The national struggle for Irish freedom and independence is centuries old. Our story is a history of revolts, resistance and uprisings. Ireland is often described as England’s first colony. It is that denial of Irish self-determination; of national sovereignty, that is at the heart of the long continuum of struggle for freedom.
Those readers old enough will remember when this part of the island was deeply militarised. When the British were in occupation of working class republican, urban and rural heartlands.
During that time there was an ongoing effort by our opponents to demonise and criminalise and to treat republicans as pariahs. It was classic counter-insurgency – to physically, politically and emotionally break the connection between the freedom fighters and their support base. Most infamously this was attempted with the denial of political status which resulted in the hunger strikes in the 1980s.
Sinn Féin put it up to Church hierarchies, political opponents and British and Irish politicians and governments, that there was no point in condemning and denouncing resistance. We challenged them to come up with an alternative.
As a result of our strategising the Sinn Féin leadership understood that we had to build the party, prepare coherent policies and figure out how, in the midst of a conflict that was centuries old, peace could be developed. We were talking to liberal unionists; to people from the business sector, from the Churches, and within our own base. Fr. Alex Reid and Fr. Des Wilson took seriously the idea of an alternative and they supported it in their discussions with others. We also realised that it was us who had to develop the alternative. The establishments did not want change.
In 1986 I met John Hume and two years later a leadership delegation met the SDLP. We exchanged papers and when the discussions ended in September 1988 we published them all. Self-determination was the big issue, among others, that we failed to agree on. In 1987 Sinn Féin produced Scenario for Peace. I was still privately talking John Hume and in 1990 a back channel was established to the British government. There followed three years of contact. We had also opened up, through Fr. Reid’s good offices, talks with Fianna Fáil.
In November 1990 the British Secretary of State Peter Brooke said that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in the North. This led some to conclude that the British were neutral. They weren’t. Because Britain said it had no self-interest, did not mean that they had no interest or that it was true.
At our Ard Fheis in February 1992 we published a new policy paper, ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’. At a time when others were focused on conflict and trying to defeat Irish Republicans, Sinn Féin’s ‘Towards a Lasting Peace’ proposed a strategy to establish a peace process. It placed sovereignty and independence at the heart of peace and identified the role of the Irish diaspora and the Irish government in making process work. This latter point was the big shift in republican thinking. We were not only arguing for self-determination but we were now saying that the Irish government had a central role to play in securing this. This focus on self-determination was a core part of Sinn Féin’s approach to negotiations which we by now had embraced as a means of struggle.
Through all the twists and turns of the process we kept our eyes on the prize.
In our internal discussion about creating a peace process Sinn Féin realised that most successful national liberation struggles had an international dimension. The natural dimension of international support that republicans could tap into was our diaspora and in particular the USA.
These elements about an alternative to conflict and the centrality of self-determination are in the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998 British constitutional authority rested in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. We tried to get the Irish government to urge the British to change this and they wouldn’t do it. I remember Martin and I going to Blair and insisting that he scrap the Government of Ireland Act. I went to him many times until he agreed that they would get rid of it. Its replacement is the Good Friday Agreement.
We had in fact established an alternative – a peaceful way to win freedom for the first time in our history. So there will be a united Ireland if that’s what the people decide or a continuation of the Union if that’s what people want. The Good Friday Agreement is also about parity of esteem, parity of opportunity, and rights.
The important element of the Good Friday Agreement around self-determination is that a successful referendum on the island of Ireland by people in both states will mean that the British government will legislate for an end to the Union.
So here we are 40 years on from when we were first arguing for the right to self-determination and it is at the top of the political agenda. The difference now is that more and more people are talking about Irish Unity. There is now a peaceful and democratic way to achieve it. The alternative which we started to try and develop in the 1980s and persuade others to bring forward – an alternative that we actually brought forward –is there to deployed.
Unity is no longer an aspiration – it is achievable. It is a doable project. It is the prize. There for everyone on this island. All of this is part of the continuum of struggle.