Ireland awoke on Sunday, February 9, to find that the two-party political system that had governed it for nearly one hundred years lay in pieces. The triumph of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, across the Republic had been moderated only by the limitations of its ambitions. Had it had any inkling of what a stunning victory awaited it, and accordingly put candidates in every constituency instead of only half of them, today it would almost certainly be forming a single-party government. The Army of the Irish Republic would ultimately be answering to the IRA Chief of Staff, whilst the Irish police, An Garda Siochana, would be taking orders from the IRA man running the Department of Justice.
Yes, it is that bad; almost a lawful coup d’état.
Thus has Ireland finally—though not yet fully—reaped the harvest that has been sown by thirty years of peace process falsehoods. The very success of the peace process was based on treating Sinn Fein as largely a separate entity from the IRA, over which it had little nor control—which was largely true, for the opposite was the case. The IRA—or rather its governing body, the IRA army council—effectively controlled Sinn Fein. The policies of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement were largely devised in secret within the army council and then transmitted to the broader mass of the Sinn Fein membership, as with any cult. It was always a top-down movement, whether it was about embarking on a campaign of violence to overthrow the Northern Ireland state, blowing up London, murdering policemen and soldiers or occasionally slaughtering Protestants, the movement was tightly controlled by its leaders.
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The peace process, which was born around 1988, became a viable political proposition simply because of the refusal of various governments in the Republic to take the necessary measures to crush the IRA (as they had repeatedly done from the 1920s into the early 1960s). If force, coercion and counter-terror were not to be used by government, then all that was left was suasion, and for that to work, those outside the IRA had to pretend they were dealing with reasonable people who would be amenable to evidence, logic and argument. But of course, it was the absence these very virtues that had made the IRA campaign possible in the first place.
Faith in the ultimate outcome thus became the driving force of the peace process. The authors—primarily John Hume, the leader of the constitutional, law-abiding Social Democratic and Labour Party, the peaceful voice of Northern Irish Catholics, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin—invested their political capital on civilising and ultimately disarming a terrorist group that was defined by its devotion to violence. A vast amount of effort was put into this project, by successive Irish governments, later by British governments and finally by Washington, all of which accepted that it was possible to make a law-abiding political party out of a band of murderers.
New concepts emerged, the most important and most secret of which was that not merely would partial disarmament by the IRA be accepted as full disarmament, but also this fiction would then be sold to the public through the obliging media. A commission was created to supervise this “disarmament”, and indeed many useless IRA weapons were decommissioned. Crucially, in its heartland of South Armagh the IRA handed in no guns, and neither did it reveal the locations of the bodies of those people it had murdered and secretly buried. Why, even as the IRA was surrendering some guns, it was importing AN-94 twin-shot sniper rifles from Russia.
What might have been the primary obstacle to propitiating the IRA, the Unionist politicians of Northern Ireland, were outwitted, out-bluffed and out-manoeuvred by the three governments as they agreed to enter a power-sharing executive initially with the SDLP, and later with Sinn Fein. The Reverend Ian Paisley, who for decades had proved to be the most “obdurate” opponent to any settlement with even moderate nationalists, never mind armed republican terrorists, turned out in the long run to be a buyable egomaniac who, when the chance finally came, basked in the improbable glories of governing one of the dreariest corners of Europe. Nonetheless, the Northern Ireland executive has proven to be so riven and unstable that it has had to be suspended four times in twenty years by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a post which was supposed to have been abolished long ago as the province became self-governing. This has not proved possible, and never will, because it is like a raft shooting the rapids from hell, on which wobbles some unfortunate British politician hoping to save his or her career.
During those twenty years, the two middle-ground parties that had negotiated the Belfast Agreement of 1998, the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, were driven into virtual extinction by the boundless appetite of London and Dublin to conciliate the IRA at any price. As Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, remarked to Seamus Mallon of the SDLP: “Your problem, Seamus, is that you haven’t got any guns.”
And Ireland’s problem was that the IRA did have guns, and still has them, and more relevantly, it has an army council that decides the policies for a still-armed political movement that pretends to be completely unarmed. Orders for Sinn Fein leaders emanate from that council. When Gerry Adams was Sinn Fein leader, he was also on the council, so the instructions did not have to travel far. Mary Lou McDonald, the present Sinn Fein leader, is not on the council, and is the first such leader not even to have been in the IRA. However, she still takes orders from on high: one morning she said she was against having an all-Ireland referendum on the border question, and by noon, after a sharp phone call or two, she had changed her mind.
Sinn Fein’s electoral base after the Belfast Agreement in 1998 was largely confined to Northern Ireland, but its aspirations could not be confined there. The Republic is a quite different polity, with a culture of clientelism that requires politicians to be doing endless favours for their constituents, and in return they over-reward themselves financially. Until the crash of 2007, the Prime Minister of Ireland (the Taoiseach) earned more than the President of the USA, and in retirement collects a pension of around €130,000 a year, plus a secretary for life, plus all phone bills paid for by the state. Even ordinary MPs (or TDs) retire on vast pensions. The former leader of the IRA, Gerry Adams, who was a TD for ten years, recently retired on a pension of €80,000 a year.
A political class could only pamper itself by ensuring the administrative class around it was comparably cosseted, and Ireland’s civil service is not merely the largest per capita in Europe but also the best-paid. It is quite efficient, not least in the vigorous manner in which it protects its own interests. The only employees in Dublin’s congested city centre who get free parking are public servants. An iniquitous system called “index-linking” means that civil servant pensions continue to rise commensurate with civil service pay, so that five years after retiring, civil servant pensioners have often found themselves earning more money than when they were working.
All the parties gorged at this trough, even during the years of austerity after the Irish government and the banking system went bust. Meanwhile, what are ruefully called the “coping classes” who ran small businesses and paid their taxes had no such pension provision. The bail-out of the Irish banks in 2008 burdened Ireland with historically unprecedented debts, which have had to be serviced by a compliant but nonetheless resilient private sector. The outcome has been that an under-capitalised state has simply not been able to provide the housing required for a population that is both growing naturally and being augmented by immigration. This has caused increasing anger and resentment, as adult children have been unable to leave the family home, and house prices have been rising as mortgages become dependent on multi-income households. While young people have become angry, a mirror-image ire has assailed the other end of the demographic, as people in their fifties in the private sector have realised that their retirement pensions will be too small to live on.
All this was grist to the mill for Sinn Fein, which was not the author of these problems. Of course, it has had to be sanitised, prinked and preened from its days of what was called “the ballot box and Armalite strategy” as it fought parallel political and terrorist campaigns. This has been comprehensively achieved over the past seven years of the “decade of centenaries”, as Ireland commemorates the seismic events of 1913 to 1923. The party, though with the IRA still attached but inactive, has been involved in many of the commemorative ceremonials, especially with the British royal family. Martin McGuinness, who authorised the mass murder of the Mountbatten boating party in 1979, even shook hands with the Queen, and Gerry Adams, the IRA’s most prominent leader of the last forty years, similarly greeted Prince Charles.
Sinn Fein was now a “respectable” entity in the Irish Republic, especially in the poisoned atmosphere engendered during the protracted Brexit crisis in which Anglophobia became chic throughout the political and media classes. This primal bigotry—which in reverse would certainly have caused the Irish ambassador in London to have made formal protests—was enunciated most clearly by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Irish Times, which often used virtually racist stereotypes about the English. Nonetheless, Sinn Fein remained largely unelectable as it embraced the tax-and-spend socialist policies that characterised the other left-wing parties of Europe. Having done poorly in local government and European elections, Sinn Fein leaders reassessed where Irish society was weakest; and quite correctly, they identified two areas—housing and health.
Here was the stroke of genius. If Sinn Fein-IRA could get almost everyone to forget their primary role in fomenting a twenty-six-year war in which over 3000 people died, if they had managed to shake the hands of members of the royal family, if they could even win an invitation (as the IRA army council managed to do) to spend a weekend with Tony Blair at the Prime Minister’s country retreat at Chequers, could they not similarly persuade the Irish people that their policies could solve the housing and health crises?
Neither crisis is solvable by any known method. Ireland spends more per capita on health than any other country in Europe, and twice as much as the UK, yet has probably the most incompetent medical service this side of Albania, with absenteeism rife and hospital corridors packed with patient-occupied trolleys, and incompetence protected by unions. One new TD in the Dail was elected solely on his ability to smuggle his constituents into the British National Health Service.
The few remaining banks are in even worse shape. On orders from the European Union, Irish banks have strict regulations on mortgage loans, and membership of the euro has meant that no Irish government has any control over money supply. Nonetheless, Sinn Fein campaigned as if they were cargo-cultists who could conjure money from the skies to build (as the party promised) 100,000 new homes. The prospect of what is winsomely called “affordable housing” (as opposed to the unaffordable housing that other parties apparently preferred to seduce the electorate with) appealed not merely to those struggling to cope, but also to the large numbers of unemployed who are clearly determined to remain that way, yet still expect to be housed by the state.
Attempts to derail the Sinn Fein campaign with reminders of what the IRA had recently done came to nothing. As the election campaign warmed up, the IRA’s murder in 2007 of a young South Armagh man named Paul Quinn surfaced as a reason not to trust Sinn Fein. To comply with the fiction that the IRA had disarmed, instead of shooting him the IRA men beat him to death with iron bars, shattering every bone in his body. A Sinn Fein spokesman dismissed the killing as being of a mere criminal, and this murder, and the disdainful indifference towards its moral implications, were adduced as evidence of how Sinn Fein could not be trusted. But despite the impassioned pleas of the boy’s family not to reward the political wing of his killers, his murder did not affect Sinn Fein’s vote in the least.
Meanwhile, caught in the cleft stick of their own devising, namely the lie that Sinn Fein was a wholly constitutional entity, the main political parties in the Republic, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, nonetheless had to pretend during the campaign that there was something imprecisely improper about Sinn Fein, and that it was mysteriously controlled by shadowy creatures from Belfast. They did not dare to spell out the terrible truth that Sinn Fein was not controlled by shadowy anything, but by very real men with real ambitions for power, namely the army council of a still-armed IRA.
The outcome has been an unprecedented calamity. The two main parties have been humiliated, and a third, the Labour Party, the oldest party in Ireland, all but extinguished. It is hard to feel sorry for any of them. Fianna Fail bankrupted the country twelve years ago. Fine Gael, in government since then, far from cutting the vast perks and pensions of the political and administrative classes, actually encouraged civil servants to take early retirement on the full pensions they would have got had they stayed working until retirement age. The Labour Party dedicated itself to advancing the Left-liberal cultural agenda on abortion and gay marriage while ignoring the conditions of the working classes, who have the lowest educational achievements and the least upward mobility of any in Europe. The result of this complicity in bad governance is that Ireland owes the world’s banks some €200 billion, making it the most indebted country in the OECD, with each individual’s share of the national debt amounting to €42,500. So, naturally, there is no money to build 100,000 “affordable” houses.
Perhaps because observers had too much faith in the “intelligence” of Irish voters not to be bought by Sinn Fein bribes, nobody foresaw the party’s electoral blitzkrieg through Ireland, carrying with it some deeply unpalatable characters into the centre of public life. In the case of one successful candidate the mask slipped, with eruptions of unapologetic IRA ballads in the counting hall when the result was announced. Among the new TDs is the IRA’s master bomb-maker, who was responsible for the deaths of unknowable numbers of people—probably hundreds.
Most of the new TDs are unknown outside their constituencies, and in addition to guaranteeing their constituents houses galore, a dazzling health service, cakes and ale along with upwardly-flowing canals, they also promised an endless service of clientelism, with no personal request ever being unrequited. Meanwhile, all plans for inward investment into Ireland went into immediate deep freeze as conglomerates waited to see if this was to be a Corbyn-type high-tax regime.
Not that the IRA worries about such mundane matters. Their obsessions are more about their role in Irish history—rather like the men of 1916. They really do believe in the apostolic succession of the republican tradition, and that they have been blessed by the moral authority thereby conferred to take life in the service of the “Republic”. All of the IRA’s army council members have personally killed people, whereas the soldiers of the Army of the Republic are true patriots and vaunted peacekeepers, not killers. These two organisations now vie to be the legitimate armed expression of Irishness, and the general election of 2020 almost produced an outright contest of moral authority between the two.
The logical resolution to Ireland’s electoral conundrum is for the two main constitutional parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, to go into coalition, nearly one hundred years after their ancestors fought the civil war of 1922-23. But these parties are divided by more than the memory of that futile war, for there is a deep cultural divide within Catholic Ireland between the descendants of the aboriginal peoples of Ireland, the Gaels, represented politically today by Fianna Fail (meaning “warriors of destiny”), and the Anglo-Norman settlers of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, represented by the paradoxically-named Fine Gael (“family of the Gael”, which they are not). Even today, Fianna Fail families tend to have Gaelic names, and Fine Gael have Anglo-Norman names (the classic being Garret FitzGerald: pure Norman). Not merely do these two castes seldom intermarry, they apparently seldom even have casual sex with one another. Forming a government from the two would almost be a pioneering experiment in interspecies co-operation. The alternative to that ecumenical exercise is that the Provisional IRA arrives in power in the Republic, via a coalition probably with Fianna Fail.
Either way, Sinn Fein is now the ascendant political force in Ireland, both north and south, which would be a grave enough matter anyway. But there is another element to this, namely the emotions, fears and insecurities of Ulster Protestants, who have never really come to terms with Irish nationalism in any of its forms. Some Ulster Protestants were made so insecure in 1966 by the triumphalism to the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising that a few resorted to armed terrorism against innocent Catholics, and others to violent displays of rabble-rousing fundamentalism. Out of the resulting disorder emerged the Provisional IRA, to be followed by a quarter of a century of civil conflict. Fifty-four years on, the old ingredients are back in the pot, and the ladle of history is once more diligently stirring.
There is absolutely no reason for optimism here, for kindly outcomes are not usually the result of such kitchen alchemy. This island is brimming with competing identities that too often heed the melancholy sirens of Ireland’s ancestral voices. To be sure, we are not at war; but then neither are we at peace.
Kevin Myers lives in Ireland. Among his books is the memoir Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast