From Insurgency to Identity

A Pensive Quill reader recommended this review by Kevin Rooney of Kevin Bean's book on the Provisional Movement. It originally featured in The Spiked Review of Books on the 25th of July 2008.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ tribute in May to former Irish Republican Army leader Brian Keenan, in which he described Keenan as a peacemaker, revealed much about the party’s retrospective redefinition of its long struggle against British rule in Ireland. Speaking at Keenan’s funeral, Adams suggested that Keenan lived long enough to see his goals realised: ‘Achieving a power-sharing administration with the Reverend Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible but for the work of Brian Keenan.’

I grew up in West Belfast in the next street to Keenan. Before he rose to relative notoriety in the British press as an ‘IRA hard man’, he was already well known and respected throughout the Irish republican community in Northern Ireland – and it certainly wasn’t for his role as a ‘peacemaker’. Keenan was admired for his military ability to strike at the British state. In West Belfast, Keenan’s association with the Balcombe Street unit (a group of IRA men who fought in a siege with Metropolitan police officers in London in 1975), Libyan arms shipments and numerous other IRA operations were seen as evidence of his determination and tenacity in prosecuting the war against what we saw as Britain’s occupation of our country.

Yet to read Adams’ funeral oration is to conjure up images of a man who struggled all his life for a peace deal which has delivered a power-sharing administration within a partitioned British state. Amazingly, the current Sinn Fein leadership has been able to get away with rewriting the aims and tactics of the republican struggle retrospectively. As a new generation grows up and the ‘Troubles’ pass from memory to history, the politics of transformation are being replaced by the politics of identity, victimhood and the rhetoric of accommodation and compromise. Sinn Fein’s rhetoric now disavows self-interest and any mention of the movement’s former commitment to achieving political goals. Instead, the party has embraced the language of ‘conflict resolution’, ‘parity of esteem’, ‘healing our wounds’ and ‘victims’ voices’. Such an outlook might seem preferable to fighting a war, which takes it toll on the community – but it is a disingenuous and dishonest approach to republican politics and history.

That a political project could be so decisively redefined in such a relatively short space of time is quite incredible. What’s even more incredible is that few if any serious attempts have been made to analyse and critique this most blatant case of revisionism. The death of Irish republicanism is not a popular subject for discussion for any side in Northern Ireland’s divide; all parties have an interest in keeping up the pretence that republicanism is thriving.

At last, however, an excellent account of these profound developments has arrived. The New Politics of Sinn Fein by Kevin Bean, a lecturer in Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, is a seminal account of the ideological changes that have taken place over the past 10 to 15 years. It explores how the republican movement was transformed from an anti-state insurgency to a partner in governing the state. Bean’s book is not only the book I have been waiting for… it is the book I would like to have written.

Bean situates Irish republicanism in a global political context and shows how its politics are comparable to other ideological projects that have undergone similar decline and redefinition since the late 1980s. The book considers the tension between the universal and the particular within republicanism and how this is reflected in specific aspects of republican politics.

The focus on the international context is particularly topical at the moment as the world marks the fortieth anniversary of 1968 radicalism. It is interesting how the numerous commemorations and articles invoking the uprisings in Paris, protests in London’s Grosvenor Square, fighting in Vietnam and radicalisation of the black civil rights movement in the USA have failed to mention Derry 1968 and the struggle for civil rights for the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Yet when Bean interviews IRA volunteers and republican activists, the extent to which they were inspired by other struggles becomes clear: ‘From its founding moment, the environment shaping the movement extended beyond the streets of West Belfast and the villages of East Tyrone to guerrilla campaigns in Latin America and civil rights activism in the USA’, writes Bean.

Yet while republicans drew inspiration from other radical movements, Bean shows that the movement never really had a clear definition of republican ideology. In very simple terms, in the late 1960s through to the mid-1980s the politics of the republican struggle were largely progressive, universalist and anti-imperialist in character, as they were influenced by progressive struggles in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. However, since the late 1980s, in a post-Cold War world that has seen the further decline of the left, republican politics became prey to the particularist strand that always existed within the movement. The republican leadership quietly revisited its universalist aspiration for a United Ireland with a united people, and moved towards embracing the politics of cultural difference and identity.

A key part of the republican argument was always that it was the British state that created and sustained a false division between Catholic and Protestant and nationalist and Unionist in Northern Ireland, using its tried and tested imperialist policy of Divide and Rule. As such, struggling against British rule meant struggling against the forces that were dividing Irish people from each other. However, the republican ideal of overcoming externally imposed divisions has now also been revised, as republicans accept – and even celebrate – the existence of ‘two traditions’ and two peoples in Northern Ireland with separate cultures and identities. Far from overcoming and dissolving differences, the peace process has encouraged us to champion them and preserve them into the future.

Bean rightly flags up the influence of ideological changes in international politics as a key driver in isolating and eventually altering the politics of republicanism. He points out that alongside the impact of the collapse of international anti-imperialist movements on Irish republicanism, the very notion of Enlightenment universalist values rooted in the French Revolution and the United Irishmen also declined in importance. Republican politics ceased to be about grand visions and who should run society, and instead became about the politics of cultural and communal recognition. Where once the British state enjoyed no legitimacy within republican communities in Northern Ireland, it now found itself called upon by its old adversaries to take responsibility for ensuring ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘recognition’ for both the traditional Unionist and nationalist communities.

By calling for more funding and recognition for the Irish language, or for the re-routing of offensive Orange marches, the republican movement implicitly invited the British government to adjudicate and rule between two cultural groups, hence strengthening the legitimacy of British rule and changing the republican struggle from one against division into a game of one-upmanship underpinned by the politics of grievance. Bean shows how Sinn Fein’s revisionism not only meant that it started to accept political divisions as natural or traditional, but started to accept the right of Britain to rule Northern Ireland. After all, if there really are ‘two traditions’ in Northern Ireland, distinct, different and with difficulty getting along, then clearly an external adjudicator is needed to oversee their interaction.

Bean charts the entry of Sinn Fein into community activism and politics in great detail. He provides evidence that some republicans, from the 1960s onwards, jealously guarded their independence and autonomy from the state and were acutely aware of the dangers of being sucked into a reformist agenda. The activists took inspiration from the Catholic Housing Action Groups, direct action and tenants’ associations that emerged from the radicalism of 1968. The Tory government’s attempts to deny funding and to stigmatise any groups with republican members served to reinforce their image as radical, bold and innovative.

However, in a policy u-turn in the 1970s, British governments slowly moved away from the political vetting of ‘dangerous’ groups towards increasingly funding and drawing these groups into a relationship with the state. This changing approach was part of a government counterinsurgency policy known as ‘normalisation’. British governments began to channel millions of pounds to radical community groups, which in effect transformed them into ‘gatekeepers’ between the British state and the local community.

In an insightful case study, Bean points to the example of the Upper Springfield Development Trust (USDT) in the republican Ballymurphy area of Belfast (Brian Keenan’s estate). Under the guise of tackling deprivation, the British gave the USDT a grant of £6.9million. With a salaried staff of around 60 people, it was to become one of the largest employers in West Belfast. In effect, many autonomous republican activists who had been at the forefront of the battle against the British in the Ballymurphy area were being drawn into actually implementing British social and pacification policies.

Former revolutionaries and radicals who set out to subvert the state were slowly, but surely, transformed into the new establishment. Of course, such activists are almost always well intentioned, but as one leading critic of the peace process quoted in Bean’s book explains, the nature of the structures, the strings attached and the financial terms of Britain’s dealings with these community groups have ‘dulled the sharp end of [their] politics’. The fusion of community and identity politics has moved republicanism well away from anything radical or revolutionary towards municipal politics, a political and cultural framework similar to that used by the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Indeed, as Bean points out, the similarities between the changing Irish republican movement and the petty political organisation of left individuals such as Ken Livingstone did not go unnoticed by Ken himself. Bean quotes Livingstone: ‘I was struck by the similarity in the position of what you might call the new radical left in the Labour Party and the radical left in Sinn Fein. I had no doubt that in different circumstances, if I had been born in West Belfast, I would have ended up in Sinn Fein. Equally, if Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison had been born in London, I’m sure they would have ended up supporting some left current in the Labour Party.’

It would be wrong to characterise the republican leadership’s series of accommodations to British rule as a ‘sell out’ or ‘treachery’, as some dissident republicans do. The removal of Irish republicanism from the stage of history must be understood in its declining sense of agency and historical subjectivity. Republicans are no different to many former revolutionaries around the globe, with whom they agree that it is no longer possible to change the world – hence the politics of transformation is no longer on the agenda and instead has been replaced by the cultivation of identity and protection of cultural heritage. The logical outcome of the process of normalisation, incorporation and decline of international grand visions described so well by Bean was the peace process, and an historic accommodation by republicans with Unionism and British rule. As the republican activist Bernadette McAliskey put it: ‘The war is over and the good guys lost.’

Such brutal honesty was, however, nowhere to be seen in the republican movement’s leadership itself. Instead, they presented the peace process as a successful outcome of their campaign, rather than analysing it as a logical conclusion to a long process of depoliticisation and accommodation. With its rhetoric of ‘a new phase of struggle’, ‘new site of struggle’, ‘transition’, ‘opportunity’, ‘staging post’, ‘not the end but the beginning’ and ‘historical momentum’, the republican leadership, aided by the deliberate ambiguity of the peace process, was able to present a series of unprecedented departures from republican principles as great steps forward. There is no shame in defeat, of course; it can be an opportunity to take stock, learn lessons and search for a new form of politics that can address the continuing reality of British rule and political and social divisions. Yet there is something shameful about disguising defeat as ‘a new transitional direction’.

Unfortunately, the current leadership of the Republican movement has compounded its defeat by its political dishonesty, and its refusal to tell it like it is. With its constant advocacy of identity politics, pleas for truth and reconciliation and therapeutic rhetoric, republican leaders retrospectively undermine all that was positive about the spirit of the republican struggle. In this process, republicans are recast as something they were not. In the same way that Brian Keenan has been recast as a man driven by a vision of sharing power with Ian Paisley, so young men who sacrificed everything – sometimes even their lives – in what they considered to be a struggle against British occupation are now rewritten as ‘wronged victims’.

To illustrate this point, Bean discusses the changing republican reaction to the Loughgall incident in 1987, when the SAS ambushed and executed eight IRA volunteers. The following two reports, separated by 17 years, capture the changed thinking within the republican and nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

In May 1987, An Phoblacht/Republican News (Sinn Fein’s newspaper) argued: ‘Republicans do not complain about the way in which the British Forces carried out their operation. Centuries of British terror have taught us to expect it. The illegitimacy of the forces which carried out the Loughgall killings is not simply in their actions but in their very presence in our country. It has always been and always will be illegitimate and unacceptable.’

Seventeen years on, in August 2004, the Irish News reported that relatives of one of the IRA members killed at Loughgall had a ‘very useful meeting with the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) chief constable. One member of the family commented afterwards, “We are just a family trying to get the truth about what happened to my brother”. The police spokesperson described the encounter in similar terms: “It was a useful meeting with an open two-way discussion. The Kellys [the family in question] raised a number of issues with the chief constable. He in turn offered his assessment of the decision to deploy the army against what he feared was a dangerous gang.”’ As Bean notes, the defiance that characterised the republican struggle has been replaced by a therapeutic tone and a joint search for the truth as part of a process of reconciliation.

The dead volunteer in question was Padraic Kelly. I remember vividly his father’s tribute the day after the Loughgall ambush, when he described his son and seven comrades as ‘brave Irish soldiers fighting a war against an oppressor’. At the time the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s then police force) and the British Army regularly attacked IRA funerals to prevent any military displays. When asked by a TV reporter about the prospects of a clash between security forces and mourners at his son’s funeral, Kelly replied: ‘My son will be buried with full military honours as befitting an Irish soldier. If they try and prevent Padraic’s coffin leaving the house with his IRA beret and gloves then we will bury him in the back garden!’

Such an open spirit of defiance is a far cry from the approach of today’s republican leadership, which is more comfortable pressing for the creation of Victims’ Commissions, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and inquiries into various incidents that took place during the Troubles. The lexicon of victims, suffering and trauma dominate the republican movement’s discourse. ‘Securing the peace’, ‘bedding down and keeping the peace on track’ – this is the republican movement’s neverending mantra. It’s as if the peace process itself, and not bringing an end to British rule, had always been its goal.

With a light-footedness that a magician extracting himself from a straitjacket would be proud of, the republican movement has reinvented itself around lifestyle issues and victim and identity politics rather than the National Question. Yet while many former activists feel a sense of dislocation and disorientation, Sinn Fein’s electoral popularity remains undiminished as it benefits from people’s growing sense of impotence and lack of confidence to effect real change.

The Irish republican movement fought for a united Ireland and an end to the artificial division of Irish people. It lost and instead has helped to strengthen British rule in which divisions are reinforced and celebrated. Understanding how republicanism in Northern Ireland has adapted to and even embraced this defeat is an important part of the history of modern Ireland – and The New Politics of Sinn Fein is an excellent contribution to that historical record.

Kevin Bean, 2008, The New Politics of Sinn Féin. Published by Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1846311468


  1. Perhaps as an Addendum to Kevin's excellent synopsis we might, with the benefit of hindsight,add:

    Perpetuation of Diplock courts.

    Internment without trial.

    Silence on 'dirty protests' and 'hungerstrikes.

    Facilitation of contentious orange marches.

    RUC/PSNI collaboration and recruitment.

    Royal approval and 'forelock tugging'

    and of course.....

    General Amnesty for all senior PSF 'TOUTS'

    Ahhh... The Politics of Treachery.

    He could even rename it 'The Great Rock and Roll Six County Swindle.'

  2. A great review Kevin and very well written.
    The only aspect of Bean’s book which I would question, based on your review as I haven’t read the book and have no intention of doing so, is that it imparts a large degree of intelligence on the leadership of the Republican movement and in doing such implies that the decision to go down its current path was made by it based on a universal perspective. I totally disagree. The leadership had become ‘compromised’ by Britain through Normalisation which let’s be honest, the activities of which didn’t involve just funding of community groups! I don’t believe for one minute that the Leadership had a universal eye especially since most of it was from West Belfast and we all know how parochial they are – for goodness sake, they carry their passports, most likely British these days, but they carry their passports every time they cross the West Link!!!! There were never any great universal thinkers in the Republican Movement over the last 30 years of the profundity implied….what there was, was a glut of those who suffered from illusory superior intelligence that was easily compromised. I know, for I have met them.
    By compromising the leadership the British were free to steer it in whatever direction they wished it to go. Denis Donaldson proved that. And he wasn’t acting alone. All the talk about hard negotiations for the GFA, St Andrews or the Belfast Accord – whatever you want to call it – were anything but that for Donaldson and his likes had been compromised for years before and had steered the leadership to where it ended up and during these ‘hard fought’ discussions the British were aware of every step for they were steering it along……very little to do with this universal perspective of the decline of the left. The British, and we have to acknowledge how successful they have been, completely exonerated themselves of all blame for the Troubles here through their revisionism of their role which is acceptable by mostly all of the people here now have simply walked away with their occupation fully vindicated. To try and paint it as a profound political decision by the Republican Movement is a great injustice to those who know 2+2=4 and not 5. Once a leadership is compromised those who compromised it can achieve anything and paint it in whatever way they feel apt to do so.

  3. Niall,
    I think the conclusion Kevin Bean arrived at in relation to how Republicans did a sizeable u turn sounds a lot more credible than what you said.
    Maybe if you read the book you might actually find out, that Bean's credible anaylsis was arrived at through serious scrutiny and indepth research.
    His claims went a great deal further than off the cuff quips or book by the cover assesments.

  4. truthrevisionist.

    You are 100% correct.

    Now about Kevin's Review.

    Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ tribute in May to former Irish Republican Army leader Brian Keenan, in which he described Keenan as a peacemaker, revealed much about the party’s retrospective redefinition of its long struggle against British rule in Ireland. Speaking at Keenan’s funeral, Adams suggested that Keenan lived long enough to see his goals realised: ‘Achieving a power-sharing administration with the Reverend Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible but for the work of Brian Keenan.’

    I am at odds with the above because Kevin Staes that Adams suggested, I would like to know if those words, and, these words are actualy in the book.

    "Keenan lived long enough to see his goals realised: ‘Achieving a power-sharing administration with the Reverend Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible but for the work of Brian Keenan.’"

    To me that is a complete load of crap, what Adams is trying to imply is, That the late Brian Keenan (R.I.P.) was in on his plan to share power with the unionists and taking seats in stormont.

    Ludicrous to say the least.

  5. itsjustmacker,
    I think the, not a bullet not an ounce fiasco said more than any author could.
    No dissenting voices.

  6. Fionnuala .

    That is one quote which sticks in my mind, I remember it as if it was yesterday, But, Hypocritical Liars think they can get away with everything they utter, which was all pre-planned to arouse the people, and at the same time, They were chuckling within themselves knowing the gullable took the bait.

    Plenty of dissenters, but PSF are making sure they get lifted by grassing to PSNI/RUC. When will the learn?.

  7. Republicans didn’t do a sizable u-turn – the Belfast leadership which was compromised did the u-turn and my point is that they,being British agents, didn’t formulate a policy to steer the Republican Movement in a new direction – it was given to them by the British and therefore Beans analysis in my view is based on a false premise that the Leadership had the intelligence to formulate this u-turn independent of British influence which I, through experience, don’t believe for one minute – they were never and still are not that intelligent to have the ability to do so….because they as I stated suffer the illusion that they are of superior intelligence and also were too wrapped up in their own little parochial worlds to see outside the box . And that Fionnula is not meant as an off the cuff quip.

  8. I can't talk for other areas but the amount of Shinners in Derry owning several properties and living in affluent areas is breath taking.

    I'm not just talking about leadership level but right down to the plasticine table of Derry SF.

    That however is nothing to what the 'A' Graders own, pubs, security firms, taxi firms etc. Oh and buying property in Poland is also a nice little earner for the Derry SFers.

    The question is; most of them had nothing or very little before we ever heard of the oft now used 'peace process' bollocks, therefore
    where did the money come from?

  9. Niall.

    Mostly everything in your post, I agree with, except, "they were never and still are not that intelligent to have the ability to do so" , This is how inteligent they were,(With the help of MI5 of course) They planned there takeover well in advance, The whole top echelon of PSF took over the Northern Command of P.I.R.A. not just Belfast, Then they had the audacity to pretend the would ask P.I.R.A. for a ceasefire, then , call a halt (cessation) of Armed struggle and to dump arms and then to pretend to ask P.I.R.A. to Hand over all arms for destruction, My point is Niall, they were talking to themselves, and, every logical dissenter republican knows this, so did the British, who told them the actions to take.


    They rose from Shite into a pot of British Gold, I know exactly were you are comming from, It Beggars belief, but the logical explanation must be, The Bank Job money was well spread out, I don't know your source of income, but mine is a basic state pension, with a little pension credit, My stomach churns when i see people who never had a job in their whole life running a big business, having a big fancy house, two cars would be a minimum, its not just Derry Dixie, it even spills into the 26 counties, owning carparks, Mansions, Hotels etc. wtf, they have gotten away with MURDER, and , they are well protected by the British and Eire Governments who have no intention of implementing anything which was agreed upon regarding offences prior to 1998 (Got Fuck All) , as you know Dissenters are being arrested , Interned, and the key thrown away, to add insult to injury , Maghaberry Was suppossed to get the latest Body scanner, as agreed with the Protesting Prisoners, and, The british makes sure that it went to another prison as a trial, thats called Rubbing salt into the wounds, Also, Spies in abundance , the British have well thought that one out, They call it, Naming genuine Republicans as spies for assasination to cover the real spies, What can be done about it?, I will not state what i would be doing on any blogging forum, but I'm happy with my meagre Pension Because, my hands and mind are clean. But i will say this, What Goes Around Comes Around. All the property which is owned by PSF and their little gobshite hangers on, Belongs To The I.R.A. Life to me is fantastic, why?, I DON'T HAVE ANY GUILT, Served my time as a cabinet Maker, Got sacked because an Ignorant Orange Gobshite called me a FENIAN BASTARD, the buckle of my belt stuck in his left eye, I just yanked it out taking part of his eye with it, Just because he used the Word BASTARD, thats calling my late mother a whore, I was having none of that, went to dundalk for a few years, but came back with a new identity!.

  10. itsjustmacker,
    I meant at the time that statement was made there were no dissenting voices.
    Anyone who was going to muddy the waters had the proverbial heave ho!
    All of those on board when that statement was made were with Adams and prepared to go along and fully implement the agreement and that included the person who made the statement.

  11. Fionnuala .

    I know , I was trying to get the point over , that the Gullible were taken in by that announcement.

  12. truthrevisionist

    with the benefit of hindsight...infiltrate everyone from cage 11 and let ther families away with paedofilia and basically the war is over.

  13. itsjustmacker,
    Apologies, I thought you were saying Keenan would have been against what was happening?
    Yes those who agreed with Gerry have done considerably well for themselves.
    Money laundered on a grand scale via their own personal bank accounts-
    Some like McGuinness are shrewder then others though, apparently not too much of his personal fortune on show.
    Something I don't agree with though, are statements that former combantants irrespective of who are what now should be held to account for activities pre-1998.
    I think Sin Fein's choice to tell on Republicans is quite despicable but it is who they are, and precisely what they were bought and paid for.
    Should we then reduce ourselves to their level by claiming , 'they have gotten away with this and that.'
    Let them stew in their own expensive juice but don't mimic them.

  14. itsjustmaker-

    You have a one eyed unionist looking for you- with a block of wood in one hand and a belt buckle in the other you took him out [ well you took one eye out ] lol-

  15. It was all downhill once the Belfast clique persuaded the Movement to ditch Eire Nua.