By GERRY FOLEY
On May 27, the Ulster Unionist Party council agreed by a vote of 53 to 47 percent to accept the IRA offer to put its weapons under the control of “neutral” arbitrators and to return to the power-sharing parliament of Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement that set up the devolved parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, stipulated that it could only function on the basis of collaboration between nationalists and Unionists. It was unilaterally dissolved by the British government some months ago when the Unionists walked out over the refusal of the IRA to give up its weapons.
The vote of the Unionist Council continues the process begun with the Good Friday Agreement, which was based on the Irish Republicans’ accepting the right of self-determination of the Protestant colony in Northern Ireland.
The militant nationalist leadership has now been drawn deeper into the trap they entered into when they accepted the power-sharing agreement. They have surrendered an important part of the basis of their movement, at least part of its ability to defend the nationalist ghettos, in return for parliamentary positions.
At the same time, the close vote in the Unionist Council points up the reluctance of the Protestant colony to give the slightest concessions to the nationalist population. It leaves a sword of Damocles hanging over the militant nationalists. Any affront to the Unionists could tip the balance and bring the power-sharing agreement down, ousting them again from their positions and perks.
Within the context of the agreement, the militant nationalist party, Sinn Fein, has continued to make electoral gains in both parts of Ireland. As the heir of a revolutionary struggle, it looks cleaner and fresher to many voters than the old parliamentary parties, even if its surrender of revolutionary principles has brought the masses of those who vote for it no discernible benefits.
A new critical journal
However, within the militant nationalist, or Republican, movement, there is growing criticism of a strategy that is moving further and further from the ideas and goals that most of the movement’s fighters held during the struggle. One expression of this is the emergence of the Republican Writers Group and its magazine, Fourthright, of which the first issue, dated “Spring 2000,” has just been published. This current as yet has no political program or alternative. It is simply critical, the start of a rethinking process.
The editorial in the first issue of Fourthright defined the project as follows: “The Irish Republican Writers Group, small in number, is an amalgamation of people inclined toward radical politics. It includes both those who oppose the Belfast Agreement [the power-sharing treaty] and those who support it. As a body, its defining comment on republicanism is that it must be extensively democratic.”
The lead article by Tommy McKearney, leader of the first IRA prisoners’ hunger strike in 1980, developed the theme of democracy: “Are we content to confine democracy to electoral participation, or are we capable of expanding it to include practical economic, social, and intellectual democracy?
“Are we able to create a social order that provides for the poor, the young, the old, and the weak? Are we able to produce a foreign policy that is genuinely ethical and not designed to lean on the whims of the regulators of modern global capitalism?”
In an interview in the center pages, Brendan Hughes, an organizer of IRA prisoners’ struggles during the period of the hunger strikes, expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the long struggle:
“All the questions raised in the course of this struggle have not been answered and the republican struggle has not been concluded. We were naive ever to have expected the Brits to get on the boat and go. But the things that we cherished such as a 32-county [all-Ireland] democratic socialist republic, are no longer mentioned.”
On the back page, Dr. Mark Hayes even questioned the traditional republican strategy of armed struggle, in an article on Tom Williams, an IRA leader executed during World War II:
“Republicans will have to come to terms with the unpalatable truth that the aspirations for which Tom Williams and many others fought and died will not be the end product of the current [peace] process. When the inherent weaknesses of the contemporary strategy have been evaluated and assimilated, and while rejecting the facile ‘solution’ of the unreconstructed militarists [i.e., a return to guerrilla warfare], the Republican movement may have to re-articulate its political demands in a qualitatively different way.”