Peader O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum. It referred to a series of meetings hosted last year by the Communist Party of Ireland. I attended one in Dublin on the 14th April 2012 and scribbled together a few notes which then made their way into the forgot about folder. They have now found their way back out again, promoted by the latest initiative.Recently, TPQ featured a piece from the
The country has once again settled down into the economic mire in the wake of the Austerity referendum.The lay of the political land has been debated at some length. A new IRA is either offering or threatening to free the country from its woes. Such seems to be the extent of the republican strategic vision.
A few weeks prior to polling day I attended a Dublin discussion on the future of republicanism in Ireland organised by the Communist Party of Ireland. Communism, as we previously understood it, has slipped into such a moribund state that republicanism by association might be accused of trying to echo its death rattle.
Since then the emergence of a new IRA might add spice to the discussion but is unlikely to have been considered significant enough to have changed what was said in Dublin. Nevertheless it did make me reflect back on that gathering of the Left.
Not doing much else, and of the view that ideas are invariably worthwhile, I decided to make the journey. Two of the people billed to speak were Tommy McKearney and Eoin O Broin, both of whom I have mined either new ideas from or different ways of viewing ground we have already treaded so many times previously and missed something that only seems salient after it is pointed out. Also speaking were Tom Redmond of the CPI and Brian Leeson of eirigi.
In Belfast towards the end of 2010 I shared a panel with Eoin O’Broin and an eirigi member. What interested me on the evening was that of the two, O Broin seemed to be better plugged into the art of the possible. Maybe it's age on my part and I have fallen victim to the conservative disease of having two legs which simply will not take me forward. Whatever the reason, insightful discourse rather than radical rhetoric better hits the spot these days. I felt the joust between both sets of ideas in the current climate would be worthwhile listening to.
The meeting was opened by academic Mary Cullen who concisely traced a general history of republicanism before homing in on its Irish strain and then introducing Tommy McKearney. A veteran of left wing ideas and prison struggle, central to his concept of republicanism was the sovereignty of the people. He rejected any suggestion of a republicanism guided by Ten Commandments handed down from on high. He has long pointed out the glaring jar between the anti-monarchism of republicanism and the absolutism that has so infused Irish republicanism with its emphasis on physical force. His stress was on the need for a living republicanism rather than something moulded by the tomb.
Citing Thomas Paine, he proceeded to make the point that republicanism cannot afford to be suffocated by the past. It must be a breathing, functional entity that can be applied to the current common good.
Republicanism, he argued, should march to the beat of a different ideological drum than it had in the past. It had to give up its absolutist fixation that republicanism is about uniting Ireland. For it to move into the future republicanism can be neither green nor orange but must be red. In referring to George Gilmore he used him to argue that republicanism needs to move beyond a ‘level of contentment’ attained by better wages in the present to a radical restructuring of society. He has too often seen groups jump off the bus, having reached a level of contentment rather than complete the journey to where republicanism should lead.
In spite of its logic McKearney’s perspective comes up against the problems of ideological hegemony which the radical left seems persistently unable to attain. While Labour will see its hegemonic position within the most impoverished sections diminish, the transfer of support is likely to make its way back to Official Fianna Fail led by Martin or Provisional Fianna Fail led by Adams. Neither is likely to make any transformative initiative. Martin will restructure capital without altering its essence, while Adams will do the same only less efficiently and then call it a victory for radical politics.
When it came to Brian Leeson, the eirigi leader agreed that republicanism cannot be determined by past models. He defined republicanism as revolutionary, explaining that this meant that national independence and socialism were inseparable. Democracy was more than simply voting every five years. It is meant to permeate throughout society and economic democracy is central to this. He supports the right of a minority to use whatever means it sees fit. It doesn't require much in the way of imagination to forsee how this would collide with McKearney’s position.
As a guide he holds onto the thread of continuity from Tone through to Sands. He feels the objective conditions for republicanism to grow are fantastic. The twin towers of the 26 co state, Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church, are crumbling like never before. He suggested that the breaking of the Church, which he regarded as a force for evil, was particularly significant. Its collapse coupled to the meltdown of Fianna Fail has created a space for republicanism - which in circumstances where the leadership of trade union movement is fast haemorrhaging support - is well positioned to move into.
In the North he flagged up the serious democratic deficit of permanent government without any opposition. This has caused many republicans to look elsewhere. Policing and Justice in the North continues to be exposed as shambolic.
Leeson contended that republicanism has answers but while emphasizing the importance of Connolly and the radical space opening up he really failed to specify what they were. Rhetoric is no substitute for strategy.
When the turn of Eoin O Broin came round he said that there hasn’t been a better time in the past hundred years to be a left republican. There is more space to articulate republican ideas. The system is being questioned more than ever before as Irish society is entering a historic window of opportunity. There are many risks ahead. Republicanism, however, he argued with an eye on the strategic, has very little to say about the type of society we want to live in.
Progressive nationalism forms the trunk of his political perspective with the branches of socialism, ecologism and feminism jutting out. He wants republicanism to dismantle the social architecture that forces people to live unequal lives.
He called for Ireland to reclaim sovereignty from Europe and Britain. National reconciliation among Irish people is not restricted to the North and is about the future. The old hegemonies are increasingly weakened. The union with Britain is being challenged which creates opportunities.
The electoral support combined of the two centre right parties in the Dail has dropped from 80% to around 50%. These are opportunities but he wanted to address the risks. He spoke of the tension of being in government in the North while serving in opposition in the South. He said Sinn Fein wants to be in government but he acknowledged differences between being a government minister and having power. He explored the question of whom Sinn Fein could build alliances with. If republicans fail to build alliances then, he contended, the right will continue to hold onto power. He stated that no left wing party ever managed to put into practice in government what it had promised while in opposition. He made the point that the left end up doing the same as everybody else. He said the current challenge to republican ideology was serving to make it stronger. Which really shed no light on how radicals like O Broin might thwart the guaranteed Adams jettisoning of anything radical as soon as it gets in the way of ambition.
Yet committed as O Broin undoubtedly is to social justice and change he belongs to a party that is anything but republican. What Sinn Fein has done is to label republican any path it goes down, or any summersault it has done along the way. Sure, there is an argument for discourses to be positional rather than fixed but how far can a position move before it ends up indistinguishable from the perspective it once opposed? O’Broin failed to specify how Sinn Fein would be anything other than an adjunct of capitalism if in government.
It would be more appropriate to refer to SF as 'right republican' if the term 'republican' is to be kept at all. Not that its leadership is attached to a rightist ideology as such, just that its political opportunism takes it off in a rightward direction. Sinn Fein would gladly jump into coalition with Fine Gael if the opportunity was ever to be offered, just happy to be in office looking official and trotting out the same sort of excuses it offers for teaming up with the extreme right in the North and implementing policies that can only be described as Tory.
Tom Redmond of the CPI quoted Victor Hugo on patriotism not being the last refuge of the scoundrel but rather anti-communism providing that shelter, a clear indication that his focus was on class rather than nation. He made the time honoured left assertion that the nation amounts to more than territory; it must also include the resources in that territory. He sought to temper the optimism of O’Broin and Leeson by pointing to some of the inherent conservative tendencies within organised republicanism with reference to the social struggles during the War of Independence when Sinn Fein and the republican courts worked against progressive causes. He stressed the need to understand the state which was an implicit criticism of Sinn Fein’s reformism. He elaborated, arguing for popular struggle but no marching up the hill only to march back down again.
He focused on the EU, dismissing it as an imperialist institution of power for capitalist countries but which was more deadly and infinitely harder to uproot than mere military occupation. This by necessity gives rise to the idea of a mass movement as a strategic necessity for the Left. He felt that when republicanism and the labour movement fused the chances for radical success increased greatly. But for this to proceed republicanism had to stick to its anti-imperialist vocation and sense of social awareness.
All very well but in terms of what is to be done, few will be any the wiser.
I had to leave early due to an evening schedule that I had to stick to. Before I left I managed to hear Jim Monaghan of Sinn Fein ask if there was not a threat to republican ideology with the rise of Troika. But there was no sense implicit in the question that republicanism as an ideology had already been betrayed and not by the bankers, the business class or the Troika.
I didn’t come away from the discussion feeling that much had been achieved. I have always thought the Left, Marxism in particular, made a good critique of the ills of capitalism but invariably looked clumsy when making the step from description to prescription, unfailingly being short on solutions that the bulk of society feel plausible. I don’t see how the meeting did much to alter that.
The Left has a toehold in the Dail and does punch above its weight. But when faced with the self proclaimed ‘establishment parties’ of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and Sinn Fein, it is very much in the foothills and a long distance from the summit. With Fine Gael certain to use Labour as a flak jacket for cover as it pushes through an austerity agenda, the most disaffected and dissatisfied in Irish society are likely to plump for the shrillest rather than the sharpest, forgetting that empty vessels make most noise. The outcome will be another crew elected on the old James Boren slogan of 'we have what it takes to take what you've got.'