In recent weeks there has been an emphasis within State-complicit media outlets regarding the supposed "radicalisation" of young people. This has invariably been propagated by those with a background in British Crown Forces, members of Sinn Féin, unionist elected representatives or from the ranks of the ever increasing "commentator" clique that is made up of those who would have previously been one of the aforementioned.
This "radicalisation" is only described as such when it references contemporary Republicans generally (and more often than not Saoradh specifically) attempting to engage with, recruit and empower young people. The "radicalisation" description conveniently ignores that all other political parties in Ireland also have youth wings that encourage young people to get involved in activism.
They also fail to mention the recruiting sergeants armed with promises of worldwide travel that attend schools careers events and further education colleges' Fresher Days on behalf of "Her Majesty's Armed Forces." These well polished mercenaries are paid to seek out 16 year olds willing to put on jackboots that can replace worn trainers as home to their confidence and self-esteem.
My own experience of becoming involved in politics could be used as a case in point when analysing the hypocrisy of some, but not all, of those using the "radicalisation" description. I joined Sinn Féin Youth in late 1996 at the age of 14. Locally, our SFY cumann was established simply by changing the name of a local republican youth organisation made up of children that was established in the summer of 1996 by the Republican Movement in Ardoyne. The sole purpose of this youth organisation that was now being complemented, rather than replaced, by a SFY cumann: simply to engage in rioting during the Drumcree dispute. Was this "radicalisation"?
Throughout my involvement in Sinn Féin Youth there were regular updates, briefings and educational talks. These were mainly facilitated and/or delivered by those who the Belfast leadership of Sinn Féin thought would have the most impact on impressionable and idealistic young people. And they were right to assume that those with most influence would be those with a history of involvement in armed struggle.
These Republicans included several ex-prisoners that had admitted and/or been previously convicted in Diplock Courts for the deaths of civilians. These civilian casualties occurred accidentally or intentionally in neighbouring loyalist areas. Was this "radicalisation"?
Sinn Féin Youth at this time was a manifestation of militant or radical Republicanism. It took part in direct action against the British Army in the Six Counties, confronted the RUC and opposed their introduction to communities via the SDLP, NIO and Catholic Church. SFY took part in protests as part of the Saoirse campaign that called for the release of Republican POWs. These included occupying UTV studios and rooftop protests at City Hall. We were involved in opposing sectarian marches in North Belfast, Derry, Orneau Road, Garvaghy Road and elsewhere. We built links with other revolutionary youth movements across the planet. And we did all this while facing the informed risk of imprisonment by the State and death or attack by her loyalist proxies.
All this was authorised by the overall Sinn Féin leadership, and at a local level by the Comhairle Ceantair. Even our official logo was an Easter Lily in the shape of a flame coming from a petrol bomb. Was this "radicalisation"?
Sinn Féin Youth, as a bloc, voted against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Some of us actively campaigned for a no vote. And how did the leadership mainly ensure these young people didn't go elsewhere, at least at that time? They brought the big guns in (pardon the pun), the men and women who had done "the business" to assure us that "this GFA was a tool to be used", that they were going to "wreck Stormont from within" and prove the state was "unworkable". Was this "radicalisation"?
My honest answer would be that if it was "radicalisation" then it failed. Sure, many joined the wider Republican Movement at the earliest opportunity when reaching the age of 17. For a lot of us we reached that age after the signing of the oft-implied cut-off point for everything that was bad, the Good Friday Agreement. And while others, including our then Belfast organiser, are now members of Saoradh or remain opposed to British occupation in other ways, for others of that time they now reside politically in the ranks of the pro-austerity, pro-Crown Forces, pro-Stormont and constitutional nationalist entity that Sinn Féin has become. Our then National Organiser is an elected member of Leinster House. One SFY activist of the late 90s was even, until recently, an unelected and co-opted SDLP councillor after serving for a while as a 26-County Labour Senator.
Rather than "radicalisation" I would argue that what SFY activists back then had was an introduction to radical politics and an informal political education that was grounded in revolutionary ideology. An ideology centred around secularism, equality, socialism and a overarching desire to achieve Irish Freedom. And some of us have attempted to remain true to that.
But for argument's sake let's say it was "radicalisation". Let's say that Republicans, activists like me who are now in their mid 30s to early 40s, actually were "radicalised". That we who had our first political experiences and education as members of Sinn Féin were "radicalised" by older activists. That the accusation now being made by members of that party, and others, with regards to Saoradh also applies to Sinn Féin when we were the youth.
If we are now the monsters that some of those most vocal in their recent criticism of us have stated, then they must take responsibility and adopt their role as Dr Frankenstein. They moulded us, educated us and led us. They taught us how to empower communities, how to oppose the State, how to mobilise, how to engage the media, how to debate and analyse. They taught my generation of Republican activists everything we know.
The salient point in this analysis is that Sinn Féin changed and we didn't. That doesn't make us monsters. However they became robots. The very law-abiding robots that Bobby Sands wrote about. We were not radicalised, they were normalised. And if they are honest they will admit that it is the guilt of this that fuels their hatred of those, including Saoradh, that challenge their continuing role as an establishment party.