Thursday, October 8, 2009

Danny Morrison's perspective on the achievements of republicanism in the North

The piece below is taken from a section of an address by Dabby Morrison to the Planet K conference in Venice. His speech was called Borders, Identity and Language and can be read in full on his website and it is well worth a read with poetic references to the fact that historically, displacement, dispossession, bullying by superior powers is part of the sad and tragic history of humankind.


My grandparents were born in an Ireland that was united, where there was no border. Of course, the people who dominated politics, the land, the economy and the military were the minority who originally came from our neighbouring island, Britain, dispossessed the natives and settled in Ireland. They were Protestants, the native Irish were Catholics, and these Protestants believed that their interests lay in union with Britain. Initially, the British, or English, banned and tried to stamp out the Catholic religion because it was linked to Irish nationalism. Later, it was Irish Republicanism, the IRA and Sinn Fein, which Britain tried to suppress.

As the British parliamentary system began to be reformed and the right to vote was increasingly extended to Irish Catholics the Unionists/Protestant minority realised that democracy threatened their privileged position.

In the war of independence the IRA fought the British and there were negotiations in 1921. But Britain then decided to partition Ireland and an artificial state was created – Northern Ireland. It was a sectarian state handed over to Protestants. Catholics, who made up one third of the population, suffered discrimination and violence. They were second-class citizens in their own country. Their votes did not count. Many of them had to emigrate to find work.

The border - as borders notoriously do – cut through people’s homes and farms. At the home of a friend of mine in south Armagh, the border ran through his bedroom which meant that when he goes to bed his head is in the Republic of Ireland and his feet are in the North of Ireland!

When I was young, and growing up in the North of Ireland, it was an offence to fly the Irish national flag, the Tricolour. We were not allowed to celebrate our culture. We were not allowed to march in Belfast city centre. Even our marches in our own areas to commemorate our patriotic dead were banned and attacked by the police. Irish sporting events were not broadcast on local BBC radio or television. The unionist government was hostile to all things Irish, including the Irish language.

The Irish language had been in decline for a long time, due to restrictions under British rule and, of course, the language suffered a devastating blow in the wake of the Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century when a million people died and two million other people emigrated to escape disease and poverty.

But there were those in the Irish language movement who kept the native language alive, even in the North.

The greatest boost to the Irish language in the past 25 years actually came from the prisons. There, Bobby Sands and his comrades who died on hunger strike, and other IRA prisoners learnt and spoke Irish so that their jailors would not understand what they were saying. When prisoners were released they taught their children Irish. Irish schools were opened and have now flourished so that there is an important revival and even in West Belfast, where I live, there is a quarter in the Falls Road dedicated to promoting the daily use of Irish in coffee shops, in business and transactions.

As a result of the peace process and the Belfast Agreement which established a power-sharing government, there is financial support for the Irish language. In fact, the Education Minister is Caitriona Ruane, a fluent speaker and a member of Sinn Fein.

When I consider other struggles for freedom and nationhood that are still continuing I realise how lucky we in the IRA were. Although the complete independence of our country has yet to be achieved we were able, firstly, through a peaceful civil rights movement, then through armed struggle when peaceful protest had gone to its limits, to force our enemy to the negotiating table.

It was a long, hard struggle and involved many sacrifices. The dead were many. The injuries many. If you add up the total time spent in prison by our men and women since 1970 it comes to over 100,000 years.

All that suffering and death was completely unnecessary: the deaths of civilians, British soldiers, police officers and IRA Volunteers. It was unnecessary because had Britain and the unionists given at the beginning which they were forced to give at the end then there would have been no conflict - or at least no conflict of the magnitude which took place.

What Britain refused to do was to talk to us, was to engage with us. It claimed that to enter into talks was to give legitimacy to its enemies, without realising that what interests and is important to those engaged in struggle is justice for their people and not for the enemy to recognise them as freedom fighters in some sort of perverse ‘beauty competition’.

There is nothing to lose by talking. But by refusing to talk, governments and states protract conflicts and usually calculate that to delay the inevitable is to their advantage – that their opponents will be weaker and will accept less than what they have been fighting for or what they are due.

Our peace process in Ireland is still going on even though we have a power-sharing government which includes former IRA guerrillas. We are still linked to Britain but we are also linked to the rest of Ireland, even though there are two separate economies and political cultures which are each eighty years old and which it is going to take time to change.

But we have changed things to the extent that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in. Opportunity is open to all our people. We got rid of the unionist police force, the RUC, and have a new policing service. The British army is no longer in occupation on our streets There remains a lot of work to be done – in community relations and in reconciliation, in social and economic harmonisation - and although there are some Irish republicans who oppose the new deal they are in a minority and do not have sufficient support to affect the overall situation.

Recently, a friend of mine from Canada was visiting us and we were driving from Belfast to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. My wife and I decided to play a game with her. It was very simple. She was to guess when we crossed the border. Two hours later we arrived on the west coast of Ireland, looking out over the Atlantic, and she asked, “I thought you said we had to cross the border?”

We laughed. She hadn’t noticed. Nor could she.

There is no marking. No customs posts. No British army barbed wire checkpoints. Of course, the border and partition still preoccupies and obsesses the minds of many unionists, but the border, as a frontier of divide, as a bulwark against the Irishness of this island no longer exists.

For those still in struggle, still fighting for independence and freedom and an end to outside interference we Irish republicans offer our well wishes, offer our solidarity and can share with you the lessons we have learnt in the struggle for peace and justice.


  1. "But we have changed things to the extent that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in. Opportunity is open to all our people. We got rid of the unionist police force, the RUC, and have a new policing service. The British army is no longer in occupation on our streets."

    This is great to hear.

    Whilst I personally would like to see a Socialist United Ireland with Peace and Jusice for all my first priority was to see an end to the suffering of the Nationalist/Republican community in the North.

    It sounds like the first part has been achieved.

  2. Totally disagree. I live in the North for the last 10 years and since Stormont came into existence, I see only more and more misery in the Nationalist ghettoes. And I even see grandchildren of Irish republicans gladly joining the British army. All SF has created in the North, is making colonialism "acceptable", by allowing some (middle class) Irish in the North to join the ranks of the "Whites". Not exactly something to be proud of. For a long time I refused to believe that SF has sold out, but at this stage this is the only sad conclusion I can come to. And Danny was a big part of that sell-out himself.

  3. You call it a sell out, but what was the alternative to trying to strike a deal and to try and make some progress for ordinary people? The war was going nowhere, the gap between the people in the South and the North was only getting wider, children were growing up with a foreign army occuppying their communities, division between both communities was simply getting worse, economic conditions were disastorous, there was regular mass disruption to peoples lives, death from political violence on all sides was a reality etc etc.

    Nobody in SF thinks the current agreement in the North is the end of the story, rather a beginnig of a new stage. The progress Danny talks about here is real. Peoples lives are generaly better as a result of the peace process, the border is LESS obvious in a physical and psychological sense and greater rights have been obtained for an oppressed section of the working class.

    However, as I said this cannot be the end and Sinn Féin must not be allowed to simply become defenders of the status Quo in the North. They must use that position to show the values and benefits of left republicanism and an all Ireland agenda. If they can do this then the party will grow in the south and the chances of an all Ireland solution to the historic problems on the island will be increased.

  4. Anon of 2:05 pm,

    that you lived in the north for the last 10 years is instructive. Assuming you are irish then you used live in the southern state. You moing up there and living there and coming back is the type of intra Ireland experience that was denied for most of the last century. Its just one single example of how the border is fading. Many Thousands of people are doing the same.Southerners living in the north, northeners in the south.

    In that way you yourself represent part of the success of the last decade and demonstrate how the nation is being reunified.


  5. Morrison's commentary is fairly standard stuff for those who lived in six counties. Those who lived through roughly the same period can identify with some or all of the factors he raises. This is not theory. This was the reality as many of us saw and lived through it.

    On another post, a writer laments that SF doesn't have some intricate ideology or set of doctrines set in stone. While SF has a set of principles, such as the French Republicans had in liberté, égalité et fraternité, these are not truely sexy ideas anymore. Paradoxically, they are the very ideas and concepts that need to be developed.

    On another level, we have to recognise that complex theories, and especially theories that are often misunderstood and badly presented or implemented, are double edged swords. Lets take the SP now nearly continual assertion that Republicanism drove a wedge between the working class in six counties. Leaving aside the inbuilt sectarian structures that created and perpetuate the divide, lets just focus in on Marxist action and thought.

    When the mini revolts of 1848 erupted in various parts of Europe, Marx called for the formation of a new German Republic (not a workers state) as a precursor to an eventual workers revolution at some in the future. (A fully federated Germany didn't exist until 1871.) So the great Marx, himself, saw the need for a progression in the creation of social structures. He didn't see the logic of imposing artificial doctrine on existing realities but rather believed doctrine had to be embedded in the correct social structures.

  6. Furthermore, one of Marx's greatest contributions to the philosophical debate was to bridge the gap between the intellectual conception of civil institutions versus the physical nature of the civil constructs already in existence. Marx basically overcame this tension (chicken v egg debate, sort of) by stating that we should confront the existing structure as having the embedded in them both the precursors to logic of progression and the paradoxes of inconsistency which don't create better conditions for all citizens and should therefore be deconstructed and new economical-political structures promoting an improved set of principles put in place - in Marx's case communism.

    Therefore, we who lived in six counties had to analyse the current structures which confronted us, highlight the inconsistencies, and take actions which would destroy those structures and replace them with more progessive structures while at the same time accepting whatever limitations confront us given our the strength to influence proportional to our representation as Republicans in the mechanics of the new structures. Ours was not a struggle to create perfection but to build upon and improve the conditions so that we can again and again improve on existing structures. This is an ongoing job. Conditions, preferences and understanding change. So we will have to continually change.

    What is antithetical to Marxist thought is the idea of rejecting our own experiences and objective senses to situations which confront us. The SP, along with some Irish Labour party members, would have us believe that we must subsume our experiences to an already articulated ideology and ignore the conditions in which we can affect change. According to these pundits, we should have and must continue to alienate our own senses and intellect from the reality that confronts us and try to impose an artificial ideological structure even though the conditions to implement the proto ideology don't exist. In other words, we wait until the SP and others of their ilk wait for the conditions to create the perfect world through revolution. We just wait. We'd still be waiting for one man one vote in their world.

    If we accept the Republican sense of democracy, whereby the citizen is actualised or becomes de facto governor of political economy through the ballot box, we must also accept the historical limitations that exist at any given moment. While I have no problem with theory (other than understanding it) politics is about the art of doing. Yes, we must have some common guiding principles. These must develop along with the times and circumstances. SF, imho, has work to do on this front in very hostile circumstances, but at no point would I contenance being allied with a political movement that enforces doctrine. As we struggle against reactionary forces (for most of what occurs to the left and right of us is the reaction of failed political implementation whether it be Leninist or neo-liberal capitalist), it is incumbent upon every member of a political party to seek to build upon their own and our collective understanding and improve upon the social-economic-political structures that free us from the excesses and ills of our current socio-economic circumstances.

  7. Danny
    If you and your wife had played that game with your canadian friend pre 1969/70 she would not have noticed the border either.Whats your point?There is no need for brit watchtowers now, because once hostile areas of the north to british rule are now empowered within a new six county political dispensation and no longer pose a threat.And yes, unlike the 50 years that followed partition republicans and nationalists now live in a more equitable northern society. HOWEVER the biggest injustise on this island today remains and that is partition. Your suggestion that British rule in Ireland is now in some way invisible reminds me of that childrens storytale about the emperor's new clothes. People in tyrone or Armagh STILL live under British rule unlike people in Kerry or Dublin. More worringly I feel that there is a type of hegemony being cultivated by mainstream republicanism which is ignoring the continued existence of a very real economic, social and political border that divides this Island.I dont for one moment under estimate the pain and sacrifice you and your comrades went through and I dont wish to see a return to futile violence by smaller republican groups, but I am concerned that discourse on the issue of partion has shifted among wider Irish society which now sees the situation in the six counties as settled.I fear that you and the former guerrillas that you talk about, may be of a similar view.

  8. dave,

    you mention their is an economics border - yet steadily intra Ireland trade is increasing. The dublin govt. will shortly own assets in the north of Ireland worth 5 billion euro.

    The case is now that we are bound more together than we ever were, even if its NAMA in the negative but more trade in the positive.

    5 billion of property. Sammy Wilson is going to spend a fair few days visiting Dublin I can gurantee you.

  9. This is the most depressing thread ever.
    Danny has clearly suffered an ideological collapse. The struggle was never about 'equality of opportunity' for what that was worth - it merely represents the opportunity to be on the dole.
    Or that Unionists or Brits would 'talk'. It was about something more like what Connolly tried to bring about. So now SF are going to be part of an institution that privatises everything while the dole queues lengthen and we're supposed to view that as progress. Next you'll be implementing water charges and sitting on DPPs while working class people are jailed for their inability to pay... V

  10. starry. the alternative was in not going into a right-wing coalition. it was a ceasefire but a return to community-based politics. no privatisation, no stealth taxes, no fundamental compromise. it was that simple. did entry into stormont push forward irish unity one iota - i think it's now clear it didn't. BA

  11. BA, did you want just see the IRA calling a ceasefire with no negotiations to follow? you would have accepted prisioners left inside (some for the rest of ther lives), soldiers still on the streets, no attempt at any kind of reform of the RUC, etc.

    I personally am no fan of the stormont set up and i have made that clear in the past. I feel SF need to negotiate a way out of it based on a guaranteed bill of rights, an Irish language Act etc. This for me is the way forward, but I still feel the GFA achieved some positive things and it ended the war that was going nowhere.

  12. V nobody said that was what republicans were fighting for. What Danny said was

    had Britain and the unionists given at the beginning which they were forced to give at the end then there would have been no conflict - or at least no conflict of the magnitude which took place.

    Nobody in Sinn Féin is saying what we have is the end of the matter. The fight for a United ireland continues it is simply the strategy that is different.

  13. Starry, the prisoners never agreed to be used as a bartering tool- it was always sold on its merits. tell me just what is it that republicans have got out of stormont? equality - check out Sammy Wilson's statement re: public sector jobs going west - dead in the water. irish lang act -in the safe hands of Nelson McCausland along with funding for the gaa. bill of rights - terminated due to dup opposition. they are now arguing for cutbacks to north south bodies and dublin is agreeing. what do you see in this that was worth it? the trade missions to israel, the pfi, the alliance party running the PSNI or the standing ovations for US imperial consuls?

  14. The fact is the prisioners were a major issue and of importance to everybody. What would your strategy have been and where would it have got us? The fact is there have been changes and for the majority of people life is better now.The work is far from finished and Sinn Féin are the first to say that is the case.

    What are the concrete proposals you would have put forward. You talked of ceasefire and return to community politics. Expand on this please.

  15. starry, i don't think any pows would have consented to be used as "a major issue" in the negotiations. certainly all those I spoke to were thankful that they were released but also clear that their release wasn't sufficient justification for the cessation. it was sold on the basis of getting irish unity. are you really asking me what community politics is - well the opposite of what's happening in the north right now. republicans not being ministers closing schools and hospitals, privatising public services and pumping money into private companies. instead, it involves helping communities to campaign against cuts pushed from London and offering an alternative. all very concrete like save our schools, save our hospitals, no to privatisation. pretty much like what republicans did the last time the military struggle failed but better organised. i can't believe i have to expand on this to someone who is supposed to be a leftist. the aim would be to build from without until you get sufficient force to unite ireland and change society. we'd be in a much stronger position today if they'd have struggled hard on these lines the last decade or so.
    i've answered your question now answer mine above. what have we got from stormont that was worth all the compromises? you say that life is better for the majority now - is it? sectarianism is far worse, jobless totals way up, emigration is returning, discrimination is worse, privatisation is everywhere, inequality is about the same, nationalists are demoralised. have we advanced one iota towards a united ireland? cross-border bodies - managing the erne-shannon water system? give me a break! food safety - they didn't even get all-ireland testing just promotion. board of ulster-scots and irish - these are trinkets like they used to give the native americans for peace.
    if you can't answer this then maybe you justify it on what it might achieve in the future. if so, ask yourself another question - do you think stormont reinforces division or allows us to overcome it and who's got the upper hand right now? BA

  16. You make me laugh POW's ? prisoner of war ? murdering cowardly criminals more like, I served in the British Army during the troubles as you put it, I lost a some very good friends, and one of my very best friends on the Lisbon fun run bombing, he was blown clean in half by the shaped charge planted underneath the minibus they were using, the irony is they were running for charity an Irish charity..something that would have helped Irish people... there were talks during that time in changing the tack from keeping the peace to "if they want war they can have it".... and if that had happened, you'd have been shot on sight and we would have asked questions later...but alas the politicians feared a bloodbath and rightly so... a war isn't planting bombs under cars or killing innocent civilians, it's cowardly, inhumane and is just about the level of the average bog trotter in my experience, If I'd had it my way I'd have pulled every British Soldier out and let you kill each other until there was no fight left in you, bunch of half wits the lot of you

  17. What's yer murde? rate in the countries you've invaded recently. All dem loverly jets, tanks and cannons. Murder at long distance. So much more civilised. On yer bike with yer white man's burden.

  18. i like your put every brit soldier out and let us sort it out idea. in fact thats what we've been saying for the last few hundred years. maybe you can work things your end. seriously. wars, politicians protests big pictures on walls saying brits out obviously doesn't work, we say it your language and still a blank stare. it obviously takes something special to make the penny drop in your lot, you seem to have it. so please hold on to that brillient idea and run with it. british soldiers out = lasting peace.... ireland + british soldiers = trouble.... brits out = good....
    brits in = bad

  19. Anon, former squaddie,

    I think you are making things up. You say "I lost a some very good friends"!

    you were going to say a lot then it becomes some, pity you didnt edit better as you were writing and making things up.

    I regret the deaths of British soldiers in the north. I've met 2/3 former squaddies who are decent people and fought in the North. I despise the agenda that sent them there and I back the right to defend this nation against foreign agression by arms when that is the most appropriate response to protect this nation but none of that makes me dislike thoses squaddies as human beings. Republicans dont look at people from another country and dislike them for that reason.

    You are making things up hoping that there will be some anti-British diatribe. That shows how little you know about Ireland or the Irish

    The war was never about the British. It was for the Irish. Irish people , including Republicans, generally like the British.

    I know you are only baiting but some person genuinely from Britain might read this and they can see clearly that we pity you, dont hate anybody but only ever sought to have our freedom.