Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Super Chairperson Joe Kelly – What is the Statement behind Your Question? A Frank Discussion About the Irish Peace Process With John Meehan and Killian Forde

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Thoughts of Chairperson Joe Kelly, April 8 1938 – December 7 2016.

Phrases that came immediately to mind :

How’s Your Love Life?”

What is the statement behind your question?”

Are there any loose people in the room?”

What’s your point?”

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” [borrowed from Emma Goldman]

Can we break up into small groups?per33

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Joe Kelly voted No to the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 from the Irish Constitution in a 1998 Referendum, a very unopular decision – only 5 per cent of the voters wanted to keep these Articles.

Joe was very troubled about this and discussed it often with me.  Being the man he was, he organised a broadcast radio discussion between me and a then Sinn Féin member of Dublin City Council Killian Forde.

Here is a transcript : 

Telling it Like It Is”, Anna Livia FM, Wednesday June 4 2003

Presenter : Joe Kelly

Panellists : Killian Forde (Sinn Féin), John Meehan

Joe Kelly :

Today we are going to talk about the Good Friday Agreement.. We have two people here in the studio : John Meehan, who is a socialist who is against the Good Friday Agreement, who voted No here in the referendum in the south; we have Killian Forde, who is a member of Sinn Féin, who obviously is in favour of the agreement.

John, we are going to start with you : why are you against the Belfast Agreement?

John Meehan :

Well Joe, as you mentioned, I voted No in 1998. A very simple first reason is because I agreed with Articles Two and Three, which rejected a Unionist Veto. The purpose of the clause put in was to say that Irish Unity could only come about with the consent of a majority of the people in each jurisdiction North and South. I think that is wrong. I don’t think partition should be recognised. I think the Six County State is an illegitimate undemocratic state and that the only authority to decide on that rests with the people of the 32 counties of Ireland. That is why I opposed it. Actually, that was Sinn Féin’s position right up to the Árd Fheis which endorsed the Good Friday Agreement and their support for Articles Two and Three collapsed there and then.

Joe Kelly :

OK, thanks John. Killian, do you want to respond to that. Or would you like to outline why you and your party are in favour of the Good Friday Agreement?

Killian Forde :

I broadly agree with John. I think that regarding everything he said – you wouldn’t find any Sinn Féin member arguing against. It is important to note that the Good Friday Agreement is not a republican document; it’s not a socialist document, it is not a Sinn Féin document. It is a compromise that we were mature enough to sign up to. I believe it aims to solidify and institutionalise various ceasefires that were in place, develop political alternatives to armed conflict, and create the political and economic space to help with the advance of a territory from a state of conflict to a post-conflict society. The Good Friday Agreement is not to be looked at in isolation in Ireland. You have other precedents very recently. For instance, the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia., and the Ohrid Agreement in Macedonia, which in themselves were, again, not wholly endorsed by any one party. All three treaties involved, for all parties, basically biting the bullet on various issues. What is common in all of these – what the Good Friday Agreement is – is a recognition by the people involved in the conflict, and their supporters, and the political parties, that the underlying causes of the conflict were to be, as much as possible, neutralised.

That is not to say them all. Obviously a lot of the reason for the conflict that Sinn Féin would recognise would be the occupation of a section of Ireland by Britain. But we have accepted that there are other issues. We have accepted that we need to move on. An interesting comment that would be looked at in terms of the Good Friday Agreement was by Gerry Adams who said that the importance of the Agreement is the process not the product. So basically it is what we are trying to do to ensure a 32 County Socialist Republic, and how we do it.

Joe Kelly :

John, a historical compromise?

John Meehan :

Let’s set it in its proper context. This is an internal settlement. A regional Government has been set up in the North. It has powers over certain things – it does not have powers over foreign affairs and defence…

Joe Kelly :

Security?

John Meehan :

It does not have powers over security at the moment, though it is planned to devolve some powers via the policing boards. An internal settlement more or less the same – there are significant variations all right – was on offer through the Sunningdale Agreement in 1972.

Joe Kelly :

Except Sinn Féin were not involved in that?

John Meehan :

Sinn Féin were opposed to it. Quite opposed to it! The first point I would make on that is this : we can all have different attitudes to the armed struggle, that went on from 1969 to 1994 – I should say I have no problems whatsoever with the declarations of IRA ceasefires – I agreed with them. I don’t believe you keep fighting for no purpose. The calling of a ceasefire was right – I can discuss that later if Killian wants. I want to make that clear. I agreed with it – I have said that several times – that is not an argument.

I do think that, to achieve the Sunningdale Agreement, there was absolutely no need for an armed struggle. That’s perfectly clear. That is what was on offer from the British Government. So the question is really – and not on minor details – in substance was an armed struggle necessary in order to achieve the Good Friday Agreement of 1998? In substance the two are pretty well the same. In fact, if you go into the details – if anything from a republican or socialist point of view, the Agreement of 1998 is worse that the one on 1972. For example, the 1972 Agreement had no obligation to remove Articles Two and Three from the constitution of the Twenty Six County State. That is just one example.

So, that is really the issue – was an armed struggle necessary to achieve the Good Friday Agreement – whether we agree or disagree with it? And I say No. Absolutely not.

Joe Kelly :

That is one issue. But what we are really discussing is : how useful has this Good Friday Agreement been?

John Meehan :

OK, we can move on to that.

Joe Kelly :

Can you take up that point Killian : you could have got what was offered in 1973 – as a matter of fact you could have done better when Ted Heath and Garret Fitzgerald signed the Sunningdale Agreement .

Killian Forde :

The Sunningdale Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement can be looked at – you can compare the two of them as documents – but you can’t compare them in terms of society, from where we were at the time. Militarily the conflict was hugely different. Republicans would have felt that they were on a roll, and that they could win the war by military means.

Joe Kelly :

This was in 1972-3?

Killian Forde :

Yes. They certainly would not have felt there was any need to compromise, or to dissipate any purist broad aims that they had at the time.

Joe Kelly :

But this had changed by 1998?

Killian Forde :

It probably did. What you had was realism. A lot of the political analysis done was done by republicans, young men who were given decade’s long sentences. They thought through a strategy at the time. Sinn Féin at the time was an inactive political party. It was more than anything else, a social support agency to the Irish Republican Army. It is arguable whether Sunningdale was or was not better. It can’t be looked at by simply looking at two pieces of paper, and comparing them in 2002. I think it is disingenuous to do that. I just don’t think it is particularly relevant either. We have what we have now. We want to move forward. It is a stepping-stone as far as we see it.

Joe Kelly :

It sounds like Michael Collins.

Killian Forde :

It is interesting. We talked, just there, about the Treaty. We talked about what the Good Friday Agreement did not have – for example, a foreign affairs role. The Treaty of 1922 – the External Relations Act – the Free State of that time was not supposed to have a foreign affairs role. That changed in 1948 when the state was declared a republic. Our perception is – and this is the beauty of the Good Friday Agreement – it works as a peace treaty. People have different perceptions of what it is. And our perception is that it is a stepping-stone. It is one treaty, and one stepping-stone away from a United Ireland.

Joe Kelly :

You are saying – let’s be clear on this – the Good Friday Agreement, from Sinn Féin’s point of view, is a stepping-stone to a United Ireland?

Killian Forde :

Yes, from Sinn Féin’s, point of view.

John Meehan :

I always use as a headline on this – when we refer to Michael Collins’s support for the Treaty of 1922 – my preferred term for that is: the Treaty was a mill-stone on the Irish working class. I don’t think that anyone within the republican tradition would accept that the Treaty was a “stepping-stone”.

Joe Kelly :

Let’s be clear – nobody within the republican tradition would accept Collins’s view…..

John Meehan :

..would not accept Collins’s view. It was not anything other than a move by the British Government to enforce a partitionist settlement.

Joe Kelly :

That was 1922 – what about 1998?

John Meehan :

What about 1998? It is not disingenuous to compare the Sunningdale and Good Friday Agreements. They are essentially doing the same thing. They are setting up an elected Government to run the Northern Ireland state, that has guaranteed places for the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority under a power-sharing system. Essentially that is exactly the same as was contained in the Sunningdale Agreement. I will go back to saying there was no reason – no justifiable reason – for running an armed struggle to achieve that. None whatsoever.

Joe Kelly :

Just say that you are right. Say that the Republican Movement looked back and said “God, we could have got that in Sunningdale. Let’s go for it now”. Are they not right in doing that?

John Meehan :

Fair enough. People have the absolute right to do whatever they think is the right thing at the time.

Joe Kelly :

People have the right to change their minds?

John Meehan :

I agree. People have the right to change their minds. I don’t question that at all. I am simply explaining to you, Joe, why I think the Good Friday Agreement is, in all its essentials, the same as Sunningdale. I am pointing out that Sinn Féin has shifted its fundamental position on this question.

It is important to underline the reasons for that. What the Good Friday Agreement is doing – and why I think a cross-community Government, a Unionist-Nationalist Government is a very bad thing…..

Joe Kelly :

John, I want to come back to that.

Killian, you have changed your mind completely. You have shifted your position. This is what John is saying. Sinn Féin has changed fundamentally.

Killian Forde :

I don’t think we have shifted our position. We have shifted our approach. The shift that was highlighted with Danny Morrison’s very famous “Armalite in one hand, ballot box in the other” – we moved on. We decided that this is not going to work in isolation. So therefore a different approach was taken. We are now going for parliamentary politics. The war goes on. We haven’t toned down what our aim is.

Joe Kelly :

You mean the military war goes on? Is that what you mean?

Killian Forde :

No. The battle goes on. It is just different methods.

Joe Kelly :

Let’s come to the actual Agreement itself. John – nor so much looking back at Sunningdale – Séamus Mallon has spoken of the Good Friday Agreement being “Sunningdale for Slow Learners” – you agreed with the ceasefire – you agreed with Sinn Féin sitting around the table – at some level, and talking – is that right? The republican and loyalist groups – now, what did you want them to do?

John Meehan :

I think it is a parallel position in the 26 counties. I think any party, like Sinn Féin, which presents itself on the left – that goes in for winning parliamentary seats – that is fair enough, it pushes particular policies. You can argue about that. But you don’t – under any circumstances – go into coalition Government with avowedly right wing and pro-capitalist parties. This is where you have a bizarre situation at the moment.

Joe Kelly :

But, it is a bizarre situation.

John Meehan :

There is a very simple tactical way out of this. The same applies in the 6 and 26 counties. Any party can stand for its position – it can put forward a series of left wing positions – Sinn Féin puts forward a lot of left wing policies – that is fine. I agree with a lot of them.

But, what I always say – and I am used to saying this to people in the Labour Party – and I have to say it Sinn Féin now – it does not matter a damn what left wing policies they go forward with, if they are leaving the door open to going into coalition with right wing parties – such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the south – or the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Unionists in the north.

Joe Kelly :

OK, that is what they should not do. What should they do?

John Meehan :

In Stormont, they can do what they do in the Dáil. They can go into opposition. They can say “These are our policies. We will not take responsibility for this series of right wing reactionary policies pursued by the Stormont administration”.

Joe Kelly :

Killian – Martin McGuinness should not have become Minister for Education? Sinn Féin should be sitting on the opposition benches.

Killian Forde :

What can I say about this? No republicans wanted Martin McGuinness as a minister in Stormont – nobody wanted that.

Joe Kelly :

Martin McGuinness wanted it?

Killian Forde :

I’m sure he didn’t want it. This galls us. This is a bitter pill to swallow. It is the reality of where we have to get. I agree with John on this. I agree with his broad view of what left wing parties should and should not do. It is ludicrous where you expect to be able to go into coalition with a right wing party in this country, and somehow manage to get your policies pushed through Government. I don’t think it has happened. But the reality is that we do not have a normal democracy in Northern Ireland, to use the official name of the state. So we do not have a choice of going in and out of coalition. We have to accept what we have, what the people signed up for – and accept what the people wanted. This is what the beloved workers so precious of socialists – this is what is supported, and this is what is what is wanted.

Joe Kelly :

They were not offered an alternative.

Killian Forde :

There is no alternative to the Good Friday Agreement.

Joe Kelly :

John – There is no alternative.

John Meehan :

This is Maggie Thatcher land – TINA.

There is always an alternative, if you look for one. As a socialist – and this is a minority position, but I think it is an entirely credible position – any left-wing that runs with a certain number of policies….let’s take for example – and I think it is a very clear one – Sinn Féin’s tactics towards the war in Iraq and their attitude to the US administration –

Killian Forde :

I would prefer if you would go back to how Sinn Féin –

John Meehan :

– I won’t be interrupted –

Killian Forde :

This is a discussion about the Good Friday Agreement. I would like to say this before we go on : if you want to broaden it by making an attack on Sinn Féin : fair enough. The listeners should be more than aware that this is probably what it is going to turn into. We are going to hear about nit-picking, and we are going to hear about bin charges in Sligo, about Gerry Adams meeting George Bush – and yak yak yak. And there is no alternative suggested.

I am not here to sit and debate about Sinn Féin, and try and defend every single thing. I f you want to have a debate – have a debate. But let’s not turn it into an anti Sinn Féin rant. Because it is tiring.

John Meehan :

Could I continue, please?

Joe Kelly :

Now, you are not to interrupt any more…

John Meehan :

The reason Sinn Féin had to meet Bush in Hillsborough, and the reason Sinn Féin went to an absolutely disgusting public relations event on St Patrick’s Day in the White House: was because of the nature of the settlement in the North. And because of its commitment to being in Government in the 6 Counties.

Joe Kelly :

But John – without the American connection – there would be no Agreement. Would that be right?

John Meehan :

There would be no problem about boycotting these events except that Sinn Féin is tied into the institutions of the state in the six counties.

Joe Kelly :

We know that, we know that….

John Meehan :

You can see that is perfectly clear from a number of people on the left – civil rights activists and so on – including a number of TD’s – who called on Irish public representatives not meet Bush and his representatives….

Joe Kelly :

But, John, what you said there was that Sinn Féin are tied into the Good Friday Agreement. They are tied into it. And that is the reason they take a very pragmatic approach. Is that not correct?

John Meehan :

Yes.

Joe Kelly :

And they will always do that once they are tied in – that is what happens. They were very much dependent on the American support during the actual war. Is that not correct?

Killian Forde :

I would like to answer that. It is very easy to look at the two meetings with George Bush, in isolation again, and not look at what we did do as a party – at great risk – and we received a lot of editorial criticism for this in the States – whereby Gerry Adams had met with Fidel Castro in Cuba in late 2001. He refused to testify before the congressional committee on Colombia last year. We were very active in the 26 counties in the anti-war protests. That is something we know is not going to go down well in our American audiences. It is certainly not going to help us, by any means. We got slated for it. All, again, people can see on the left – and all they will pick is : Gerry Adams met George Bush. Hat’s all you hear. You don’t hear about when he did something like meet Fidel Castro. Why would he meet Fidel Castro – unless he believed Fidel Castro was the sort of socialist revolutionary that he admired? There is no political advantage in it whatsoever.

John Meehan :

Let’s not shift this. There were a number of organisations like Sinn Féin who did this kind of thing. Gerry Adams is not alone – if you want comparisons. The Egyptian Government said it opposed the war with Iraq, yet allowed the American Navy to go through the Gulf of Suez. The South African Government said it opposed the war waged by the USA – yet it allowed the Americans to use naval bases.

A small thing Sinn Féin could have done – and where it would have made a difference – where everybody would have noticed – is if it refused to meet Bush in Hillsborough. That would have given a tremendous boost and inspiration to the anti-war movement around the world. I am saying it is one of many examples where Sinn Féin’s left wing policies have to be subordinated to involvement in a right wing institution in the six counties.

[interruptions]

John Meehan :

..Furthermore – can I finish that now? We obviously disagree on it.

What people need to look at is what I call the institutionalised sectarianism of the particular arrangement in the six counties.

You effectively have a forced coalition – and guaranteed seats depending on whether people call themselves nationalists or unionists –

Joe Kelly :

Or other

John Meehan :

Very few call themselves other.

It really means – and this will become apparent over time – once you have had one or two elections to the Stormont Assembly – that 80 or 90 per cent off the voters can turn out – there can be big swings towards Sinn Féin on one side – towards the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the other – but what will actually result from that? Very little. You will get a shift in ministerial seats – there will be a shift between First Minister and Deputy First Minister – perhaps between Nationalist and Unionist – perhaps between the SDLP and Sinn Féin – perhaps between the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party –

One of the fascinating things going on at the moment – people refer to the film Four Weddings and a Funeral – I think we have had three suspensions, four collapses how many farces in this thing?

Really : life has gone on since the most recent collapse of the Stormont Assembly. Elections – in Scotland and Wales they just went ahead – without anybody calling into question the legitimacy of the institutions. In the North, because the British Government does not want them – it postpones them. Which clarifies, actually, that the people who run the show still in the six counties are the British Government? The main decisions are taken by them at Westminster. That’s it.

Joe Kelly :Killian that is a point many people have made : what happened – the arrangements in the North – institutionalise sectarianism. Do you agree with that?

Killian Forde :

Yes – broadly, I agree with that. What we have is a problem whereby – again the sad reality, and that is what it is – what is the alternative? If you got rid of the institutionalised sectarianism – let’s call it that at its worst – as opposed to power sharing – you can either call it power sharing or institutionalised sectarianism. One or the other – it is a matter of terminology really. That is basically what you are doing. You are institutionalising two different identities, forcing them to work together in a coalition.

It probably does institutionalise sectarianism in that there is not much political capital to be made out of the middle ground. I would hope – and this I would imagine is the design of the Agreement – that as the political process works the middle ground grows larger. Or that what is called the extreme ends of it – say, for instance, the DUP and Sinn Féin came together – the problems between the two, over time, are reduced to the extent that you can have normal functioning institutions without having rules setting out who has to work with whom.

Joe Kelly :

OK. We are coming near the end, believe it or not. We have raced away. So. Let’s have a look at the future through the eyes of the Good Friday Agreement. John, do you see any hope with the Good Friday Agreement? Generally speaking, it has stopped the war.

John Meehan :

It has brought an end to the war.

But I don’t think it has resolved the fundamental problem. People should go back to the discussions pre 1969, and have a look at the level of sectarian discrimination between the two communities. You will find –there is lots of literature on this – that the levels of discrimination between, by and large, the Protestant community and the Catholic community – remain very large.

Joe Kelly :

You are saying that power sharing has not abated that at all? Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún does not help end the sectarianism at all?

John Meehan :

People can go and look at the socio-economic figures, and it will show that.

The other thing that is very disturbing, from the point of view of the nature of the northern state: There have been periods when there has been no war, and then there has been a big eruption.

The particularly bad thing that has been happening is what some commentators have called the “balkanisation” of the community. By that they mean there is an increasing tendency where there are 100 per cent Catholics in 1 area – and 100 per cent Protestants in another area – and there is very little inter-reaction between the two. I have lots of friends in the North in that situation – it is a powder keg which will blow again.

Joe Kelly :

How would it help if Sinn Féin were in opposition?

John Meehan :

If Sinn Féin had done that it would help towards the construction of a more democratic choice – there would be a better future for people – it would focus more on social and economic issues – let’s face the reality.. I welcome that all the IRA people were released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. But in previous campaigns which collapsed, they were simply released. Under this one – because of the way the thing has been written – they are only out on license – they can be dragged back if the state wants it. I firmly believe that if the IRA had simply called a ceasefire back in the early 1990’s – and had then campaigned for a general amnesty – I am quite sure the British Government would have been forced to do that.

Joe Kelly :

Let’s not….Killian : what has been good about the Good Friday Agreement for the nationalists in the North?

Killian Forde :

Again, just to point out : I am not here to defend the Good Friday Agreement. We support it as a party, but it is a political position we took as a least worst option.

I think what it has done is that it has given nationalism a focus – and I think this is really important – it has given nationalism a new sense of pride. It has given a new sense of aggressiveness. They don’t feel ashamed or put down upon. That’s on both sides of the border. You see a rise of Sinn Féin based on the fact that nationalism is no longer a dirty word. It is something that is recognised that is hand in hand with democracy, as it was in the 19th century. It is very important that people are a lot more assertive about their own rights.

What it has done tangibly is difficult to say. You can’t really do a report card on it at the moment. It is a bad time to do a report card. The latest collapse – the deferral of democracy….

Joe Kelly :

It has got a red card.

Killian Forde :

With the process you are looking at – you have the ombudsman in terms of policing – policing is far from being satisfactory – we have the human rights mainstreamed within that society. We have a debate going on with Unionism about their future. We are not looking at a situation where we are trying to….we are not waiting for the catholic plus one. One more catholic than everybody else, then we have a United Ireland by consent – that won’t work. Everybody has to be on board. Compromises have to be sought. Things have to be on the table.

Joe Kelly :

We are going to leave it there. We have only barely scratched the surface. Would you two be prepared to come back again?

John Meehan :

No problem.

Killian Forde :

Yes.

Joe Kelly :

I want to say thank you very much to Killian Forde and John Meehan for unravelling a little bit of the Good Friday Agreement for listeners.

Thank you and goodbye.

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