From insurgency to identity

Like a magician wriggling free from a straitjacket, Sinn Fein ditched universalism and reinvented itself as a party of victimhood.

This article is republished from the July 2008 issue of thespiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ tribute in May to former Irish Republican Army leader Brian Keenan, in which he described Keenan as a peacemaker, revealed much about the party’s retrospective redefinition of its long struggle against British rule in Ireland. Speaking at Keenan’s funeral, Adams suggested that Keenan lived long enough to see his goals realised: ‘Achieving a power-sharing administration with the Reverend Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible but for the work of Brian Keenan.’

I grew up in West Belfast in the next street to Keenan. Before he rose to relative notoriety in the British press as an ‘IRA hard man’, he was already well known and respected throughout the Irish republican community in Northern Ireland – and it certainly wasn’t for his role as a ‘peacemaker’. Keenan was admired for his military ability to strike at the British state. In West Belfast, Keenan’s association with the Balcombe Street unit (a group of IRA men who fought in a siege with Metropolitan police officers in London in 1975), Libyan arms shipments and numerous other IRA operations were seen as evidence of his determination and tenacity in prosecuting the war against what we saw as Britain’s occupation of our country.

Yet to read Adams’ funeral oration is to conjure up images of a man who struggled all his life for a peace deal which has delivered a power-sharing administration within a partitioned British state. Amazingly, the current Sinn Fein leadership has been able to get away with rewriting the aims and tactics of the republican struggle retrospectively. As a new generation grows up and the ‘Troubles’ pass from memory to history, the politics of transformation are being replaced by the politics of identity, victimhood and the rhetoric of accommodation and compromise. Sinn Fein’s rhetoric now disavows self-interest and any mention of the movement’s former commitment to achieving political goals. Instead, the party has embraced the language of ‘conflict resolution’, ‘parity of esteem’, ‘healing our wounds’ and ‘victims’ voices’. Such an outlook might seem preferable to fighting a war, which takes it toll on the community – but it is a disingenuous and dishonest approach to republican politics and history.

That a political project could be so decisively redefined in such a relatively short space of time is quite incredible. What’s even more incredible is that few if any serious attempts have been made to analyse and critique this most blatant case of revisionism. The death of Irish republicanism is not a popular subject for discussion for any side in Northern Ireland’s divide; all parties have an interest in keeping up the pretence that republicanism is thriving.

At last, however, an excellent account of these profound developments has arrived. The New Politics of Sinn Fein by Kevin Bean, a lecturer in Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, is a seminal account of the ideological changes that have taken place over the past 10 to 15 years. It explores how the republican movement was transformed from an anti-state insurgency to a partner in governing the state. Bean’s book is not only the book I have been waiting for… it is the book I would like to have written.

Bean situates Irish republicanism in a global political context and shows how its politics are comparable to other ideological projects that have undergone similar decline and redefinition since the late 1980s. The book considers the tension between the universal and the particular within republicanism and how this is reflected in specific aspects of republican politics.

The focus on the international context is particularly topical at the moment as the world marks the fortieth anniversary of 1968 radicalism. It is interesting how the numerous commemorations and articles invoking the uprisings in Paris, protests in London’s Grosvenor Square, fighting in Vietnam and radicalisation of the black civil rights movement in the USA have failed to mention Derry 1968 and the struggle for civil rights for the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Yet when Bean interviews IRA volunteers and republican activists, the extent to which they were inspired by other struggles becomes clear: ‘From its founding moment, the environment shaping the movement extended beyond the streets of West Belfast and the villages of East Tyrone to guerrilla campaigns in Latin America and civil rights activism in the USA’, writes Bean.

Yet while republicans drew inspiration from other radical movements, Bean shows that the movement never really had a clear definition of republican ideology. In very simple terms, in the late 1960s through to the mid-1980s the politics of the republican struggle were largely progressive, universalist and anti-imperialist in character, as they were influenced by progressive struggles in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. However, since the late 1980s, in a post-Cold War world that has seen the further decline of the left, republican politics became prey to the particularist strand that always existed within the movement. The republican leadership quietly revisited its universalist aspiration for a United Ireland with a united people, and moved towards embracing the politics of cultural difference and identity.

A key part of the republican argument was always that it was the British state that created and sustained a false division between Catholic and Protestant and nationalist and Unionist in Northern Ireland, using its tried and tested imperialist policy of Divide and Rule. As such, struggling against British rule meant struggling against the forces that were dividing Irish people from each other. However, the republican ideal of overcoming externally imposed divisions has now also been revised, as republicans accept – and even celebrate – the existence of ‘two traditions’ and two peoples in Northern Ireland with separate cultures and identities. Far from overcoming and dissolving differences, the peace process has encouraged us to champion them and preserve them into the future.

Bean rightly flags up the influence of ideological changes in international politics as a key driver in isolating and eventually altering the politics of republicanism. He points out that alongside the impact of the collapse of international anti-imperialist movements on Irish republicanism, the very notion of Enlightenment universalist values rooted in the French Revolution and the United Irishmen also declined in importance. Republican politics ceased to be about grand visions and who should run society, and instead became about the politics of cultural and communal recognition. Where once the British state enjoyed no legitimacy within republican communities in Northern Ireland, it now found itself called upon by its old adversaries to take responsibility for ensuring ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘recognition’ for both the traditional Unionist and nationalist communities.

By calling for more funding and recognition for the Irish language, or for the re-routing of offensive Orange marches, the republican movement implicitly invited the British government to adjudicate and rule between two cultural groups, hence strengthening the legitimacy of British rule and changing the republican struggle from one against division into a game of one-upmanship underpinned by the politics of grievance. Bean shows how Sinn Fein’s revisionism not only meant that it started to accept political divisions as natural or traditional, but started to accept the right of Britain to rule Northern Ireland. After all, if there really are ‘two traditions’ in Northern Ireland, distinct, different and with difficulty getting along, then clearly an external adjudicator is needed to oversee their interaction.

Bean charts the entry of Sinn Fein into community activism and politics in great detail. He provides evidence that some republicans, from the 1960s onwards, jealously guarded their independence and autonomy from the state and were acutely aware of the dangers of being sucked into a reformist agenda. The activists took inspiration from the Catholic Housing Action Groups, direct action and tenants’ associations that emerged from the radicalism of 1968. The Tory government’s attempts to deny funding and to stigmatise any groups with republican members served to reinforce their image as radical, bold and innovative.

However, in a policy u-turn in the 1970s, British governments slowly moved away from the political vetting of ‘dangerous’ groups towards increasingly funding and drawing these groups into a relationship with the state. This changing approach was part of a government counterinsurgency policy known as ‘normalisation’. British governments began to channel millions of pounds to radical community groups, which in effect transformed them into ‘gatekeepers’ between the British state and the local community.

In an insightful case study, Bean points to the example of the Upper Springfield Development Trust (USDT) in the republican Ballymurphy area of Belfast (Brian Keenan’s estate). Under the guise of tackling deprivation, the British gave the USDT a grant of £6.9million. With a salaried staff of around 60 people, it was to become one of the largest employers in West Belfast. In effect, many autonomous republican activists who had been at the forefront of the battle against the British in the Ballymurphy area were being drawn into actually implementing British social and pacification policies.

Former revolutionaries and radicals who set out to subvert the state were slowly, but surely, transformed into the new establishment. Of course, such activists are almost always well intentioned, but as one leading critic of the peace process quoted in Bean’s book explains, the nature of the structures, the strings attached and the financial terms of Britain’s dealings with these community groups have ‘dulled the sharp end of [their] politics’. The fusion of community and identity politics has moved republicanism well away from anything radical or revolutionary towards municipal politics, a political and cultural framework similar to that used by the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Indeed, as Bean points out, the similarities between the changing Irish republican movement and the petty political organisation of left individuals such as Ken Livingstone did not go unnoticed by Ken himself. Bean quotes Livingstone: ‘I was struck by the similarity in the position of what you might call the new radical left in the Labour Party and the radical left in Sinn Fein. I had no doubt that in different circumstances, if I had been born in West Belfast, I would have ended up in Sinn Fein. Equally, if Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison had been born in London, I’m sure they would have ended up supporting some left current in the Labour Party.’

It would be wrong to characterise the republican leadership’s series of accommodations to British rule as a ‘sell out’ or ‘treachery’, as some dissident republicans do. The removal of Irish republicanism from the stage of history must be understood in its declining sense of agency and historical subjectivity. Republicans are no different to many former revolutionaries around the globe, with whom they agree that it is no longer possible to change the world – hence the politics of transformation is no longer on the agenda and instead has been replaced by the cultivation of identity and protection of cultural heritage. The logical outcome of the process of normalisation, incorporation and decline of international grand visions described so well by Bean was the peace process, and an historic accommodation by republicans with Unionism and British rule. As the republican activist Bernadette McAliskey put it: ‘The war is over and the good guys lost.’

Such brutal honesty was, however, nowhere to be seen in the republican movement’s leadership itself. Instead, they presented the peace process as a successful outcome of their campaign, rather than analysing it as a logical conclusion to a long process of depoliticisation and accommodation. With its rhetoric of ‘a new phase of struggle’, ‘new site of struggle’, ‘transition’, ‘opportunity’, ‘staging post’, ‘not the end but the beginning’ and ‘historical momentum’, the republican leadership, aided by the deliberate ambiguity of the peace process, was able to present a series of unprecedented departures from republican principles as great steps forward. There is no shame in defeat, of course; it can be an opportunity to take stock, learn lessons and search for a new form of politics that can address the continuing reality of British rule and political and social divisions. Yet there is something shameful about disguising defeat as ‘a new transitional direction’.

Unfortunately, the current leadership of the Republican movement has compounded its defeat by its political dishonesty, and its refusal to tell it like it is. With its constant advocacy of identity politics, pleas for truth and reconciliation and therapeutic rhetoric, republican leaders retrospectively undermine all that was positive about the spirit of the republican struggle. In this process, republicans are recast as something they were not. In the same way that Brian Keenan has been recast as a man driven by a vision of sharing power with Ian Paisley, so young men who sacrificed everything – sometimes even their lives – in what they considered to be a struggle against British occupation are now rewritten as ‘wronged victims’.

To illustrate this point, Bean discusses the changing republican reaction to the Loughgall incident in 1987, when the SAS ambushed and executed eight IRA volunteers. The following two reports, separated by 17 years, capture the changed thinking within the republican and nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

In May 1987, An Phoblacht/Republican News (Sinn Fein’s newspaper) argued: ‘Republicans do not complain about the way in which the British Forces carried out their operation. Centuries of British terror have taught us to expect it. The illegitimacy of the forces which carried out the Loughgall killings is not simply in their actions but in their very presence in our country. It has always been and always will be illegitimate and unacceptable.’

Seventeen years on, in August 2004, the Irish News reported that relatives of one of the IRA members killed at Loughgall had a ‘very useful meeting with the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) chief constable. One member of the family commented afterwards, “We are just a family trying to get the truth about what happened to my brother”. The police spokesperson described the encounter in similar terms: “It was a useful meeting with an open two-way discussion. The Kellys [the family in question] raised a number of issues with the chief constable. He in turn offered his assessment of the decision to deploy the army against what he feared was a dangerous gang.”’ As Bean notes, the defiance that characterised the republican struggle has been replaced by a therapeutic tone and a joint search for the truth as part of a process of reconciliation.

The dead volunteer in question was Padraic Kelly. I remember vividly his father’s tribute the day after the Loughgall ambush, when he described his son and seven comrades as ‘brave Irish soldiers fighting a war against an oppressor’. At the time the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s then police force) and the British Army regularly attacked IRA funerals to prevent any military displays. When asked by a TV reporter about the prospects of a clash between security forces and mourners at his son’s funeral, Kelly replied: ‘My son will be buried with full military honours as befitting an Irish soldier. If they try and prevent Padraic’s coffin leaving the house with his IRA beret and gloves then we will bury him in the back garden!’

Such an open spirit of defiance is a far cry from the approach of today’s republican leadership, which is more comfortable pressing for the creation of Victims’ Commissions, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and inquiries into various incidents that took place during the Troubles. The lexicon of victims, suffering and trauma dominate the republican movement’s discourse. ‘Securing the peace’, ‘bedding down and keeping the peace on track’ – this is the republican movement’s neverending mantra. It’s as if the peace process itself, and not bringing an end to British rule, had always been its goal.

With a light-footedness that a magician extracting himself from a straitjacket would be proud of, the republican movement has reinvented itself around lifestyle issues and victim and identity politics rather than the National Question. Yet while many former activists feel a sense of dislocation and disorientation, Sinn Fein’s electoral popularity remains undiminished as it benefits from people’s growing sense of impotence and lack of confidence to effect real change.

The Irish republican movement fought for a united Ireland and an end to the artificial division of Irish people. It lost and instead has helped to strengthen British rule in which divisions are reinforced and celebrated. Understanding how republicanism in Northern Ireland has adapted to and even embraced this defeat is an important part of the history of modern Ireland – and The New Politics of Sinn Fein is an excellent contribution to that historical record.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school, and is co-producing the debate ‘The Troubles, 1968-2008: Revising Irish History?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in November.

The New Politics of Sinn Féin, by Kevin Bean, is published by Liverpool University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the July 2008 issue of thespiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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