By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
“The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. The IRA leadership has also authorised our representative to engage with the IICD to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use... we believe there is now an alternative way to end British rule in our country. There is now an opportunity to mobilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process.”
Thus spoke the leadership of the IRA one year ago on Friday.
Responding to this momentous and unparalleled decision in the history of the struggle for Irish independence Gerry Adams said it was a “bold and brave leap”.
He urged people, particularly unionists to “think beyond the moment” to consider “not the leap itself but the place it takes us”.
In the history of the last 40 years of conflict there are probably two defining points for this generation of republicans, the hunger strike of 1981 when 10 prisoners died in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and last year’s decision by the IRA to end the armed campaign.
History teaches us it takes time to assess the impact of great human upheavals, events or decisions.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike. Today we can clearly see the political impact of the hunger strikers’ deaths.
Their deaths put the struggle for Irish independence onto a new plateau onto a higher moral plane. The manner of their deaths instilled in people an awesome regard which remains to this day.
The protesting prisoners defeated Thatcher’s criminalisation policy, secured political status for political prisoners, reawakened interest around the world in Britain’s occupation of Ireland, generated a tidal wave of support for Irish republicanism and fundamentally influenced how the republican leadership conducted the independence struggle in the years since.
Sinn Féin’s involvement in elections was accelerated by the 1981 hunger strike. The roots of Sinn Féin’s electoral strategy lie in the election victories of Bobby Sands, Kieran Doherty, Paddy Agnew and Owen Carron.
The hunger strike of 1981 was this generation’s 1916 Rising in terms of the heroism of those who died.
The IRA’s decision to end the armed campaign has now created a context for Irish politics which has never before existed.
Hitherto the issue of national independence and how it was to be achieved was largely dominated by the physical force tradition and the reaction of those opposed to that tradition.
With the IRA’s armed campaign at an end Irish politics and politicians are being challenged by contradictions of partition and a British-imposed and maintained border which is rejected by the four-fifths of the Irish population.
Those in the southern political establishment, satisfied with the limited state freedom bestowed on them by the 1921 Treaty, are being forced to redefine themselves as republicans.
The legacy of British colonialism is being confronted by an articulate argument from Sinn Féin politicians which challenges the borders of the Free State ‘nation’ to expand beyond the 26 counties to include the people of the six counties.
In recognition of the changing times the Irish government reinstated, after a 30-year lapse, a state ceremony marking the 1916 Rising.
Time and effort will be required to overcome the partitionist mentality. Last year’s IRA statement is a catalyst for that process. Those in the political establishment in Dublin and Belfast comfortable with partition and the status quo are already opposing the emergence of this ‘one nation’ politic.
This can be seen in the niggardly approach of the Irish government to opening the doors of Leinster House to politicians from the six counties.
It can also be seen in the political and media campaign against Sinn Féin in advance of next year’s Dail election.
This fear of Sinn Féin’s electoral appeal has led the Irish government to default on its commitments to the peace process.
They have sided with the British government in their appeasement policy to the DUP while unionists remain obsessed with an IRA in peaceful mode, ignoring on-going loyalist violence.
One year on the unionists and their allies are still refusing to open their minds to the place the peace process can take us.
But history teaches us with patience and effort we’ll get there.