Republicanism's way forward, with one eye on the past

Ken Keable reviews Hope and History - making peace in Ireland, by Gerry Adams, Brandon, £20 hbk

FOR ANYONE interested in the Northern Ireland problem this is essential reading. It describes the development of Sinn Féin as a separate entity, gives new details of the peace process up to August 2003 and includes sharp and at times caustic comments on the various players. It exposes London's duplicity and Dublin's weakness.

,em>Hope and History is well-written, personal, sad and funny, with a glossary, an index and brief notes on the main personalities. It is a textbook of political leadership and a great read. But most interesting is what it reveals about the author's ideology.

“Equality is the most important aspect of republicanism… The achievement of equality of treatment for nationalists and unionists, for everyone in the North will erode the very reason for the existence of this statelet.” Here he is returning to the civil rights approach from which the Provisionals departed. “The big historical failing of republicanism was the failure to build ideological unity. We needed to achieve an ability at all levels of struggle to differentiate between principles and tactics, objectives and strategies… The primacy of politics and the need to build political support for our objectives was at the core of all our strategies.” This is Sinn Féin talking, not the IRA.

For Adams to criticise certain IRA actions is not new, but for anyone unfamiliar with these criticisms it will be reassuring to see them set out here. He says that they were wrong as well as deeply damaging to Sinn Féin's efforts to build a peaceful way forward. He also gives brief but fascinating accounts of discussions with the Army Council and of the IRA's internal democratic process.

His central strategy was that, in order for the violence to end, it was first necessary to create the conditions in which an alternative way was possible for republicans to pursue their objectives. He praises John Hume for sharing this view and for helping to realise it through the Hume-Adams talks, despite opposition from SDLP colleagues.

Adams emphasises the transforming effect of winning support from Irish-Americans and praises the remarkable South African contribution. Yet curiously, despite acknowledging the need to win political support in Britain, he does not develop this point.

The Sinn Féin leaders had a very difficult job: to negotiate with London, Dublin, Washington, the unionists, the SDLP and the IRA Army Council, to survive assassination attempts, and to bring all the "republican family" with them, knowing that every set-back would fuel the natural mistrust of nationalists for British promises and could close off the non-military option. In this they have been highly successful and their skill, patience and perseverance are greatly to their credit. What a pity they haven't had more help and understanding from the British left.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-04-01 17:54:35.
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