By John Kelly
Neither of the big issues facing the Irish people for quite some time are hot conversational topics, north or south of the border. Not even the strenuous efforts of no less than Saatchi and Saatchi, the powerful multinational PR company, which has loaned its services free to the British government in a massive effort to get out the Yes vote, has so far managed to ignite the campaign.
Most of the headline grabbing in the North has been achieved by the “No Surrender” lobby, marshalled in typical bellicose fashion by the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Further out on the fringe, Bob McCartney, the more acceptable intellectual alternative to Ian Paisley, and leader of the UK based Unionist party, still manages to attract a considerable degree of attention. What’s more, he makes the right noises so far as “thinking” Unionists are concerned, arguing that the push against the No vote has all of the attributes of the “Lady Di” factor.
“It’s unacceptable to be critical of Lady Di and it’s unacceptable to be against this agreement,” he recently moaned. “The attitude is, the agreement is good; opposition to the agreement is bad; no rational criticism allowed.”
Whatever about the “rational criticism,” it is still the No side in Northern Ireland that attracts the most attention at this juncture of the campaign. Undoubtedly, this was the inspiration behind the joint visit by Tony Blair and the former prime minister, John Major, who led the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it the official title.
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Presumably, it was felt that Major would wield considerable influence over the Establishment Unionists, all true Tories in the main. Even so, the Yes campaign has not yet lifted off in the North.
For very different reasons despite saturation media coverage, neither has not been particularly earth shaking in the South. Dubliners are much more concerned with the new public transport plan, a scheme designed to give the city its first-ever morsel of subway trains, which will run mainly on the surface. The Dail debate on the matter was much more passionate and dramatic than anything concerning the Belfast Agreement.
Not for the first time, Fianna Fail was clearly identified with the underground.
But where does it all leave republicans and republicanism?
Tragically, absolutely unnecessarily, it leaves one young man dead. Ronan MacLochlainn, the son of a well-known Belfast republican, Roisin McLaughlin, whose extradition from the South was sought after the killings of three British soldiers, was shot down by members of the Irish Garda Siochana emergency response unit in the course of a botched armored car robbery.
While his funeral was subsequently attended by well-known members of the Provisional IRA, the organization has nevertheless answered a critical question.
It is a totally legitimate aspiration to reunite the island of Ireland. But how can the IRA manage do so without coercing Unionists into the same minority position that led to the reformation of the IRA itself? They gave the answer at their weekend Ard Fheis. What can the minority breakaway movements offer as the alternative?
To reunite Ireland by force demands the coercion of Unionists.
Coercion inevitably invites violence, just as the IRA reacted to the coercion of nationalists into the British-controlled Northern statelet. No rational democratic government could possibly countenance such a tactic.
It would guarantee the continuation of violent resistance by loyalists. It would certainly not lead to any sort of permanent peace.
Never in its long history, extending back to the Fenians of the mid-19th century, has the IRA accepted British domination over any part of the island of Ireland. Never has it ever admitted that a minority, which became a majority as the British solution to a British problem, should set the boundary to the march of a nation.
While it was always a rational proposition in the theoretical sense, it never could answer the most basic political conundrum. How could Unionists be coerced into accepting reunification without forcing them to become violent, just as the IRA was always violently opposed to the imposition of their Britishness?
Whatever about all of the pious aspirations and electioneering speeches employed by countless Irish politicians since the signing of the Treaty, no Irish government, no matter how republican it wished to be seen to be, ever attempted such a solution. For this reason, Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution amounted to little more than pious aspirations, designed for the perusal of international courts as they might have come to be established, rather than for any inherent promise of protection to the Northern minority. Conveniently, they also kept the republican vote in the Fianna Fail ballot box.
Even now, some minds are excited by the prospect of the substitution of the articles by the new so-called people-based clauses in the proposed agreement. There is little need to be overly upset.
The new Article Two, claiming that it is the birthright of every person born in Ireland to be Irish, specifically includes the definition of the island to include its “islands and seas.” While it does not spell out the territorial definitions, there is nothing substantially different in this to the original constitutional aspiration.
The new Article Three merely acknowledges the obvious, that a united Ireland can only be brought about by peaceful means, with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions of the island.
It begins by expressing the “firm will” of the Irish nation to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland.
There is little in either clause that should trouble the most fundamentalist of republicans. The emphasis is merely changed from the territorial to the human dimension.
Few political realists can argue with this. Finally, Sinn Fein and the IRA leadership have now accepted the inevitable. The IRA has also changed its policy, allowing Sinn Fein representatives to sit in any new Stormont assembly. Realism prevails. Greater calm must follow.
And have no fear, David Trimble will get his way as well, despite the opposition of the Orange Order. Truly, we live in exciting times.