Irish nationalism and the peace process

Interview with Bernadette McAliskey

This interview appeared in the May 1999 German-language Irland Almanach, edited by Jürgen Schneider. It was conducted on April 6, 1999, in Coalisland, County Tyrone, by Ralf Sotscheck, Irish and British correspondent for the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung. Bernadette McAliskey, a leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement of the 1960s, was a Westminster MP in the early 1970s and is a long-time human rights activist.

You stated some time ago that the peace process cannot and will not lead to the achievement of the just and democratic ideals to which people gave their liberty and their lives. Do you reject the peace process, or what's your position now?

I still have exactly the same analysis of the peace process. I think that over the period of time in which it has been played out, the analysis has proved to be correct. I do not take any great joy in that.

We do not have peace, but the absence of war has dramatically reduced the amount of death in the community. That is a direct consequence of the absence of war, not the existence of peace. The present difficulties in which the Republican movement now find themselves bear out my analysis. Mr Ahern's [Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister] participation in the joint prime ministerial statement is a clear abandonment of any shoulder to shoulder stand alongside the Republican movement.

There is very little point in Mr Adams [Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams] saying this is the result of the Unionists' "pressurising"—this is the way it was meant to turn out. It has just been a long time coming.

I said at the beginning that I believed the process was a pacification process. It was not a resolution of conflict. It had a British agenda. It was British-created. It is the same agenda the British created in 1972. Its purpose was to demoralise, demobilise and demilitarise the resistance movement. At this stage that is almost complete.

You also wrote in 1996, "This peace process's aim is to eradicate Republicanism, not violence". Could you elaborate?

Despite the efforts of the Republican movement, nobody other than the Republican movement, even now at the virtual completion of the process, identifies the war for what it was. The equation in terms of violence that is now being generally made equates the Republican armed struggle with the counter-revolutionary and hate-inspired, racist-inspired, violence of the loyalists. It is not viewed as an armed resistance to the armed imposition of the British government's authority.

There is no equation of the Republican movement on the one side, and the British government on the other, in terms of an anti-imperialist struggle. Rather, the British and Irish governments are drawn in as the joint arbiters and referees of what has been seen and what it has been reduced to. In the populist image, it is seen in terms of some kind of fairly equally balanced, trenchant and entrenched tribal attitudes. So republicanism has essentially been reduced to a form of national extremism. This is not what this struggle was about.

Republicanism, and the Republican movement, having essentially thrown their lot in with the Hibernian Alliance, are now in the position they were inevitably going to be in. They do not have the strength, no matter how they view themselves, to be the main protagonists in this alliance—and the rest of the alliance has now joined up against them.

John Hume, leader of the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party], is very happy with the April Fool's Declaration calling for "acts of reconciliation", "voluntary obligations"—the thing becomes farcical. The reality is that Mr Hume and the Social Democrats, Mr Ahern and the Irish government, are the main players here. Mr Clinton and the Irish Americans who wield their authority through the Democratic Party, are all now on the same side as Tony Blair and Mr [David] Trimble [Ulster Unionist Party leader] on this issue. Therefore it is Republicanism which is going to be weakened here.

Moreover, to get here, Republicans have, centimetre by centimetre, conceded principle after principle until now, whether they get into government or not, is irrelevant in terms of the settlement. It is irrelevant in terms of the needs of the working class in this country. Their social, economic and political agenda is now virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the Hibernian Alliance.

In that sense that is what this was about: pacifying, constitutionalising and de-radicalising the Republican leadership in terms of its politics; demobilising it as a force for social, economic and political resistance. I think it has been very effective.

Has it been? What about the splits?

I think it has been extremely effective. The weight of opposition at the beginning meant that people like myself—a very small grouping: myself, Éamonn McCann, John Meehan, others—who were on the left and were making a coherent socialist, democratic criticism of this agreement, were accused of being militarist—after 30 years—by recently demilitarised militarists! We were effectively sidelined.

The loyalty of the rank and file of the Republican movement, which had sustained the resistance movement for 30 years, was called in to unquestioningly trust the leadership, which it did. That required the brooking of no dissent and no debate.

As that began to fragment, the small splits away from it have not, in my view anyway, managed to coherently analyse the agreement, or to mount any serious political opposition to it. That may come in the fullness of time. At the minute almost all dissidence is fragmented, incoherent and very marginalised.

That is not simply because of their own inability to coherently express their opposition to it. The absolute weight of media, church and political parties is stifling of any dissent. It has been, in varying degrees, a very sad experience. Many people who have come through 30 years of struggle have found themselves isolated, disowned—even at the most personal level.

That is not something peculiar to here. If you talk to some of the Palestinian exiles, it is exactly the same. If you talk to some of the South African comrades, it is exactly the same. The post-revolutionary period is no time for enlightened criticism! You get your head in your hands very quickly.

Let's move on to the rewriting of the Belfast agreement. Trimble is insisting on it—what do you think will be the outcome? Is the Republican movement going to decommission or not?

At this point, I keep saying to people, it does not matter. These issues were raised to prolong things. It was always part of the game plan. I could explain it in a very practical way. It is as if somebody was trying to bake a cake with the ingredients for making sauerkraut. The debate was reduced to whether there was too much sugar or salt, and at which point it should be added to the recipe. The thing is fundamentally wrong: the issue of decommission/don't decommission; whether it was moving fast enough; "voluntary obligation" or "beyond use"—we have been through all the clarifications.

It suited Sinn Féin to play the game, to allow ambiguities, to be interpreted in several different ways—that was part of the plan. Now that noose is being gathered around them, and just when they most need that width of interpretation, the British are closing ranks on them and saying, "Oh no, read the writing, stop reading between the spaces, stop looking for coded messages, read the words". As they say in British law, "Read the words on their face". Sinn Féin should have always "read the words on their face".

[British former prime minister] John Major earlier this year made proposals for reform of the RUC [Royal Ulster constabulary], and mentioned human rights issues. Can the RUC be reformed?

Again, if you go back to the very beginning, you can do anything within reason if you are in authority. But this is not a reconstructed state. Even within the terms of the South African experiment, we are not even within that scale—we are not even within that category.

This was not a situation of open negotiations between equals to put new structures together. The British government called the shots here from the beginning. They still run this state. The state is intact. The nature of authority is intact. The institutions of authority are intact.

Therefore they will be reformed as little or as far as it is in the interests of the intact state to reform them. Therefore the RUC will be reformed, inasmuch as, and to the extent that, it is in the interest of the British government to reform them. That will be the minimal amount necessary to placate the Catholic middle classes without upsetting the bulk of Unionism.

Therefore, they will be cosmetic. The rawer edges of blatant racism will be refined. So the area of reform is that the police will be required to show the same sensitivity, while being a racist police force, as are most European police forces. But that won't solve the problem. And they will find that very difficult to do.

And the same would apply to the human rights issues?

The same would apply to the human rights issues. Reforms will be allowed to the extent that they do not threaten the state. We are back to square one when we live through those things to the point where they come to explosion again, because the core problem is the nature of the state. So after a period of time, that will be pushed to its limit again and we will be back to where we started again.

Will they go as far as letting former IRA volunteers join the police force?

No, they don't have to. In South Africa they may have to. Here, they don't have to. All they have to do is go far enough to make it safe enough for those Catholics who are Unionist to join the police. The police have always heavily resisted Catholics being allowed to join. Catholics will now be encouraged to join the police, but not Catholics who are nationalists.

Some nationalists may, in the present confused period, think they will join the police. But there will be no Republicans joining the police. The two things are mutually exclusive. You cannot be both things, not in the state as it is presently constituted.

The Republican purist argument has a validity: how can you be a Republican and a minister of the crown? That question has to be asked of the two members of Sinn Féin who will be ministers ofthe crown—albeit several steps down the ladder, and very small and insignificant ministries.

They will be ministers under the crown, which is fine if that is what they want to be. But they do have to say that this is a significant alteration of the position that they held five years ago. This is what Republicans fought the civil war over, never mind the civil rights movement.

De Valera would not hold office in a "free state", which it was, under the commonwealth, under the crown. That is what we have come to in the North. I would not even be surprised if some years down the line, we re-enact the Act of Union and we see the south going back into the commonwealth, and they will all be ministers under the crown.

Francie Molloy [a Sinn Féin Assembly member from Tyrone] is reported to have said: "Republicans are prepared to work on an executive. We are really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted, and if the Unionists had that in the 1920s they would have been laughing" [Sunday Times (Irish edition), March 28, 1999]. Did Francie Molloy really say that? Éamonn McCann highlighted this statement.

If he did say that, he said it where he did not think anybody was listening. I could not imagine Francie Molloy saying that they had accepted partition. But in essence they have.

McCann referred to this statement on a bbc Radio discussion program, saying it is a remarkable statement to come from a leading Republican.

I think that they know in their hearts they have accepted partition. At some point they will own up to that. They will put up a coherent argument as to why they should. We should go back to the argument: if they are saying that is a good strategy, then the strategy was on offer in 1972. I don't think that people can say, "Don't keep saying that Bernadette. It's irrelevant." It is not irrelevant.

Thirty years of war for the same players—it is not that time moved by and wiser heads did different things. John Hume was a player in 1972 and 1994. So was Gerry Adams. So was Martin McGuinness. So was John Taylor. So was almost every single main player. We had thirty years of war in between.

If people say—which is also a very valid human position—"After thirty years of war we made no progress, and we had to go back to where we started", that at least is an honest statement. Not to pretend that you had arrived at some bright new future after thirty years of struggle when a blind person can see, and the deaf can hear, that this is exactly the same agreement that was rejected in 1972. And the other question you have to ask yourself is that if the Sinn Féin leadership—around the Belfast leadership—had always wanted to accept it from 1972, then the morality of their military struggle does not bear thinking about.

What would happen if you had something like a truth commission along the lines of South Africa?

I have no great favour in truth commissions, in the land that Conor Cruise O'Brien said had the highest proportion of con men and con women per acre. I do not necessarily agree with him. There are as many truths as there are heartaches in this country. Again, you know, there is a lot delusion, even in South Africa, on the truth commission.

To the victor the spoils, and that includes the truth. In South Africa, the victor—however you determine the victor—did determine the truth. The victor here, and the controlling factor here, is the British, and it will be the British truth. I do not think the setting up of a truth commission in this country will allow us to move any closer to the truth than we currently are, which is very far from it.

In an interview with International Viewpoint you said that the aim of the Republican movement was shifted from a 32 County Ireland—socialist or whatever—to all-party talks for an agreed Ireland. What would such an "agreed Ireland" look like?

I haven't a clue. But I think that by their own admission that is what they moved to: a negotiation for an "agreed Ireland". I don't know what they mean by it. I personally believe that by looking at the balance of forces, an "agreed Ireland" negotiated from a position of Republican weakness has to be an Ireland that meets with the definition and desire of its main protagonists. Therefore an "agreed Ireland" has to be the kind of Ireland that Bertie Ahern and the Kennedys want.

Need you say more, from a socialist perspective?

Some months ago I cut out a piece from the Irish Times, just because it struck me and I thought it should be saved. The headline was "Gardaí Protect Mass Goers from Beggars". I have an awful suspicion that in the concept of an "agreed Ireland" the gardaí will continue to "protect mass goers from beggars". That is not where I particularly want to be.

Is it possible that the Republican position can be reversed? In the interview with International Viewpoint, you said that the real question is, "How will they build the mass campaigns in the current context?".

I don't know. I have had a very clear perspective on what the agreement is about. I have always believed that Sinn Féin were mistaken to get caught into it the way they did. I don't believe that they had no alternative.

I think they were picking their positions in a number of ways. It was a very clever strategy on the part of the Irish and British governments, because at each turn when they had to make a choice, it narrowed their option to make an alternative choice the next time. I described it at the time as a funnel. Their options were getting narrower until at the very end they would only have one choice.

They have come to that point. They now only have one choice—to see it through or lose everything.

It has been so effective, so carefully strategised, that I don't believe it can, in the short term, be reversed. There were serious problems at any time taking on the Republican leadership. You had this confusion amongst the Republican people that was played out by a sleight of hand. They said these were very clever sophisticated negotiations, so the leadership cannot tell us exactly what they are doing. It is an issue of trust. Therefore we trust the leadership.

It is very difficult in opposition to argue against trust as a principle, against comrades you have always trusted yourself. The issue is not that they are not to be trusted, but that trust is no basis on which to negotiate with the enemy. The ability to force debate where debate was being stifled was very minimal. In the absence of that, it is very difficult now to argue any major strategic plan that will make a difference to the way things will proceed.

At this point the assembly will happen; pacification and general reconstruction, such reform of the RUC as will happen; reform of the legislation will happen. Decentralisation of the administration will go ahead whether Sinn Féin pulls out of it or not. Even if you could effectively persuade the leadership, and reunite the whole Republican movement against this agreement, it will now go through.

It will go through because all the steps have been taken. The mandates, referendums and elections have all been used for that purpose. If Sinn Féin walk away from it, and even if they were able to put the whole Republican family back together again—as strong or stronger than when they went into this agreement—they still could not stop it.

I think to return to a military strategy at this time is to cut your throat. Any return to militarism would be very rapidly crushed, with public support.

In the short term it is very difficult to offer an oppositionalist strategy when the damage is done. We are now into a position of recognising that Stormont will be re-created with the acquiescence and support of a significant section of the nationalist population. That will carry through to the police.

The issues in that situation then become very clear in terms of the social and economic bent of any government in the framework that emerges. It is going to be right-wing Social Democratic in order to hold it together.

One third of the working population in the North of Ireland currently works for less than the minimum wage, if the minimum wage had been set for £4. Therefore it was argued coherently by the major parties here it should not be £4—their argument was that there were far too many people who were below it. It is incredible—one of three in the work force—and remember we have no immigrant population here, we have nothing like the rest of Western Europe, an exploited immigrant population. That is before we take in the Kosovans. That is before we allow the odd Romanian to stay. Therefore the minimum wage here is never going to be £4. The economy here, without massive radicalisation, would not support it.

You look at social legislation. You look at the major forces which will make up the new assembly. With Sinn Féin in or out of it, in terms of social legislation we will be going to the right. There will be no age of consent at 90, never mind 18, for gay relationships. It does not bear thinking about where we are going. In the context of nationalism, the whole ethos is that if we had a stable political situation here we might outbreed them. You say: where is your head, where is your thinking?

What do you think will happen in five or ten years' time? What could have been done to stop us getting where we are now?

If you go back to the beginning of the process, there was a civil rights process, and the actual demands were actually not Republican or to overthrow the state. The national movement and the armed resistance grew as a direct consequence of the state being demonstrably unable, not merely unwilling, to survive the introduction of those demands.

We are right back to where we were then. Stormont has been put back together again. The question will remain, for a short period of time, as post-1922: there will be room to appease a certain section of the Catholic population. After a period of time there will not be more room to appease the rest of them. Therefore the state has to go through the same machinery again. It has to ensure that those who cannot be appeased can be subdued, dissipated by emigration, demoralised or whatever. That goes on for a period of time.

Then you run out of that road. You are back to where you started. The inherent nature of Northern Ireland is anathema to democracy and progress—all of that is going to be played out in a different scenario.

If people had applied their minds to the Northern Ireland situation and the lessons to be drawn from it, there may never have been a Kosovo. There may never have been a Bosnia-Hercegovina because you were looking, on the fringes of western Europe, on the wheel coming full circle of imperialism and nation-statism. Western Europe itself was beginning to feel the effects of all those anti-imperialist and self-determination movements. By the time we have western Europe sorted out, it will be our turn again. Nobody is resolving these conflicts; we are just pushing them around in circles.

Where is it all going?

I think we will just have to wait and see. The working-class movements control none of it. None of it is within the control of the Republican movement. We are hostages to fortune.

When the dust settles, it is important that we steady ourselves and regroup. I'm now in my 50s. People have asked me about the fragmenting among the dissidents in the Republican movement—but something very deep in me is saying, "No, I have been there". When I steady myself and regroup this time, I am regrouping with the socialist left. I have had it with you armed social democrats and would-be radical nationalists.

I don't know what the room for organisation will be. I think it will be very little. I think the repression of dissidents will grow, and I think that will happen on a world stage. We are probably heading inexorably—without being alarmist—to a World War III scenario.

The Americans and their allies are going to bomb one nation too many. Then we are into wider conflagration. Maybe the Serbians will turn again. They did it the last time. All that is going to be caught out. The imposition will meet serious opposition somewhere down the line. Or else we are all destroyed.

The loyalists do not seem as willing as they were before to do Paisley's dirty work.

I believe that the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] is much more a home-grown phenomenon. There are smaller dissident groups. I have never believed, and remain to be convinced, that the Ulster Volunteer Force is anything other than the last link in the chain of command of British intelligence. The British switched them on and off; they are the military wing of British intelligence here. They are the military wing of the Unionist middle class here. Regardless of what way they are organised, they are under the direct influence of British intelligence. That is why they can be switched on and off as needed.

They can be switched on during the summer for the Garvaghy Road?


What do you reckon will happen there?

They are putting 100,000 Orangemen into it. I do not see within Republicanism or nationalism the will or capacity to withstand it. The people of the Garvaghy Road will be hostages to fortune.