Democracy or Hibernianism?

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

THE IRISH FREE State was not founded on the principles for which the War of Independence was fought. The Irish are the only white European people whose common experience in history is as a colored people, as oppressed. Their struggle is part of the historic struggle of oppressed people against the European movement that goes by the name “discovery.”

They say Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Well, it was certainly big enough for him to find . . . Actually, St. Brendan got here before Christopher Columbus. The difference was, he didn’t think he “owned” it. And he didn’t think he should go back and tell everybody that he found this great land they should steal from the people who lived there.

Irish republicans are part of the great struggle of the oppressed against “discovery.” When we started our civil rights movement, we were inspired by Martin Luther King, by the Black people of the United States and their civil rights movement. The republicans also were part of the same movement of history as the American Revolution and the French Revolution . . .

Within the limitations of their time, republicans in America moved to replace authoritarian right with a society where everyone was equal. They weren’t perfect, as shown by their treatment of women, Blacks, and American Indians, but they had the idea right.

In Ireland, however, republicans lost the civil war. In America, they won, but in Ireland they lost. It’s very important for people to know whether they won or lost: The Irish are a great people for thinking they won, when they lost; and thinking they lost, when they won.

Republicans lost further when thousands of them went off to Spain and fought and died in the Spanish Civil War. A whole generation was lost in Spain.

Now, we’re supposed to be one big, happy family. As the old song goes, “we’re on the long road, maybe the wrong road, but we’re together.” Who cares if we’re on the wrong road? I do. My mission in life is not to be together. It’s to be on the right road.

We’re not on the road to a pluralist, secular, democratic Ireland that allows freedom of conscience. We’re not headed in that direction.

The Republicans’ Wrong Turn

Where are we headed? We don’t know. We’re drifting. The problem is not the ceasefire. The problem is whether the momentum created by the ceasefire was derailed by the alliances the republicans made. Tying the ceasefire to the Irish government was a major mistake.

I argued in 1991 that we needed a ceasefire because of the damage the war was doing to the popular movement. I said this was something that ought to be discussed by the whole republican movement, and if we decided a ceasefire was necessary, it should be for our own reasons. We would control it. I was told we can’t do that. Why? Because the British would find out.

Two years later, we found out the same people who were telling us “no” were talking about ceasefire with the Irish government. But anything that happens in Dublin is known in London. Then they declare a ceasefire without consultation with the rest of the movement. That was wrong. It was divisive. It meant the people we had worked with for years were now lying to us.

In tying the ceasefire to the Irish government, we created a hibernian alliance–its fundamental feature is that it is hibernian–but there are no principles. What if you believe in human rights but not hibernianism? You can still join us, but we have no principles.

The strategy is nothing but a game of dominoes. Republicans push the Irish government. The Irish government pushes hibernians in the United States. Hibernians push president Clinton. Clinton pushes the British. What if it doesn’t work? People say we have to keep the momentum going. They’ve confused momentum with power.

The British are refusing to move, and we can’t make them. My mother had a saying for times like these. She’d say: “What do you expect a pig to do but root?” We can’t expect an oppressive government to act as if it is not oppressive. We should have expected that and designed a nonviolent movement to push the British.

Instead, all are depending on Clinton. Will he impose sanctions on Britain if it doesn’t move? No. Will he close off investment to Northern Ireland? No. Will he dress down the British ambassador? No.

How do I know this? Clinton has it within his authority to stop abusing [Matt Morrison]. He could give the twenty-three [former Irish political prisoners facing deportation or serving sentences in U.S. prisons] presidential pardons and say he won’t pick-up anymore. He won’t do that, so we can have no expectation that he will lean on the British. What can we do? Irish Americans can’t push Clinton because they’re not united by anything but Ireland.

The British have called our bluff. By the methodology we have created we have no way to make them move. The road we are on leads nowhere but to the settlement put on the table by the British in 1970: a power-sharing congress in the north and trade agreements with the Free State. That may be all that can be achieved anyway. But if we’re not honest about it, it sets in motion a process that leads us back to war.

Are we being sold the same solution we were sold in 1922 [the partition of Ireland]? I think we are . . .

Strategic Lessons of the Struggle

[In 1970] we were not prepared to evaluate the impact of war before we had no other choice. The inspiration for our own civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, the Black movement, and the civil rights movement in this country. But we had no concept of nonviolence as a discipline. As the situation developed we were pushed into violence, pushed into it by the reaction of the state.

We are much wiser now. We’ve got to develop a political strategy that makes war unnecessary, but which has the strength to push the British to do what they don’t want to do. We need to go back to our strength. We don’t need the hibernian alliance. We need a democratic alliance.

The U.S. government doesn’t understand self-determination. Look what it does to Cuba. It opposes self-determination for Cuba. It opposed self-determination for Nicaragua and Grenada. With the best will in the world it cannot exert the necessary pressure to help. But it can influence and determine the nature of our society for us–which is the same problem as the British doing it for us. We didn’t fight for 200 years to replace the British with the Americans.

If the principle for the hibernian alliance is that we don’t talk about a minimum wage, and there is no minimum wage in Ireland; if it is that we don’t criticize the right-wing policies of the government of the south of Ireland or the right-wing policies of the government of the United States . . . then we are not moving in a democratic direction.

Whose Side Are We On?

If we’re not moving in a democratic direction, why talk to the British? We don’t have anything intelligent to say anyway. Why worry about getting to the table? The table doesn’t go where we want to go. What we want is not on the agenda.

We need to look to a new alliance, based on the principles of dignity, human rights, equality and justice.

If we are in the Democratic Party–and I have to say here I’m no fan of your Democratic Party, but if we are in the Democratic Party–our place is with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition; our place is with the labor and trade union movement; our place is with those who struggle against racial discrimination and discrimination because of gender or sexual orientation.

We belong in the great historic struggle for decency, liberty and human rights. The problem with the hibernian alliance is that Sinn Fein’s bottom line is everyone else’s top line. What Sinn Fein says is not negotiable is the first thing everyone else wants to throw out.

The alliance is broken as soon as we sit at the table. Bruton [the Irish prime minister] does not want to resolve the issues that led to violence. He simply wants to stop violent conflict from returning.

Some people say, “But what if [former Irish Prime Minister] Reynolds were still in office?” That’s a waste of intellectual energy. What ifs are always a waste of energy. As my mother would say, “If we had meat, we could have a stew. That is, if we had vegetables, and if we had a pot.”

It’s a waste of intellectual energy to talk about what ifs. You should never base a political strategy on an individual holding a position. If Clinton loses the election, the U.S. position will change. A change in Dublin, and the Irish government’s position changes. But whoever is in office in London, the British position will not change.

The bottom line is that people have the fundamental right to determine for themselves how they will be structured and governed. That is something we never had, in the north or the south of Ireland . . .

We need a commitment from the British government that it intends to unilaterally leave the country. We need a commitment from the southern state that if the people of Ireland determine we need a different social, political, economic, and constitutional, structure they will commit themselves to that change.

ATC 61, March-April 1996