SF voters… and ‘violent nationalism’. June 11, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, The Left.
Well now, there’s a most curious piece in the Irish Times written by Colm Keena on Gerry Adams. In it Keena – who wrote a biography of Gerry Adams. In the piece he has to admit that Adams and the leadership of the RM brought it away from armed conflict towards constitutional politics…. but… but…
What struck me while working on the book, and still seems to me to be a key observation, is the way the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland, encouraged as it was by other such movements around the world targeting oppression, became so particularly violent.
Does he really find this such a mystery? The struggle – and it’s an appropriate word, struggle – for civil rights didn’t appear in a vacuum, was the result of a repressive state, a more broadly repressive society and political, social and economic marginalisation. Nor was it a case of that state or society passively standing back in the face of the civil rights struggle. Quite the opposite. As it gained force and influence we know the history of 1968 onwards.
Not that there’s not some truth to the following:
The reason for this, I decided, lay in the fact that Adams, and others like him steeped in the culture of Irish republicanism, were of the view from the start that the civil rights question in Northern Ireland would quickly become the national question. And he and other republican true believers were convinced that the national question could be resolved only through violence: the Brits would have to be driven out. Because they held this view, republicans saw the eruption of violence in the North (which they encouraged) as an opportunity. If the scale of the violence and killing could be increased and maintained, the British would tire and leave.
Of course Keena doesn’t mention Official Republicanism in this, or the nature of the RM pre-split, for to do so is to bring particularly dynamics front and centre – firstly that, yes, Republicanism saw an opportunity – though I think it can be argued that many Republicans, perhaps a majority, saw that opportunity as being a rupture with the then extant polity towards a leftist approach. However, that was, to a considerable degree, washed away as those Republicans underestimated both the nature of the response of the state (and that broader society) and the manner in which Nationalists responded to both the long term history of the socio-political entity they were in and the short term responses of that state.
Nor does Keena reference at all the broader international political context, and in particular the influence of student and other protests and the increasing militancy of those involved in same. That was an obvious dynamic feeding into the evolution of the civil rights movement. Again, none of this happened in a vacuum. Perhaps, given the inability of the Stormont state to reform itself, and the hesitancy and inability of the British to oversee such reform successfully, it is unfortunate that the conflict in the North appeared when it did, but it is unlikely that there would have been no conflict, no stand-off or more with the state.
And it’s worth noting that peaceful protest, of a sort one presumes Keena champions met a very strong and violent response from the state and state supported actors – which response itself ratcheted up more confrontational and increasingly combative protests, though well short of paramilitary or insurgent approaches.
Moreover, and this is another failing of Keena’s, both wings of Republicanism, as it were, whether those who remained wedded to armed struggle or those who subsequently (though notably not until three/four years later, and only in part) renounced it, saw as the outcome the replacement of the state as was in NI with an all-island unitary republic – albeit of differing types (though this modified for Official Republicanism in some respects subsequently). So the issue of violence is not necessarily the most important one at play in all this.
Nor was violence the preserve of one side in this. In the history of the conflict it was loyalism, perhaps – though the record is cloudy, though suggestive, in this regard – egged on by elements within broader political unionism, who (re)introduced political violence in the latter part of the 1960s.
And it’s also worth continuing. Violence and armed struggle continued in a pernicious cycle in no small part due to the response subsequently of the British state which was unable and unwilling to position itself as a guarantor of all rights – and instead made the arguably strategically sensible if morally bankrupt decision to pick a side (albeit unwillingly and incompletely).
But all this is lost in Keena’s analysis. All violence devolves to the responsibility of (Provisional) Republicanism.
Which is not to say that some of the attitudes that Keena attributes to that wing of Republicanism did not exist. But it is to rob agency of many other forces in this history.
One of the real terrors in the room was this tradition that gave such a central role to, and so embraced, violence. Militant nationalism could be imagined as a virus that was passed from generation to generation, ready whenever the conditions were favourable to emerge from its slumbers and wreak more havoc.
I’ve always felt that this is such a parochial line, and an expedient one. Militant nationalism exists in all societies at one time or another and it can be both reactive and active.
It may well be that Adams came to the view that violent nationalism was a virus that needed to be isolated and killed before it infected coming generations, and that this in part explains his role in guiding the republican movement towards peaceful means while striving to prevent a catastrophic split.
Perhaps he did, though it would be an odd way of looking at it. It seems to me more likely that Keena’s following analysis is closer to the truth:
It may also be that he decided, long before the ceasefires, the IRA’s campaign should end because it was a hindrance, rather than a contribution, to its stated purpose.
But in a way it doesn’t matter, because eventually the broader political context, East West, North South and within the North changed to a degree that it was possible to reconsider and reshape a dispensation in which – however imperfectly, there appeared to be an alternative to the use of political violence.
But Adams’s principle political motivation remains his dream of a united Ireland. Personally I think that his stated allegiance to democratic politics is subservient to this dream, and that even if this view is wrong, to act on a belief to the contrary is to take a great risk.
What precisely is the risk? That SF will institute a coup d’etat? Does he think them that stupid, that detached from reality? Does he believe that this state is so fragile that citizens would accept or tolerate such an eventuality?
It seems, actually, that his fears are somewhat more prosaic:
Adams is a member of the Dáil, Sinn Féin is in power in Northern Ireland, the party is on the rise in the Republic, and it seems it will hold the position of Dublin Lord Mayor in Easter 2016. Indeed it is possible it will be in power, north and south of the Border, come the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the event that did so much to feed the romantic view of political violence which has so blighted this island. It is not difficult to imagine Sinn Féin wanting to use the anniversary to influence popular views on the legitimacy of the Provisional IRA’s campaign, thereby justifying Adams’s career, and providing a boost to the republican tradition.
So what? Given the engagement by SF – and some will view that engagement in very jaundiced terms from a variety of viewpoints, with the British, the Royal Family, etc, etc, it is hard to believe that any particular boost would be a boost to – say – what most of us would understand Republican views in 1978, to pick a year at random, would be – at least in the context of support unequivocally armed struggle, the necessity for military means to deal with partition and so forth. The contexts are now utterly different, not least in the steadfast antagonism to dissident violence in the North (though there’s no question of SF or Adams throwing the IRA under the bus as it were in relation to its history all the while being critical of aspects of the struggle).
But if that’s not what we can expect to hear from SF – and simply providing a boost to the ‘republican tradition’ is pretty vague in any case, then what functional negative impact can it have. Does Keena align with the Conor Cruise O’Brien line that simply to talk about 1916 would in and of itself inflame the impressionable sensibilities of another generation of Irish youth? Would kick off a Troubles redux? I find it highly unlikely that he – or any sensible person – does.
If that is the case then what particular ‘dangers’ are there?
But to be honest it would appear that he will countenance near enough no expression at all of Republicanism, for how else to interpret his closing thoughts?
People who voted Sinn Féin need to pay serious heed to these dangers. At least part of the energy within Sinn Fйin comes from its militant nationalist tradition. That tradition is a menace. We should eradicate it.
Perhaps so, but another thought. If, as the heading on the piece suggests, ‘SF voters must pay heed to dangers of violent nationalism’ is correct then logically that heed might be such that they would come to the conclusion that increased political support for SF would be precisely the thing to keep pushing it away from ‘violent nationalism’ – after all, as it increased support this was seen as part legitimation for its moving away from armed struggle. And therein lies yet another contradiction at the heart of Keena’s approach, because what he seems unable to accept is that political formations can change in regard to their attitude to political violence and that SF (like other nationalist and Republican formations before them) has too.