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‘Sunningdale for slow learners’

Joe Craig

12th  November 2002

The SDLP famously declared that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners;’ a reference to the power-sharing executive set up in the early seventies.  It was a dig at Sinn Fein who were now enthusiastic supporters of a deal that thirty years ago they opposed.   It was a sharp criticism not only of republican’s political judgement but also of the morality of a movement that made its own unique contribution to the death and suffering that the intervening years have witnessed.

Formulaic responses from republicans, with which we are all wearily familiar, that ‘we are all responsible’ for what has happened, don’t wash.  Such formulas are precisely designed to evade responsibility and make it impossible to state clearly how and why present political and social reality is as it is.  Unwilling and unable to defend their own past political actions, they are incapable of bluntly stating the nature and role of those of their opponents.  If ‘we are all to blame’ then British imperialism bears no particular culpability.

Since such a position is unsustainable the republicans have had to go further and have apologised for their violence, without however making any analysis of their military strategy or politically accounting for it.  Their struggle is robbed of any political content and reduced to expressions of regret at the effects of their violence.  The British in reply of course have pointedly given a political justification for their own role.

Republicans now regularly prostrate themselves in front of the symbols and institutions of British imperialism, the latest being Belfast Lord Mayor Alex Maskey’s welcoming of the Royal British Legion.  Such actions are portrayed as ‘reaching out’ to the other community.  In reality it is an acceptance of the legitimacy of the imperialistic and reactionary politics that oppress the Protestant working class.  Reaching out to Protestant workers in order to win them from such politics is not just beyond the capacity of republicanism but beyond their imagination.

What is not beyond their imagination is a belief that the British state is split over how to deal with the peace process.  Apparently there are securocrats on one side, itching to drag republicans back to war, and Mr Tony Blair on the other.

It has almost been embarrassing, following Blair’s most recent suspension of the Executive, to hear Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness praise Blair as a British prime minister engaging with the Irish question as none has done before who will, upon reflection, realise that his recent actions were wrong. ‘I can understand the sense of Mr. Blair's perception about all of this but I'm sure, if he paused to reconsider, he will see the flaw in this version of events,’ bleats Gerry Adams in his speech in Monaghan.

Knowing British imperialism’s interests better than the British themselves these republican leaders continue to tell us that it is Britain’s ‘responsibility’ to deal fairly with its Irish colony.   ‘It may be that a British government does not understand the enormity of that decision…(to suspend the Executuve) Mr. Blair I believe should see Britain's strategic interest being best served by the democratic resolution of the long standing quarrel between the people of these two islands.’  Life would certainly be easier if imperialism stopped being imperialist, but its not going to happen.


All these ideological contortions and confusion are the inevitable result of a republican strategy so totally at odds with reality that reality has to be described as something it is not.  So imperialism is not the oppressor but has a responsibility to ensure fair play, pressurised by the Irish government and US imperialism who, for some unknown reason, are support the demands of the British and unionists.  Blair promises to carry out the Good Friday Agreement and provide for a stable Northern Ireland if republicans mothball the IRA in order to support a process they promise will bring an end to the Northern State!  While republicans claim that the GFA is an international treaty, which Britain has no power to unilaterally change, the British suspend it again and again and again.

‘The British and the Irish establishment's version of the peace process had a different script from the one that has been written in recent years’ says Adams.  We are asked to believe that deletion of articles 2 and 3 of the southern constitution and insertion of a unionist veto; the creation of a new Stormont based on explicitly sectarian principles; IRA decommissioning; a modernised RUC still collaborating with (intensified) loyalist attacks, and now the demand for IRA disbandment is part of a republican script!  All because Sinn Fein has made electoral gains.  There is no pause to reflect on why gains for a party that accepts the real script of the peace process should be a worry for the Irish and British establishments.

The wishful thinking that has been necessary to sell the process is evident not only among republicans.  After all, why were the SDLP so keen to describe the Good Friday Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners?’  Do they not remember what happened to Sunningdale?  Just exactly who are the slowest learners?

The de-selection of pro-Agreement candidates by the Unionist Party and the increased collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries by official unionism, in the Loyalist Commission for example, are reminiscent of events following Sunningdale.  The visit to South Africa by unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries in order to devise ‘a long term vision,’ ‘improve relationships’ and ‘find common ground’ is symbolic in this respect.

Sunningdale was brought down by unionism while Britain stood by and let it fall.  The parallels are similar even if the situations are not.  Today all the unionists are inside the deal, even the DUP, while it is Britain which is playing a more active role in undermining the original Agreement at the prompting of unionism.  The peace process that is driving the latest attempt to stabilise partition can include republicans only on condition that they strangle the struggle they once led, which they have done, and that they and the SDLP once again accept that their political status is determined by the British at the behest of unionism.

This is the significance of the attempts to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive.  It is a threat not only to republicans but also to the SDLP as it sets a precedent that would be exploited and put the latter into a precarious minority.  The revelation that Tony Blair supported exclusion exposes all the waffle from Adams and McGuinness of his good intentions.

There is no short term way out of the present suspension but its interim resolution is clear: a further retreat by republicans.  Such a retreat will not be the first and will not be the last.  Every development of the peace process, from a sectarian Agreement to the Agreement’s unravelling is proof that the Northern State cannot be reformed.  Not only will all attempts come to grief but so will those who attempt it.



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