As expected the Easter weekend witnessed the usual display of overweight men and women marching in ill-fitting, quasi-military uniforms while professing loyalty to the revolutionary republic declared 101 years ago and those armed guerrilla movements still claiming its legacy. The annual commemoration of the 1916 insurrection is of course important, both at a State and a community level. Republican activists and organisations should be marking this key event in our nation’s history by laying wreathes and making speeches. But do we have to have the ridiculous playacting soldiers stomping through the streets with the Starry Plough and An Gal Gréine fluttering, desperately trying to keep their booted feet in rhythm to the flute bands? Whether the marchers wear camouflage jackets or bomber jackets (no pun intended), black berets or mirror-shades the general impression is less than edifying.
Even the historical reenactors with their fake World War I era Mausers and Lee Enfields, many of them just teenagers, look badly out of place in the company of modern political parties like Sinn Féin or its contemporary off-shoots (Republican Sinn Féin, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the Republican Network for Unity, Saoradh and so on). The Six Counties may be an Occupied Territory but West Belfast is not the Gaza Strip. Do these events actually draw in young men and women or do most world-weary millennials and hipsters just sneer and throw their eyes to heaven? Appearing as respectable and concerned members of society is more likely to get votes in this day and age than posing as would-be Che Guevaras. Or Kevin Barrys, even in the Fenian heartlands of Belfast, Derry and Armagh (let alone Dublin, Cork and Limerick). The white shirts, grey shirts and god-knows-what-colour shirts are uncomfortably close to Blueshirt apparel, circa 1933. We live in a consumerist age, an era of attractively packaged goods, including politics, and doing a Kim Jong-un up the Falls Road or through the Bogside is plain fucking stupid.
All that said, and putting Sinn Féin’s annual Easter Rising celebrations to one side, the weekend witnessed some interesting displays of support for the non-mainstream Republican tradition (I dislike the word “Dissident”, though it’s difficult to find another widely accepted term). Saoradh, the new party launched last September, staged a large gathering in County Derry, with over five thousand people in attendance from across the country and the United Kingdom. Of course, the drum-beating bands and the silly walks’ contest was on show but in fairness it was an impressive affair in terms of numbers and well-known faces. Coded messages were expressed to and from the Real/New IRA and so on but that was to be expected. Eamon McCann might be right when he suggests in the Irish Times that, “Anger still seethes on the streets of Derry“. The war may be over but the primary cause of the war – the reduced UK legacy colony in the north-east of this island nation – has yet to be fully removed.
Republican Sinn Féin, the Scientologists of Irish Republicanism, were also out, though Christ knows why. They haven’t said anything fresh or innovative since 1986. Actually, they didn’t say that much new or original even back then. Readers sometimes complain that I’m too hard on the RSF folk but by god do they make it easy. Am I the only one to notice that Des Dalton is slowly morphing into Ruairí Ó Brádaigh? Not only do they speak the same but they are starting to look the same, right down to the standard brown and beige suits. Des, give it up. You’re better than this. To the individuals in the handful of families who keep the Second Dáil torch lighting, who are indeed pretty much RSF in its entirety, move on and fight the good fight elsewhere. The “26 County State” is the only state of Ireland we have, however imperfect. The Civil War is over and sustaining it into the 21st century, which essentially is what you are doing, is a sign of madness not integrity. Speaking of which, pussyfooting with Putin’s Russia? For a movement so obsessed with history and “tradition” you obviously have yet to learn the lesson of poor Seán Russel, forever besmirched by unfair association with Hitler’s Germany.
The Republican Network For Unity (RNU) held one of the more interesting gatherings at the weekend. The grouping seemed to be holding out the possibility that Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ), the small ad hoc insurgent grouping established by former volunteers of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army, will announce a ceasefire or full cessation in the coming weeks or months. It’s an interesting possibility though the press may be making rather more of it yet than is there. From a thoughtful speech by ex- POW Gary McNally at the RNU’s annual Fianna Éireann commemoration:
Republicans of this generation must take inspiration from the past. We must learn the lessons of history – looking back at mistakes and successes. But we must also carve our own identity and design our own contribution to the republican struggle. This must contain substance and be meaningful. Rhetoric and clichés will not sustain us. Longheld slogans will not drive political development in the face of a changing political arena. Previous generations of republican activists did not shirk their responsibility. They did not shirk the responsibility of bringing the republican struggle in line with their time. They did not shirk their responsibility to make their own print on Irish republicanism.
The centenary has passed – we commemorated it as best we could, with the little resources we have. A huge acknowledgement must be extended to all those who played a part. Easter is a time for reflection, and we must reflect on our gains and also on missed opportunities. The chance for unity of purpose among all republicans to commemorate the rising wasn’t taken and we must begin to rectify that glaring mistake. We must reflect on the latest happenings at Stormont and effectively communicate to the Irish people why the system continues to stumble from crisis to crisis.
The denial of rights – cultural rights, social rights and human rights remains the political hallmark of Stormont. 19 years since the Good Friday Agreement and 11 years since the St. Andrews agreement our people are still denied their rights, as the political administration in the 6 Counties attempts to reduce them to bargaining chips and shallow vote-grabbers. Irish language activists have fought long and hard for the recognition of our native tongue. They have maintained the promotion of the Irish language with distinction. In recent times, they lobbied for an Irish Language Act to ensure every person can access their language rights. This has been denied time and again by an administration that believes cultural suppression will kill the demand for national self-determination.
The LGBT movement has lobbied for marriage rights to ensure all citizens can access matrimony. This has been denied time and again by an administration that wishes to maintain archaic practices upheld by an undemocratic veto.
Republicans have lobbied for political and human rights to ensure that political activists can live free from police harassment, barbaric strip-searching, controlled movement and forced isolation. These have been denied time and again because the administration wants to marginalise and isolate any opposition to the status quo. Here we state clearly; Rights are not bargaining chips; they are not vote-grabbers to be wheeled out during elections and they are not tools for repression. They are real concepts and must be delivered post-haste, however, like all great political initiatives, they will be delivered from below.
There are various sections of our communities attempting to attain their rights and improve their lives through struggle. Republicans must be found amongst them. Remaining in an isolated bubble detached from the real world and everyday struggles serves no purpose and advances no cause. The Stormont project has been a failure from its inception. All it has to offer is a bulwark between the Irish people and Ireland’s reunification. While the turnout at recent elections may be higher than previous years, the result will inevitably be the same – Stormont cannot work. However, in the wake of these results Irish republicans must give serious thought to the future and begin to ask how we can really challenge the status quo.
We have few opportunities throughout the year to engage in reflection. To question where we have come from, where we are and where we are going in the struggle to end partition and bring about a United Ireland. Easter is one of those opportunities. The republican movement has been involved in a process of serious revaluation. We have looked at the struggle holistically and examined closely it’s trajectory over recent decades. We have deduced that a strategic rethink is required from both the individual republican activist and organisational republicanism.
For a protracted period, the republican movement has been engaged in a process of debate, discussion and deliberation about the future of the republican struggle, and in particular, the future of our movement. We have assessed our strengths and weaknesses, we have taken stock of our capabilities and our inabilities, we have looked at what we do well and what we do poorly, we have measured this against the current political climate, the will of the average person in our community and recent local and global changes in the political arena.
We recognise that we must move forward WITH our people, not without them and not ahead of them or eventually they will move forward without us. For too long Irish republicans have remained on their knees, constrained by an inability to modernise and accept the situation on the ground.
Not bartering our ideological principles, we must act in a mature and realistic manner and act in accordance with the will of the people, the base from which republicanism draws its support.
We need to take heed of the wants and desires of the Irish people. There is no merit in attempting to represent them while continuing to ignore them. This should be the antithesis of republicanism.
Republicanism historically has offered the people of this island a vision of self-determination, free from the benign influences of foreign power holders, a democratic ideology which seeks not only a constitutional change but offers ownership of the Ireland to the entire people of Ireland. The proponents of this vision have offered the only viable alternative to imperialism in the past three centuries, degrading that status to that of a political quagmire or a bit part attempt to remove the British connection would be a denigration of past struggles and regressive to the objectives of Irish separatism. This cannot happen, we will not allow it to happen – for both ourselves and for the future generations who deserve our efforts to be directed into building a credible, cohesive and capable vehicle. One that can deliver an end to partition and secure Irish sovereignty.
The integrity of the republican position must be maintained by those who espouse it. This can only be done through avant garde thinking, future orientated strategies and sincere attempts to advance that position. Sticking to handed down narratives and continuing to pursue failed or failing ventures in the hope of remaining relevant is accelerating irrelevancy. Wallowing in mediocrity created by this irrelevancy is sapping the integrity of the republican position. Irish republicans must make innovative, creative and bold decisions to uphold this integrity.
Republicans recognise that we not only need to get our house in order, but we must begin its construction. Therefore, the republican movement is moving forward with a 21st century agenda. We are refining our message and strategising our own unique way of articulating political dissent. We are reshaping our public outreach and appearance. This change will be too much for some people. Some people will lose their seat at the table, many already have. We are not republican elitists, but we won’t allow anybody to undermine the integrity or forward trajectory of a rejuvenated republican base. Republicans have demonstrated this in recent times.
Irish republicans must provide a coherent vision of the future, what a United Ireland will look like, how it will benefit the Irish people as a whole and how we can achieve this. The window of opportunity has been made smaller by the latest election results. Republicans must begin the change this and widen the window. An opportunity, albeit small, exists for republicans to forge together and ensure our vision of the future enters national debate.
I appeal to each of you here today, to go from here and think about our message. Think about the republican position in the local and global context. Think about how best to advance that position in line with current political realities.
Easter is a time for reflection and opportunities are for those who seize them.
In the second decade of the 21st century there are better ways to resist the continued British Occupation of our island nation than through force of arms. An unarmed struggle is not just rhetoric and its is not just about politics. Language, culture, education, technology and so on are all platforms for the advancement of republican goals and objectives. Each is a distinct battlefield in its own right and victories on each one when taken collectively can win the whole damn war.