The following address was delivered to the annual conference of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement by National Chairman Francis Mackey.
The two great challenges that face Irish republicanism today are relevance and our ability to deliver it. These represent challenges because they involve change and reorganisation. This is the theme I wish to address to you for the forthcoming year.
I want this years Chairman’s Address to take the form of a series of challenges; basic challenges as to where we are, where we need to go and how we are to get there. I want you to understand that republican policy is sometimes best served by robust examination and sometimes least served by blind pursuit.
Each year this annual address follows a given format, revolutionary greetings to comrades and friends, solidarity greetings to families of the fallen and the imprisoned and an expression of gratitude to our members and supporters for their diligent and selfless work throughout the year.
I want to depart somewhat from that format by injecting a dose of realism and directness to all the above categories by paying them the pragmatic respect of involving them in addressing the challenges I will outline.
Before I outline these challenges I want you to consider two guiding principles within which your considerations of these challenges should be guided.
The first of these principles is this: Every generation of Irish people has the right to fight for the ending of the violation of their national sovereignty according to their own ingenuities and in the political contexts they find themselves. That means us here today.
The second of these principles is that our right to national self-determination is not predicated on our people determining that our analysis and vision of a United Ireland must have their prior agreement. The right to choose involves the right to reject. That means their right to accept or reject us.
The key point here in both principles is relevance: our relevance as a force to end the violation of our national sovereignty today and our relevance as an argument to ensure that an expression of national self determination can determine a more just future for our people tomorrow.
Either way we are key players on this stage because we have chosen to be here but only if we recognise that being right is simply not enough, that being historically true is simply not enough and that being ideologically pure is simply not enough. We must be relevant before we can influence and we must be influential in order to secure change.
Where republicanism stands today is not where republicanism ought to be. We are in the shadow of yet another partitionist agreement which is floundering every day and yet republicanism is not positioned to fill the ever increasing vacuum left in its wake.
Our people had the honest expectation that peace and justice would flow from Good Friday. They are entitled to this, but yet republicanism finds itself cast as the enemy of their peace and no matter how astute our political analysis was in predicting the failure of that process what we have to offer in providing that peace is still viewed as a violent negative.
This is largely due to republicans being seen as perpetual critics, obstructionists to any efforts that fail to satisfy the ghosts of republican history. In our people’s minds our definition of progress is a simple homage to historic events as opposed to a dynamic to shape events yet to come.
The answer to this negativity cannot be found in the past. The very act of seeking it there reinforces the people’s belief in this negativity. The simple truth is that our vision and proposals for a sovereign united Ireland are deemed irrelevant by the very people we hold this vision for.
This goes to the heart of the challenges I alluded to earlier. The seminal republican document outlining a republican blueprint for a United Ireland is Eire Nua and its subsequent addendum Saol Nua. And though both are visions of great merit the basic truth remains that both are more associated with a republican split in the mid eighties than they are with what they intended to be.
Can we honestly say that any debate on Eire Nua will not inevitably lead back to a debate on that split? Isn’t it a fundamental truth that republican debates on a United Ireland lead back to a century ago as opposed to a moment yet to dawn? And this epitomises the problem: republicans believing that all our debates must have a retrospective trajectory, that atoning for the past is more important than planning for the future. It’s a disastrous failure. And the people have every right to reject us for that alone.
Good Friday is in very real danger of collapsing. Republicanism as it stands does not represent a political force to be reckoned with in the event of this collapse. We are seen as fragmented, reactionary, poised to say ‘we told you so’ but offering no realistic prospect of delivering change.
We have made our objections to Good Friday. We have done so on the proper grounds and in the proper forum. We have no need to anchor ourselves to a perpetual rehashing of these objections. Our task now is to formulate our alternatives in the positive context in which they belong, our inalienable right to self determination.
We have spoken much on republican unity. We have drafted discussion and position papers to assist this project. We have outlined the logic of it and the necessity of it. We have convened public meetings so that our support base could take part in this debate. We have done so in the absence of any reasoned or presented counter argument against such unity.
The greatest obstacle to the necessity of republican unity is our obsession with the past. And for anyone who voices opposition to it, irrespective as to their reasons why, we issue this challenge to them; give us an argument that looks forward? Do not tell us that political inertia is a principled position. Do not confuse sticking to principles with principles that are stuck. Do not argue the spurious notion that the reasons for our existence are rooted in the past. Do not try and tell us that mere existence is a political activity.
We cannot claim to act on behalf of the sovereignty of the Irish people knowing full well that such acts are not the best we can offer. How can we promote with any sincerity our political vision knowing full well that our actions in their pursuit are not in themselves sincere because we know them to be less that one hundred percent?
If we are rightly to be judged by our actions then we are doing a grave disservice to our objectives. The challenge ahead is to end this contradiction.
Before we seek to influence political change we must first examine our own organisational abilities to do so. What we aspire to and what we can do are not one and the same.
And before we address organisational abilities we must first address the abilities and expectations of the individual republican. This is possibly the greatest challenge of all.
Challenge yourselves today; what am I doing that I can do better? What more can I do? What do I need to learn before I can advance?
In today’s environment the individual republican holds more responsibility than their counterpart twenty years ago. Every republican with a mobile phone can speak to the world in an instant. It is an awesome power, the true dread of which lies in not understanding it.
This demands of all republicans an acute awareness that a real discipline is required when it comes to membership of a republican organisation. It’s not enough to know who the Hunger Strikers were, or who signed the Proclamation or who died in such an operation.
Each republican needs to be well versed in current republican policy, both in its content and in the various strategies employed to advance them. You need to know your role in this organisation and you need to understand how this organisation can only function because of that role. You are the most important cog in this machine: ALL your actions and pronouncements impact on the organisation as a whole.
The recruitment bar needs to be set high, the continuing membership bar set even higher.
How should we organise ourselves? What sort of movement should we be? How should our organisation function?
The party political model for Irish republicanism has failed. The political party known as Sinn Fein is the only political party in Ireland to have negotiated and signed two partitionist treaties with the occupying power. Out of that political party has evolved further partitionist groupings such as Fianna Fail and Provisional Sinn Fein. It is the nature of a party based political organisation to conform to the party political system which defines it.
Party politics is parochial politics. Parochial politics is the death knell for a national movement. It is a universal error to believe that abstentionism from such a political system is the antidote to this conformity or that practicing such abstentionism preserves revolutionary identity. It does neither because abstentionism needs to be a revolutionary activity and not a negative political position.
Becoming a political party negates abstention from a party political system. Adopting such a position merely reinforces the fact that the very system you claim to reject is the same system you have allowed to define you.
Republicans need to move away from the negative connotations of abstentionism and begin to promote the positive alternative of a distinct and revolutionary engagement within our communities. The challenge that faces us is not to stay outside of their system but to build the system that will replace it. This is not an exercise in resurrecting ghosts nor does it need ghostly approval. We are here, this is now and our communities deserve our full attention just as we require theirs.
This will not be achieved with an abstract argument or a historical homily. It will require functioning structures that know how to cooperate and communicate. We need to demonstrate to our communities that political change is not the preserve of the establishment nor dependant on being part of that establishment. And if we can guide our communities to achieve change for themselves we will have made the most powerful argument for their ability to secure national change.
That is the essence of the idea of republican relevance.
There is no social utopia nor utopian method of achieving one. A political programme is not a list of aspirations but a plan of action based upon our abilities to pursue and implement them. And this is the key point; the effectiveness of our political programme is wholly dependent upon the willingness of our members to make themselves more effective.
A political programme does not originate from the nameless and faceless in a backroom but from the abilities of our members acting in an organised way. The less you are effective the lesser effective our political programme will be. There is no escaping the logic of this truism.
Our message to our communities is that sovereignty matters. The objectives of our political programme are to demonstrate that by acting in a sovereign capacity, individuals and communities can effect change for the better. As republicans we want to see this action translated into national change. We want our community activism deeply rooted in our pursuit for the restoration of our national sovereignty.
The current economic and financial crisis has taught us some very telling lessons. To squander these lessons with a rant against capitalism is to miss the lessons it is teaching us. Where was socialism when capitalism was in crisis? Is this a mirror image of where is republicanism when Good Friday is in crisis?
And just as we are perceived as being negative so too is socialism. Socialism is indelibly linked with failure. It is linked to dictatorship, censorship, social enslavement and economic deprivation. We may not like to hear these truths; we may prefer our rants against capitalism but the absence of any meaningful expression of socialist discontent on the streets in the midst of this crisis speaks volumes.
And we can immerse ourselves in abstract debates on the history of socialism and pat ourselves on the back when we invent a new ism as a comfort blanket but we do so at the cost of even further isolation.
We cannot build a political programme predicated on having to explain failure. We cannot go into our communities offering change on the back of outdated slogans. We cannot resurrect past conflicts as a means to make our solutions look more relevant than what they actually are for today’s problems. We either take our objectives and policies into modernity or we go home. No more glorious defeats. No more keeping the flame aglow. No more workers utopia. No more populist electoralism.
I want to draw your attention to our initiative on drug abuse entitled Addressing the Drugs Crisis, A Paradigm Shift in the Republican Approach. I’m not using the chairman’s address to argue its merits or not, that is properly the function of the delegates to debate openly at this Ard Fheis. I want to draw your attention to its structure.
There is no doubt that drug abuse is a huge problem in every community in Ireland. It is a problem republicans cannot ignore nor approach in an ill thought through capacity. It’s far too serious an issue for that.
Republicans have always taken a stern line on drug dealing. The death of Volunteer Alan Ryan is testimony to this. But his death is also a wake up call that republicans must take a realistic approach to policy making that reflects both a basic logic and a pragmatic appraisal of abilities and resources.
The initiative begins with an impartial and critical look at the nature and extent of the problem. It does not present the problem so it dovetails into a pre-existing solution. It examines current approaches to dealing with it and outlines the conclusions of those approaches. In similar vein it scrutinises republican efforts and thinking and applies a critical review of those also. It examines experiences in other countries and outlines the initiatives they have taken and details the results thereof.
From this detailed analysis it proceeds to formulate a working policy which republicans can carry into their communities as part of a national political programme.
Irrespective of whether you agree with the conclusions or not the salient point is that the drafting of a policy in such a format allows us to make a more informed decision either way.
This is the mechanism that republicans must employ when formulating policy on any matter. Policing, organisation, finance, elections, republican unity all deserve our full and critical attention if we are to be effective in dealing with these crucial matters.
In conclusion I want to reiterate that the year ahead must be about grasping these challenges and moving republicanism forward. They are challenges for individual members and our movement as a whole. Each requires the other. Each needs to play their part.