Many among us, influenced by the rut contemporary republicanism finds itself in, well over a decade from the 1998 Agreement, have reached the conclusion republicanism has been relegated to the fringes of society. But this is not necessarily so. It is more arguable that many Irish republicans simply do not understand the changed dynamics in society today, and thus fail to process how republicanism is in fact growing in Ireland – just not according to the model traditionally understood by ourselves. It is then ourselves as republicans who need realise much of our analysis is on the fringes of society and not Irish republicanism of itself.
Can we accept this and work to right the wrong or will we persist with failed tactics and strategies of old? Only time will tell but internal debate and discussion, among both ourselves in the 1916 Societies and other emerging strands of what can be termed ‘alternative republicanism’, offers a way forward. Debate of itself can open channels whereby an appropriate analysis, for the times that are in it, can emerge on the strength of those discussions. A vibrant republican analysis, in line with the needs of modern Irish society and conscious of our own limitations, is in the interests of all concerned.
As good a point as any to begin might be in a recognition that if existing state structures are able to resolve the needs of those over whom they claim authority it narrows the space where effective struggle can be prosecuted, by those intent on political change – not only in Ireland but across the world. Thus why the 1998 Agreement, despite the many crises which dog the political process internal to the Six Counties, has proved such an effective bulwark for British policy in Ireland. It has succeeded toward that end, however distasteful that may be to ourselves. No matter, with the crippling effect of the global debt crisis beginning to impact on abilities to sate the needs and demands of ordinary people, new avenues of struggle are opening all the time.
For us as republicans, we must take stock of newfound realities and decide are the outdated analyses of old to dominate our strategic mindset, deriving as they do from a bygone era, incapable as they are of harnessing the socio-political forces unleashed by the renewed and systemic crisis in the financial system. Or are we willing instead to dig deeper, to venture into the chasms wrought by the destructive impact of transnational capital and its relationship to modern Ireland – North and South.
Irish republicanism is found in the revolutionary struggle for the people and their freedom, its primary goal being to enhance the welfare of ordinary men and women through overcoming injustice, oppression and inequality. For Irish republicans then, the freedom struggle is not only for the country but for its people. Republicanism is not just about the establishment of an independent Ireland but about the rights of those living there to a standard of living compatible with the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, born into the Irish political experience more than 200 years ago in the times of Tone, McCracken, McCabe and Russell.
Partition however is a state-imposed barrier to the development of such a progressive political disposition – a means to divide the people and not just the territory. The purpose is to prevent them making common cause in pursuit of their common interest, ensuring a sectarian dynamic disrupts all politics in the North, with the South in turn afraid of ‘contagion’. The outworking of this arrangement frustrates the emergence of left-right politics and in turn allows the ruling business class to dominate unchallenged the political and socio-economic agenda at all levels of society.
But it is also the case that the inability of republicans to develop a serious and credible analysis of power, and how it relates to establishment politics and the reigning economic consensus, in turn is an obstacle of itself to the ending of partition. The squaring of this circle, whereby partition disbars a left realignment in politics and the absence of the latter in kind upholds partition, requires no mean feat but is of necessity if efforts to replace the status quo with a truly democratic arrangement in Ireland are to be anything other than words on a page or rhetoric passed about among our own.
The logical first step then, for those intent on improving the macro-condition of society today, would appear to be the securing of an end to partition-rule in our country. For republicans, a British withdrawal from Ireland is the foundation upon which our wider social and economic programme can be built. We should not though retreat into what can rightly be termed a strictly ‘nationalist’ position in order to achieve that end, ignoring the need for a more comprehensive analysis of the economy and society overall, as though an end to partition will of its own accord resolve the myriad problems we face as a society, as though this one act of itself can realise the end goal of the Irish republican struggle, as though all else should wait until as much has been achieved.
And not only for those reasons should we avoid this ‘retreat to nationalism’, traditionally impacting on republican political strategies, but also because in doing as much, in allowing such a retreat of itself, we are in turn less likely to accrue the required level of support – tacit or otherwise – to end the partition of Ireland (the logical follow-on again being that any left socio-economic package we might hope in time to engender remains in limbo). Thus, for ourselves in the 1916 Societies, ‘One Ireland One Vote’, the core focus of our existing political energies, of itself is not enough. This is where we need more, where a wider analysis, tying into a grassroots strategy based on sound principle and outside the corrupting state, must come in behind to compliment existing initiatives.
So while yes, to secure the type of political and economic gains imagined by republicans it is of the greatest import to first restore Irish sovereignty – to build from there a society and economy that advances the interests of its people over and above those of profit and its agents – there must be a recognition that to develop the political strength required to achieve such an end we must immerse ourselves, and the broader republican movement, in the daily struggles of ordinary people, and the communities in which they reside, to make ends meet within society as it presently exists. For it is the people alone on whom we can depend when the state, as is its nature when faced with existential threat, moves to ally with and co-opt whatever sectional interest it requires to retain its monopoly on power. As a movement then we must be of the Irish people, a vehicle to further their end, itself found ultimately in the democratic republic.
The revolutionary socialist and republican Ta Power, in an echo of Connolly’s classic dictum that ‘the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour’, rightly asserted that the liberation struggle was both national and social in character, with both deserving of equal merit in the strategic thinking of the movement for change in Ireland, with both to be given equal consideration in the organisation of a national resistance to the continued domination of our country, by transnational capital and the imperialist forces it serves. His timeless assertion that ‘the national struggle and the class struggle must go forward together’ should be the mainstay of contemporary efforts to reorganise the republican base, at a time when both have been annihilated by the partitionist establishment in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Republicans today must determine how the Power analysis can best be set out, in the context of our own wider understanding of contemporary society and the forces at work within it – key among them the existing state as the lynchpin of reactionary imperialism. This requires an admission that the establishment cannot be reformed – that you cannot reform the status quo out of existence – but that a new democratic all-Ireland republic must be founded in its stead, on the bones of partition itself. The entire partition-system has to go if we are serious about achieving our aims and all efforts must be directed towards that end.
Determining the extent to which we should participate, if at all, within its constraints, tactically or otherwise, relates to the broader effort to set in place an effective strategy through which republicanism can move forward, without walling ourselves off from wider society, and the centres of debate and influence it offers, but likewise without being crushed by the contradictions involvement within the state apparatus, no matter the intention, brings with it. Indeed the extent to which real power lies with the administration of state or civil government – as opposed to the deep state and indeed subtle intra-state processes conducted through global capital – where true power more arguably is concentrated – is something to be considered in terms of strategy and indeed in its own right overall.
Recent events in Greece are a clear demonstration that power no longer resides with elected governments, if indeed that were ever the case to begin with. The notion we can seize power and effect systemic change through civil government, by attaining elected position within it, has been cruelly exposed by the collapse of the Syriza strategy when confronted by the power matrix. Asides from the fact state power lies for the most part beyond the political administration (but with more hidden processes not subject to the whims of any electorate), in the modern international system the relationship of the state itself to wider global processes dictates that true power lies elsewhere again, the modern nation-state being no more than a vehicle to serve its agenda, which is transnational and without physical borders. The only force capable of withstanding these processes is the risen people themselves and so our efforts at this point must be to release the raw power dormant within their rank.
The idea we can harness the institutions of government to effect far-reaching change then is utterly flawed and thus why the Syriza administration, despite the pronouncements of the Greek people in the ‘Oxi’ referendum, folded to the threats of the powers-that-be in resumed negotiations. The lesson is clear. Attaining position within government of itself is incapable of withstanding the pressures wrought on those intent on change, at least beyond that directed and dictated by the already powerful and their neoliberal agenda. Tsipras and his team based their analysis solely on securing power within the state, when what they needed to do was channel the power of the people themselves, into and through a democratic movement on the ground capable of resisting where the state, or more accurately the civil government, could no longer. As Irish republicans, who hope to avoid similar pitfalls if opportunities as those in Greece should ever arise here, developing a full understanding of the processes at work in modern society, how and where, at what point they can best be resisted, must form part of our strategic thinking as we go forward.
Beyond all of that, the question for republicans at this time is how best to apply the Power analysis, striking an appropriate balance between its key components to best advance the overall struggle, within a broader interpretation of societal need in contemporary Ireland, accounting for the times that are in it – the here and now – in this the 21st century. How can we best marry the national struggle to that which seeks a broader emancipation of the people of themselves? A way must be found and this is the task that presently confronts us. The republican effort to transform society demands a revolutionary strategy, itself embedded in the people and in which the people participate directly.
‘Think national – act local’ is an oft-used phrase in the republican lexicon, in which can be found a workable way to move forward, building a republican analysis capable of meeting the needs of today, in their various form, much of this relating to a wider process outside Ireland itself, of which we are only a part. By grounding the national concern within a broader ‘class’ analysis – and vice versa – we can achieve that end. Working-class politics grow support for our national project and the republic. Achieving the republic opens the space in kind to build on localised community-based projects, and the solidarity they engender among working people, to achieve macro-improvements in the socio-economic fabric of Irish society overall. In turn this can serve as an example to other peoples in struggle, in time helping foster that ‘fraternity of nations’ first-envisaged by Connolly a century ago.
This is arguably where the Power analysis, as that of Connolly before him, best relates to the political situation we are faced with today. We need to instil a ‘popular consciousness’ among the Irish people themselves, at root level, that the path to a better future lies in establishing the democratic republic; that the path to the democratic republic lies in solidarity among and between ourselves, working together on the common issues that are the site of struggle in our individual lives, both here at home and in societies as our own all across this world.
Ultimately, British rule in Ireland is a barrier to democracy and freedom. As such it must be challenged and defeated but equally we must find appropriate means to do so, relevant to Ireland in the 21st century, its position within the emerging global system and how we hope to relate to it going forward. A democratic republic, in line with the legitimate aspirations of the Irish people, where the people come first and the people determine their own affairs to the greatest extent possible, can only be realised through empowering the citizens who make up its number. Not at a mythical point in the future, following a second declaration of independence, but now and as part of efforts themselves to achieve that declaration of itself.
To achieve as much is the task before us and in this sense then, the national effort to realise an end to partition, as Power suggested, relates to a wider imperative, whose goal is to render a meaningful socio-economic improvement in the material condition of Irish society, and indeed the world beyond these shores. The two are inextricably linked. The national struggle and the class struggle are one and the same, they are in fact inseparable and no effort should be made to separate them. Instead we must work to find the logical point where class and the nation meet, moving forward from there on a sound ideological footing, building a progressive republican strategy capable of achieving our interim and ultimate goals as part of the one endeavour.
Sean Bresnahan is a member of the Thomas Ashe Society in Omagh and current PRO of the 1916 Societies