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Monday, 29 January 2007

Take it down from the mast


So, the Provos’ Extraordinary Ard Fheis has voted by over 80% to endorse the ard chomhairle’s blockbuster motion on policing. This marks a further qualitative stage in the transformation of the Provisionals into Fianna Fáil Mark II. It’s hard to say whether this is the point of no return – so many Rubicons have been passed that it’s difficult to believe that anybody still gives credence to the Provos’ claims to be any sort of radical force. But what does the Ard Fheis decision mean?

First off, regular readers will be aware that I’m not in favour of accepting policing. The reasons for this are very simple. I’m not claiming that the current PSNI is exactly the same as the old RUC, although the changes made to policing practice are not half as significant as the PR would have it. Basically, any northern police force cannot but be a pillar of imperialism, and cannot but be a sectarian force. RSF correctly pointed out that the old RIC had lots of Catholic officers, but that didn’t stop it being a British force pledged to uphold British rule. I would add to that the point that non-sectarian policing in the North is impossible for the same reason that you can’t have non-sectarian unionism; that since partition, the Northern state has been based on the maintenance of sectarian privilege, and the armed wing of the Northern state must by its very nature enforce that state of affairs.

Now, the main argument put for joining the policing structures is that you can influence policing in a positive direction, making real, far-reaching changes instead of just taking a few rough edges off the old RUC. That is essentially the argument put by the SDLP in 2001, and Grizzly only differed in setting the bar slightly higher in terms of reform. This is quite persuasive, if you think the Northern state is reformable. Leaving aside the ludicrous Ard Fheis claims that supporting policing would undermine partition, that really is the key point. For decades republicans, and the majority of socialists, have taken the view that the North was irreformable. Against that was the Humeite view that sectarianism was a mere excrescence on Northern politics, and it was possible to have a Six-County state where genuine democracy and equality could exist. That is the view that the vast majority of Ard Fheis delegates have embraced.

I won’t waste too much time on the speeches from the ardán: since the latter-day Provos have developed a political culture whereby lying is held to be the height of sophistication, there is only so much you can take. I have a theory that when Elvis shot the TV, Mitchel McLaughlin was on. But to briefly recap the lowlights, Grizzly did his usual language-mangling turn, replete with all sorts of references to issues that push republican buttons but are of dubious relevance to the actual debate; copious backslapping of his intelligent and well-informed audience; and lots of gobbledegook about this concept of “civic policing” he has been pushing recently. Gerry Kelly was Grizzly without the folksiness, and I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse; the god-awful Mary Lou McDonald offered up further evidence that she never really left Fianna Fáil; and Marty McGuinness gave his well-honed “Is mise an Ghluaiseacht” speech.

And of course the delegates lapped up this tripe. Even the few dissenters loudly pledged their support for party unity. There was no walkout, which was disappointing but hardly surprising. In fact, not even the margin of victory was surprising, for a number of reasons. Most obvious of these is the arm-twisting that went on at cumann level in the run-up to the Ard Fheis. More importantly, there aren’t many ideological republicans left in Sinn Féin Nua: many have left, others are keeping a low profile, and there are many many people in the Provos who have basically stopped being republicans in anything but a Platonic sense, if they were ever republicans in the first place. There is a whole generation of party members, especially in the South, which believes itself to be radical (and that can cause the Gerryites some problems, as over a possible coalition at Leinster House) but has had zero education in principled politics. And finally, the leadership remained united – there was simply nobody of any stature willing to challenge Gerry, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future.

And this leaves us with the question I keep getting posed – what’s the alternative? A glib response would be to say that I wouldn’t have got myself into this position to start with – it’s difficult for me to put what PSF supporters would see as credible alternatives, because we aren’t arguing from the same premises. A better question to ask might be, what force could pose as an alternative pole of attraction? No easy answers to that one, but it at least allows us to look at the dynamics of the republican base, and the strengths and weaknesses of the tendencies that might aspire to be an alternative.

PS. I spy in today's News Letter an opinion piece by Malachi O'Doherty urging Big Ian to stand firm and not be taken in by Gerry's honeyed words. At least, that's what I think it says underneath the tangled syntax. Thus does Norn Iron's leading progressive intellectual find himself to the right of Peter Robinson.

10 comments:

ejh said...

A pedantic note - Rubicons are crossed, not passed.

splinteredsunrise said...

Of course you're right - it's a long time since I read Caesar.

Phil BC said...

I know this is a big question and I'm asking it from a position of ignorance, but what remaining privileges do the protestants/loyalists have vis a vis the NI statelet that the Catholics do not?

ejh said...

The likelihood that the police will come to your aid if you're getting a kicking in the middle of Portadown?

Phil BC said...

I was thinking more along the lines of material privileges. For instance, better chances of employment, better treatment in the workplace, overall higher wages, that sort of thing.

Paul said...

I would add to that the point that non-sectarian policing in the North is impossible for the same reason that you can’t have non-sectarian unionism; that since partition, the Northern state has been based on the maintenance of sectarian privilege, and the armed wing of the Northern state must by its very nature enforce that state of affairs.

Unionism's raison d'etre is (rather obviously)the preserving of the link with the rest of the UK. That link will continue whilst the majority of people (irrespective of religion) continue to vote via Border Referendum for the status quo to continue. Whilst it is unfortunately all too evident that too many of its supporters hold sectarian attitudes, it is incredibly simplistic to say:

1. Unionism is in 2007 incapable of being non-sectarian
2. That its survival depends on the "continuance" of "sectarian priveledge

Its survivial dependes on moving outside the sectarian mindset (which also SF utilises to their advantage when it suits)

The likelihood that the police will come to your aid if you're getting a kicking in the middle of Portadown?

Do you really belive that exactly the same outcome would have happened with the PSNI?

ejh said...

I dunno. I guess people will find out, won't they?

(I should say, by the way, that I'm not from NI and my personal experience of the place amounts to three days in Ballycastle one July, a trip to the distillery at Bushmills and an evening watching an AC/DC tribute band with a mate who worked at the Queen's Ballroom in Belfast. (Plus the Tour beforehand, naturally.)

splinteredsunrise said...

Paul, I accept it was hypothetically possible to have non-sectarian unionism before partition. Not since. You can't have non-sectarian unionism for the same sort of reason you can't have a liberal Pope. It just isn't in the nature of the beast.

This isn't BTW a question of how many unionists hold sectarian attitudes. It's a very simple question of whether or not unionism is by its nature sectarian. Institutionally sectarian, if you will.

I refer in this to Lord Kilclooney, who has quite bluntly stated that Catholics can of course have rights in the North, just not equal rights - because real equality would undermine the Northern state. I agree with Kilclooney.

Paul said...

This isn't BTW a question of how many unionists hold sectarian attitudes. It's a very simple question of whether or not unionism is by its nature sectarian. Institutionally sectarian, if you will.

I've got to still disagree I'm afraid. I'd take the opposite attitude there are sectarian Unionists undoubtedly, there was agreat deal of institutional sectarianism in NI 1921-1980-ish.

But I can make the argument for the Union on several non-religion connected grounds; economic, secular, multicultural, social.

Also Taylor got it so wrong with that quote. Equal rights for everybody means only that we have an equal playing field, where the case for the Union and a UI have to be argued on non-sectarian grounds (something if you scratch the surface incidently you'll find SF also are incapable of doing)Argued another way equal rights-more stable society-growth of middle-class-less inclination to rock the boat, status quo remains.

WorldbyStorm said...

I'm sort of with Paul on this one splinteredsunrise. I can't see an intrinsic reason (i.e. because Unionism is Unionism) why it had to be of it's nature sectarian post partition or why that would necessarily be true of all of Unionism today. I can see why it did retain sectarian aspects due to historical reasons and why Stormont sustained them. But Unionism itself? Nah - just don't see it anymore than Scottish Unionism is necessarily sectarian.

There are strands of Unionism that could make a strong case for the continuation of the Union in an environment where all religious issues were removed from the table (indeed it's depressing but unsurprising that that dynamic appears to be so slow).

To be honest I don't really see these as essentially political issues (in so far as both states are willing to work closely with each other and the UK is willing to cede some degree of sovereignty), but as identity issues. And in that respect I find it difficult to sustain the 'imperialist' argument.