The road to God knows where: understanding Irish republicanism (1).

Author:Smyth, Jim


Whatever Ulster unionists may think, the transformation of the 'republican movement'--shorthand for the symbiotic relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein--since the ceasefire of 1996 has been dramatic, if not unprecedented. The ceasefire, combined with a willingness to destroy weapons, under supervision, can only be interpreted as signalling an end to the IRA campaign and an acceptance that a united Ireland cannot be achieved under present circumstances by the use of force. If this position was valid in 1995, it is all the more salient in the wake of the attack on the US of September 2001. Any attempt on the part of republicans to embark upon a renewed military campaign would clearly be met by the unremitting hostility of the us administration and a large section of Irish America.

The abandonment of the military campaign was a necessary prerequisite for political change that had gestated since the decision, during the hunger strikes of 1981, to engage in electoral politics and end the policy of abstentionism. Two basic dogmas of republicanism have been abandoned without significant protest: abstentionism and the rejection of, and refusal to be involved with, any form of British-sponsored administration in Northern Ireland. This has been matched by vigorous and successful participation in electoral politics in the Republic.

On the surface at least, it would appear that militant nationalism has abandoned a core belief: that its objectives can only be achieved by the use of force. For the purpose of this article, 'nationalism' is defined as a discourse defining the Irish as a single people with a myth of origin, a language and a distinctive culture. The outline of this discourse is clearly visible from the eleventh century, in the origin myth contained in the Leabhar Gabhala (literally, the 'Book of Talking', commonly known in English as 'The Book of Invasions').

This discourse has had an extraordinary longevity as the dominant myth of modern Ireland, postulating the Gael as the legitimate heir of the island of Ireland, to be restored to his patrimony and ownership of the island. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, comments that 'philosophy cannot be separated from the history of philosophy, nor can culture from the history of culture', suggesting that the very act of writing a history was essential to the formation of a shared culture.

He argues further that creating a 'new culture ... means the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their "socialisation" as it were, and even making them the basis of vital action, an element of co-ordination and intellectual and moral order' (Gramsci 1971: 324). The fact that the Leabhar Gabhala is probably a concoction of earlier tales with little basis in historical fact--whatever that might be--is irrelevant. The condition of Ireland after the Norman invasions and the attempts of later colonisers to reconstruct history for their own ends gave the Leabhar a central position in the discourse of resistance to British rule in Ireland, and formed the ideological basis of the various strands of nationalism that were to emerge from the late-seventeenth century onwards.

The idea of nationalism as a discourse is central to the analysis of republicanism presented here. Following Foucault and Laclau and Mouffe (Foucault, 1972; Laclau & Mouffe, 2001; Howarth, 2000), a discourse is defined as a system of meaningful practices that attempts to weave subject identities together into a coherent whole. Discourses draw and maintain political boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and involve the exercise of power. Discourse theory rejects essentialist and determinist theories of society, and views discourses as historical and contingent.

Although the broad discourse of nationalism--and perhaps the myth of origin as its fundamental proposition--has a long history, nationalism as a political ideology and movement first emerged, in Ireland, in the late-eighteenth century (2).

Much has been written on the recent odyssey of republican politics (Maloney, 2002; Feeney, 2002; English, 2003); writings that tend to be discursive, rather than theoretical. Maloney's book, in particular, offers important insights into the convolutions of internal republican politics and the central role of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, in shifting the movement's emphasis away from a military solution, and towards a rapport with constitutional nationalism. The book's vivid and illuminating descriptions of the internal politics of republicanism are fascinating, but lack the context of a broader analysis of the nature of republican discourse and practice. In common with English's book, there is a tendency to personalise the process of internal change within the republican movement.

This article will attempt to contextualise recent developments in republican politics within the broader discourse of Irish nationalism and republicanism.

It is very easy to dismiss recent political developments as a betrayal of republican ideals, or as simple opportunism. Unionists would claim that republicanism has not changed its spots and that it, despite active involvement in constitutional politics, is still committed to the ultimate aim of the destruction of Northern Ireland as a separate entity. On the other hand, some republicans view the involvement in constitutional politics and the abandonment of armed struggle as a fundamental betrayal of principle. In a recent letter to the Irish News (31 May 2004), a number of republicans bitterly attacked Sinn Fein and its leadership, arguing that the ideals of republicanism have been betrayed and that:

Today the ideals we fought for are never spoken of--and those who remember them are silenced. Our beliefs were traded for the realities of the current process, a process that suits the interest of political parties and not the common people. These sentiments encapsulate the dilemma of militant republicanism in attempting to reconcile the idealism of the idea of Irish freedom with the harsh reality of political compromise. Since the IRA ceasefire of 1995, the leadership of Sinn Fein has embarked upon a process of modifying and deconstructing the discourse of republicanism in order to attune it with the reality of electoral politics.

The genesis of Irish republicanism

Although the discourse of Irish nationalism did not cohere into a single political project--national independence--until the end of the nineteenth century, the various strands of the discourse began to emerge a century before that. The dominant strand of proto-nationalist thinking for most of the eighteenth century was patriotism, which, contrary to its contemporary meaning, implied allegiance to one's fellow citizens rather than to the nation (Leersen, 1996: 14ff). Patriotism involved a liberal stance towards the relationship between citizen and the State, a commitment to general economic improvement and, important for the future development of nationalism, based some of its constitutional demands on rights supposedly inherited from Gaelic Ireland.

The origins of cultural nationalism can also be located in the late-seventeenth century as part of the patriot agenda. Although patriotism did not make the claim for a separate nation--as this would have meant confronting the demands of the Catholic majority the cultural distinctiveness of Ireland was stressed through a surge of interest in archaeology, Gaelic literature, folklore and music.

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, cultural nationalism in Ireland was submerged for most of the early nineteenth century by political agitation that focused on Catholic emancipation. The Young Ireland movement of the 1840S pushed cultural nationalism back onto the agenda, but it was not until the end of the century that cultural questions were to dominate nationalist discourse.

Modern Irish nationalism emerged in the late-eighteenth century as a response to perceived injustice. It takes its particular form from the universalistic principles of the French revolution, particularly the idea of equality and the primacy of the citizen as the source of political legitimacy. This was the essential challenge of French republicanism to the status quo: the source of political power was no longer to reside in the monarchy or the Church, but in the people, who were protected by an umbrella of basic human rights designed to curb the power of institutions. The legitimacy of states emerged from the will of the citizens.

For the more progressive elements in late-eighteenth century Irish society, these ideas offered a way to radical change. The problem, in the eyes of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, was less that of the English occupation of Ireland than the disunity of the Irish themselves. It was only through the acceptance of republican ideas and the rejection of sectarianism and instutionalised religion that the people of Ireland could determine their own destiny. Nationalism, understood as the establishment of an Irish nation state, was not part of their original project, and United Irish leaders such as Wolfe Tone had little patience with the burgeoning attempts to create an imagined Irish past as a harbinger of an ideal future. Tone looked to revolutionary France for a model of a modern, secular and inclusive society (Elliott, 1989: 53ff; Howe, 2000: 62ff).

The failure of the 1798 rising--during which the death toll was higher than that of the revolutionary period in France--and post-revolutionary developments in continental Europe weakened the appeal of French-style republicanism, which was eclipsed during the nineteenth century by constitutional nationalism and later by cultural nationalism.

Particularly influential was the idea that culture--and language in particular--formed the basis of national identity. Cultural nationalism, itself a response to the injustices meted out under the empires of central Europe, challenged the logic of empire by positing...

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