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Veteran Cork republican criticises Belfast Agreement, says it pushed united Ireland further away – The Irish Times


“The Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement has delivered nothing for republicans and to my mind we are further away from a united Ireland now than we were 25 years ago when the agreement was signed,” says veteran activist, Donal Varian as he visits the Republican Plot in Midleton in east Cork where he lives.

A native of Fair Hill in Cork City, Varian surveys the names of the 14 IRA volunteers killed in the Clonmult Ambush by Crown Forces in 1921 as he recalls his own his family links with Ireland’s fight for freedom all the way back to the Young Irelanders in the mid-19th century.

He speaks with pride as he tells how Varians, French Huguenots who fled to Cork in the 17th century, were among those who took part in the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 and again in the War of Independence when they featured in some of the most daring escapades in the conflict in Cork.

Varian doesn’t claim direct descendance from those Varians but points out his grandfather, John answered Redmond’s call to fight for the freedom of small nations while his father, also John, joined the IRA only to be interned in the Curragh with Brendan Behan during the Emergency.

His own first encounters with what he describes as “the Free State” came as a teenager when with his brothers, Harry, Val, Pat and Stephen, he went selling Easter Lilies without a permit at the North Cathedral in Cork and ended up being arrested – the first of many brushes with “the Branch”.

Joining the Cork Volunteer Pipe Band, Varian also became an IRA volunteer and although he was not on active service in the North, he did visit there regularly in his capacity in the 1970s and 1980s as Chief of Staff of Fianna Éireann, the youth wing and training ground for many IRA volunteers.

Siding with the Provisionals in the split with the Officials in the late 1960s, Varian sided with veteran republicans Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Daithi Ó Connaill in the split with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness over ending abstentionism in the 1980s and he remains true to that belief to this day.

And while he acknowledges Adams’ ability as a strategist in putting his people in place to take control of the republican movement, he has nothing but disdain for what Adams has done for republicanism since, including signing the Good Friday Agreement which he believes has failed republicans.

“Adams achieved what none of the others like de Valera achieved – he stripped the IRA of its weapons, and he stripped the republican movement of the youth coming in when he disbanded Fianna Éireann which would have been a stepping stone for republicans from youth to adulthood.

If you stand back from it and look at the Good Friday Agreement – no one gave up anything only the republican movement

“He shut down vital parts of republicanism – he stopped the youth being educated in republicanism and if you stopped a young fellow now and asked him about Wolfe Tone or Robert Emmet, whose teachings are the basis of republicanism, he would look at you as if you had two heads.”

For Varian, Sinn Féin arguing for the Belfast Agreement marked another step along the party’s road to becoming part of the Free State system, which has recognised the northern state, and which has copper-fastened partition and pushed the prospect of a united Ireland further away than ever.

“To me, the Good Friday Agreement was a means of doing away with republicanism – it certainly was doing away with the aspirations of republicanism in terms of doing away with the idea of a united Ireland and instead it meant recognising the six counties,” he said.

“And they did what the republican movement had never done before – they put themselves in receipt of the British paymaster by going into Stormont – they went down the route of the Civil Rights movement and said we could live with partition and that’s where they are today.”

“If you stand back from it and look at the Good Friday Agreement – no one gave up anything only the republican movement – the unionists are stronger now than ever – they still have the power to shut down the Good Friday negotiated provisions for the stepping stones to a united Ireland.”

Asked about the fact that Northern Ireland has enjoyed, if not total, then relative peace since 1998 compared to the preceding 30 years, a peace which Gerry Adams has estimated has saved 2,000 lives, Varian is unequivocal in his assessment.

“Any life that is saved is good but if we had a united Ireland and we didn’t have the British occupation, then we wouldn’t have violence – remember this, because it’s never spoken about – the violence happened because of the resurrection of the Irish people looking for their freedom.

“The violence was the trade of loyalists – the IRA in the late 1960s were only a handful of people defending their community – the IRA grew from the violence being inflicted on nationalists by loyalists and you had loyalists being aided by the British to go out and execute people.”

Varian believes the British security forces are still operating in the North today, albeit not in the same overt way that they did at the height of the Troubles, and he instances the harassment of republicans by the PSNI as proof that nothing has changed for republicans in the North.

But if Britain was to withdraw all its security and administrative personnel from Northern Ireland in the morning, what would he say to 43 per cent of people living there who identify as British and want to remain part of the United Kingdom?

“What I would say to them is you can make your choice – you can be either Irish or British, but you can’t be in Ireland and be British and ruling the roost and that’s what they are doing still. That’s what they were brought into do, they were brought in as planters to support the British establishment.

“As far as I am concerned, this place could be a home for them in a united Ireland, the same way it is a home for me or for anyone else – you can’t tell a fellow pack his bag and move on, you can’t tell him that but if he wants to move on, you can help him but other than that, he’s equal to me.”

Varian doesn’t buy into the idea that with demographic changes, there will soon be a nationalist majority in the North, leading to a united Ireland as he doesn’t believe that even a nationalist majority will necessarily mean people are committed to creating a genuine 32 county republic.

Now 79, Varian, who combined his republican activism with rearing his four children after his wife was killed in a car crash in 1987, doesn’t believe he will see partition ended in his lifetime and he is frank when he says it saddens him when he thinks of the sacrifices that republicans have made.

“I don’t think I will see a united Ireland in my time and that is a hard cross to bear because republicans in the past always had the aspiration of a united Ireland – it’s hard to bear particularly when I think of the number of Fianna boys we lost over the years on the hungers strikes and elsewhere.”

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