It’s important to realise that things have changed in recent years in terms of the republican media. It used to be, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, that you just had to pick up Republican News every week and you’d get an overview of what the Provos were saying. There was no other journal of significance, indeed hardly any political tendency of any significance. In the days before the peace process, when republicans didn’t have much access to the mainstream media, a weekly read of what was effectively the Voice of Grizzly was invaluable for knowing what the boys were up to.
Not so these days. Readers outside Belfast may not realise this, but it’s much more important to read the Andersonstown News, which, together with its local satellites, fulfils a very specific function. Now, I know that the Andytown News is not formally a Provo paper. That’s the beauty of it. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and his little media empire are able to fly kites over sensitive issues, thus giving Gerry some plausible deniability while at the same time campaigning among the base for the route Gerry wants to take. It could therefore best be described as the Ghost of Grizzlyism Future. It has, for example, been pushing for the best part of a year for endorsement of policing, which, given that Máirtín wouldn’t wipe his bum without permission, gives the lie to Gerry’s claim that he only made up his mind two months ago. I don’t like the Andytown News – it tends to remind me of the Sunday Sport without the tits – but it’s worth a look for that reason alone.
Republican News, on the other hand, I tend to read on and off – you don’t see it that much in the North. It too has a specific function, being aimed at the PSF cadre, and in particular the southern cadre. That explains why it is usually quite militant in its language, having a more strongly republican and leftist coloration. That would reflect the Provos’ southern base better – while the Andytown News perfectly fits the consciousness of the cynical ward-heelers in Belfast, the PSF membership in Dublin contains not a few people who think of themselves as radicals, even revolutionaries. I often think that being a radical in Sinn Féin Nua must cause a body a severe case of cognitive dissonance, but you can see what Republican News does for these people. It reassures people who thought they were joining a radical movement that they are indeed in one. Therefore, if the Andytown News forges ahead, Republican News tends to lag behind what the leadership are actually doing.
Actually, I prefer Republican Sinn Féin’s Saoirse, and, as I hear it now has a bigger circulation than Republican News, so too seemingly do quite a few others. I’m not a supporter of RSF, and it’s a very long time since I would have been a republican in the sense that RSF comrades would understand it, but I find Saoirse comfortingly familiar. There is never any doubt you’re reading a republican paper, and, if you ignore the improved graphics, you could almost be reading a copy of An Phoblacht circa 1975. You won’t read stimulating new ideas here – not that you’ll find them in Republican News either – but that’s not the point. This is good old-fashioned principled republicanism, just like the politics we used to know, to warm the cockles.
Now we turn to the Starry Plough – which only appears sporadically and can be hard to track down – and I’m sorry to say that, after thirty-plus years to get it right, the IRSP still haven’t mastered the art of producing a readable paper. It has varied down the years, though, and more recently there has been noticeably less of the Shining Path and Kim Il Sung stuff the Irps were so keen on in the 90s. Strange to say, you can actually find reasonably intelligent articles in the Starry Plough, though I have serious doubts, based on the entire history of the Irps, of their ability to translate a good paper position into operative politics.
It is at least a better read than the Sovereign Nation, organ of the Real Republicans. This paper’s content can best be summed up as follows: Down with Gerry! Armed struggle – yo! Punishment beatings – yo! Apart from the occasional nod to “sovereignty” in the Wilsonian sense, you will be hard pushed to find any political content. This is militarism pure and simple, and it’s more than a little wearying.
Finally, it’s worth taking a look at two more open publications. Fourthwrite, which emerged from the “republican recomposition” discussions following the 1994 ceasefire, has wide recognition and a stable circulation, and manages to provide an arena where opponents of the Gerryite strategy can debate. The magazine is patchy – generally there will be a couple of excellent articles, a couple of really awful ones, and a couple that leave you scratching your head – but is essential reading nonetheless. Fourthwrite’s strength, I would say, is its weakness – while its openness is to be commended, its lack of a well-defined line means it has trouble really taking the lead in a “recomposition” project, with contributions varying between strident opposition to the Good Friday process and willingness to remain within the Big Tent, and a consequent lack of focus.
The same could be said of Forum, publication of the Dundalk-based New Republican Forum group. Forum has a less attractive style than Fourthwrite, but makes up for it with rather heavier articles. Like Fourthwrite, the politics are basically republican, vaguely leftist, undogmatic and showing a welcome willingness to think about alternative strategies. There is indeed some political thinking going on amongst republicans, it’s just that you have to dig a little to find it.