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The struggle for the soul of Irish republicanism

Tom Griffin
11 March 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK):The agenda behind the dissident republican attacks of the past few days was acutely summed up yesterday by Irish News commentator Brian Feeney:

The killings were designed to accomplish a number of objectives – to embarrass Sinn Fein; to provoke a disproportionate response from the British; to cause division between Sinn Fein and the DUP and make it less likely that policing and justice will be devolved to northern politicians.

All of these aims add up to a larger purpose of undermining support for the peace process in the North's republican communities.

In frustrating that aim, Sinn Féin's response was crucial in a way that those of other parties simply weren't. It had to assure its partners in government of its commitment to the rule of law, while assuring its own grassroots supporters that this does not mean an abandonment of republican aspirations. Err on one side and it risked de-stabilising power-sharing. Err on the other, and it risked fostering the disillusionment that the dissidents are trying to bring about. In trying to avoid these outcomes, either of which could lead to further loss of life, it wasn't surprising that Adams neglected a third constituency, the British press.

The task of isolating the dissidents isn't helped by the fact that some of the North's most distinguished commentators are prepared to talk up their republican credentials. Thus Eamonn McCann writes:

Armed Republicans have always taken their mandate not from the constituency in whose name the struggle has been waged but from history.

They see themselves as defending the Republic proclaimed by Patrick Pearse on the steps of the GPO in Dublin at Easter 1916 - the Republic viewed not as an aspiration to be aimed at but as an actually-existing-entity to be defended in arms.

In this perspective, both Irish States are fraudulent usurpers. Legitimate authority rests solely with those who have stood by the Republic.

McCann admits this idea is "patently ridiculous"and that "only a small minority of Republican supporters over the past 35 years ever swallowed this version of history whole."

Nevertheless, he adds that "this, despite recent energetic revisionism, was the view of the Provisional IRA throughout its armed campaign."

One such energetic revisionist is Sinn Féin activist Eoin Ó Broin, whose recent book argues that while this view of republicanism is widely held, it does not reflect the self-understanding of most republicans themselves. He cites the definition of historian Fearghal McGarry of Irish republicanism as "an introspective tradition" characterised by "abstention from participation in electoral politics, refusal to acknowledge the reality of Protestant support for the Union and commitment to the use of physical force."

[It] would be hard to think of any of the leading republicans, particularly left republicans of the twentieth century, as fitting McGarry's mould, whether one is talking of James Connolly, Peadar O'Donnell, Seán MacBride, Tomás MacGiolla or Gerry Adams. Equally, his confusion of the use of armed struggle and electoral abstentionism as principles rather than tactics suggests that somehow these aspects of political strategy are actually defining characteristics of republicanism, the abandonment of which involves an 'irreversible revision of republican ideology.'

This is not just an argument about semantics. If one accepts the essentialist definition of republicanism as the 'physical force tradition', then only those who resort to force are true republicans and to adopt a political strategy is in itself a betrayal.

This interpretation may be appealing to unionists, given the implication that the only true republican is a stupid republican. It is nevertheless misleading and dangerous.

It hands the dissidents a propaganda coup and reinforces their belief that those who have taken the political path are traitors, a notion which is all too often cynically fed by opponents of the peace process.

The vast majority of republicans have refused to be tied up in this intellectual straitjacket. The peace process could not have happened if they were.

They too can point to history and to 200-plus years in which the political empowerment of ordinary people has been central to the strategy and goals of republicans, from the United Irishmen, to the IRB, to the founders of Sinn Féin.

That is the best bulwark against the dissidents: a democratic republican movement playing its part in showing that, whatever setbacks there may be on the way, politics is the best vehicle for the aspirations of ordinary people in the North's republican communities.

This week's attacks were meant to close down the political process within which that can happen. Instead, they look to have redoubled determination on all sides to make that process work.

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