Irish Politics Forum Brendan Flynn Interviews
Dr. Marisa McGlinchey, winner of the 2020 Brian Farrell PSAI “Best Book” Prize for 2020.
Dr. Marisa McGlinchey, is the author of Unfinished Business: The ‘Politics’ Of ‘dissident’ Irish Republicanism, Manchester: MUP. (2019) ISBN 978 0 7190 9698 3. She is based at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.
Her research interest lies in Irish politics with a focus on ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism and constitutional nationalism, with her most recent work published by Manchester University Press and the Swiss Political Science Review. Since publication of Unfinished Business she has provided expert commentary in various broadcast and print media outlets including the BBC, UTV, RTE, Al Jazeera and Spotlight.
BF: Hello Marisa, congrats on winning the Brian Farrell Book Prize, I hope it was some nice news for you and your family amidst all of this Covid doom and gloom?
MM: Thanks Brendan. I’m absolutely delighted! It was wonderful news to get and it has been really nice celebrating something so positive amidst all the doom and gloom. A big thank you to the judges!
BF: Marisa, tell us about the origins of the book-why did you write it, what was the academic background to the book as it were?
MM: I did my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast on the electoral decline of the SDLP in the post Good Friday period and I’m currently working on turning that into a book for Manchester University Press. I’m enjoying updating that and conducting more interviews for it. But I had always intended my first book to be on the topic of so-called ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism. I grew up in West Belfast, a political hotbed of republican activity and as I got older I became more and more aware of republicans who were critical of Sinn Féin or the wider Provisional Movement and my intellectual curiosity grew about what I saw developing around me and these former comrades who became so bitterly divided. I wanted to conduct an academically rigorous piece of research on radical / traditional republicanism; an in-depth study of who so-called ‘dissidents’ are and what motivates them. For me it was important to go out and interview republicans throughout Ireland to really delve into the psyche of ‘dissident’ republicanism and understand it and so I began travelling around Ireland and meeting with people and identifying interviewees and it grew from there.
BF: I wonder could you tell us about how you wrote the book, the research design, because it seems to me a real strong point of the design was the focus on interviews-you got extensive access to a lot of diverse Republican views and you did 90 interviews-how on earth did you manage that?
MM: Yes I think a key strength of this work is the interviews contained throughout. The research took several years as so-called ‘dissident’ republicanism is a diverse base comprising of different organisations and independents and so it took some time to accurately capture that. I conducted 90 interviews and in-fact I had to stop at 90 to get the book written. More potential interviewees continued to come forward. After the Boston College project there was a lot of speculation that a project like this couldn’t be done but I found republicans very willing to talk and to put their position forward. I also followed some valuable advice to never allow any interviewee to disclose anything illegal about themselves or anyone else. I started every interview asking interviewees not to disclose anything of that nature and I think that helped establish trust. It was really important to me to gather those voices and present their views in their own words throughout the book which really brings the work to life. I approached various republican organisations and individuals and I attended various Easter commemorations and events throughout Ireland. In fact the book cover is a photo which I took at a Republican Sinn Féin commemoration outside the GPO in Dublin in 2016.
The more I travelled around and attended various events the more potential interviewees I met and it snowballed from there. There is a tendency to talk about ‘dissident’ republicanism as simply a Northern phenomenon which of course is inaccurate and so it was important to get a good geographical spread of interviewees as well as gender, age and individuals at different levels within organisations from leadership to grass roots. I interviewed individuals from different generations with the youngest being a 19 year old Na Fianna member in Dublin and the eldest was 93 year old Billy McKee in Belfast who had been imprisoned in every decade between the 1930s and 1970s. Other interviewees include Phil O’ Donoghue who was on the Brookeborough raid with Seán South in 1957. I also interviewed a significant base of independent republicans as well as those involved in armed groups, which naturally were the most difficult and sensitive to arrange. I asked spokespersons for armed groups what they hoped to achieve, as well as where they take legitimacy from. Further, I asked (given altered structural conditions within the North) do they feel any present campaign is morally sound. Their views on those issues are presented in their own words.
I also interviewed some republican prisoners in Maghaberry prison regarding their ideology and motivations which was also an important part of the work. Their families kindly gave up their visits to me so that I could go into the prison and conduct my interviews. I wanted to move beyond simple stereotypes to really understand ‘dissident’ republicanism and I believe the best way to gain insight and understanding is to speak to the people involved. The interviews revealed ideologically held positions fused with very personal testimonies. This work has effectively created a valuable oral history of a particular point in time and some of those interviewed had never given an interview to anyone else, some of whom have since died. The book presents those voices throughout whilst also drawing on the historical tradition of republicanism; and locates so-called ‘dissident’ republicanism within that longer trajectory.
Presently, radical republicanism can be characterised by a high level of individual movement between organisations, which is not conducive to the establishment and sustainable development of radical groups.
Do you think ‘radical republicanism is doomed to remain factionalized and on the political margins, or what future trajectory do you see?
Radical (or traditional) republicanism has witnessed a high level of movement between the groups with some individuals having been a member of several groups, sometimes fuelling suspicion in a world that is ever guarded about potential infiltration by the security services. Over the years there have been some calls for the base to come together so that some collective strength can be drawn from that. But it is unlikely that will happen as the organisations have distinct identities with clear tactical water between them, often arising from the different conditions in which the organisations emerged. As well as the organisations there is also a significant base of independent republicans such as Tommy McKearney, Gerard Hodgins, Richard O’ Rawe, Anthony McIntyre and others. And so, when people talk about so-called ‘dissident’ republicans they tend to focus on the groups or more specifically the armed groups. But there is a much wider base there including a spectrum of views within, ranging from those who profess complete support for current armed actions through to those who are very vocal and vociferous in their condemnation. It is highly likely to continue in that manner rather than any coming together of the base, beyond loosely working together around prisoners’ issues. While united in traditional republican objectives groups remain tactically diverse.
Radical republicans fundamentally reject both the Northern and Southern states created out of partition, as well as their associated structures and so by their very nature they will remain on the margins. In fact radical/traditional republicanism continuously cautions against any actions which would draw them into the system and in their view put them on the ‘slippery slope to constitutional nationalism’.
MM: Finally, you mention how Brexit has created opportunities for radical republicanism as regards their political and ideological mobilization, but has Covid-19 have had any similar impacts?
MM: I don’t see any impact of Covid-19 on radical republicanism. Any politically or economically destabilizing event will always be assessed for possible opportunities but to date I haven’t seen any impact of Covid-19 on the trajectory of republicanism. Technically Brexit does not alter anything for traditional republicanism. But what it has done is put the issue of the border in Ireland back into the mainstream in a way in which it hasn’t been in recent years. Spokespersons for republican groups have called it a much needed shot in the arm for Irish republicanism and have stated that it serves as a reminder to those who may need it that Ireland is still partitioned. One republican is quoted as describing Brexit as the biggest chance republicans have had since 1916. Brexit resulted in renewed international attention on the border, focusing on republican groups, and drew news crews and documentary makers from around the world. When asked about the impact of Brexit a member of one of the groups in Derry said to a news crew ‘well that’s why you’re here interviewing me and listening to our position’.
Republicans will always seize an opportunity that presents itself and Brexit was one such opportunity. Republicans will be aware that some within the North may now be asking whether they would be better off in a united Ireland within the EU rather than remaining in the UK on the outside. Republicans are also keenly watching developments in Scotland and the possibility of a second independence referendum in future. For some, Brexit has raised the old mantra - ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’.