Criminalizing Speech (And Opposition) — An Update

Pete Trumbore sounds an alarm about the ongoing threat to free speech occasioned by today's bail conditions imposed on Dee Fennell, a Belfast republican remanded to prison after he delivered a speech at an Easter Sunday commemoration. Dr Peter Trumbore blogs @ Observations/Research/Diversions.


For Dee Fennell the price of freedom is silence.

Just after Easter, I wrote about the case of Republican activist and Ardoyne community worker Dee Fennell who was arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland on charges of encouraging support for a “proscribed organization,” the New IRA which remains committed to the use of armed force the end British occupation of Northern Ireland.

The charges against Fennell stem from a speech he gave at an Easter Rising commemoration in Lurgan in which he said:

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.

As a I noted at the time,  Fennell’s words in support of armed struggle as a part of a legitimate campaign to achieve a united Ireland were little different from those uttered by other speakers, including former Provisional IRA members who now serve as representatives of the Crown as officials in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. In fact praise for and remembrance of those who have taken up arms in the cause of Irish freedom is part and parcel of virtually all Easter commemorations.

Fennell has now been released on bail, and as the Belfast Telegraph reports this morning, the price of freedom is his silence. As a condition of bail, Fennell is banned from making any public speeches. He is further banned from posting any material online.

From the perspective of an outside observer like me, one of the most surprising features of the Northern Ireland peace process has been the failure of any alternative Republican political parties to emerge to challenge the dominance of Sinn Fein, despite the compromises and abandonments of Republican orthodoxy that have accompanied the party’s transition from a revolutionary movement to a defender of a political status quo in which it is a partner in the very governmental institutions it had once been dedicated to smashing through force of arms.

The case of Dee Fennell helps to explain this. Like Gerry McGeough and Marian Price before him, the British state, with the silence if not complicity of Sinn Fein, has used the legal system to silence those who would speak out forcefully against the existing political status quo. The more effective those speakers, the more credible their voice in the Republican community, and the greater the fear that they might be able to gain support and mount a meaningful challenge to the Republican mainstream, the greater the odds that they will be muzzled.

As Lord John Alderdice, former leader of the Alliance Party, told me in 2011 when I interviewed him for the research I am doing on the maintenance of the peace process:

When you are talking about the capacity of the Republican Movement to police itself, and can you really do it if they can’t shoot them in the knees or whatever, and I would say well, there are other ways. There’s another way, you know, that people are no longer protected, people are more exposed, people won’t get patronage of various kinds, and then the past catches up with you.

Dee Fennell is far from the first, and likely won’t be the last, to learn this lesson.


  1. Peter

    viewed in a broader context the abandonment of republican orthodoxy by Sinn Féin is nothing new. Considering the lessons of history its hardly surprising. Many of the leaders of the republican side who fought the civil war made the transition from revolutionary movement to defenders of the status quo too. Weighed against the behaviour of Fianna Fáil, who tried republicans in non-jury military tribunals and executed six of them by firing squad in the forties and allowed three to die on hunger-strike whilst seeking political status, we can't feign surprise and ignore the precedent.

    Anyone advocating the legitimacy of armed struggle and who seeks to influence citizens has an obligation, especially to the immature and vulnerable, to factor in and address such precedents into their analysis and strategy. Failure to make such consideration is viewed by most right thinking people as reckless and deluded. Whilst Mr Fennell may command some sympathy and maybe support in his own small circle I doubt if this extends much further. He certainly evokes no sympathy from me.

    Given the behaviour of the various evolutionary manifestations of Irish Republicanism its well past time that the slow learners including Fennell got back to the drawing board and reappraised the whole proposal.
    In 1998 ninety-four percent of the people of the southern state and seventy-one per cent of the northern one said 'move on'. Anyone, including Mr Fennell attempting to contravene that decision to accept partition, contingent on continued support of a northern majority, is obliged to offer a clear and detailed plan before shooting from the hip. By failing to do that and taking his self-righteous stance he finds himself in his current situation. I don't find anything of merit Peter in your re-contextualising of his actions.

  2. Pete,

    this frames the matter accurately. It is more about state muzzling of dissenting thought than anything else. It is certainly not about stifling endorsements of IRAs per se as the other speakers on the day would have been arrested. Dee Fennell could have stood up and called for the British state to treat arrested republicans as detainees were treated in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; he could call for state assassination by drone of people the state do not like - for example Collie Duffy; he could endorse the policy of British state collusion that went on in the North and recently addressed in Panorama and call for it to be used against today's republicans. Would he have been arrested? Not the remotest chance of it. People are allowed to endorse violence. The question is one of who's violence it is that is being endorsed? Clerics can advocate stoning women for adultery, executing gays, - all violence. So, as wrong as Dee Fennell's views undoubtedly are in my view, it is the one sided application of a muzzling law that the British police are applying here.

    The issues raised by Henry Joy need to be seriously looked at by all republicans but in doing that, the question of highly selective and tendentious use of silencing techniques must not be overlooked or side lined.

  3. In an unrelated issue but which is thematically appropriate for this thread we can see how in the digital age law enforcement is seeking to increase its power and curb societal freedoms

  4. Your point is well made AM.

    Indeed selective use of silencing techniques must not be overlooked and all incitements to and uses of violence must be challenged and teased out if we are to be consistent in our opposition to violent impositions for ideological control or change.

    Most citizens though, I'd contend, will view your's and Peter's stance as somewhat intellectual, academic and of a higher order than their own more fundamental need and right to live their lives and protect those of their nearest and dearest from exposure to the threat of death, maiming or injury. The drive for self-preservation and its inherent need for security will trump equanimity and equality of scrutiny.

    I don't for a moment propose that's there's not a systemic relationship between between state, cultural and individual propensities to violence however a majority of citizens are influenced by immediate needs and wants and will for the most part turn a blind eye to your's and Peter's correct observations.

  5. HJ,

    My experience is that most people turn a blind eye to my observations whether they are right or wrong. But I think, and you seem to defend it, that if we feel something is unjustly inflicted by a majority (not just a minority) then it is reasonable to address it. But there is a point to what you say: very few of us, myself included, live life the way we talk it here. This merely allows us to reflect on our ideas and create them as we write them rather than issuing pre cast tablets of stone from on high. I am a great believer in Orwell's dictum: I want to be good, but not too good and not all the time. And that is for the reason you outline - real people in real time want to get on with it.

  6. AM and HJ,

    Let me add just a few points to the conversation. First, I don't have a great deal of trouble with the charges brought against Fennell -- except for the incredibly selective manner in which those charges have been levied. If Fennell's comments at that commemoration were illegal, then everyone who made similar remarks at events across the North should have been charged as well. That goes for the praise that Gerry Kelly heaped upon the volunteers of the Provisional IRA, which remains a proscribed organization. This was the point I made in the first piece I wrote about Fennell which Anthony kindly reposted here at TPQ.

    Second, I have a far bigger problem with the conditions of silence that have been imposed on Fennell as a condition of his bail. He has been fully silenced by the state. He is forbidden to speak in public. He is forbidden to post anything online. These prohibitions are unconnected to the content of his speech. In the US this is referred to as "prior restraint," and has long been understood to be a clear violation of free speech rights.

    I do not support Fennell's positions on many of the issues he has raised in the past, especially his continued endorsement of armed struggle. But I do fully support his right to say such things in a free society. I don't think that is an overly academic perspective to take.

  7. AM,

    no tablets of stone, we're all muddling along as best we can; living perfectly imperfect lives in an imperfectly perfect world. Some of us lucky enough to have the time, space, inclination and capacity to reflect on that process. Constructing and updating maps and models essential to the journey, very useful for effecting navigation through difficult or unfamiliar terrain in the future.

    And sure, where's there's injustice we are free to call it out (or not to) but that old parenting adage "Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child" comes to mind too. T'is not essential nor necessary to clear every path.

  8. Pete,

    it is the manner in which the entire things seems driven by a partisan political agenda rather than a straightforward policing one (in as far as that ever exists) that would deal with matters of law breaches. Your point about the bail conditions is crucial. I don't believe it is overly academic, even academic, to take your stance. It has huge significance. At the same time, it is like trying to argue for increased prisoners' rights in many Western societies. We come up against a wall of resistance, indifference, callousness even. The red tops might indeed create prejudice but they also tap into populist reservoirs that store it. Which I think is what Henry Joy is flagging up.

  9. I hazard a guess and say that only this part of his speech is what is at issue "armed struggle, in 2015, remains a legitimate act of resistance."

    This is nothing really to do with free speech but other fundamental human rights as under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the legitimacy of armed resistance, I quote:

    "Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,"

    So if Dee Fennell is all that he says is then he has been given a perfect opportunity to say his piece in open court --generally regimes try to suffocate the oxygen of publicity -not provide an open court to voice it. If he has a case then he should go for it and not voluntarily gag himself by accepting bail conditions on his enemies terms! Is he a Whimp or a man? If the conditions are right for legitimate use of force then I would love to hear them -but he will probably voluntarily accept bail conditions to gag himself and afterwards grumble about the brits silenceing him... If he he has a case then he has the Universal Decalration of Human Rights to back him up.

  10. Tiarna,

    There were two parts of the speech that I believe were at issue, the part that you and I both quoted, and another (disputed) element in which he is said to have encouraged people to join the IRA. The first part I originally transcribed from the video of his speech while it was still posted on YouTube. I was able to confirm my transcription from subsequent media reports which also quoted the speech.

    The second supposed quote is much more problematic. It was such a fleeting moment in the speech that at first it did not register with me. It was part of a larger exhortation of people to become more actively involved in the Republican struggle generally. And, if I remember correctly, he was quoting the words of a 1970s era Sinn Fein activist in that part of the speech. As a result I did not make note of it or transcribe it.

    Once the furor erupted, and he was accused of encouraging people to join the IRA, I went back to find the video and see and hear it for myself, but at that point the video had been removed. I have been unable to find any direct quotes from that part of the speech reported anywhere in the media. Nor have I found any posted written version of his remarks.

    If I recall the article from the BelTel yesterday, police found a single page of written remarks in Fennell's house when they searched it upon his arrest. I believe they characterized it as having been found behind a microwave in the kitchen, implying that there had been effort to hide the paper.

    To repeat what I said above, the problem for me is not his arrest in and of itself, but the double standard his arrest reveals. Find for me any evidence that speakers like Gerry Kelly, who praised the IRA and glorified the volunteers who waged armed struggle against the British state, were similarly charged. And again, even more troubling is the muzzle which he was forced to accept as a condition of release on bail.

    Yes, I suppose he could mount a protest campaign claiming protections under the UDHR or any number of other relevant international human rights treaties or conventions. But not publicly. And not online. Because if he did, he would be tossed back into jail for violating the terms of his bail.

  11. "Find for me any evidence that speakers like Gerry Kelly, who praised the IRA and glorified the volunteers who waged armed struggle against the British state, were similarly charged. And again, even more troubling is the muzzle which he was forced to accept as a condition of release on bail."

    That is not the issue; anyone can say that they sympathized, supported or would have encouraged others to join the IRA up until the GFA, in otherwords: "armed struggle, before 1998, was a legitimate act of resistance." And they are free to continue to repeat that. The issue with Fennel is supporting armed groups after the GFA in the face of laws introduced since. If Gerry Kelly or any other SF'er said what is attributed to Dee Fennel then I expect they will be arrested too.

    If Dee Fennel believes in what he said then why not stand over it rather than backing down and voluntarily accepting the Brits terms to 'muzzle' himself? He could have refused bail and fought his case in court(he may still have a trial but he seems to have conceded guilt by the terms he agreed to). His convictions must not be all that strong that he agreed to the terms so easily. Is he an arm chair general willing to fight to the last drop of blood of anyone who was fool enough to have listened to him?? If dissidents don't mean what they say then they need to shut up because of the harm they can cause running their mouths off with their bravado talk.

  12. PS: Nelson Mandella and scores of republicans could have been released from prison earlier if they agreed to certain terms they choose not to because they believed in their struggle -Dee Fennel folded at the first bit of pressure. He can't do anything publically now because he agreed to those terms --had he not agreed to the terms he could repeat whatever he said whenever and as often as he liked. It was a silly fight for him to get into if he was not prepared to back it up.

  13. Tiarna,

    I am not so sure that is right.

    In an earlier discussion of this around the time of Dee Fennell's arrest one of the unionists had a look at the legislation and commented on the blog that Kelly could be charged if the Brits decided to press it. As people can still be charged for pre 1998 activity I am far from convinced that if say Dee had have praised the killing of Mountbatten, he would be on safe ground. Even if we set that aside he could easily have expressed support for police torture and called for it to be brought into effect, or for the state to use drones to murder its opponents. He would never have been arrested.

  14. Tiarna,

    lots of republicans made compromises over the years to get them out earlier - pleading guilty was the big one. I would not agree to the restriction. But then I couldn't given the stance I have taken. But my nose is not put out of joint by Dee opting for it. It is maybe an issue that is better fought on the outside. I think the focus is best placed not on him undertaking to abide by the bail conditions but on the conditions ever being imposed in the first place.

  15. AM

    I wouldn't disagree with you nor would I say that nobody should take deals. But if you take on a leadership position of sorts then you carry a heavier burden to stand your ground a bit firmer. I don't think this particular issue is one better fought from the outside, if he was going to fight it at all then he should have stood his ground and have it out in court because now he has agreed to sit quietly in a shoe box under the bed unless he violate his bail conditions. These are stupid little things that are tying up dissidents and even if dissidents win them they do not achieve much. They should pick their battles better that when they do get a reaction they do not fold so readily. Better still they should call ceasefires and that would potentially be a bigger threat to Stormont and security overtime than they have seen since the GFA.

    Personally I don't see too much wrong with what he said or is alleged to have said but look at the energy zapped in arguments about who said she said what was said? Is it worth it? More to the point there is a sizable number of people want an alternative to SF and dissidents are not the answer. I think people should just abandon dissidents, regroup and reclaim their republican identity. That would be a start and if peaceful people are being thrown in jail then I guess that would attract a lot more sympathy than dissident own goals.

  16. Tiarna,

    leaders do carry a heavier burden of responsibility. Although I am not sure that the right to free speech or defence of the legitimacy of armed activity is what he ever intended taking the lead on. I regarded what he said as one of those Easter rhetorical flourishes rather than a recruiting drive. Certainly not something he should be jailed for any more than Jim Wells should be pursued by the cops over his views on same sex marriage. Was I confronted with the same terms over say, for example, publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons, there is no way I could agree to the conditions. But that is because I took if not a leading role, certainly a vociferous one, in advocating that they be published.

    I don't see what advantage other than standing on principle was to be achieved by staying in jail. No campaign was ever going to be waged from there. He can now raise the issue in other ways such as speaking at events about censorship (if that has not been banned as well). In my view there are two things people should never succumb to easily if they can avoid it: prison and poverty.

    Your other points about the futility of armed campaigning and going to jail if necessary for defending non violent activity rather than violent activity are valid.

  17. Very interesting comments by all involved, Tirana is correct
    in saying "dissident" republicanism would be better served
    at this moment in time by a ceasefire.Any revolutionary
    struggle is political first ,military second, we've failed on both
    fronts I'm afaird. Am is right we hv a moral obligation
    to the next generation of republicans.Im out of gaol
    2 years today it's was my second term of imprisonment
    I'm still passionate about our struggle but totally
    disheartened that we hv NO strategy expect to send
    men an women to gaol so armchair generals within
    republicanism can talk shit knowing they will never go
    to jail themselves. We need honest leadership and we
    need it now.

  18. "We come up against a wall of resistance, indifference, callousness even. The red tops might indeed create prejudice but they also tap into populist reservoirs that store it."

    You nailed it there AM.

    Whether you frame it in a freedom of speech context, UDHR, censorship, or as a selective enforcement issue Fennell's case is unlikely to gain much traction.

    Most people won't give any of the issues discussed here on the thread even a fleeting thought. The reservoirs mentioned are deep enough.

    Its bye-bye republicanism and hello Sinn Féin turtles ... and turtles all the way down.