Ex-IRA and INLA prisoners joined members of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and Irish Republican Socialist Party, former members of Ogra Sinn Féin and Noraid, and unaligned republicans at the gathering in the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ hall on Saturday.
Some Republican Sinn Féin members also attended in a personal capacity.
The meeting was chaired by former Sinn Féin Assembly member, John Kelly. The following keynote address was given by Marion Price of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement.
Friends and comrades, I would like to begin by thanking the organisers of this worthy event for giving us the opportunity to speak, discussion and debate is a useful beginning in trying to develop some form of collective strategy to offset the damage that has been done to republicanism in recent years.
We in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement have consistently called for debate and dialogue on this issue and we are delighted that this first step has been taken.
It is a sad truth but one that must be addressed that republicanism as we understand it has been dealt a severe blow particularly in the last decade since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the successful attempts to portray it as a constitutional settlement and the will of the Irish people. First and foremost the demoralisation and decline in the republican separatist base has to be acknowledged. To recognise this decline is to recognise the need to act to prevent further erosion of the republican position. It is all very well each of us sitting in our respective ivory towers clinging tightly to the correctness of our ideologies however collectively and individually we have up to this point failed in attaining our objectives.
It must also be recognised that this decline and failure has been a practical one and not one of a theoretical or ideological nature. Our republican separatist ideology is sound but our means of advancing and achieving it is flawed. An ideological response to this fact is not required but a pragmatic one is. A means of maintaining our ideological positions but fusing this with practical political activity that compliments our republicanism is what is required and in truth long overdue. Only republicans can assist republicanism in this venture. May 8th must represent a turning point for us all in that we were all powerless to prevent the restoration of the six county British parliament and all that has gone with it. We were unable to convince the majority of the people of the merits of our position on policing. We must ask ourselves in a self critical way why this was so.
Politics is concerned with the engagement of people. It is not a spectator sport. If a political or ideological position does not prevail it’s because another position has been successful in opposing it. Understanding that this opposition is based upon practical devices as opposed to wrangling over ideological purity is a pre-requisite to forming successful strategies of our own. We cannot talk over the heads of the people. Republican unity or cooperation is not a principle but rather a strategy. A strategy is not an end in itself but a means to an objective. This can be said of Republican Unity. It should be viewed as a strategic device and not an ideological one.
The merits of practical republican cooperation were clearly illustrated here in Derry with the more than credible election result of Peggy O’Hara. This result is proof that cooperation can yield results for the common good of republicanism, it was a practical campaign based on a practical political platform. We only have to look at the effects of a unified campaign against republican separatism waged by the DUP and Provisional Sinn Féin to witness how practical cooperation, even between ideological adversaries can be successful. It would be a sad indictment of everyone in this room if we as ideological bedfellows cannot envisage the benefits and possibilities of unity and cooperation.
Republican Unity is not a broad front as in a structured body with formal rules and policies. It is not an attempt to homogenise republicanism but is a mechanism to effect and explore practical cooperation between republicans on as broad and diverse a front as possible. Many of us here tonight have experience of a dictatorial republicanism which has sought to transpose republican diversity to a singular constituency, this has rendered republicanism a disservice and we should avoid the same mistakes this time around.
There are many issues which we can practically work on that require no ideological retreats for any of us. There are also many issues which we have to democratically work out but it should be stated that republican unity has no pre determined outcome and will evolve depending on what is put in to it. Issues such as British policing in Ireland, the denial of political status for republican POW’s and internment in the free state are immediate examples of areas for cooperation. There are other issues such as electoralism or attitudes towards armed struggle that we may not all immediately agree upon but this should not prevent cooperation on existing areas of agreement. The 32 County Sovereignty Movement for the record are adamant that armed struggle is a perfectly legitimate form of resistance to the British presence in Ireland. Issues such as its tactical usage or strategic benefit at any given time are open for debate. However in the absence of an agreed collective republican strategy it would not be credible for one group or individual to call on others to cease to engage in armed struggle on the basis that it does not fit into their own particular strategy.
What is abundantly clear is that opposition to the occupation requires political strategy, not ideological or historical rhetoric. Our document Republican Unity states:
“In one sense republican unity is a desire to be politically relevant in a contemporary political sphere and in another sense to be historically true to ensure that republican history is a significant part of that relevance. And in as much as it represents a balance of ideals it must also represent a balance between ideals and practical activity. In political conflict being right and true alone, unfortunately, is not enough. Though any conflict may rest on a singular issue they are generally fought on many fronts. Even though the singular cause may be open to different interpretations the fact remains that within the Irish context republican interpretations all conclude that a conflict nonetheless still exists. And with that being the case those different interpretations must still address the same many fronts upon which it is fought. In other words the initial approach to republican unity should be centred on the inevitable practicalities that any republican view of the conflict must engage if it is serious about securing its objective. It is here that republican unity can be built with republican diversity still intact.”
Initially this unity should be centred around activities with which republicans of all hues are familiar. Protest, Publicity and Commemoration are what has sustained republican activists in every movement throughout the highs and lows and the benefits of using such activities is that the do not require a new formal body to oversee them. They simply require cooperation between existing bodies.
For our part the 32 County Sovereignty Movement have given copies of our two documents on Republican Unity to many of the groups and individuals represented here today. To date there has been little formal response. We believe that engagement between each other on our respective political positions and policies is essential as perhaps misunderstanding each others positions has hindered us in the past.
Our document ‘Preparing an Irish Democracy’ will be made public within the next week and we would urge all republicans to digest and critically analyse it. We seek engagement on its contents and we look forward to other proposals to put meat on the bones of Republican Unity.
In conclusion the 32 County Sovereignty Movement firmly believe that we must face up to existing political realities for what they are and not hide behind our own individual beliefs as a comfort blanket. The republican struggle has entered into a new phase and the waters are unchartered. It is false to state that republicans have been in similar positions in the past because we have not. It is also false to assume that the next generation will continue the struggle because if we don’t act soon, act collectively and act decisively there will be nothing to hand to them. We support the concept of republican unity not because it is desirable, which it is, but because it is essential. If we wish to remain isolated, in small groups destined to become an increasingly marginalised and irrelevant rump, if we wish to remain in political cul de sacs of our own making then we ought to continue to paddle our own canoes without reference to each other. However if we wish to make republican separatism. republican socialism and progressive republican thought relevant, if we wish to strengthen the republican position and build a movement capable of challenging the occupation then republican unity, coordination and cooperation are the keys.
Go Raibh Mhaith Agat.