Those who read or saw the images on our screens of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 by a policeman were horrified and angered by the brutality of this act. What for me was most chilling was the total disregard shown by the policeman and his colleagues for the life of this totally innocent man.
The lack of even a basic humanity is surely a warning to the United States that the deep-rooted racial division of their nation is as potent today as it ever has been in their chequered history of racial discrimination and oppression. What is equally worrying is the willingness of so many to come out and attempt to rationalise this vile act or to engage in the usual whataboutery that is the stable of those who refuse to engage with the injustice that is in front of them. The riots and violence which they sparked are a symptom of a problem and an injustice that has haunted America since the original thirteen colonies gained their independence from Britain.
In Ireland, our history has taught us that to concentrate on the symptom of the problem and to ignore its cause serves only to prolong conflict and injustice. The US Civil Rights movement was an inspiration to the emerging Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties, and we should remind ourselves of this when these faux republicans issue their latest anti-immigrant or racist diatribe. This brings me to my purpose here. For quite a time now I have noticed on social media usually anonymous accounts popping up which on the surface espouse a traditional Irish republican view of history and the issue of partition. On occasion they will let the mask slip and a homophobic, racist or anti-immigrant post will appear or be shared by them. It is an insidious attempt to equate traditional Irish Republicanism with the poisonous doctrines of the far right. It is anathema to the very ethos of Irish Republicanism.
As someone who has spent a lifetime both studying the history of republicanism and as an activist, I would be the first to acknowledge that Irish Republicanism can be a broad church, as any national movement tends to be. Within its ranks throughout the decades there have been those for whom everything including social and economic issues are secondary to “breaking the connection with England”. Indeed, some would be conservative regarding any change to property relations or the economy of a New Ireland. In Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicanism, by Dr Marisa McGlinchey, former republican prisoner and activist the late Tony Catney claimed: “There are people that I know who are involved in republican struggle and their politics are as right wing as Maggie Thatcher ever was. They just want to be right-wing Irish rather than right-wing English.” (McGlinchey, 2019, MUP.)
As pointed out by Tony Catney, Irish republicanism as a national movement has always had room within its ranks for this divergence of views on issues beyond the national question. However, the overarching philosophy of republicanism has always been progressive. As a political philosophy its historical roots lie in the European enlightenment. The founders of the Society of the United Irishmen were explicit as to the aims of their new movement: “The greatest happiness of the greatest number – on the rock of this principle let this Society rest.”
This is essentially the philosophy that has guided revolutionary or traditional republicanism throughout its 229-year history. The three major proclamations issued in 1803, 1867 and 1916 all sought more than a mere British withdrawal from Ireland. Each, to a greater or lesser degree sough radical social and economic change in terms of property relations, universal suffrage, and church state relations. Irish Republicanism while naturally drawing on a distinct Irish cultural and historical identity has also never been afraid to look outwards. Just as the United Irishmen sought aid from revolutionary France, the Fenians forged links with the nascent First International. Irish Republicans have forged links with other anti-colonial struggles, from India to Kenya.
Forgive me if I digress slightly at this point but I believe it is necessary to confront a smear that is continually leveled at traditional republicans. Already I can hear the hackneyed references to Sean Russell being lined up regarding his contacts and presence in Germany in 1939/40. I will address them here. To understand Sean Russell you must first grasp the fact that he was first, last and always a Fenian separatist and all that implies. We can argue about the political naivety of his actions but to view them through a contemporary lens is unhistorical. In the 1920s Russell traveled to the Soviet Union on an arms-buying mission. Russell was a soldier and his objective was the freedom of Ireland. In his book, the nuances of ideology were for the politicians. Russell looked at his missions to the Soviet Union and Germany through the prism of Irish history. He saw himself following in the footsteps of Casement in 1916 or Tone and Emmet in the 1790s. All sought aid from states currently at war or hostile to England. For Russell, the adage of ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ was no mere historical slogan, but rather a programme of action.
Russell famously told one German official: “I am not a Nazi. I’m not even pro-German. I am an Irishman fighting for the independence of Ireland.” He made it clear that any military aid could not have any strings attached. The historical illiteracy of those who seek to foist ideological labels on Russell is encapsulated in the various attacks that have been made on his statue in Fairview Park in Dublin. Both the far right and far left have at various times vandalised the statue, labelling Russell alternatively communist and fascist. Russell was neither a fascist nor a communist, he was a Fenian. Those from the right and the left who took it upon themselves to attack his statue are united by the same historical illiteracy and failure to understand the Fenian tradition of which Russel was an exemplar.
On the continent strong links have historically been created with Basques, Bretons, Catalans, and Corsicans. In the Middle East Palestine has always been a cause close to the heart of traditional republicans. In the 1950s, a period often portrayed as dominated by an insular and conservative republican leadership, one has only to peruse copies of The United Irishman to see the attention that was being paid to anti-colonial struggles in Kenya, Algeria and Cyprus. In the case of Cyprus cooperation between the IRA and EOKA prisoners in British jails led to the escape from Wakefield prison of IRA prisoner Seamus Murphy in 1959. I had the pleasure of knowing and meeting many republican veterans of this period and was always struck by their well- developed and informed internationalism. It was this siting of the Irish struggle in the context of the global struggle against imperialism that created the international awareness of, and sympathy for, the 1981 Hunger Strike. The tens of thousands who marched in cities across Europe and the world did not emerge from a vacuum. They were the result of consistent and methodical work internationally by republican leaders such as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in the 1970s.
My own journey to republicanism was signposted not by the darkness of racism and reaction. I was drawn to republicanism because I saw in it a vision of a new and better Ireland, I saw a philosophy that was always on the side of the oppressed wherever they were to be found. For all of these reasons I am angry when I see these dubious figures emerging from the shadows in an attempt to cloak their philosophy of hate in the noble and enlightened banner of Irish Republicanism. They hijack and twist the words of Pearse to impose on them a meaning that denigrates the noble aspiration to an Ireland that is truly in the ownership of the Irish people. This aspiration to the ownership of Ireland for the people of Ireland is later to be found in the 1916 Proclamation. This is no crude racist slogan but an appeal to the historic right of Irish people to national freedom. I say to them as a lifelong traditional republican you do not speak in my name.
What brought me to republicanism was a belief and an appeal to the highest instincts of our nature, not a recourse to the darkest and most base. Those who wish to place Ireland’s historic and legitimate demand for national independence and Irish identity on some twisted idea of “blood and soil”, have no place in traditional republicanism. As we rejected the Blueshirts we should also reject these later incarnations of a warped religion that emerged from a Munich Beer Hall.
Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sectarianism, or any other discrimination or hate based on gender, colour or ethnicity have no part of Irish republicanism. Our cause has always been that of humanity. We take our stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed of the world and like Connolly we wish to see a free Ireland take her place among a community of free nations.
⏭Des Dalton is a long time republican activist.