Unfinished Business

Christopher Owens reviews a recently published book on republicanism.

Unfinished business
Since 1998, being seen (in the eyes of the mainstream) as a dissident republican means that you're considered to be a one dimensional Rambo like character, still fighting a war long considered over by many.

While devastating events like Omagh reinforce such views (and understandably so), these perceptions merely hold back any attempts to deal with our past, and give the responsibility of dealing with our future in the hands of corrupt, mainstream politicians.

After all, isn't politics about choice?

So it's to Dr. McGlinchey's credit that she has put together this tome that examines the various groups who are often labelled 'dissident', what motivates them and why they carry on in the face of (at best) indifference and (at worst) hostility.

Examining the history of these groups (who successfully argue that the true dissidents are Sinn Fein, from dissenting from republican ideology) through to the modern era of police harassment, Judean People's Front style splitting, paranoia over informing and the general sense of betrayal still keenly felt by those being interviewed.

In terms of insights, the author is very much on solid ground. Interviewing people like Billy McKee, Nuala Perry, Kevin Hannaway, Anthony McIntyre (and with Danny Morrison acting as a representative for Sinn Fein), what comes through is that republicanism is not a means to an end for these people, but an ideology that has shaped their life and worldview. It bring to mind Jaz Coleman's view that the meaning of struggle is "Giving your whole life to a single passion/Which others may or may not/Consider obsolete."

What it does is humanise people long derided and sidelined, not only by mainstream politics but by republicans as well. Their view on the recent conflict, the splits and the current battle for relevancy in a post Brexit world. Contrasting that with the Sinn Fein line shows up the hollowness of the latter's worldview.

One real bone of contention among the commentators that fascinated me was the claim that Sinn Fein's attempts to suggest the Troubles were a battle for civil rights. Plenty of people argue that they were fighting for a united Ireland the whole time (which is undoubtedly true). However, I think Ed Moloney nails this with the comment that:
The Troubles were sparked by two things: first, a demand from the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland for civil rights, for a greater measure of equality and for institutions, such as the police, which acted in a way which could command their support and allegiance. Second, the refusal/reluctance of Unionists to acquiesce....Most Nationalists appear content with the Good Friday Agreement...and in that gratification it is possible to discern the underlying truth of the Troubles, which is that they were never really about the Border but about the well-being and position of Nationalists in the existing constitutional status quo.
I'm sure plenty of the interviewees will completely disagree with this notion, but it's an intriguing one nonetheless. One that maybe should have been floated to them.

Which leads me to the few problems with the book which stop the book from being the last word on 'dissident' groupings in Ireland.

Firstly, each chapter often feels like a self contained magazine/academic piece, with them being put together without any thought of how they read in the context of a book. Such an example would be of people being introduced in one chapter, and then reintroduced in the next with the same blurb. Another example would be the overuse of the phrase " xxxxxx has argued that..."

Although maybe not big deals in the grand scheme of things, such stylistic choices don't make for a flowing read and can irritate the reader.

Secondly, there's an awful lot of focus on Republican Sinn Fein. While understandable from the perspective of their role in the 1986 Ard-Fheis in that they were the first to oppose the Adams-McGuinness juggernaut, their subsequent descent into their current reputation as a "Dad's Army" faction (as described by Paddy Hoey) isn't really mentioned, rather they are depicted as holding true to their republican convictions. Which is laudable but, as Andrew Eldritch once said: "You can't get there from here."

So it would have been nice if Dr. McGlinchey had taken this concept and really wrestled with it, instead of indirectly mentioning it.

Finally, there is no chapter dealing with the media and the role of the internet in terms of these groups getting their message across. Of course, this would be in similar territory to Hoey's excellent book 'Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters' but it's still very much relevant to Dr. McGlinchey's examination, so it would have been nice to her not only her own take, but the thoughts of others who struggle to get their point made in an unwelcoming environment (especially one where the biggest nationalist party have suffered from the same issues in the past).

As it stands, it's an informative book with plenty of insight and personal perspectives into those who are regularly dismissed as nostalgic warmongers, which makes for an enjoyable read. But it could have been the definitive work on modern day republicanism.

Marisa McGlinchey, 2019, Unfinished Business: The Politics of 'Dissident' Irish Republicanism. 2019 Manchester University Press ISBN-13: 978-0719096983

⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

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