Twenty years of peace has done more to harm the fortunes of Irish republicanism than thirty years of warfare. Republicanism in 2019 finds itself between the Scylla and Charybdis, of bungling dissidents and a post-nationalist Sinn Féin.
The botched murder of Lyra McKee, and resulting fallout, scuppers any realistic hope dissidents had for a new armed campaign post-Brexit. There may be mass disobedience following the imposition of a hard border, but it is unlikely to be led by dissident republicans. The communal support that once allowed the Provisional movement to function has long since evaporated.
In its place is a Catholic populace increasingly accommodated within the statelet. The dream of liberal unionism has been realised, northern Catholics have been integrated into the six county state under a pluralist dispensation. No electoral majority exists for a United Ireland, let alone popular support for another fruitless armed campaign.
The gun by and large has been taken out of northern politics, and in its place the old binaries of nationalist versus unionist are melting in favour of a cosmopolitan six counties. As polling indicates a new post-conflict identity is forming particularly among the youth, with tribal identities being gradually eschewed, The positive results for non-nationalist/unionist parties in the recent local elections are perhaps evidence of this.
By killing the walking embodiment of this new progressive order in the form of Lyra McKee, dissidents have painted themselves into a corner. Liberal society is happy to fetishise republicanism, so long as it doesn’t extend beyond an Anglophobic punchline. What little political capital they had has been shattered, with liberal opinion set to treat them the same way they treat any supposed anachronism of the old 20th century Ireland.
Dissident republicanism is a term used to denote groups that reject the post-conflict settlement of 1998. While carrying minor support electorally, these groups have a very real world presence in the most deprived areas of the six counties. It is a long alphabet of ineffectual groups operating at levels just above criminality and, more often, below it.
From human trafficking to drug dealing, these groups often blur their politics with overt racketeering. While it can be said that some do provide a form of communal vigilantism against drug dealers in areas neglected by the PSNI, the fact remains is that many remain top heavy with criminality.
Saoradh, the party taking the most heat for links to McKee’s murderers, was once thought to be a potential rallying point for the scattered remains of the movement. Instead it finds itself politically vanquished, alienated even in republican strongholds anddeplatformed from social media.
An irony is that while Saoradh and many left-wing republican groups are self-described anti-fascists, they are being doled out the same treatment given to the far right. What need does the state have for onerous Section 31 censorship when tech companies can deplatform republicans at the push of a button?
To put it charitably there is no path to victory for these outfits. At best they are political King Canutes standing against the tide, at worst they are rackets with the veneer of politics cloaking them. The Omagh Bombing perpetuated by dissidents resulting in 31 deaths, obliterated any hope of the movement having mainstream credibility going into the 21st century. Similarly the killing of McKee sours any hopes of a post-Brexit bounce in support. Even if the capacity to wage an insurgency existed, one would have to wonder what good it could achieve in the hands of these groups.
In 2019 Irish republicanism does not even have the luxury of having the British security state as its primary foe. The British have learnt their lesson, that the carrot is better than the stick when dealing with the Irish question. Nationalism can be channelled into constitutional politics through the medium of a recently embourgeoised Catholics, rather than being vented in the form of an armed insurrection.
Mass public outrage after McKee’s murder has done more to harm the morale and standing of the movement than anything the British state could have mustered. It is perhaps the most postmodern of deaths for dissident republicanism, killed not by brute force but by a Twitter hashtag.
The northern conflict threw a spanner in the works of liberal reformers in Ireland. Tribalism was supposed to be a relic not a hallmark of normal Western European life. The bloodletting in the six counties was reminder to southerners that the national question was ongoing, and southern elites how precarious their position was should the situation spill over.
Opposing the dissidents are their former fellow insurgents in Sinn Féin and moribund SDLP. The realpolitik of Adams that brought the movement in from the paramilitary cold is now playing out in the progressive posturing of MacDonald. Human rights jargon is the order of the day, with attempts to get Irish language rights and gay marriage a proverbial stick to beat the DUP.
While not yet disavowing past actions, Sinn Féin are attempting to rationalise their part in the Troubles merely as part of an extended civil rights crusade. The revolutionaries from 1916-22 didn’t have to use civil rights jargon to justify their actions. Ireland had to be liberated for the simple fact it was ours, and continued British presence was an insult to a free nation.
By justifying their nationalism in socialist terminology from the 1960s, republicanism signed its own death warrant in the decades to come. The fact that the President of Sinn Féin has to apologise for the phrase “England out of Ireland,” or be open to the British flag flyingover Leinster House points how atrophied republicanism is getting. Its very own progressive logic is eating itself.
A United Ireland under Sinn Féin or any of the current constitutional parties would merely be a jurisdictional change. To paraphrase James Connolly, if the Green or more than likely LGBT flag is raised over Stormont tomorrow, globalism would still rule Ireland through the globalist institutions that contemporary republicanism fails to challenge.
The truth is that Irish republicanism has exhausted itself. That is not to say the cause of Irish separatism has exhausted itself, but merely the variation we have seen predominate since the Troubles. By conceptualising itself in non-nationalist terms it entered onto an ideological slippery slope.
Republicanism’s turn leftward began following the abortiveOperative Harvest in the early 1960s. Despite the PR garnered from the martyrdom of Seán South and Fergal O’Hanlon, the movement was going nowhere fast. The militant Fenian tradition had apparently hit a dialectical wall, amid the resolve of the Orange state and the insoluble ethnic reality of the conflict. A generation of activists recoiling from physical force turned instead to social activism, and gradually away from nationalism as a whole.
Leaders such as Sean Garland and Cathal Goulding left the movement shamefully unprepared for the anti-Catholic pogroms of 1969. While their pursuit of non-sectarian socialism failed, these reformers set the tone for the new pluralist Ireland we see today in ways scarcely realised.
Irish Republicanism was the Newtonian response to the forces of Irish history the past two centuries. In the 17th century the Gaelic order collapsed with three egregious lost wars leaving the country exposed.
With the United Irishmen, we see an attempt to resurrect Irish nationalism and solve the sectarian nature of Irish life using Enlightenment precepts. Later on Republicanism played a vital part in the Land War and eventual partial break with Britain. The attempt to infuse Republicanism with left wing ideas was perhaps at first a noble attempt to resurrect the old cause, but inevitably these left wing axioms led to the movements shift away from nationalism as a whole.
In the sombre novella Soumission, a pensive Michel Houellebecq reflects on the rise and fall of post-revolutionary French nationalism. Nationalism, he concludes, was a spiritual stopgap as Catholicism receded in the modern world. As France lies prostrate before a popular Islamist government he declares that fundamentally French nationalism was not nearly enough to combat the decline of the nation.
Similarly, as we see the menopausal shambles of the Sinn Féin’s leadership championing for the latest pernicious fad around abortion and LGBT issues, we too can see the inadequacies of contemporary Irish republicanism in the face of the 21st century.
‘Life springs from death’ said Pearse at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside, saying adieu to an older brand of Irish separatism. Perhaps as republicanism hits a dialectical wall, we can formulate something new in its place. In the 1790s it found life with the ideas of revolutionary France and from the 1890s the guerrilla tactics of the Boer people.
A natural ally of nationalism in 2019 are the anti-globalist ideas gaining increasing sway across the Western world. These are the ideas that truly terrify the powers that be, much more than the jaded notions of Marxist struggle or the sad practitioners who peddle them. Ireland, like its governments, gets the Fenians it deserves, and at present neither are up to scratch.