Critiquing the construction of ‘dissident republicans’, pt 1: Intro and ‘The Eternal Flame’

The following is the opening section of a recently-completed masters degree in Ireland which looks at how the term ‘dissident republicans’ has been constructed to serve ideological ends.  In particular, the term frames those placed in the category to be simply ‘unreasonable’ and ‘violent’ people opposed to the ‘Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ being developed by supposedly ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ people.  It suggests that the Provisionals, who have abandoned all their old republican principles, actually remain republican and those who disagree with their new course are ‘dissident republicans’ rather than simply people who continue to adhere to republican principles.  Below is the introduction and pt 1.  Over the coming few days, I’ll be sticking up pts 2, 3 and 4.

Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763-1798, principal founder of Irish republicanism

Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763-1798, principal founder of Irish republicanism

by Lawrence Hughes

Introduction

This work offers what is considered to be a much needed alternative assessment of how traditional Irish republicans have come to occupy the position of political isolation and unpopularity as perceived dissidents. It argues that it is in fact Sinn Fein under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who over a very long period of time deliberately steered the Provisional republican movement onto an irreversible path from insurrection to constitutionalism and the acceptance of partition. It was the Sinn Fein leadership and not traditional republicans who deviated from republican ideology and values and they who slaughtered every republican sacred cow whilst doing so. This work does not dwell upon the political realities of 2013 nor the merits or otherwise of Sinn Fein tactical and pragmatic politics. Nor does it dwell on the fact that traditional republicans seem determined to live their political lives in the realities of a century ago. What this work sets out to show is that within the much vaunted ‘republican family’ it was Sinn Fein under the leadership of Adams and McGuinness which diverted from republican political dogma and values and not those who today are dismissed out of hand with the mere word, dissident.

It has been felt necessary to give a brief reminder of the historical background to Irish republicanism as we know it in Ireland today. The present generation has grown up with the ‘peace process’ as the last generation grew up with ‘the troubles’ and violence. It has therefore been felt necessary to devote chapter one to the historical background of Irish republicanism and how republicans claim to be the defenders of the 1918 electoral mandate and of the first Dail of 1919 and the subsequent relevance and importance of abstentionism within the republican movement. Whilst this has left chapter one largely historical in nature, it has been felt necessary due to the somewhat Orwellian nature of Northern Ireland politics and media control since the beginning of the peace process and the signing of Good Friday Agreement. It seems there is a deliberate political and media policy of disinterest and blanket exclusion against anything which hasn’t been peace process sycophantism. This has rendered political analysis and debate endangered species. The subsequent chapters show how the Sinn Fein leadership managed to steer the movement onto a post 1981 hunger-strikes path towards constitutionalism in the guise of a pan nationalist front and examine how they avoided internal splits or feuds whilst doing so. It will be seen that rather than recruiting nationalists to the republican cause the Sinn Fein leadership was willingly pulled into the political establishments on both sides of the border, accepting partition and IRA disarmament. It will also be shown that this position was the desired destination from both the Sinn Fein leadership and the British government. Sinn Fein have ultimately, it will be seen, with a compliant and unquestioning media assistance, claimed credit for a political agreement they had almost zero part in formulating and have championed the ‘peace-process’ as the only political game in town in the absence of any coherent political strategy of its own.

Traditional republicans who have remained steadfast and true to their ideals, were to be cast adrift politically and ultimately ended up marooned on a political desert island called dissident. The protracted peace process left traditional republicans factionalised, marginalised and without either charismatic figures to unite it or an effective military campaign to make it relevant and reverse the political tide of the peace process. Rather than a ‘big-bang’ issue such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, traditional republicanism suffered the ‘big-bang’ of the Omagh bomb which proved to be a stake through its heart. It will ultimately be shown that it is the Sinn Fein leadership who are the republican deviants and dissenters and who have for the time being at least, accomplished their objectives of IRA disarmament and disbandment and the participation in populist constitutional politics within both partitionist parliaments in Ireland. Traditional republicans it will be shown, may be described as out of date, prehistoric or even Neanderthal in today’s political arena, but dissident is a term that simply does not stand up to scrutiny and should in reality be directed at Sinn Fein if at anyone. Traditional republicans are now flailing about desperately trying to redefine their relevance in the political world of today. Irish Republicanism as an ideology may in reality be a vintage political vessel which has been repeatedly proven only ever to take its passengers to destination defeat. Perhaps rather than a re-launching in the era of drone strikes and fundamentalist suicide bombers it might be better to scrap good ship republicanism altogether and replace it with something more suited to the political realities of 2013. This notion or possibility doesn’t appear worthy of consideration to the many republican splinter groups that exist at present. What is certain it will be shown, is that regardless of Adams and McGuinness’ best attempts consign traditional physical force Irish republicanism to the political scrapheap, they have merely left traditional republicanism factionalised, marginalised and struggling to redefine itself today and to find a new relevance for itself in the modern political arena. For Adams and McGuinness, (the real dissidents), in their mission to eradicate physical force republicanism in Ireland, it will be seen that it may yet prove to be a case of as they say in America, ‘almost, but no cigar’!

One: The Eternal Flame

The grave of Wolfe Tone has a symbolic significance for the Irish Republican Army, which sees a direct line of decent from the organisation he established in the eighteenth century to their own in the present day. His teachings remain the touchstone of republican politics and his inheritance provides both legitimacy for the struggle and a responsibility to continue it until victory. For the IRA to abandon its fight is seen not only a denial of the future but a betrayal of the past”.1

When the flame of nationalist and democratic sentiment swept through Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it impacted upon Ireland with the idea of republicanism as an alternative to British rule. This followed hundreds of years of British conquest and Irish resistance since 1169 through rebellions and the ongoing forced union of both countries. Discrimination against Catholics, attempts by a subjugating power to create an impression of inferiority and to eliminate Irish Gaelic cultural identity, and a feeling that Ireland was economically disadvantaged and subservient within the United Kingdom were among the specific factors which perpetuated such opposition. The Society of United Irishmen, formed in the 1780s and led primarily by liberal Protestants, evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation which looked to the American Revolution and Revolutionary France for inspiration. It launched the 1798 Rebellion with the help of French troops who in the event arrived late and after some initial success the rebellion was swiftly crushed. A second rising in 1803, led by Robert Emmet and perhaps an ‘aftershock’ of 1798, was also quickly put down, and Emmet himself was hanged. The Young Ireland movement was formed in the 1830s and initially tied-in with the Repeal Association of Daniel O’Connell. Significantly, it would break with O’Connell over the issue of the use of violence. Primarily a political and cultural organisation, some members of Young Ireland staged an abortive rising in what was called the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, during the Great Famine. Its leaders were rounded up and transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tazmania). Some of these escaped to the United States, where they linked up with other Irish exiles in the Fenian Brotherhood. Together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Ireland by James Stephens and others in 1858, they made up a movement commonly known as ‘the fenians’ which was dedicated to the overthrow of British imperial rule in Ireland by force. The famine had decimated Ireland.

Ireland’s traditional language and culture received a blow from which it never recovered and this added to the political symbolism of the Gaelic revival movement. Pre Famine Ireland was to be idealised in much republican literature and the image of the grass stained teeth of emaciated corpses goes a long way to explaining the tenacity that future generations of separatists were to show”.2

The Fenians would stage another botched Rising in 1867, and later a dynamite campaign in Great Britain in the 1880s. These historic events combined with the huge reservoir of emotional anger which the famine generates among Irish people throughout the globe has aided and nourished advanced nationalism to this day and accounts for much of the intense hostility to the union still.

The political legacy of the Young Ireland movement was matched by the social impact of the famine in shaping republican thinking. Mitchel and other republicans who had escaped abroad, was soon describing the famine as a racial genocide. Historians are more inclined to blame the laissez faire policies of the Whig administration but most agree that an independent Irish government could have averted the effects of this artificial disaster”.3

In the early 20th century members Irish Republican Brotherhood, in particular Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott, began planning another rising. The Easter Rising took place from 24 to 30 April 1916, when members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office in the centre of Dublin and other strategic locations in the city. The rebellion was yet another total failure. However the execution of the rising’s leaders, including Clarke, MacDermott, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly by the British army in a protracted and vindictive reprisal turned public opinion and led to a surge of support for advanced nationalism in Ireland. “The draconian reaction of the authorities to the rebellion should be understood in terms of international war and national security; but it also has to be seen against the background of alienation and Anglophobia inherent in so much of the Irish experience”.4 It also signaled the death of Redmond’s constitutionalism and the futility of his Irish Volunteers contribution to the British war effort. “Rural Ireland, whose attitude toward separatist nationalism in 1915 had been found by volunteer organisers to be a mixture of incredulity, suspicion and dour hostility soon rediscovered traditional modes of resistance to established authority”.5

In 1917 the Sinn Féin party stated as its aim the securing of international recognition for Ireland as an independent Irish Republic, and in the general election of 1918 Sinn Féin took 73 of the 105 Irish seats for the British House of Commons. The elected members refused to take their seats, instead abstaining, setting up Dáil Eireann as the first independent legitimate government of Ireland. The Irish people had spoken. Between 1919 and 1921 the Irish Republican Army (IRA), fought the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in the Irish War of Independence. Talks between the British and Irish in late 1921 led to a treaty by which not a 32-county Irish Republic, but a 26-county Irish Free State with dominion status was offered. Frampton asserts, “It was not merely at the spiritual or philosophical level that the 1916 Rising provided subsequent advocates of republicanism with a potent inheritance. Rather, the modus operandi of the event glorified the path of insurrectionist violence in pursuit of the Irish national dream”.6

What Frampton perhaps fails to understand in making this assessment of traditional physical force nationalists of today is that 1916 did not set the modus operandi, it merely continued it. The traditional physical force option was around for centuries before 1916. Frampton seems unable to tap into the deep emotion of longer standing historical grievances felt by today’s physical force proponents. Whilst his work is accurate and detailed it does seem to lack that personal knowledge of the motivations which drive those who regardless of social and political isolation and ostracism (even from family) continue to follow their chosen path with the full force and faith of their convictions. Without conventional military aid, idealists and revolutionaries had been throwing themselves at British occupation like lemmings off a cliff long before 1916. Perhaps just as English children who learn of Vikings and Romans glorify colonisation and empire, by the same educational process recent generations of Irish children have developed a different set of political, historical and moral values on the subject and its repercussions. The Irish nationalist mindset is of a never-ending experience of betrayal and the ill-treatment of Ireland at the hands of England. That never-ending betrayal, for them, is the only certainty in the relationship.

The treaty was concluded in the early hours of the morning on 6th December 1921. It gave the twenty – six counties their own parliament, fiscal and financial autonomy, an army and police force, and the right to define citizenship of the Free State: a literal translation of the republican government’s previous title. What it did not concede was the right of the Irish people to their own system of government. It stipulated that Britain would retrain military facilities in certain ports and it partitioned the country. It also included a vote of allegiance and annual payments by the Free State to offset the British public debt”.7

Unsurprisingly many IRA men were unhappy with the Anglo-Irish Treaty but, under threat of ‘total war’ from Britain, others were satisfied that the Treaty was the best that could be achieved at that time. However, a very substantial number did oppose it. Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, voted by 64 votes to 57 to ratify the treaty, with the majority believing that it provided a new political reality from which to move forward. Éamon de Valera, who had served as President of the Irish Republic during the war, refused to accept the decision of the Dáil and led the opponents of the treaty out of the House. (It was a gesture which would be repeated many times in the future during splits within Irish republicanism). The IRA itself split between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty groups, with the former effectively becoming the new Irish National Army.

The Leinster House Dail formally ratified the treaty and adapted the constitution imposed by Britain. It elected Cosgrave President, Mulchahey minister of defence and O’Higgins minister for justice. Mulchahey was granted sweeping new powers to deal with the IRA. Gavin Duffy, one of the treaty signatories, vigorously denounced the governments disregard for the rule of law. Tom Johnston, the leader of the Labour Party, protested they were being forced to consent to a military dictatorship”.8

Michael Collins then became Commander-in-Chief of the new National Army. An ugly civil war ensued. By May 1923, the war (which had claimed more lives than the War of Independence) had ended in the call by the IRA to dump arms. However, the ruthlessness adopted by both sides during the conflict, including assassinations of politicians by the Republicans and executions and atrocities by the Free State side, has left bitterness in southern Irish politics that exists to this day. The two main electoral parties are often accused of engaging in civil war politics.9

Further grievances festered regarding the border commission. In 1921, when Ireland was partitioned with most of the country becoming part of the new independent Irish Free State, six out of the nine counties of Ulster had remained part of the United Kingdom. “A thirty percent minority on the island (in the 1918 voting returns) was able to prevent an area from seceding, but this area in turn contained a thirty percent minority (in the same voting returns) in favour of the cessation of the whole island. One minority had greater political resources than the other”.10 The British set up a border commission as a political mechanism to facilitate the smooth transition of Northern Ireland into a ‘nation state’. The Anglo-Irish Treaty contained a provision (article 12) that would establish a boundary commission, which could adjust the border as drawn up in 1920. This was designed to temporarily pacify and alley northern nationalist fears. Most leaders in the Free State, both pro and anti-treaty, assumed with British encouragement that the commission would award largely nationalist areas such as County Fermanagh, County Tyrone, South Londonderry, South Armagh and South Down, and the City of Derry to the Free State, and that the remnant of Northern Ireland would not be economically viable and would eventually opt for union with the rest of the island. In the event, the commission’s decision was made for it by the inter-governmental agreement of 3 December 1925 that was published later that day by Stanley Baldwin. As a result of this the border commission’s report was never published and the border remained unaltered. “The Stormont parliamentary regime (1920-72) became a textbook illustration of Mill and de Tocqueville’s prediction that democratic rule was compatible with ‘tyranny of the majority’.”11 This is seen by republicans as another example of ‘Perfidious Albion’ at work. There was a financial sweetener for the new Irish Free State however:

The final settlement confirmed the 1921 border unchanged, shelved the commission’s report, relieved the Free State of financial obligations under the treaty, and abolished the council of Ireland whose powers were transferred to Dublin and Belfast governments. By striking another blow at north-south relations this last clause represented a further victory for Craig, and so did O’Higgins’ promise that the Free State would encourage the nationalist MPs to take their seat in the northern parliament. (Their abstention ended in stages between April 1925 and November 1927) Feetham was deeply hurt by the summary rejection of his work”.12

The territory of Northern Ireland, as established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, had its own provincial government which was controlled for 50 years until 1972 by the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). In the beginning Catholics refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new Northern Ireland state. They with-held their support and co-operation anticipating that the state was too small and would without doubt collapse. This merely enabled Unionists to consolidate the institutions of the state entirely under their own control. The tendency to vote on sectarian lines and the manipulation of the demographics ensured that there would never be a change from unionist/Protestant government. Constituency boundaries were drawn to divide nationalist communities into two or even three constituencies and so weaken their electoral impact. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland became increasingly politically alienated, as a result of their own stance and unionist consolidation of the new state. Regardless of the reasons, the result was Catholics considered the Unionist government to be undemocratic, bigoted and favouring Protestants. This narrative would be perpetuated to great effect. Emigration for economic reasons also had the effect of keeping the nationalist population from growing, despite its higher birth rate. Their overall conditions of life also impacted the political ideology of the northern Catholic population. As Eamon Phoenix notes:

Partition has not only given rise to a Northern Irish state, but has also impacted on the emergence and development of a peculiarly northern nationalism qualitatively different from the nationalism that exists in the Republic of Ireland, and which cannot be easily subsumed within a general thirty-two county nationalism”.13

De Valera for his part had reconsidered his views while in jail and came to accept a more pragmatic and realistic approach was necessary. He eventually conceded the necessity to conduct future political activity under the terms of the Free State constitution. Rather than abstaining from Free State politics entirely, he now sought to attempt to republicanise it from within. However, he and his supporters—which included most Sinn Féin TDs—failed to convince a majority of the anti-treaty Sinn Féin of the wisdom of this tactical venture and departure from tradition and the movement split once again. In 1926, De Valera formed a new party called Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), taking the bulk of the Sinn Féin’s TDs with him. This left the ‘traditionalists’ further reduced to a fraction of the original movement. In 1932 De Valera was elected President of the Executive Council of the Free State and began a slow process of turning the country from a constitutional monarchy to a constitutional republic, thus somewhat ironically enacting Collin’s vision for the treaty as providing ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’. “Fianna Fails record after 1926 exhibited both pragmatism and ideology. Qualifying as Dail candidates in 1927 by acknowledging the crown oath, de Valera and his followers advanced their republican convictions in the gradual republicanisation of the Irish state’s charter after Fianna Fail came to power in 1932”.14 In 1937 the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hEreann) was written by De Valera’s government and approved by the people of the southern 26 counties in a referendum. The Constitution changed the name of the state to Éire and claimed jurisdiction over all parts of Ireland. The new state was headed by a President. The role of the King of Ireland diminished to ceremonial functions in relation to diplomatic affairs. He is believed to have been left with those residual functions as a concession to Unionist opinion. The new state had the objective characteristics of a republic, and was referred to as such by De Valera himself, but it remained within the British Commonwealth and was regarded by the British as a “dominion” like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. “The difference between the North and South was that in the South since 1922 there has been stability due to homogenous population, political consensus and the possibility that political change will be accepted by the opposition.”15 The claim to the whole of the island was impractical and mere symbolism and actually inflamed anti-Dublin sentiment among northern Protestants. In 1948 Fianna Fáil went out of office for the first time in sixteen years. John A. Costello, leader of the coalition government, announced his intention to declare Ireland a republic. The Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which created the Republic of Ireland, led the British government to pass the Ireland Act 1949 which declared that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom unless the Parliament of Northern Ireland decided otherwise. As a result of this the traditional IRA decided to focus its activities upon the state-let of Northern Ireland. This decision was announced by the IRA in its Easter statement of 1949.

During the 1930s the IRA had launched minor attacks against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British army in Northern Ireland. The IRA had also engaged in another armed campaign in Britain in 1939. During WW2 the IRA leadership hoped for support from Germany, and chief of staff Sean Russell travelled to Germany in 1940 as Roger Casement had during WW1. He died later that year after falling ill on a U-boat that was bringing him back to Ireland. Suspected republicans were interned on both sides of the border during the war. The IRA border campaign (Operation Harvest) which emerged in the mid-50s was to prove the last attempt at traditional military action and was again an abject failure. The problem for the IRA was that the standard of living in Northern Ireland, particularly post WW2, regardless of the sectarian or political factors, far superior to that in the Irish Free State. Barry Flynn speaking on the reality of life at the time said, “The campaign must be understood in the context of the Ireland of the 1950’s, where economic hardship and poverty, coupled with partition and sectarianism, could fuel a romantic, republican cocktail and stoke it into a war footing. The bottom line was however, that the state of Northern Ireland was safer in 1962 than at any other period in its forty-year existence”.16 This economic reality had led to apathy and disinterest amongst northern Catholics regarding the 1950s IRA border campaign; a reality not lost on its leadership at the time.

A new reality had become embedded in the new Southern state too. As Garret Fitzgerald later expressed it, “Despite the persistence of the aspiration to Irish unity in this part of Ireland, and despite the genuine concern that exists here for the plight of the people of Northern Ireland, the fundamental loyalty of most people in this part of Ireland is to our own State – rather than to a notional and abstract united Ireland”.17 The Movement needed to reconsider its strategy. In the late 1960s, Irish political activists took inspiration from the civil rights campaign of blacks in the U.S.A. against racial discrimination there. Student leaders such as Bernadette Devlin and Nationalist politicians such as Austin Currie tried to use non-violent protest to draw attention to the blatant discrimination practices in Northern Ireland. Theirs was a campaign seeking not a united Ireland but British rights for British citizens within the UK. After the failed Border Campaign 1956 – 1962 the IRA leadership under Goulding and its ideologue Johnston had arrived at the conclusion that Protestant Irishmen and women would never be bombed into a united Ireland. Goulding reflected, “What we needed to do was to sit down and have a good look at the whole revolutionary movement in Ireland, from 1798 to the present day. I and others felt that the movement as a whole had never given a thought to winning a war. They only thought of starting one”.18 The only way forward was felt to encourage both sides to embrace socialism and forget centuries of sectarian hatred. For their part as a response to the civil rights campaign militant loyalist paramilitary groups started to re-emerge in the Protestant community. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was the first. By mid-1969 the violence in Northern Ireland exploded due to increased civil rights agitation and a vicious unionist and loyalist reaction to the demands for political and social change. Consistent with their new political ideology, the IRA declined to intervene in order to defend Catholic areas. By late August, the British government was forced to intervene and declare a state of emergency sending a large number of troops into Northern Ireland to assist the RUC which was struggling to cope with the social disorder. Although initially welcomed by some Catholics as protectors, later events such as internment without trial, Bloody Sunday and the Falls Road curfew turned many against the British Army. This has been referred to as the ‘big–bang’ moment which played into the hands of traditional republicans and fitted in with their political analysis of the necessity for physical force nationalism as the only means of achieving Irish freedom.

Divisions had emerged in the Republican movement between leftists and conservatives from August 1969. The leader of the IRA, Cathal Goulding understood that the IRA could not beat the British with military tactics and should turn into a workers’ revolutionary movement that would overthrow both governments to achieve a 32 county socialist republic through the will of the people. Goulding and Johnston had also steered the IRA leadership into an ideologically Marxist position which had attracted ‘trendy-leftist’ types and idealistic young supporters in Dublin, but alienated and angered many of the IRA’s core volunteers and supporters, particularly in the North. His decision to regard the UVF as deluded rather than as a dangerous sectarian enemy was anathema to those who were its potential victims on the ground in the north, including those civil rights activists the IRA had encouraged onto the streets. It was a case of total disconnect and a departure from reality within the IRA leadership of the time regarding the nature of northern loyalism. They also voted controversially to end abstentionism. This situation led to a split in 1970, resulting in two groups, the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. “Due to the fact that abstentionism had been abandoned by a simple majority and not a two thirds one, the constitutions of both the IRA and Sinn Fein had been breached; and those who walked out formed on 18 December 1969 a Provisional Caretaker Executive upholding the existing Sinn Fein and IRA constitutions”.19 The Provisionals were led by Sean Mac Stiofain and after initially defending Catholic areas, with a rationale at the time which was brutally simplistic. “There wouldn’t be any trouble or IRA if the Catholics hadn’t been denied civil rights. This is a civil rights war: what’s different is that we reckon we can only get these rights through national liberation, so it’s a national liberation war, the two go together”.20 It is a ‘position’ still asserted by SF some thirty years later but for different reasons as they too would also come to embrace the consent principle regarding Irish unity at a later stage in their political development.

Interestingly the principle of consent was not one which constitutional nationalism had accepted from the Northern states inception. The position of non-violence was accepted by constitutional nationalism but the position of unionist consent being a pre-requisite for a unified Ireland was not. “The consent doctrine secured importance when Fine Gael adopted it in 1969. Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald serving as Taoiseach in the 1980s became the doctrine’s leading evangelist and a partisan of other revisionist ideas”.21 FitzGerald was not alone; the northern nationalist SDLP were on the same political page from its beginning in 1970. “The Social Democratic and Labour Party adopted the consent doctrine upon its foundation in 1970. The party’s second leader John Hume projected the principle and other revisionist ideas to considerable effect in Ireland and external forums”.22 Republicans however viewed northern unionists as a national minority exerting its will with British acquiescence upon the national majority. They also considered partition and both Irish parliaments as illegal and a violation of the 1918 election before partition when Sinn Fein had won a huge majority and established the first Dail of 1919. “Since 1921, when the treaty which established the Free State and the Border was signed, the Republican Movement prided itself on being the only real 32 county political organisation, certainly the only one fighting for the ‘true Republic’, the full 32 counties”.23 This was a principle upon which the movement was based. “When elections to the Constitutional Convention were being held in 1975, Sinn Fein had refused to enter on the grounds that the proposed Convention contradicts the basic right of the Irish people, as a unit, to govern themselves … The proposed six county constitutional convention is another irrelevancy and is regarded by Sinn Fein as an effort to reconstruct British rule in Ireland. Republicans will not assist Britain in doing this”.24

Things were to alter during the hunger-strikes of 1981. Momentum had been building during the prison protest to engage in elections on a tactical basis as a means of showing public support for the prisoners’ five demands. “In Northern Ireland the Bobby Sands election to Westminster was followed by others, suggesting that a huge political momentum was underway. Sands died on 5th May 1981, after 66 days without food. His election agent and member of Sinn Fein Owen Carron ran in the by-election under the banner: ‘Anti H-Block proxy political prisoner’ and astonished the sternest critics within the Republican Movement. Carron won the seat with an even larger vote than Sands. In October the following year Sinn Fein came out of the cold and contested their first Stormont election to what became a short lived, new assembly for Northern Ireland, the ‘rolling devolution’ Assembly. Even though Sinn Fein stood on an abstentionist ticket, their involvement marked another change of course”.25 When elected as president of Sinn Fein in 1983 shortly after the Sinn Fein venture into ‘tactical’ election participation during the 1981 hunger-strikes, Gerry Adams had stated: “On the question of Leinster House, we are an abstentionist party; it is not my intention to advocate a change in this situation, I am not about to lead you into Leinster House”.26 Just before Adams succeeded him as President of Sinn Fein, Ruairi O Bradaigh declared: “No splits or splinters – long may it remain so provided we stick by our basic principles”.27 Abstentionism however, was set to become the big-issue in republican politics once again. The main argument used by the Adams leadership to abandon abstentionism was that it was not a principle, but a ‘tactic’. The argument was not new. At its 1975 Ard Fheis, Sinn Fein debated the recognition of the courts: was it a tactic, or was it a principle? This is sometimes presented as a matter of ‘pragmatism’ and recognizing realities. The pragmatism thesis resulted with the Adams leadership overseeing the rule book of Irish republicanism being fundamentally rewritten; ideological purity was jettisoned in favour of electoral advancement. “The trade-off has been between a position of principle combined with isolation or opting for pragmatism married to political success. In the ‘era of pragmatism’, the Adams leadership ensured which choice was made.”28 Traditional republicans insisted that once embarked upon, the tinkering with core republican values would lead to the slippery slope of constitutionalism and an abandonment of the Irish republic proclaimed in 1916 and ratified in the election of 1918 and by the establishment of the first Dail of 1919. This had always proven to be the case, asserts the traditional republican argument. On the issue of abstentionism, according to O’Bradaigh: “Discussing going into Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster is as foreign and as alien as that the IRA would sit down and discuss surrender of arms.”29 Adams stated: We are not engaged in any new departure”.30

1 Connor Foley, Legion of the Rearguard the IRA and the Modern Irish State (London: Pluto Press, 1992),p.1

2 Ibid, p.5

3 Ibid

4 R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600 – 1972 (London: Penguin Books, 1988),p.484

5 Ibid, p.485

6 Martyn Frampton, Legion of the Rearguard Dissident Irish Republicanism (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011),p.14

7 Foley, p.19.

8 Ibid, p.29

9 Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, although Fianna Fail was eclipsed by Labour in the 2011 southern general election. In the 2014 Euro and local body elections Fianna Fail returned to its more usual foremost position.

10 Brendan O’Leary and John Mc Garry, The Politics of Antagonism Understanding Northern Ireland (Ireland: The Athlone Press, 1993),p.108

11 Ibid,p.111

12 Michael Laffin, The Partition of Ireland 1911 – 1925, Historical Association of Ireland (Ireland: Dundalgan Press, 1983),p.105

13 Eamon Phoenix, Northern Nationalism, Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland, 1890-1940 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1994)

14 JSTOR: The New Hibernia Review/Iris Eireannach Nua, Vol 3 No. 2 (Summer 1999),pp.61 – 83

15 Brian Barton and Patrick J. Roche (eds), The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives and Policies, (Avebury 1994), p.9

16 Barry Flynn, Soldiers of Folly: The IRA Border Campaign 1956-1962 (England: The Collins Press), p.203

17 Garret Fitzgerald, “Unity requires giving up claim to a united Ireland”, Irish Times, 9 May, 1998

18 Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie The Provisional I.R.A. (England: Corgi Books, 1988), pp.50-51

19 Robert W. White, Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993), p.58

20 Provisional IRA member, quoted in Dooley, Black and Green, p.118

21 JSTOR: The New Hibernia Review/Iris Eireannach Nua, Vol 3, No. 2, (Summer 1999), pp. 67-68

22 Ibid.

23 Brendan O’Brien, The Long War The IRA and Sinn Fein (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1993), p.103

24 Ibid, p.125

25 Ibid.

26 Gerry Adams, “Presidential Address”, APRN, 17 November, 1983, pp.8-9

27 APRN, 17 Nov, 1983

28 Kevin Rafter, Sinn Fein 1905-2005: In the Shadow of Gunmen (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005), p.5

29 APRN, 17 Nov, 1983

30 Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom (Dingle: Brandon, 1986), p.160

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Posted on October 15, 2015, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, Wolfe Tone. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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