In Review: Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes (eds), Republican Voices
This book review was done in 2002 and appeared in several different places, such as The Blanket. I thought I’d stick it up here, because it’s still a very good book, well worth reading. Also, however low an ebb things may be at right now, there have been significant advances since the book was written. Two stand out to me – the formation and development of éirígí and the development of the Independent Workers Union.
Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes (eds), Republican Voices, Monaghan, Seesyu Press, 2001.
In the southern Irish elections of May 17, Sinn Fein increased its parliamentary seats from one to five and came close to winning several others. In local government it has rapidly increased its elected positions in the past few years. In the north of Ireland, the party has now overtaken the middle class SDLP as the chief representative of the nationalist community and is a part of the Stormont government. These substantial electoral gains have seemed to confirm that the end of the republican armed struggle for Irish freedom and the effective disarmament of the IRA, pioneered by the current leadership, have paid big dividends.
In Republican Voices, half a dozen former IRA activists, each of whom served substantial prison sentences for their activity, discuss the ‘new departure’, along with aspects of the struggle in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is arranged in five sections, each dealing with a specific topic presented in the form of a conversation among the participants.
Early sections of the book provide very welcome counters to the banality and downright falsehoods of so much writing about the IRA and the motivations of those who joined. Writers such as Kevin Toolis, for instance, have presented IRA members as being motivated by some bizarre desire to shed blood for Ireland. These six activists, who are typical of a generation that joined up in the late 60s and early 1970s, explain what actually led them into armed struggle, what they did, and how they view it all now.
Although the original idea was to have a range of republican viewpoints in relation to the current course of Sinn Fein and the IRA, the top leadership dissuaded a number of people from participating, with the result that four of the six are opponents of the current course.
Given that opponents of the ‘new departure’ are scarcely heard within mainstream discourse and that the Adams group have been fairly effective in shutting down dissent within the movement, the slant of the book is no problem. It merely helps redress the balance a bit.
Moreover, the dissidents include legendary figures like Brendan Hughes, who was on hunger strike in the notorious H-Blocks for 53 days and was OC of the IRA prisoners there before Bobby Sands. Other participants are Anthony McIntyre and Tommy McKearney, both of whom served 16 years in the Blocks, with McKearney also being on hunger strike for 53 days, former blanketman Tommy Gorman, and longtime POWs Eamonn McDermott (13 years) and Micky McMullen (18 years). The latter two are supporters of the ‘pan-nationalist’ approach of the current leadership.
The critics, however, are not mere knee-jerk militarists. They recognise that the armed struggle had gone as far as it was possible to go and that there is no point in a resumption – the path followed by the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, groups which have come out of splits over the past 16 years. Rather, the dissidents in Republican Voices suggest that a socialist strategy is needed.
They argue that the turn of the republican leadership towards pan-nationalism is a turn away from republicanism, which had been about radical socio-economic change as much as national independence. By contrast, pan-nationalism seeks to unite people across the class divide on the basis merely of ‘Irishness’ and to do deals with corporate America, the British state and the corrupt political establishments on both sides of the Irish border. These deals are supposedly about advancing reunification, but really mean that the Republican Movement – Sinn Fein and the IRA – are being drawn into helping stabilise and run the status quo.
This view is put incisively by Anthony McIntyre:
“Those in the Sinn Fein leadership who accepted the Good Friday Agreement have led the republican Movement to a major defeat. The Agreement specified the conditions of republican surrender. The leadership. . . is in reality rendering republicanism obsolete whilst attempting to retain some of the vocabulary. Dublin has abandoned its constitutional claim (over the whole of Ireland – PF), Britain has committed itself to stay as long as the Unionists want it, and no amount of sophistry by the leadership can obscure this. There is less in this deal than was on offer at Sunningdale in 1973.”
The last word is given to Brendan Hughes. He points out that none of the fundamental issues have been resolved and the goal of a socialist republic is now rarely mentioned by the Adams leadership. As for the decades of struggle since the late 1960s, he states:
“Was it all worth it? When we bring about the removal of the British and a democratic socialist thirty-two county republic, when the wealth of this country is handed back to the people, when there is justice, freedom and equality – then I’ll say it was worth it.”
The big question, however, is how this goal is to be advanced now. Unfortunately this question is not really asked, let alone answered, in the book.
The dissidents, however, do have a number of interesting, but primarily literary, projects underway – journals such as Fourthwrite and The Blanket, for instance. They have spoken at well-attended public meetings to promote their criticisms of the current course and the need for a socialist-republican political alternative. At the same time, the Irish Republican Socialist Party has been reorganising and there have been some interesting splits and developments in far-left groups outside of republicanism. Hopefully, the people behind this book will now look at how to begin drawing these strands together in order to develop not merely a literary critique of the new reformism of Sinn Fein and the IRA, but a revolutionary organisational alternative to it as well.
In the meantime, this book is especially highly recommended to all those outside Ireland who want to gain a real insight into what drove the republican struggle in recent decades and what has become of it.