Caoimhín Ó hÓgáin casts an eye of the strategic terrain of Irish Republicanism.
Irish Republicanism is at a crossroads. It can go several ways and its future cannot be taken for granted. Indeed before I go further I must clarify that when I say Irish Republicanism I am of course referring to traditional Irish Republicanism, an ideology that is founded on the principle of: “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”, rooted in the progressive ideas of the enlightenment, interpreted and adopted to Irish conditions by patriots such as Theobald Wolfe Tone.
Irish Republicanism is about breaking the connection with England, not reforming it.
The fact that it is necessary to clarify what Irish Republicanism is, points to the myriad of problems and challenges that are faced by Irish Republicans today.
Honesty! That is what is demanded of us all as republicans in facing up to the challenges that lie before us. We are faced with the survival of republicanism as a living, vibrant political ideology that is relevant to the Irish people in the 21st century. It is time for real debate, hard talk about the future of republicanism. This demands that we are honest in our assessment of where we are. It also requires that we face up to what being a republican means in the Ireland of 2019. The recent death of Lyra McKee threw into stark relief the futility of continued sporadic armed actions and the possible tragic consequences of the use of uncontrolled and undisciplined force.
The use of armed action is an issue that must be confronted in an honest and open manner.
Already within wider republicanism there are polar views, at one end are those who view it as not justifiable under any circumstances. On the other are those for whom armed force itself has become a matter of principle. For those on this latter extreme, to even question the viability, let alone the morality of armed actions, is tantamount to transforming into another version of Provisional Sinn Féin. Phrases such as “the slippery slope” and “sell-out” will be bandied about. Comparisons with Cathal Goulding or Gerry Adams will abound. None of this is rational and it is certainly not helpful to any debate about the future. We need to face up to this debate in an honest, open and rational manner. We must do so with a firm grasp of who we are and what the central principles of republicanism are.
We need to be comfortable in our own skin as Irish republicans in order to approach such a debate honestly, confidently and accepting the bone fides of all republicans concerned.
As Irish Republicans our allegiance is to the principles set out in the 1916 Proclamation. We reject both partitionist states. The national integrity and sovereignty of the Irish nation and its people are our guiding light and the mark against which we measure every political step we take. These are the essentials of Irish Republicanism and something we must never lose sight of. We are faced with many daunting challenges and opposed by powerful forces on both sides of the British imposed border. However, there are great opportunities also. People are open to a fresh political vision, something which appeals to their highest instincts and aspirations for a new Ireland based on ideas of social, political and economic justice. These are the very essence of Irish Republicanism; we have something worthwhile to say to the Irish people. We have a tradition coupled with ideas for the crafting of a New Ireland. However, that progressive message of hope for the future is often clouded by the fallout from the latest armed action.
Each time there is a death or casualty arising from armed actions the result is always the same. The status quo is strengthened whilst the position of traditional Irish Republicanism is further weakened, and support eroded.
We are isolating ourselves by refusing to engage with the fact that there is virtually no support for such sporadic armed actions. Those engaging in such actions are incapable of sustaining anything even approaching a campaign. They are devoid of coherent leadership, clearly set out goals or objectives, and anything even resembling a strategic vision. To engage in armed actions, encourage or instruct others to do so, and to inflict casualties in such circumstances is immoral. It is unworthy of the noble Irish Republican tradition. The human cost can be counted in lost lives. It can also be counted in the lost years suffered by republican prisoners away from families and loved ones; individuals are spending years in Maghaberry, Portlaoise or Limerick prison, the majority on membership charges rather than for any armed actions. These individuals are then released under draconian conditions which isolate them from fellow republicans and stops them from continuing with republican activity. This is an exercise in futility. The talents, energy and moral courage of these republican men and women would be utilised far more effectively in building a strong republican base capable of sustaining and advancing the republican message among the mass of the Irish people.
Those in leadership should be asking themselves-is it morally right that individuals are losing years of their life in prison for a campaign that isn’t happening?
We do not say that the Irish people do not have the right to resort to arms in order to defend their right to national independence. That is a principle we uphold without apology. We are rightly proud of Ireland’s long tradition of armed resistance to foreign occupation. Recognising this fact and acknowledging our history, we must also recognise that present circumstances do not lend themselves to sustaining armed actions, let alone anything even approaching a campaign. There is no principle attached to such analysis. The right to engage in armed actions is a principle that is upheld by all nations, and Ireland is no different in this regard. The question of when to exercise that right is a matter of pragmatic tactical analysis of the objective conditions, including support and capability. At the present time neither support nor capability is there.
I would argue the continuance of armed action is acting as an obstacle to the building of a critical mass of support for progressive Irish Republicanism.
We need to recognise this fact and act accordingly. In 1916, 1923 and in 1962 republican leaders took the decision to cease military activity due to the prevailing circumstances in order to save human life and to give the Republican Movement the breathing space to consolidate and rebuild. The 1962 statement from the leadership of the Republican Movement concluded by stating that the cessation of military operations would lead to: “a period of consolidation, expansion and preparation for the final and victorious phase of the struggle for the full freedom of Ireland.” On each of these occasions a cessation of military activity did not equate to a surrender of political objectives or principles.
Let us enter this debate secure in our republican beliefs. Speaking for myself I know I am the same republican I have always been. My allegiance is to the All-Ireland Republic and always will be. I am excited for the future of republicanism if we can meet head on the challenges that face us today with honesty and clarity. We have much to offer this and coming generations. We are inheritors of a proud tradition, with roots deep within the psyche and history of the Irish people.
Don’t let us be the last generation of traditional republicans. Instead let this be the generation which builds a robust progressive movement which carries our struggle forward to a brighter dawn for all of the Irish people.
⏭ Caoimhín Ó hÓgáin is "a Legionnaire of the Rearguard."