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Analysing Republicanism: A small step forward  

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

20 April 2012

At least since the Hillsborough Agreement, and more particularly as it became clear that Sinn Fein had no alternative to trying to work it, there has been not only increasing military action against the pact but, more constructively, increasing political examination both of it and of the nature of republicanism itself.

On Saturday, 14 April, the Communist Party of Ireland hosted a meeting that was a new step in the process. Three noted republicans formed a panel with Tom Redmond of the host body, chaired by Mary Cullen of the Ireland Institute. The panel republicans were Tommy McKearney (Independent), Eoin O'Broin (Sinn Fein) and Brian Leeson (Eirigi).

This writer must admit that, though as confused as usual, the standard of discussion reached an higher standard of confusion than he has heard before; the quantity of the contributions to the debate of the last years seems to be creating a better quality. He must add that this improvement had nothing to do with his own contribution which was, like the overall discussion one that groped towards clarity but did not quite reach it. Nonetheless, the clarity of the debate was sufficient to reveal some weaknesses as well as a valuable discovery of a difference among those styling themselves republicans.

The first weakness was that of the structure of the discussion. As can be seen from the listing, the panel was limited to representatives of three currents plus the CP. A number of speakers noted this from the floor, concentrating mainly on the absence of such republican bodies as Republican Sinn Fein. It should be said, too, that socialist bodies more critical of republicanism, should have been invited, too; if the CP was represented, political equity would seem to require the presence of the Socialist Party and of the SWP/People Before Profit, at least, whatever about less prominent forces such as Socialist Democracy. Of course, the first-named may nor accept such an invitation. What might be more worrying for the organisers is that they attend and declare that Republicanism has no future. However, such negative possibilities have to be faced if there is to be any hope of the clear analysis that is needed to enlighten the resistance to the capitalist solution to the capitalist crisis.

The debate itself revealed another reason why socialist parties other than the CPI were not invited to sit on the panel. None of the members presented any serious class analysis. Even the People of No Property were ignored. In the struggle as presented here, there were only two contestants: "the Establishment" and "the People". This populism (it's nothing like Marxism) can be understood partly by a desire to unite the different strands of disaffection into a united front. This is valid enough, but without comradely recognition of the differences as well as the agreements between its participants, such suppressions in a front will involve non-comradely disagreements between its component organisations and confusion amongst its supporters, neither of which will help advance its aims in the long, or even the short term.

There may be a further reason why the class issue is suppressed. To raise it is to open the way to considering the class nature of republicanism itself, in Ireland and internationally, and in the reasons for its comparative revolutionary vitality on this island. Such consideration might lead to the conclusion already suggested: that, in Ireland, republicanism, as such, does not have a viable base outside some areas of Ulster but that it exists rather on the mistakes of reformist labour leaders. Actually, this is recognised by the "left republicans" like O'Broin who see the way forward as one involving the grafting of socialist/feminist/green policies onto republican perspectives. Here the problem is threefold. Firstly, the grafting is done on the basis of the original non-historical and essentially idealistic analysis centred on the idea of Irish republicans as a distinct caste striving towards the improvement of the human condition as they learn more about it. This leads them invariably to escape the overall militarism of traditional republicanism only to surrender to electoralism. This arises from the second fact that Irish republicanism's militancy is the expression not of the view that the state is the expression and weapon of the ruling, capitalist class, but of the view that the republican movement is "the state virtually established" and thus fighting an essentially classless national war which cannot be cheapened by compromise with particular constitutional interests. Republicanism is anti-political; simply making it political, however left, tends to make it reformist, using politics simply to wage war by other means through dealing from a position of weakness with  the government of the inauthentic state, rather than mobilising the exploited and oppressed against it.  This leads to the third point. In both its manifestations, it remains nationalist, whether revolutionary or reformist. Its international perspective is eclectic, usually based on the rule of thumb "my enemy's enemy is my friend", the enemy being not capitalism but Britain. The movement solidarises with oppressed peoples, but not consistently let alone as part of an international strategy.

These weaknesses in the discussion having been noted, it is necessary to record the fact that it did advance the discussion on one important aspect. The nature of the state was analysed. Leeson and McKearney were agreed that it would be necessary to smash it; O'Broin, for Sinn Fein, insisted on the need to "engage" with it in the belly of the beast. (The writer was not altogether surprised to see Tom Redmond nodding his head at this, though he did not contribute to that part of the discussion.)

For O'Broin, the state is more than the oppressive apparatus of the ruling class; it supplies welfare and services as well. Quite true, but, as the last three decades have shown, its benevolence is merely a tactic of its controllers, army and police are organic to it. A speaker from the floor pointed out, too, the role of the permanent civil service as a first line in moderating radicals trying to engage from within. O'Broin did not answer this. 

More usefully Owen Bennett remarked that the rulers of Ireland ruled through the dual state mechanism (actually, one and an half state; Northern Ireland is a British province.) Unfortunately, he went on to tell the audience that the said rulers had been terrified by the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming President of the southern state, presumably because the two parts would then be united. In fact, though the ruling classes did not want McGuinness to become the new tenant of Aras an Uachtaran they were not anything like as scared at the prospect as their grandparents had been when de Valera formed his first twenty-six county government eighty years ago. For McGuinness to combine his role of junior partner at the head of the northern Executive with the ceremonial role of President of the Republic would have raised some constitutional anomalies, assuming that he tried to persist in this (a big assumption), but it would have meant little more than the medieval kings of England being Dukes of Normandy. An useful opportunity for analysis was lost to make a party point.

For all that, useful issues were raised and it is to be hoped that there will be future public discussions where these and other basic republican conundra can be investigated in more depth.  


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