Sauce For The Gander?

Pete Trumbore looks at the discourse of armed struggle that featured during the Easter commemorations and teases out the similarities between the language of current and former revolutionaries.  Dr. Peter Trumbore is Associate Professor of Political Science at Oakland University. He blogs at Observations/ Research/ Diversions.

Continuity IRA member fires a shot in salute at an Easter commemoration in Lurgan.

When former revolutionaries become the establishment certain compromises are inevitable. Nowhere is this more clearly on display in Northern Ireland than when the issue of armed struggle comes in to the public eye, as it does every Easter season when the Republican Movement commemorates the 1916 Rising. Here’s an example:

I also want to pay tribute to the bravery, leadership and commitment of the IRA in this generation who fought in the streets of our towns and in the highways, byways and fields of our countryside. If courage was the measure of success then Ireland would have had her freedom long ago … I think I can speak for many thousands of Irish republicans who came through the conflict when I say that we are proud of our time as volunteers in the Irish Republican Army.
And another:
Armed struggle must be a contributory factor to a wider struggle. The use of arms prior to 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms in Easter 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms after 1916 was totally legitimate. In the existing political context of partition, illegal occupation and the denial of national self determination, armed struggle, in 2015, remains a legitimate act of resistance.
And now back to our first speaker:
There are small groupings within the Nationalist community opposed to the peace process and opposed to Sinn Féin.  These groups have every right to disagree with our strategy but they have no right to carry out armed actions, the vast majority of which are directed against unarmed civilians, in the name of Irish Republicanism. These small groups are not the IRA. The IRA fought a war against State combatant forces and fought it to a conclusion.
So who’s who in these conflicting takes on the legitimacy of continued armed resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland? The first speaker is Gerry Kelly, a famed IRA veteran (part of the team that planted four car bombs in the center of London in 1973) and one of the highest-profile members of Sinn Fein, serving on its national executive and as an MLA representing North Belfast at Stormont.

Kelly is currently running as Sinn Fein’s candidate for a seat  in the British parliament at Westminster. His comments were delivered as part of the Easter commemoration oration he gave at the Republican plot in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, the resting place of many an IRA volunteer killed on “active service” against the British state that Kelly attacked in 1973 but today serves as a member of the Stormont government.

The second speaker is Dee Fennell, a young Republican community activist from the Ardoyne neighborhood of North Belfast.  I heard him speak in Dublin in early March during an event held by one of the faster-growing “dissident” Republican groups. In that setting he skirted around giving the kind of open endorsement of armed struggle that he voiced in his Easter oration at the Republican plot at St. Colman’s Cemetery in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Video of his statement had been posted to YouTube but has since been taken down.

From Kelly’s perspective the need for armed struggle is over. The IRA, his IRA, fought the British state to a standstill. The movement now can accomplish its goals through exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

From Fennell’s perspective the need for armed struggle is as real as it has ever been. People like Kelly, who may have once fought with honor and distinction, are now no more than cogs in the engine that perpetuates partition and foreign occupation. A new IRA, which Fennell said is increasing in its capabilities and effectiveness, will pick up and carry on to finish the job that Kelly’s IRA failed to complete.

What’s fascinating about the positions espoused by Kelly and Fennell is not on how much they differ, but on how much they agree. Both accept the legitimacy of armed struggle. Both believe it can be used effectively to bring about desired political change. Both agree that the work of achieving a united Ireland free of British control is unfinished. Both refuse to categorically reject the resort to arms to achieve that goal.
From Fennell, the dissident, this is understandable.  From Kelly it is a little more difficult, but not impossible to fathom. It is a reflection of what happens when a revolutionary movement trades its berets and balaclavas for suits and ties, the barricades for the board room. For Sinn Fein to categorically condemn armed struggle  would amount to rejecting the very revolutionary means that brought them to the positions of political power they hold today.  And that’s a step they seemingly cannot bring themselves to take.


  1. Out of all the people who have legitimised the use of armed struggle Dee Fennell alone is arrested. Discriminatory policing for political purposes - as well as trying to silence different voices.

  2. Fennell and Kelly are both deluded.

    On one hand I don't like Gerry Adams deny I was in the IRA nor on the other do I like Martin McGuinness volunteer dates of signing up or exiting. What I can say with a little more certainty though is that if I had been I would now have to conclude in light of all that has happened since I was misinformed, misguided and mistaken to have chosen such a course.

    To hell with the future and long live the past. And may the Lord in his mercy look down on Belfast.

  3. Never mind armed struggle, its aural struggle Republicans need to be versed in. Language is the new theatre of conflict, many of the pre-2006 Commemoration speeches could not be given today, even though the thenmes and motivations are the same. Im sure Fennell would be aware of this,was it worth risking 5 years in jail to make this point?

  4. Conveniently removed ahead of the marching season Anthony, political policing at its finest. With Fennell out of the picture the hope no doubt is they can ram through some sort of deal and facilitate a parade. They saw the opportunity and they took it, he's been charges which effectively means he'll be held for two years before the case collapses. The job will still be done, it's basically internment by remand

  5. DaithiD,

    to imprison for the sentiment expressed by Dee Fennell is draconian censorship. People should be free to express the view that armed struggle is legitimate and be challenged on it. If an Islamist cleric argues that in accordance with the Koran it is legitimate for gays or adulterers to be stoned he will not be jailed nor should he be.

    Yet you ask that most important of questions which everybody needs to be cognisant of. A Cui bono question that many of Dee's backers will likely not want addressed in case it deflects from the political policing role of the PSNI. Should anyone be giving their opposition a penalty kick in a situation where the law has been remoulded to trap people.

  6. AM, thats a good comparison, the gap between one offence being prosecuted and the other being ignored is the space where political policing lurks.
    I dont mean to deflect from his supporters agenda, but Fennell wasnt even victim to the ambiguity of the law (which is designed to trap people as you say).Perhaps there is some Republican tactic in getting himself arrested? It makes no sense otherwise.

  7. Deluded strategy on Mr Fennell's behalf. To what end would one make such utterances under current circumstances?
    Any belief that his 'sacrifice' will change anything very much is as equally deluded as Mr Kelly's assertion that we fought the enemy to a standstill!

  8. Henry Joy,

    recently the same comment has been coming thru multiple times - some sort of glitch or something in the way you are posting perhaps.

  9. David and Tony, I'm not saying either of you're suggesting the issue should be reduced to 'Fennell should have known better', clearly that's not the case, but we need to be sure to keep right issue in focus, the issue is the law. Asides from the fact Britain should have no power to make any law here to begin with, what we're dealing with is the manipulation of law to achieve a political outcome, essentially to uphold Britain's illegal occupation of Ireland. Beyond that again, and perhaps more importantly, we're dealing with a young family who just had their patriarch and bread-winner taken away. While I feel for Dee of course, I'd imagine he can look after himself in this situation to a certain extent and is mentally fit for the challenges faced. It's Louise and the children I feel sorry for here more than anyone, this is a really tough situation for them to be put through, it's thoroughly disgusting

  10. Sean,

    during WW1 there was no need for soldiers to take off their gas masks in the trenches just to show that the opposition used poisonous gas and the evidence of their dastardly deed was in the lifeless form of the person who took off their mask.

    We know there is something wrong with the law. And when the law is made to trap the opposition it becomes a tactical imperative to side step the snare that is set.

    I fail to understand how an activist of Dee's experience(unless it is a free speech test case which I doubt) allows his opponents to gain the advantage.

    Republicans need to stop the jails becoming a sponge to absorb the opposition. Singing the praises of people once they are imprisoned is making a virtue of necessity. Gate shut horse bolted.

    I wrote to him about ten minutes ago: a simple letter expressing empathy with his predicament which will go in the post today. But don't ask me to understand it. Because I do not.

  11. It is hard to make a judgement as the video was taken off Youtube, no doubt in time we will find out what was said. The only one remaining shows the utterly pathetic sight of some young buck showing off his inept weapon handling skills with an MI5 issued handgun, while he is roundly cheered by some of Ireland's finest citizens. Viva la revolucion!

  12. ...keep right issue in focus, the issue is the law...

    Thanks Sean, I'm confused as to why the law is the focus after the event, and not before though? Im not saying 'he should of known better' because his motive remains unclear at this stage too.

  13. Yeah I know you're not saying that, I wouldn't say there was a motive though, other than to appeal for support and encourage those in attendance - many's a similar speech was given down the years by those who now sit in wilful silence in Stormont. For me this raises an issue which is mostly overlooked, i.e. social media and how it can be used by intelligence agents. Everything now has to be videoed and uploaded to Facebook and is of no value unless it generates sufficient 'likes'. Republicans are playing a dangerous game on the enemy's terrain. Whoever thought it a good idea to record and post that speech to YouTube thought wrong.

  14. Outside the country AM. No roaming. Only posting when free wi-fi available. Small screen all thumbs too. Apologies.

  15. Sean, its demoralising if it means Sinn Fein (Kelly/MMG/Adams etc) will be final custodians of that kind of rhetorical content delivered without a mask. Its quite a powerful constraint, that traditional Republicanism cannot have a human face. There must be a clever way of getting the same words and sentiments out there without the potential state sanction?
    AM, I thought you were bantering Henry at his skill of never missing a thread to declare everything futile, hopeless and over.

  16. DaithiD,

    he is free to say what he wants but when he says it twice it is a nuisance LOL

  17. Daithi

    Feel free to share your opinions on the economic vacuousness of left wing rhetoric and I'll keep chipping away at the current ineffectiveness of dissident republican strategy.
    I've seen most of it before: whether it's Don O'Leary time or not for Dee I don't know but strategically it's yet another blunder.
    Sometime in the early eighties I was canvassing with a Sinn Fein candidate in Roscommon, O'Bradaigh was there too, Sean Doherty a former Justice Minister and a former not-so-nice Special Branch man nearly squeezed the breath out of O'Bradaigh with the hug he welcomed him with. Reformed so-called republicans will always manage to portray subsequent waves (maybe that ought read ripples) as similar to themselves but the more crazy wing when it suits. They'll happily brand them as bogey men or even thugs when that's more convenient.
    As Anthony says nobody who fought for the Republic will live to see it. Nor will the children of any of those currently in prison.

    There's a far greater chance of western governments allowing budget deficits to rise yet again than any of these self-appointed heroes making even the smallest dent in the current agreed political regime.

  18. I have read the transcript of Dee Fennell's speech online and the quote from Maire Drumm seems to be just that a quote.

    The online site reported that he said "“Maire Drumm said it was not to shout Up the IRA, the important was to join the IRA." (sic)

    Let me say here that I don't support the above comment I just cut and pasted it off a website. The legal system is fickle at the best of times. I don't want to do 4 years for pressing CTRL C and then CTRL V!

    So, it seems more a case of reported speech. Maire Drumm was arrested, charged and sentenced if I am right, for the original speech but Dee Fennell just reported what she said. It doesn't make sense to arrest him purely for that. For example if I reported what Hitler said once it doesn't mean I support the Nazis. I hate the bastards.

    Likewise I have no time for violence today.

    However, his next sentence "“When you leave here today, ask yourself is it enough to support republicanism or could you be a more active republican. Are you willing to assist a movement that will bring us freedom." that might be seen as being directly related to the Maire Drumm quote but context and intention are important.

    If he is supporting armed struggle today by these words and he is convicted then that means you can support illegal armed struggle up until the Good Friday Agreement but not after. That seems a peculiar quirk in the legal system.

    Does the GFA retroactively make the IRAs violence pre-1998 something that is not "terrorism", a strange beast being neither entirely legal or entirely illegal. Is it because the PIRA's "terrorism" can't be supported as they are no longer active? Is it not terrorism because it's in the past?

    Either way the context and intention of the rest of his speech is important since as I explained the Maire Drumm quote on its own is merely a factual description of a historical statement. I have read it quoted in books.

    The stuff he said about Mountbatten was in bad taste but joking about the dead in an insulting manner may not be the same as glorifying terrorism.

    If Sinn Fein spokespeople can say the PIRA was legitimate and get away with it that must be because the violence is in the past. However, so was Mountbatten's death so is that also not glorifying terrorism?

    I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

  19. Is any one secretly having a laugh up their cuff at me arragont fennel inside for a be
    Reach of human rights? Remember martin oh anyone and the treatment he recieved! Remember u can't cap agin unless u have irpwa approval! Old belfast saying suck it up! Oh yes see he recognised the British courts not to mention the British police during arrest! FFs!

  20. I've always considered the physical force Nationalist combatant to be in a win win scenario regarding incarceration as long as the prison struggle continues to be put in the public domain through resources such as Scairt Amach and the hard work put in by IRPWA activists. All eyes on the Drumcree '12th'.