Opinions & Ideas

Category: Sinn Fein


The above article by Stephen Collins raises a very serious issue.He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.”

He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.” The IRA is illegal. It is a criminal offence to belong to it.

It is also unconstitutional. The Irish Constitution was adopted in a Referendum in 1937 and remains the supreme law of our state.

Article 15 (6) of the Irish Constitution plainly says

“The right to raise and maintain a military or armed force is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas.”

and it adds

“No military or armed force , other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever”

The IRA has thus existed, and continues to exist, in direct defiance of the Irish Constitution.

Yet Sinn Fein members of the Oireachtas, serving under the same Irish Constitution, continue to extol the IRA and its actions.

This is hypocritical, but it is also subversive of the institutional basis of the Irish state.

Sinn Fein needs to say if it is willing to be loyal , in word and deed, to Article 15 of the Irish Constitution.


Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at an event marking the centenary of the 1918 General Election in Ireland, in Wynn’s  Hotel, Dublin at 11 am on Saturday 15 December.



The background to this Election was the end of the Great War.

The UK Prime Minister had called the Election very quickly after active hostilities ceased, to exploit the good feelings, and relief that the War had finally been brought to a victorious conclusion by the Allies.

The War was a particular factor in Ireland because of the conscription crisis of early 1918.

Conscription applied on the island of Britain, but not the island of Ireland, from 1916. The big German offensive of 1918 created a panic in the UK government. Manpower was running short, and the Americans were slow arriving at the front. So, unsurprisingly, Lloyd George was under political pressure, in Scotland, Wales and England, to extend the same conscription to Ireland as applied in the other countries.

In March 1918 he announced his intention to do so, which caused a convulsion in Ireland.

Until this announcement, the Irish Party had been holding its own politically. Sinn Fein had lost by elections to the Irish Party in South Armagh, East Tyrone and Waterford City early in 1918. Lloyd George changed all that.

His conscription threat then drove Irish Party voters into the arms of Sinn Fein in the second half of 1918.  If the election had been held over until the Spring of 1919, and things had cooled down over conscription which didn’t happen anyway, the result in Ireland might not have been so dramatic.

At the time of the December 1918 Election, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

As far as Ireland was concerned, in anticipation of the Peace Conference, great expectations had been raised by speeches by President Woodrow Wilson, containing strong declarations in favour of the principle of national self determination. The concept of self determination acquired a quasi religious status in some quarters.

As President Wilson was to discover, when he got down to work in Versailles, this concept of national self determination was difficult to apply when people, with fundamentally different identities and national allegiances, lived together in the same geographic area, as was, and is, the case in Ulster, and in many other parts of Europe, to this day.

In the 1918 Election in Ireland, Sinn Fein got 46.9% of the votes cast, Unionists got 28.5% and the Irish Parliamentary Party got 21.7%.

For this Sinn Fein won 73 seats, Unionists 26 (including one in Dublin), and the Irish Party only 6 seats ( a poor showing for 21% of the vote).

These percentages do understate the Sinn Fein support, because 25 uncontested seats were won by Sinn Fein. If these had been contested, and Sinn Fein voters in those constituencies had to come out to vote, Sinn Fein’s overall national vote share would have been higher, probably well above 50%.

On the other hand, there are credible allegations that intimidation played a part in ensuring that Sinn Fein would not face a contest in these seats. Irish Party meetings were broken up in Cahir, Rathmines, Bohar in Louth, Jonesboro Co Armagh, Moate Co Westmeath, Clones, Gorey, and Castleblaney.  Candidates who had agreed to stand for the Irish Party backed out in face of this activity.

The PP of Kiltimagh, Dr O Hara, told John Dillon of

“young roughs going around the roads  at night saying they will burn down any house that will vote for Dillon and threatening to destroy cattle”.

On polling day, Republican “peace patrols” stood outside polling stations, and it is claimed they discouraged thousand of Irish Party supporters from going to vote.

I owe some of this information to research done by the late Proinsias MacAonghusa, published in the “Irish Times” many years ago.

I myself knew a man , a 1916 veteran, who was reputed to have voted 40 times for Sinn Fein, in the names of different people.

Indeed the Irish Party has come under a lot of pressure not to contest the election at all, from former supporters like the Bishop of Raphoe. To his eternal credit, the Irish Party Leader, John Dillon, told the bishop that “one should not abandon principles for popularity or unpopularity”

The system of election, the straight vote in single member constituencies, meant that Sinn Fein won more seats, and the Irish Party proportionately fewer seats, than would have been the case under Proportional Representation. Under PR, I guess Sinn Fein might have won 60 seats, Unionists (including Labour Unionists and Independents) 26, and the Irish Party perhaps 19.

Under PR, Sinn Fein would still have got a land slide, but the Irish Party would not have suffered a virtual wipe out.

It is also important to point out that, among the 26 seats won by “Unionists”, 3 were won by Labour Unionists (mainly in Belfast) and one by an independent Unionist. The disappearance of Labour Unionism shows that, in some respects the sectarian divide in urban Ulster is deeper now than it was in 1918.

It is also worth mention that Southern Unionists contested the 1918 Election as such, winning seats in Trinity and Rathmines. That bridge between the traditions lost its value after 1918.

I would like to look into the differences in policy between Sinn Fein and the Irish Party, and reflect on how far the victors were able to go in fulfilling their promises.


Sinn Fein said it would withdraw Irish representatives from Westminster because, they said,

“the present Irish members of the English Parliament  constitute an obstacle to be removed from the path to the Peace Conference”

As I said earlier, a Peace Conference was soon to be convened by the victors of the Great War in Versailles.

Sinn Fein condemned the Irish Party for having

“contemplated the mutilation of our country by  partition”

This is a reference to John Redmond having agreed  in 1916 with Edward Carson to a temporary opt out from Home Rule for some Unionist majority counties in Ulster, as a price for having Home Rule introduced straight away for the rest of the country with Carson’s consent. This deal did not go through because it was vetoed by the Conservative elements in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George may also have been saying different things to different people.

The Sinn Fein manifesto did not address the existence of a Unionist minority in Ireland. Instead it spoke of

“a unity in a national name, which has never been challenged”

This seems to ignore the challenge posed by Ulster Unionism to the 32 county concept of the nation. Ulster Unionism was just ignored, as if it did not exist. This form of blindness to the existence of the “other”  is reappearing now in the context of Brexit.

The Sinn Fein manifesto took a very fundamentalist view of sovereignty, which left no room for compromise.

It called for

“untrammelled national self determination”

and said it would oppose every candidate who does not accept this principle.

To its credit, it followed through on this commitment to oppose who did not agree with it, and contested seats in Belfast. It did very badly. Sinn Fein got 3% of the vote in Pottinger, 4% in Victoria, 9% in Woodvale and just 1.89% in Duncairn.

Sinn Fein’s leader, Eamon de Valera was also defeated by the Irish Party’s Joe Devlin by 72% to 27% in the Falls constituency.

Sinn Fein added that that the right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence

“rests on immutable natural law and cannot be made subject to compromise”.

This explicit “no compromise” mandate was later to prove troublesome. Some members took it very seriously in 1922 and it helps explain the Civil War. The concept of “immutable natural law” had a particular religious provenance.

As to the methods to be used to achieve its goals, Sinn Fein was fairly explicit.

They said they would use

“any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection  by military force or otherwise”

That can be construed as seeking a mandate for war, and it was interpreted as such by the IRA.

But the sentence could also perhaps be read advocating resistance British military force (passively or otherwise), rather than initiating violence, as the IRA did at Soloheadbeg the following month.

Did the majority of the Irish people know they were voting for war?


The Irish Party manifesto was published on 11 October 1918, while the Great War was still on, but rumours were circulating of imminent German collapse and of the abdication of the Kaiser.  

It said that

“ the country must be prepared for a General Election about the end of November or the first week in December. This will be the most critical and fateful in its effect for the future of the country since the Union.”

It called for national unity on the basis of the policy that underlay the “New Departure” , which brought the physical force and constitutional traditions together to win Land Reform and other improvements.

It said it

“would not hold before the Irish people an ideal and an object which it knew to be impossible”

Events were  to bear out the wisdom of this caution.

The Irish Party committed itself to be

“an independent pledge bound party in the House of Commons taking no office under any British government and whose  dominating purpose must always be the recovery of Ireland’s national rights……and a vigorous agitation on rational lines”

It defined its objects as

“the establishment of  national self government for Ireland , including complete executive , legislative, and fiscal powers”

This went well beyond the Home Rule Act, which was already on the statute book and was due to come into effect automatically one  hostilities in Europe were formally ended as they were in 1919 at Versailles. The reference to fiscal powers included , inter alia,  a right to charge customs duties on good coming into Ireland from Britain. This involved withdrawing Ireland from the Anglo Irish Customs Union, which then existed, and this seems to have been a point on which both nationalist parties agreed.

The Irish Party criticised Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy which it said would

“simply hand over  the representation of Ireland  in the House of Commons to the followers of Sir Edward Carson”.

Perhaps a similar mistake is being made today.

Like Sinn Fein, the Irish Party said it would present Ireland’s case at the forthcoming Peace Conference but added that the chance of getting a hearing would depend on the goodwill of America and the Allied dominions. This was realistic politics.

Germany was about to lose the War and the Irish Party argued that sending to Versailles people who had been allied with Germany as recently as  1916 was not best calculated to get a hearing for Ireland from the victors.

In this respect, the Irish Party Manifesto was prescient. The Irish Party might have been more successful representatives of the Irish cause in Versailles, because they had not allied themselves with the enemies of those who had won the war, at such cost.


Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one must conclude that the Sinn Fein policy of abstention had substantial downsides.

When the Government of Ireland Act came to be introduced in 1920, providing for the permanent partition of Ireland, there were very few Irish nationalist MPs present to object to it…just six MPs with little influence.

It is important to remember that the majority rule Stormont Parliament was created by this 1920 Act, and, thanks to Sinn Fein abstention, there were virtually no Nationalist MPs left in Parliament to probe the dangers of this new Stormont Parliament.

A high price has also been paid for the fact that Sinn Fein, in its Manifesto, emphasised its unwillingness to compromise on what it saw as Ireland’s right to self determination based on natural law.

The electorate’s support for this “no compromise” approach undoubtedly made life difficult for the Treaty negotiators in 1921 and contributed to the Civil War and to much subsequent strife.

If the Irish Party’s approach, of “vigorous agitation on rational lines”, had received more electoral support, the Treaty negotiators task might have been easier.

As we cope now with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, it is interesting to note that one of the big differences between Home Rule and the Treaty was that the Treaty involved the Irish Free State leaving the Anglo Irish Customs Union, whereas, in deference to Ulster, the 1911/14 version of Home Rule would have kept full free trade between the two islands.

Departure from the Customs Union turned a soft partition into a hard partition.

The uncompromising nature of the Sinn Fein mandate of the 1918 Election was elevated to unsustainable heights in subsequent debates, and that made life difficult for years to come.

There are some similarities here to the over interpretation, in our neighbouring island of the Brexit mandate of 2016.

Electoral mandates, however big, do not relieve the politicians who get them of the duty to be realistic about what can actually be achieved afterwards.


Can the forced march, towards a hard and deeply disruptive Brexit, be stopped?

Part of the difficulty with the Brexit crisis is that the two sides are approaching the negotiation with radically different assumptions.

For the UK government, it is a purely political exercise. This explains why the UK government is setting out its negotiating position, to the extent that it has one, in political speeches and briefings. It is as if the whole thing was a PR exercise. Thus UK leaders are attracted to ambiguous political buzz words like “bespoke solutions”, “frictionless borders” and “imaginative thinking”

For the EU side, things are very different.  For the EU, the issue is a legal one, where understandings reached with the UK must be converted into legal texts, which will be watertight, and able to stand scrutiny in the European Parliament, and in Ministries of all 27  EU states. The EU will insist that precedents not be created for the UK, that would lead to similar demands either from existing or from prospective new, EU member states

The EU sees the European Treaties, which the UK signed 40 years ago, as a contract between nations. The EU sees them as similar to a contract between private parties. Withdrawing unilaterally from a private contract is not something you can do for free, especially if the other parties to the contract undertook costs expecting you would keep your side of the contract. In private business, the party unilaterally pulling out of contract would be the one offering compensation.

The UK does not see it this way at all. It sees the EU as a sort of club, where one can just decide not to renew one’s subscription and leave. The UK sees things like this because the nature of the EU, and of the political obligations the UK undertook when it joined it, have never been explained to the British public by British politicians.

Any country wishing to join the EU, and there are numerous candidates, is told, at the outset of the negotiation, that it must bring all its relevant legislation, including its customs rules, into full compliance with the EU “acquis”. So a precedent, that granted exceptions from this, to a country that was voluntarily leaving the EU, would undermine the EU position in future enlargement negotiations.

The UK approach to the issue of the border in Ireland illustrates the UK’s superficial understanding of the EU Customs Code, even though the UK had a hand in drafting it. For example, some in the UK think one can comply with the code, simply by checking electronically the number plates of goods vehicles crossing the border.

As I understand it, the Code requires that a sample (2/3%) of goods, crossing into the EU Customs Union, must be physically examined.  Whether this happens at the exact geographic border, or some miles away at a depot, the effect will be highly disruptive.

Many cargoes will contain a mixture of components, from different countries to which different rates of EU tariff may apply, so these cargoes of mixed goods will have to be checked.

Food imports to the EU will have to be examined with particular care, to see that they comply fully with EU rules in regard to pesticide residues, additives, GMOs and hygiene. Food safety is a highly sensitive issue politically.  Even if the UK, once it has left the EU, has the same, or similar, rules on food safety, it will no longer be subject to EU enforcement of these rules within the UK.

So the EU will have to check UK originating goods rigorously for itself, on its own territory. “Good faith” will not be enough, because the EU writ will no longer run in the UK.

The tragedy of what is happening on Brexit is that it is an abandonment of a fundamental UK constitutional principle, which is the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament.

Under this principle of parliamentary sovereignty, no Parliament can bind its successor.  There is thus an inbuilt capacity for Parliaments to change their minds over time, in the same way as voters can change their minds. This flexibility, inherent in Parliamentary sovereignty, used to be an expression of historic British pragmatism.

Now that is gone.

A referendum decision, taken without a full understanding of what a “Leave” vote meant, is being deemed by both major Party leaders in Westminster, as holding Parliament in a vice like grip.

MPs are no longer free. They will be presented with a fait accompli, and told by the two leaders, on pain of deselection, that they may not reopen the referendum decision.

The only place in which this fateful march towards disaster can be stopped is in Westminster itself. It cannot be stopped in Dublin or in Brussels.

Here the politicians of Northern Ireland bear a heavy responsibility, on which they will be judged by history.

Brexit changes the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, without the consent of its people. But the politicians that Northern Ireland voters elected to Westminster, either refuse to take their seats, or back Brexit uncritically, in defiance of the balance of opinion in Northern Ireland.

There is no voice or vote in Westminster for the majority of Northern voters who voted to remain.

If Sinn Fein took their seats in Westminster they could change the dynamic of Brexit  and of the future these islands for generation to come. This is what Irish Nationalist MPs were able to do in 1910.

Just as today’s historians still debate who did what, between 1910 and 1922, similar questions will be asked for years to come about who rose to their responsibilities on Brexit in 2018 and 2019.

Do Sinn Fein MPs really want to be asked, in twenty year’s time,

“Where were you in 2018, when Westminster broke its word, and voted to reimpose a border in Ireland, because it insisted on leaving the EU Customs Union?”

and to have to answer,

“I was sitting at home, because my principles would not allow me to use the vote that I had”.?

The welfare of the people of this whole island, at this critical moment in history, is at stake.

 That should prompt rexamination of republican abstentionist doctrine. Of course this is not easy. But  the policy has  been changed before, for arguably far less immediately important reasons.



Very slowly, the UK public is beginning to learn the implications of the decision they took to leave the EU.

Some of the realities were revealed in the contrasting evidence given last week by the Brexit Secretary of State, David Davis, to one Committee of the House of Commons, and by Sir Ivan Rogers, recent former UK Ambassador to the EU, to another Committee.

The contrast in the two testimonies was remarkable.

David Davis said that he believed the UK could wrap up a Customs and Trade deal with the EU before March 2019.


Pressed by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, he said that “No Deal” was still an option. “No Deal” would involve the immediate imposition of severe border controls in Ireland from 1 April 2019. Sammy Wilson gave the strong impression that he did not particularly care about this and that he wanted “No Deal” to remain a live option, presumably in the hope that it could be used b the UK as a threat.

There was no Nationalist MP present to point out the devastating effects “no deal” would have on border communities, both unionist and nationalist. This is because elected Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats.

Their absence leaves “No Deal” tolerant MPs, like Sammy Wilson, a clear field to present a false impression of the true interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein ought also ask themselves if the issues on which they are delaying the re-establishment of the Northern Executive are more important to their people than Brexit.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, abstentionism is an out of date policy and undemocratic policy. It deprives the nationalist inclined people in Northern Ireland of a voice or vote when key decisions on Brexit, affecting their livelihoods, are being taken in Westminster.


Sinn Fein MPs are staying away, even though their votes could swing the decision on key votes in Westminster on the Bill that will take their constituents out of the EU, and deepen the partition of Ireland.

Sir Ivan Rogers, in his testimony, told the MPs that a “no Deal” scenario would be very bad for the Irish economy. This was because 80% of Irish exports go to market either through, or to, the UK. A hard Brexit, that involved heavy controls at ports and border posts, would be devastating for Irish trade.

In contrast to Secretary of State Davis, Sir Ivan Rogers said in his testimony that, far from a UK/EU trade deal being wrapped up by March 2019, negotiations on the detailed contents of such a deal could not even START until the UK had actually left the EU, in other words not until April 2019!

He went on to point out that the “Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement” that the UK would have to negotiate, in substitution or EU membership, would probably have to run to thousands of pages, every line of which would have to be haggled over with the Commission and with the 27 remaining EU states.

This negotiation of a detailed Trade Agreement would have to be foreshadowed in Framework for future relations document, to be agreed between the UK and the EU, alongside the divorce agreement.


But the UK government is not in a position to agree within itself on what it would want that Framework to contain. It cannot even discuss the question at Cabinet meetings because it would split the Tory Party irrevocably.

Sir Ivan speculated that, because of this, it would, therefore, be the EU side that would draw up the first draft of the Framework, on which the eventual Trade Deal would be based. But even that can only happen if the UK had agreed to pay its share of all bills incurred by the EU while the UK was still a voting member. That would add £13 billion to UK liabilities.

There is likely to be a big bust up over this money issue in December.

Assuming that is overcome, Sir Ivan said that there was a huge difference between the sort of trade agreement that might eventually be offered to the UK, and the access the UK would have had if it stayed in the Single Market.

The Single Market covers standards as well as tariffs. It has, embedded and agreed, mechanisms for making, enforcing, and adjudicating on the meaning of, those standards. Once the UK leaves the Single Market, the compliance of UK originating goods and services with EU standards could no longer be assumed by EU countries, like Ireland.

This would create immediate new barriers to commerce of all kinds. It could even apply to acceptance of the safety of aircraft owned by UK based airlines.

UK court judgments would no longer be automatically enforced in the EU, and extradition would become more difficult.

This makes the casual attitude of the DUP and Sammy Wilson to the possibility of “no Deal” all the harder to understand, given the DUP’s long standing concerns about paramilitarism.


In his testimony, David Davis said that his Department had done studies of the impact of Brexit on 57 different sectors of the UK economy. He said he would not publish these because to do so might “weaken the UK’s negotiating position” with the EU. This means that the UK Parliament and the public are being kept in the dark about the known consequences of decisions they are taking, or are being taken on their behalf.

And there is no MP, and no Executive, from Northern Ireland there to challenge this!

The EU 27 are now beginning work on the sort of Framework agreement it might offer the UK, if the UK first comes forward with adequate proposals on money, EU citizens rights, and the Irish border.

Drawing up the Framework to offer the UK is going to be exceptionally difficult work for the EU, including Ireland. Preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market, and all the investment our continuing membership of it has brought to Ireland, will have to be balanced against access to the UK market and making practical arrangements to take account that the UK and Ireland are beside one another and have a long and porous border.

The trade offs will be really difficult, but it would appear Ireland is better prepared for the discussion than are our neighbours in the UK.







It is unfortunate that the United Kingdom government decided to trigger article 50 , without first working out, around the Cabinet table, what sort of relationship the UK could reasonably expect to have with its neighbours after it had left  the EU.

It is true that Mrs May presented a wish list in her Lancaster House speech. But this list was, and is, impossible to achieve because it took no account of WTO rules, and of the fact that commerce can only be free ,if the rules governing it remain reasonably uniform.

She said that, on  the day it leaves the EU, the UK will retain all the  then existing EU rules for goods and services, but would be free change them,  by Act of Parliament or by  legal reinterpretation from then on. This implies a gradual, surreptitious, hardening of the border in Ireland, as UK standards begin to diverge from EU standards.

To the extent that the UK diverges from EU standards, the UK businesses will have to apply two sets of standards, one for the UK market, and another for the 45% of UK exports that go to the EU.

Once the UK has left the EU, goods, coming  into the EU (including into Ireland), from the UK will also be subject to checking under “Rules of Origin” requirements, to see that they do not contain impermissible non UK content. For example, there might have to be checks that UK beef burgers do not contain Brazilian beef.  These “Rules of Origin” checks will involve bureaucracy, which will be especially onerous for small firms.

One study estimated that the need to apply “Rules of Origin” checks could reduce trade volumes by 9%.  The EU/ Canada trade Agreement has 100 pages on “Rules of origin” alone.

As far as imports into the EU at Dundalk or Lifford are concerned, it will be Irish, not UK, officials who will have the distasteful job of enforcing the border. Irish officials will have to check whether EU safety, sanitary, origin and other rules have been met. This is something being imposed on us, as an EU member, by a UK decision.

It will not be done cheaply. A House of Lords Committee said that “electronic systems are not available to accurately record cross border movements of goods”. If the UK government knows otherwise, it should produce the evidence…without delay.

Even if a light or random system of checking at the border or in ports is imposed, the biggest costs will have to be met by businesses, before they get anywhere near the port or the border.

The preparation of all the extra compliance documentation will deter many smaller firms from exporting at all. For example it has been estimated that the number of customs declarations that UK firms will have to prepare and present will jump from 90 million a year to 390 million once the UK leaves the EU. Irish firms will have a similar extra burden in their dealings with the UK.

The focus on the Irish border should not deflect attention from the impact of Brexit on East/ West trade. Indigenously owned Irish exporters rely disproportionately on the UK market, and their customers are predominantly on the island of Britain, rather than in Northern Ireland. The bulk of Irish exports to continental Europe transit through Britain


Theresa May was remarkably unclear, in her Lancaster House speech, about the sort of relationship she wanted with the EU Customs Union. She wanted bits of it, but not all of it.

This would run into immediate difficulties with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO works on the basis of non discrimination, or the so called “Most Favoured Nation” principle.

This means that any concessions the EU Customs Union might grant to the UK, as a non EU member, would have to be extended by the EU to ALL the EU Customs Union’s trading partners. That is unless the special UK concessions cover “substantially all” trade between the UK and the Customs Union.  The UK will have to be either ”substantially in”, or “substantially out”, of the Customs Union.  Which does Mrs May want? She should be able to answer that question by now.

Many suspect the UK wants to leave the Customs Union so it can revert to the cheap food policy, that it had before it joined the common Market.  To prevent the  undermining of the EU Common Agricultural Policy that would flow from that, Ireland would then be obliged to collect the EU Common External Tariff on products like  beef,  milk, lamb, confectionary  and other food products crossing our  border, or arriving at our ports, from the UK.


Farmers, and investors in the food industry, need to know what sort of agricultural policy the UK will choose after it leaves the EU. Only then can Ireland know whether it will have to collect these very high EU tariffs at the border, and whether the entire Irish food industry (on both sides of the border) will have to be diverted to other markets.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which supported Brexit, and which now dispensing gratuitous advice to the Irish Government on EU matters, should tell us exactly what sort of UK agriculture and food policy it expects post Brexit.  It is now in a good position to get an answer to that question from the UK government. Its own farming supporters would like to know.


The DUP is not the only party that needs to examine its position.

In September the UK Parliament will begin debate on the European Union Withdrawal Bill, which will allow for UK standards of goods and services to diverge from existing EU standards, thereby deepening the Irish border.

Thanks to the abstentionist policy of Sinn Fein, there will be no Irish Nationalist MPs in  that debate able to put forward amendments  to mitigate the hardening of the border that this legislation will allow. Until this year, 3 SDLP MPs would have been there , but now, when their presence was never more necessary, the voters have replaced them by Sinn Fein MP’s, who will draw their salaries, but will stay away when decisions have to be made, leaving the field to the DUP.

Sinn Fein should remember that the Irish people, on both sides of the border, accepted the Good Friday Agreement in a Referendum  in 1998, and that removes any  “nationalist” argument  Sinn Fein might have had for not taking their seats. If Sinn Fein can shake hands with the Queen, if they can take their seats in Stormont, they can take their seats in Westminster!

There is work for them to do there now.



220px-Major_William_Redmond_bust,_Wexford_cityI have been asked to address the above topic.

If one scrutinises the record of debates in the House of Commons in 1916, one can get a sense of the perspective of the Irish Party members.

The remarkable speech of Captain William Redmond, the MP for East Clare, in March 1916 gives a sense of how he and other Irish soldiers fighting on the Western front , as they saw it to defend the violated neutrality of Belgium, would have seen things.

He spoke of their terrible conditions, but also of their cheerfulness. “The harder the conditions, the more cheerful they seem to be” be said. Willie Redmond, a man in his late 50’s, and 35 years an MP, was to die of his wounds later in the year. Willie Redmond  would have been  disappointed to think that, within days of his speech, a Rebellion would have been initiated in Dublinin alliance with Germany, against whom he and other Irish soldiers, all volunteers, were fighting on the Western Front.

 That would be one perspective….before the Rebellion.

During the Rebellion itself, the Irish Party leaders were dispersed and had difficulty communicating with one another. John Dillon was in Dublin, Joe Devlin in Belfast, and John Redmond and TP O Connor in London.

After the Rebellion, on 11 May, another perspective came to the fore, this time expressed by John Dillon MP in the House of Commons.

He spoke of his opposition to the Rebellion and of how Irish Party MPs had persuaded some of their constituents not to take part. He referred particularly to Thomas Lundon MP in Limerick. He said nine out of every ten Irish people were opposed to the rebellion.

But he went on to condemn the house searches undertaken after the Rebellion was over in parts of the country where there had been no trouble at all. He said it was “insanity” to leave Ireland in the hands of General Maxwell.  He said his prime object in his speech was to stop the executions. He said the river of blood was undoing the work of reconciliation.

He recalled that when the American Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln did not execute anyone

He said Premier Botha had put down a pro German rebellion in South Africa without any executions. The Irish Rebellion was also undertaken in alliance with Germany so this comparison was apt.

John Redmond had also urged the Prime Minister to stop the executions the day before Pearse and Clarke were executed.

In his speech in the House of Commons, John Dillon drew attention to the stupidities of the post Rebellion repression by Sir John Maxwell.  He gave the example of the Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin McNeill , who, by giving a clear military order that the the rebellion was not to take place, in Dillon’s words “broke the back of the rebellion on the very eve of it, and kept back a large body of men from joining it”. Despite this , McNeill was also imprisoned by the British.

Incidentally, given that a democracy relies on military discipline, the commemoration of actions taken in breach of orders, is inherently uncomfortable for soldiers and politicians alike.

In considering the overall policy record of the Irish Party, one must draw attention to a few important points.

Earlier in 1916, the Irish Party has prevented conscription being applied in Ireland, while it was being applied on the entire island of Britain.

A year and a half earlier, it had had another vital parliamentary achievement which invalidated the case for a Rebellion. The principle of Irish legislative independence for Ireland was  won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law and signature by the King of the Home Rule Bill. That happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on Home Rule. The point of principle was won without a shot being fired.

This, along with the transfer of the effective ownership of the land of Ireland into the hands of those who were working it, were signal achievements of the Irish Party. Indeed it was the Irish Party achievement of land reform, which created an Irish rural middle class, that in turn enabled  Ireland to remain democratic in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when so many other new states became authoritarian.

The only open question was whether or how Home Rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps Fermanagh and Tyrone). The open question was whether such exclusion would be temporary or permanent.

But if that exclusion was once accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty. That could have been achieved by peaceful negotiation, if it was what the voters of the 26 or 28 counties wanted.

Indeed some of the exclusions from the powers of the Home Rule Administration(eg. Marriage law and tariffs) were only put therein the first place, to reassure Ulster Unionists, when  it was envisaged, as in the original Home Rule Bill, that  that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

The same principle of legislative independence, conceded to Ireland in September 1914, was conceded b to Canada, Australia and other dominions.  We know now that they all of them proceeded to full sovereignty, without   the suffering and bitterness of war.

The path of violence, started upon by Pearse and others in 1916,and followed from 1919 to 1923 by his imitators, was traversed at a terrible price.

I believe the Irish Parliamentary Party would have been aware of this. They would have realised that once violence is introduced into the blood stream of politics, it is very hard to get it out again. So it has proved.

Given the value Irish people place on each human life, those who take life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open.  I believe that the Irish Parliamentary Party would have felt that that test was not passed by those who initiated the Rebellion in 1916.

They would have felt  that Home Rule, already law, could, once brought into force have led Ireland to the same position of Canada enjoys today, if that was the wish of the Irish people.

The Home Rule Parliament would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918. Sinn Fein would have won significant representation in the Home Rule House of Commons, as would the Irish Labour Party and the group led by Tim Healy. All three groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond Dominion status.

Home Rule was not brought into force immediately on its passage into law because it was felt that it would distract from what was expected to be a short duration war effort. That postponement was not controversial in Ireland at the time .Indeed John Dillon had said “No rational man would expect the government to set up an Irish Parliament while war was raging”

Home Rule could have also come into effect in late 1916, and Carson had agreed to that on the basis that the six counties would be excluded for the time being and would be administered directly from Westminster. That did not happen because some Conservative members of government, Lansdowne, Selborne, and Long, objected because of the disturbed state of Ireland in the wake of the Rebellion and the fear that Germany, who had allied themselves with the rebels, would exploit the situation militarily.

But, regardless of that Home Rule would have come into effect at the end of the war, if that was the path the Irish people chose in the  December 1918 Election. They did not do so

It would not be  credible to say that the UK would have denied to a Home Rule Ireland, the powers it freely granted to dominions like Canada and Australia, under the Statute of Westminster of 1931, if that is what the Irish people really  wanted.

The suffering of the War of Independence was, I believe, not needed to achieve Dominion Status.

In the 1918 Election, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland.

The policy of Sinn Fein, led by Eamon de Valera was complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, all they ended up with was Dominion status, the very policy of their defeated Irish party opponents.

Therein lay the roots of the Civil War from 1922 to 1923. After all the deaths of the War of Independence, the separatists had to accept, in the Treaty, the exact policy of their democratically defeated  Irish Party opponents of 1918.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.

But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation.  The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.

If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if a different historical choices had been made. Otherwise there is little point studying history.

The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected severe reappraisal , in light of what  we can see  might been achieved, and was in fact achieved by other former British dependencies, without the loss of life .

Remarks by John Bruton at a Seminar on the 1916 Rebellion, organised by the Society of Former Members of the Dail and Senate,  in the Senate Chamber in  Leinster House Dublin at 2.15 pm on Friday 22 January.


I write about the following matter with some feeling because like others, I have devoted a significant amount of time and effort over 10 years or more to creating conditions in which, as part of a wider settlement, nationalists and unionists would share power and responsibility in Northern Ireland. Responsibility goes with power, and recent events suggest that some people want the power, but prefer to dodge the responsibility that goes with it.

The debacle over welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and the resultant severe risk that the power sharing institutions themselves will collapse, raises a doubt as to whether Sinn Fein is a serious political party, capable of exercising government responsibility in any jurisdiction. 

On 23 December last, after months of brinkmanship and suspense, Sinn Fein and the other parties agreed a package of measures in the Stormont House Agreement. Everyone knew, in those talks, that the Agreement was framed within a block grant from Westminster that was limited.

Yet three months after they made the agreement, Sinn Fein are backing off the part of it concerning welfare reform, saying the DUP did not give them the figures (as if there was no Sinn Fein person capable of doing the relevant arithmetic, notwithstanding their huge taxpayer funded staff in Stormont!), and without making any proposal as to how the funding shortfall might otherwise be bridged within the budget. 

Last December, Sinn Fein and the other parties agreed to the following, including specific figures:

“The (UK) Government has developed a comprehensive financial support package to help the Executive deliver across its priorities. The total value of the Government package represents additional spending power of almost £2 billion. Details of the financial package are in a financial annex attached to this agreement.”  

“A final balanced budget for 2015-16 needs to be agreed in January.” 

“Legislation will be brought before the Assembly in January 2015 to give effect to welfare changes alongside further work” 

“ Implementation of these welfare changes will begin to take place in the financial year 2015-16 and implementation will be complete by 2016-17.”

None of this was new. The issue of welfare reforms had been the subject of exhaustive debate in the Assembly, over the previous years, so everyone should have known the sums involved. 

For example, a Committee of the Assembly issued a final report on the Welfare Reform Bill in 2013 which said:

“While the Committee agreed the general principles and aims of the Bill it had serious concerns about its potential negative impact, particularly on vulnerable groups. Therefore, in its engagement with stakeholders the Committee specifically asked what mitigating measures needed to be put in place in order to minimise the impact on the most vulnerable in society. In drawing up these recommendations the Committee was acutely aware of the arguments relating to parity with GB and the potential cost implications. While social security arrangements are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the costs (approximately £3bn per annum) are covered by the Treasury and are separate from the NI Block Grant.
The Minister made it clear to the Committee that any deviation from parity that had an associated cost would have to be borne by the Block Grant i.e. the Treasury would not make any additional funding provision to accommodate these changes.”

That was back in 2013!

If the welfare cuts were to be mitigated, the funds would have to be found elsewhere, so those who wanted changes had two years to work out how to pay for them.

So the idea, now being peddled by Sinn Fein that they did not understand the figures involved, when they made the Stormont House Agreement last December, and now that they have been told them, even have no proposals for making up the shortfall of about £200 million, is just incredible.

It would suggest that they do not take their responsibilities seriously, and regard the whole business of government as a game, the purpose of which is to say what your supporters want to hear all the time, and blame someone else for everything. 

This is a juvenile approach to politics. It is just not serious, and voters deserve politicians who are serious about their work.

It is a mystery to me that the SDLP, which did so much in the past to bring power sharing into being ,has gone along with this exercise.

It is also a warning to any parties in the Republic who might contemplate negotiation with Sinn Fein…If you agree something with them in December, they will go back on it in March!


I was in England last week for some of the celebrations attending the State visit of Ireland’s President Higgins to the United Kingdom.

Although Ireland and the United Kingdom have lived in peace beside one another since 1921, and have both been members of the EU since 1973, this was, remarkably, the first state visit by an Irish Head of State to the United Kingdom. 

The Treaty of  1921, which brought the Irish Free State into existence, accepted the fact of continuing UK jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. The Irish constitution of 1937 also accepted this fact too, but asserted a right to reunification of the national territory which was deemed to include Northern Ireland.  My understanding is that the existence of this territorial claim, which was not pursued in any serious way as a legal claim, was an obstacle in the minds of some Irish leaders to normal state to state relations. They seem to have felt that reciprocal state visits at head of state level would have constituted full acceptance, as of right, of UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. 

This barrier was removed in 1998, sixteen years ago, when the relevant articles ( 2 and 3) in the constitution were removed by a referendum vote of the Irish people, as part of the package of measures that made up the Good Friday Agreement.

The coverage of the visit in Ireland was enormous and focussed on President Higgins and the queen and their many visibly cordial interactions throughout the visit.

Unfortunately, in sections of the media in Britain, much attention was focussed on the attendance of Martin Mc Guinness, a former member of the IRA, who now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland ( which remains in the United Kingdom) at the dinner in Windsor Castle. To my mind, it is unexceptional that Mr McGuiness would receive and accept such an invitation, given the office he willingly holds.

What remains exceptional is the fact that members of Mr Mc Guinness’ party, Sinn Fein, put forward members to be elected as members of Parliament in Westminster, who then refuse to take their seats there(although they draw their pay and allowances). If they attended they could work to affect the legislation that governs their constituents. That is what MPs do. 

It seems that, in some way, Sinn Fein do not attend because they do not accept the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament (although they are happy to receive and spend money raised and voted by that Parliament).

If that is the case, they are not accepting the will of the Irish people, who accepted the Good Friday Agreement in full, including the change in articles 2 and 3 and the  renunciation of any refusal to accept UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, unless and until the people of Northern Ireland itself decide to join a united Ireland. 

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