dublin government — run by Eamonn De Valera’s Fianna Fail, the IRA’s close political kin in ideas and goals, if not methods — and so the spectacular coup proved, for the IRA, to be a suicidal act.
Republicans were rounded up and interned. Some would be tried by military courts and shot. The armaments they had lifted were quickly recovered. The repression — which was much more severe in the 26 Counties than in Northern Ireland — smashed militarist Republicanism out of existence. It would be a decade before they could pull themselves together again.
Reviving in the 1950s, the IRA adopted a rule that they would take no “action” in the South. If cornered, they would surrender rather than shoot at the 26 Counties police. Politically, this was a late recognition that the Free State (now Republic) was a fully independent state — as it had been in 1939. It was also a matter of learning from the IRA’s experiences during the war.
The parallel is obvious with the spectacular robbery of £26 million last December and the backlash that has followed it. Now, as then, though, neither the spectacular Phoenix Park raid nor the biggest bank robbery in Irish history — £26 million — could in any circumstances be just shrugged off by the state, the force of the backlash comes from the general political situation.
In 1939, Dublin, neutral in the war, was afraid that IRA activities and “alliances” would facilitate or provoke a British or German invasion. For seven years of “constructive ambiguity” the London and Dublin governments have acquiesced in SF/IRA — and Protestant paramilitary — warlordism in Northern Ireland, and turned a blind eye to racketeering and robberies. The end of that period was brought about by the collapse of the near-agreement between Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Fein last November. London and Dublin decided that the IRA would never voluntarily disband as a result of concessions to its alter ego Sinn Fein.
Where the “peace process” goes from here is now the preoccupation of politicos and serious journalists in Dublin and London. Has the Good Friday Agreement collapsed unmendably? Can the onslaught on the IRA drive it out of existence, leaving its political “wing”, Sinn Fein, to resume power-sharing in a Belfast government? Was the flaw the all-inclusive character of the Good Friday Agreement?
The Good Friday Agreement differed from the previous power-sharing blueprint, known after the place where it was hammered out in 1973 as “Sunningdale”, in its all-inclusiveness. Sunningdale aimed to build a power-sharing government from Protestant and Catholic parties in the centre, excluding the polar extremes.
The Paisleyites — who, though a minority among the Protestant members in the Belfast parliament, in fact represented majority Protestant opinion on power-sharing and a proposed Council of Ireland — became a raucous and rowdy opposition in the Belfast parliament. The Provisional IRA at that time abstained on principle from participation in parliament.
“Good Friday”, under the d’Hondt system, aimed to include the extremes. Progress was not possible without the consent and participation of everybody, or, at any rate, of clear majorities of representatives in both communities counted separately.
From a socialist working-class point of view, what was fundamentally wrong with the GFA was that it enshrined an intricately bureaucratic system of sectarianism. Motivated by the need to accommodate existing sectarian divisions, the Agreement, with its institutionalised sectarian head-counting, could not but buttress and perpetuate sectarianism. It gave politicians, even those who wanted not to be sectarian, a vested interest in maintaining sectarianism.
Whether any other system of powersharing — a looser one like “Sunningdale”, for example — would, in the circumstances, have worked to lessen the existing sectarianism, is an open question.
The fundamental problem is that the Six Counties framework creates insuperable difficulties for attempts to balance Protestants and Catholics politically. Instead of a rational system in which the all-island Protestant minority and the Catholic majority arrange a democratic co-existence, there is an artificially created Catholic minority to be balanced against the Irish Protestant minority, the majority in the Six Counties. The rational answer is a federal united Ireland.
The Six County state was designed and created to allow the Protestant majority there to rule. In the one third of a century since Protestant majority rule was abolished, it has proved impossible for London and Dublin to graft a working powersharing Protestant-Catholic political system onto the old Protestant sectarian state. Again and again attempts at such a grafting operation have failed.
From the point of view of its architects, the results of the GFA have been very unsatisfactory. The influential Dublin journalist Bruce Arnold summed up the experience from their point of view in the Dublin Sunday Independent of 27 March. The Good Friday Agreement, he says “was designed to end sectarianism … fanaticism and intolerance”. But “it has had the opposite effect. The Good Friday Agreement and the so-called ‘Peace Process’ have given strength to the political extremes and demolished the base for the middleground parties…”
Of those who believed in the Belfast Agreement, he says, “How wrong we were”. He blames Sinn Fein/IRA. This is part of the media onslaught on them, but it is, nonetheless, true. “In the past the Unionists were guiltier than nationalists in prolonging both political and religious sectarianism. They were brutal in their arrogance and short-sighted in their judgment… Today, the most sectarian organisation on the island of Ireland, in terms of fanaticism and intolerance, is Sinn Fein-IRA… They [have] wrecked the principles and the practice of the Good Friday Agreement and … brought to a complete standstill all prospect of further progress towards peace.”
How were they able to do that? “They achieved this degree of power because of the collective decision to follow through on a non-democratic inclusion of all parties in the deal… [SF/IRA] obtained… the release of convicted terrorists… without relinquishing their guns and explosives… and therefore without qualifying within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement as it was understood by the majority of people on this island.”
The result of seven years of the GFA is, he gauges, that “the extremes have grown in power and in direct opposition to each other.” It was believed that the GFA would inevitably, bring the communities together. It has done the reverse. It has polarised them. The sectarianism has become worse. It has intensified.” This, he thinks was inbuilt into the “peace process” itself: “Negotiations were intended to resolve and bring together. They became, instead, a battle-ground for enhanced extremism. Demand and counter-demand were an augmentation of the sectarian divide, quite the opposite of what was intended.”
He thinks that Blair, Ahern and the other politicians “have become the creatures of this new sectarianism and do not know how to get out of it.” He insists that “the quite effective bi-partisanship” in London and Dublin “which denied proper debate… favoured the encouragement of sectarianism… All sides accepted a broad and woolly principle of a peace process which, before their eyes, was hardening the lines of demarcation on sectarian terms.”
Whether any political superstructure based on the artificial Six County sub-state could have avoided such sectarian jockeying is, it seems to me, unlikely. It is built in to the Six County entity.
And now? The Robert McCartney affair, demonstrating “several different aspects of this sectarianism at its worst, should have opened our eyes to the mistake we made at the outset.”
The root and branch rethinking of the GFA, of which Arnold’s piece is one of the more thoughtful examples, points towards a revision of the GFA in favour of a system that will allow the exclusion of SF/IRA. It is highly unlikely that the IRA will disappear at the command of politicians and journalists. If it were to split, the results could not but be messy. Even if Adams were in the new political magic circle, there would still be an SF/IRA faction to be excluded.
So far Dublin, lagging behind London, is resisting a return to “Sunningdale” principles.
By Annie O'Keeffe