Wait till I tell you, the Easter commemorations were pretty desperate this year. But weren’t there an awful lot of them? Actually, there seem to be commemorations going on all the time. And this is something that strikes me, that the more the Provisionals turn into a constitutional party, the keener they are to celebrate the republican past. It’s easy to be cynical on this point, but I don’t think it can be explained purely by cynicism. I think there are other things going on here in terms of republican identity.
This was something that occurred to me apropos of the tributes to the late Marie Moore. I don’t want to seem disrespectful to the memory of Marie, one of the grand old women of Belfast republicanism and someone who was very well liked. But I was a little taken aback by the Andytown News running a double-page spread explaining to the broad masses what they owed to Marie Moore. If you took the paper at face value, if it wasn’t for Marie we would all be sitting in a hovel in Short Strand with no trousers or shoes. And this is something that, for instance, Jim Gibney has developed into a fine art over recent years, simultaneously backslapping the republican base and impressing on the base the need for gratitude to the leadership.
Departing from this for a second but sticking with the Andytown News, the other noteworthy thing has been the ongoing propaganda campaign against dissident republicans. This has actually got to the point of being scurrilous bordering on the downright hysterical – if you believe the Andytown News, every single dissident, not only members of the armed groups but even extending to éirígí activists, is a criminal of some description – glue sniffers, burglars, paedophiles, you name it. In fact it is quite possible, even likely, that there are criminal elements among the dissident ranks, although they are probably small fry compared to the Provo and Stickie entrepreneurs. But Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is not a man to be too fastidious about his propaganda.
None too fastidious, either, is Bobby Storey, who’s recently been holding forth on this point. Some folks will fall over laughing at the idea of Bobby of all people taking a high moral tone against the men of violence. But that is to miss the point. When Bobby Storey goes around saying “I know where these guys live,” there’s really only one way to take it. The question is whether the threat carries any credibility without the military wing to back it up, and with no prospect of the Provisional IRA being resurrected for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. (The Brits might be tempted to stave off the emergence of a local Hamas by bringing a local Fatah into play, but I can’t see the DUP standing for it. During the peace process, they went buck mad whenever the Provos did in a dissident.)
But anyway, back to the criminality thing. Once we get past the black propaganda, this often morphs into the Gibneyesque line that, while the Provisional leadership have put in decades of sacrifice for the cause, the dissidents are nothing but young thugs. The fact that some of the people most strident on this issue were young thugs themselves once kind of gives the game away. Because, of course, the dissidents in themselves are not all that different from the Provos of years past. It’s the Provos who have changed – the context obviously has changed massively, but rock-bottom republican theology has never required, for instance, mass popular support, and would regard power-sharing at Stormont as an irrelevance at best.
This poses a bit of a problem for supporters of the GFA process. A few weeks back I saw a letter in the Irish News from Danny Morrison lambasting the dissidents and all their works. At least, that’s what it looked like at first glance; at second glance, I was left wondering whether Danny was completely out of touch or whether he just liked nursing his grudges. The reason for this is that Danny spent most of his time getting stuck into the Irish Republican Writers Group, a body that’s been defunct for a decade or more. Frankly, for Danny to be harping on what Tommy McKearney and Tony McIntyre were saying twelve years ago is a bit odd, at a time when Fourthwrite has at least one foot in the Big Tent, and the Blanket has folded. But this also points up a little conundrum, in that the peace process got by for a long time by simply co-opting the opposition. If you were a republican or loyalist critic of the process and you were able to string a sentence together, there was a good chance you’d be put on the payroll. In the end, virtually the only republicans left outside the Big Tent were RSF, who really are died-in-the-wool ideologues, and who, having correctly surmised that there would always be a market for traditional republicanism, were mostly content to keep their elderly cadre together until a new generation of disaffected youth came along. But that was then and this is now. The spotty youths causing most of the trouble at the moment are outwith the peace industry, are likely to laugh in your face if you tell them Martin McGuinness is a great republican, and nobody seems to have a clear idea what to do about them.
It’s true, of course, that the dissidents don’t have much popular support. When a raft of dissident candidates stood in the last Stormont election, between them they got something under 10,000 votes – not entirely insignificant, but not much in the grand scheme of things. There are, mark you, some caveats that need to be entered. The vote for anti-Agreement republican candidates doesn’t necessarily equate to support for a renewed armed campaign. On the other hand, those candidates were a motley bunch hampered by poor organisation and a lack of a coherent alternative. The majority of them were from Republican Sinn Féin, who are not universally popular even with other hardline republicans; most of the others were in or around the IRSP; and there was Gerry McGeough, the nearest thing to a green fascist we’ve seen in sixty years. It did show that there might be some limited potential for a well-organised political alternative with a knack for populism and a track record of grassroots activity, but the likelihood of a follow-up along those lines isn’t great.
The other thing said about the dissidents is that, as well as having no support, they have no strategy. It’s tempting to believe that if you’ve ever been to one of the periodic meetings that happen in places like Derry to discuss alternatives to the peace process. The usual format is that a bunch of people will talk about the need for an alternative, although they may not have any idea what that should be, and then someone from the Real Republicans will get up and insist on their inalienable right to take potshots at the Brits, regardless of whether taking potshots at the Brits is a good idea. But there is a hazy strategic conception at work. Partly it’s the strategy of tension, which I don’t think the Brits are going to fall for any time soon, but on a more prosaic – and effective – level, it consists of asking the question, “Which side are you on?”
Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014.
What anti-Agreement republican activity does, whether it’s low-level disruption by the armed groups, or whether it’s éirígí’s brand of agitprop politics (parenthetically, while I have my doubts about éirígí, the ferocity of the attacks on an unarmed political group suggest that they’re annoying the right people) is to ask the question “Which side are you on?” Do you, in essence, support the state against republicans, no matter how deluded you think those republicans may be? Imagine this being asked to a panel at a debate. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for an RSF member, who would simply answer No. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for a member of the SDLP, which has been collaborating with the state for decades, and who would simply answer Yes. The leftist on our imaginary panel would huff and puff and say that this was the wrong question, and we should really be talking about water rates. But for a PSF politician? Totally committed to the peace process, yet subjectively unwilling to openly pledge loyalty to a partitionist settlement, or even to recognise that that’s what the settlement is. For that reason, it’s still problematic to support the state against republicans – that’s why they don’t say they’re defending the state, they say they’re defending the Good Friday Agreement.
Ah, the vagaries of being slightly constitutional. You can ride two horses for a while, but it doesn’t really add up to a long-term perspective. Eventually the dissonance has to be worked out one way or another.
More thoughts on this point from WorldbyStorm.