What is it to be an independent republican? It merely underscores the point that within republicanism there is no one size fits all pigeon hole into which everyone can be neatly and conveniently slotted. There is a wide range of republican independents who hold to the view that partition should be ended, Ireland should be united, that the British state should have no presence other than diplomatic in the country, and that while the British remain it is wrong for republicans to become part of the British administrative system. It does not follow that they believe in armed struggle as a means to achieving those objectives.
Since the Omagh bombing in particular there has been a lazy but often conscious attempt to create a discourse which would characterise all republicans opposed to the peace process as being in favour of armed strategies. While that has certainly been ruptured by the sheer diversity of republican voices critical of the peace process it nevertheless needs to be stressed that many republicans are supportive of the peace but not the process. Frequently, they object to the peace process because all too often the process has been strategically used to subvert the peace.
That subversion was strategically designed to promote Sinn Fein’s party political interests in a way that would see republicans in office but republicanism left outside. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the peace process has advanced the cause of Irish unity one iota. In fact if we are to rely on recent findings in the Belfast Telegraph the desire for unity is weaker now than it has been at any time in the past four decades. It is truism to say that we are now 40 years closer to a united Ireland than we were in 1973. But it hardly amounts to a hill of beans if we can also say that in another 40 years time we will be 80 years closer to a united Ireland than we were in the year that saw the Sunningdale Agreement signed. The harsh fact is that not one volunteer who participated in the IRA campaign will live to see the unified nation state that they endeavoured through armed actions to attain.
The failure of the IRA campaign to force British withdrawal has compelled many republicans to reflect on what it was all about and whether oppositional strategies to the British state could have been developed without an armed dimension. Alternatively it compels them to consider if an armed campaign - that stopped so far short of unity, resulting only in an internal solution - could have been brought to a close much earlier. It also leads them to cast their gaze over the strategic terrain that they survey through their republican lens in a bid to assess what if any political space exists within which to carve out and expand their republican perspective.
People subscribing to an authentic republican perspective, in so far as it is possible to pluck any such thing from the myriad of competing claims, would not subscribe to the concept of unity by consent as currently framed and contextualised, viewing it as something for which the ultimate guarantor is the power of the British state.
This is not to argue that republicans are altogether blind to the very real factor of unionist autonomy. It seems to me that republicans often ignored the evidence available and in the process managed to get the causal factor in the British state presence back to front: they saw unionism as being held in place by Britain rather than seeing Britain as being held in place in Ireland by unionism. British imperialism as it is often termed in republican discourse can manage quite easily without any territorial acquisition in Ireland. Few would argue that British strategic interests are in any way threatened by the political ensemble that has been constructed in the twenty six counties of Ireland. Britain could safely withdraw in the morning from the North secure in the knowledge that Sinn Fein and the DUP would pose the same level of threat to British strategic interests as is posed by Fine Gael and Labour in the South.
Whatever the historical origins of British involvement and partition, the British administrative presence in the North currently exists because of unionism. Unionism in the North does not exist because of the British. There is much therefore to be said for the observation in 1954 made by John V. Kelleher that a political problem is rarely solved by those who ‘tend to see it as it first existed and not as time and society continually refashion it … the history of the problem is nearly irrelevant to its solution.…’
Left to its own devices it is doubtful if the British state would remain in the North of Ireland. The establishment of a MI5 base in East Belfast coupled with the ongoing instability of the UK territorial framework occasioned by the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum, have inserted two factors into the British considerations that were not present in 1998. This gives them some incentive to view the North as a partial but conjunctural asset. It is very doubtful if such short term strategic considerations would trump a longer term British inclination to be shot of the place on the sheer basis of having calculated that it is more a liability and its retention not a vital strategic concern.
I sense within the British state mindset an attitude similar to that expressed by two American GIs in the North during the Second World War. Looking at their ship secured to moorings in the dock one said to the other that he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t cut the rope and let the damned place sink.
Nor is a rejection of the consent principle as currently constituted to be interpreted as the advocacy of coercion. There is essentially nothing wrong with finding fault in the consent principle. If consent has any democratic value it has to mean that for consent to exist it must be freely given ... or, freely withheld. If people can only consent and are denied the means to dissent then the term has been denuded of any content that can properly amount to consent because by one means or another they are coerced into consenting. This clearly invalidates consent.
Because a republican opposes the principle of consent, it does not follow that they subscribe to having that principle violently usurped. It simply means they too exercise their own freedom to either give consent or withhold it. Nothing coercive is contained within. In a democratic culture dissent is both as important and legitimate as consent. Like the relationship between night and day, one without the other has no meaning.
I recall Denis Bradley once criticising me for dissenting from the Good Friday Agreement. He then went on to claim that it was virtually a fascist position to take. I reflected that the position of Denis was closer to the tenets of fascism than my own. But ‘closer’ is a term that has only relative value here. Denis Bradley no more resembles a fascist than George Orwell did. Yet by seeming to insist that there was only one position a republican could take in relation to the Good Friday Agreement, he was actually closing down the space in which genuine consent and democratic discourse could flourish. My own position I found more flexible and tolerant than his.
Shaken down to its essence the consent principle is nothing other than the partition principle. It is an indivisible entity. We cannot claim to oppose partition yet support the very mechanism that makes partition tick. The task is intellectually irreconcilable although we will find in our political class those sufficiently skilled in verbal gymnastics to enable them to make the vault from black to white and claim all they saw on their journey was 50 shades of grey.
But to return to Denis Bradley’s point. Why would a republican want to oppose the Good Friday Agreement?
The answer to that is simple. It amounts to the complete inversion-cum-philosophical collapse of the republican ethos. The late Brendan Hughes summed up the GFA when he said it stood for ‘Got Fuck All.’ On the night of Good Friday 1998 in response to a probe from Jeremy Paxman, I proffered the view that it was simply a British declaration of intent to stay which ran wholly counter to the long established demand of republicans for Britain to issue a declaration of intent to withdraw. Nothing since has remotely caused me to change my mind.
As British shadow secretary of State for the North, Vernon Croker, told his party conference this week in Brighton:
we almost need to establish first principles again, the sort that were enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Nationalists and republicans need to show that they accept Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the majority of people who live there want it to be. That’s what they signed up for.
It does not get much simpler.
Regardless of the structural factors that gave rise to armed conflict or the multiplicity of motivations that fed into the participation by myself and others in armed republicanism the ideological justification was framed in terms of short circuiting the consent principle and forcing a British disengagement whether the unionists willed it or not. Which means that all those British state security service personnel - RUC, UDR and British Army - at one level died in defence of the right of the people of the North to determine their own future and to continue with their British guaranteed right to fracture the unity of the country. Now when the same soldiers are targeted by armed republicans they are labelled traitors by those who once directed that soldiers defending the partition principle be killed.
There is no justification for killing soldiers or cops. Unlike in the past, the mitigation that can be offered is at best tenuous. The psychological satisfaction to be derived from striking out at the old enemy is no substitute for political strategy. There is no war taking place in the North and in the absence of any war there are no acts of war. Troops and police in such circumstances have the same rights not to be targeted as the non combatant community. Yet it seems a bit rich for those who directed the war against the British to have completed an 180 degree turn to where they find themselves supporting the very partitionist principle that so many were killed trying to defend. If war necessitates the killing of enemies then those responsible for directing the killing should have profound reasons for doing so; not reasons that can be abandoned at the drop of a hat a la Groucho Marx who once famously quipped ‘those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.’ Life simply cannot be devalued in such cynical fashion.
The Good Friday Agreement was the outcome of a British state strategy that sought to have republicans strangle republicanism. When at a conference in England a number of years ago I challenged a senior British political figure with the assertion that he had shafted republicanism his response was as terse as it was incisive: republicans had shafted republicanism. Either way, there was consensus between us: republicanism was shafted. This is why there is nothing in the current executive other than waffle which resembles the republican belief system of the war years. As Brian Feeney once observed the current Sinn Fein project has ended up unsaying and undoing everything it had once said and done.
The failure of the IRA’s armed campaign – notwithstanding the attempts by Gerry Adams to pretend that it was the first IRA campaign not to have ended in failure – has resulted in much soul searching on the part of independent republicans. This is hardly the first time that I or other republicans have said that what was gained was not worth one human life lost.
There is much in this that should give republicans pause for reflection. Perhaps the hardest nettle to grasp, because it stings so painfully, is that republicanism is not the answer to the question of partition. It can neither overcome the will of a majority of people in the North to retain the link with Britain nor is it capable of creating a majority in the North that will opt to vote the North out of the UK and into a 32 country Irish Republic. Even was it capable of achieving the latter, it would merely be moving onto constitutional nationalist or British state ground: that after all is the only framework prescribed by both the constitutional nationalists and the British for achieving unity. It is fallacious to describe such a strategic framework as republican.
Charles Haughey once referred to the North as a failed political entity. What the last 40 years have made clear is that republicanism rather than the Northern state has proven to be the failed political entity. This is another nettle that we balk at grasping. Nevertheless, our reluctance cannot alter the material reality constituted by the balance of political forces that makes 'The Republic' an unachievable goal.
So what do republicans do? They can state clearly never again to use arms in pursuit of their goals. Without in anyway acquiescing in the partition principle and by refusing to become copted into the British administrative system that manages the North, they can acknowledge that the Irish people have spoken. The Irish people have a right in my view to take up arms against foreign aggression just as any other people has the same right. But it is academic because the Irish people have opted to address the issue of partition in a manner that completely rejects the use of armed force. Republicans cannot insist on the need to respect the right of the Irish people to have unity but ignore the right of the same people to decide how that unity might be achieved. The irony should not be lost on us that an authentic republicanism does not have kings who can lord it over the people in true absolutist monarchical fashion.
That leaves only an unarmed way forward. As argued elsewhere by another speaker here today, Tommy McKearney, republicanism must be uncompromisingly democratic. Yet few should delude themselves about the strategic potential. Whether through the argument of force or the force of argument a united Ireland is in my view unattainable. Does that render republicanism redundant as a progressive force? I don’t believe it does. It may not possess the transformative capacity to effect an end to partition – its essential raison d’etre – but as a progressive project with more than one string to its bow it is by no means bereft of strategic potential to effect change and function as a critique of the British state in the North and the policies that the British political class forces people to swallow. But perhaps more than anything else it should be a rights driven project populated by committed activists rather than office chasers.
At a juncture where the political class at Stormont is quite prepared to extend regressive British economic policy to the North through austerity measures designed to punish the poor, but not prepared to extend progressive British libel laws that would allow the poor more rights to free speech through which they could critique austerity and such like, it seems imperative that republicans become a voice of opposition in a political society where no official opposition is permitted. It should seek to articulate the grievances of the most vulnerable.
The need for oppositional space is perhaps greater than ever now that the falsehood of power sharing is sold to the world masked by a discursive fig leaf concealing what is in esence power splitting. And the power is split in such a zero sum way that what holds the political class together at the top at the same time pushes the communities on the ground further apart.
For this reason republicans should not try to emulate the billiard ball relationship that has so come to characterise community relations in the North: where each community is perpetually condemned to first clash and then be repelled by the other. Drawing on an analogy from the study of international relations, the relationship between the communities needs to be more akin to a cobweb: where the interaction between both is extended, deepened and even inextricably entangled.
Essential to creating this cobweb is a willingness by independent republicans to examine their own past critique of the British state and unionism. It was formulated for the most part by people whose penchant for the false narrative is so strong that everything they said and the belief system they helped spawn needs revaluated. That does not mean that the republican perspective on British or political unionism is invalidated. Far from it. But in order for it to be considered authentic and prove intellectually and ethically plausible it must survive the test of scrutiny. This cannot be done in some splendid isolation where republicans talk only to themselves about unionism and loyalism. There needs to be a critical engagement with unionism and loyalism at grassroots level, an engagement that avoids both gesture politics-cum-strategicless gimmerickery, and the temptation to walk on eggshells in order to avoid causing offence. Unionism has no right to be protected from the offence of a different perspective any more so than republicanism has.
In is in this spirit that I think people like myself and Tommy McKearney, former IRA combatants, have been invited to speak here today. I hope, and I doubt if Tommy would disagree, that it is one more strand in the cobweb of communication and engagement that must be constructed and strengthened if we are ever to avoid a return to the past. Don’t leave it to the leaders to sort out. They will fail us. While they continue to split power for the purpose of managing rather than resolving division, people at grassroots should share ideas. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. I would argue that it can also breed commonality.
If commonality saves one life, protects one job, prevents one prisoner being beaten by screws, halts one avaricious banker in his tracks, stops one cop from framing an innocent person, then it matters not what community the beneficiary hails from, republicans can view it as an achievement.
The grand narrative of republicanism while certainly admirable is no longer, if indeed it ever was, functionally applicable to the issue of partition. The problem of partition is much stronger than the solution of republicanism. Recent history has shown us that if republicanism hurls itself billiard ball like at partition, it rather than partition will shatter. Yet there is a multiplicity of progressive republican narratives that can be addressed to a plurality of issues.
Am I still a republican? Yes. But in the sense that if Germany was to sink beneath the waves tomorrow there would still be Germans. Germany as a viable entity might not have any future but Germans would be capable of making a valuable contribution to human society. Independent republicans can make such a contribution within an oppositional project that would not cause them to abandon republicanism or to cross the radical picket line just to stand shoulder to shoulder with the respective leaders of the British police and political unionism in Ireland.
Many independent republicans want what they have always wanted. What they do not want is to kill in order to get it.