The Decline of Militant Irish Republicanism

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Ideologies are not issued self-developed and completed into the aether of the idea rather they are generated by the development of specific historic processes in the real world. Ideas are not primary but secondary reflections back into reality through the mediation of the mind. Material reality is primary in the evolution of thought just as it is primary in the wider process of the evolution of the species.

It was primarily this supercession of the German Ideology which underpinned Marxism as a Critique of Philosophy. For Marxists, like Hegelians, the Kantian duality of mind and reality is bridged through Praxis or activity on the part of the knower but for Marxists this activity itself is conditioned by reality

For Marxists, therefore, the Republican ideals which flowered in France and England in the late 18th Centuries only developed and found wider social resonance because society was not only sufficiently developed to generate them but that it was sufficiently developed to give them a social force. The ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty were the idealistic outworkings of the demand of the rising business class to overturn the power of the traditional aristocratic ruling class and the domination of the church.

If there is a crisis in Irish Republicanism then it reflects changing material realities. This post seeks to identify the causes of this historic decline.

The first thing to note is that there is an undeniable decline. The largest militant republican movement, Sinn Féin, has largely ditched what has been understood as traditional republican values. They participate and work in a system based on the principle of consent (i.e. consent of a majority in the north-eastern six counties), they act as Ministers in a partitionist parliament owing its sovereignty to the British crown and they promote support for a police service which enforces British laws in Ireland. All this when British troops continue to be based in the north.

Now many Republicans will say that this is a strategic compromise akin to De Valera taking the oath to the British King only to establish the Republic and that it may be to them. But De Valera’s actions were considered treacherous by traditional comtemporary Republicans just as they are by today’s equivalents. Moreover, De Valera wasn’t long from swearing that oath to the point of hanging IRA men during the emergency.

Today’s Sinn Féin operates in a similar system and with a similar strategy to the SDLP of the past. Gone is its radical socialism instead it has a soft social reformism, which if it has meaning at all in its contact with reality, is largely ineffectual and mostly symbolic.

But there are others within Republicanism who have not gone so far. Traditionally the second biggest group would have been the Irish Republican Socialist Party which has groups in some towns in the North and a scattering of activists in Dublin and other cities in the Republic. The recent announcement that the INLA was to disband and engage with General de Chastelain’s decommissioning body was unexpected but reflected their analysis that the war was over. The argument justifying this decision to go further than their old cessation is the need to engage in wider left-wing politics through groups such as the People Before Profit Alliance.

This should be seen for what it is: further evidence of the historic decline of militant republicanism.

Traditional Militant Republicanism

The main groups remaining outside this trend are the inappropriately named ‘dissident’ republicans. These groups really should be termed traditional republicans given their consistency with republican ideological beliefs going back to the 1910s and 1920s. They believe in the achievement of Irish unity through force of arms and reject any form of participation in governmental structures predicated on partition or the principle of consent.

These groups are enjoying something of a renaissance of late. Their attacks on crown-forces and bomb attacks are growing in regularity and they are clearly gaining a hearing with some in grassroots republican communities. The causes of this must be sought in the chronic failure of the mainstream ‘republican’ political agenda as evidenced by the one-sided government in Stormont and the collapse of a cross-border economy enormously reliant on the construction sector.

In the absence of a strong socialist alternative, traditional republican militants are successfully projecting themselves as the real alternative to Stormont and they are finding it somewhat easier to recruit young nationalists.

The problem for these groups is that they are largely a reaction to the political development that has occurred in the last 20 years in Northern Ireland; the times have changed. Today, for the first time in the history of the northern state, most Nationalists recognise its legitimacy and accept the principle of consent. While many Republicans may have viewed this ideological rubicon as a realpolitick concession to devour the northern state from the inside-out, the reality is that the wider population have now normatized the concept. This will not be easily undone.

There is, thus, a huge barrier standing in the way of the traditional republican militants. They cannot succeed and it is clear that most of them realise this fact but view their resistance as an existentialist refusal to the system. Yet this is always an inadequate justification for revolutionary action. Che did not go to Bolivia considering his actions to have no hope – he believed he would succeed but realised the risk. Connolly went out in 1916 hoping for the best but conscious that it was madness given the odds of defeating the British. Indeed, the secret history of militant republicanism has often been just how close to victory risings were if they only realised at the time the weakness of the British. But there are no such hopes for traditional republican militant struggle.

The Changing Material Conditions

Irish Republicanism was initially a bourgeois nationalist movement; hence, Griffith’s attachment to the concept of a monarchy and an Irish empire. The situation in Ireland was complicated by the colonial nature of its relation to Britain. Nationalism, which in the imperialist centres of mainland Europe demonstrated its reactionary nature in the revolutions of 1848, remained objectively progressive in Ireland a situation reinforced by the politically-engineered Great Hunger of 1847/48.

With the coming of the new Free State in 1923, Irish nationalism faced a number of challenges. Not least was the growing demands of the new, progressive, socialist working-class politics developed by the likes of Connolly and Larkin and finding military expression in the ICA. But equally, it was presented with the realities of partial liberation. The Civil War confirmed the dominance of the conservative trend within Irish nationalism south of the border yet north of the border the situation remained complex.

The Irish Catholics living north of the border were oppressed alongside working-class Protestants – both groups were largely denied the vote. Nationalism reflected the legitimate demands of Irish Catholics (in particular its middle-class who felt themselves particularly disadvantaged) but it risked alienating a Protestant working-class who were enticed to support unionism through such hegemonic structures as the Orange Order and the panoply of advantageous arrangements established under the ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’. The Belfast Rates Relief Strike of 1932 held out the opportunity for unity of action for the first time and it is highly instructive how it was put down by the selective targetting of Catholic strikers for murder by the forces of the state.

The growth in a youthful generation educated on the back of the 1948 Education Reform, generated the civil rights campaigns which had the potential to bridge the gap between nationally oppressed Catholics and economically exploited Protestants. But it was not to be – the reaction of the state rekindled militant republicanism – and broke down the ability to develop a more powerful cross-community resistance.

Structural reforms to take off the worst edges of discrimination were implemented in the period of direct rule and the general standard of living rose as the north was more fully integrated into the global economy as an appendage to imperial Britain. The rise of the Celtic Tiger in the historic bargain to big business offered by the Dublin Government(of low taxes in return for employment) resulted in a reduction in the poverty of the Republic and a further consequential erosion in support for militant republicanism.

In these conditions and against the backdrop of a falling level of support for the faltering military campaign of the IRA, the leadership had to look for a way out. They chose a negotiated process which they felt held out the prospect of victory down the road. That this has not transpired or likely to transpire may seem obvious to the casual observer today but it clearly was sufficiently obscure at early stages to hold the entire Republican movement together through the bulk of the process itself.

Having got to this stage, the material conditions for the success of militant republicanism no longer exist. However, the growth in unemployment and the perception that discrimination continues in the north through more subtle means than before there is a potential for the tradition to attract young recruits. But with no viable strategy it is hard to see where it can go.

From this viewpoint, the move by the IRSM to dismantle its military operation is sensible. They perceive the need to move forwards. They realise that holding a military structure or weaponry will only prejudice that opportunity and warp their own internal democracy. Their voice will be of importance to the left-wing across Ireland although it is imperative for them to resolve their own position in relation to northern Protestants.

The Need for the Left to Engage with Protestants

The greatest failure of Republicanism has been its inability to effectively engage and transcend the divisions ‘carefully fostered’ with northern Protestants. The revolutionary opportunity heralded by the cross-sectional 1798 Rebellion was never realised in the period after it. Again and again, when individual Republicans have engaged with Protestants they have ditched their own nationalism, Sinn Féin the Worker’s Party being the classic example of this trajectory. Republicans should consider just why it is that some of the most capable republicans, some of its most consistent socialists, have moved away from Nationalism after an engagement with Protestants as Unionists as opposed to simply Protestants as other.

Irish nationalism may unify northern Catholic communities against the British but this is insufficient to achieve Irish unity in a context where the principle of consent is embedded in the constitutional standing of the north. The lack of viability of any military strategy to overthrow that constitutional situation should make any traditional Republican militant reconsider what they’re about. However, we need at this point to reiterate our opinion that working with unionists as parties at governmental level is even less likely to achieve Irish unity as it ends up reinforcing unionist hegemony in their own communities.

The conclusions from this analysis are that the tradition of Irish Republicanism has often collapsed to the tradition of Irish Nationalism and that Republicans have failed to find common ground with Protestants as a result of their prioritisation of nationalism over socialism.

The risks of Nationalism

Irish Nationalism is often simply collapsed to anti-imperialism in a broad approach akin to that adapted in colonial revolutions elsewhere in the world but the situation in no two contexts is exactly the same. Ireland unlike most colonial states is partitioned and Ireland has a large non-national minority consisting a majority in one of those states. It cannot simply be concluded, therefore, that the same strategic orientation is correct in all cases. That is to fetishise such a strategic orientation. Whilst anti-imperialism is always justified, nationalism is not.

In the concrete case of Ireland, we have to ask how is it advancing anti-imperialism best by retaining nationalism if all that does in reality is to further reinforce the union?

Furthermore, anti-imperialism is meaningful precisely because it is a necessary condition for the self-emancipation of the working class or socialism. As Connolly said merely raising the Green flag is a worthless achievement in and of itself.

Yet, in reifying nationalism (and thereby cementing the union), we are undercutting its logical justification from a Socialist Republican perspective.

The only possible arguments that can be presented to this is that unity cannot be achieved through socialism alone or is required as its pre-requisite. The first argument is a preposition and must be tested. Socialism or Barbarism argues that it is precisely this preposition that must be tested through struggle. It is akin to arguing against socialism on the basis that socialism is not possible. Such specious telelogical arguments are insufficient to justify a course of ‘do nothing’ particularly when their proponents are often ‘doing something’ which is demonstrably setting back the cause of socialism.

The second argument is more substantial but we believe that it is precisely this understanding, that national self-determination is a condition for the full realisation of socialism which gives content to the national liberation struggle (if it deserves to have a content at all). So in fact, it is only through actively pursuing socialist demands which fail to be delivered by a London-government that unity can ever gain traction in unionist communities. To the extent that such unity is necessary, that is the extent to which that unity is progressive.

The historic failure of the Republican tradition to engage northern Protestants has been its Achille’s heel for 200 years. Nationalism acts as a barrier to unification and acts of traditional republican militancy will only further undermine the ideological validity of republicanism not just with Protestants but with a growing section of northern Catholics. Socialism or Barbarism calls for revolutionary socialists to work together to develop a new vehicle capable of challenging the neo-liberal consensus and finally resolving the nationalist-socialist dialectic.

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5 Responses

  1. Gabby

    October 20, 2009 3:48 am

    Unionists are British nationalists. Some working class british nationalists like the late David Ervine have also been socialist in their analysis of society, but many other working class british nationalists have plumped for the policies of the DUP. Why do so many working class and lower middle class Protestants still support the DUP rather than forging a form of politics that would favour their socio-economic interests more logically? The troubles forced a cleavage between the Irish nationalists who supported the SDLP and those who supported Sinn Fein. But no similar class cleavage happened among the Protestant population.

    Anybody advocating a serious engagement between Irish republicans and the Protestant working class has to address that difficult social and political fact.

  2. Ciarán

    October 20, 2009 6:09 pm

    It’s a pity the author has completely misunderstood what the term ‘militant’ actually means. (Militancy doesn’t refer to arms. That would be militarism.)

    éirígí for example would espouse a militant socialist republicanism. Then there’s militant trade unionism, working class militancy, etc. etc.

    And who is the Workers’ Party reference supposed to win over? They may have ditched their nationalism but their republicanism followed soon after in their attempts to win over some, any, protestants. Then they chummed up with the loyalist paramilitaries and British state forces, successfuly isolating themselves further from their ‘host’ communities (for a lack of a better term for the nationalist working class). That is not a great model for republicans to follow.

  3. sorb1

    October 22, 2009 1:45 pm

    Militant:
    (a) Of or engaged in warfare: belligerent, combatant, hostile. Idioms: at war. See attack/defend.
    (b) Inclined to act in a hostile way: aggressive, belligerent, combative, contentious, hostile. See attack/defend, attitude/good attitude/bad attitude/neutral attitude.
    (c) Having or showing an eagerness to fight: bellicose, belligerent, combative, contentious, hostile, pugnacious, quarrelsome, scrappy, truculent, warlike. See attack/defend.

    Ciarán, I think it is yourself who has completely misunderstood what the word militant means (see (a) above).

    As for your substantive comment – perhaps you should read ‘Lost Revolution’.
    Yours, SorB

  4. otor

    November 18, 2009 5:29 pm

    i agree republicans in the 20th century by and large failed to build support in protestant communites. i think your 1798 cut of point is a bit crude. it was probably somewhere late in to the new departure that lack of protestent support is noticeable. i disagree with your two nations conclusion. the people who were pushing that 40 years ago have rejected it on the basis that the brit state have failed to incorporate unionists into wider british culture. the creation of an ‘ulster’ cultre has been the thing now for the last decade. but before all this there wasn’t much argument on nationality. it was on constitutionality, its only in resent years that unionist political leaders have begun to make a definate destinction on nationality, previously it was more common to claim both, which today is hard to comprehend but in the terms of old british nationalism is more understandable. even with 40 years of two nation and ulter scots iam personaly not convienced that other – protestants unionists are homogionius enough to be simpley labeled, irish, northern irish ulster british. depending on which inividual you are talking to they are 1 2 3 or all. unionism is not exactly a polor oposite of nationalism. it is more a collection of different interests united on what they are against. what republicans today need to do is analyise each component part summerise the individual argument and if possible counter it. brake unionism down bit by bit.