Last weekend saw the launch of Saoradh, a self-titled “Revolutionary Irish Republican Party”, at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry, County Down. Attended by around 150 people, including an array of former members of the (Provisional) Republican Movement, the party’s first ard-fheis or conference passed a limited number of resolutions setting out the organisation’s initial goals and objectives. Some of the attendees at the event were previously associated with existing lobby groups like the Republican Network For Unity (RNU), the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM) or the 1916 Societies and included recognisable figures such as Nuala Perry, Dee Fennell, Kevin Murphy and the Duffy family, Colin, Paul and Mandy. David Jordan, a well-known activist from County Tyrone, was elected as the party leader along with a twelve-person national executive. Despite the prominent position of older republicans from the era of the 1966-2005 conflict, a respectable number of men and women in their twenties and thirties filled the seats in the hall.
Early press allegations that Saoradh is linked to one or more of the disparate groups making up the broad Republican Resistance were given added weight when one of the first speeches read out to the gathering was a statement of support from political prisoners aligned to the so-called New Irish Republican Army (NIRA) in both parts of the island (the prisoners were specified as those held at Roe 4 Maghaberry and E3/E4 landings Portlaoise). Hardly the most auspicious way to start out in terms of public relations.
Unsurprisingly the conference devoted much of its time to criticising Sinn Féin, and by extension the political compromises and arrangements reached under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. While it would be unfair to characterise Saoradh as “anti-peace” it is certainly opposed to the “peace deal” reached nearly two decades ago. While this is a perfectly reasonable position to take, and one which extends far beyond republican politics (notably reflected in the critiques of the regionally quasi-republican PBPA), it is hardly a solid foundation to base an entire movement upon. A statement from Saoradh summed up its interpretation of the present situation in the country using needlessly portentous phrasing:
Today, Saturday the 24th of September 2016, we a significant collective of Irish Republican activists, who for a number of years have acted autonomously, have after a number of years of debate, consultation and organisation today in Ard Fheis organised, constituted and launched a Revolutionary Irish Republican Party, the Party’s name is Saoradh.
Saoradh believes that Ireland should be governed by the Irish People with the wealth and wealth producing mechanisms in the ownership of the Irish People. This can not happen while British imperialism undemocratically retains control of Irish destinies and partitions our nation, this cannot happen while a neo-colonial elite in a subservient supposed indigenous administration sell’s the nation’s labour and natural resources to international capital.
Saoradh does not believe that British imperialism or capitalist exploitation can be confronted in the structures they have created to consolidate their undemocratic control of the Irish nation. As such we believe any assembly claiming to speak for the Irish People without being elected by the united people of the Irish nation to be illegal. Saoradh will seek to organise and work with the Irish People rather than be consumed and usurped by the structures of Ireland’s enemy’s
Standing on a long and proud revolutionary Irish Republican history of resistance, inspired by the actions and words of Tone of Connolly of Mellow’s of Costello and of Sand’s, upholding the founding documents of our forefathers – the 1916 proclamation, the declaration of independence and the democratic programme of the first Dáil, Saoradh hereby declares its commitment to the unfinished revolution, the liberation of Ireland and the social emancipation of the Irish People.
Personally I found this a depressingly old-fashioned approach, one that would not look out of place at a gathering of Republican Sinn Féin, a party whose very existence is an exercise in futility. Is this really the best political vision that revolutionary republicans can come up with in 2016?
There have been previous false dawns in terms of republican pluralism, notably the establishment of éirígí, which I had high hopes for until a few of its members went down the familiar route of playing at freedom fighting. Have we not learned by now that in the 21st century the war to liberate the north-east will be won through political, legal, social and cultural activism not military actions of dubious significance or meaning? Éirígí failed to exploit its position as a potential home for republicans holding an unfavourable view of Sinn Féin’s policies or institutional behaviour. Will Saoradh fulfil that role? It is extremely doubtful. At the moment the party looks like a Republican Sinn Féin clone for those who couldn’t stomach joining the real thing (there is, one hears, a lot of personality-driven momentum – or ambition – behind Saoradh’s formation).
The strategy of “abstentionism”, of refusing to sit in legislatures or assemblies objectionable to republican principle, was an honourable one in the immediate aftermath of the counter-revolutionary Civil War of 1922-23 or during the decades of discriminatory unionist rule at Stormont, but hey. Guess what? It’s not 1922 or 1972 anymore! The world, and Ireland, has moved forward and you are either on the political boat or you are overboard and drowning.
A fundamentalist approach to realpolitik results in only one outcome: failure. If some of those characterised as “Dissidents” fear being compromised by “constitutional politics” (a meaningless phrase in the case of the UK-occupied Six Counties) then don’t form a political party. And certainly not one that you intend to contest elections with at some future date. Why? Because when nobody votes for the party you and your movement will be rightly subject to ridicule or derision. If an insurgent movement requires a public face for whatever revolutionary shenanigans it is up to, a civil support organisation is required not a registered political party with an electoral mandate of 0.01%. Donating rhetorical baseball bats to your opponents so they can beat you over the head is kinda fucking stupid.
However, if an underground organisation is determined to participate in elections, then it should do so properly. Campaigning on the basis of “Sinn Féin Out!” and “Brits Out!” makes any grouping a one-and-a-half issue party. Instead an front-movement needs to stand on a range of political, socio-economic and cultural issues and if elected its members need to take their seats. In this case, not in Britain’s parliament, not as MPs in Westminster, which has no right whatsoever to exercise authority over Irish affairs. But if elected they must sit in Dáil Éireann, the national parliament of the island of Ireland, as recognised by the overwhelming majority of the people of the island of Ireland. Anything else is the philosophy of political troglodytes not political savants. That includes participating in the admitted farce at the “new” Stormont, because the regional institution in Belfast is going nowhere, and it will still be functioning long after this country is reunited and we are all in our graves. Fenian entryists, agents for change, need to reform the system from the inside. Which doesn’t mean that republican men and women will be co-opted or suborned. It means that they will follow the path taken by every other progressive movement in Europe for the last two or three centuries, though hopefully with better results.
Unfortunately I think pessimism rather than optimism is the view to take of Saroadh. It may translate as “Liberation” but from the fake Gaelic script on its party emblem to the old-fashioned image of the pike, the party clearly hasn’t liberated itself from the nationalist rather than republican thinking of the past. A red star does not make one a progressive (and James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army socialists used the Lámh Dhearg or “Red Hand”!). That said, I like the Fenian Sunburst in the organisation’s iconography. But are the party members aware of the history of the Gal Gréine? And do they understand that it was continuously reinterpreted for each age it was popular in, a recalling of the past but in modern form? Revolutionary republicanism needs to move forward, exploiting the present, not going into political and intellectual reverse.
(Apologies to all at Saoradh, and good luck with the new party. I believe that a plurality of Irish republican representation is lacking in our body politic and welcome an alternative voice to Sinn Féin. However, seriously? Refusing to sit An Dáil in 2016? Madness, madness I tells ya…)