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The genesis of the Irish Republican Writers Group
Art and War: Fortnight Supplement
The Irish Republican Writers Group emerged at a crucial time in the history of republicanism. The Good Friday Agreement had just been accepted by 96% of the Sinn Fein membership. It seemed, in Foucauldian terms, that the anti-systemic soul of Provisional republicanism was being erased as easily as a face in the sand at the edge of the sea.
The republican leadership had for long made much of the concept of 'community as one'. There would be no alternative voices. Sean Russell rather than Peadar O'Donnell being the role model that suited best. The idiocy of the Green Book ultimately came to be preferred to the intellect of The Bell.
The ceasefire of 1994 changed little. A group of ex-prisoners had set up the Bobby Sands Discussion Group. It's role was to throw about ideas generated from whatever quarter and to stage public debates. After one lively debate in Derry in early 1995 the leadership closed down the discussion group. Members of DAAT (Direct Action Against Thinking) began to attend discussion group meetings. One ‘assured’ us that the leadership was so clever it was even right when it was wrong.
Writing within a supposedly progressive and forward looking republicanism became so blandly conformist that many seemed able, in Joachim Fest's phrase, to 'bring utterly incompatible elements into equilibrium without a hint of inner discomfort'. All questioning was met with a look as if you were stupid. It is a 'transition' they told us. All uttered in a manner which brought to mind the nineteenth century art critic who said of Berlin that it is ‘forever in the process of becoming and never in the state of being’. A regime of truth was being constructed. And so the Irish Republican Writers Group emerged. Its task was to prick the inflated balloons that buoyed up the truth regime. As writers it was not their role to strategise. That was the job of a political party.
Progress was slow. People wrote what they liked and when they wanted. The Group appeared to draw strength in adversity. On the verge of calling it a day toward the end of 1999 a shot in the arm came by way of an anonymous attack in the letters column of the Andersonstown News. Support rallied and Group membership increased. Fourthwrite magazine was published and the Irish Republican Writers Group had been placed on the map. It was not the strength, clarity or coherence of the critique that continued to make the headlines but the fact that people were prepared to say something different - even differing from each other; that for all its powers of life and death the Army Council could simply not silence its critics. With the killing by the Provisional IRA of Real IRA member Joseph O'Connor in October 2000, the IRWG, because of the public stance taken by some of its members in opposing that action, was pushed into the heart of media discourse - and trouble. The Sinn Fein leadership had homes of IRWG members picketed. Much harassment and intimidation followed. The writers involved held firm. Support for them against the intimidation was pouring in from writers and human rights activists abroad. Irish, British, American, French, German and Spanish media outlets all addressed the matter and the role of the Writers Group. The intimidation was raised at a conference of Armenian journalists.
On the crest of a wave the Group suddenly malfunctioned. The old spectre that had long haunted the main body of republicanism had weaved its way into the IRWG - a committee would examine writers' contributions for their suitability. The game was up. Those long time believers in the concept that nothing is impossible until given to a committee called it a day.
Perhaps it goes with the turf. Maybe republicanism is generically determined to be subject to the rule of centripetal forces. And few of those who manage to break out of the corral can resist the call of centralism for long enough to make any real impact. Yet, who can claim with any validity that the historical record has remained exactly as the republican power elite wished it to and that the IRWG made no difference? Those who control history shall decide. But the success of the IRWG lies in having subverted that control.
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