Time has come to beat guns into ploughshares
Time has come to beat guns into ploughshares

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

After the Northern election, the wagons are once again slowly starting to circle. As the DUP and Sinn Féin make their trips to Downing Street, the Taoiseach spoke this week in Poland of the debate going on within the Provisional republican movement.

Apparently, all across Ireland, various parts of the IRA are addressing an appeal by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams that they now “step off the stage”; that paramilitarism has to disappear.

Given that Adams made this appeal in advance of the election where Sinn Féin received its largest-ever mandate in the North, the IRA should be in no doubt that the number of nationalists who disagree with his request are hardly worth counting.

Historically, Irish revolutionaries have tended to decide in advance what the popular mandate wanted, and then wait for everyone else to catch up.

But the IRA should be aware that, in these times, there are important and specific circumstances that simply cannot be ignored.

Now the republican movement - particularly since the IRA ceasefire of over a decade ago - has become an integral part of the wider Irish democratic process.

The IRA, without much good reason, has been hanging on to the movement’s coat-tails.

On ceasefire, and still maintaining its weapons, it has actually become a political deadweight for its political partner, Sinn Féin.

The shadow of the IRA has hung over the political process since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and has worked to the detriment of Sinn Féin’s avowed determination to implement that agreement.

Critically, its continuing presence has created political hiding-space for “rejectionist’‘ unionism to stymie the evolving political agenda.

It’s probably a better question for historians, but, had the IRA taken radical and unilateral action back in 1998 when a unique political window opened with the Agreement, none of us would be - politically - where we are now.

But better late than never and, despite the fact that unionists have flocked to Paisleyism, the IRA can now, with an act of finality, reopen the political agenda.

Today’s IRA should not ignore the historical lesson in all of this.

As regular readers of this column will know, I have consistently argued the political parallels between post-1998 Ireland and post-Civil-War Ireland.

Like Eamon de Valera then, Gerry Adams is attempting to bring a generation of the republican movement from paramilitarism to politics. As with Fianna Fáil then, so with Sinn Féin now - it’s been a complex and difficult task.

It is perhaps only from the perspective of history that the total picture can be seen.

Few could argue now with the contention that the part of the IRA that in 1926 refused to go along with Fianna Fáil - and consistently for the next generation tried to re-fight the civil war - ended up by the time of World War II politically circumscribed and impotent.

The 26-county state had moved on, and the IRA found itself then the keeper of a conscience that few in Ireland believed was worth dying for.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the IRA began to focus primarily on partition and moved on from the argument about the civil war settlement.

A generation of republicans misunderstood the public mood then, and passed through prisons and into graveyards still not comprehending that the 26-county settlement was inviolable.

In the Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA should not make the same mistake.

The central and undeniable truth about the Good Friday Agreement is that it was an all-Ireland determination to resolve the historic problem by solely political means.

It cannot be denied, of course, that the activities of the IRA were a major element in the making of that agreement.

The achievement of a subsequent British/Irish political consensus on a Northern Ireland proportionally governed by all communities and devoid of majoritarianism within a new context of all-Ireland institutions is an epochal achievement.

That agreement has created a political context where Sinn Féin can grow, and is growing, in political strength, both north and south.

Central to the historic concerns of the republican movement has been the concept of Irish self-determination - the means through which all the people of Ireland determine their nation.

From 1970 onwards, the Provisional IRA fought a guerrilla war because they believed that Britain, with the imposition of partition, stymied that determination.

Both the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement have reframed the concept of self-determination within the new context of the peace process.

For unionists, the constitutional issue was separated and parked away in some harmless historical cul-de-sac, awaiting the inevitable demographic removal van.

In terms of realpolitik, almost half of the ministers in any power-sharing devolution would be from the nationalist community. Northern nationalists would effectively enjoy political power in excess even of what they might enjoy under any all-Ireland settlement.

Predictably, such was the sense of achievement among nationalists that, within a decade, Sinn Féin had become the major nationalist party in the North.

Those in the IRA currently considering Gerry Adams’s pre-election appeal would do well to consider the Northern political context of 1970, when the current IRA campaign began, and the context today in 2005.

Who could deny that the political reality of the North has been utterly transformed? Who could look at the younger generation of Northern nationalists - now enjoying unprecedented economic, educational and political power - and not recognise the transformation?

If the end point of all political endeavour is about social transformation and civic society, who could argue that the peace process is not in itself an extraordinary catalyst for change?

Who could argue that the results of the republican movement’s political strategy over this last decade have not, at long last, lifted the long shadow of the gunman?

Truly, it is now time that the guns were finally broken down for ploughshares.

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