one [Irish News] reader's letter correctly
pointed out that the Provisional Movement's radical
move was to take up SDLP policy (24 January), the
author's explanation of that new departure is insufficient.
first reason for such a shift is that there is an
essential discontinuity between the Provisional
movement and the Republican tradition. Traditionally,
the Catholic population of the North has been Nationalist
rather than Republican. Remember that it was in
1983 that Gerry Adams became the first ever Sinn
Fein MPs to be elected in Belfast.
De Valera couldn't achieve that. Anthony McIntyre
has correctly argued that the Provisional movement
was more the product of certain structural factors
rather than tradition spawned ideological factors,
and was born out of conjonctural protest rather
than the reigniting of some long dormant flame.
Provisional Republicanism is for the most part a
1969 phenomenon, it truly arose from the ashes of
Belfast's Bombay Street in 1969 and not the rubble
of Dublin's O'Connell Street in 1916. Many people
joined or supported the Provisional movement because
they needed to defend their homes and streets and
suffered from economic discrimination, political
and cultural marginalisation and state repression;
and not because of a strong sense of traditional
republican ideology and history.
is why the pejorative label 'sixty niners' is applied
to the vast amount of militants who joined the IRA
in reaction to the loyalist pogroms of 1969. They
joined to defend their homes and streets, not the
1916 Republic. Strictly speaking, they were more
'armed nationalists' than Republicans. The Provisional
movement provided the organisational means for defence,
defiance and dissent. Given that Northern Catholics
were more Nationalist than Republicans and the dominance
of 'defenderism', the move towards a constitutional
nationalist position is not surprising.
The second reason lies in the contradictions of
the electoral strategy.
the 1980s, the Provisional movement adopted a strategy
that combined armed struggle with electoral interventions.
The problem with elections is that that the more
rigid the principles, the fewer the votes, and the
more diluted the principles, the more the votes.
At first, it presented itself as a 'Socialist Republican'
party. But this had no appeal to those who considered
themselves simply Republicans and not Socialist
Republican. So it dropped the 'Socialist' label
and stated that a vote for Sinn Fein was not a vote
for Socialism but for Republicanism. But, if Sinn
Fein was to limit itself to a 'Republican' constituency,
its electoral base would be limited to those sympathetic
to Republicanism. So in order to increase its number
of votes, to extend its base from Ballymurphy to
Balmoral, it had to appeal to the middle class Catholic
Nationalists who vote SDLP and Fianna Fail in the
South. While in 1985 Adams had suggested that it
might not be a good idea for Sinn Fein to overtake
the SDLP electorally, as it would result in a dilution
of social radicalism, by November 1986 he was telling
Irish Times that socialism was not on the agenda.
The party increased adoption of the SDLP's rhetoric
and positions gradually followed. The aim was to
become the largest 'Nationalist' party.
result is that now Sinn Fein styles itself and its
constituency as 'Nationalist' rather than Republican.
third reason is that the electoral strategy began
a gradual process of institutionalization and bureaucratization
of the Provisional movement. In theory, the Republican
objective is to overthrow the Northern and Southern
states. That was what the IRA armed struggle in
the North was about. But while the IRA was bombing
and destroying City Halls as a symbol of the state,
Sinn Fein councilor were de facto accepting the
state and trying to make it work by using it as
a source of income, funding community initiatives,
investment for social development projects etc.
Rather than providing an alternative structure to
the state, Sinn Fein was now susceptible to cooption
by the state. This pragmatic acceptance of the state
reinforced an increasing ideological vacuum and
growing political schizophrenia. For example, the
Republican movement traditionally considered itself
to be the legitimate government of Ireland, and
the IRA the sole legitimate army. In 1986, Provisional
Sinn Fein, in order to grow electorally decided
to recognize the legitimacy of the Southern Irish
parliament and Dublin government. The problem is
that once the legitimacy of the Dublin government
is recognized, there cannot be two legitimate governments
and two legitimate armies; one has to recognize
that the official Irish army is the only legitimate
army and that an illegal army is therefore illegitimate.
But the Provisional have kept on holding to their
army up to this day.
fourth reason is the logic of pan-nationalism. Since
the 1980/1981 hunger strikes, the Provisional movement
has increasingly turned towards the Dublin government,
the SDLP and corporate Irish America, the Catholic
church and relied on secret diplomacy. This 'broad
front' culminated in the 'pan-nationalist alliance'
of the 1990s. But how 'broad' can you get?
seriously weakened republicanism's anti-partitionist
thrust, as those elements have always been much
more hostile to the IRA than to British involvement
in Ireland. It is not the Dublin government, the
SDLP and the Clinton/Bush administration that have
come to the Republican position, but rather the
Provisional movement which has moved to the constitutional
nationalist position. Republicanism has been diluted
in the pan-nationalist alliance.
believe that those four reasons best explain the
Provisional's movement political and ideological
shift towards the positions of the SDLP.