REPUBLICAN UNITY - A DISCUSSION DOCUMENT
By The 32 COUNTY SOVEREIGNTY MOVEMENT
It is essentially the case that in any political compromise with the British government on the national question Irish republicanism has been the severest casualty. From the British, Free State and constitutional nationalist perspective this is the prime motive for making such compromises. The motivations for republicans to compromise are more varied ranging from genuine political efforts in the face of republican inertia, political naivety to outright betrayal. In as much as these varied reasons invariably leave the separatist movement greatly weakened republican reaction to it has also contributed to this weakened state. The principle reason for this lays in the fact that not only does division amongst republicans occur over the very premise of any compromise, between those in favour and those against, but also division occurs amongst those who remain opposed to whatever compromise was formulated. The division becomes twofold and as such republican opposition becomes twice as ineffective. The great irony in all of this is that there exist more reasons to be unified than there does to remain divided.
Political compromises with the British government were always sanitised by making the compromise popular. This popularity insulated those from political scrutiny because the perceived ‘ending of the conflict’ took precedence over the terms agreed for it. Equally those who offered this scrutiny, republicans, were demonised with a vitriol of anti peace and anti democratic rhetoric and by consequence the republican objective itself was cast in this light. Invariably recrimination in republican ranks clouded prudent political judgement which allowed the politics of the compromise an almost clear run to take hold, and as such, create a new generation of political thinking to develop amongst the body politic which possessed a virulent anti republican strain. This anti republicanism was by no means a static mechanism but a deliberate and ongoing political strategy with the dual objective of sustaining the political defeat as represented by the betrayal of the national objective and, crucially, to keep the politics of that objective marginalised. Disunity amongst republicans is a major contributor to this marginalisation.
There exists within republicanism an irrational distrust of politics and political activity evidently sourced from the various betrayals and departures that it has suffered. It’s irrational because republicanism is about politics and it’s irrational because republicanism is confronted by politics. It was the lack of political acumen within republicanism which permitted both the betrayals and ideological departures to take place. The republican objective needs to be expressed politically and republicans need to fully understand it if we wish to both effectively promote and defend it. Defining this expression in a clear and concise manner has proved problematic for republicans. Invariably definitions were applied to unsuccessfully prevent further betrayal and compromise thus reducing republican politics to a set of do’s and don’ts, obsessed with betrayal, as opposed to a dynamic ideology attractive to people and capable of securing its objective. Equally in giving republican politics a poor definition the scope of activity to pursue it was greatly narrowed leading to further marginalisation and disagreement amongst republicans as how best to move forward. Irish republicanism was beginning to be defined by shouting aloud what it wasn’t as opposed to implementing what it represents in as broad a field as possible. Republicanism cannot move forward armed with a list of negatives.
It would seem that there exist three distinct areas that would need to be addressed successfully if republican unity were to be realised to any effective degree.
1. What does Republican Unity actually entail?
2. How is the Republican Position to be politically and ideologically defined?
3. How do we formulate acceptable strategies and activities to pursue it?
In as much as there are three separate areas to be addressed it will be obvious to most that there is a definite integration between each as no doubt aspects of one given area, say a political definition, may well dictate the parameters of another i.e. how do we pursue it. However this integration should not be viewed as a stumbling block in formulating a political definition but rather be seen as a guiding tool urging republicans to make better ones and to be mindful of the implications of ill thought through political strategies. Everything we do or state has a consequence and we should ensure that whatever they are they are at least beneficial to republicanism. This has not always been the case.
It is also important to realise that unity amongst republicans is not predicated upon reaching absolute agreement on absolutely everything nor is it about establishing one definitive route upon which all republicans must travel. It is essentially about maximising and prioritising the political effectiveness of our common ground and minimising the political damage caused by whatever differences may exist. In breaking down the issues which need to be addressed we allow ourselves a better insight into them and we can establish a more structured and constructive mechanism to resolve them. It also means that prior agreement on anything is not a pre-requisite to commencing the process as it stands a better chance of success if open minds are brought to it. Undoubtedly republicans will come to this with positions held strongly and rigorously defended but the point of republican unity is not to constantly defend positions but to promote and build them by interacting with broadly similar views and, crucially, some new ideas. Irish republicanism needs new ideas.
In conclusion it would be envisaged that the more appropriate sequence of events to commence this process would be for republican organisations and individuals to draft similar discussion documents along similar lines outlining their ideas and concerns regarding the issue of republican unity. Naturally there may well be those resolutely opposed to the very concept of such unity but it would be important that these objections be outlined in detail and submitted, if for no other reason, that it shows respect for the genuine efforts of other republicans. Following on from the draft discussion documents it would be proposed that an open conference be held so as to facilitate open and genuine debate on the issue of republican unity in a reasoned and honest manner.
What Is Republican Unity
In one sense republican unity is a desire to be politically relevant in a contemporary political sphere and in another sense to be historically true to ensure that republican history is a significant part of that relevance. And in as much as it represents a balance of ideals it must also represent a balance between ideals and practical activity. In political conflict being right and true alone, unfortunately, is not enough. Though any conflict may rest on a singular issue they are generally fought on many fronts.
Even though the singular cause may be open to different interpretations the fact remains that within the Irish context republican interpretations all conclude that a conflict nonetheless still exists. And with that being the case those different interpretations must still address the same many fronts upon which it is fought. In other words the initial approach to republican unity should be centred on the inevitable practicalities that any republican view of the conflict must engage if it is serious about securing its objective. It is here that republican unity can be built with republican diversity still intact.
The balance between ideals and their practical pursuit is best achieved by realising that the mechanisms we employ to further them are in themselves apolitical. Publicity for example needs a printing press but is better served by two. What prior political agreement is needed before this conclusion is reached? Where is the strategic sense in arguing over what publicity should be aired whilst neglecting the practical mechanism to propagate it? Diversity on a given issue is not the problem but is invariably cited as such. The problem is that republicans fail to co-ordinate on what that given issue should be. Certainly there are issues specific to particular groupings and issues wherein diverse stances are counterproductive but within the spectrum of the conflict these issues are far outweighed by those upon which republicans could agree are worthy of co-ordinated comment, diverse or not.
Republican unity is better defined as republican co-operation.
Republican unity is not a broad front as in a structured body with formal rules and set policies. It is not a process to transpose republican diversity to a singular constituency but it is a mechanism to effect and explore practical co-operation between republicans on as broad a front as possible. This requires organisation which in turn is predicated on continuous contact between groups and individuals. As with any exploration its outcome is not pre-determined but will evolve according to what is put into it. This criterion would also apply to determine the levels of co-operation that are reached and more importantly their effectiveness. It would be envisaged that an incremental approach to the process of republican unity would be the most prudent and advantageous as it would afford a greater degree of control to the participants over the process as opposed to the process controlling the participants. Possible areas of co-operation will be looked at later on in the discussion document.
What Is The Republican Position
Before a definition is rendered for discussion it is important to remember that any definition will determine the parameters of how it is to be pursued. That’s why it is critical that the definition afforded allows enough latitude to avoid it becoming a prisoner of itself and yet enough clarity and principle so as to avoid it being held hostage to populism. Equally injurious to any definition would be vagueness, masquerading as ‘openness’, which would permit spurious claims to support of it, or simplistic sloganism which nullifies the depth of what we are trying to achieve. Each has demonstrated an ability to be a perennial problem for Irish republicanism.
To construct a positive political and ideological definition of the republican position cognisance would have to be taken of the following;
1. Its Provenance.
2. Its History.
3. Its Pursuit.
The Republican Position is both a political position and a political activity. In seeking to define this relationship through an analysis of the above criterion the template we must bring to bear is that any claim to the Republican Position must be synonymous with its pursuit. We must define Irish republicanism with an inherent dynamic that measures support for it in terms of its active pursuit. In accepting that it is also a political activity we must define it so as to make clear what political activity would be in contradiction of it. But this must be self evident to allow its prime thrust be directed towards its attainment and not to be distracted by endless wrangling over claim and counterclaim of ownership.
The provenance of Irish republicanism is separatism. The Republican Position is first and foremost a separatist position. This was established by Wolfe Tone and acted upon in 1798. This separatism defined the Irish people as a sovereign people and the island of Ireland as the sovereign territory of that people. However in as much as this separatism addressed the fact of the British violation of Irish sovereignty Irish republicanism equally had to contend with the strategic mechanisms employed to maintain it. This involved the confronting of both imperialism and sectarianism as primary implications of British involvement in Ireland. It also had to contend with the British fostering of an indigenous politics, reformism, and latterly constitutional nationalism, as an ‘Irish’ bulwark against independence. All these factors made it incumbent upon republicans to recognise that other liberations were inherent in national liberation. Irish republicanism was not solely concerned with institutional freedom but with the freedom of people within their own sovereignty.
When Tone declared his aim of uniting ‘catholic, protestant and dissenter’ and to ‘breaking the connexion with England’ he was attempting to show the relevance of the national aim to the daily lives of the people. This relationship within the republican position was critical to its proper definition and although Tone established it in idealistic terms it was not until the emergence of James Fintan Lalor that its practical application was invoked.
As the Young Irelanders struggled in vain to make their idea of literary nationalism relevant to people during the famine it was Lalor who took Tone’s position to its logical next phase. With immense vision Lalor contended that the struggle between Tennant and Landlord was a microcosm of the struggle between Ireland and Britain. The fight for tenant’s rights was the same as that for national rights wherein one could not be achieved without the other. National freedom and social justice were synonymous.
What the actions of both Tone and Lalor demonstrated was that the republican position is neither the property of a given era nor indeed the property of a certain type of liberation. Its relevance was predicated on its ability to allow strategies to evolve from within it to make it so. Defining the republican position is therefore a continuing process of making it relevant to whatever current events confront it. Getting that aspect right is the cutting edge of the struggle. The history of Irish republicanism is the history of that process.
The historical lineage of the republican struggle is erroneously traced through the staggered rebellions which have occurred in its name since 1798. It is equally erroneous to claim or seek a lineage by endeavouring to divine or contrive a common thread in its history and making common cause with that thread. The true lineage of republicanism throughout its history contains a great irony in that to inherit it for the present you must make it different from the past. This is achieved by bringing something new and contemporarily relevant to it. It is in the study of these contributions that the true lineage of Irish republicanism can be traced. And, in parallel, so can the history of its development.
The republican baton that has been passed from generation to generation and from circumstance to circumstance is not a Darwinian process of Pike to Musket or Thompson to Armalite, but a process of idea to idea. The best ideological ideas are those that are born young because they possess the ability to develop in relevance with their environment. This is why Tone’s ideas not only survived but demanded development. The inheritors of Tone, who ever they may be, must be those who developed his ideas to the point of continuous relevance.
Without wishing to engage in an in-depth historical narrative so as to make the discussion document more succinct a general trajectory of republicanism and its inheritors will be given. No doubt other viewpoints will see matters differently, or disagree with certain aspects, or indeed be more inclusive of other persons and events who they believe have contributed significantly to the development of Irish republicanism. The chronology below is designed to be a visual representation of the points raised in the discussion document concerning the importance of development in tracing a lineage for the republican position. The reason as to why this is important is to allow us to develop it further.
Republican Separatism -- Secularism – Anti-Imperialism
1840’s-Young Ireland – Fintan Lalor
Cultural Identity – Parallel Struggles
1850’s-1860’s – Fenianism
Mass Movement – Church / State Separation
1880’s – Gaelic League
Mass Cultural Revival
1913 – James Connolly
Development of Lalor’s Parallel Struggles
1916 – Pearse
1919 Dail Eireann
Declaration of Independence
1923 – IRA & Sinn Féin
What’s immediately apparent about the above chronology is that it contains two distinct endings, firstly to the Declaration of Independence where the proper development of republicanism brought it and secondly to Attrition where its lack of development has anchored it.
Who are, and who were, republican activists? What is required of an individual or group to be able to claim to be a republican activist? Clearly the answers lay in the answering of another question; what is an Irish republican? As stated before, and what is at the heart of the purpose of this document, is to define that entity with clear terms of reference but with a generous and guiding remit. A republican activist is one who realises that history cannot define contemporary Irish republicanism but that history affords them a template to allow them define it for themselves. That is the inheritance and that is the essential role of a republican activist.
The interdependency on claims to be a republican and what we’ve brought to it is more apparent now. It’s not enough to be armed with history no more than saying ‘I’m a republican’ makes you a republican activist. Therefore it could be submitted that the ingredients required for republican activism are;
A. Historical Cognisance
B. Contemporary relevance
C. Practical Political Activity
In the chronology of events listed earlier all these ingredients are present. To be part of that chronology requires our republicanism to be made up of similar ingredients. There is a strong case to be made that since partition Irish republicanism has not managed to utilise the totality of these factors but rather has foundered by conferring a false priority to one over another or indeed disregarding one whilst attempting to formulate the other. This is not to demean the efforts of others but is an earnest attempt to learn from them. :Republicanism since partition has witnessed a wealth of activity but has experienced dire poverty in terms of political gain. Blaming others for this only exacerbates this reality. The validity of the republican objective must be complimented by credible mechanisms to pursue it.
Defining The Republican Position
The rightful restoration of our National Sovereignty in tandem with social equality and justice for our people within that sovereignty. For this end we pursue the re-establishment of the Republic proclaimed in 1916, democratically ratified in 1918 and constitutionally decreed through the Declaration of Independence in 1919. No stance may be taken which negates or undermines our right to National Sovereignty. The pursuit of the republican position is an intrinsic part of that position.
Formulating Acceptable Strategies
Politics is concerned with the engagement of people. It is not a spectator sport. If a political or ideological position does not prevail it’s because another position has been successful in opposing it. Understanding that this opposition is based upon practical devices as opposed to wrangling over ideological purity is a pre-requisite to forming successful strategies of our own. We cannot talk over the heads of the people.
A common theme throughout this discussion document has been the relevancy of republicanism as a means of advancing it. In the past such strategies have drifted towards being ‘directions’ which in turn evolved into departures from the original premise. These scenarios came about by allowing our strategies determine our politics as opposed to our politics determining our strategies. In short relevancy was confused with populism. The net result of this confusion is the emergence of political cliques centred around political personalities wherein loyalty to the objective becomes subordinate to loyalty to the clique. The only antidote to this malaise is democracy within republicanism.
A republican strategy must be exactly that, a strategy of republicans for republicanism. It must also be self regulating to avoid meandering from its original intent, open to periodic review to allow adjustment to new circumstances and not to be elevated beyond its status. A strategy is not an objective in itself but a means to an objective. This can be said of Republican Unity. It should be viewed as a strategic device and not an ideological one.
This approach to formulating republican strategies can be witnessed in the strategy document Irish Democracy, A Framework For Unity recently launched by the 32CSM. Having outlined the 32CSM’s analysis of current events it proceeds to strategically engage those events, not by reference to republican principle, but by relevant argument guided by that principle. In utilising a generous remit in defining concisely the republican position it has developed a strategy of engagement that imposes no restrictions nor sets pre-conditions for other republicans to support it. Republican diversity is not a problem for it. Why then should it pose a problem in formulating other strategies?
Possible Areas For Republican Unity
An incremental approach to a project such as republican unity would be deemed more prudent. Indeed the project may benefit more by being more accurately described as republican co-operation. Equally that co-operation should commence in activities which republicans are familiar with. Throughout its long history, through its many highs and many lows the Republican Movement has relied on three principle areas of activity;
Any struggle can find common cause within these activities and no less so for the Irish struggle. Of the many fronts upon which a struggle is fought, as mentioned earlier, these have proved the most salient and indeed the most productive. And again what must be reiterated is that they are concerned with practical activity. Equally any mechanism to pursue co-operation along these fronts is not going to require prior agreement on deeply held principles no more than it requires a formal body to oversee it. It simply requires co-operation between existing republican bodies.
As republicans we’ve all engaged in them and we all wished they were bigger and more effective at the time. The nature of any republican protest is not only to highlight and object to a given issue but, like Lalor and Connolly, to show that issue as being a direct consequence of the British presence in Ireland. It makes local events relevant to national events which in turn makes republicanism relevant to both.
Although it is conceded that a formal body need not be established to effect republican co-operation it would be necessary that within existing organisations a formal approach to it be undertaken in accordance with its own constitution and rules. To this end the position of Protest Officer (the title can be altered) should be created on the officer board of the respective ruling bodies of republican organisations. The remit of this position should be to identify and organise on protest issues for their respective grouping but also, crucially, to liaise with similar officers from different groups to effect joint protests on agreed issues. The benefits of this approach are numerous;
1. By creating the position it makes the progress of activity in the area specifically accountable to its respective organisation.
2. It focuses minds and resources towards this area.
3. It allows for a more researched choice regarding the issue to be protested against in tandem with giving a clear political direction to it.
4. It creates a ‘Protest Policy’.
5. Through co-ordination and co-operation we maximise the impact of the protest.
6. Through co-operation we enhance further co-operation and unity.
The logic of protesting for republicans is defined by its necessity. The logic of a unified approach should be measured by what we can accomplish as a result. Random protesting on random events, however deserving, yields little gain, strains resources and portrays a political position as one without direction. Protesting cannot be an insular activity because its core purpose is expressive. Republican unity is a protest in itself.
The most potent weapon of all, for and against. Republicans are no strangers to censorship and a hostile press. It is an essential front on which to engage our struggle, as it is for our enemies to undermine us. Whatever about the extremely limited influence republicans can exert upon media portrayals of the political landscape we can certainly exert a positive influence over the portrayals under our control. Publicity is the ultimate compliment to political activity.
At the heart of both governments’ efforts to marginalise the republican position, through publicity starvation and false press, lies a contradiction, which needs their deft management to contain and which republicans need to recognise in order to exploit. Republicanism is newsworthy. Republicans need to make ourselves more newsworthy. This is the basis on which unity on this vital front can be predicated. Republican unity is very newsworthy.
As with the merits of co-ordinated protest co-ordinated publicity of it is essential to its success. And not just with protest. A co-ordinated approach to commentary on topical political events puts a clearer republican fingerprint on those events. It’s not about saying the same thing per se; it’s about saying it on the same subject. All republican groups possess PRO’s to manage publicity and issue statements and editorial staff to manage the content of their respective publications. It’s not a question of creating anything structurally new but taking a new approach to existing structures.
1. A monthly meeting of all PRO’s to assess current political events worthy of comment.
2. Co-ordination of the issuing of public statements.
3. A monthly meeting of editors to create more focussed articles.
4. Mutual fostering of media contacts.
The detail of these issues is best left to their own development once the notion of unity in this area is accepted. Again it’s not a matter of prioritising one point of view over another but trying to make all republican points of view more relevant.
2016 will mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. It should be a republican separatist celebration but there is no guarantee of this. Already the politics of partition are laying claim to it and what will be witnessed between now and then will be a systematic process of political and academic revision of these events to sanitise the constitutional status quo. This needs to be countered and green rhetoric is not enough.
This revisionist process will emanate from a united front of seemingly disparate political groups backed by a compliant national media. Any hopes of stemming this tide must come from a united republican base. But that process must commence now. To this end;
1. The establishment of a Republican Centenary Committee comprising equal representation from different republican groups.
2. A public declaration of support from each group to the work of this committee.
3. The Republican Centenary Committee identify, co-ordinate and organise three annual joint commemorations to be fully supported by and reflective of each republican group.
It should not go unnoticed that the events of 1916 themselves highlight the ability of such co-operation to come to pass.
This document is an attempt at engagement to strengthen the republican position. It should be responded to whether through support or by criticism. It is not a position paper but a means to provoke debate on republican unity.