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A View North: Republican leadership reeling but still in control

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The recent suspension of the power-sharing government and other institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement has many ramifications, some as yet obscure and uncertain.

Among the republicanism leadership there was almost immediately a sense of real frustration and anger. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, was quoted in The Irish Times as he stood outside Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Downing Street residence as remarking on "the failure of politics." Reporter Frank Millar wrote how the remark sent a "shiver down the spine."

Millar was referring to the fact that the whole basis of the peace process rests on the ability of the republican leadership to convince its followers that politics would work and that, therefore, violence was no longer necessary. It was on that basis that the IRA’s first cease-fire was called on Aug. 31, 1994. It is that belief which has kept the IRA and Sinn Fein going in their present direction, despite the setbacks. Therefore, to hear one of the chief architect’s of the strategy declare that it had failed was perhaps the greatest shock to the process since it began, even more than the IRA bomb at Canary Wharf, which on Feb. 9, 1996 signaled the end of the first cease-fire.

There is no suggestion at present that the IRA is thinking of going back to violence. But the crisis has put strains within the republican movement and they run from the top down.

The current leadership has staked its credibility on the current political strategy, which has now been declared a failure. Could its failure spell the beginning of the end of that leadership? There are no easy or immediate answers to that question. But it may be salutary to look back at the fate of the last group of IRA and Sinn Fein leaders to try to convince the Provisional republican movement to become involved in a prolonged cease-fire.

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In early 1975, the IRA called a cease-fire. Daithi O Conaill and Ruairi O Bradaigh were convinced that the British government was preparing to withdraw from Northern Ireland and would enter into negotiations with the republican leadership to secure that withdrawal. Concessions from the British were forthcoming, including the setting up of monitoring centers for Sinn Fein to supervise the cease-fire, allowing republican leaders to carry weapons, lifting the ban on Sinn Fein, ending internment without trial and not arresting wanted republicans unless they were actually seen committing a crime.

Talks did take place, secretly. Prisoners were released and by the end of 1975, Long Kesh internment camp was empty. But there was no sign of Britain abandoning Northern Ireland.

Quite the opposite. A huge new cellular prison was under construction next to Long Kesh. Britain was enacting new emergency legislation and conducting a complete overhaul of the judicial system. The RUC was being beefed up, trained and equipped in the skills and techniques needed to conduct an undercover war of surveillance and counter-surveillance. Yet O Bradaigh and O Conaill, along with most of the Southern-based leaders who supported them, persisted in believing that their "peace" strategy was working.

It was the young Northerners led by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Danny Morrison and others who cast a skeptical eye on what was happening and saw clearly the contradictions.

Adams later observed that: "The period confused 99 percent of the republican base and is, in my view, the one period in the last 15 years when republicans were almost beaten, almost shattered. . . . In the Six Counties the disillusionment and confusion was at a maximum."

O Bradaigh and O Conaill paid a price. A Northern-based revolt removed their "Eire Nua" federal Ireland policy from Sinn Fein’s constitution in 1982. O Bradaigh was replaced by Adams as Sinn Fein president in 1983. O Conaill was gradually sidelined. In 1986, he walked out of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis along with O Bradaigh and a small group of supporters to set up Republican Sinn Fein when the party voted in favor of ending its abstentionist policy toward the Dail.

Speaking at that ard fheis, McGuinness said in reference to O Bradaigh and O Conaill that "the former leadership of this movement has never been able to come to terms with this leadership’s criticism of the disgraceful attitude adopted by them during the disastrous 18-month cease-fire of the ’70s." He alleged that they were leaving not because of the abstentionist issue but because of what happened in 1975-76.

By the mid-1980s, the old guard associated with that period was gone, their policies discredited and a new, Northern-based leadership firmly in control both of the IRA and the party.

Some 15 years later, the political approach of that new leadership, that gave birth to the peace process, has run into the ground. Why should it not, therefore, face the same fate as its predecessors?

To begin with, new leaders tend to rise on waves of change. In 1969, the wave of anger that swept through the nationalist community in Belfast lifted the leaders of the newly formed Provisionals — including O Bradaigh and O Conaill — to power. In 1981, the hunger strikes swept the new Northern leadership into political power and redefined republican strategy. Now, even though politics may have failed, there is no sense of anything out there to replace them. The republican dissidents have no new policies, offering only a return to old methods that have already been tried and been seen to fail. The Continuity IRA’s bomb attack on a small hotel in County Fermanagh a few weeks ago is evidence of that.

In anything, the mood north and south of the border is strongly in favor of politics going on — there is no widespread support for a return to violence. Nor is there a group of young turks rising within republicanism eager to advocate an end to the cease-fire and the overthrow of McGuinness and Adams. Or at least if there is, it is not at the moment discernible.

However, it must be cautioned that, as mentioned at the beginning of this column, all the ramifications of what happened on Friday, Feb. 11, may not yet be obvious. Those within the IRA skeptical of the political approach will now find it easier to justify their skepticism. The whole decommissioning issue may become more difficult than ever. There may be further desertions.

However, the main hope remains that the tide of public opinion is now flowing too strongly in the direction of compromise and accommodation for the IRA or anybody else to attempt to turn it back.

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