We should begin with the historical roots of the federalist policy. First you have to consider that in the republican split of 1969-70, the Sticks were totally dominant in Dublin and in satellite towns like Bray and Drogheda, while the Provos drew their strength from the West, the South and the border counties (the situation in the Six took a lot longer to be clarified). There is a standard view that this was a tidy split along lines of urban/rural, left/right, radical/conservative. This view is strengthened by ex-Stick elements now integrated into Dublin 4, who adopted the classic D4 sneer about “Rural Ireland” (anywhere more than half an hour out of Dublin). But things were more complicated – the Sticks’ rapid evolution into a rightwing Stalinist sect is a cautionary tale in its own right, while the early Provos, at least in the 26, were by no means as apolitical as usually assumed.
So we have in 1971 the publication of Éire Nua I, which was basically a social and economic programme the united Sinn Féin leadership had been working on before the split. It was a mildly socialist programme without the extravagancies of hyper-Stalinism that the Goulding-Garland faction later developed. The next year this was followed by the bit of the programme everybody knows, properly Éire Nua II, which was the bit about federalism. That was the part of the policy that was jettisoned by the Gerryites between 1979-82 on the grounds that it was a sop to the dílseoirí. I’ll get onto the northern issue in a future post, but for starters we’ll consider how decentralisation tied in with social and economic radicalism as part of an overarching revolutionary project.
Because, and make no mistake, in the early to mid-70s the situation in the North, and the ever-present possibility of it destabilising the South, did provide a revolutionary opening. In the so-called “no-go areas” in the North, there were moves, albeit very rudimentary ones, towards setting up alternative popular structures of government. The idea of linking these up via Dáil Uladh to form a revolutionary government – in essence dual power – was far from outlandish. The shadow assemblies sponsored by Provisional Sinn Féin in the other three provinces were conceived of as part of the same 32-county revolutionary process. And if the Leinster and Munster projects were little more than Provo fronts with no real life of their own, it was demonstrated that there was a potentially serious reservoir of support for Dáil Chonnacht.
The reason for this is not only that republicanism was relatively strong on Connacht, but the social conditions there could sustain a rural radicalism that included but wasn’t limited to republicanism. This flows into the reason why federalism was appealing to people in the West who weren’t necessarily republicans. The problems associated with the West – underdevelopment, depopulation, remoteness from the centres of power, the lack of a voice for the Irish-speaking minority – have been historically connected to the unevenness of Irish economic development, and in particular the overdevelopment of Greater Dublin. These problems are further accentuated by the neutered – virtually powerless – local government structures inherited by the Saorstát from the old British system. (We also have a clue here as to why radicalism in the West would express itself in a republican form, while the Dublin-based Sticks would move ever further away from republicanism.)
So you can see that a genuine popular movement in the West – the Cearta Sibhialta movement in Conamara springs to mind – would find itself open to republican proposals for radical decentralisation. Leaping forward to the present day, and even without talking in terms of socialist revolution, there is a reasonable possibility that a Dáil Chonnacht would have handled the Rossport fiasco better than the Dublin kleptocracy. To make sure of that, of course, you would require a serious overhaul of the Irish social and economic system. I will get onto those aspects of a decentralising programme presently.