Tony Catney on Political Change and the Importance of Debate

Dr. Peter Trumbore of Oakland University shares more of his interview with the late Tony Catney who died last August. Tony Catney will be commemorated at a debate in Dublin this weekend. Much of Pete Trumbore's interview focussed on the need for debate and the free exchange of ideas. Peter Trumbore has penned a brief introduction to the interview.

  • On Saturday, March 7, in Dublin, the 1916 Societies are hosting the first Tony Catney Memorial Debate on Republicanism in the 21st century.

I met Tony Catney almost exactly two years ago. He picked me up from the lobby of the Ibis Hotel on Castle Street in Belfast and we took his car up the Glen Road to his home on Upper Suffolk. For the next two hours we sat at the kitchen table and talked while he smoked cigarette after cigarette, washed down with black coffee. I was wrapping up a 10-day research trip while my university in the United States was on winter holiday, and he had agreed to sit for an interview.

After his death last August, I gave The Pensive Quill a portion of the transcript from that on-the-record interview recognizing that Catney’s views would be of interest to the Quill’s readers and with the understanding that the glacial pace and specialized nature of academic publishing would likely mean that most of the material from that interview would never be seen beyond a tiny circle of scholars. Because I wanted Catney to speak for himself, I presented the excerpts with minimal editing for clarity, and without comment on my part.

By necessity, the excerpts published by the Quill represented only a small part of the full transcript of the interview, which runs to more than 50 pages in its entirety. In the weeks after the excerpts were posted portions were picked up and republished in the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph and at Ed Moloney’s blog The Broken Elbow. 

Writing in the Telegraph, Henry McDonald detected in Catney’s words doubts about the efficacy of armed struggle, but argued that the message of the interview was “too garbled and obfuscated by an intellectual sparring match between his [Catney’s] brand of republicanism and the pragmatism of new Sinn Fein.” Moloney, for his part, said that he and others read the same passages and had come to the opposite conclusion about Catney’s views.

Both McDonald and Moloney were on to something. Catney’s interview revealed a complex and nuanced view of violence and armed struggle. He did not argue that violence was desirable, nor that anyone in their right mind would truly welcome its return to Northern politics. Nor did he argue that violence had the capacity to change the political dynamics of Northern Ireland or advance the Republican agenda. Rather he saw the threat of its inevitability given the nature of the Northern Irish state. And, as noted in the earlier excerpts from the interview, he believed that if violence was to be carried out, it needed to be done so in a manner that conformed with the standards of a disciplined armed campaign in which noncombatant casualties were scrupulously avoided.

More importantly, however, he advanced the case that real change in Republican politics, and thus in Northern Ireland, would only come about through an open public dialogue within Republicanism dedicated to bringing about progressive alternatives that could challenge and in time replace the political status quo flowing from Sinn Fein’s partnership with the DUP at Stormont.

In advance of Saturday’s debate, I wanted to go back to the my interview with Catney from 2013 and present more of his perspectives on Northern Ireland’s political future. As before, the excerpts have been only minimally edited for clarity. I have also added some commentary of my own to provide context and to transition between topics.

Professor Peter Trumbore (PT) Interviews Tony Catney (TC)

TC: Unfortunately I think the vehicle for change is going to be violence because it is the only thing that the state listens to. I mean whenever the chief constable gets on TV and says, “Look, we know we didn’t really police the Loyalists protesting on the Newtownards Road properly. The reason we didn’t was that because there was 2,000 people there and if we’d have done it in more of a aggressive fashion it might have been 10 or it might have been 20.” It’s basically saying "look, we will police in a fashion that suits the number of people who are opposing us as opposed to the writ of the law."

That’s of the subtext of this society. What does that say to people? What it does say particularly to young people is that if you can put 2,000 people out on the street instead of 500 you get away with it. … So all of the cues that have been put down for future generations in terms of how you make change in the state are all violent examples. More people on the streets, show them that your dick’s bigger than their dick, and they will then invite you up to Stormont, give you cups of tea, and offer you EU grants. If there’s only 500 of you … they’ll batter the frig out of you and throw you off the road.

So my fear is that all of the lessons that are being taught at this moment in time are all violent lessons. It may be suppressed violence but they’re all violent lessons. So will the change come about? Yes, it will come about, and I fear that it will be violent because the contradictions that people can put up with but they can’t live by are all still there.

PT: One of the arguments that Sinn Fein repeatedly and vigorously puts forward, and which is widely and sincerely embraced by the public, whether Sinn Fein supporters or not, is that no one wants to go back to the horrors of the past. Catney argued that the leaders of the Provisional Movement themselves were complicit in creating those horrors, but contended that volunteers of his generation, who fought the war on the streets in the 1970s and in the prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, would not be the ones to bring the violence back, should it happen. He was more concerned about those who have grown up during the years of so-called peace, for whom society has seemingly little to offer.

TC: So you can sit up in Stormont and say, “See the past that we created for you? We can do that again. Do you want to go back to that? And see if you don’t, then you have to hear what we’re saying.” And that will keep a generation of IRA volunteers moving forward because the one thing I do think people have lost sight of … is just how hard those warriors lives were. You know, I mean when you were living out of other people’s houses and you were living out of a brown bag, you didn’t know from one day to the next where you were going to be.

I know nobody likes to complain about it at the time, but when you walk away from it, you know, the relief of being able to spend two nights in your own house, you know, being able to watch your own kids grow up. And you needn’t be articulate in that but it registers, you know, and so with this generation of people I think there are enough people who are going “No,” because their view of armed struggle is what they came through as no, I couldn’t take any more of it.

I argue this all the time with people that there is a missed and a missing generation here, and it’s the people who are now in their late 20s, early 30s. But there’s a generation coming up underneath them, who didn’t get the tail-end of the war, who aren’t enamored by people’s fucking war ribbons or war medals or stories about what they did in the IRA or anything else, who do what every young person should do, they judge it by the here and now.

So it’s that generation coming through. People have said to me all the time, “Why don’t you just go down and live in the Free State? Why don’t you go and live with your brother over in Holland? Why go through all this shit?” The reason you go through all this shit is so that another generation doesn’t have to recreate worse shit than the shit we have now.

PT: Catney reiterated that as Sinn Fein’s former director of elections, his break with the leadership in 2005 was not over issues of Republican orthodoxy, whether participation in electoral politics of acceptance of policing. Rather he said it was over the unwillingness of the movement to tolerate dissent within its own ranks and to allow for open and inclusive debate on important issues of policy and political strategy. The consequences of that, he contended, is that the lack of opposition within Sinn Fein and among its supporters frees the party from having to engage with its own constituents on matters of policy or to deliver meaningful results. This has produced, he argued, a situation in which there is in no pressure on Sinn Fein, within Stormont or from its own constituents, to push forward a progressive political agenda. Instead, the political agenda is a preservation of the status quo.

TC: I’m of a mind that approached with a different theoretical and strategic framework that the electoral intervention, the cessations – I don’t think the disbandment of the IRA should even have come into the equation – but all of those things could have been handled in a fashion that would put you in a position now where you had a very vibrant oppositional political stance that created progressive politics. [Instead you have in Stormont] this mundane county council that [has] to keep themselves in with each other – not in with the electorate.

Now, you watch the news here and every time a government minister is questioned about an issue, the common phrase is “it’s going to consultation.” Now, I don’t know where the results of these consultations go to but all I have heard for the past eight years is “consultation.” Everything goes to consultation and nothing comes out, a clear indication of a government that doesn’t work.

Now, up until three or four years ago if you said that you were a dissident. Now people like Patrick Murphy writing in the Irish News, or David Ford for the Alliance Party can openly say that and it becomes part of the political discourse. Five years ago it wasn’t.

Now, if in those five years you’ve gotten to the point at least where people accept that you don’t have government, in another five years you will have a generation of young people coming through going, “Not only do you not have government but we’re paying money to fat lazy bastards who basically do nothing but sit up in the house on the hill and produce no productive product at the end.”

And where will that lead to, you know? It will lead to people becoming more and more frustrated. There won’t be an avenue to alleviate that frustration. There will be no other show in town and people will come to the conclusion, well, fuck you, and you’re right back to where you were with the Stormont regime of 1969. The difference? It will be constitutional unionists and constitutional nationalists as opposed to just a unionist bloc. But the net result will be the same.

PT: There’s a paralysis in the political system, Catney argued, that makes it impossible for change to occur at Stormont even if those within the system wanted otherwise.

TC: There are people who I know up on the hill and I know that they are – as well as being good Republicans – are sincere genuine people, who are people who you could beg your life away with. But they are now trapped within an organizational framework that doesn’t allow them to do anything other than seek agreement with the other people who are locked in to the same organizational structure as them.

And in all of this it becomes more important for Sinn Fein to curry favor with the DUP than it does Sinn Fein to curry favor with even their own electorate.

PT: Challenging that consensus, he said, is why he remained politically active, despite the personal costs of being publicly critical of the Provisional Movement and the potential legal jeopardy that came with his associations with alternative Republican groupings.

TC: I’m not fatalistic about [a return to violence]. I don’t think it’s inevitable. I do think – and it’s why I engage in political activity – that at a point [the Republican Movement] will have to listen to the views that I’m articulating. It might not be from me but they will have to listen to them, and they will have to listen to them in a fashion that requires coherent answers. And that in itself will be the beginning of a completely different and new process.

PT: He said that recent outreach from Sinn Fein offering to engage in dialogue with groups including the 1916 Societies, eirigi, and even the Republican Network for Unity, were rejected by those groups as little more than optics. But at some point, he said, the dialogue will have to go beyond the optics.

TC: Where that point will be is hard to say. I think you’ve already seen 50 percent of the leadership that brought you to this point [have] ended up looking for their retirement strategy, it will be once that other 50 percent is gone. You’re not going to do it with people like Gerry Kelly, Raymond McCartney, for a lot of the virtues that Raymond has, [or Adams or McGuinness]. It won’t be while those people are there. Why? Because they see this as their creation. To do anything other than this would be tantamount to admitting that it was a defeat.

Rather than be mature enough to be able to say, “No, it was a strategic mistake but it’s a strategic mistake that we can actually rectify.” And I don’t think they’re big enough either morally or politically to be able to do that.

PT: The development of an articulate, modern Republican alternative to Sinn Fein, he argued, is what needs to emerge publicly in order to change the political dynamics. But this alternative, he said, has to emerge from the grassroots, not be handed down from a leadership on high. This is where debates like the one which will take place Saturday in Dublin come in to play.

TC: Yeah, except there’s one piece missing in the jigsaw and it harks back to what we talked about earlier, about not wanting to recreate the mistakes of the past.

In Sinn Fein they were always called roadmaps, you know, a roadmap to a peaceful united Ireland handed down from on high. But there is a process of debate which is going on, and I have to say I’m delighted to be involved in the 1916 Societies which are spearheading that sort of internal debate. That debate needs to take place.

There are quite a number of articulate alternatives to the Muppet Show that takes place up in Stormont that are presently doing the rounds and that I have come into contact with. I have my own view and look forward to the open debates around which one of those is most practical. The stream that runs through them all is the notion of the necessity of oppositional politics and then if you sort of concretize that principle, it leads you then to look at then the forms of government that that would take.

The obstacle to any of that taking place at this moment in time is that so long as you’re pumping the charade that goes on in the house on the hill has been government then you have no need to look for an alternative. So what you get at this moment in time is no, we don’t need an alternative. Adams’ line from 1994 is there is no plan B. Bollocks. There’s a plan B, a C, a D, an E, and an F. There are as many plans as people want to put forward. And then you argue the toss and to say which one of them is the best.

PT: Sinn Fein’s strategy, he said, has been to contend that they only alternative to their leadership is a return to worst of the war years. But he said that threat has an increasingly short shelf life.

TC: Like I say, that will last for the generation of people who actually fought in the war. The missing generation, who were so subdued by the state forces, or by the IRA, but beneath them there is a generation who has been free from that. [Those kids] are quite prepared to say, “My benchmark will be does it or doesn’t it work?” you know, not is it or isn’t it as good as 1974.

You know, fuck 1974.

Now, hopefully that [generation] coming through will free things up so that it actually becomes legitimate to have an alternative view rather than illegitimate. And that, the power of that debate will allow you to develop new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at how you can organize your society without resort to armed struggle.


  1. Tony was a very astute man who grew to see past the bullshit. Unfortunately he was outnumbered by the gombeens now in control. Hopefully his ambitions and hopes will be fulfilled sooner rather than later but I fear time is not on most of our sides. May he rest in peace.

  2. TC left people with a lot to think about. I think we should consider putting together a book of his interviews and writings.

  3. He did indeed leave us with so much to think about and we have to be big enough to have the debate and be self-critical as part of the process. Always found him to be streets ahead in terms of his thinking and agree with his analysis entirely - or at least my reading of it. The strategic mistake was not ending the armed campaign but the failing to build a suitable alternative, along the lines of what we were promised, to take its place - the oft-referenced 'new phase of struggle'. In terms of what was our leadership, what's really happened is they abandoned the struggle to facilitate a constitutional strategy and what we see every day now is the inevitable outworking of that. They may think it's the right way, if you talk to them they fervently believe they're bang on target, and who knows they could even be right. Regardless, they have stepped away from the thinking that governed the politics of the Provisional movement from which they emerged and accepted the legitimacy of consent - even if only as an interim measure as Jim Gibney once tried to tell me many years ago. We can see where that all ended up nearly two decades on and counting. In my opinion the Provisionals are gone but the legacy of the Provisional movement remains intact and in place for those who wish to take it on and create the new phase of struggle we were promised at the time these changes were brought in - and which TC seems to have been endorsing with these interviews. I think he is making a contribution here from beyond the grave for those of us bold enough to take account of what is a subtle and nuanced approach to the future of the struggle in Ireland. Sadly the man is gone before his time and his influence on these matters will be sorely missed, especially as republicanism becomes more attractive to the electorate again, a facet of the struggle in which there weren't many equals to the man. May he rest in eternal peace, he's earned it, and hope the debate proves a resounding success, well done the organisers

  4. T.C. was always streets ahead of us in his thinking.