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The Irish Times
4 March 2009

Overpriced but important look at Sinn Féin's long march towards unity

RUTH REVIEWS: The Long March: The Political Strategy of Sinn Féin, 1981-2007 by Martyn Frampton Palgrave Macmillan pp 254, £50.00

I CANNOT imagine what the publishers thought they were doing in so ludicrously overpricing this important book that even libraries will struggle to buy it. Librarians and political anoraks, invest in it: it will still be consulted when many well-known books on Irish republicanism are long forgotten.

For a start, its young English author, Martyn Frampton, had no political baggage when intellectual curiosity tempted him to take the Provisionals’ political journey as the subject of his doctoral thesis. His open mind was appreciated by the wide range of people he consulted: those crucial sources thanked in his acknowledgments include distinguished academics such as Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, Sinn Féin intellectuals Jim Gibney, Danny Morrison and Eoin Ó Broin, Anthony McIntyre (ex-Provo prisoner and bitter critic of his former colleagues), Dean Godson (David Trimble’s biographer) and Sean O’Callaghan and the murdered Denis Donaldson (informers). I’m in there, too, but only among the extensive supporting cast.

Frampton shows us not just how, but why Sinn Féin hewed the crooked path that took them from bitter opposition to the bringing back of Stormont to installing Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister of what they would call “the occupied six counties”. Frampton has charted the development by the leadership of a political strategy that formed a bridge between the ideological objective of a 32-county democratic socialist republic and politics on the ground, as well as the flexibility with which it was adapted to changed circumstances.

In the 1980s, a left-wing, community-based movement using the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism intended to achieve its objectives by violence and negotiation in tandem – what Frampton describes as a “Vietnam model”. The belief that both sides of the Border could be thus “republicanised” proved unfounded and gave way to the abandonment of abstentionism North and South and the pursuit of a pan-nationalist alliance. Faced with the distaste of many nationalists for the activities of the IRA, in the late 1990s, grudgingly, Adams and McGuinness accepted a choice had to be finally made between fighting or talking.

Although talking triumphed, and Sinn Féin took over the driving seat from the IRA, as Frampton points out, republican language is still that of conflict: “waging ‘war by another means’; building political ‘beachheads’.”

Unlike most commentators, Frampton gives due weight to the centrality of the South in the republican leadership’s strategy. Yet the drive to win power islandwide was undermined in 2007 by the Northern-based leadership’s inability to understand how Southern Irish politics works. They are working on remedying that now.

There has been a tendency to believe the Sinn Féin leadership has compromised on its ideological aspirations and made a settlement with unionism. Yet, while the means change, the end remains the same: the leadership, says Frampton, is unswervingly dedicated to Irish unity.

“It is, therefore, perhaps time to take the republican movement at its word, when it declares that the Northern Ireland ‘issue’ is not yet settled,” he says. I doubt if our politicians or commentators will: they prefer to believe republicans will settle for well-filled troughs paid for by the British taxpayer.

Anyone who reads Frampton’s fine book is unlikely to quarrel with his conclusion that whatever happens outside the republican movement, “their self-proclaimed long march toward Irish unity” will go on. And on. And on.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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