Page 4, 31st January 1969

31st January 1969
Page 4
Page 4, 31st January 1969 — Britain holds the key to Ireland's future

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Locations: London, Sharpeville


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Britain holds the key to Ireland's future

THE most critical decisions affecting the shape of Irish politics tomorrow, are decisions which will be taken in Britain.

These are the decisions shaping what the real policy of the British Government— as distinot from its rhetoric— will be in relation to the developing crisis in Northern Ireland.

Broadly. two main possibilities are open: The British Government may decide to use —or credibly threaten to use —the reserve powers which it can obtain at Westminster in order to bring about the full application of political democracy in Northern Ireland; or the British Government may decide to leave the pace of change to the judgment of the, moderate elements in the Northern Ireland Unionist Party: those elements of which Captain O'Neill is at present the able and effective spokesman.

In practice, many shades of vacillation between the two policies are possible. On current indications it looks as if the basic policy is the second one, tempered by intimations of the remotely possible application of the first.

This is a formula for a protracted and dangerous crisis, not altogether unlike that which developed under Asquith's policy of "wait and see" in the years before the First World War. The powerful forces in the Orange Order which are opposed to any concessions to Catholics and which are more numerous and formidable than the present vocal and violent followers of Ian Paisley — will see that the threat of Paisleyism is the most effective brake against change, and supplies the "moderates" with their best reason for adhering to the status quo, and their best defence against English pressure.

Those who are demanding change on the other hand and who feel that forty-eight years of patience and acceptance are long enough — are likely to be increasingly impressed by the success of Paisleyite tactics, and by the old argument that, in relation to Irish affairs, London understands nothing but force.

New forms of terrorism

The border is no barrier to the spread of this kind of thinking. Just as Carson's practice, and Carson's success, encouraged the extreme wing of Sinn Fein, so Paisleyism, and connivance with Paisleyism (connivance labelled as "moderation" or "gradualism"), are likely to lead either to a recrudescence of I.R.A. activity throughout the island, or to new forms of terrorist (or counter-terrorist) activity.

O'Neill's call-up of the "B Specials" has ominous implications for Ireland's tomorrow. The "Specials" are not police, they are armed Orangemen. An Irish Sharpeville will remain a possibility as long as these men are armed and given a police role. The mere existence of this possibility overshadows any attempt one may now make to discuss the probable course of Irish politics in 1969.

Were it not for "the Northern factor," with its incalculably explosive potential, some things are reasonably predictable, as probable developments in the politics of the Republic of Ireland in 1969.

The Fianna Fail party

which has governed the country for thirty out of the last thirty-six years and governs it now — has entered a crisis, which is likely to leave it seriously weakened by the close of the year. The real questions concern not so much its immediate future, which is almost certainly bleak, as the more remote prospects.

If it becomes a minority party, will it adhere to the patterns of behaviour — and the leadership — which led it into the disaster of the 1968 referendum, or will it carry out an internal reform and become again a major force? It is very difficult for a great party. which has begun to decline, to rejuvenate itself in such a way.

It was, after all, the towering personality of one man the founder of the party, Eamon de Valera — and the lingering charisma of that personality which enabled Fianna Fail so long to withstand the normal erosions of Proportional Representation and to hold office on its own. That charisma has been dissipated by time, the consequent attempt to remove P.R. has been shatteringly defeated.

My prognosis would be that recovery of the old dominant position is highly improbable, continued decline is probable, and disintegration within the bounds of possibility.

There were those who hoped that Fine Gad — the other branch of the old Sinn Fein, inheriting the tradition of the winning side in the Civil War of 1922—would now take over from a declining Fianna Fail. These hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Not respectful society

In a country like Ireland, which is not an affluent society, and on the whole not a respect. ful one either (at least where lay personages are concerned) a party which is typed as the most conservative one on the scene thereby confines itself (except in extraordinary circumstances, such as the aftermath of the Civil War) to a minority position.

The potential leader of a renewal — on the basis of the socially relatively advanced programme of the Just Society — Mr. Declan Costello, is not about to return to political life, and it is clear that his party's present leaders are making no particular effort to get him back.

Under Mr. Liam Cosgrave — the bearer of that traditional Irish burden, an honoured name in public life — and Mr. Gerald Sweetman, an exotically efficient and raspingly businessminded type, Fine Gael seems to be turning to the right: not a promising direction in Irish politics, south of the Bann.

There remains Labour. I have recently joined that party, so I do not offer my views on its future as tither impartial or authoritative: they are necessarily influenced by my hopes fqr the creative success of the Party: they represent only the thinking of one. of the considerable number of Irish people who have recently

joined the Party because they see in it the last hope for the Ireland of tomorrow.

This does not mean that those of us who think of Labour in this way expect Labour to sweep to power in the near future or that we even want this. In the near future the healthiest result—in the belief both of many new entrants, and probably of those who most welcome new entrants into the Party—would be a general re-alignment, following the next General Election, which would leave Labour as core of a progressively-minded opposition.

In that case the Government — which would probably initially have a large majority —would come to consist of a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition. possibly augmented by a few other elements. The opposition would be likely to be enriched by attracting some of the "Just Society" Fine Gael members, and some of those in Fianna Fail who would regard

coalition with Fine Gael as a betrayal of basic principles.

Given a significant decline in the strength of Fianna Fail, a roughly proportional increase in Labour support, and a "no change" result for Fine Gael, these developments would come within the bounds of possibility. Labour obviously cannot absolutely force Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to coalesce.

Difficult but rewarding

By steadfastly refusing, for its own part, to enter into coalition with either of them, or to maintain either of them in office. it can however create the conditions under which, to influential people in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, coalition of these two parties may seem the most desirable — or even the only possible—outcome.

It may he that, to these people, the thought of the colleagues they might lose as the result of such an abandonment of principle would be an incentive rather than a deterrent. (There must be people in Fianna Fail who would prefer to have Mr. Sweetman as a colleague rather than Mr. Colley just as there are certainly people in Fine Gad who would prefer Mr. Haughey to Mr. Costello.

It may also he that the developing situation in the North could be seized on as the pretext for such a coalition, on the theme of the need for a strong, national government to prevent the spread of anarchy.

In such conditions, the road

for Labour could be difficult, but ultimately rewarding. In the short run, Labour would be blamed for making the government of the country impossible as long as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail resisted a mutual merger and especially as long as Fianna Fail could cherish hopes of recovering an over-all majority through the cry of "we are the only people who can govern." But in the long run it is only along this road of no coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gad, that Labour can hope to achieve its own power. on the basis of its own principles.

This policy would give the party an opportunity of educating the electorate over an adequate period, about its own policies, and exposing the deficiencies of the laissez-faire pragmatism which is the basic policy common at present to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Coalition of Fine Gad and Fianna Fail would remove the romantic and historic drapery from this basic policy and

would, therefore, be educational in itself.

If Labour stood up to the tests and trials of opposition under such conditions, and grasped the opportunities of such opposition, it could emerge as the governing party, on the terms of its own principles and programme by the mid-seventies.

The leader of the party, Mr. Brendan Corish, is a convinced socialist—led to his convictions through experience — who brought the name socialist back to a party which had been driven to disclaim it in the crozier-happy past.

He is committed to the principle that Conference lays down and revises the party programme; a principle which has acquired radical implications recently. Also—very important in practice as the history of socialist movements shows — he is a man of integrity, who will adhere in practice to what he professes in principle.

It is possible, then, to he reasonably optimistic, not in the short but in the middleterm about political developments in the tomorrow of a country whose yesterdays have often been unhappily stagnant. Any such optimism must, however, be seriously qualified by the ominous possibilities already referred to earlier arising out the situation in the North.

Most Irish people have come —painfully and reluctantly in the case of many Irish nationalists — to accept the principle that the unity of Ireland can now be attained only through the free consent of a majority in the six coun

ties of Northern Ireland, They accept also the fact that in that area there is at present, and has long been, a majority favouring union with Britain.

They do not support a policy of pressure on that local majority to bring them in to an all-Ireland Republic. They have realised that good relations between the two main communities must be a precondition of any real unity in Ireland. All this represents clear gain, as compared with attitudes prevailing twenty years ago.

Nevertheless many Irish people who have accepted the idea that Northern Ireland has a right to belong to the United Kingdom as long as a majority there so desire, will never accept that majority's right to be half in and half out of the United Kingdom — being half out for the specific purpose of oppressing the minority, which never wanted to be in the United Kingdom in the first place.

This is why the decisions to be taken by the British Government are of critical importance for the tomorrow of all Ireland. If that government genuinely insists on obtaining equal rights for all in the United Kingdom, tomorrow will have a troubled dawn, but a peaceful and productive day.

If, however, it allows the Orange Order to have its way in practice, the dawn will be no less troubled and the day will he one of further violence and repression. The prospects within the North itself, in the second eventuality, are painfully clear. In the twenty-six counties also, strong negative effects will be felt.

Leaders under pressure

The leaders of the major parties will be under pressure to return—as several of them are already beginning to return —to the old anti-partition shibboleths; splinter parties will 'arise, competing in this domain: young men will apply the logic of what their elders are saying, in terrorism and counter-terrorism.

In Rhodesia, Britain had (and has) nominal sovereignty, but relinquished all real power, in practice, to the local whites. The consequences of this have been cruel for the blacks of Rhodesia, and humiliating for Britain. The consequences of a similar surrender to the Orange Order in Northern Ireland may be even more serious, for both communities in Ireland and for Britain's reputation and influence in the English-speaking world.

Northern Ireland should be presented with a clear alternative, either in the United Kingdom for all purposes, including democratic rights for all citizens: or our for all purposes, including subsidies, At the moment, the Northern Government is conscious of the possibility of such a choice, and of the fact that, if really faced with it, it will have to concede equal rights. It is at least equally conscious of the fact that the choice may, through a mixture of conciliatory words (official) and threats of violence (unofficial) be ultimately evaded.

The character of Ireland's tomorrow will depend very largely on which of these two possibilities comes to fruition.

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