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The Irish Republican Writers Group and the battle for new ideas

Tony McIntyre

Vilification of the IRWG

The year 2000 concluded with a moral victory for the Irish Republican Writers Group.  It's publication, Fourthwrite, came out on the streets for issue number 4 a few days before Christmas.  It, along with the third, reached the public despite a concerted Sinn Féin attempt to drive it out of existence.  This attempt took the form of intimidation of working class homes by Sinn Féin led gangs. Complementary to this activity was a most menacing visit to our own home by the 'Kray Twins' - two members of Sinn Féin's thought police.

The 'crime' of the Writers Group was nothing other than to offer an alternative version of events to that provided by Sinn Féin. In the case of the murder of Ballymurphy man and Real IRA member Joseph O'Connor, myself and another member of the Writers Group, Tommy Gorman, stated that the Provisional IRA was culpable. The organisation denied this leading to speculation that the 'P' in 'P O'Neill' meant Pinocchio. Sinn Féin also disputed our claim but decided to turn the matter into a battle of wills. When UTV's Insight programme 'Killing For Peace' was broadcast, the party failed to offer any of its members for interview, leaving itself in a vulnerable position and, in the eyes of many, unworthy of belief.

Having failed to win the media war Sinn Féin opted to increase the pressure off-camera in the back streets of Ballymurphy through intimidation.  It made no headway there either and has for the present withdrawn from the fray, content for now to encourage - not very successfully - as much ostracism as possible.

The existence of such a culture of censorship and intimidation was the backdrop against which the Irish Republican Writers Group emerged in 1998.  The name was devised to signify that there were republicans who could not be easily pigeon holed by the media or others into the binary positions of either pro-Good Friday Agreement or pro-armed struggle.  The two most frequent anti-Agreement republican writers at the time, Tommy McKearney and myself supported peace but not an empty process or a strategically futile armed campaign.

But no type of position that was not deferential to leadership was welcome within Sinn Féin.  Those who had an ability to construct complicated or merely different critiques were discouraged at every turn.  The leadership quite simply wanted to bunk its position in the doors of reasonable intellect without having its credentials scrutinised.  Where attempts were made to open up issues for discussion they were subverted.  The Bobby Sands Discussion Group malfunctioned because of leadership sabotage.  IRA volunteers and Sinn Fein activists, who for the most part comprised the Group's membership, were informed that they could not speak at any public forum organised by the Discussion Group if what they intended saying deviated from the movement line.  The same principle was applied to republican family meetings.  Army or party activists who asked a difficult question of a Movement speaker were 'gripped' after the event and told such behaviour was a 'no no'.

Writers like Brendan Hughes have drawn attention to is the fact that at the start of the Provisional republican struggle the wealth disparity between leadership and base was virtually unnoticeable.  Few could seriously make such a claim now.

Danny Morrison, a northern writer in support of the Sinn Fein leadership, has attempted to deflect such criticisms by smearing IRWG.  He conveniently forgets that he was part of an emerging alternative leadership in the mid 1970s which, as part of its bid for power, levelled accusations against the Eire Nua cooperative group on grounds similar to much of what is been said today about the present republican leadership.  Nor can it be said that only Brendan Hughes and other republicans have noticed something untoward. Andrew Marr, a columnist has made the following observation:

"The gunmen in the dripping border villages aren't doing well out of this. ... The poor bloody infantry, and the poor bloody sergeants, with our council flats and farmworkers' cottages?  These are the people who now matter most, and are about the only people who haven't been bribed. Everyone else benefits from the peace process."

And for those nationalists who were willing to participate in a Stormont government in the mid-1970s somewhat to the left of the present one, the accusation from the pen of Danny Morrison, writing under the pseudonym Peter Arnlis, was that they were collaborators, traitors and opportunists.

Republicanism vampirised of its content

A major difficulty facing any brand of radical republicanism is that in spite of Gerry Adams urging republicans to become actively involved and take ownership of the struggle rather than leave it to Sinn Féin politicians and negotiators, the republican leadership seek imposition of their view and are loathe to engage in any democratic exchange.  All dialogue is tactical and takes place with the British, Unionism, constitutional nationalism and right wing corporate America.  All manner of republican critique and internal scrutiny is to be discouraged.  Republican are supposed to rely on what Eamonn McCann termed Sinn Fein's recommended words of the week.

Why have things gone so bad?  Why has a movement that fought political censorship for so long ended up being the foremost advocate of censorship in Ireland?  There is a precedent commented on by Professor Tom Garvin - "ex-IRA leaders in power in independent Ireland often became enthusiastic censors, in what was possibly a related expression of anti-intellectualism and dislike of mental freedom."

In a sense this view, centred as it is on membership of the IRA, suggests that militaristic attitudes are the problem.  As Minette Marrin recently argued "it is quite impossible to run an army without hierarchy and the authority of hierarchy."  Such hierarchy militates against grass roots flourishing.  And while it is true to say that the party within republicanism is governed with the ethos of the army, it is important to remember that the army now is little other than an extension of Sinn Fein policy.  Those in the army leadership who think in terms of a Sinn Fein future hegemonise all else including those who think in terms of an IRA future.  Sinn Fein is governed so hierarchically because Sinn Fein politicians, rather than militaristic IRA leaders, determine that it is.  This weakens the strength of the militarist-based explanation.

Eamonn McCann has often commented on the fact that when republicanism veers off course it invariably goes to the right.  It never veers to the left.  While it is a moot point about just how right wing, if at all, the party actually is the inescapable conclusion remains that Sinn Fein has become absorbed in a more general right wing drift which it is seeking to manage and administer.

In a sense this brings us to the crux of the problem facing republicanism.  The Sinn Fein leadership have simply not come clean about the fact that they have changed their politics completely.  But not only have they fitted into a right wing drift which sees attacks on unions, the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative, the closure of hospitals and the violent suppression of alternative ideas, their whole traditional ideological raison d'etre has vanished.  As one author on the IRA, Tim Pat Coogan, marvels:

"I did not believe that the day would come when I would see the Provisionals accept the border and recognise the British presence, while they maintained a ceasefire and worked to secure their objectives by exclusively political means.  Yet, demonstrably, this is what has been happening for several years.  The reality is that, just as we in the Republic did over Articles 2 and 3, so did the IRA make historic compromise: It agreed to partition, the British presence and the continuation, in effect, of the unionist veto.  As a historian of the physical force movement, I never thought I would live to see the like."

Tom McGurk is hardly exaggerating when he claims that "republicanism has turned itself inside out."

The Good Friday Agreement is in essence the British State's alternative to republicanism.  It has been on the agenda of that state - if not always visible in every government that serviced the state - since the Darlington Conference of 1972. The British do not have problems with leaving Ireland being but insist that they shall only do so through consent.  As Professor Paul Bew argues the constitutional nationalist agenda is something the British can rest quite easily with.  Which is precisely why for years Danny Morrison and his leadership colleagues termed that agenda collaborationist.

Seamus Mallon sums matters up succinctly in a way that demonstrates the paucity of Sinn Fein's position:

"Sinn Féin have come on board, essentially to the thesis that the SDLP has been promoting for over 30 years.  The Good Friday Agreement was based, by and large, on the SDLP analysis on the principle of consent, on non-violence, and on the concept of partnership and it is Sinn Féin who have made a substantial move from support for violent republicanism to the polices and strategies of the SDLP."

But the SDLP would be mistaken in thinking that the GFA is a victory for constitutional nationalism alone.  Tony Blair wrote that it:

"...offers unionists every key demand they have made since partition 80 years ago ... the principle of consent, no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of people, is enshrined.  The Irish constitution has been changed.  A devolved assembly and government for Northern Ireland is now there for the taking.  When I first came to Northern Ireland as prime minister, these demands were pressed on me as what unionists really needed.  I have delivered them all.."

Nowhere are the Unionist gains to be seen more pronouncedly than in the policing question.  Republicans are reduced to arguing over which British version of the RUC shall they settle for - Patten's or Mandleson's.  While Patten may be hyped up there remains little wriggle room in which to dispute the observation of Maurice Hayes that "what few seem to have noticed is that Republicans, who had demanded the disbandment of the RUC should now be calling for the implementation of the Patten Report which clearly does nothing of the sort."

Is there An Alternative?

The IRWG is not a political party and therefore has no set policy.  It operates by ethos rather than diktat.  Nor does it have a leadership.  It promotes the freedom of political expression and provides an alternative forum for republican ideas, not merely alternative republican ideas.  If indeed a broader objective can be teased out from the writings it is that of waging open critique in a bid to internally democratise republicanism.  As a loose body of republican writers the Group operates descriptively rather than prescriptively, as would be the case in more tightly structured political parties.

The one unifying element cementing the Writers Group participants together is the commitment to freedom of political expression and a determination to avoid at all costs the Stalinisation of organisational forms and ideas.  Individual group members are free at all times to propose alternatives which may or may not win the approval of other group participants.

The IRWG is not comprised simply of those who oppose the Good Friday Agreement. But many of those within it do.

Is it good enough for republicans to sit and wallow in this morass of Stormont politics?  Where they must acquiesce every time some defender of the institutions screams with both Thatcher-like logic and stridency 'There is no alternative.'  Are republicans really so intellectually and strategically bankrupt that they can visualise no alternative to acquiescing in a the British state's alternative to republicanism which institutionalises rather than transcends sectarianism thus causing it to become corrupted measured against its own terms of reference, and ensuring that republicanism implodes along with it?

Sinn Fein in their own defence attempt to tell us that the party's goal remains that of a united Ireland.  In the words of the party president  "We believe the Good Friday Agreement is the transitional structure that will allow us to achieve that legitimate objective."

One senior republican strategist told the Sunday Business Post:

"We have to take a long-term view.  We have to be patient.  We have a guarantee of 50/50 power sharing and north south institutions.  We are in a position where things can only improve from there.  Eventually a pragmatic unionism will emerge which will do the business whether it comes from within the UUP or elsewhere."

Martin McGuinness claims that:

"You could have a situation where Sinn Féin is in government in the North and  Sinn Féin in government in the South.  The logic is that the division of the country will have to end."

All of this may have been considered worthy of some merit were it not for the fact that those republicans now lauding it were to be previously found telling us that any such notion was the property of fools.  The Good Friday Agreement does not meet the minimum criteria to be transitional as stipulated by Gerry Adams shortly prior to it being agreed.  The main structure for any transition in Sinn Fein's view - cross border bodies - have been described by Deaglan de Breadun of the Irish Times as "anodyne and unthreatening."

The GFA amounts to little other than an internal solution with Henry Patterson's "necessary nonsenses" grafted on to make things look a little less orange and a little more green. That the GFA is non-transitional and that republican strategy is no longer designed toward destabilising the northern state which would possess the potential to create transitional structures can both be ascertained from the following exchange between Frank Millar of the Irish Times and Gerry Adams on the question of Peter Mandleson suspending the Stormont Assembly.

Millar: "For wasn't the act and fact of suspension rooted in the legislation establishing a devolved Assembly at all times subject to the authority of the British Crown?"

Adams: "Oh yes, and, in terms of the realpolitik, we have accepted entirely, it's obvious, partition is still here, that the British jurisdiction is still here."

Millar: "Is this a peace process, about reconciliation with the unionists, accepting the existing constitutional parameters until such time as there is consent to change them? Or is Sinn Féin's real game- struggle continuing by other means - to destabilise Northern Ireland and show it to be irreformable?"

Adams: "No, that isn't the case, the second scenario isn't the case."

What should be borne in mind is that strategic alternatives only appear plausible when a significant number of people are won over to endorse them.  Being initially isolated is no reason for not thinking alternatively.

Clearly, by its own admission, it is no longer Sinn Fein's intention to destabilise the northern state.  It intends to challenge republican tenets and assumptions about that state, deny that it is plagued by 'a virus of irreformability' and seek to administer it.

The evidence suggests that Sinn Fein shall be proven wrong. In order for the party  to assist in what one of its prominent figures, Francie Molloy, describes as "the administration of British rule for the foreseeable future", Sinn Fein has been forced to accept a process which is strategically designed by all those elements historically opposed to the republican project to include republicans but exclude republicanism. Consequently all the central tenets of both traditional republicanism and Provisional republicanism have been jettisoned.  In the case of the latter the peculiar elements which constituted it - the 'three Ds' of defence, defiance and dissent - have all been decommissioned.  Sinn Fein has opted for the old tried and failed methods of constitutional nationalism.

If the republican assumptions about the irreformability of the northern state are correct then it makes strategic sense to embrace a strategy of opposition to that state.  If the SDLP wish to administer British rule in Ireland the party can get on with it.  An oppositional republicanism which is grassroots driven as distinct from leadership led sitting outside the structures of the state and which is resolutely opposed to the resumption of military campaigns would stand poised to expand both electorally and hegemonic ally on the streets when the logic of the northern state made itself felt by falling victim to its own virus of irreformability.

The minimum but hardly radical nationalist demand in such a situation would be joint authority rather than the revamping of Stormont.  Cross border bodies on their own would be useless as a means to transition.  But in order to ensure that they  are subject to accountability from the left rather than unhindered administration from the right republicanism would need to vigorously engage in left wing politics in the South of Ireland.  This necessitates the construction of a left programme and participation in a form of Socialist Alliance.  Involvement in Leinster House would not be prohibited by such a strategy but under no circumstances could republicans or the left in general ever participate in a coalition with the parties of the right in the South.

For Sinn Fein to be part of any such initiative there would need to be a leadership change which would open the way for a total transformation in the party's attitude to grassroots participation.

Even if the brief ideas sketched above never come to fruition they do demonstrate that there are always alternative ways of approaching matters.  What republicanism needs is more rather than less ideas.  It requires structures of transparency rather than those of conspiracy.  Most of all it needs a vibrant structure of dissent.  The IRWG at least shall provide that.

On reflection it is strange that in all of this the radical republicans of the IRWG and the right wing thugs of the RUC have one thing in common  - neither have the remotest intention of disbanding.



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