Liberty Leading the People
I’m a republican. But then so is George Bush. And so, they claim, are the organisations presided over by Gerry Adams and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. So what sort of republican am I? I’m a Wolfe Tone republican; a James Connolly republican. But so, they would say, are Adams and Ó Brádaigh. So that doesn’t get us very far. How else can I define my republicanism? I’m a republican in the French tradition. I believe in the guillotine.
Having stolen that joke from a comrade, I should point out that there is much more to the French Republican tradition than the guillotine. Yes the first French Republic preserved itself through the combination of a controlled economy, popular mobilisation, military power, and ruthless repression known to history as the Terror. But we need to bear in mind what the purpose of those extreme measures were – the defence of a democratic political system that sought to place the control of their own destiny in the hands of the French people. The constitution written by the Jacobins in 1793, although suspended before it came into operation, was the most progressive the world had ever seen, guaranteeing not only the right to vote to all males over the age of 21 but the right to subsistence as well. But the French Revolution and French Republicanism (along with the American Revolution) have made another fundamental contribution to republicanism as a political philosophy – what the French call laïcité and what we know as secularism. The idea not only that church and state should be separate, but that religion should have no part to play in politics.
This democratic, egalitarian, secular ethos, encapsulated in the revolutionary battle cry of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, also lay at the heart of the programme of the Society of United Irishmen, the first representatives of the modern international revolutionary tradition in Ireland. The United Irishmen sought the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter not only to break the connection with England but also to draw a line under the sectarianism that poisoned Irish society. The people of Ireland would no longer be divided by religion, but would instead be united by a common citizenship in an independent, democratic, secular republic. Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen recognised, as James Connolly did later, that such a republic could only be founded upon the “men of no property”, and would have to be run in their interests. The modern international revolutionary republican tradition that has its roots in the French Revolution is therefore built on a number of basic principles: democracy, secularism, and social justice. Any individual or organisation that fails any one of these tests cannot claim to be a part of that revolutionary republican tradition. Hence I discount the claims of Adams and Ó Brádaigh to be part of that tradition – despite the rhetoric, the reality of seeking to act as the representatives of one section of the Irish people, variously defined as Catholics or more recently as nationalists and republicans, though as often as not used interchangeably. This is at its least a damaging communalist approach. At its worst, it has found its expression in Kingsmill and other vicious sectarian attacks.
Republicanism as I have defined it above is a living and developing political philosophy, that has culminated in revolutionary socialism. However, in Ireland, republicanism has in the popular imagination become reified into a simple adherence to Irish independence, to be achieved by the use of violence if necessary. This seems to me to be an adequate description of Adams’ organisation’s view of republicanism, going by its actions over the last several decades. For Ó Brádaigh’s organisation, on the other hand, it is a set of political strategies that evolved in the era of the First World War. Primary among these is abstention from any political assembly that has not been elected by an all-Ireland process. For Ó Brádaigh’s movement and the other main dissident nationalist paramilitaries in the Real IRA, the use of arms in asserting the right to an independent state regardless of whether it has popular support or not has become a principle.
These are the issues that Paddy Murphy has been addressing in his latest column in the Irish News (the link should work until Saturday May 9th, after which it becomes subscription only. For another discussion of this article, see this thread on Sluggerotoole.).
Murphy approaches these questions with his usual acerbic and penetrating analysis.
In most countries republicanism is a political philosophy. In Ireland it has evolved into a religion. It is in that context that we can most usefully appreciate the argument between Sinn Fein and their former colleagues in dissident republican groups.
On the surface the argument is about the legitimacy of the use of violence. But since they both appear to agree that violence, at the ‘right’ time, is justified, the debate is more about timing and who has the authority to determine that timing.
Sinn Fein argues that Provisional IRA violence was justified by circumstances. Dissidents claim that the circumstances have not changed and that the time is still right. To resolve that stalemate, both sides seek authority in the religious dogma of republicanism.
As Murphy points out, the Provisionals themselves started life as a dissident breakaway from the-then Republican Movement, claiming legitimacy on what must seem to us after the last few decades as absurd grounds.
When Provisional Sinn Fein broke away from mainstream Sinn Fein in January 1970, those walking out of the Ard Fheis claimed authority because they had with them Joe Clarke who had fought in 1916. Legitimacy was derived from a republican relic.
Following their formation, the PIRA was granted an imprimatur by Commandant-General Thomas Maguire (1892-1993) who, as the last surviving member of the Second Dáil (1921), somehow claimed possession of the true republic. He decreed that the Provos were its legitimate inheritors. In 1986 he revoked his blessing on the PIRA and imparted it instead to the Continuity IRA. Maguire giveth and Maguire taketh away. (His claimed possession of the one true republic raises the question as to how a republic should be kept in the house. Should an Irish republic be stored in a specially-built tabernacle behind velvet curtains with subdued lighting and piped organ music, or would it be acceptable to just keep it in a box on the mantelpiece?)
Satirical as that sounds, the concept forms a thread of reasoning in the present argument. Flann O’Brien built a successful literary career on notions less fanciful than that of a man in possession of a republic.
Here Murphy identifies what is bad about militarism, and what led to the rethink initiated by the Republican leadership in the 1960s after the disastrous Border Campaign. The Republic is to be achieved not by the mass action of the Irish people, but by an elitist group regarding itself as the keeper of the national flame. It would decide when violence was to be switched on and off even when the people were opposed to it. The consequences of such ideological and political poverty was isolation and futility. We can see the bankruptcy of this position in the most recent murders of the two soldiers and policeman.
Even though the Provisionals may have abandoned violence and abstentionism, Murphy argues, they remain trapped by the failings of politics-as-theology (with the leader as Pope).
Previous converts to the paganism of politics, such as Michael Collins (1922) and de Valera (1932), simply left the IRA to its military manoeuvres. But the PIRA leadership claimed victory (remember the parade of black taxis) which meant that they did not have to leave the IRA. They took it (and thus the true republic) with them, thereby retaining their claim of republican infallibility.
It was on that basis that they claimed legitimacy for their entry into Stormont. (By now they had downgraded Maguire’s status as a saint, claiming instead a direct link to Pearse. This presumably explains their penchant for dressing up in historical costume at Easter parades.)
The success of this remarkably clever strategy depended on one of two achievements – a united Ireland or radical social and economic policies in the north. Apart from Caitriona Ruane’s education policies, Sinn Fein has avoided the latter and focussed on vague promises to deliver the former.
While they remain fixated on ensuring their status as the legitimate legitimists, the real issues that affect the daily lives of working people are ignored
Meanwhile in the real world, 400,000 people are unemployed in the south. Where, in the inter-republican argument, is the case for a nationalised banking system? Where is the policy for state investment in the manufacturing industry? Whatever happened to the concept of cooperatives and mutual help in rural society?
Instead we have competing claims on the quality and legitimacy of one organisation’s historical pedigree over another’s. It may not be best religious practice but it is time for Sinn Fein to concede the argument and walk away. Otherwise the row will drift into a republican civil war with Britain on the side of Sinn Fein. Britain has never lost a war in Ireland. It will not lose this one. Dissidents will be imprisoned and probably killed, giving gainful employment to a new generation of ballad-writers and graveside orators. That will present Sinn Fein with a won war and a lost argument.
A party of government ought to be focusing, Murphy says, on more pressing matters.
There are more demanding political responsibilities, such as addressing the crisis in capitalism.
Like all religions, these two sects of republicanism offer little in terms of material benefit in this life.
True happiness can be achieved only in the heaven of a united Ireland. In the meantime, we continue to suffer in their six-county purgatory where, for many, a significant part of that suffering is listening to inane arguments while the real world passes us by.
Once again, Murphy cuts to the quick. His criticism here could be applied to our entire political elite. While the governing parties argue about symbols, about kids in GAA tops packing bags at Tescos, about which party will better represent “their side” in the European Parliament, the ordinary working people of Northern Ireland and their children face crisis – economic, educational, and social. The problems they face are not entirely the responsibility of the governing parties in Northern Ireland, but they are doing little to improve things, and in some cases – especially the transfer of pupils from primary to post-primary education – are making matters worse.
So for those of us who view republicanism as a political philosophy, what can we do? We must revivify the efforts made since the turn to the left in the 1960s to make it relevant to the lives of ordinary people, while at the same time fighting sectarianism. Only a socialist alternative can change the course of Irish history, and build a better society. That is a long-term project, but it starts with the everyday problems of all our people.