By Liam O Ruairc (for Sovereign Nation)
Is the issue of Irish national sovereignty relevant at the beginning of the 21st century? Republicans and Socialists have no doubts that the sovereignty issue today is strategically relevant. It is not just because the sovereignty issue overdetermines many issues North and South. One of the effects of the “Peace Process” is that it has effectively transformed the conflict from a political one over national sovereignty into a cultural squabble over respect for “identities”. It is about “equality” and “parity of esteem” between two sectarian blocks rather than a conflict between the British state and the Irish people. With the sovereignty issue, we are in the realm of universality, not in that of ethno-national particularism. Putting sovereignty as the central issue strategically reverses the definition of the conflict as one between “rival tribes”. But how are we to get sovereignty, the “sovereign thirty two county democratic socialist republic”? In particular, what are we going to do about it in the next decade or two?
At present, Republicans and Socialists lack a coherent, medium to long term strategy. However, if they are serious about the future of their struggle, they need to have a clear idea of what sort of process they are going to be engaged in for the next ten, fifteen, or twenty years, and how this process will enable them to reach their ultimate objective. What will be the moving force, the driving engine of this process?
First is objective instability and recurrent crisis faced by both the Six Counties and Free State -- in political, social and economic terms. The British state is unable to reform the northern problem, and Leinster House to contain it. The problem will become even more severe once the difficulties of the Celtic Tiger and northern economy will increase. The status quo does not work. The fact that it does not work shows that far from being all-powerful, it has crucial weaknesses and can be challenged. The various contradictions and systemic dysfuctionments provide the objective ground on which Republicans and Socialists can intervene. Crisis is our opportunity. Second are the various social conflicts, latent or open. From the bin tax protesters in Dublin to the prisoners in Maghaberry, from the protests outside Shannon base to the young people in Ardoyne, the present form of social organisation will inevitably generate discontent and there are going to be people who are going to challenge it. This provides a constituency, a social basis for Republicans and Socialists.
However, if crisis and social conflicts are the necessary conditions of possibility for a Republican and Socialist intervention, in themselves they are not sufficient to achieve our aims. Crisis and spontaneous resistance are not enough to overthrow the status quo. The primary reason for this is that there is an uneven development of political consciousness among the people and that organisation and strategy are necessary, but are not generated spontaneously. Most people cannot raise beyond trade union consciousness or nationalist consciousness. This means that they understand the necessity of fighting for better wages or work conditions, but not to overthrow capitalism, that they aspire to ‘parity of esteem’ for Catholics in the North but not end British rule.
Republicans and Socialists are the most advanced section of the people, because of their qualitatively higher level of political consciousness. The task of Republicans and Socialists is to develop political leadership, to give direction to the spontaneous struggles of the people. Republicans and Socialists have to become the tribune of the people. The people have little time for big ideas like “sovereignty” and “socialism”, they are interested by material benefits, to live better. The “big ideas” concerning “sovereignty” and “socialism” must therefore develop out of the “small ideas” concerned with local grievances, local aspirations etc. A successful ideology of liberation has to develop from the living reality of living people. Republicans and Socialists must work in order that their ideas become “common sense”. We must build on existing social discontent and develop in a revolutionary direction. To achieve our aims, organisation is necessary. The first prerequisite for political leadership is to develop a programme articulating demands that people can be mobilised around. This programme should have a strong “seduction effect”, Republican and Socialist politics have to be presented attractively enough so that they can ‘score’ with the people, that they become desired.
Successful political leadership means that Republicans and Socialists have to be able to seize and hold the long term initiative. This means the power to impose on their opponents the key decisions which dictate the ways in which the political contest takes shape, develops over time and moves from one phase to the next. It means being able to keep on top of the adversaries, to anticipate their moves so as to counteract and deflect them. Strategic initiative can be seized and held only by the application of an appropriate strategy. Essential to an appropriate strategy are two elements. First, we must identify the decisive issues, where the most explosive contradictions tend to be displaced and condensed. The weakest point of the system must be identified. This is where we should strike. The second is to identify the right moment, when we should strike. For the Modern Prince, the science of politics goes hand in hand with the art of strategic calculation.
Currently, Republicans are not on the level of military capacity they had in 1972, or behind mass political mobilisation like in 1981. The majority of the people in Ireland support the “Peace Process”. Where do we go on from here? A three phase process can be suggested. During the first phase (2003/2005) Republicans and Socialists must simultaneously make it impossible for the status quo to reach relative stability and increase that instability. At the same time, we must build our organisational and political credibility. The forces of Republicans and Socialists are very small, but they have political consciousness and organisation. This is something that has to be strengthened and increased. The opportune moment will probably come during the second phase (2005/2015) whenever the 1998 Treaty and “Peace Process” will be in terminal agony, and the Provisionals (possibly then in coalition in Leinster House) will be unable to deliver what they had promised. “Moderate” Unionism will be sidelined by hard line loyalism and centre parties like Alliance and the SDLP will be irrelevant. The status quo will be in a position of weakness. This will be the moment that Republicans will have to seize.
The task will be to make this crisis even more difficult for the enemy to solve. But, crisis in itself is not sufficient, we need to use it, to turn it to our political advantage. The crisis and fragility of the political, social and economic organisation, the instability provides the ideal conjuncture to challenge the status quo at its most vulnerable. With the other political actors on the defensive, Republicans and Socialists will potentially be able to seize and hold the long term initiative and provide intellectual and moral leadership. What should the aim of our actions be? All of our actions must serve to increase our political capital, impact and effects. All of our actions should serve as a political catalyst, and centrally aim to raise the political awareness and consciousness of the people. This will enable us to constrain the political options the British government and the Free State could introduce, and at the same time shape that very political agenda. The third phase (post 2015) is the most speculative. That is when Republicans and Socialists will be engaged in a process of negotiation. However, the aim is not simply to force the British state to the conference table, but that at the conference table the British state will be so constrained that it will have no other political option but to withdraw. For that to be possible, the balance of forces would have to be significantly changed not just in the North, but in the South and in Britain. This means that the sovereignty issue will have to be articulated with other explosive political nodal points. The lonely hour of “pure” sovereignty never comes.
We must be clear as to what the precise political considerations behind our actions are. Unless we have a coherent strategy on how we are going to achieve our aims, we will become irrelevant and end up on the sidelines of the political scene. The above is intended as a preliminary discussion of the most decisive issues at stake. It keeps in line with James Connolly’s primary concern: to devise a strategy to make “Irish Republicanism no longer the politics of despair but a science of revolution”. (James Connolly, Selected Political Writings, ed. E Dudley Edwards and Bernard Ransom, London, 1973, p.171)