Why label disillusioned Republicans as criminals?

By Danny McBrearty (for the Guardian)

In the aftermath of the civil unrest provoked by pushing an unwanted sectarian parade through the Republican heartland of Ardoyne, Gerry Adams wrote an article for Cif in which he empathised with what he termed “bitter orange” concerns, while summarily dismissing Republican protesters as “dissidents” or criminals.

The irony of such characterisations is hard to miss, not alone because of a lack of sympathy for Ardoyne nationalists who were on the receiving end of plastic bullets and water cannons or dragged out of their own streets by the crown constabulary.

For years, literally decades, the British vigorously pursued a strategy of criminalisation, and strove to brand all Republican opponents of British rule, especially members of Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA, as “criminals”. Their leaders were even styled “godfathers” whose very voices were deemed unfit to sully British television or radio. Few were so labelled more routinely than Gerry Adams himself.

The strategy was clear. A civil rights campaign or even armed resistance against British rule caused by legitimate grievances such as the denial of Irish national self-determination, or the systematic use of sectarian privilege and crown force repression, would raise troubling issues. The motives of criminals merit no serious consideration and are by definition illegitimate. The label “criminal” thus diverts attention away from any injustices at the core of British rule in Ireland.

A historic illustration of criminalisation took place in 1976, when the British government decreed that Republican political prisoners must don a criminal uniform. So intent was the Thatcher government on enforcing the propaganda ploy that those such as Brendan Hughes and Bobby Sands who refused were subjected to years of brutality and inhuman treatment, ending in the deaths of 10 Irish patriots on hunger strike in 1981. Criminals do not die such deaths for the freedom of their country.

For the following decade, leading Provisionals continued to be disparaged. Suddenly there was an overnight transformation. Some who had been berated as “criminals” or “godfathers” were now heralded as visionaries. The change in status coincided with the willingness of those former godfathers, now overnight visionaries, to renounce core demands and principles.

Those who negotiated the Stormont agreement, and whose reputations and endorsements insured its public support, claimed that their deal would be a stepping stone or transition to a united Ireland. They claimed that by accepting British rule and the unionist veto, by joining the British Stormont assembly, and forming a partnership with the unionist bloc, they would bargain away the sectarian injustices underpinning British rule. Republicans would march to a united Ireland through Stormont. Predictions were made as to the date of this historic achievement, from Joe Cahill’s claim of 2003, to the less ambitious, but wildly unrealistic, claims of 2016.

The term dissident was applied in general parlance to encompass, in broad terms, those Republicans who did not accept this analysis and advanced a Republican alternative to this strategy. The dissidents believed that the agreement would not lead to a united Ireland but was actually designed to consolidate British rule. Their numbers included many veteran Republicans and ex-prisoners who had risked much and suffered much in the struggle, and for whom it was heartbreaking to walk away at a time when it was becoming easy, and for some financially beneficial, to be a Republican.

The word dissident embraces a wide range of groups. Some, such as the Republican Network for Unity (RNU), have no direct tie to armed struggle. RNU campaigns with others around issues such as the mistreatment of Republican political prisoners at Maghaberry prison reminiscent of the tragic policies that led to the 1981 hunger strike, or against triumphal sectarian parades forced through nationalist areas like Ardoyne. RNU links these injustices to British rule and the Stormont administration, and asks whether the Stormont partners back these injustices or are merely powerless to end them.

Some dissidents continue to believe that armed resistance with its political, military and publicity dimensions is central to challenging British rule. A full discussion and analysis of these various groups would take far more space than is allotted here.

What events are making increasingly clear is that the number, influence and import of those Republicans who are disillusioned with Stormont will continue to grow. Those who pretend these Republicans are unimportant, dismiss them as criminals, ignore them or expect Sinn Fein to control them, have badly miscalculated.

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