Return to contents menu
An agenda for discussion
We have all felt the hands of history weighing heavily on our shoulders lately. It has become a media and political cliché to talk about dramatic changes and unique opportunities, but whatever language we use to describe the process it is clear that there has been a fundamental shift in republican politics in the late 1990s. The pictures of Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun sitting at the first meeting of the new executive tell their own story.
The scale of the defeat that the leadership of the republican movement has inflicted on Republicanism has raised serious, fundamental issues not only about the future shape and trajectory of the movement as a political organisation, but whether Republicanism as a political ideology has a viable future at all. In allegedly adapting to the changes in contemporary political and social circumstances does this mean that there really is no alternative to the politics of retreat?
What this article attempts to do is to consider some themes and elements that could contribute towards an alternative politics and strategic approach. The first precondition for any such discussion is to recognise the nature and scale of the defeat that has been inflicted on Republicanism. If the evidence is clear on what is happening, the debate on why it is happening has not yet really started. Some republican critics see this process as a betrayal inherent in the fatal embrace of 'politics' and the abandonment of abstentionism; other radical critics see the degeneration of Republicanism as an inevitable process with parallels to the rise of Fianna Fail. Still others focus on the alleged opportunism and careerism of the current leadership as an explanation for this ideological shift.
One of the ways to understand this process is not to focus on the individual characteristics of the leadership but to look at the growth of the Republican movement as a bureaucratic institution. The development of a system of interests that provides the basis for a political bureaucracy can be seen in the emergence of an apparatus of MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors, community activists and community organisations.
These structures can act as gatekeepers and centres of social power that under-pin republican activism. Not only do they provide a political base, but they also have a significant role in channelling EU and British government funding to the most deprived and socially disadvantaged nationalist areas.
British counter-insurgency strategy, political initiatives and socio-economic policies have also been crucial in containing militant republicanism and influencing the shape of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
During the 1980s the Thatcher government used high levels of public expenditure as part of a strategy of conflict management and containment with the long -term aim of using social and economic change as a way of 'normalising' the conflict and incorporating sections of the nationalist population into the status -quo. These developments contributed to a 'managerial 'socio-political' consensus based on a new middle class who could act as potential leaders and buffers between the state and republican working class communities.
One of the most striking features of these developments has been the emergence of a new Catholic middle class; many of the new Sinn Fein middle rank leadership and Sinn Fein's new electoral support come from this group and they clearly have had an impact on republican thinking. With so many middle class Catholic careers dependent, directly or indirectly, on the state and its levels of public expenditure it would be unusual if this did not influence the political outlook of wide sections of the nationalist population.
These British government strategies also had an impact on sections of the nationalist working class; one essential effect was to strengthen the tendency towards a narrow local community activism and the wider bureaucratisation process within republicanism.
The 1980s and 1990s have seen a series of publicly financed initiatives targeted at lower income groups and the unemployed. This funding was channelled through community groups as a means of placating and controlling potentially volatile social groups.
This strategy of political and social control drew on the rhetoric of overcoming social exclusion and alienation and was an Irish variant of a tendency towards the integration and incorporation of potentially destabilising social groups by the state in Western societies in the 1980s and 1990s.
EU and British government funding has encouraged the growth of a network of community, local enterprise, womens 'groups, training and education and ex-prisioners'organisations as a channel for distributing funds, resources, employment and opportunities. Because of the dominance of republicanism within the communities that are the targets of this spending and through republican community activism and elected office, these strategies have brought the movement directly and intimately into the embrace of the funding mechanisms and quangoes of a state which militant republicanism was once pledged to overthrow by force.
These types of relationships are not unique to the North; similar patterns can be seen throughout the Western world. What makes them significant here is the base they provide for a stabilisation of the conflict, built on accommodation between alienated communities and the state, with the republican movement acting as a channel of influence and an agent of mediation.
It may overstate the case to say that high levels of public spending and the growth of the community sector have blunted the cutting edge of political militancy and channelled energies into localised cultural and community projects, but these factors have contributed to the incorporation and institutionalisation of the republican movement.
Republican leaders have become conventional politicians, drawing on clientalist political structures, who represent and lobby the state on behalf of a section of the nationalist population. The nature of the republican movement and its transformation from a revolutionary instrument to a bureaucratic interest group will ensure that Sinn Fein will continue to develop as a party of government, both North and South. Despite the talk of a 'transition to a transition' and 'the underlying dynamics' the new political dispensation in which Sinn Fein is enmeshed is designed to maintain and consolidate the status -quo, not overthrow it.
Although dressed in the language of dynamic movement and transitional advance towards unaltered goals this shift is part of a wider process. Republicanism has evolved from an ideology and organisation whose politics are based on a mass revolutionary movement and armed struggle to a conventional political party whose goals are the preservation of a bureaucratic structure and adaptation to the status-quo. As Francie Molloy conceded, republicans "are really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted."
Gerry Adams will follow the path of Eamonn de Valera and Proinsias de Rossa, not because of some personal weakness or lack of principle, nor because of some "original sin" within republicanism, but because of his process of institutionalisation and bureaucratisation. One Sinn Fein Assembly Member recently said "we're all Sticks now"; and now we have the experience and the pictures of Martin and Bairbre smiling at the cabinet table to prove it!
Republicanism is well down the road of incorporation and integration trodden by other revolutionary parties in the twentieth century. There will be a growing gap between the official, traditional aims proclaimed at Bodenstown and Milltown cemetery and the realistic, everyday politics practised at Stormont and in Leinster House. The needs of the organisation acting, as an institution will predominate: pragmatic accommodation will remain the order of the day.
Some radical critics see the transformation of Republicanism from a revolutionary social movement to a party of government as an Irish manifestation of the process whereby the triumphant New World Order integrates and emasculates radical challengers to the status quo. Does 'the End of History' mean not only the demise of militant Republicanism as a political force but as an ideology as well?
The critique of the petit-bourgeois nature of Republicanism provide a useful point of departure for an attempt to define an alternative strategy. The themes of the discussion could usefully focus on the relationship between Republicanism and Nationalism, the relevance of national-democratic demands for re-unification and independence, the social-radical implications of Republican ideology, the definition of 'the Republic' and, finally, the nature of the mass participatory politics that are required to re-build a revolutionary Republicanism.
The development of the Pan Nationalist Front strategy by the movement's leadership has tended to blur the distinction between Republicanism and Nationalism as ideologies. An alternative strategy needs to re-define those boundaries and rescue Republicanism from being seen simply as the left face of a constitutional nationalist political project that makes an accommodation with the political and societal status-quo.
The origins of Republicanism in the radical-democratic political philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution provide us with a clear starting point. With its democratic conception of the People as the source of legitimate political authority and the accountability of all authority to the People, this philosophy emphasised citizenship and collective political freedoms as the basis for political structures; the Romantic Nationalist stress on territorial and cultural definitions of the Nation has often been historically at odds with the Republican democratic slogans of equality, fraternity and liberty.
Republicans demands for self-determination, re-unification and national independence are essentially democratic and should remain at the heart of the Republican project. The origins of Provisional Republicanism point up the significance of this democratic strand in Republicanism. Provisionalism developed as a mass force from within an insurrectionary social movement of the nationalist working class and rural poor that was itself a product of the Unionist and British response to the demand for Civil Rights. National re-unification was placed on the agenda because the Stormont regime was based on the structural exclusion of the nationalist population; the ending of partition was the only way that the democratic rights of the northern minority could be exercised and the systemic exclusion be overcome
This democratic opposition to discrimination and the Unionist veto [disguised as consent] continues to lie at the heart of Republican objections to the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement attempts to ameliorate that exclusion, but the consent principle presupposes the continued domination of Unionism and the denial of democratic rights to the nationalist population. Far from being transitional to the achievement of an all-Ireland democracy, it strengthens partition and the continued existence of communal and sectarian political blocs that reproduce the status quo. A Republican critique of the Belfast Agreement and the 'transitional 'approach should rest on a contemporary reading of the living radical-democratic principles of self-determination not by an appeal to an ahistorical apostolic succession from the Second Dail.
Social radicalism has been a significant dynamic of Republicanism since 1798; as a political force it can be defined historically as a social movement of the excluded and alienated petit-bourgeoisie and urban and rural poor. In this context, the form of Republican politics is a vehicle whose shape and definition are provided by the social interests of and tensions between the classes that comprise its leadership and base. The growth and evolution of Provisionalism since 1970 as a mass movement bears out this analysis.
Given the continued structural and social exclusion and alienation of the nationalist working class and rural poor in the north, Republicanism will continue to function as a lightening conductor of both social and national-democratic discontent. Likewise, the growing economic inequalities and social exclusion of sections of both the urban and rural populations in the south will be expressed by growing popular challenges to the precarious success and inherently unstable hegemony of the Celtic Tiger.
Social radicalism and collective challenges are not merely ways of mobilising a coalition of these alienated and discontented groups; neither are they simply part of some Republican 'historical mission' whose function is to provide a marginalized repository for the rage of the excluded. Social radicalism is at the heart of the democratic and egalitarian project of both historical and contemporary Republicanism.
The Republic is not solely about breaking the connection with England; from the eighteenth century, this was seen merely as a necessary precondition for creating a new politically and socially equal society. It was historically a means to an end, not the end itself.
The tensions generated by the development of the Celtic Tiger and the continuous de-industrialisation of the north pose clear challenges to the dominant consensus of free market economics and the whole island's subjugation by the multi-nationals. Demands for work for all, a guaranteed national minimum income, expansion of public services in health, education and housing and the democratic, collective organisation of the island's economic resources to meet social need rather than individual and multi-national profit could form the basis of a politics that focuses this challenge towards transforming Irish society.
Rather than adapting politically to this consensus and worshipping in the corporate boardrooms of the New World Order Republicanism needs to develop a collective critique of this system and its ideology as the initial step to building and mobilising a social movement that is capable of transforming Irish society.
The majority of Republicans, including many who support the current Provisional leadership, would support the themes outlined above. The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is how to change it. Many supporters of the Provisional leadership's line argue that given the changed political circumstances of the early twenty first century pragmatic adaptation rather than transformation is the realistic alternative; in an ideological shift reminiscent of social democratic and neo-nationalist politics in Europe New Sinn Fein argues that there is no alternative. In a variant of this argument others confide, when pressed by critics, that this apparent adaptation is really a subtle strategy of hollowing out the system from within and that what appear to be props to shore up the status-quo are actually transitional stages that [imperceptibly] move towards its subversion and eventual transformation.
The discussion about this transitional and adaptive style of politics lies at the centre of the development of a Republican alternative. While it is correct to understand the qualitatively different structural context that now shapes our political activity and to recognise that we live in new times, these factors demand all the more that we do not simply worship the accomplished fact as an unalterable given and a law of nature.
An outline of the alternative Republican politics that we need can only be arrived at by an understanding of both the historical and ideological development of Republicanism as an organised force and of aspects of its contemporary political praxis. Sinn Fein has become an institutionalised political party whose leadership practice a type of brokerage politics, mediating between the state and sections of the nationalist community; this brokerage is extended to forms of diplomatic manoeuvre involving a variety of players from Washington to Dublin.
The reason why Sinn Fein is able to play this game is the position of strength it has derived not only from the IRA's armed campaign, but more importantly from the inherited social capital of the mass movement of the 1970s and its expression in the Hunger Strike mobilisation and initial electoral campaign of the 1980s. This period is both central to our understanding of the trajectory of the Provisionals and for the development of a Republicanism based on a mass revolutionary movement created from participatory and democratic politics.
This presupposes the democratisation of Republicanism and the creation of a political praxis that privileges intellectual and political creativity and replaces the militarist, conspiratorial ethos and organisational discipline that is necessary for a military group during a war with the open debate and discussion of a movement that seeks participation and creative mass politics not merely passive votes at election time and walk-on parts at demonstrations and white-line pickets.
Such a political movement would need to break down the distinctions between 'leadership' and 'base' and replace these formal and institutionalised structures with open forms and genuine accountability. This is not some utopian counsel for perfection, but a practical necessity if a real, living movement is to be created. Intellectual activity, debate about perspectives and strategy are not simply valuable in their own right, but are the fundamental precursors to effective political action and a radical transformative praxis.
The historical experience of Civil Rights, the initial phases of the growth of the Provisionals and the Hunger Strike period provide valuable lessons for the creation of these new politics and shows the potential that could exist. This potential cannot be simply realised by an act of will by political activists or detonated by the agency of a even the most determined and dedicated Volunteers. The changes in the political and social structural context, the actions of dominant players in Washington and London, and the varying currents in the political psychology and political culture of the subordinate social groups will shape the nature of the events that will unfold and the possibilities of realising the potential for the development of a revolutionary Republicanism
Fourthwrite (The Journal of the Republican writers group) has previously attempted to define a position between Stormont and Omagh. These must remain the parameters of an alternative Republicanism, but in discussing, the everyday political implications of our theory we must not let ourselves be limited by these boundaries. The limitations of the current debate and the polarised possibilities on offer can be seen in two fundamental related issues-the possible continuing utility of armed struggle and the democratic implications of the vote to accept the Belfast Agreement in the referenda on both sides of the border.
The historical experience of revolutionary movements throughout the world as well as in Ireland demonstrates the effectiveness of force as a factor of political pressure and mass mobilisation. However, does the strategic imperative for armed struggle still obtain in relation to the British state's role in Ireland? Is there a conceivable future role for force in terms of the legitimate democratic violence of the oppressed or as an adjunct to a popular revolutionary mobilisation? Likewise, if we are committed to recreating a mass revolutionary Republicanism can we simply ignore the referenda results as either false consciousness or the product of elite manipulation? Does our 'revolutionary mandate' override that of the People in whose name we claim to speak?
These questions and the themes raised above do not admit of easy, quick answers, but how we approach, discuss and resolve them will tell us a great deal about the nature of the political project we are undertaking and the Republicanism we are re-articulating. Above all they should inform our political praxis and help us to understand 'what is to done'.
These re-articulations are not unique either to Irish Republicanism or to the early part of the twenty first century; we have been here before with the Fenians' New Departure and Davitt's Land League, the Republican Congress in the 1930s and the re-discovery of Socialist Republicanism in the 1970s. The 'End of History' in the 1990s provoked similar reappraisals of ideology and strategy in revolutionary movements throughout the world from South Africa to Palestine. Indeed the revision of Republicanism by the Provisional leadership in the1990s can be seen as their response to these changing times and the type of questions posed by the apparent triumph of the New World Order and its local dispensation in Ireland..
The stalemate surrounding the implementation of the Belfast Agreement, the stasis that the Agreement introduces into politics and the failure of the process to function in a transitional manner makes a thorough going debate within the Republican movement all the more urgent. From the point of view of revolutionary Republicanism these questions were in reality left unanswered by the Provisionals and still remain open. It is our duty to answer them, both in theory and in practice; in that way we will not only resolve what is to be done, but begin the ideological re-commissioning of Republicanism and the re-building of a new, genuinely revolutionary politics in Ireland.