the wake of the count of Wednesday's Assembly's election,
it was perhaps inevitable that attention would focus
upon the troubles besetting Unionist leader, David
Trimble and the electoral triumph enjoyed by Sinn
Fein over their long time rivals in the SDLP. The
latter result, accorded the status of a political
earthquake by some over-excited correspondents, reversed
the outcome of the 1998 contest between them, with
the Provos this time winning 24 seats to the SDLP's
18 and the (theoretical) right to nominate the next
Deputy First Minister.
the media pundits get too intoxicated, it might be
wise to put a number of things into context. On the
Catholic side of the election result this was not
a victory of one ideology over another, but rather
the outcome of a contest between two adherents of
the same ideology with the slightly younger, more
financially sound (thanks to generous subsidies from
corporate Irish-America), more aggressively led, more
media friendly and more tribally assertive of the
two winning out.
days when clear blue (or should that be green?) political
water separated the SDLP and Sinn Fein have long gone.
Article by article, Sinn Fein have stolen all the
SDLP's ideological garments in one of the most shameless
and devious hold-up's in Irish political history.
As the Provos embraced the principle of consent and
parliamentary reformism, long the defining characteristics
of the SDLP, they ditched their guns, talk of revolution
and, paragraph by paragraph, whatever left-wing programme
they had once preached. So advanced is this process
by now, that any resemblence between the Provos of
2003 and the Provos as they existed, say twenty years
ago is, as they say, entirely coincidental.
To try, therefore, to portray Wednesday's election
result as a victory for "Republicanism",
or a vindication of strategy to obtain by constitutional
methods what cannot be won by force, is an absurd
exercise, comical if it were not so serious, rather
like describing Tony Blair's 1997 election in Britain
as a triumph for socialism. If the Provos that emerged
from the 1981 hunger strike had defeated the SDLP,
then that would have been something to wonder at.
But the Provos of 2003 beating the SDLP? I don't think
so. The acid test is contained in these two questions:
which of those two results, the Provos of 1981 or
2003 winning, would really have worried the British
and Irish political establishments? And would George
W Bush have hosted Gerry Adams in the Throne Room
at Hillsborough Castle if he was the same firebrand
we knew in 1981?
That's the first lesson from Wednesday's election.
The second is that the pundits are wrong to focus
so much attention on the significance of David Trimble's
woes. True, he has suffered a grievous political wound
which may both end his political career and strengthen
hardliners within his own party. And it would be foolish
to ignore or minimise all that.
But serious though the consequences are for Trimble,
they are, potentially, no less serious for Gerry Adams
and his colleagues in the Provo leadership - although
this aspect of the election result is unlikely to
attract as much comment and analysis.
The reasons for this lie in the claims made for their
strategy by the Sinn Fein/Army Council leadership.
The first boast is that the strategy is splintering,
and thereby weakening Unionism. This was always a
dubious claim to make in the first place, since back
in the 1970's, when the IRA's armed campaign was in
full overdrive, there were more divisions and sub-divisions
of Unionism than emerged in the wake of the Good Friday
Agreement. And division, it is important to remember,
is first cousin to democratic debate, a healthy phenomenon
that is largely a stranger to the inhabitants of Connolly
Leaving aside that argument, the claim that the Sinn
Fein/IRA strategy is shredding Unionism has been comprehensively
undermined by Wednesday's election result. Far from
dividing into more and more squabbling and rival groups,
Unionism last week came together, propelled by scepticism
about the Good Friday Agreement, into two large blocs
represented by the DUP and the Ulster Unionists. Where
once there were ten or more Assembly members not linked
to the two large Unionist parties, now there are only
two, Bob McCartney and David Ervine, both of whom
were lucky to get re-elected. And the divisions within
the Ulster Unionists, between the Trimble and Donaldson
wings, between a "soft" and a "hard"
approach to the Sinn Fein party, may also count for
less given the blows suffered by the UUP leader. The
Adams strategy, far from dividing Unionism, is solidifying
second claim made for the Adams' strategy is that
it will lead to a United Ireland. The theory behind
this claim is that by forging a successful electoral
strategy, Sinn Fein will get their hands on the levers
of power in the North, becoming mnisters, and even
one day perhaps, Deputy First Minister, in a power-sharing
government in Belfast.
In parallel with that, and feeding off the popularity
of the accompanying ceasefires, Sinn Fein would build
up political strength in the South, possibly ending
up as partners in a coalition government with Fianna
Fail. Able to exert power on both sides of the Border,
Gerry Adams and his colleagues would steer us all,
slowly but steadily (by 2016, we are told!), towards
the Nirvana of Irish unity.
That, at least, was the theory but it was dependent
upon the existence of a viable Assembly and power-sharing
Executive at Stormont. That, in an important sense,
was the engine of the strategy - but also its weakness.
The first part of all that, creating electoral success,
has been largely accomplished, especially in the North.
But there is no point in winning elections unless
they are elections to something that wields power,
especially if your long term strategy depends on it.
And in the wake of Wednesday's results the likelihood
of that existing while Ian Paisley Snr is still alive,
is remote in the extreme.
Under Gerry Adams' leadership, the IRA and Sinn Fein
have abandoned swathes of ideological high ground,
accepting previously heretical ideas such as the principle
of consent and the legitimacy of the post-1921 arrangements,
in the pursuit of power. In the process, through lengthy,
debilitating ceasefires and the negotiation of troop
withdrawals, prisoner releases, weapons decommissioning
and a transformation of the mood on the ground, they
have so weakened the IRA that they have made the alternative
of armed struggle an option that cannot be returned
And in exchange for all these irrevocable concessions,
Adams now faces the prospect of getting almost nothing
in return, nothing except victory over the SDLP -
no Assembly, no power-sharing Ministers, no Deputy
First Minister, no cross-Border bodies to sit upon,
no policing committees to infiltrate, no quangos to
subvert. And, most importantly, no engine to drive
the electoral machine in the South. In short, he faces
potential disaster. Without the Stormont Assembly,
without the power-sharing Executive, the Adams' strategy
is robbed of all meaning.
In the absence of the Good Friday Agreement will come
direct rule from London, with an input from Dublin.
Most Unionists, and ultimately most Catholics, as
well as the British and Irish governments will be
content with prolonged direct rule, as long as it
is fair and they can be sure that the IRA has been
de-fanged and cannot go back to war. A power-sharing
Executive may have been the ideal for some of them
but if it cannot be attained, and provided there can
be no return to violence, they will all live with
it. Equally the prospect of joint authority being
established instead is non-existent; where are the
pressure points for that?
The metaphor has often been used comparing the Provos
to a shark and like all metaphors it has its limits,
not least in the fact that the Provo shark is much
less menacing, given that it is rapidly losing its
teeth. But the comparison is all about movement; a
shark has to always swim forward, otherwise it drowns,
and so do the Provos. Direct rule for them is like
dragging a shark backwards through a stagnant marsh.
It will kill them.
It is worthwhile, for a moment, to recall why this
has happened. The IRA's refusal or reluctance to transparently
decommission its weapons was the factor which so weakened
David Trimble that it has now brought him and the
Good Friday Agreement down. The reason there was no
transparency was because if there had been, then the
Army Council would not have been able to lie to their
supporters, to tell them there had been no weapons
destroyed when there had.
This was but one instance of the fundamental dishonesty
and deceit built into the IRA's peace strategy, built
into it by the Adams' leadership. The lies were there
to re-assure the rank and file that there was no sell
out, that no matter what the appearance, the reality
was the opposite. And so, for instance, when the ceasefires
were called the base was told they would be temporary
and would be ended as soon as it became clear that
the British would not name a date for withdrawal.
In the same way, the base was told decommissioning
would never happen and then when it did, that they
had tricked General de Chastelain, and the IRA's weapons
had not been touched. And so on. Adams and his allies
could never tell their followers what the real strategy
was, for to do so would have been to invite their
If the same deceit drove the impulse to bring down
Trimble, then there is an irony of historical proportions
here, and it is this: Gerry Adams constructed a clever
strategy which was based on lies and dissembling.
For a long while it succeeded and did so dramatically
and to the applause of the British, Irish and US governments.
But the same deceit and duplicity now threatens to
pitch the strategy, and its architect, into the dustbin
of history. Gerry Adams once stood on the cusp of
political triumph; last week he was on the verge of
being just another might-have-been, the victim of
his own chicanery.
There is only one way he can change that - and we
all know what that is.
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives