Having observed recently the encouraging debate on the current position and methodology of Irish republicanism, this, taken in context with the developments that justify Jim Slaven’s claim that the movement is ‘emerging from a long, dark tunnel’, makes it hard not to experience a latent sense of optimism and encouragement in looking forward. However, from the first-hand observations of a young Irishman, there exists a persistent nebulous in the form of the overwhelming mind sets of our younger generations which shrouds such optimism.
While it would be too simple and indeed unfair to reflect on the political and social attitudes of previous generations, assume a radical psychological difference due to the indelible mark their actions have left on Irish history and juxtapose this with the prevailing mind sets of today, whether or not today’s attitudes are new is irrelevant. This political indifference and passive acceptance of the status quo is nonetheless an issue which perseveres and one which requires an urgent solution. After all, in the pursuit of an independent democratic republic, isn’t the education and assimilation of the youth a fundamental priority for a progressive trajectory?
Indeed, the difficulty of integrating young minds into the republican cause varies with circumstance. For example, there is little doubt that in the context of an armed campaign and the inevitable British response that the task can be much easier, however unpalatable this may sound. The propaganda propagating the ‘romantic’ nature of war, the resentment cultivated by violent security force actions and incessant headlines pervading the lives of virtually everyone make this indubitably easy and have often acted as the motivating factors to the most prominent campaigns of Irish history. Interestingly, it is more often than not the actions of the crown forces that contribute most significantly to this, the impact of such actions distinguishing the consequences of, for example, the Easter Rising and Bloody Sunday of the recent Troubles from the inert Border Campaign. This is corroborated by the fact that the murders of Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon managed to stimulate some public response from an otherwise lifeless endeavour. Yet, in spite of this, it is obvious that such actions and campaigns have profoundly negative consequences - severe enough that no sane person actively seeks a return to the violence which has happened in the past as a first choice of tactic for Irish republicanism nor while alternatives exist.
Furthermore, on the back of such an extended campaign, republicanism in the twenty first century finds itself in dire circumstances. As the past number of decades have induced an overwhelming war weariness which has in many cases cultivated a fatigue in republican activism and laid the foundations for ruthless normalisation, it would be extremely easy to argue that making republicanism a popular movement has never been more difficult.
However, one must instead look to the positives of our position. While lacking what history has proved to be a catalyst for a more widespread and immediate appeal, the interesting words of Tommy McKearney succinctly state the flaws of this in any case. In saying that it was not until he spent time in prison before he recognised that republicans were not just a minority in the Catholic community, but in the IRA also, a wider comment on the motivations behind becoming involved in the movement is promulgated. Indeed, how can a solid political and social movement be founded on motivations of anything other than core ideology and still be tailored for long-term success?
Instead, the twenty first century provides a unique opportunity for expanding republicanism based on genuine education and principle of our youth. However, there must be a major rethink in how this is to be achieved. Rather than dubious lip service to the importance of young minds and bodies to the future of Ireland which all too often fall on deaf or indifferent ears, the very reasons as to why the message is unheard or ignored must be examined, and the appropriate strategies put in place to counteract this.
Admittedly, with the difficult position Irish republicanism finds itself in, this is easier said than done. The precipitation of our ‘Good Friday Generation’ who (with exception) find themselves entirely disengaged or in contempt of Ireland’s political and social issues makes this a particularly problematic task. Furthermore, as with most such issues, the root causes of this are extremely variable and will naturally encompass a range of factors yet, nonetheless, are relatively simple to diagnose if more difficult to treat.
Only a superficial analysis of the situation reveals the more common aspects preventing a youth from becoming interested or involved in republicanism. This can firstly be attributed to the relentless policy of normalisation permeating every element of their life, incorporating everything from the media to school life and ranging from the blatant to the subtle, for example, official school textbooks citing the Burren of County Clare as a natural landmark of the British Isles and the blanket use of ‘Northern Ireland’ as a legitimate state and identity. Not only is such unyielding subjection mind-numbing, it bolsters another overarching perspective that republicanism is a clandestine ideology which is underground or of doubtful legality. Naturally, subsequent to decades of conflict and its continuing thorny legacy, such conclusions are not only arrived at by youths themselves but passively or actively nurtured by parents or relatives who will (understandably) endeavour to provide their children with the best possible opportunities and seek to set them on a path which diverges from the horrors they have witnessed. Indeed, the actions of others play an often significant role in the formation of such attitudes - regardless of their alleged intentions - as exemplified by the impact of the 1998 Agreement. This, in coldly realistic terms, exploited the popular desire for peace, replaced republicanism with an emasculated form and made acceptable the British presence in Ireland. As a consequence, for many of those who may seek an active interest in republican activism, their consciences have been settled by the fact that self-purported republicans are fighting their corner peacefully and politically in Stormont. Why should they strive for change when they are convinced by ‘veterans’ of the struggle that everything that can be done to advance the cause is being tried by them?
Reasons why a younger generation may not become involved in republicanism today are seemingly innumerable, and it is important not to overlook the simple factors such as an innately defeatist attitude that the republic is an unrealistic prospect, that they can find no vehicle for becoming involved nor indeed to dismiss the concept that there are other priorities which are considered more important than what to them is an abstract ideology. For others they may be simply content with the status quo. While such factors are unsurprising under current circumstances, they present a direct challenge to the bedrock of republican ideology – why, in a country which still experiences occupation by an imperialist force and intrinsic economic difficulties island-wide, is the alternative so unappealing? Is it the nature of the ideology, or is it the strategies used to propagate it and the tactics used to advance its cause? Such difficult questions must be examined forensically and answered sufficiently if republicanism is to move forward on a positive footing. People must debate the realities of what is often too difficult to contemplate.
Unfortunately, too often republicanism condemns itself to an inexorable cycle of strategic futility motivated by a fervent feeling of principle, but a vague grasp of practice. Too often what constitutes a ‘republican’ action or strategy depends on whether it has been used by those noble figures from history, yet the question must be asked, and has been more recently, how the failed tactics – both peaceful and violent - of the past may be used successfully today? The strategies of republicanism must be driven forward, modernised and made compatible with the twenty first century lest the relevance of its ideals continue to be lost on younger generations. Put simply, the salvation of republicanism must come from the implementation of traditional principles with modern methods.
While the salvaging of republicanism continues with increasing efficacy and there are growing numbers returning to such principles, it is vitally important that republicanism is given a future in our youth. We must smash the myth that republicanism is criminal; smash the myth that its messages should only be whispered; smash the carefully fostered myth that it is an irrelevant relic of the past and utilise the unique methods offered by twenty first century Ireland. Otherwise, in spite of the encouraging developments of late, that optimism may well be short lived as we condemn ourselves to the failed destinies of the past by failing to tackle and find answers to the fundamental questions which may deprive Irish republicanism of a future if left unanswered.