Sinn Fein's ambiguity fuels dissidents' cause
The more Sinn Fein praises what the 'armed struggle' has achieved, the more it pushes a new generation towards the breakaway groups, argues Henry McDonald
Paradoxically, dissidents opposed to the peace process will take some comfort from Martin McGuinness's Easter Sunday address in Co Derry. Paradoxically, because his very words will be used by those recalcitrant republicans as an example of the double-speak and creative ambiguity of the 'peace party' of mainstream modern republicanism.
Even a cursory analysis of the key parts of McGuinness's speech at The Loup at the weekend illuminate a fault line in Sinn Fein's logic which the dissidents can easily exploit.
The deputy First Minister used the 1916 commemoration in his Mid-Ulster constituency to brand the Real IRA, Continuity IRA, Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) and others as futile, stupid and selfish.
Close your eyes and pretend to be in a time-machine, setting the date to anywhere between 1970 and 1972 and you could transpose this speech onto the lips of Cathal Goulding of the Official IRA who used the same language to denounce the nascent Provisionals.
It is worth assessing some of McGuinness's claims.
n Quote 1: "People should be under no illusion. The small factions currently engaging in armed actions are not the IRA and they are not advancing national and democratic objectives by their activities."
Hold on a minute. Didn't the likes of Goulding and Sean Garland attempt to portray the breakaway faction within republicanism in 1969-70 as "not the IRA" as well? Moreover, did they not argue that armed actions of this emerging faction would never advance Irish unity?
Furthermore, the Sinn Fein MP told his audience that Irish unity could only be achieved peacefully and democratically and with unionist support.
Again, the question has to be raised: didn't those who set out on the Goulding strategy not advance the view that the reunification of the country could only come about with the consent of a cross-community majority in the North; that only by winning unionists over to the idea of a unitary state?
n Quote 2: "Irish people are united in support of the Good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough Agreements. Attempting to overturn the will of the Irish people is not only futile but stupid and selfish."
This claim implies that armed action is not justified if the majority of people on the island support an alternative, peaceful road.
Yet, back in 1974, it was clear that the majority of nationalist Ireland at least (leaving aside unionist opposition) supported the Sunningdale power-sharing settlement. The Provisionals, of which McGuinness admitted he was a senior member, constantly defied that popular will, arguing that they drew their legitimacy from the injustice of partition.
n Quote 3: "Those who believe that Ireland be reunited without the support of the Irish people are living in a fool's paradise."
Which begs a serious question for the likes of McGuinness, Gerry Adams and other veterans of the Provisional movement: were they living in a "fool's paradise" between the years 1969 and 1994?
n Quote 4: "They [the IRA] were a revolutionary force who, when an opportunity to advance the struggle for Irish unity through peaceful means was established, removed itself from the political equation."
Again, such a claim does not correspond to historical truth. Successive British governments stated that, if there was a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of fusing with the Republic, then they would not stand in their way. There was always space for political forces to argue for Irish unity through peaceful means. The Provisionals simply caught up with the rest of mainstream nationalist Ireland.
n Quote 5: "The IRA by its nature was of the people and for the people. It could not have survived and fought the British state the way it did if it was small and unrepresentative."
It is fair to say that the Provisional IRA was a large, resilient and sophisticated organisation. It did have popular support within the northern nationalist community, particularly the Catholic working class. However, it never eclipsed the SDLP in terms of votes until the IRA was leaving the stage and Sinn Fein was evolving into a fully constitutional party.
The organisation did, indeed, survive - even in the face of mass opprobrium following massacres such as Enniskillen, Warrington and the Shankill Road bomb.
The key to the dissident's survival is contained in one word - ideology. No matter how counter-productive, or nihilistic, their campaign appears to most people, these republican diehards revel in the concept of being outsiders and outcasts. Indeed, they can - and do - still draw strength from the very event that Martin McGuinness was commemorating at The Loup on Sunday.
In modern times, the dissidents can contend that the more Sinn Fein leaders laud the tradition of 'armed resistance' every Easter, and the almost weekly commemorations the party holds all over Ireland to various fallen comrades, the more it convinces a new generation that there is still unfinished business to be dealt with.