It is a year since Tony Catney died and it seems as if it was the shortest year in history, a sort of leap year which leaped right past me. I mourn the fact that he is not about but more for personal reasons than political ones. He was always a great friend. In my mind’s ear I can still hear his voice, its tone, its twang. It was a voice he put to good use: summing up situations, grasping dilemmas and outlining ways forward: supportive at the drop of a hat, critical if the situation required. He was a problem solver and like all good practitioners in the field he observed the first rule of problem solving: don’t pretend there isn’t one. He didn’t always solve them. He can hardly be faulted for that. The ability to solve the insoluble is not a human attribute, and as there are no gods ...
No, nothing as big as gods, but there are elephants, some of whom are not seen no matter how large. The unseen elephant in the republican room at the minute is that republicanism in terms of what defines it, its essence, is hopelessly sterile: essentially going nowhere. There are answers to the question of partition, just no republican ones.
What seems to fuel current republicanism is a sense of let-down rather than any blueprint that might give it lift-off. 17 years have flowed under the bridge since Sinn Fein endorsed partition through its acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement, and the republican opposition has little to show for its efforts. Apart from the North West, if there are signs of a republican revival they have been well and truly camouflaged.
Many of today’s republicans let the GFA pass on their watch. A giant Trojan horse that a republican with a white stick should have spotted, was placed right in the middle of republican Troy. Like the current elephant it too went unnoticed. If it was one eyed political myopia on the part of those who gave it the all clear but now regret it, there is nothing to be gained from poking them in the other eye. Bragging rights should mean zilch. But the upshot is that they have been marginalised and marooned on an island somewhat of their own making, their strategic ability to chart a way forward, questionable.
Often I would speak to TC about this. Aware of the Mount Improbable republicans had to climb, he was keen to listen. I was never persuaded by his answers, nor he by my critique. He was an optimist and had had energy in abundance. I sometimes wondered if he mistook enthusiasm for effectiveness.
He was not alone in refusing to relinquish his enthusiasm. Although I had to admire it more in him than in others who, through no fault of their own, have not yet been around the block enough times to have their own tested and tempered. Earlier this year I went to a 1916 Societies event in Dublin. The craic was good and the enthusiasm, while not infectious insofar as it failed to infect me, was hardly lacking in vibrancy. Yet the most relevant speaker on the day was the one who spoke very little about One Ireland One Vote, and talked about the homeless in Dublin. I commented to my travelling companion, a hardworking and amiable activist within the societies, that it all reminded me of a campaign for the resumption of the Latin mass. Needless to say, while he smiled and saw it as facetious, he did not concur.
I think what the Societies and TC alike failed to grasp was that the republican project no matter what form it takes simply does not have the puff to blow down the house of partition. That might be a pessimistic conclusion but in terms of republican potential to overcome partition no pessimist was ever proved wrong. The outcome to the failed IRA campaign was one of those situations where the problem is midwife to the solution. It prescribes the permissible and marginalises the improbable.
Republicanism failed to make hegemonic its idea that the British presence was the problem. Rather, in Gramscian terms the “common sense” that so rivalled and subverted the republican idea, that British behaviour rather than presence was the problem, triumphed in terms of strategic impact. The solution to that problem was not the British leaving but changing. The notion might not be to our liking but it is pervasive. And it seems very durable.
Would TC given his formidable intellect, had he lived, come to that position? I doubt it. He was an incurable revolutionary. And he was for having no truck with my views which he considered hopelessly defeatist. Although we both believed that something as sordid as politics should not impinge on personal friendships.
Guys like him are never easily replaced and looking over republicanism since his death there is little sign that anybody of equal intellectual gravitas has filled his shoes. No new strategic life of any sort seems to have been breathed into the republican project. It appears indifferent to the strategic crux that it can neither reform the Northern state nor abolish it.
TC was committed to republicanism. He felt it had a future. I have taken the view that there are an awful lot of useful things republicans can do but republicanism as we once practiced it is not one of them. Yet it remains vital that the sense of abhorrence of injustice that motivated many republicans is not dissipated at the partition wall where many heads are endlessly and futilely banged. I was honoured to have given the address at his inaugural memorial lecture in March. It is something hopefully that is continued: that different speakers make use of his memory for the purpose of thinking seriously about the political future, that they may urge support for the prisoners currently in British jails but ask serious questions of the armed struggle logic that puts them there.