Is radical republicanism making a comeback?


By Fionnuala Perry

When Saoradh stepped onto the political stage for the first time on the 24th of September last year, few party members were dissuaded by the political and media reaction, which appeared in most instances to come from a script in keeping with the new dispensation.

At the time of the Saoradh launch, one journalist penned that the choice of venue, which was the Canal Court in Newry, appeared to say, ‘We won’t be restricting ourselves to the margins anymore.’

Other political narratives were based on the notion, albeit varied, that ‘dissidents’ had abandoned the cold and now sought the warmth and democratic feel good factor that can only be found in constitutional politics.

Spontaneous attributes is a psychological term. A term which usually describes those who have difficulty accessing a situation; basically they lack the cognitive skills that prevent them making random summaries and despite evidence to the contrary, they ‘jump in’.

The idea that the voice of Republican dissent could move from the margins and bring with it an ideology capable of challenging ‘the only show in town’ narrative; appeared so implausible, that those initial reactions couldn’t help but score quite low on any cognitive scale for failing to grasp the very basics of Saoradh’s core message.

Saoradh and the ideals central to its formation had been in the formalising process for quite some time.

Consultation both within and outside the confines of those prisons which housed Republican prisoners had provided a remit for dialogue; this dialogue would subsequently take place between various independents and those from other Republican groupings.

Individuals with like-minded ideals would provide a platform on which Republicanism could step away from the confines of sackcloth and perpetual apologies that are seemingly being weaved into the overall political tapestry.

Central to the party’s formation was the knowledge that British misrule and its offshoots in the North of Ireland have not been nullified or even diluted. The contentious hand that pulls the strings in relation to clandestine policing, secret deals on Orange marches, the ever growing monopoly on privatisation and legacy issues, hasn’t withered; it has in fact been strengthened.

The theory that Republicanism taking centre stage in a ‘lavish’ hotel might be interpreted as political dissent on the move is a very perceptive one.

However, the reality of radical Republican politics re-emerging within the confines of the Northern Irish statelet and advancing without serious levels of state resistance is highly questionable.

‘Northern Ireland’s’ response to radical politics and those of dissent has always come in the form of emergency legislation. This legislation had been described by International agencies as ‘exceptional’, ‘draconian’ and ‘alien.’

The territory known as ‘Northern Ireland’ was the subject of emergency powers even before the state came into existence in 1921.

The ‘Defence of the Realm’ Act authorised the UK government to issue regulations to secure public safety.

These regulations supplemented ordinary criminal law with exceptional wartime powers. These regulations granted massive stop and seizure appendages to the police and armed forces, and they had the capability to alter the criminal trial process by authorising internment without trial and trial by court martial.

While the ‘Defence of the Realm’ Act ended, allegedly after the First World War, the Emergency Powers visited on the North did not.

A series of legislative re-enactments including the capital offence ‘Treachery Act’ 1940 would pave the road to exceptional policing powers that remain in existence to this very day.

Normalisation, which is the new black, now appears to present Sinn Fein and other facets of constitutional Nationalism with a political quagmire.

Sinn Fein’s response to Saoradh’s launch didn’t differ entirely from that of the SDLP. The former claimed its party welcome genuine political debate amongst Republicans, whilst the latter claimed Saoradh had taken the first step on a well-trodden path and should partake of debate within the existing ‘democratic’ framework.

The theory that Sinn Fein welcomes genuine political debate amongst Republicans remains dubious and seriously debatable given that facts point to the contrary.

Recent remarks by the Sinn Fein leadership highlight that the party now use the same British terminology of criminality that the Gardiner Report used in relation to Republicans.

The process of criminalisation was and is to go hand and hand with the policies of Ulsterisation and Normalisation.

The success of Ulsterisation and Normalisation depend on the wider society being conditioned into the acceptance of criminalisation. In order to do this, Nationalist agitation must be viewed through a devious lens and dealt with as such.

Those former political insurgents that have now signed up as fully fledged guardians of the ‘New Strategy’, have in many cases become so absorbed into the state’s apparatus, that it remains practically impossible to separate them from the bona fide state militia.

Evidence shows, that rather than putting manners on the police, many of the former Provos have been complicit in aiding and abetting the multifaceted state forces in subduing anyone at odds with new political dispensation.

The system of democracy which the SDLP encouraged Saoradh to embrace now appears to have come loose from its political bedrock.

The Detail website recorded that our ‘democratic’ institutions have cost #74 million in the last five years.

In return for that, an apathetic and detached electorate (except when it comes to a sectarian headcount) have witnessed the Red Sky scandal; the unsolved NAMA; 2 million into the coffers of Charter NI; endless enquires into MLA’s expenses; #70,000 for Sinn Fein’s consultancy services; #60 million for Casement Park, another venture dogged with controversy; and last but not least the one that eventually brought the house down, the RHI.

Recently an article in the New Statesman proclaimed, ‘Northern Ireland’s Peace Process wasn’t too big to fall.’

The article which was written in relation to latest Stormont scandal, the RHI, cites that while the ongoing political fallout will bring on new elections, something a lot deeper might be looming on the political landscape.

The something ‘deeper’ the author predicts might come from the changing of the guard in Sinn Fein.

At the root, it is argued, is an old age political truism. ‘As with each political generation, there is a temptation to revisit the certainties of the past by those who see themselves as remaining true to the faith their predecessors drifted away from.’

The old age truism is offered as an explanation to describe what has taken place within the ranks of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn; this scenario which has seen the old radical principles of Labour overshadow the ‘New Labour’ advocated by Blair, is a pattern that the paper argues could be replicated within the ranks of the Sinn Fein movement.

The departure of Adams after 34 years at the helm of Sinn Fein may be perceived by some within the party as an opportunity to drop all former baggage and seize the opportunity for a fully constitutional party.

Mary Lou McDonald, who is believed to be the President’s favoured successor, has apparently the potential to ‘cauterize’ the more troubling aspects of the party’s past.

However, would such a cauterising process rest easily with the party doubters who will allegedly look back at armed struggle with a degree of certainty?

While this does pose a serious question for mainstream Republicans, the article goes on to claim that whilst the constitutional option starts to fray around its haggard edges; it gives credence to the belief that all this political uncertainty opens the doors for the militant and radical group such as Saoradh.

There is little dispute that the constitutional process did bring a quasi-peace and a changing to the overall political landscape.

However, if you were poor and on the margins of society pre the Belfast Agreement, then in all likelihood that’s where you remain; because in spite of all the prosperity rhetoric of ‘peace dividends’ (provided the British exchequer didn’t have to squander money on security), neoliberal ethics appear to be turned on their head with all monies trickling up into the coffers of the rich instead of down.

For those engaging in the ‘democratic’ process, the recognition that the North of Ireland remains one of the most unequal societies was a step too far.

Rather than depart from the bastion of colonial rule in protest, the two main parties dressed the post-conflict economic disaster as a ‘Fresh Start’ and posted a joint statement hailing it to be ‘a sea of change.’

Bankrupt politics in an equally bankrupt artificial state looks set to continue, the architects of the conflict transformation model in London and Washington want a return on their deal.

These days, however, it is groups such as Saoradh that emulate the kind of Marxist anti-imperialist slogans that Sinn Fein abandoned a generation ago. Saoradh’s stance mirrors the same anti-imperialist stance that we are witnessing spreading across Europe.

The ‘democratic’ system which is a relatively modern construct is now perceived to be in deep crisis in established representative democracies; the trust in political elites is crumbling.

Participation in elections is shrinking, and political parties are losing their members. In the old fashioned ‘well developed’ democracies in Europe millions have taken to the streets to protest against anti-austerity.

More and more people are realising that their elected representatives do not represent them.

Rather, governments that are made up of the right and sometimes left are more likely to bow to the dictates of big banks, the financial institutions, the multinationals and other powerful lobbies.

Closer to home we have seen Tory cuts repackaged under a ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement. The Fresh Start Agreement did not provide the catalyst for austerity, but rather, provided another piece designed to complete the neoliberal jigsaw.

In the wake of the so-called ‘economic crisis’, the British prosperity that was to come with ‘Peace’ promise has been put on hold. The stark inequalities that fuelled the ‘Troubles’ are as pronounced as ever; the very same districts that bore the brunt of the war since 1969 remain at the bottom in poverty, employment, and serious social deprivation statistics.

Public funding is cut to the bone, hospitals and schools face mass cuts and mass closures, low paid public sector workers whose wages make up a large portion of the incomes in working class communities across the North are threatened with redundancies by the thousands.

All this is being carried out by an Assembly at Stormont that seemingly can’t agree on issues in relation to culture and identity but which is ‘ecumenical enough in its worship of the free market.’

Just this week, it has been claimed that the main parties in the stalled Executive, ‘don’t have a Plan B, the smaller parties have not been allowed to put forward a Plan A, and the British and Irish governments seem happy to have no plan at all; therefore, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to assume they are making it up as it goes along.’

The ‘Only Show in Town’ now seems seriously devoid of anything other than the same old script being delivered by the same hapless cast.

With the ‘New Phase’ now seemingly being phased out, is the stage now set for the politics that once informed an entire movement in the North to re-emerge?

The dynamics that propel anti-imperialism, anti-globalisation and post-conflict structured austerity are visibly on the move. What will this move mean, could it be translated that the radical Republican politics of dissent that underpin Saoradh are now back in vogue?


* Fionnuala Perry is Vice Chairperson of Saoradh and a former Republican PoW based in West Belfast.

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