Northern Ireland requires a new political leadership in order to make tangible progress on the problems that continue to frustrate the attainment of ‘positive’ peace, reconciliation and social justice.
By Seán Byers
Back in February of this year, the present author published an article which contemplated the emergence of Óige Phoblactach (Republican Youth, Sinn Féin’s young wing) as a serious political force and a potential vehicle for progress across the island of Ireland. The article speculated on the importance of young republicans ‘demonstrating new ways of thinking about old problems’ and taking ‘brave decisions in public office and policy-making positions’. Here we begin to explore just some of the steps that young republicans could take in order to help steer Sinn Féin out of the dead-end game of tribal politics and towards a genuinely inclusive brand of Irish republicanism.
As a preamble to this discussion, it is instructive to state the obvious: the Sinn Féin of today is markedly different from the Sinn Féin of 1970, 1981, 1998 and even 2006. The party to which these young republicans belong is committed to democratic politics, the principle of consent, and reform of the northern state in lieu of a united Ireland. Despite the association of leading members with Provisional IRA violence of the past, it is distinctly unhistorical to draw direct parallels between post-St. Andrews Sinn Féin and its previous incarnations, no matter how appealing this approach may be to political opponents. The party has secured a foothold in southern politics and has until recently implemented a relatively watertight strategy (though this is being challenged intermittently by Unionism, loyalist protests, victims’ groups, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, academics and a number of media commentators). There are obvious, possibly unavoidable, discrepancies between Sinn Féin’s programmes in the two Irish polities. Yet it is fair to describe the party as relatively progressive on economic issues as well as leftist internationalist in outlook. Furthermore, Sinn Féin is keeping pace with and helping to drive the long overdue secularisation and liberalisation of Ireland.
These facets of Sinn Féin’s political project help to explain why the party attracts young activists in large numbers. At a conservative estimate, Óige Phoblactach boasts at least 250 members in local and university cumainn across the island – a figure which does not necessarily include those aged between fifteen and twenty-nine who have advanced into senior party positions. That Óige Phoblactach contains some of the essential ingredients of a modern and progressive republican party is evident from the proceedings of the recent Republican Youth National Congress. This provided a confident and talented generation of republicans with a platform upon which to articulate their political attitudes openly and without fear of reproach. Beneath the traditionalist republican rhetoric lies substance in the debates on canvassing and education, participation in the UK Youth Parliament (a motion which fell by only four votes), engagement with the Unionist community, policing and Community Safety Partnerships, abortion, suicide, (gay) marriage and the environment. One could not but be impressed by the dynamism on show. From the Cork Republican Youth Committee to the Mairéad Farrell Belfast Youth Committee, the Óige Phoblactach membership includes a number of future ministers in the making.
Close observation of Óige Phoblactach reveals that it contains some potential for progress towards ‘positive’ peace, meaningful reconciliation and social justice across the island. Yet it would be remiss to avoid discussion of the traditionalist – as opposed to traditional – republican sentiments in which this progressivism is wrapped. For instance, the Border Poll campaign, which featured prominently at the Óige Phoblactach congress, clearly enjoys the support of the majority of young Sinn Féin activists. At the expense of the republicanism of the United Irishmen, who sought to unite the people of Ireland at a time of international upheaval, young Sinn Féin activists ostensibly entertain the fanciful notion that the territory of Ireland will be reunited in their lifetime. No amount of confidence boosting polls in Sinn Féin strongholds will disguise the fact that the vast majority of people in the six counties do not consider the removal of partition a priority in the economically precarious circumstances. As the only truly all-island party, the onus is on Sinn Féin to shelve the narrow goal of territorial reunification in the short term and focus its resources on tackling the major problems of the day. Failing this, young Irish republicans ought to stand alone from their political mentors on the border question and commit to working under the conditions that present themselves, rather than those which are ideal. In the South, this involves working for an alternative to austerity and gombeen economics; in the North, for a viable economic strategy, an end to sectarianism, a resolution to flag and parading disputes, a mechanism for dealing with the past, the swift introduction of the shared future programme, and also for an end to the levels of patronage that quite clearly exist despite a lack of transparency on political funding. The future of constitutional republicanism in both states lies in the magnanimous words and deeds of young republicans around these objectives, not in outdated modes of nationalist thought.
One striking characteristic of young republicans is their active involvement in commemoration events. Despite the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spelling out the fact that there ‘was nothing romantic about the war’, it is precisely this romanticism that prevails as Sinn Féin employs the legacies of past revolutionaries in the construction of an alternative reality in the present. Indeed, an article in the August 2013 (Dublin lockout) edition of An Phoblacht makes a direct connection between the hunger strikers and the youth of today. One can appreciate the fact that young Sinn Féin members owe their political strength to the sacrifice of IRA martyrs such as Bobby Sands and Raymond McCreesh. After all, it was the hunger strike which propelled Sinn Féin onto the political scene in a manner that the armed struggle had failed. But the prominent presence of young Sinn Féin members at such commemorations – as participants and key speakers – represents an affront to the victims of IRA violence, including those who suffered at the hands of the hunger strikers and their comrades in arms. As Newton Emerson cogently argued in the Irish News on 1 August, albeit rather too gleefully, Sinn Féin’s blinkered approach to commemorations and parades only replicates the intransigence of Orange Order leaders and belies the concept of ‘share space’. The standout achievement of this is to isolate the party from the newly coined ‘Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL)’ community. The Provisional republican movement has thus far failed the victims of its violence, a campaign in which the new generation of activists played no part. The standout consequence of this failure is to isolate Sinn Féin from the newly coined ‘PUL’ community and from nationalist agnostics with grave concerns about the lack of progress in dealing with the past. It is therefore incumbent upon post-conflict republican leaders to put reconciliation at the forefront of their agenda and behave responsibly around commemorations. One option that deserves serious consideration is ‘quiet remembering’ without the symbolic acts of public theatre that cause deep offence.
On matters of socio-economic importance, Óige Phoblactach members share much in common with their Protestant counterparts. Materially, the Good Friday Agreement has failed to produce significant improvements in the lives of young people. The youth of West Belfast, North Belfast and Foyle would testify to the level of deprivation in their areas and the lack of opportunities on their doorstep. Meanwhile, the flag protests and associated outcries are partly demonstrative of the decline of traditional industries and the absence of economic alternatives. As the trade union man Frank Sobotka recalls in The Wire, ‘We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket’. Protestant grievances also arise from a failure of political Unionism to demonstrate real leadership and take care of its own constituency. And while Chris Donnelly is factually correct in highlighting the lingering disparities between the two communities, he fails to capture the sense of loss experienced in Protestant working class areas. In the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (2012), 39 percent of Protestants polled felt that Catholics had benefitted more from the Good Friday Agreement, compared with 16 percent of Catholics who felt that they had benefitted more. Whoever said perception is everything was not lying. The forward march of republicanism needs to be accompanied by outright condemnation of violence, yes, but also a genuine outreach programme that brings working class Protestants into the fold and gives them proper representation.
Irish republicanism cannot grow to achieve its objectives without the support of the majority of people in the north-east of the island. The 2012 Northern Ireland Census results provide a strong indication that a focus on demographics and sectarian head counts constitutes an insufficient strategy for republicanism to adopt in the short or medium term. Óige Phoblactach members are better placed than the Sinn Féin old guard to reach young activists across the divide, a feat that can perhaps be achieved through the trade union movement and single-issue campaigns. At a recent Féile an Phobail (West Belfast ‘Festival of the People’) lecture by Dr John Callow of the Marx Memorial Library, we were reminded of the radical heritage of republicanism and its import for the challenges of today. We know that James Connolly understood the power of class, but so too did United Irishmen such as the Belfast weaver Jamie Hope. Their ideas are of and for a different set of historical circumstances, but greater education around their efforts can help to drive home the importance of modern republicanism taking up the concerns of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. There is also inspiration to be found in the example of ‘Big’ Jim Larkin, organiser of the Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin working class. Young Sinn Féiners must become more involved in trade union activities, even at the embarrassment of the party leadership, and encourage others of the same age to do likewise. The Irish trade union movement is not without its problems, namely the historical tension between politicism and economism, nation and class. These problems notwithstanding, the fundamentally non-sectarian nature of trade unionism can harnesss the energy of young people in a way that breeds cooperation and lessens division. No greater incentive exists for this course of action than resisting the relentless assault on living standards across these islands. Young republicans are to be commended for their continued active involvement with the ‘No jobs? No future? No Way!’ campaign, designed to address the record levels of youth unemployment across the thirty-two counties. However, if they were to invest as much energy in creating a ‘Britain of Equals’ as an ‘Ireland of Equals’, Northern Ireland would surely be a better place to live in. The cynical question is whether Óige Phoblactach members wish the northern state to work, and to work for all of its people, in the short to medium term.
Connected to the idea of looking both southwards and eastwards for partners is the international dimension of emerging social and political youth movements. Óige Phoblctach enjoys fraternal relations with the Segi in the Basque Country and the Young Republican Left of Catalonia (JERC), for example, having exchanged conference delegates in recent years. Yet there exists very little evidence of a direct connection with the indignados of Spain, aganaktismenoi and Syriza in Greece, the protest movements responsible for the Arab Spring and social upheaval in North Africa, the Salad Revolution in Brazil, or the sporadic agitation for reform in Bosnia, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Russia, Thailand and parts of the Global South. Of course, none of these campaigns are essentially ‘good’. As the example of Egypt demonstrates, there is always an element of ambiguity involved when judging their composition and potential. But young Irish republicans will only land on the right side of history if they surpass their self-imposed limitations and align themselves with the global forces working to achieve radical positive change in their own national contexts. A useful starting point would be to invite a different type of (non-nationalist) international speaker to the next major Óige Phoblactach event.
Community, culture and identity are defining factors in shaping the politics of this region. In the context of the gradual process of secularisation across the island, ethnicity and concepts of nation have a greater bearing on sectarianism than the religious connotations associated with it. Yet while the physical, spatial and cultural barriers to progress are seemingly intractable, one could argue that secularisation, combined with an emphasis on integrated education, the abandonment of simplistic historical narratives and the potential contained in class solidarity, can contribute to the redefinintion of community in Ireland, North and South. The goal of all aspiring republican politicos and of society more generally should be a political programme that is self-critical and rooted in a hybrid notion of community, not in the parish pump, in territory or in the narrow interests of one particular group. It is unfortunately beyond the scope of the generation of ’69 to achieve this, primarily because they are too heavily tainted by the conflict and by primordial thinking – what Benedict Anderson so eloquently described as the ‘imagined community’. Young republican leaders such as Niall Ó Donnghaile, the East Belfast representative and former Mayor of Belfast, should be setting an example to their compatriots by speaking on behalf of the whole community, not just part of it. As Orwell once wrote, ‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ Plausibly, this fresh approach would build on the many grassroots initiatives aimed at reducing sectarian tensions and at once expand the popular appeal of Sinn Féin in a constituency that has little or no political representation.
The active hostility of working class Protestants to the party does present a significant, though not insurmountable, obstacle. History will not be kind to those who have been rioting in recent weeks. These actions are inexcusable, ultimately self-defeating and have in many instances led to the old caricature of loyalism being confirmed by the words and actions of those purporting to represent the Protestant working class. At the same time, it is difficult to conceive of the advantages republicanism can gain from accentuating the undemocratic tendencies of a minority and taking satisfaction in the self-destruction of the very communities upon which lasting peace and meaningful reconciliation depend. Taking to the Twittersphere to lambast disillusioned young Unionists at every opportunity is not best practice in this regard. In one sense, young republicans cannot be held totally responsible for their reactions to these events: just as Bosnian politicians have been accused of fostering prejudice among their youth, Northern Ireland’s political leaders of the past and present must shoulder much of the blame for the process of political socialisation that has resulted in deeply ingrained divisions in our society. Knowledge of the activities and motives of one community on the part of the other is severely limited, which perpetuates damaging preconceptions and myths. This can be partly overcome with patience and honesty on the part of young republicans living on interfaces and those encountering ‘the Other’ in education, sport and the arts. In short, it is important for these young activists to take a step back and discover the empathy that will give rise to new levels of cross-community interaction and unity of purpose.
It is true, as Alex Kane and Brian Spencer have suggested, that Northern Ireland requires a new political leadership in order to make tangible progress on the problems that continue to frustrate the attainment of ‘positive’ peace, reconciliation and social justice. It is evident that they do not have Óige Phoblactach in mind here and that they refer to the more moderate elements in society. It remains to be seen whether young republicans’ glimpses of radical political thought will translate into the types of action described here. It may be another generation before these ideas are executed with conviction, if at all. The essentially Marxist-Leninist/Stalinist nature of Sinn Féin methods of organisation under the current leadership will have a massive bearing on generational change and any break with the past. But the political development of popular Óige Phoblactach graduates such as Pearse Doherty, Kathryn Reilly, Daithí McKay and Chris Hazzard generates hope that a new type republicanism is not completely out of reach. No one would begrudge the emergence of a republican party which ticks all of the boxes above and which attempts to advance its programme without infringing on the aspirations of others.
Seán Byers received his PhD from the University of Ulster and is presently conducting research on Republican Youth in post-conflict (Northern) Ireland. His research interests include Irish labour and international socialist history. Twitter: @Sean_Byers84
* The author is obliged to Chris Loughlin for directing his attention to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey polling figure quoted in the text.