THE RED PLOUGH
Unfinished Business : The Politics of 'Dissident' Irish Republicanism
BY MARISA MCGLINCHEY
“Unfinished Business” by Marisa McGlinchey was published in early 2019 and is about the politics of dissident Irish Republicanism. In her own words it
“ — seeks to delve into the psyche of radical republicanism through the actual voices of republican activists”.
The author is influenced by the Social Movement Theory and the work of Donatella Della Porta and identifies the significance of the following on radical republicanism;
-family background -ideological changes in the Provos-a sense of betrayal and -a belief in the continuity of the struggle
-family background -ideological changes in the Provos-a sense of betrayal and -a belief in the continuity of the struggle
She had interviewed a wide spectrum of opinion within the dissident world and carried out wide ranging research and reading on the activities of dissidents and the work of other academic writers.
For a number of the activists interviewed it is clear they were strongly influenced by their family background.Some Republicans can trace their family republicanism even back to the 19th century. Others can recall that, when young, the raids by the police on their homes and the way they were treated by the authorities both north and south left a lasting impression.
While now in 2019 it may be all right to call oneself a republican it was not always so. Following defeat in the civil war in 1922 many republicans were forced to emigrate because of poverty unemployment and repression.
Certainly in the North and South there was continued repression by the newly formed Stormont Government and the new Free State government. Republicans stuck out like sore thumbs as their homes were regularly raided and they were arrested for selling the Easter Lily. There were no soft jobs, cushy salaries or career prospects for republicans then. Also they were few and far between numerically. In some districts one could count the number of republicans on one hand. Many were forced to emigrate so it should be no surprise that their descendants in the USA would carry banners proclaiming “England Out of Ireland”
In the North the betrayal of partition left a demoralised, defeated and cowed minority Most northern nationalists ignored republicans and mostly supported those nationalists backed by the Catholic Church and the local gombeen men. Resistance was futile.
At least it was if you listened to the Catholic Church.Hell was not hot enough for the Fenians in the mid 19th century. One hundred years on, In the late nineteen sixties a University friend of mine was also threatened with Hell by a Catholic priest. His ‘crime’ was selling copies on the “United Irishman"-the paper of the then united Republican Movement. This was a crime because it was banned under the notorious Special Powers Act. Suffering was not to be resisted but rather endured and offered up for the repose of the holy souls!!!
Such was the almost total grip that religion had on the thoughts and actions of the vast majority of Ireland’s population. And in the front ranks of those who imposed this stifling orthodoxy on the people were the catholic lay organisations like the Hibernians and the Irish National Foresters. They were the other side of the coin to the Orange Order and the Black Preceptory.
Up to the late 1960s rural nationalist areas were strongholds of nationalism. Republicans were few and far between. Going back to the period after 1916 there had been many clashes between Republicans and Hibernians in which the republicans usually came of worst.When in the early 1960s the release of those who took part in Operation Harvest (1956-1962) occurred there were no wild celebrations or car honking. They slipped back into their communities not as heroes but as almost outcasts looking forward to unemployment or low paid labouring jobs working for monied gombeen nationalists.
Those experiences tended to re-enforce their separateness from nationalism and their own sense of worth. At least in their eyes they had fought for something worthwhile. And they hung on to what they perceived to be the traditional republican values. They had raised the flag of resistance. It was up to another generation to once more raise the standard. Like the Phoenix they would raise again.
And when in 1969 the North was in flames Irish Republicanism had a revival. And with that revival came the inevitable split between those who wished to adapt to the new situation and those who stuck to a rigid interpretation of what Republicanism was.-the sticky-provo split
Republicanism itself, like the Catholic Church had its own ideological hangups. Sacred scripture never to be questioned, never even to be discussed - Abstentionism-armed force-disdain of ‘politics’ and an almost cult-like devotion to suffering-hunger strikes torture, years rotting in jails, deaths by British terror gangs, volunteers mowed down in ambushes! This is not to denigrate the sacrifices made over two hundred years but to question their effectiveness. To endure is not to succeed.What really has been the fruits from these sacrifices?
Today Irish Republicanism, as exemplified by the “dissidents” and their predecessors - Provisional Sinn Fein,have achieved absolutely nothing. Britain still controls the northern part of the island while the South is in hock to international corporations, banks and financial houses.
As James Connolly once wrote “Lets Whoop it up for liberty.”
The Homeless die on the streets-children go to schools hungry, suicides ravages working class communities, as in despair many succumb to the death drugs peddled by international criminal gangs. The health services are in dire straits and welfare cuts are sucking the life out of many families.
All the major political parties in Ireland accept the neo-liberal free enterprise economy. In plain language they support capitalism. The leading nationalist parties in the North are quiet happy for Ireland to be re-united under the capitalist system-as indeed would Britain and the European Union. That poses no threat to stability of that system.
Sinn Fein itself, despite occasionally radical posturing, helped restore Stormont, has facilitated Tory Welfare cuts for the north of Ireland, its leaders have rung the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and they have agreed a system of administration that 1) sectarianised the struggle for unity and 2) debased the fundamental ideals underpinning Irish Republicanism.
It is no wonder there was dissent. Practically every ideological position held by the leadership of Provisional movement was ditched. The only one they retained was abstention from Westminster to retain some semblance of their former republican positions.
So when Marissa McGlinchey identifies the strong sense of betrayal felt by the ‘Dissidents’ she strikes a cord. However one should not be surprised at the betrayals. Both Republican and Socialist organisations have endured many splits and divisions. It is part and parcel of political struggle. However to personalise that sense of betrayal as many dissidents have done around the personality of Gerry Adams is to make a fundamental mistake. While individuals can and do make a difference the fundamental driving force in history is the class struggle. It is the struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
Much of todays politics is based around personalities all wanting their day in the sun. Few push policies that would actually make a difference. It is all soundbites and photo opportunities! That is because almost without exception those who stand for elections in both parts of Ireland accept the status quo.They have no concept of class struggle or a perspective of building a mass movement to change things.
And in the absence of an alternative many working class youth, particularly if growing up in areas of deprivation and poverty, can be easy seduced by the opposite side of electoralism-militarism.
The leadership of the Provisional Movement always made it clear from their foundation that they were “anti-communist” that there were no “marxists” in their movement and indeed time has borne out that position. They never posed a threat to the system. They only wanted their share of power and saw the struggle for a united Ireland as the way to that. So they mobilised nationalists in armed struggle to fight for in essence a capitalist Ireland.
Those volunteers who thought that the struggle was for a socialist Ireland were fooled and betrayed. Once power beckoned then their struggle was really for “equality”. That has become the mantra of today’s Sinn Fein’s leadership. It now seems all those deaths all those years of imprisonment all that pain was actually for marriage equality and an Irish Language Act!
That mantra” equality” is in essence a total acceptance of the status quo. Make us all equal under capitalism. Formal equality under the law challenges nothing. Exploitation can continue , poverty can continue .After all the legal system in the British Isles is based fundamentally on defence of the right to private property, i.e., those lands and properties stolen by the robber baron during the Middle Ages and legalised by Acts of Parliament controlled by those same robber barons and their friends in the Church.
Has the law brought any justice for the relatives of innocent victims of the “trouble”. There is no equality before the law son long as the British State covers up the crimes of the agents.
What was actually achieved by Stormont since the Good Friday Agreement?During their time in power Sinn Fein and the DUP participated in a sectarian carve up while scandal after scandal unfolded during their watch.
-the Red Sky Housing maintenance scheme of Nelson
-the sale of £1.2 billion of Nama Property,
-the awarding of £700,000 for research carried out by A Sinn Fein controlled firm(Did anyone ever see the research?) ;
-the Speaker’s involvement in awarding £1.7million of Social Investment funds to a group he was a lobbyist for;
-the Casement Park debacle;
-the sale of land reserved for social housing to property speculators;
-the sale of the old High Court for a £1 to another property speculator who also sat on the Policing Board;
-the RHI enquiry
-the list goes on.
There were supposed to be benefits to flow from the Peace process (or pacification process). There were. For the supporters and followers of those who adhered to Sinn Fein/DUP and IRA(p) /UVF/RHC. Hence the divvying up of money from both the Executive when it functioned, and the Belfast City Council.
That that system is no longer sustainable and has collapsed, is in spite of Sinn Fein’s attempts to save it in the 1918 agreement they thought they had agreed with the DUP, does not reflect well on the current Sinn Fein leadership.
It may well be that eventually the DUP and Sinn Fein will eventually cobble together some sort of deal that restores Stormont .But you can be sure any fruits of that deal will not fall far from the tables of both those parties.
Working class areas that had historically been poverty stricken have seen little change. Those are the areas where dissidents and loyalists have their strongest support. Membership of armed groups gives a sense of purpose and meaning to lives. The state we live doesn't .
It is clear from the views expressed in “Unfinished Business“ that there is a clear historical rational for the existence of the “dissidents”. The partition of Ireland and the denial of sovereignty is the underlying reason for their existence. So long as Ireland is divided there will always be people who will resist that division. Neither Brexit not the absence or presence of a Stormont administration will impact on that fact.Of course the armed groups will use those issues to recruit people to their organisations.
However the multiplicity of organisations, often set up because of personality conflicts, weakens the case for the “dissidents”
While it is understandable that McGlinchey concentrates on the emergence of the Dissidents from the 1980s it is clear that the roots of dissent were always there within Republicanism.
One need only mention
Then there was the emergence of the Provos and the Officials in the early 1970s. The split from the Officials that saw the emergence of the IRSP/iNLA.
The brief life of the IPLO from the INLA. The Democratic Left from the Officials/Workers Party. The Official Republican Movement (ORM )from the Workers Party.
The list goes on.
Saor Uladh seems to have been the first to advocate a Nine County Ulster Dail, an idea later put forward by the Provisional Sinn Fein leadership under Ruari O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connell in the early seventies and then ditched by the emerging Adams leadership in the late seventies/early eighties. Interestingly the first dissident split from the Provos in 1986 saw the newly emergent Republican Sinn Fein adopt the idea of an Ulster Dail.
At the roots of the emergence of splits was ideology. One writer has said that
“ The fractious and heterogeneous nature of the republican movement has been an enduring characteristic throughout the last century.”(unknown)
Prior to 1916 there were severe disagreements with the broad church of republicanism. James Connolly had bitterly acted Arthur Griffith”s Sinn Fein policy and had also attacked the physical force policy of the “mountainy men”. He had his own Citizen Army based on the Dublin working class and with very different perspectives to those in the IRB with whom he formed an alliance that resulted in the 1916 Rising.
Those who spearheaded the guerrilla campaign that forced the British to the negotiating table split over the Treaty and waged civil war. De Valera and Fianna Fail split from the defeated remnants of the Republican side in the Civil War taking the majority in 1925. Those who were left maintained the existence of the IRA although it forbade volunteers to join Sinn Fein.
However the emergence of the great Depression following the collapse of the Stock Markets began a process of radicalising the IRA. By 1931 they had intervened in a number of strikes developed a political programme called SaorEire and campaigned against paying annuities to the British State. IRA members also worked in the “Friends of the Soviet Union” from which they expelled members of the Communist Party when both sides had a falling-out. However this radicalisation period came to an abrupt end. Following the introduction of repressive legislation by the Free State authorities and widespread condemnation by the Catholic Church, the Saor Eire programme was dropped.
Faced with this capitulation left wing members of the IRA including Peadar O'Donnell, Frank Ryan and George Gilmore left to build a new organisation called Republican Congress. However Moss Twomey the leader the IRA, ordered IRA members to have nothing to do with the new organisation. Needless to say the Republican Congress itself split as most as soon as it was formed between those who wanted a broad front for “the Republic” and those more left wing who wanted a “ Socialist Republic ” to appeal to the industrial working class in the North. The remnants of the Congress regrouped around the defence of the Spanish Republic and opposed the rising fascist tide. But it was the end of any left wing in the IRA for thirty years.
The IRA was now under the control of conservative indeed reactionary nationalists who had no problem trying to work with Nazi Germany during the 2nd world War. The new IRA leader Sean Russell launched a bombing campaign in England that was ultimately a disaster.The Fianna Fail Government had declared a policy of neutrality and so cracked down viciously on the IRA
More splits followed including the debacle of the Stephen Hayes affair, leading to the formation of Clann na Poblacht under the control of a former Chief of Staff of the IRA Sean McBride a son of the one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising
In the 1950s there were at least two if not more, break aways from the IRA before Operation Harvest. In the sixties there was a breakaway in Cork and then in the late sixties the emergence of the Officials and the Provos. That split had clear idealogical reasons. The officials argued for the democratisation of the North and the creation of a strong left wing alliance. They supported the tactical use of force in limited circumstances.The emergent Provos in 1970 wanted the abolition of Stormont, the ditching of left wing ideas and an armed campaign.
Then the officials split in 1974 for the IRSP/INLA to emerge. In the 1980s there was the short-lived PLO followed by the formation of Republican Sinn Fein. In the 1990s the IRSP was convulsed by yet another split that almost saw its demise. Then the Real IRA was formed only to disappear in the early 2000s to reappear under various names including ONH and now the New IRA.
So splits divisions and dissent are not unusual. What is unusual about the modern day emergence of the “dissidents” or in McGlinchey’s name, with which this writer strongly disagrees “radical republicans” is that they are entirely from the ranks of the provisionals. The provisional IRA waged a campaign armed resistance to the partition of Ireland for the best part of thirty years. Their volunteers spent many years in jails, endured torture, hunger strikes, and, eventually for many, disillusionment with the products of their many years of struggle-acceptance of a new Stormont and for equality. Was this what so many died for?Having loyally followed their leadership through many twists and turns sections at different times walked away following the GFA, then the St Andrews Agreement, decommissioning and then acceptance of policing.
Other Republicans warned the they were locked into a sectarian set up. Both the RSF and the IRSP, from differing perspectives, rejected the Fruits of the Good Friday Agreement
.-RSF from the traditional republican position of rejection of any parliament and adherence to the abstentionist position to all parliaments except that of the First Dail. (which no longer exists except as a metaphysical concept)
-The IRSP, both from a class perspective and a rejection of an internal settlement that retained the Unionist veto.
However although the IRSP accepted, that the majority of people in Ireland wanted peace and so voted for the various proposals put forward during the whole peace pacification process, they, the IRSP, did not accepted the premises on which that pacification process was built upon. They clearly identified it as a sectarian carve up.
These differing perspectives also show up what has always been the case-a clash between what are called “traditional republican “ values and a socialist or marxist perspective.
This writer has argued in the past that the decision to commit the Republican Movement to a struggle for a Socialist Republic in the latter part of the 1960s by its leadership was a mistake.
Suddenly Tomás Mac Giolla,-who spoke about the pernicious influence of “foreign dances” was converted to socialism seven years later. In so doing the way was made open for ant-socialist elements to start mobilise against what was in essence a top down decision. Nothing was done to prepare the membership for this change. You cannot turn a traditional organisation with all the divisions and tendencies that existed historically, which the RM was in the sixties, into a socialist organisation over night. Especially not when both the political and military sides are controlled by the leadership of the Military. Armed organisations are rarely noted for their democratic tendencies. Military discipline requires both loyalty and obedience. The leadership knows best!
Those small republican organisations that retain both military and political organisations know only too well who literally calls the shots. Making occasionally nods to the writings of Ta Power, without putting in place the mechanisms to implement his writings, is just playing with politics. Without democratic accountability corruption can creep in.
It is clear that those groups still committed to the use of force have little support and that they know it. It is also clear that they recognise they will not force the British Government to the negotiating table. So what is their justification for continuing armed struggle that will only create more victims and send young people to years in jail? To continue a tradition? To pass on the flame of resistance?
We have only recently had local Government elections in the North. No dissidents stood on a political programme. Standing as independents is not the same as standing for a clear political programme or party. Independents can and do help people and are well meaning. But you cannot build a mass movement nor even a party on the basis of well meaning help for “my community”. To stand as an independent why paying lip service to the ideals of Connolly, Mellows and Ta Power is a nonsense and also leaves the way open for other opportunist ‘leftists’ it'sto pose as defenders of the working class.
The working class in Ireland north and south are under immense pressure from capitalism. Irish Republicanism has always attracted to its ranks some of the best of each generation not because of its ideological strait-jacks but because of its underlying commitment to liberty equality and fraternity.
Those concepts have much more relevance to the modern world than commitments to failed practices and policies as outlined in Marisa McGlinchey’s book. Why continue to do what has manifestly failed repeatedly in the past.
Now in the 21st century planet earth is on the verge of destroying itself due to the senseless plundering of its resources by rampant capitalism. There are many opportunities to resist this by political action.
Paying lip service to “radical” ideals while failing to challenge the status quo is not the way forward.
It is time to lay down the gun and build a mass movement to take back not merely Ireland but the earth.