Irish gifts - sales benefit the Newshound

Lessons for SNP in the Ulster shake-out

(by John O'Farrell, The Scotsman)

THE LAST three years have seen more concentrated constitutional jiggery pokery to the Zen constitution of the UK than at any time since the late 17th century. The centre cannot hold, and has grasped the fact. What then, are the parties of the periphery doing with the new dispensation?

While the SNP is debating its future, there are lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland, where most of the shibboleths of the centre (London) were shattered in order to bend the will of two truculent forms of nationalism: the Irish variety of John Hume's SDLP and Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein; and the Ulster/British variety of David Trimble¹s Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionist Party of the Rev Dr Ian Paisley.

It seems that in Tony Blair we have an ideological blank slate. While many on the British Left despair of Blair's replacement of solid ideology with vague and valueless "values", his taste for fudge has been of immense importance to the Ulster peace process. Major's government simply could not get their heads around the sacrifice of principle necessary to bring Sinn Fein and the IRA into the democratic fold, and had great difficulties in even treating the Irish government and its northern proxies, the SDLP, as equals. Emotionally and ideologically, the Tories could not sup at the same table with people whose organisation was slinging mortars at them in Downing Street as recently as 1991.

Labour ditched all that and had the IRA ceasefire restored within three months, and the Agreement signed before its first Easter in office. It is more than possible that Labour knew (or felt) that Sinn Fein was ready to drop its ideological baggage because it recognised kindred spirits in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Not that Blair and Mo Mowlam shared a secret joy in blowing up the City of London. But in terms of age and experience, the fortysomethings who ran New Labour and Sinn Fein Nua (as some internal critics call it) knew the exhausting pressure that years of disappointment and marginalisation mean to a political movement.

Another process that both movements had in common was a "branching out" into interest politics. Many members widened the scope of their "struggle" outside of the traditional ambit of their party's concerns and into rights-based issues concerning women, gays, the environment, the Bomb (though both Labour and Sinn Fein approved of "conventional weapons"), community politics, education, culture and the voluntary sector.

This approach to politics, when applied back to the Labour and republican movements by party activists who had, in their small ways, won quiet victories while their party stood firm on shrinking ground, would have profound implications on the expectations of those people when power was sighted. The grand plans were dropped one by one, a Clause Four here, abstensionism from the Dail there. Finally, when the reality of power was grasped, it was understood that you can't always get what you want, but you can get some of what your immediate constituency needs. New Labour and Sinn Fein Nua are therefore indulging in an orgy of cronyism, arguing (rightly) that it is exactly what their opponents have been doing for years. Labour has a task force for every influential supporter and a commission for on-message members. It is simply replicating what the Tories brazenly did on the quangos used to control the Welsh and Scots who kept voting the wrong way.

Likewise, after years of political vetting which ensured that government money or jobs was kept away from anybody who had the slightest whiff of Semtex, a new elite is springing up in the republican ghettos. Millions of EU and British Exchequer funds are being pumped into Irish language education, community employment initiatives, partisan "victims" groups, training programmes for released paramilitary prisoners and a brand new campus of the University of Ulster is being built along the peace line separating republican and loyalist west Belfast.

Likewise, the other nationalists, the Unionists, are getting in on the act. After a typically slow start, David Trimble is ensuring that if Ulster Protestants cannot rule the whole roost, then his chickens will get their share of Farmer (Gordon) Brown's bucket. Areas of the economy traditionally dominated by Protestants get state attention undreamed of in other parts of the Union. Pig farmers and shipbuilders get immediate Whitehall attention, while the most generous redundancy payoffs in British history are being waved in the faces of police and prison officers, who are naturally demanding more while trampling each other in the rush to get out.

Beyond the obvious lesson that power means pelf, what are the lessons for nationalists in Scotland? First, that the biggest barrier to power is principle. Sinn Fein has dropped abstensionism from Stormont and accepted partition. The UUP recognised the "Irish dimension" and dropped decommissioning. Crucially, both recognised each other. Sinn Fein no longer (officially) treats Protestants as deluded Irishmen, and the UUP no longer (officially) treats republicans as a criminal fifth column.

Second, have a realistic bottom line, one that will keep your support base. Unionists needed to hear that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was void and that the war was over. Republicans needed their prisoners out and a fudge on decommissioning so that their leaders could tell them that they could be "protected" if things went pear-shaped.

Third, recognise that your public support will never amount to an overall majority, and that giving up the big dream is worth a proportional slice of the pie. Cronyism is as commonplace as the "Friends of Bill", and the prospect of a soft quango makes envelope-licking that bit sweeter (something that New Labour forgot, to its cost, in London). Supporters of any political party in the world like the sight of "our lot" getting one over the opposition.

Fourth, live in the real world. The EU, GATT, and forthcoming MAI represent something far short of world government, but the global economy, the internet, mass Anglophone culture and transnational corporations with turnovers bigger than Scotland and Ireland combined mean that the 19th-century ideal of a sovereign nation is as dead as de Valera.

Yet be conscious of the groundswell against the unaccountability of corporations. The lesson from Seattle could be that a once popular slogan, "It's Scotland's Oil!", could have been prescient. The difference now is the perception that what remains of Scotland's oil is being sucked into the pockets of faceless (and easily demonised) multinationals, rather than the English. Time, perhaps, to revive John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil.

Fifth, keep the struggle going, but manage it. The best way is gesture politics, something a party used to opposition is no stranger to. Sinn Fein and the UUP are involved in a bitter wrangle over police reforms. Yet the debate avoids anything substantial involving strategy, organisation or even recruitment. The burning issues are the badge and the name. Symbols are powerful, but if handled carefully, both sides can claim the others lost more.

July 9, 2000
John O'Farrell is the editor of Fortnight magazine, an independent current affairs magazine in Belfast. This article first appeared in the August 3, 2000 edition of The Scotsman.