A Millennial’s Perspective on Republicanism
Book Hub Publishing’s 2016 ‘Encouraging New Writing’ Series
From a very young age, I have had a passion for Irish history and politics. Even in my earlier days in primary school, I can remember looking through textbooks and seeing the frail, dying figure of Bobby Sands and knowing exactly who he was. Whilst I was too young to really understand the idea behind the now infamous Hunger Strike period, I was able to comprehend that it was in the name of so called Irish freedom. This gathering knowledge base was further facilitated by my father’s rather large collection of books on Irish Republicanism, the Provisional IRA and the conflict more widely known as “The Troubles”.
As a child, I was more interested in looking at the pictures in the middle of the books as opposed to the actual text content, but I became familiar with now household Republican names, various murals in Derry and Belfast and the distinctive signage of ‘Sniper at Work’ in South Armagh amongst other synonymous images of that particular period. It’s also worth mentioning that I come from Dundalk in Co. Louth, which also became known as ‘El Paso’ during the height of “The Troubles” thanks to a comment from Max Hastings of the BBC. I believe that growing up in this area has had a profound impact on my interest in Irish Republicanism due to its proximity to the border of Northern Ireland and the town’s significant involvement in the struggle for Irish independence throughout Irish history.
During my time in secondary school I was able to broaden my horizons in terms of Irish history and understand the plight for Irish freedom in more detail. Most of what I learned in secondary school in relation to Irish history boiled down to the pursuit of sovereignty from the beginning of the early 1900’s to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. During this period, it became clear to me why there was a Northern Ireland and why there was a continuation of armed insurrection against the British state in the 6 counties. Despite this, I paid much more attention to the men and women of 1916 during secondary school than I did on the Provisional Movement. The great storytelling capability of one of my history teachers meant that I was taken in by the romanticism of the rebellion and the bravery of the volunteers who gave their lives in the quest for a Republic. It was for this reason that I decided to write my history research project on Éamonn Ceannt, one of the 7 signatories of the 1916 Proclamation purely because he was a relatively unknown figure to me as a student and he also happened to live in Ardee, Co. Louth for a short period of his life. Upon leaving school, I was adamant that a degree in history and politics would be most suited to my skillset and my interests. The fact that I completed my Leaving Certificate in 2011 also meant that Irish and European political matters were at the forefront of every newspaper and bulletin so I felt obliged to take on politics in order to understand the politics of recession, austerity and crises whilst also understanding the theory behind Republicanism, insurrection and revolution.
It was during my 5 years in University College Dublin, Ireland that I really had my eyes opened to the history of Irish Republicanism and its rather volatile nature. I also came to learn and understand the concept of Republicanism in a much wider and global sense and found that it is a concept, which is completely misunderstood in many sections of Irish society. This is unsurprising considering the damage and destruction that has been waged in the name of establishing a Republic on this island since 1798 with the Society of the United Irishmen, continued by the establishment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which was then consumed by the Irish Republican Army which has split into numerous factions since the 1921 Anglo Irish Treaty. It is unfortunate however, that Republicans have come to be caricatured as men in balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and men and women of violence. Despite this, much of my undergraduate work focused on the causes of Republican agitation and grievances, which of course resulted in an armed campaign that was not just limited to the 6 counties of Ulster.
In 2011, I earned a B.A. in History and Politics and in the same year applied for a Masters Degree programme in UCD. The Masters programme focused mostly on nationalism and ethnic conflict meaning it coincided perfectly with previous years of study. With the majority of Masters programmes, students are expected to write a dissertation on a subject area of their choice and UCD was no different in that aspect. I knew from an very early stage that I would be writing on the Provisional Movement as it was something that we had focused on during the year and it was an area that I was particularly interested in as already mentioned. I had initially considered writing on the success of the IRA and Sinn Féin in terms of achieving a path to a united Ireland and how factors such as the rise of Sinn Féin across the island of Ireland, the growing nationalist population and the lack of interest from the British state in maintaining its presence in the north meant that a 32 county Republic was a forgone conclusion and that Sinn Féin can claim a victory. When delving further into this line of study however, I noticed that such an approach was inherently flawed and became influenced by the writings of Anthony McIntyre, Ed Moloney, Tommy McKearney and Kevin Bean who essentially rubbished what I thought I knew about the Provisional Movement. From this point on, my dissertation took a substantially different viewpoint, which now questioned the very Republicanism of the Provisional Movement and challenged the path they followed.
The inspiration behind this eBook came from my Dissertation studies, which I completed at the end of April in 2016. I was very fortunate to meet Dr. Niall McElwee through a document editing service he runs and later found out that Dr. McElwee was also the senior editor at Book Hub Publishing and a fellow graduate of Political Science. It turns out that Book Hub Publishing runs a series it calls, ‘Encouraging New Writing’ and Niall was interested in something contemporary, written by a Millennial. I learned his mother had been heavily involved whilst living in Dublin with an organisation called Cooperation North which arranged for both Catholics and Protestants affected by the Troubles where both denominations could take holidays in the south of Ireland. Dr. McElwee also informed me that a distant relation, Thomas McElwee, was part of the infamous 1981 Hunger Strike in the H Blocks in Long Kesh where he, along with 9 others lost their lives, so he had a personal interest in my work in addition to professional.
It was a great honour to be asked to write on something that I felt so passionate about as I feel too much material on this issue is politically driven as distinct from objectively researched and presented. Thus, I hope to approach this piece from such a basis, which will be aided by the fact that I have no political affiliations or agendas.
Due to the nature of dissertations, they are often rigidly structured and encompass theories and constructs that are alien to those who are unfamiliar to that area of study. In my own dissertation, I found that I was bound to these theories and constructs which hampered the fluidity and essence of what I was trying to argue. This publication looks to address the Republicanism of the Provisional Movement and the concept of Irish Republicanism in a wider sense from the point of view of a so-called millennial who was just 4 years old when the the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Whilst Sinn Féin seems to be tapping into the 18 to 25 year old demographic, I intend on using this piece to illustrate the inaccuracies and summersaults performed by the party which has essentially led to the position they are in today. I tend to agree with the Irish journalist and broadcaster, Vincent Browne, who claims that there is now very little difference between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Within the confines of the EU and a global neoliberal economy, political parties can become devoid of character and substance. Those who challenge the status quo are punished with severe economic strife as the people of Greece know all too well.
The current year of 2016 is also a monumental year for Republicanism. As a country, we are currently immersed in a period of reflection and remembrance as we commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The emphasis on Republican ideals and values have been somewhat addressed but I still think we missed an opportunity to explore them in greater detail. Instead, historians, politicians and media moguls looked to criticise the rebellion for having ‘no mandate’ and question what would have happened if we had gotten home rule? I believe the State would rather forget or brush under the proverbial carpet its violent past. This is evident as Minster Humphreys continues to pursue the demolition of a section of 14 – 17 Moore Street, where the HQ of the Provisional Government of 1916 was held, in replace for a new hotel. On College Green, a 1916 banner containing Henry Gratton, John Redmond, Charles Stewart Parnell and Daniel O’Connell came under severe criticism due to the fact that none of these individuals had anything to do with the 1916 rising. A video clip which accompanied the government’s official commemoration was branded by UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter as ‘embarrassing, unhistorical shit’ as it failed to include any mention of the 1916 Rising and was more suited to a Fáilte Ireland advertisement. The rebellion itself has come in for criticism from individuals like John Bruton who put John Redmond on a pedestal despite, in my opinion, the fact he sent over 11,000 Irish men to early graves after he ordered members of the Irish Volunteers to join the British Army to fight in WWI. Republican values and the concept of revolution and rebellion against the elite did not fit into Labour’s or Fine Gael’s semantics on the economy, nor the slogan of ‘Keep the Recovery Going’.
External issues like the upcoming Brexit vote seems to have Republicans in a rather precarious position. One would assume that this is an amazing opportunity for Republicans in Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil to capitalise on such a campaign considering it’s quite evident the SNP in Scotland wants to remain in the EU whilst the DUP in Northern Ireland have pledged their allegiance to the Leave campaign, meaning a break up of Britain is quite possible. Even without a break up of the Union, if the British leave the EU, a substantial amount of funding and subsidies that enters Northern Ireland from the EU will be wiped out, putting serious strain on the union. Yet, neither Fianna Fáil nor Sinn Féin see it this way and are more concerned with the apparent economic disadvantages of such a move which is understandable but reiterates the point the political parties have been consumed by the neoliberal economy and lack any real defining ideology.
The general election in the South and the Assembly election in the North was of some significance for Republican parties in particular due to the centenary celebrations and the symbolism involved. People Before Profit can also claim a victory as they now join Sinn Féin with delegates in both the Dáil and Stormont. It is also very interesting that they topped the poll in West Belfast, and won a seat in the Foyle, Derry. Both these areas would have been considered Sinn Féin, Republican strongholds, showing the increasing transformation of Sinn Féin and voter disillusionment with the party in the North. The amalgamation of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the South is long overdue considering their policies are identical and it was a fitting tribute that they would be forced into supporting each other on the centenary of the Easter Rising. The steady increase in votes for Sinn Féin in the South can probably be attributed to their catch all and populist agenda that they have borrowed from Fianna Fáil. Issues such as Irish Water, the housing crises and the HSE were top of their agenda. They will probably be disappointed with their vote management however, as before the general election they were polling at around 25%, but only managed 13% of the vote.
The question I must ask is whether or not the idea of Republicanism really matters now and, if it does, to whom in the year of 2016? Is the reunification of the island really a pressing issue for voters North and South or is it a political issue on the margins? Have parties distanced themselves from certain values and principles in order to appeal to a wider base? Can the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality flourish within the confines of an island still gripped in sectarianism? What implications and restrictions does the market economy pose for reunification? Finally, where does Europe feature in all of this? I invite you to come with me on this journey of discovery.
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