The Real Slow Learners
The Real Slow Learners

by Danny Morrison (for the Andersonstown News)

It was Seamus Mallon who famously once described the Belfast Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for Slow Learners’, a soundbite which was immediately seized upon by opponents and critics of the Republican Movement. They were claiming, in varying degrees, that what was negotiated in 1998 was available in the power-sharing Sunningdale arrangements of 1974 and therefore republicans, by continuing the armed struggle, had to bear major responsibility for the continuation of the conflict and the loss of all subsequent life.

At first glance the statement appears fairly credible until one waits a moment and thinks. When one compares the true state of affairs in 1974 with 1998 (and 2004) the statement soon falls apart. It wasn’t just the IRA which was fighting - but all sides were still at war and entrenched, including the British army and loyalist paramilitaries. The British, who were continuing their policy of internment in Long Kesh, viewed the Sunningdale deal and the cross-border security cooperation stemming from it as having the potential to undermine the IRA, both politically and militarily.

So why wouldn’t the IRA be opposed to Sunningdale?

Anti-Sunningdale unionists were soon in the ascendancy and were quoting power-sharing with the SDLP (not Sinn Féin!) and the proposed Council of Ireland as the reasons for their opposition rather than the continued existence of the IRA. By combining with loyalist paramilitaries in the UWC strike they showed that, like the UVF of 1912, they were prepared to invoke civil war in order to maintain unionist privilege and the sectarian status quo. Are those the circumstances in which the IRA should have or could have ceasefired?

In 1974 the SDLP supported extradition (the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act) and succeeded in making absolutely no changes to the RUC and Special Branch. Twenty five years later, they jumped enthusiastically into bed with the PSNI before the hard work of creating an acceptable police service was completed. If the SDLP had been so right one would have expected this to be reflected at the polls, whereas the verdict of the electorate clearly tells a different story.

So who are the real slow learners?

Evidence that the SDLP continues to be viewed as the soft underbelly of nationalism came last week in the victory speech of the DUP’s Jim Allister who joked at the defeat of the SDLP in the European election but haughtily in the same breath called upon it to join with his party in “voluntary coalition ... while the offer still stands!” The DUP has marched up to the top of a hill and says it won’t come down until the IRA surrenders. It thinks that through intransigence it can thwart the rights of nationalists established in principle in the Belfast Agreement. Last Saturday on Radio Ulster, Peter Robinson when asked what form of credible IRA decommissioning would satisfy him, suggested IRA weapons being destroyed and filmed by CNN whilst a flute band marched around the pyre.

There’s a real slow learner.

It is no accident that Sinn Féin is viewed by its supporters and opponents alike as tough and tenacious. Those qualities distinguish it from the SDLP and those qualities emerged from republican ideology and aspiration, the experience of repression, struggle and resistance, long years of imprisonment, the reading of history.

To have got even just to this position (the unsatisfactory, current stalemate), both communities and many British people and troops, paid a heavy price. At what point after 1974 had the IRA surrendered would unionist politicians have accepted power-sharing, all-Ireland bodies, the introduction of a new police service, a Bill of Rights, given their continued rejection of equality and parity of esteem? At what point would loyalist paramilitaries have decommissioned?

Make no mistake about it, the very perception of the IRA having been defeated would have encouraged unionist intransigence and triumphalism, not magnanimity. Under such a scenario the negotiating muscle of the nationalist community would have been blunted, nationalists demoralised.

The conflict continued so long for many reasons, including the obvious fact that the IRA (apart from the ceasefire of 1975) refused to give up, wanted to win, believed it could win, said it would win and that the British could be forced to negotiate. When armed struggle (the ‘long war’) didn’t supply the breakthrough, republicans supplemented the propaganda war with electoral politics. But when a clear military stalemate emerged, even after the re-arming of the IRA, republicans had to examine the option of ceasefiring and negotiating in a way that would optimise gains and might do justice, if that were ever possible, to the suffering and sacrifices of the past.

It was always going to be a dangerous exploration, one that required nerve and deserved comradeship and loyalty, and it was one that the republican leadership never balked at undertaking.

The protracted nature of the conflict was not caused by the IRA but was principally caused by the British government which lied about the nature of the problem and with unlimited resources fought a dirty, repressive, relentless war (whilst futilely attempting to co-opt the SDLP into a poor settlement for nationalists). For four years the British tried to intern the problem. It wasted five years attempting to criminalise republicans and twenty-five years demonising them. “Talking to Gerry Adams would turn my stomach,” said John Major, at a time when his officials were secretly talking to the Republican Movement.

Thatcher was calling the IRA a criminal conspiracy at a time she was being briefed by military officials (Brigadier Glover’s report) that the IRA was politically motivated and was never likely to be defeated (“the cause of republicanism will remain as long as the island of Ireland is divided,” Glover wrote).

British Ministers and their prison officials told the world the prisoners were common criminals whilst the governor really believed that criminalisation was a false aim and was “always going to fail” (from Chris Ryder’s ‘Inside The Maze’).

And now MI5’s real thinking has been revealed in remarks made by an officer to a maritime security conference in Orkney. He said “the IRA fought a just cause” and “won a successful campaign” over thirty years.

Refreshing as it is to hear such truths belatedly admitted, the tragedy is that had such truths been acted on at the time this conflict would never have lasted the time it did and many people would still be alive.

So, who were the real slow learners?

Urgent Appeal

Despite increasing support for Irish freedom and unity, we need your help to overcome British and unionist intransigence. We can end the denial of our rights in relation to Brexit, the Irish language, a border poll and legacy issues, with your support.

Please support IRN now to help us continue reporting and campaigning for our national rights. Even one pound a month can make a big difference for us.

Your contribution can be made with a credit or debit card by clicking below. A continuing monthly donation of £2 or more will give you full access to this site. Thank you. Go raibh míle maith agat.

© 2004 Irish Republican News