Republican Youth and generational change in Northern Ireland

Young, post-conflict republicans, and the radical Óige Phoblactach, may hold the key to meaningful reconciliation across Ireland.

Despite incremental progress towards an end to the violent protests over the removal of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, recent events have served to underline how far we have yet to travel in terms of building peace, reconciliation and a shared society in (Northern) Ireland. Unionism is in a dangerous state of flux, and First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have failed thus far to present a united front on the issue. It seems a long time since McGuinness, with Robinson at his side, made a symbolic gesture towards Unionists by meeting and shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II. Armed anti-Agreement republicans continue to reorganise and frustrate peace efforts, posing a threat to the devolved institutions and an acute political dilemma for Sinn Féin. Meanwhile, though it is encouraging to see a frank and instructive debate taking place here and through other forums, a solution to dealing with the past remains elusive.

Against this potent and particularly inopportune backdrop, Sinn Féin has reiterated its call for a border poll on Irish unity. Party leader Gerry Adams appeared on BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘The View’ to justify this border poll on the basis of a questionable reading of the latest census figures. Adams coupled this with a strong indication that he will lead Sinn Féin for the next three years at least, with the aim of building support for a referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland by 2020. Martin McGuinness has resigned his Mid-Ulster Westminster seat in a move to end ‘dobble-jobbing’, but seems intent on seeing through his current mandate as Deputy First Minister and retaining his position as de facto leader of Sinn Féin in the North beyond 2015.

Question marks hang over Adams’ position in the medium term. He continues to endure an arduous initiation to southern politics, suffering ridicule on more than one occasion for his grasp of local and global economics. More significantly, amidst the debates surrounding the legacy of the Troubles, Adams has borne much of the criticism for Sinn Féin’s association with the IRA. He regularly faces (often cynical) challenges to address his past from government figures such as the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and is frequently the subject of thought-provoking polemics by commentators in the conservative media. Most recently, the sudden death of erstwhile comrade Dolours Price prompted an uncomfortable interrogation of the claims she made against Adams in recent years. Martin McGuinness is not without his problems on this front. However, Sinn Féin’s role as junior partner in the devolved administration and McGuinness’ credible performance as Deputy First Minister have had the effect of muffling critical voices emanating from the Democratic Unionist Party, which as a party generally distances itself from some of the more extreme opinions of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice. 

With twenty-nine seats in the Assembly, Sinn Féin has cemented its position as the dominant voice of northern nationalism. The party has also made steady progress in the South, securing a total of fourteen Dáil Éireann seats in the 2011 election, and with these gains, enhanced speaking and debating rights in the chamber. Most commentators agree that Sinn Féin’s strategy involves securing a foothold in both Irish administrations, creating a de facto all-Ireland government and building support for reunification from a position of strength. Yet there are limits as to how far and at what pace this strategy can proceed.

Firstly, although identity is forever becoming a more complex and fluid notion, Northern Ireland census figures indicate that only a quarter of the Northern Ireland population consider themselves ‘Irish only’ while 40 percent designated themselves as ‘British only’. Secondly, whatever the rights and wrongs of the flag row, it should be patently clear that large sections of the Protestant working class are openly hostile to Sinn Féin in its current guise. As things stand, it would be surprising if Sinn Féin was to make significant gains in the 2015 Assembly elections. In the South, the party has continued to enjoy a general rise in popularity, primarily at the expense of the Labour Party. Recent Sunday Business Post and Sunday Times/Behavior & Attitudes opinion polls gauge party support levels at 19 percent, which would translate into around twenty-five Dáil seats in the event of an election. These figures indicate that there is some political capital to be made in exposing the government’s weaknesses on social and economic issues. Yet there is a marked gap for Sinn Féin to bridge before it can enter the equation as a potential coalition partner. Fine Gael’s relative stability and Fianna Fáil’s gradual political recovery suggest that there is a core of the two parties’ supporters who remain averse to lending their support to Sinn Féin. The reality is that returning to the language of traditionalist republicanism is unlikely to alter these factors in Sinn Féin’s favour.

Political succession

Though relevant in many respects, the performance of the current Sinn Féin leadership is a secondary concern here. This author wishes to direct the reader’s attention to the natural process of political succession that affects each and every movement and political party. Widely tipped to take up the baton from Martin McGuinness in the North is the ubiquitous Gerry Kelly, who has vast experience as an MLA, member of the Policing Board and former junior minister. In the Dáil, Sinn Féin Vice President Mary Lou McDonald has demonstrated considerable acumen in holding the government to account, along with Finance spokesman Pearse Doherty. The youthful and articulate Donegal South-West TD continues to make full use of his speaking rights in the Dáil, delivering forceful and compelling critiques of the government’s economic policies. Doherty has enjoyed a meteoric rise and established himself as one of the frontrunners for the Sinn Féin leadership. Failing a collapse in support or a dramatic reversal in individual political fortunes, Kelly, McDonald and Doherty – all members of the party’s Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) – are all likely to be in a strong position to assume the leadership when Adams and McGuinness decide or are forced by circumstance to take a back seat.

Having joined Sinn Féin after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, McDonald and Doherty can be described as being of ‘post-conflict’ republican stock – much more so than Gerry Kelly, for example. Ultimately, however, it will fall to a new cohort of leaders to take modern republicanism’s vision into the future; to build peace, reconciliation and a shared society in (Northern) Ireland; to create the conditions for social justice across the island; and to unite the people of Ireland in advance of territorial unity.

A generational transition

As authors such as Kevin Bean (2007) have noted, Sinn Féin has assumed the demeanour of a mainstream party whilst harnessing the grievances of young working class nationalists by adopting the ideals of radical democratic internationalism. Indeed it is in this regard that the party has succeeded at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Murray and Tonge, 2005). One of Sinn Féin’s greatest strengths lies in its capacity for mobilising the youth across the island and its willingness to catapult young activists to the front line of political service. It is no coincidence that Kathryn Reilly, at twenty-four years of age, is the youngest member of the current Oireachtas and the youngest ever elected member of the Seanad (aged just twenty-two at the time of her election in 2011).

Kathryn Reilly

Similarly, twenty-seven year old Chris Hazzard became the youngest member of the current Assembly when he replaced Willie Clarke as MLA for South Down in April 2012, only for his record to be blown out of the water by twenty-year-old Megan Fearon, who stepped into the Newry & Armagh seat vacated by Conor Murphy. Reilly holds the important, particularly apt position of party spokesperson on EU and youth affairs, while Hazzard has recently been elevated to the position of Sinn Féin spokesperson on education. The party’s young representatives are too numerous to specify, though councillors Mary Kate Quinn, Johnny McGibbon and Niall Ó Donnghaile, former Mayor of Belfast, are all deserving of a particular mention for their achievements to date.

Chris Hazzard

These prominent Sinn Féin members qualify for membership of the party’s youth wing, Óige Phoblactach (Republican Youth, formerly Ógra Shinn Féin), which arguably holds the key to the emergence of a post-conflict generation of republican leaders. Óige Phoblactach enjoys a semi-autonomous relationship with Sinn Féin and is held in such high regard that it replicates party structures and decision-making processes. It organises in local communities and universities across the island and boasts at least 250 members – a conservative estimate. These members elect a National Youth Committee, incorporating an officer board of six, which essentially mirrors Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle. Finally, a Youth Fringe Event has been held at Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna in recent years, which is a testament to the youth wing’s growing influence. Yet the emergence of Óige Phoblactach as an organised, influential and numerically significant political force seems to have bypassed political commentators and the world of academia, which would seem to be a major oversight.

The political development of Óige Phoblactach members (aged between fifteen and twenty-nine) and their progression into prominent party positions ought not to catch us by surprise, nor should their values, attitudes and ideas be drowned out by the media’s intense focus on Sinn Féin’s current leadership. Young republicans are constrained to some extent by history, circumstance and the choices of previous and present generations (Ruane and Todd, 2007). Indeed there are deeply embedded cultural, religious, political and psychological divisions, which may present obstacles to the attainment of peace, reconciliation and social justice in the short term (MacGinty, Muldoon and Ferguson, 2007). The old Marxist truism is apposite here: ‘Men [and women] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Yet the key point is that young republicans are historical beings, agents of historical transformation.

Few scholars have attempted to examine the impact of political socialisation and generational change on (Northern) Ireland’s transition, not to mention Óige Phoblactach’s potential as a vehicle for progress towards meaningful reconciliation and social justice across the island. It is incumbent upon us to establish whether young republicans are able and willing to grasp the mantle, identify opportunities for transcending historical divisions, and contribute to Sinn Féin’s political project whilst building a shared, just and sustainable future. As the radical voice of republican youth, Óige Phoblactach deserves closer inspection in its own right; and posterity demands that we give serious consideration to the words and actions of young Sinn Féin representatives.

It is unclear at this early stage how Sinn Féin’s push for a border poll in the next term of the Assembly and Oireachtas will play out. What is certain is that the campaign will have a direct and profound effect on the post-conflict generation under discussion. On 1-2 March, young Sinn Féin activists will have the opportunity to set out their stall at the Republican Youth National Congress in Dublin. This two-day event will facilitate debate and discussion on a number of pertinent local and international subjects, and the border poll promises to feature high on the agenda. To merit serious consideration, young republicans must respond in kind by demonstrating new ways of thinking about old problems. They must communicate their ideas openly and honestly, take brave decisions in public office and policy-making positions, and participate in the dialogue of ‘uncomfortable conversations’. Focusing heavily on the destination at the expense of the journey may prove to further entrench the most rigid identities, send liberal Unionists and ambivalent nationalists clambouring in the direction of Britain, and hinder the task of building a new republic of ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’. In short, the current approach could end up ‘weigh[ing] like a nightmare on the brains’ of future generations of post-conflict republicans.

References

Bean, K (2007) The New Politics of Sinn Féin, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

MacGinty, R, Muldoon, O and Ferguson, N (2007) ‘No War, No Peace: Northern Ireland after the Agreement’, Political Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 1-17.

Murray, G and Tonge, J (2005) Sinn Féin and the SDLP: From Alienation to Participation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ruane, J and Todd, J (2007) ‘Path Dependence in Settlement Processes: Explaining Settlement in Northern Ireland’, Political Studies, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 442-458.

About the author

Seán Byers recently completed a PhD at the University of Ulster. He is currently conducting research on Sinn Féin youth and generational change in (Northern) Ireland. Twitter: @Sean_Byers84