|“I am proud to stand here today as an Irish republican who believes absolutely in a united Ireland.” This was Martin McGuinness’s opening remark after the appointment of ministers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It has been five years since the last session of the assembly. In that time, the loyalists, and in particular the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have put up every obstacle within their power to prevent the power-sharing executive from sitting at Stormont. Yet, despite all this, Sinn Féin has managed to rise above the petty and hypocritical demands of the DUP, refusing to allow the Good Friday Agreement to be turned into a dead letter.
On 8 May 2007, when Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley took up their positions as Deputy First Minister and First Minister respectively, it was rightly heralded as another historic moment in the history of the peace process in Ireland. We will go further and call this a historic moment in the liberation struggle to free Ireland from British domination.
It was not, however, a victory that should be credited to the likes of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern (as most of the British newspapers would have us believe). For example, coverage of the event in The Independent included the following statement: “Witnessing this were two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, basking yesterday in their status as those who stuck with the peace process against such odds and steered it through so many crises.” (‘This moment flies in the face of history. It proves our war is over’, 9 May 2007)
These two figures and the parties they represent have never been the driving force behind the advance of the peace process. British imperialism, after all, was the architect, and has been the colonial beneficiary for many decades, of the division between north and south. The Good Friday Agreement itself came about as a result of the fierce armed struggle waged by the IRA against the occupation of their land that forced the British government to concede to negotiations on a strategy for peace.
From 1994, when Sinn Féin representative Gerry McLochlainn delivered a letter from his party executive to Prime Minister John Major proposing measures for “a lasting peace” , through to the present day, it has been Sinn Féin that has kept up the pressure to end British colonial domination of the north of Ireland. May 2007 is a culmination of decades of armed and political struggle with the aims of ending British occupation of the six counties and progressing towards a united Ireland.
In three decades of bitter guerrilla warfare prior to the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA survived and became strengthened, defying brutal suppression by the Army and the RUC, SAS killer squads, rigged diplock courts, internment without trial, and the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act. In the cause of Irish liberation, IRA volunteers embraced struggle without fear. The nationalist population confronted the British army with breathtaking audacity time and time again. Hundreds of brave Irish men and women went to jail, and many were brutally murdered – whether by the Crown’s security forces, the RUC, or the loyalist killer gangs tipped off by the security forces under, and in close cooperation with, whom these gangs operated. Such heroic sacrifices forced British imperialism and its loyalist stooges alike to the negotiating table.
In recent years, the underlying economic motivation for British imperialism to continue using unionism to defend its control of the north of Ireland has been steadily diminishing. The industrial strength of the north, which was the focus around which the gerrymandered partition of Ireland took place over 80 years ago, has been greatly reduced, and so the crumbs left over for unionists to benefit from have also diminished, leaving many working-class protestant communities, used previously to relatively privileged conditions with decent housing and full employment, sinking lower and lower into unemployment and deprivation.
The diminishing economic returns, combined with the continued struggle, both political and military, of Sinn Féin and the IRA, has left British imperialism with few alternatives for the future of its first colony. The big question now for imperialism is what kind of Ireland will be left behind when it finally has to leave. But in spite of the present Labour government’s repeated dirty tricks aimed at sidelining Sinn Féin and undermining its influence, Britain has so far been unsuccessful in dividing the support and undermining the prestige of the republican movement..
DUP brought to the table kicking and screaming
The restoration of the assembly cannot be claimed as a victory by Ian Paisley and the DUP either. As mentioned above, it has been the intention of the DUP ever since the signing of the GFA to scupper any possibility of the power-sharing executive being convened while Sinn Féin were participating. Nevertheless, the repeated demands and stalling tactics used by the DUP, while successful in slowing it down, have failed in the final analysis to put a stop to the progress of the agreement. Throughout this process, while the unionists have been demanding full decommissioning from the IRA, they have of course known full well that the unionist paramilitaries have not reciprocated, Ironically, the result of this hypocrisy has been an increase in gang warfare between the various unionist paramilitaries.
The restoration of the assembly has been the result of some deft political struggle on the part of Sinn Féin. Seeing Ian Paisley, the arch enemy of a united Ireland, sitting next to Gerry Adams is something that many believed would not happen, and yet with this step the possibility of a united Ireland comes ever closer.
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are to head the 12-member executive, with Paisley as First Minister and McGuiness as Deputy First Minister. The remaining positions have been allocated according to the percentage of seats each party gained in the assembly elections. The DUP has four ministers, who are responsible for finance, the economy, environment and culture. Sinn Féin has three ministers, responsible for regional development, agriculture and education. The Ulster Unionist Party (DUP) has two ministers, responsible for employment and health, while the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) will be handling social development.
Elections in Ireland
In the March elections in the north of Ireland, Sinn Féin increased its support across the six counties. With the May elections following in the other 26 counties there had been great expectation that they would also increase their strength within the government of the south.
Bertie Ahern was re-elected as the Taoiseach of Ireland with Fianna Fail winning 78 of the 166 seats in the Dail, while Fine Gael obtained 51 of the seats. However, despite strong campaigning and positive feedback through pre-election polls, Sinn Féin reduced their number of seats from 5 to 4 rather than doubling them, as had been anticipated.
Speaking at the RDS in Dublin on 25 May after the first round of results had been announced, Gerry Adams expressed disappointment, commenting that Sinn Féin had been ‘squeezed’ out in the battle between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Nevertheless, he reiterated that: “We still have big issues to be sorted out. The issues which we tried to get debates on like public services, the economy, serving the people, a united Ireland, the equality agenda, all those issues still need to be sorted out and we’ll be there to sort them out.
“I lost a seat myself in west Belfast, and we came back and we’ll come back again.” (Quoted in ‘Adams Admits SF “squeezed” in Dublin’, www.ireland.com, 26 May 2007)
In passing, we note that the Irish Labour Party’s hatred of Sinn Féin was put in a nutshell just prior to the poll by a comment from its leader Pat Rabbitte. The predictions at that time were that Fianna Fail might do less well and that its coalition with the progressive democrats could depend on Sinn Féin’s support. Mr Rabbitte did not rule out the suggestion that Labour Party could make a stable coalition with Fianna Fail, stating that he did not “look forward to the prospect of Labour being asked …. to put Fianna Fail back in office” but going on to say emphatically: “I don’t want to see Sinn Féin driving economic policies or other polices.” In the event, the Labour Party was not in a position to decide anything, its alliance with FG emerging even weaker than had been predicted. (Quoted in ‘Boost for Ahern as Irelands Labour leader hints at deal’, The Guardian, 25 May 2007)
In conclusion, we must emphasise that all the hype about the ‘noble’ and ‘courageous’ roles of Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Hume, David Trimble (the last two being rewarded with honours, although in fact the reward was not for moving the process forward, which they did not do, but for their opposition to republicanism generally and Sinn Féin in particular) is a diversion from recognition of the real architects and drivers of this whole process, namely Sinn Féin, the IRA and the republican community.
There will undoubtedly be further setbacks and zigzags, but the skill and tenacity with which the armalite and the ballot box has been wielded does give confidence for the future of Irish republicanism.
Gerry Adams, speaking on 8 May, summed up: “We as republicans can develop and build and work and seek support for our vision of a united Ireland, of an Ireland of equals where everyone has rights. We have the right to a society where citizens are treated on the basis of equality. We want to change the political landscape from here on out. We are going to succeed.” (Quoted in ‘A good day for Ireland’, An Phoblacht, 10 May 2007)
> Paisleyites outmanoeuvred as devolution returns to the six counties - April 2007
> Sinn Fein membership approves moves on policing - February 2007