Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Gerry Adams the slow learner

Gerry Adams is not, by anyone’s estimation, a parvenu in the world of Northern Ireland politics. Yet, with all his accumulated years of experience, the Sinn Féin leader talks about unionism as if he had no understanding of the thinking which animates it. Scratch the rhetoric and you’ll find, unalloyed, unqualified, lacking even a veneer of nuance, the old republican assumption that unionists are possessed by some manner of false consciousness. Adams does hint that he is prepared to humour the misapprehension (as he sees it) of 20% of Ireland’s population that it is British, however, at no level has he internalised the lessons of the many years of needless violence in which he participated. Britain’s ‘political presence’ on this island is an extension of the British political identity of a majority of Northern Ireland’s inhabitants. It is almost poignant that a lifetime in politics can leave someone so untouched by any understanding of that which he professes to oppose.

The Provisionals’ president is fronting Sinn Féin’s campaign for ‘Irish unity’, which a cynical commentator might suppose had been devised chiefly to keep the party’s nominal leader occupied. Its focus is concentrated on the ‘diaspora’, those who claim Irish descent in the US and GB, rather than the electorate in Northern Ireland, which, sll parties and both governments now agree, will actually determine its own constitutional future. An event had already taken place stateside and now, ironically, the House of Commons’ Grand Committee Room has provided the backdrop for Gerry to develop his thoughts on unionists in a united Ireland. So, gratefully or otherwise, we discover that Adams is prepared to countenance orange parades in a thirty two county socialist republic, ‘albeit on the basis of respect and cooperation’. The latter provision heavily insinuates that any marches would take place in venues which republicans approved and would consist of content which republicans decided to permit. Still, if parading is your thing, I suppose this might be viewed as some manner of concession to an ‘Ireland of equals’, if parades were in and of themselves a political end.

There remain Orangemen for whom the act of parading is located firmly within the context of celebrating the Union and foundational aspects of its history. Indeed there are very many unionists for whom marches have little significance or for whom Orangeism has only tangential relevance to allegiance to the United Kingdom. They will be more interested in Adams’ contention that Britain’s ‘control’ over part of the island of Ireland remains the ‘underlying cause’ of conflict. Gerry wouldn’t be Gerry if he didn’t follow up this scrupulously offensive notion with a self-righteous platitude.

“We need to look at what unionists mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts”

As a unionist I wish to suggest a concept to Mr Adams. It’s not particularly new, but clearly the Sinn Féin leader has not been listening. My ‘sense of Britishness’ is engendered by a real political, cultural and historical bond with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a bond which does not exist because Britain retains ‘political control’ of part of Ireland, but because I am unequivocally British as well as thoroughly Irish. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, not by force of arms, but because my Britishness and the Britishness of a majority here manifests itself, organically, through a political link to the rest of Britain. The political link endures because of us - we do not remain in some sense communally delusional because of the political link. It’s very basic stuff and one might have thought that grasping its precepts went along with embracing the peace process, but Gerry, rhetorically at least, is blatantly not on board.

Further proof of Adams’ flimsy grasp of unionist thinking is provided by his claim that, “within the British system, unionists are fewer (sic) than 2% of the population, they cannot hope to have any significant say in the direction of their own affairs”. In contrast, "as 20 per cent of a new Ireland, unionists will be able to assert their full rights and entitlements and exercise real political power and influence”. It’s an argument worth making to ‘Ulster nationalists’; indeed Ian Paisley was, for a time, almost convinced of its wisdom, in the 1970s. That speaks eloquently of the nature of his politics and their legacy on the party which he formed, but if we are discussing authentic unionism, then this line of thinking makes little sense. Far from comprising 2% of the UK’s population, unionists form a clear majority in each of its constituent parts. And rather than aspiring to secure special group ‘rights and entitlements’ within Britain, genuine unionists in Northern Ireland wish simply to enjoy the rights possessed by British citizens in the rest of the Kingdom, as well as the political entitlements and participation which normally accompanies those rights. Greater influence in a united Ireland might be an argument against unionism, some nationalists might consider it unionism’s antidote, but it is logic which it is impossible to accept whilst remaining, in any meaningful sense, a unionist.

I’m positive that during his long involvement in local politics, whether making a violent contribution or holding silly seminars in the House of Commons, Gerry Adams has, at some juncture, heard of Sir Reg Empey. If he still wonders how Ulster unionists perceive their relationship with the rest of Britain, he should listen to the UUP leader articulating his party’s core values. Northern Ireland, Empey emphasises, is ‘nothing’ without the United Kingdom. The implication is plain. Neither is unionism ‘anything’ outwith the context of the United Kingdom. It is of course possible for Irish Protestants to exist outside the UK and retain something which might be described as a unique culture, but that is something which is separate from unionism and Britishness. If Gerry seriously wished to examine unionism and unionists, he would surely have, before this point, encountered this distinction.

Reading some of Adams’ statements in reports of the ‘unity’ event I’m reminded of his virulent response to the troops’ homecoming parade, last November. ‘Belfast is Ireland’s second city’ he growled, in a candid moment. The inference that a British institution had therefore no business in the town was left unsaid, but was nevertheless made very clear. In a more cerebral setting Adams’ chooses his words more carefully, but their meaning remains the same - Irishness and Britishness are, in his view, two exclusive, imporous contexts which are incapable of coexistence. Whilst he persists with this approach the Sinn Féin president can allude to tolerance, but he will never truly understand what it entails.


Tom Griffin said...

It’s an argument worth making to ‘Ulster nationalists’; indeed Ian Paisley was, for a time, almost convinced of its wisdom, in the 1970s.

Isn't that conceding the point? If "Ulster Nationalists" as opposed to "authentic unionists" are a significant constituency within unionism overall, then isn't engaging them a viable strategy?

Chekov said...

I'm not suggesting it isn't a viable strategy Tom (although I would suggest it won't prevail) - I'm suggesting that it has little to do with unionism or unionists.

Timothy Belmont said...

You're back firing on all cylinders, Chekov! What a well-written, eloquent, insightful piece.
I think you understand Adams' psyche better than many, including myself.

Do you think Adams' stance accurately reflects the views and attitudes towards us as his constituents and supporters?

Kevinho said...

A simpler way to put it to the Deputy Headteacher is that if there was no feeling of common identity with GB in Northern Ireland then GB would have handed it over to the Republic years ago. The 'Orange' identity is as foreign to us here in England as the Catholic Irish identity, and GB has no economic incentive to possess NI. Therefore it must be something to do with the wishes of the locals. Simples.

Anonymous said...

Kevin's second from last sentence is correct, the rest is garbage.

Chekov said...

Do you think Adams' stance accurately reflects the views and attitudes towards us as his constituents and supporters?

Tim I would imagine that it certainly reflects the views of the SF grassroots. Of course the party's base has expanded so it's not possible to say that most voters feel the same way.

Kevinho said...

'Kevin's second from last sentence is correct, the rest is garbage.'

Why do you say that? Since 1945 the UK has generally decolonised where it wasn't wanted. If it wasn't wanted in NI, it would have left.