Revising Republicanism

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Eoin Ó Broin’s Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism (Pluto Books) looked like a timely book when it came out a few weeks ago.  Events since have only emphasised the relevance of its argument.

The book opens with a trenchant defence of Sinn Féin against allegations that is an authoritarian, quasi-fascist movement. Ó Broin acknowledges that such perceptions are genuinely and widely held, but argues that they are a misunderstanding, attributable in part to the intense ideological conflict around the Troubles and to the fact that until recently Sinn Féin has often been a secondary theme of analysis focused on the IRA. However, he also suggests that republicanism itself has been an under-theorised movement, with its adherents privileging history over ideology and commemoration over critical analysis.

This has left unchallenged interpretations such as that of historian Fearghal McGarry, who sees republicanism as an ‘introspective tradition’ characterised by ‘abstention from participation in electoral politics, refusal to acknowledge the reality of Protestant support for the union and commitment to the use of physical force.’

Ó Broin argues that this conventional interpretation does not reflect the self-understanding of most republicans. “Indeed” he writes, “it would be hard to think of any of the leading republicans, particularly left republicans of the twentieth century, as fitting McGarry’s mould, whether one is talking of James Connolly, Peadar O’Donnell, Seán MacBride, Tomás MacGiolla or Gerry Adams.”

Ó Broin does acknowledge, albeit in a footnote, that ‘some doctrinaire republicans, such as Ruarí Ó Brádaigh’ fit this definition, nevertheless he argues that it does not capture the mainstream of republican thinking.

What is at stake in this debate has been dramatically highlighted in the aftermath of last week’s dissident republican attacks. A number of commentators, applying the conventional interpretation, have been prepared to entertain the idea that it is the dissidents who represent authentic republicanism.

A notable example was Eamonn McCann’s Daily Mail article, which argued that “armed Republicans have always taken their mandate not from the constituency in whose name the struggle has been waged but from history.” Ó Broin’s book certainly lends itself to interpretation as part of the ‘recent energetic revisionism’ which McCann identifies on this point.

McCann’s remark that “only a small minority of Republican supporters over the past 35 years ever swallowed this version of history whole,” could be read as an admission of Ó Broin’s thesis. At the same time, Ó Broin’s acknowledgement that “discipline and loyalty are often more highly valued than critical debate and internal democracy” within Sinn Féin, is arguably in line with McCann’s portrait of the way “Adams and his associates have gradually, surreptitiously, denying at every stage that they were embarked on any such enterprise, sloughed off republicanism.”

Ó Broin’s argument implies that they did not slough off republicanism as such but only one interpretation of it. Ironically, his analysis is arguably more the Marxian of the two. While McCann acknowledges the social forces that have shaped Sinn Féin’s practical politics, he nevertheless prioritises a particular set of formal positions in assessing its significance.

For Ó Broin such readings of republican history are essentialist. He calls for a materialist approach which emphasises changing political and economic contexts as much as continuities. One example is his reading of the early history of Sinn Féin, which argues that it “was never more than a platform for competing political interests.”

This is significant, perhaps, because in seeking precedents for the kind of radical, politically-engaged republicanism he advocates, Ó Broin looks well beyond the institutional history of his own party.

He looks to early republicans, noting that the United Irishmen, Young Ireland and the IRB, all “adopted constitutional and parliamentary tactics at various stages”. He identifies Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party as the source of a distinctive left-republican tradition, of which later manifestations include the Republican Congress, Clann na Poblachta, and Official Sinn Féin.

Ó Broin succeeds in showing that there is a broader republican tradition than the conventional interpretation allows, within which democracy, not continuity, is the key value.  However, the left-republican formations present their own problems, which Ó Broin analyses in each case. This includes the treatment of Official Sinn Féin which inspired much of the initial controversy around the book.

The parallel between Sinn Féin’s current trajectory and that of the Officials has often been made.  Some of Ó Broin’s key prescriptions, such as the need to focus on theoretical development, to prioritise socialism equally with nationalism, and to engage with unionists, clearly reflect similar strategic imperatives to those which the Officials faced. In that case, the endpoint was the centrist social democracy and crypto-unionism of Democratic Left. Many would argue that contemporary Sinn Féin is involved in a similar process of co-optation.

In Ó Broin’s account however, there is an implicit contrast in the development of the two parties. The Officials are presented as moving through a series of uncritically-adopted external models, from Leninism, to Eurocommunism, to mainstream social democracy. Sinn Féin on the other hand is seen to have emerged as the strongest left-republican formation to date, because of the “ability of the party to adapt to changing circumstances with flexibility and imagination” in the course of the peace process.

That is not to say that Ó Broin is uncritical of the party’s recent history.  His concluding chapter on the way forward, with its ‘eight theses on the future of Sinn Féin’ is clearly an extension of his role in the post-mortem on the party’s poor election performance in 2007.

Ó Broin calls for a new assessment of the global context created by the credit crisis, and for an ideology that prioritises social and economic change equally with constitutional and political change. He suggests that an exclusive emphasis on the latter “falsely holds out the hope of the advancement of the national agenda in the short term.” That assessment will raise the spectre of the Workers’ Party in some minds, and could yet be upset by the complex constitutional dynamic now unfolding in the UK.

Nevertheless, such caution is warranted, and as Ó Broin notes, a practical strategy for Irish unity will itself need to address the social and economic benefits more clearly than has hitherto been the case.

Last month’s Sinn Féin Ard Fheis provided signs that the party is evolving in the direction sketched by Ó Broin, most obviously in Gerry Adams’ call for an alliance of the left.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this shift as mere opportunism. Sinn Féin has clearly recognised the definitive nature of the failure of neoliberalism over the past year, in a way which is perhaps evidence of the strategic flexibility claimed for the party. There is every political incentive to build an alternative.

Ó Broin’s suggestion that such an alternative must look beyond “outdated Leninist dogmas or equally outdated Keynesian welfareism” leaves plenty of scope as to its positive shape. This, if anything, points to a broader weakness of the left internationally. There is as yet no left equivalent to the intellectual body of work which enabled the neoliberals to exploit the crisis of social democracy from the 1970s onwards.

If that is to change, it will require a great deal more of the kind of earnest and rigorous engagement on display in this book. It merits serious attention from anyone interested in the future of republicanism, and of the left, in Ireland.

Tom Griffin is a London Irish journalist and blogger. He also blogs on the Open Democracy platform Our Kingdom.

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3 Responses

  1. duth ealla

    March 19, 2009 8:30 pm

    I am still reading it at the moment. Good book, well written, can be a bit academic but not overly so. Quite a rigorous approach.

    Whether you are for or against SF, pro or anti-republican or any other creed its a worthwhile read even for people who are politically opposed to the Republican project because it demonstrates why constant critical evaluation of your political project, its origins, beliefs and direction is the only way to progress.

    I could not help thinking that both FG and FF could usefully apply the same logic to their parties, as could Unionists and just about any party that has built up a type of institutional memory. Critical assessment is key.

    Can I also add in reference to a point I saw on the Irish times review bt Richard English that o’Broin acknowledges that Republicans misunderstood the role of the British state in the north. I’m only about 1/3 of the way in but so far my reading of that for him the British presence in this country over the last century were symptomatic of societal and political upheavals and changes in attitudes that were happening in Britian. In that sense the British presence resulted from a type of political battleground for interests in Britain more so than a point of view than that Ireland itself was integral to the union. I have not done his point justice but it is nicely built up by Eoin. this point is I think its very central to determining the future of the 6 counties.

    Not having reached the later chapters I am reluctant to comment on the strategy aspect. I wonder how much of a watershed, as some have claimed or sought to portray it, rather than an eloquent setting out of one view of republicanism or a strategy. That will be an interesting debate worth having.Actually I think it would be fair to say that the book would stress that it has to happen. I loook forward to seeing if it determines whether that debate is something thats being ongoing for a number of years, maybe even since 1980.

    Eoin o’Broin makes some very good points about the need to reevaluate ideas or notions of the past because often the assume their own persona independent of the actual events. Having your own narrative is not a bad thing but it must be constantly referenced to the past in an independent manner to ensure that it does not mislead. While he does not mention it, so far anyway, I wonder did he consider that such an approach should also be considered when looking at gender politics, internationalism and socialism itself.

    For me the language of socialism has become so debased by over 100 years of existence and variation that it is almost impossible to say you are socialist without inviting a whole load of pre-conceptions upon yourself. If SF is to reaffrim its left orientation then it must separately evaluate its socialist policies and notions in a similar manner because while the two elements of the national struggle may be complimentary, a la Connoly, they are both subject to long traditions based on notions of fealty to a certain path and dare i say doctrine.

    Hernando deSoto, the man who effectively defeated the shining path and lifted many Peruvians out of poverty, said (and I paraphrase) that people dont want to be socialists they want to be capitalists but they are not being left do so.

    Despite his use of such language what he achieved in Peru was the equivalent of a full scale socialist revolution. He just did not see the point in calling it that and becoming bogged down in a debate on semantics.

    Am I suggesting some type of policy dissimilitude, no, certainly not, only warning that as Republicans the language we use and how we describe our policies has the danger of forcing us to explain the terms away rather than the policies.

    Good book thats highly recommended for those interested in history, politics and Republicanism.

  2. liam ó comáin

    November 22, 2011 9:36 pm

    The book belongs to the land of the cuckoo because the provos are not left nor republican.THERE IS NONE SO BLIND AS THOSE WHO REFUSE TO FACE THE TRUTH!The provos were set up by the Fianna Fail Party via Captain Kelly and others including Dave O’Connell.Even the founders of Republican Sinn Fein would admit this.That is why they left.
    At the top of the provos are Brit Agents who now have their 72,000 pounds a year plus expenses.In one word ‘Brit Auxiliaries’