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Ideology and the peace process

Henry Patterson

Those who joined the very widespread rush to judgement on the role of David Trimble and his party in creating the current hiatus in the peace process need to make the attempt to understand what would have been asked of rank and file Unionists if the 'Way Forward' document had been implemented. Martin McGuiness would have been Minister of Agriculture and, while he might have been assured of a warm welcome in South Armagh and the Glens of Antrim, how would his first visit to the border region of Fermanagh have been finessed? For two decades and more the comrades of the minister had carried out a brutal cull of protestant farmers in the county. Now, Sinn Fein, backed up by the usual chorus of experts on 'conflict resolution', claim that the 'lessons' of other societies 'coming out of conflict', from South Africa to El Salvador, is that there was no decommissioning as part of the deal and that, after all 'one makes peace with one's enemies not one's friends'.

Of course the lessons from abroad are not that simple. In El Salvador and Nicaragua the FMLN and the Contras agreed to a programme of arms hand-over as part of the process of pacification. There was a recognition that there could be no role for private armies attached to political parties. Many of the problems that have attended the peace processes in these countries arise from the lack of economic and social support for what were mass armies of combatants. In Ireland we are dealing with, at most, a few hundred individuals and where the British state could be guaranteed to be generous to a fault the problems are ideological not material.

Against those like Peter Robinson and Robert McCartney who try to discredit David Trimble by raising visions of Neville Chamberlain, supporters of the Ulster Unionist leader argue that 'appeasement works' - at least in Northern Ireland. Chamberlain's appeasement strategy failed because he treated Hitler as someone interested in a revision of the Versailles settlement, failing to recognise that Nazism was ideologically driven to reject the fundamental assumptions on which the settlement was based. As the historian Mark Mazower puts in his Dark Continent what was at stake was 'a clash of two worlds. Berlin and London were not playing the same game.'

Of course the republican movement is not fascist in any serious historical sense and there are only too many commentators around to point at the Unionists as being once again, 'too thick to know they have won' while republicans are 'too fly to let on that they have lost'. From the dissident republican intellectual Dr Anthony McIntyre to journalists like Suzanne Breen and Ed Moloney, there is one common refrain: that Adams and McGuinness are leading the republican movement into a partitionist settlement and that just as shibboleths like opposition to the consent principle and to participation in any 'partitionist' assembly have been forgotten, so eventually will the IRA's refusal to consider decommissioning.

However, despite the insider knowledge which this analysis is based upon, it neglects one crucial reality - that ideology does have effects. Everybody knows that the British Labour party between the wars was not seriously going to do anything to make a reality of its constitutional commitment to abolish the private ownership of economic resources. Yet its theoretical anti-capitalism did make it unable to embrace more realistic Keynesian ideas for pulling the inter-war economy out of the slump.

Similarly, it may well be true that Gerry Adams thinks of little else than being up there with Arafat and de Clerk in the international peace makers' hall of fame, while Martin McGuinness would love to have the accolades of Unionist beef farmers for his robust defence of their interests in Europe. But where does that leave Brian Keenan and the full-time members of the Army Council, not to mention the remaining 'volunteers'? The journalist Kevin Toolis is guilty of exaggerating the 'religious' dimension of the internal culture of the IRA but he does alert us to an ideological reality which more strategy-oriented approaches to the organisation leave out.

The IRA, whatever its overlap in personnel with Sinn Fein, is a distinct organisation whose history and contemporary existence must - to use the Poulantzian language of the 1960s - have real political and ideological effects. When in the late 1970s the role of Sinn Fein was expanded, it was made clear that this was to be under 'Army' control at all levels. Is this structure of control still operative? It seems unlikely given the major changes that have occurred in the republican movement since then, particularly the massive publicity and status now enjoyed by the party and the inaction - relative though it is - of the IRA. Nevertheless, the much reported overlap of leadership of party and 'army' indicates that the question of the ultimate control of the republican movement is still a central one for the peace process and - if the party continues to grow in the South - for Irish politics.

Since the War of Independence the republican movement has seen tensions and outright conflicts between those who defined themselves as 'soldiers' and those they often disparagingly referred to as 'politicians'. Not only were the 'politicians' guilty of riding to power on the backs of the 'soldiers'; often the latter also thought they had a better grasp of the political objectives of the republican movement and of the strategy necessary to achieve them. When, as in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a marriage of republicanism and marxism the army council could see itself as the central committee - the 'bolsheviks' to the 'social democrats' of the party. This was at least part of the history of the crisis of the Workers' Party.

Peace process optimists and republican cynics base their analysis on what they, probably correctly, understand the reformist and careerist desires of Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders to be. They pay too little account to the resistance of the structures and ideology of the IRA itself. The structures that will be realised if the Good Friday Agreement is implemented are partitionist ones. There is no way in which, from a republican perspective, these can be seen as 'transitional' to unity unless republicans maintain an extra-constitutional leverage. For this reason, decommissioning is unlikely to occur. The question for David Trimble is whether he wants to persuade his party that the best way to force this reality to the attention of both governments and public opinion on the two islands is to accept some variation on what was rejected in July. If he does not, then Unionists will have given up on the best opportunity they are ever likely to have to mercilessly exploit the principal contradiction of their enemy.


Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster


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Revised: 09/02/00