Dissident and dissenting republicanism: From the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to Brexit.

Author:Hoey, Paddy


When Drew Harris took his post as the new commissioner of An Garda Siochana, the police service of the Irish Republic, on 4 September 2018, he was quick to identify dissident republicans as the biggest threat on the island of Ireland (BBC 2018). Harris' appointment was controversial, but he had not chosen dissidents as a Machiavellian means of deflecting attention from himself. While deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), he had been pointing to the threat that dissident republicans posed, particularly since the vote for Britain to leave the European Union (EU). Harris had previously told the House of Commons select committee on Brexit: 'Dissident groups see [the border] as an area which is contentious, which will give them a further rallying call to try and engender support' (O'Carroll 2017). In the same hearing, Harris pointed to the 58 shootings and 32 bomb attacks linked to dissidents in 2017 as evidence of their capacity to pose a threat to the British and Irish police services and states. By the end of 2017, incidents involving republican dissidents were reported as being at an 8 year high, with many of the shootings and beatings linked to punishment attacks in Derry and Belfast (Simpson 2017). However, it is unwise to see violent dissidents as avatars for all of those who were accurately described as 'Anti-Good Friday Agreement Republicans' or AGFARs' (Ruddy 2004). The differences between the continued dissident attachment to the utility of violence in the struggle and more nuanced approaches which sought to discern new pathways for republicanism after the revision of Sinn Fein strategy and the failure to end British rule, were played out across this period and revealed another era of the schisms and ideological fractiousness that had typified republicanism throughout the 20th century.

This tradition of fractious factionalism became concentrated again in this period because the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement effectively solidified partition and delivered few of the key political aspirations of the Republican movement. The agreement sealed a bright new future for Sinn Fein, but one where it was forced to walk a path between the old and modern forms of its own ideology: to manufacture a narrative that the Peace Process emerged organically out of the military struggle and that reform of the state and pursuit of human rights, rather than smashing partition, had been the ultimate goal of the conflict. Sinn Fein reconfigured the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign of violence as not as a war of liberation predicated upon ending Stormont and British rule in Northern Ireland but rather as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement (Bean 2007; Maillot 2005). At the 1998 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (annual conference), Gerry Adams was keen to stress the nature of the Peace Process as the next phase of the republican struggle (Adams 1998). However, this process was fraught with ideological paradox and was at the root of why new forms of dissidence and dissent emerged in the years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

Defining dissent: dissidents versus dissenters

It is important to define what the words 'dissident' and 'dissidence' mean specifically in the context of the republican movement and the wider structures of the Peace Process. One simple differentiator is the distinction between 'dissidents' and 'dissenters'. Dissidents are those that still maintain either an overt support for republican violence, like the Continuity, Real or New IRAs, or groups that offer them overt or qualified support, like the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), Republican Sinn F&n or Saoradh. Dissenting republicans are those that take a position of opposition to violence while maintaining critiques of Sinn Fein and the Peace Process in general. These encompass the cultural dissent of the magazines Fourthwrite and The Blanket, whose stated position was in support of the peace but against the process and which also rejected the utility of violence prior to the 1998 agreement. Falling between these two blocs are eirigi and Republican Network for Unity (RNU), political organisations which emerged in the mid-2000s arguing against the use of armed force as a meaningful way of achieving republicanism's goals but stopping short of condemning those that did. What is most noteworthy here is the fact that the catch-all definer of'Irish republican' remained ideologically flexible enough to accommodate both reformists and the unreconstructed militarists.

Republicanism's political culture has been able to accommodate diverse and anachronistically divergent traditions. It has embraced 'militant nationalists, unreconstructed militarists, romantic Fenians, Gaelic Republicans, Catholic sectarians, Northern defenders, international Marxists, socialists, libertarians and liberal Protestants' (Tonge 2004: 672). However, the political ideas that influence this diverse range of political exponents have been constantly redefined, particularly in the recent period by the overwhelming political and social power of Sinn Fein. These ideals can be seen as 'republicanisms' which have always included variants of nationalism, national and ethno-religious identity, liberationist ambitions, socialism and its relationship with national self-determination (Bean 2007). These ideals are also shaped by the political moments in which they exist. In the current period that has been framed by the development of neoliberal economics, austerity, Third Way centrism and populist nationalism. Sinn F&n has largely been able to adapt and mould these seemingly entrenched structures of republican catechism to fit the political realities of their specific period (Bean 2007; Feeney 2002; Maillot 2005).

The interplay between these common republicanisms and the repertoires of activism through which their aims are pursued and identities expressed have tended to act as centripetal forces, pulling all republican groups to a generalised core identity and remain hugely influenced by the ethno-nationalism of Patrick Pearse and the international socialism of his 1916 Proclamation co-signatory, James Connolly. However, since 1998, contemporary forms of republican dissidence have developed because of centrifugal forces. Each of these centrifugal 'moments' have usually been signposted by a split in the movement and the formation of a new bloc of dissidents coalescing around their opposition to reforms. For example, the acceptance of partition and the Mitchell Principles on non-violence in the run-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement were the catalysts for the formation of the 32CSM and the Real IRA, while the acceptance of policing and justice reforms with the St Andrews Agreement signalled an exodus of republicans to new organisations such eirigi and RNU in the mid-2000s. Abstentionism, the basis for the split of Republican Sinn Fein from the Provisionals in 1986, is a grounding principle for the newest republican group Saoradh which has vowed never to run candidates in general elections in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland (Radio Free Eireann 2017).

At the heart of these schisms has been the contestation between doctrinal readings of the various extant 'republicanisms' by dissidents and the adept, opportunistic political flexibility of Sinn Fein to apply reforms that have distanced it from the more traditionalist organisation it was between 1968 and 1990. Sinn Feins modem ideological flexibility means that provisionalism is perhaps best described as an ideological configuration rather than a unified body of ideas; it has remained a work-in progress throughout its history, because it is a site of contestation between elements of the universal and the particular. (Bean 2007: 135)

Whiting notes further that 'Republicanism is a fragmented and diverse phenomenon and contemporary versions are articulated by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals beyond what Sinn Fein represents' (Whiting 2015: 78). Dissident groups tend to be narrower in focus and more doctrinaire and fixed in their political aspirations and beliefs.

However, the period since the signing of the Belfast Agreement might also be approached from a different point of ideological evaluation, namely, has Sinn Fein's reformist project diverged from the ideals of Pearse and Connolly to such an extent that it is out of step with republicans? If its key definers are rejection of militarism, acceptance of partition and an ability to accommodate itself within neoliberal economic structures, is it still republican? By self-definition it is, but O'Ruairc (2009) argued that 'if it is easy to identify those that the media refers to as "dissident republicans," it is far more difficult to identify and define what they mean by "dissident republicanism'". If Sinn Fein was intent on rewriting the catechism to fit the compromises of the Peace Process, then dissidents and dissenters could, with some justification, portray these ideological reforms as a betrayal of the core tenets of their beliefs. Even the unionist newspaper the Newsletter was capable of noting that 'Adams, McGuinness et al are the real dissident republicans. They are the ones who have abandoned the abstentionist policy. They are the ones who have legitimised partition' (O'Ruairc 2009).

Republican dissident analyses which are partly rooted in the time of the 1919 Dail and partly in the pre-1998 period, have displayed a lack of recognition for the need for nuance in the 21st century where the political, economic and identity structures that frame Irish and British life are manifestly different to those of 1921 or 1969. The tendency to see the world through the lens of the early 20th century is one that is still evident in current dissident thinking and activist materials which have shown little ideological development since 1998. In that year, a writer for Republican Sinn Fein's...

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