Sauce for the gander?

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Continuity IRA member fires a shot in salute at an Easter commemoration in Lurgan.

When former revolutionaries become the establishment certain compromises are inevitable. Nowhere is this more clearly on display in Northern Ireland than when the issue of armed struggle comes in to the public eye, as it does every Easter season when the Republican Movement commemorates the 1916 Rising. Here’s an example:

I also want to pay tribute to the bravery, leadership and commitment of the IRA in this generation who fought in the streets of our towns and in the highways, byways and fields of our countryside. If courage was the measure of success then Ireland would have had her freedom long ago … I think I can speak for many thousands of Irish republicans who came through the conflict when I say that we are proud of our time as volunteers in the Irish Republican Army.

And another:

Armed struggle must be a contributory factor to a wider struggle. The use of arms prior to 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms in Easter 1916 was legitimate. The use of arms after 1916 was totally legitimate. In the existing political context of partition, illegal occupation and the denial of national self determination, armed struggle, in 2015, remains a legitimate act of resistance.

And now back to our first speaker:

There are small groupings within the Nationalist community opposed to the peace process and opposed to Sinn Féin.  These groups have every right to disagree with our strategy but they have no right to carry out armed actions, the vast majority of which are directed against unarmed civilians, in the name of Irish Republicanism. These small groups are not the IRA. The IRA fought a war against State combatant forces and fought it to a conclusion.

So who’s who in these conflicting takes on the legitimacy of continued armed resistance to British rule in Northern Ireland? The first speaker is Gerry Kelly, a famed IRA veteran (part of the team that planted four car bombs in the center of London in 1973) and one of the highest-profile members of Sinn Fein, serving on its national executive and as an MLA representing North Belfast at Stormont.

Kelly is currently running as Sinn Fein’s candidate for a seat  in the British parliament at Westminster. His comments were delivered as part of the Easter commemoration oration he gave at the Republican plot in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, the resting place of many an IRA volunteer killed on “active service” against the British state that Kelly attacked in 1973 but today serves as a member of the Stormont government.

The second speaker is Dee Fennell, a young Republican community activist from the Ardoyne neighborhood of North Belfast.  I heard him speak in Dublin in early March during an event held by one of the faster-growing “dissident” Republican groups. In that setting he skirted around giving the kind of open endorsement of armed struggle that he voiced in his Easter oration at the Republican plot at St. Colman’s Cemetery in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Video of his statement had been posted to YouTube but has since been taken down.

From Kelly’s perspective the need for armed struggle is over. The IRA, his IRA, fought the British state to a standstill. The movement now can accomplish its goals through exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

From Fennell’s perspective the need for armed struggle is as real as it has ever been. People like Kelly, who may have once fought with honor and distinction, are now no more than cogs in the engine that perpetuates partition and foreign occupation. A new IRA, which Fennell said is increasing in its capabilities and effectiveness, will pick up and carry on to finish the job that Kelly’s IRA failed to complete.

What’s fascinating about the positions espoused by Kelly and Fennell is not on how much they differ, but on how much they agree. Both accept the legitimacy of armed struggle. Both believe it can be used effectively to bring about desired political change. Both agree that the work of achieving a united Ireland free of British control is unfinished. Both refuse to categorically reject the resort to arms to achieve that goal.

From Fennell, the dissident, this is understandable.  From Kelly it is a little more difficult, but not impossible to fathom. It is a reflection of what happens when a revolutionary movement trades its berets and balaclavas for suits and ties, the barricades for the board room. For Sinn Fein to categorically condemn armed struggle  would amount to rejecting the very revolutionary means that brought them to the positions of political power they hold today.  And that’s a step they seemingly cannot bring themselves to take.

Distortion via simplification

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Gerry Adams on 60 Minutes.

 

One way to know that it’s Eastertide in America is the parade of Northern Ireland politicians that traditionally make pilgrimage here to: 1) receive yet another round of congratulations for “making peace” almost two decades ago; 2) accept checks from deep-pocketed American donors (in the case of Sinn Fein reps); and 3) go hat-in-hand for additional funds from the US government and investment from American companies. Most of the time these visits are largely ignored by the media here, and for good reason since they are by their very nature far from newsworthy.

This year was different in that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA commander who orchestrated the systematic bombing campaign that destroyed most of his native city of Derry in the 1970s and now serves as Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, pulled out of the annual trip in order to attend to a crisis at Stormont over welfare spending that his own party precipitated.

But while McGuinness wasn’t here, CBS’ long-running news program 60 Minutes made sure that Easter Sunday wouldn’t pass without hearing from Gerry Adams, the man who has led Sinn Fein since the mid 1980s and who is credited with (or blamed for, depending upon your perspective) orchestrating the IRA’s transition from armed struggle to conventional politics and thereby delivering the peace process. Adams’ interview, which you can watch here, garnered furious attention from the Northern Irish media, and especially from Adams’ numerous critics, who called him out for what was widely perceived as his selective and self-serving reinterpretation of events over the last forty-plus years and his own role in them.

To my mind though, what was noteworthy about the 60 Minutes interview was not what Adams had to say, but the way in which the interview itself and the reporting surrounding it revealed all of the lazy ways in which Americans tend to think about Northern Ireland, why it exploded into conflict, and what went on there during the long years of violence.

Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty captured this far better than I can in a scathing piece published a few days ago in the Belfast Telegraph in which he pillories 60 Minutes for its lazy and superficial reporting.

Take the simple description of the period as “a war between Catholics and Protestants” and “one of the longest wars of the 20th century”. Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word “war”, though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn’t true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

If you want to see a full display of all of the ways in which we tend to get Northern Ireland wrong, watch the report, and then go to O’Doherty’s commentary. It is well worth reading in full.

The irony in commemoration

I left Belfast a week or so before Easter, and so I missed the annual commemorations in which Republicans remember the 1916 Rising and honor those who have fallen in the cause of ending British rule in Ireland. The YouTube video embedded above is an excellent example of the kind of official commemoration that Sinn Fein participates in and helps orchestrate. In watching the video it’s easy to pick out the faces of many of the party’s luminaries and well-known supporters amongst the ranks of marchers.

The pageantry is all there: bands, honor guard and color party in paramilitary attire, re-enactors wearing the uniforms and carrying the (dummy one supposes) weapons of the Rising, dramatic recitations of fiery speeches from the past.

What I find fascinating about these events (like the annual national Hunger Strike commemoration which I attended in 2010 in the village of Bellaghy) is the unacknowledged irony with which what has become a status quo political movement deploys the language of revolution and parades the images of generations of dead revolutionaries.

As a partner in the Stormont regime Sinn Fein administers British rule in Northern Ireland. This is a simple statement of fact. And yet the party apparently feels no contradiction between this present and the revolutionary past it celebrates and claims as its own. The party’s critics call this deep hypocrisy and naked cynicism. The party’s supporters argue that the revolution has entered a new phase in which the foundations of British rule are being systematically eroded from within the political system itself, both north and south of the border.

As an outsider I can’t, and won’t, try to argue which of these perspectives is the more honest or accurate. Frankly I believe there is truth in both assessments. Either way it is smart politics. But as an outsider I can’t help but be struck by the contradictions on display in commemorations like this. If you watch the first few minutes of the video above, you will hear the words that Patrick Pearse in 1915 directed to the “Defenders of the Realm” when he delivered his famous oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Today, for the moment, those Defenders of the Realm include Sinn Fein. A cynic might count them among Pearse’s “purchased half.” And Ireland still holds the graves of her Fenian dead.

Tiochfaidh ar la*?

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It occurs to me that those of you who have been reading this blog over the last month would likely come to the conclusion that pretty much everyone I’ve talked to paints a dismal picture of the future, that pessimism rules the day. I’d say that’s true for the lion’s share of people that I meet, with two significant exceptions.

The first is that segment of society for whom the Troubles were little more than a nuisance. These are generally middle and upper-middle class Unionists whose social class and leafy residential districts kept them largely outside the killing zones that were working class neighborhoods and the rural countryside. It’s not that these folks are optimistic. Some are concerned that things could go off again, but they seem to assume that if it does they will again be able to stand on the sidelines as the other people bear the brunt of whatever should come.

The other group is unabashedly optimistic. These are the members and supporters of Sinn Fein.  They see themselves poised for the success. The party continues to gain influence and authority in the North. While some may argue that the Northern electorate is becoming alienated from the political system, Sinn Fein activists are energetic, disciplined, and committed. Even some traditionally Loyalist areas are now voting for SF candidates, activists tell me, because they know that SF is responsive to the needs of the working class community in a way that Unionist parties are not.  And even if some in the Nationalist community would prefer not to support Sinn Fein, the party has skillfully quashed the rise of any politically viable Republican alternative. It is one of the secrets to their success over the last 20 years.

Sinn Fein supporters see the very real possibility that they will hold the balance of political power in the South after the next set of elections six weeks or so from now, if not actually be the party in government. In short, from their perspective, 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising and the declaration of the Irish Republic, may be the year in which the movement will achieve through politics what it has never been able to accomplish through force of arms, all 32 Irish counties governed by one Republican party. Under such a scenario the border between the North and the South, they argue, will be effectively meaningless. With both Stormont and Leinster House in Sinn Fein hands, the country will be de facto united even if it remains partitioned on paper. And once that happens, the constitutional question will be resolved as a matter of course.

Given this scenario, it’s no wonder that Sinn Fein’s supporters express optimism for the future. The goal, they believe is in sight. United Ireland is an inevitability. It’s only a matter of time.

*”Our day will come,” an Irish language slogan beloved of Republicans. Kind of the equivalent of the phrase which traditionally ends the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”