Fig. 1. Featured Image Charles Stuart Parnell a Titan of the Home Rule movement.
This is the second of the series on GE2019 NI. The first on the DUP and N. Belfast is available here.
The Republican analysis evolved over the approximately 50 year period between 1870 and 1920. It was a time of immense frustration for the Irish. The Irish had been focussed on Home Rule for half a century, but were endlessly knocked back by the Westminster system. This came to a head in 1914 and it is well worth reading a repeat of the turmoil of 1914-1922? which covers the period. Robert Saunders highlights the similarity with the present:
The crisis of 1914 far eclipsed Brexit, and brought Britain closer to revolution than at any time since the 17th century. The Times called it “one of the greatest crises in the history of the British race”, while Conservative election literature warned that Britain might soon be “stained with the blood of civil war”. Yet it offers some striking similarities with the present, and a warning of what could lie ahead.
Had WWI not intervened it is difficult to know what would have happened. After the War energy levels were far lower and UK-wide civil war was averted. The results in Ireland, however, were a belief that Westminster was not fit for purpose, the withdrawal of 73 Sinn Féin MPs from Westminster to form Dáil Éireann; an Irish War of Independence; an ill-thought-out Treaty, followed by a botched partition of Ireland in 1922.
The settlement pleased no one. The Ulster Unionist leader Carson famously remarked (in a quote that has been very popular recently) “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power”. In Ireland, the Treaty was considered a betrayal and resulted in civil war – more detail in Will Virtual Liffey Gunboats Work?
Historian FSL Lyons’ remark “The problem was refrigerated but not liquidated” is very apt. The prominent economist David McWilliams reckons it took 70 years for Ireland to fully recover economically. Northern Ireland arguably never has. It was effectively bankrupt by the mid-1930’s and has been kept on life support ever since. NI costs more net to the UK exchequer than is paid in EU contributions.
The GFA is a temporary holding settlement but under severe strain. The NI Assembly has now been suspended for over 1,000 days.
Sinn Féin some history
Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 by Authur Griffith, on the principle that Ireland could have a self-governing state if the existing Irish MPs withdrew from Westminster and if Ireland could have a balanced national economy by taxing British imports. The initial thinking was based on how the Hungarians managed to pressurise the Austrians into the creation of the joint Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sinn Féin was founded very much as a party of passive resistance, but there were a myriad of other Republican movements at the time, including most famously the IRA, who believed in armed struggle. There has been an on/off association between SF and the IRA over the last century.
It is also important to understand that the Irish Independence movement had not only a multitude of groups but a full spectrum of political views on the left/right axis. Two of the major players in the 1916 rising were James Connolly – a revolutionary Socialist and Eamonn DeValera a right-wing Catholic. On the extreme right of SF was Eoin O’Duffy, who later founded the quasi-fascist Blueshirts and went to Spain to fight for Franco.
Through happenstance and possibly because the right has always been better at managing splits than the left, Ireland ended up with the conservative Catholic lobby gaining the upper hand. DeValera, for better or worse, ended up as the defining Irish politician of the early 20th century. In part, this was due his surviving both the war of Independence and subsequent civil war which claimed the life of his chief rival Michael Collins.
Authur Griffith fell into poor health and died six days before Michael Collins but from natural causes, by which stage DeValera was leader of Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin largely split after the civil war in 1923 into what became the current Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties (both centre-right). The rump of the party (which was Socialist through to Revolutionary Marxist) boycotted the Dail for many years. Apart from the 4 SF TDs elected in 1957, there was no SF representation in the Dail until the 1990s.
The IRA was banned in 1936 by DeValera. To this day convicted IRA members are incarcerated in Portlaoise Maximum Security prison. Earlier this year, for example, Seamus McGrane one of the leaders of the “Real IRA” died in Portlaoise.
The IRA has a history of splits between those who wanted to continue armed struggle against the British and those who believed in peaceful means. Major splits were the 1969 one between the Official (who declared a ceasefire not long afterwards) and the Provisional IRA (also called the Provos or just the RA). When the Provos called a much later ceasefire in 1997, some of the more diehard members formed the Real IRA. There are also a number of other splinter groups collectively known as dissident Republicans.
Sinn Féin today
Modern Sinn Féin is an all Ireland Socialist Party, left-wing and progressive. It claims to have completely shed its IRA links and is back to its roots as a party vested in democratic means to achieve a United Ireland. On the EU it has moved from a Lexit position (the standard anti-neoliberal arguments will be familiar to our readers) to being supportive of the EU; a remain and reform agenda.
To understand modern Sinn Féin, you need to understand the Irish Republican mindset. In particular, their belief in abstentionism (refusal to sit in Westminster). The Republican mindset came of age in the 1914-1922 period, which has contemporary resonances. The cracks and flaws in the UK constitutional and parliamentary system were then very evident.
Many argued at the time, and still do, that the UK needed root and branch constitutional reform, but in typically British fashion, muddling along, papering over the cracks and kicking the can down the road was the order of the day. One major reform in that period, however, was the removal of the absolute veto of the House of Lords, through the Parliament Act of 1911.
There are perhaps two contrasting views of the UK.
Is UK democracy a) a shining beacon to the world, the mother of all parliaments and an exemplar for others to marvel at and follow? Or is it, b) fatally flawed, hardly a democracy at all, with sham elections, infantile debate, where real power and influence has always been exercised by the dominant 30k families? Are the real decisions made by the ruling class in “smoke-filled rooms” far away from legal or parliamentary scrutiny?
The truth is likely to be in-between. On objective measures such as the Democratic Index 2018, the UK does fairly well, in 14th place and is considered a full democracy. The Republican analysis may be a bit harsh, but it leans towards UK democracy not being fit for purpose, particularly as far as Ireland is concerned. The NI Unionists would very much lean towards UK democracy being a beacon.
It is valuable I think to run through a number of questions.
- Is Westminster truly a parliament for the entire UK? SF would say no.
- Is the UK a majoritarian tyranny? SF would say yes.
- Are the UK constitutional structures fit for purpose and in particular does the House of Lords need major reform. Two questions. SF would say no and yes.
- Ultimately is the UK is still run by the aristocracy, the privileged, typified by the families that send their children to Eton and similar schools? SF would say yes.
A Parliament for the Entire United Kingdom?
As Prof Brendan O’Leary eloquently puts it in his Dalriada Document:
The United Kingdom is a multi-national state, a partnership of peoples, a country of countries, a nation of nations. It is neither an English nation-state or a British nation-state. It is a union-state, not a unitary state.
O’Leary (2016) warned if Brexit followed its current path: “If these steps are completed, they will emphatically confirm the claims of those who have maintained that the UK is mere camouflage for what has always really been Greater England”.
I look at how the Scots have been treated. The analogy is not perfect but in many ways, Scotland is in a similar position to Ireland 100 years ago. I would argue the Scots have been treated despicably and even contemptuously.
The conclusion is most definitely that the UK is indeed mere camouflage for Greater England.
Is the UK a Majoritarian Tyranny?
The tyranny of the majority, argued John Stuart Mill, is a weakness inherent to majority rule, where the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own interests at the expense of those in the minority.
In the UK, it is potentially even worse as a majority in the HoC can be achieved on less than 40% of the popular vote in a GE.
Without PR, avoiding majoritarian tyranny relies on a British sense of “fair play”. Fairness has been far from evident throughout the Brexit process. A narrow 52:48 result has been treated as 100:0. To appease the majority the 48% have been ignored. Johnson’s Deal is an extremely hard and uncompromising form of Brexit.
Are the UK constitutional structures fit for purpose and in particular does the House of Lords need major reform?
The answer to these are indeed no and yes, but in contrast to the 1910’s the House of Lords has behaved maturely and has shown that, even without a codified constitution, things can work well.
Ultimately the UK constitution is very flexible and provided decent people are in charge, who obey not only the letter but the spirit of the law, things can work well.
Unfortunately, the current government, and in particular Nr. 10, with the poisonous influence of Dominic Cummings, has Russian style Machiavellian tendencies. It manifestly does not believe in respecting convention or playing by any rules it can get away with breaking. The prorogation of parliament, for example, was heinous.
I was extremely heartened by the Supreme Court decision. The UK’s constitutional structures proved more robust than I feared. Sinn Féin has a point but constitutional reform is not, in my view, the most urgent issue.
Ultimately is the UK is still run by the aristocracy, the privileged, typified by the families that send their children to Eton and similar schools?
There has always been some aspect of this, very much more so when the Tories are in power. Sadly wealth buys power and influence and it seems control of large swathes of the media.
There are worrying undercurrents. The way Brexit is being prosecuted smells worse than majoritarian tyranny. A much softer form of Brexit would surely have been acceptable to many of the 48%? There seem almost malign powers at work. There are certain aspects of the Tory party who despise the post-war settlement and wish to return to the ’30s, or even earlier, when the masses knew their place.
There seems to be a callous disregard for the UK as a whole. Any form of Brexit will be detrimental to the UK. It may be of course very beneficial to the top 1%, those with off-shore trusts, tax evaders and the vulture capitalists.
There is a definite feeling that things are not right and that there has been a bloodless far-right coup. The influence of 55 Tufton St seems to be growing ever larger. There is evidence of far-right American and Russian interference, I sometimes think this may just be paranoia, but it does seem that UK democracy is under threat in a way it has not been since WWII. Even then the threat was external rather than internal.
Sinn Féin does have a point. The structural weakness in the UK have been exposed in a way not evident since the 1910-1922 period. Their judgement that as far as Ireland is concerned sitting in Westminster is a waste of time is understandable. There is also their Republicanism and refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance as a matter of principle.
Foyle is essentially Derry/Londonderry. Nationalists call the city Derry and Unionists, Londonderry. In Derry, everyone seems to simply to call it the City to avoid offence. It is also known rather jokingly as Slash City or Stroke City. Foyle, the river which runs through the city was chosen as being neutral.
Foyle is a very deprived constituency, the 8th most deprived in the UK. It has suffered from chronic under-investment for decades. It was the obvious choice for the siting of NI’s 2nd University in the 60’s but in a suspected case of blatant sectarianism, it was sited within the Protestant heartland, in Coleraine.
Foyle is overwhelmingly Nationalist and the GE battle will be between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. In the Brexit Referendum, it was one of the three most pro-EU constituencies in the entire UK and voted 78.3% remain.
As in Fig. 2, the vote is essentially neck and neck between the two candidates. This time around the sitting MP Elisha McCallion is defending her seat against Colm Eastwood, the current leader of the SDLP. Both are young candidates, aged 37 and 36 respectively.
Bookmaker Paddy Power (21st Nov) is calling the seat for the SDLP with odds of 1/4 and has SF on 5/2. It is still early in the election so things may change.
In the 1910’s there was a major struggle between the Irish Parliamentary Party who believed in Westminster and Sinn Féin who did not. The electorate of Foyle get to chose between the two on the 12th December.