The last days of December traditionally bring the release of state papers after the 30-year embargo. Accordingly, the last couple of days saw the release of hundreds of previously secret government files dating from 1988 in Dublin and Belfast. Among the more interesting stories circulating in the Irish media is a meeting between Provisional Republicans and representatives of the Loyalist UVF. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss “a federal Ireland” (see here, here, and here.)
In recent years, “a federal Ireland” became a vivid slogan among a relatively small circle of radical Irish Republicans. For almost two decades, the small Republican Sinn Féin party remained the keeper of the grail, calling for a federal solution to secure “a lasting peace”. This federal solution has been tightly linked to the Éire Nua programme.
Following the split of the Provisional Republican Movement at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis in 1986, the abstentionists around former Sinn Féin President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and IRA leader Dáithí Ó Conaill set up Republican Sinn Féin. The party soon re-adopted the Éire Nua programme, calling for the federal United Republic as their preferred solution for a re-united Ireland.
However, in the past decade, while those opposing the politics of (Provisional) Sinn Féin increasingly splintered, more and more organisations adopted federalism. Among those are the 32CSM; sections of the 1916 Societies, most notably their former PRO Seán Bresnahan; independent Republicans, most of them emerging from the RSF orbit over the past five years and their US-supporters, and, most recently, individuals such as former Dublin Provisional Matt Treacy. In other words, among radical Republicans, federalism is en vogue!
To be sure, the release of state papers indicating that Provisional Republicans and UVF discussed the proposal for a federal Ireland in 1988 came in the midst of increasing interest in federalism in the shadow of Brexit and border poll debates (see here, here, and here).
There is little surprise in the fact, that first, Provisional Republicans met with the UVF to discuss a political settlement to the ongoing war. Throughout the decades of the Northern Ireland conflict, channels between Republicans, Loyalists and Governments were kept open. Arguably most remembered are the Feakle talks in County Clare in December 1974. And second, that Loyalists met with Republicans to discuss a political settlement. Certainly, sections within militant Loyalism were looking for political settlements as early as the first years of the conflict in the early 1970s. Moreover, it was not the first time Loyalists indicated interest in federalism.
The idea of “a federal solution” circulated among Irish Republicans since the 1960s and was put in place with the publication of the Éire Nua programme by the Provisional Republican Movement in 1971/2. In this programme, the Provisionals, then led by their President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, called for the establishment of a federal democratic All-Ireland Republic with Athlone as its capital following a British military withdrawal.
The Éire Nua programme was undeniably linked with the Southern-based leadership of the Provisionals. When the Northern “Young Turks” rose to prominence following the failed IRA ceasefire in the mid-1975, they attacked Éire Nua to further discredit and, eventually, oust the Southern Republican leaders from their positions.
Éire Nua reflected the idea that a federal structure, which would establish a local Ulster parliament called “Dáil Uladh”, would convince Unionists to support a united Ireland. This view was later portrayed by Adams and McGuinness as a “sop to loyalism” in their successful attempt to discredit Éire Nua.
In 1982, the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis dropped the policy and deleted all references from its constitution. One year later, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh stood down as President of the party and was replaced by Gerry Adams. Vice President Dáithí Ó Conaill, also an advocate of Éire Nua, had also stepped down and federalism disappeared from the politics of Sinn Féin.
So, while Irish and British media think it’s a story in itself that Provisional Republicans met UVF representatives for talks in 1988, the real astonishment is that they met to discuss “federalism”, a policy dropped by Sinn Féin already five years earlier.