I know a lot about ideology and principle and how the two become almost inseparable. I grew up in an astonishingly republican family where members were even seriously opposed to my name (Michael) because I shared it with Michael Collins, who they maintained had betrayed the cause of Ireland by signing the Anglo-Irish treaty – or his own ‘death warrant,’ as he put it – subsequently leading to the partition of the nation and made the troubles in the north east of Ireland, some forty plus years later somewhat of an inevitability for anyone who cared to pay an interest. Of course, an ideologue can understand that this did some degree betray those who had fought and died for a unified Irish Republic, however, it may in the process overlook that political settlement to some degree prevented further bloodshed in the north-east and that his revolutionary army who had fought so gallantly against the biggest empire the world has ever known and actually brought them to the negotiating table were rapidly running out of resources and were perhaps even only a few days from achieving nothing at all.
During the 1960’s, prior to the start of the troubles, Sinn Fein and their military wing – or perhaps that should actually be the other way round, to be a true reflection of that time – who adhered only to the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916, the revolutionary Dáil Éireann of 1919-1922 and had vowed to carry on the fight of those who had fought against the treaty, all whilst refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the two parliaments formed in the north and south of Ireland following partition were a spent force. The leadership were beginning to shift away from these ideals into left-wing politics, and attempting to realise their goal through a questionable interpretation of Marxism – although to some degree correct in the assertion – that Ireland could only be united through overcoming sectarian differences between communities and the working classes of those communities unifying to best represent their interests. However, the conservative instincts of the working classes (north and south) were (and still are) a long way from coming to terms with such sentiments and before long, as the catholic nationalist communities – inspired by events in America – began to march and demand Civil Rights – including housing rights and voting rights long denied to them due to the disproportionately gerrymandered electoral system – which had long been witheld from them. Ulster would soon be rocked by sectarian warfare,which would scar the six counties for decades to come. The would be Marxists found themselves ill equipped to defend their communities, a split in Sinn Fein occurred, the baton would shift giving rise to the more conservatively inclined Provisionals, who would again reject politics, pledge allegiance to the first Dáil and would only accept the unification of Ireland through the use of armed struggle. Tragically it would be a long time before it became tenable for them to move towards politics.
In the early 1980’s, it would be the hunger striker Bobby Sands who would be ironically, the catalyst for the shift in mindset which would lead to an acceptance of politics and ultimately a rejection of the long held principle of armed struggle. Whilst on hunger strike against the treatment of Republican prisoners and their inhumane treatment, one of those unusual quirks of history occurred. A by-election was called following the death of an independent Republican MP in Fermanagh. Bobby Sands stood on an anti H-Block ticket and was duly elected as a member of parliament. Sinn Fein now under the leadership began to identify the potential of electoral politics as a means of bringing the troubles to an end (as documented through secret negotiations between sources close to the British government and those close to the republican movement intermittently from the early 1970’s onwards. Please see Peter Taylor’s book: Provos, for more on this). Gradually, the process began to undo decades of ideology. Including over writing their most abiding principles, the ones that they maintained gave their war legitimacy: abstentionism and their refusal to recognise the Dublin and Stormont parliaments and thus the two partitioned states as legitimate. (Note: Sinn Fein, still refuse to take seats in Westminster, however they do actually make use of offices within parliament – one foot in the door).
Ultimately, following years of clever stewardship by Adams – who remarkably achieved what Collins could not, although there are some crucial differences, delivering an almost fully intact Republican movement into the peace process – they would come to accept the principle that unity can only be achieved through basically what the misguided Marxists said: when the people of both communities can come together and realise that a shared future is mutually beneficial – and that they have more in common with each other and begin to wonder why their hard-earned taxes are going to an apathetic Westminster government, rather than having complete control of their own affairs. Likewise, when businesses in the north reach a similar conclusion to their southern counterparts post 1916, that their interests are best served ‘going it alone.’ It will be then that those two mean-spirited nations formed from the Anglo-Irish agreement of the twenties can align for a progressive shared future. The dark days of the past put firmly to bed for good. I continue to hope that within my lifetime, I will see a Federal Irish Republic governed by the people of Ireland for all the people of Ireland achieved through peaceful means.
Perhaps it is easier to look back in hindsight, however, in no instance that I know of has an uncompromising, dogmatic, principled approach ever achieved anything substantial. In the Civil War of the 1920’s, families were torn apart, during the later troubles in the north, every death caused further division and probably pushed the ultimate goal of unification further away.
Whilst I am no doubt being dramatic by highlighting the short history in the preceding paragraphs, it occurs to me, that steadfast deeply principled approach will only take you so far. Inevitably, you must deal with people who disagree with you, and you with them. To create a progressive path forward, you must sit down and listen and form a consensus. This isn’t ‘compromising,’ it’s called maturity. Steadfastly rejecting the views of those you oppose on partisan or ideologica grounds isn’t a credible position to take. There comes a time when two sides must look to meet somewhere in the middle to find a solution and consensus and move on. I am more sure than ever that dogmatism, ideology, principles and mean spiritedness in the greater scheme of things are the path to nowhere other than preaching to the choir within an echo chamber.