Republicanism in the twenty-first century – report on a meeting

by Shan Van Vocht


The collapse of the monstrosity that was the Soviet Bloc is probably the best thing that has happened to the Communist Party of Ireland since the Russian revolution prompted its founding.  The Communist Party, for the first time in its life, has to find its own way politically, rather than follow the revisionist politics of Moscow and play a double game in Ireland – neo-republican in the south and neo-unionist in the six counties, class collaborationist in both.  (With, of course, some honourable exceptions.)

While there isn’t yet much sign of it owning up to its rather shabby history, it does seem to have moved left since the end of the Soviet behemoth.  Maybe there is redemption for them.

One welcome development is that their Dublin centre has been modernised and now plays host to some interesting events.  One of these was a meeting on April 14 on the future of republicanism in the 21st century, featuring veteran socialist-republican Tommy McKearney; Brian Leeson (cathaoirleach éirígí); Eoin O Broin, Sinn Fein’s useful left face/apologist; and Tom Redmond of the CPI.  The room was packed, with not everyone being able to get in.

Meeting chair feminist academic Mary Cullen briefly outlined the history of republicanism in general and its relevance to Irish society today and then introduced Tommy McKearney.  Tommy noted that republicanism in general meant a system of government where the people are sovereign – not monarchs, popes or banks.  The sovereignty of the people also raises the concept of the common good.  He quoted from the seminal 18th century republican-democratic tract, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, that each generation has the right to make its own rules and not be ruled by the grave; the future can’t be bound by the present.

Tommy noted, therefore, how republicanism changes.  For instance, he said, in Greece and Rome the majority were excluded from the republic; the English and French republics established by revolutions in the 1640s and 1789 respectively also excluded the majority.  While republicanism is a universal concept, it develops in particular ways in different societies, he pointed out.  In Ireland, that has certainly been the case.

Republicanism, he said, is functional: it’s useful to people and to the common good.  Irish republicanism has changed over its long history since the United Irish period, being redefined as each social sector that took it up achieved what Tommy called “a level of contentment”.  He said he thought understanding how particular class interests reached this contentment was a more useful approach than simply denouncing people for betraying the struggle.

Thus the United Irish movement of the 1790s was supported by wealthy people such as the linen merchants of Belfast whose economic advancement was blocked by the particular form British rule took at the time.  However, once the developing industrial bourgeoisie of the north-east got access to British Empire markets they reached a “level of contentment”, ceased being republican and even became bastions of reaction and support for British rule over Ireland.

Later, with the 1921 Treaty, Irish republicanism was essentially redefined as Home Rule as many of those who had fought for independence garnered a sufficient “level of contentment” out of the new dispensation represented by the “Anglo-Irish Treaty”.  Like the linen merchants of Belfast, the “Blueshirt merchants” of Cumann na nGaedheal reached a “level of contentment” for the class interests they represented.  At this point they “stop the bus”.

He then said that northern nationalists had seen an all-Ireland republic as the best way out of  being oppressed.  I don’t know if it was out of politeness to O Broin, but Tommy didn’t state the obvious implication of what he was saying – that the Provos represent class interests that reached their “level of contentment” out of the St Andrews Agreement and the process of giving the Brits a helping hand in running the grubby little neo-colonial set-up in the six counties.

Tommy then suggested that in order to address the “common good” aspect of republicanism today, we have to look beyond the existing form of society.  Republicanism must change and develop further.  He then quoted a Portadown republican of the past – George Gilmore, a left-wing IRA leader of the 1920s and 1930s and one of the main founders of Republican Congress.  The working class struggle, Gilmore had said, couldn’t just be about better pay and conditions in the present system but must push beyond capitalism.

Tommy then made the point that republicanism in the 21st century must look beyond uniting Ireland to uniting the working class.  We need a new departure.  We can’t  – and shouldn’t try to – reconcile Orange and Green; we must move beyond them.  The future won’t even be Green, White and Orange, he said; if republicanism is to have a future, it must be Red.

Tommy was followed by Brian Leeson.  Brian noted that every major political force in the south, including on the right, claims to be republican.  It’s therefore necessary to be specific about what republicanism means.  For him, he said, it means, fundamentally, revolutionary republicanism.  National and social liberation have to go together; they are inseparable.

Republicanism means, he said, that democracy permeates all aspects of society.  It’s not about voting every few years; it’s about the democratisation of the economy and of power.  It also means supporting the right of people to use force to win their rights, while rejecting militarism.  For éirígí as an organisation it means identifying with a revolutionary tradition that spans the United Irish movement of the 1790s, the Fenians, Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, Pearse, Republican Congress and Seamus Costello in the 1960s and ’70s.

Brian felt now is a very good time to be republican, because there is so much space opening up for the growth of revolutionary ideas.  He pointed to a number of developments that were opening up this space: important pillars of the southern state, such as the Catholic Church and Fianna Fail, have been dramatically weakened; the banking crisis has led to a lot more questioning and hostility towards the business class; the continuous betrayals of the union leadership has meant workers have less illusions in the top union officialdom; there’s been a growth of suspicion and hostility to the gardai and the justice system in the south; people have become more critical of the media because of its role in hyping up the Celtic Tiger and fawning over the rich; in the north, there is growing alienation from, and search for alternatives to, the very unhealthy development of a permanent government at Stormont involving the DUP, Shinners, SDLP and OUP.

The core ideas of Connolly, Brian suggested, are more relevant than ever.  They need to be updated/applied to the changed society of the 21st century and put across to the mass of the Irish people.  This is the way to grasp the opportunity that exists now to make republicanism a real mass force.

The third speaker was Eoin O Broin.  Personally, I don’t see much point in inviting Shinners to speak at events with subjects like the future of republicanism because not only has Sinn Fein, in practice, abandoned any commitment to the socialist republic – which was the declared aim of the Irish Republican Army – but they have abandoned the basics of republicanism.  They might be debated, as opponents of the liberation of the Irish working class and oppressed, but not entered into dialogue with.  In that sense, it was disappointing that Tommy McKearney had actually begun his talk by saying he saw the meeting as a dialogue and not a debate.  One of the weakest features of Irish republicanism has always been naivete about the enemy within – many of the opponents of the 1921 Treaty, for instance, were hopelessly naive about what the Free Staters were about and they paid dearly for it, often with their lives.  That sort of naivete should have come to an end long ago.

I have a problem even relating what O Broin said because it is fundamentally fake and much of it is simply dishonest.  The reality is that Sinn Fein is part of the enemy apparatus in the north.  Why pretend that O Broin is of the left, when he plays a role of, at best, providing left cover for the Provisionals?  Who wants to dialogue with representatives of a political force that has made itself part of the enemy apparatus? At the same time that O Broin was speaking at the Connolly House meeting as a “left republican” the Shinners in the north had been endorsing a royal beacon being lit on Cave Hill – Cave Hill for chrissakes – as part of the celebrations of Betty Battenberg’s 60 years on the throne of the “United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland”.  That’s the reality of what the Sinners stand for these days.  Why pretend otherwise?

The CPI would have been better inviting other, genuine republican speakers rather than O Broin.  It seems a bit of a travesty, for instance, that they had O Broin instead of, say, someone from the IRSP.

I will mention a couple of things O Broin said, however, because they indicate the kind of fraudulent argument that has always been used to justify betrayals and delude the gullible – both the genuinely naive and the intentionally gullible – into supporting people and movements that have become part of the enemy.

O Broin claimed that left-republicanism has never been stronger, something that no doubt people wanted to hear.  However, this is simply not true.  Republican Congress represented far more significant left-wing working class forces than left-republicanism today.  In the decade before Republican Congress, the IRA had also moved to the left, and produced initiatives such as the Land Annuities campaign and Saor Eire.  What O Broin was trying to do was flatter people about the size and influence of contemporary left-republicanism while sneaking the Shinners into the category.  Needless to say there was no discussion at all about what the Shinners are actually helping run in the north.  Maybe other speakers were engaged in that cursed Irish habit of politeness and not wanting to make people feel uncomfortable; however, the issue wasn’t pushed from the floor either.  Considering what the Shinners are operating in the six counties, it was quite incredible that O Broin was essentially given a free pass for the whole meeting.

While O Broin talked about the opportunities represented for “left-republicanism” by the banking and wider economic crisis, the decay of Fianna Fail and the weakening of the Catholic Church – common reference points for the speakers – every now and then he came out with something that showed that his “left-republicanism” is fully in line with the rightward trajectory of the organisation to which he belongs and whose rotten politics he promotes in practice.  For instance, he said that Sinn Fein was in the business of taking control of “the state” and using its institutions to benefit the mass of the people.  Without any apparent sense of irony, let alone ludicrousness, O Broin claimed that alliance-building meant building to the right as well as the left, otherwise “the right” will continue to control the state.  Later, during the discussion period, he claimed that the state is just a tool and another “site of struggle”, a view developed originally by eurocommunists and pseudo-left academics busy bastardising Gramsci in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The problem for this sort of revisionist argument, however, is that “the state” is actually the capitalist state.  It exists to maintain the interests of the capitalists as a class and it is even financed out of the exploitation of the working class.  Revolutionaries don’t capture the capitalist state – it captures them and uses them to benefit the capitalist class by helping to maintain stable social relations and the optimum conditions for the exploitation of workers to continue.  The current role of O Broin’s party in the six counties is a prime case of this.

The last speaker was Tom Redmond of the CPI.  He noted that over the years Irish republicanism had come to embody three key ideas: that the nation included resources as well as people; that power derives from the people; that there can be no free Ireland without a free working class.  Because Irish republicanism was about satisfying the needs of the Irish people, it had tended to attract the best people.  Deciding on the goals was not difficult, he noted, but achieving them had proven to be highly problematic.

He then looked at what had made republicanism successful in the past and suggested that the concept of a mass movement and the arrival of the labour movement and thus the alliance, sometimes merger, of the labour and republican movements were the key factors.  He gave the example of the Fenians’ New Departure which, led by Davitt, had broken the back of landlordism in Ireland.  Another example was the outbreak of socio-economic struggles, including even the formation of soviets, during the Tan War and the Civil War.  The big challenge today he said was looking at the social, cultural and political changes that had taken place in Ireland and the role played by imperialism in these; imperialist domination today, he said, was not simply British, but American and European too.

He then identified three key things that had to be worked at: achieving clarity of theory, especially about economics and the question of the state; building campaigns that were not only popular but also sustainable and which were centred around people’s experience of hardship; the renewal of the trade unions so they could be fighting organisations of the working class.

The discussion which followed was quite diverse.  Veteran IRA and Sinn Fein figure Jim Monaghan expressed the fear that republicanism was in danger of being supplanted, as the EU banks told Ireland how it should be run; another speaker suggested that the rise of anarchism in Ireland was important and that we need to think about direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy; veteran left trade union leader Mick O’Reilly suggested that six county Protestant workers loathed England and were more connected with Scotland, so devolution in Scotland could have a positive effect on their consciousness; a CPIer reiterated the importance of class, noting how one individual had registered 190 properties for the household tax.  He also stressed that imperialism and the state are vital questions to get right.

O Broin, as well as stating his disagreements with Tommy McKearney and Brian Leeson about how to achieve the emancipatory goals of republicanism, showed again how bankrupt his “left-republicanism” is by stating that in the 1930s the IRA left made a big mistake by not joining Fianna Fail and in the 1940s by not joining Clann na Poblacht!  Yes, bury the left in partitionist, constitutional nationalist parties – there’s an inspiring way forward.

By contrast, Brian Leeson pointed to the way socio-economic struggles can drive the solution to the national question and the need for broad anti-capitalist struggle.  Particularly encouraging were comments by Brian about the need for socialist-republicans to work together.  Tommy McKearney noted that the objective has to be not independence, but what we’re going to do with independence and that included impacting on the Protestant workers in the six counties.  The nature of Irish society today means there will either be a socialist republic or no republic, he concluded.

The size of the meeting indicated that there is a growing awareness of the need for a dialogue among genuine left-republicans.  People who have come through the last 20 years, let alone the last 40-plus years, have developed a certain respect and openness to each other which is very positive.  At the same time, there need to be boundaries.  Within the revolutionary camp, let’s act as comrades.  But let’s have no more pretending that the Shinners, including their fake-left apologists, are part of the same camp.  By all means debate O Broin and expose his ideas as merely left cover for an organisation that is now part of the other side, but the Shinners are not our comrades and friends and should not be treated as suitable folk for “dialogue”.

Lastly, given Brian Leeson’s welcome remarks about the need for socialist-republican collaboration, isn’t this meeting exactly the kind of meeting that éirígí itself should be organising all over the country?  One of the urgent needs right now is to get socialist-republican co-operation and at least explore the possibilities for mergers.  A strong socialist-republican movement is essential if the opportunities that Brian talked about are to be seized.

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Posted on May 9, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, éirígí, Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Public events - Ireland, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions, Trade unions, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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