[lg policy] Republicans need a dose of realityIf power-sharing fails in Northern Ireland, blame nationalist intransigence about the fundamental fact of unionist identity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 28 15:08:50 UTC 2010

Republicans need a dose of realityIf power-sharing fails in Northern
Ireland, blame nationalist intransigence about the fundamental fact of
unionist identity

Christopher Montgomery guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 January 2010 15.30 GMT

As "nationalist Ireland" recovers from the shock that British
unionists talk to one another, what does the meeting at Hatfield House
tell us about what we used to call the peace process? That's now a
strapping big lad of 16, if we date its birth from the first Provo
ceasefire in 1994. Its much uglier sister, The Troubles, clocked up 25
miserable years between 1969 and 1994 and, of course, several thousand
murdered dead. What, if anything, has changed during these lifetimes?
If we take the dismal, uniform nationalist reaction to Hatfield at
face value, absolutely nothing at all. For seemingly, both 25 years of
sectarian killing, and 16 years of, well, some more sectarian killing
and incessant, baby-sat processing have done nothing to change the
fundamental problem in Northern Ireland: the unwillingness of
nationalists to concede that unionists are British.

Let's start not with the people who used to kill people; let's instead
look at the "moderate" SDLP. It is going through a leadership contest
at the moment. It's proper bald-men-fighting-over-a-comb stuff, but
the frontrunner is the South Belfast MP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell. What
was his response to Hatfield? To accuse David Cameron of being
"sinister", of "showing contempt for nationalists", and, most
poisonous of all, that the Tory leader was motivated by nothing less
than "naked sectarianism". Leaving aside the casual, careless way
these charges have been tossed about, what provoked them? What was
Hatfield? Just two things: an effort to see whether stability could be
brought to the process, in the face of Sinn Féin's long-standing
threat to walk away from it. And, in the wake of that, discussion of
what like-minded politicians might do in forthcoming elections,
scheduled or otherwise. That was what caused a self-styled progressive
politician to smear another constitutional democrat with all the names
McDonnell called Cameron. And if the "moderate" SDLP is bad, as you
might expect, Sinn Féin is some degree worse.

But the republicans are in a rather worse position than the SDLP. The
settlement in Northern Ireland is essentially Hume-ite. It accepts the
province's place in the union as the consequence of majority sentiment
freely expressed, but it doesn't let that majority actually do
anything democratically in any devolved intuitions. Hence mandatory
power-sharing, or more precisely, election-discounting devolution is
the order of the day. This is not what Gerry Adams and Martin
McGuinness presided over 30 years of terrorism to achieve. It is what
Hume told them 30 years ago they'd end up settling for. And it leaves
the republican leadership with a near-unanswerable problem in terms of
managing its base.

But what makes the republican leadership so odd is precisely what
binds them together in the first place: atavistic nationalism. You can
forgive "your side" virtually anything if you hate the other side
enough. But that's the problem Adams and McGuinness face and can't
escape from. They've sold their unionist-phobic supporters "the
process" not on the Hume-ite basis that it represents a "shared
present" on the best terms possible, pending the day at some point in
the demographic future when all this sort of thing can be dispensed
with. Rather, they've consistently oversold it as being part of an
inevitablist triumph.

Thus, on matters like policing and justice, Sinn Féin has repeatedly
lied to its own supporters that a date for transfer from Westminster
to Stormont was both negotiated and agreed. It's beyond
non-republicans like me why anyone falls for this inside the laager,
but there you are. From this willed self-delusion, Sinn Féin has
proceeded to try to hold the entire process to ransom by saying that
unless what it failed to do constitutionally and democratically –
negotiate a transfer date, for example – happens retrospectively, it
will attempt to destroy the entire settlement by withdrawing from it.

That's the bluff that presently faces the British government. Sinn
Féin has blinked a dozen times since it started making this threat,
but as Cameron and Owen Paterson both know, at some point soon, Sinn
Féin is liable to end up, metaphorically this time, shooting itself in
the face. For every point of difference with republicans, whether it
be on education policy, language policy or social policy, comes back
to their twin defects of being unable to negotiate a deal competently,
or to accept that a deal is just that – something on which all parties
to it have to compromise. Sinn Féin's evolution of "Ourselves Alone"
to "My Way or My Dissident Friend Gets Upset" is neither progress nor

Yet, it's the hysterical over-reaction of the SDLP that has been most
disappointing. If truly moderate men such as McDonnell are not willing
to accept that British unionists are free to talk to one another, just
as he is to pledge himself to a 32-county Irish Republic and to that
end, talk to southern politicians and fellow countrymen, even the
Hume-ites don't believe in building a shared present. If nationalists
won't, even at this point, concede that unionists have every bit as
much right to be British, and behave as such, as they have to be
Irish, ethno-chauvinism is the only game being played. And while no
one will win from that, as history shows, plenty of us will lose.

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