In Review: Marisa McGlinchey’s ‘Unfinished Business’

Marisa McGlinchey, Unfinished Business: the politics of ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019, 231pp; reviewed by Philip Ferguson

Marisa McGlinchey’s book should be read by all radical republicans, Marxists and anyone else genuinely interested in national liberation and socialism in Ireland.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the back cover features praise for the book from the likes of Lord Bew of the Stickies and Richard English, both of whom have carved out well-rewarded academic niches writing attacks on republicanism and producing material that can only aid British imperialism.  Their reasons for praising the book are entirely different from those of anti-imperialists.

There are two key strengths to this book.

One is that it is based on on a substantial set of interviews (90 in all) the author conducted with republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and the Provo leadership’s move into the service of the British state and the statelets which are the result of partition in Ireland and the Provos’ move from sort sort of vision of socialism to embracing the market and capitalist austerity.

The other strength is that she largely lets the interviewees speak for themselves, rather than trying to stitch them up.  Thus, for instance, she refrains from referring to them in the book as “dissident” republicans – the book’s sub-title was chosen, presumably, by the publisher.  Instead, she refers to them by the much more accurate term of “radical republicans” and treats them as rational political activists rather than some kind of pathology.

The interviewees, some of whom are now dead and some of whom have left the organisation they were in at the time they were interviewed, cover the gamut of radical republican groups, some of which are linked to armed organisations and some of which are not.  Thus the interviewees include independents and members of Eirigi, RNU, Saoradh, the IRSP, RSF and the 32CSM.  They range from younger activists such as Louise Minihan to veterans who go back to the 1956-62 border campaign and even earlier, such as Peig King and Billy McKee.  Some of the activists support ongoing armed actions and some do not, feeling that armed struggle in current conditions is pointless and even counter-productive and that when it comes back on the agenda – no-one thinks the Brits will go quietly! – it will need to be carried out very differently from the Provos and IRSM models of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

The material is organised around particular political issues and themes.  These comprise seven chapters, along with an introduction, a conclusion and an appendix on methodology.

The chapters cover who the radical republicans are, what they want and where the cleavages are drawn between them and the Provos; the ideas and of the radicals; the ceasefires and decommissioning; the GFA and radicals’ attempts to disrupt the Brits’ ‘normalisation’ strategy; armed republicanism today; the ‘reform’ (or non-reform) of policing in the six counties and the incorporation of the Provos; and issues of legitimacy and mandates and what the basis might be of the mandates claimed by the radicals.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the drawing out of what were the ‘last straws’ for the interviewees.  The RSF people, of course, left way back in 1986 when the IRA and then SF dumped abstentionism in relation to taking seats in Leinster House, a policy which had existed ever since the establishment of the 26-county state through the 1921-23 counter-revolution.  (I was at the 1986 ard fheis and remember painfully the walkout led by Ruairi O Bradaigh.)

Other interviewees left over the Good Friday Agreement; others after Sinn Fein’s acceptance of policing in the north and the decision to participate in the new policing boards.  Lack of democracy is a common theme, regardless of when people left.  Provo veteran Tony Catney, for instance, disagreed with the acceptance of the GFA, the IRA ceasefire and the decisions re policing but, initially, stuck it out.  But, as he told Marisa, “All those objections I was quite prepared to live with because I was dedicated and committed to the Republican Movement. . .  But I wouldn’t allow myself to be silenced.  Then in 2005 a number of changes were made in the sort of middle management of Sinn Fein within the Six Counties.  It was clear that within that reshuffle the message was that I was to have no input into anything.”

Another veteran republican militant, Nuala Perry, told Marisa she had doubts over the GFA but “(t)here was still this thinking that all these people that I was with all my life, people that I joined the movement with and gone through some pretty hard and dangerous times with, were still there and you’re saying well if you’re still there, contrary to what other people are saying, you have to give it a go.  You have to see what will happen in a year.”  Today, she is a leading figure in Saoradh.

Not only were the Adams cabal high-handed and anti-democratic, but they were expert liars and dissemblers.  As they shifted the goalposts repeatedly, they assured members that neither the fundamental aim (an all-Ireland socialist republic) nor the means (a combination of armed and unarmed struggle) were being changed.  In particular, they assured comrades that they would relentlessly pursue the armed struggle.

The plethora of groups

A crucial issue dealt with by the author is the heavily-divided nature of the revolutionary republican forces.  Altogether, we are dealing with a significant number of people.  Writing about the Easter Rising commemorations each year at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, she notes, “It is not unusual to witness an organisation’s colour party forming outside Milltown Cemetery gates as they await their turn while group is in the process of finishing their commemoration and getting ready to depart the cemetery.”

One of the dividing lines between these groups and individuals is abstentionism.  For instance, RSF, the 32CSM and Saoradh are all abstentionists whereas Eirigi and the IRSP see it as a tactical question (in my view, this is how Connolly would have seen it too).  In its early years, the IRSP ran for Leinster House and were prepared to take any seats they won.  Eirigi hasn’t yet run for any LH seats but does not rule it out, a position that cost them most of their northern membership.

There has also been a lot of movement of people between various groups.  The RNU seems to barely exist, Eirigi is now overwhelmingly a 26-county organisation, the 32s have declined too.  Saoradh has been the big new development, although it still has much to sort out.  For instance, in the referendum for liberalisation over abortion in the south, Eirigi was right in the front rank of campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote while also agitating for a full women’s right to choose position, while Saoradh seems to have had nothing to say.  (I should add that I am sympathetic to all the left-republican currents, but feel the most affinity with Eirigi.)

All in all, it’s a lot to deal with in roughly 200 pages and the author does a good job in covering the ground.

I do have a couple of criticisms, however.  The work was originally written as part of an academic research project in the years after she completed her PhD thesis; it has followed academic conventions.  It does a lot of, “As stated by. . .”, followed by a quote from, or reference to, some academic writer/theorist.  Can’t get away from this in a thesis, but there were times when I thought if I read one more formulation like this in the next few pages, my head would burst.  It would be more readable to a wider audience if someone took a scalpel to these formulations and cut them out, one and all.

If there is a second edition – and I very much hope this book sells well and has reprints and new editions – this could be done.  (I’m also prepared to offer my services wielding the literary scalpel.)

The other thing that leapt off the page was a couple of errors.  The most striking one is that on p54, the author states, “Margaret Thatcher’s policies of criminalisation resulted in H-Block prisoners embarking on the Blanket Protest in 1976. . .”  But Thatcher and the Tories were not in power in 1976 – they won the general election in May 1979.  Moreover, the author even states in the very sentence before that Merlyn Rees was the home secretary who removed special category status.  Rees, of course, was Labour’s home secretary.  This is the kind of clumsy error that really should have been picked up by the PhD supervisor or the marker/s or an editor or sub-editor at Manchester University Press.  Surely at least one of them knows when Thatcher became British PM!

One of the reasons these things are annoying/frustrating is because the book is so good and so important.  You don’t want it to be marred by this sort of issue.  Marisa McGlinchey needs to be congratulated for a fine piece of work.

Anyway, if you are at all supportive of the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland, go out and buy this book.  And get your local library to buy it too.

Posted on August 19, 2019, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, 32-County Sovereignty Movement, éirígí, British state repression (general), British strategy, Censorship, Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Elections, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Imperialism (generally), Interviews, Ireland and British revolution, IRSP, Officials, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - current, Prisoners - past, Provos - then and now, Public sector/cuts, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Repression in 26-county state, Republican Network for Unity. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on In Review: Marisa McGlinchey’s ‘Unfinished Business’.

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