You do not become a "dissident" just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.
- Vaclav Havel


Anthony McIntyre
Pens For Peace, edited by Noel Flannery & Matt Cannon.
December 2001

Quite recently I attended a debate at which Jim Gibney of Sinn Fein was a panellist. I listened while he told his audience that ten years ago it was not possible to mention the word 'peace' within the Republican Movement. Brian Feeney, another panellist, quickly corrected him pointing out that peace documents had been produced by Sinn Fein in 1987. Had Feeney so chosen, he could have gone back considerably further. 'Peace' was a term much used by the Provisional IRA's first chief of staff, the late Sean MacStiofain. And he vacated that position as early as 1972 underlining the elongated shelf life a peace discourse actually does have within Provisional republicanism.

Sinn Fein members are among those who inhabit a culture where authoritarian power is virtually the centre of gravity. And as Eric Hoffer pointed out those in possession of such power can not only lie but can make their lies come true. It is regrettable but hardly surprising that some of these people, while fundamentally decent and honest, would serve as a conduit through which an authoritarian leadership would demand that the world accept how it alone had worked strenuously for peace. All preceding it was incompetent; all outside of it reactionary and devoid of any strategic vision. Anyone asking a difficult question ought, therefore, to be ashamed - such probing was unhelpful to the peace process.

Up until the arrest of three republican activists in Colombia, a large self-emasculated element within the media world facilitated Sinn Fein on these matters preferring to ask the easy question designed to ensure a soft landing for those republicans 'helpful' to the peace process. The same element further endeavoured to deliberately position the term 'dissident republican' in a bedrock of violence. Taking the principle of ‘Definitio est negatio' (to define is to limit) to the extreme there emerged an illusory binary construct in which Sinn Fein stood for peace and dissidents for war.

As a republican dissident I found the time and effort refuting such insinuations tiresome. The attempt by Sinn Fein to monopolise peace and exclusively articulate it to the party's own brand of republicanism was patently false. The contextualisation of dissident republicans as both monolithic and hermetically sealed off from anything but violence was always self-serving. It allowed a wider world to turn a blind eye to Provisional IRA use of force on the basis that the alternative was always likely to be something worse.

And yet republican dissidents such as Tommy Gorman and myself have stood firm against any suggestion that republicanism should engage in violence. At one point we argued that never again should it take life in pursuit of its goals. Two nights later our homes were picketed by Sinn Fein who took exception to that line of thinking. It seemed to us that while we supported the peace Sinn Fein only supported the process. Hardly a recipe for a lasting stability in any society.

So what can peace mean for a dissident republican? Firstly, while desirable, it is not essential to get rid of the British to have peace. But while they remain and oversee projects such as the Good Friday Agreement the foundations upon which peace can be built shall always remain suspect. Such a project entrenches rather than overcomes sectarianism. It may unite the chattering classes as they pursue the interests of their own bloc. But because any progress - always measured against the opposing bloc - is dependent on communal advances the chattering classes only manage to drive those on the ground further apart in a self-perpetuating sectarian spiral.

More broadly, Ireland is a society facing economic recession and increased racial tension. Peace must confront those issues. If it is not based on democracy that redistributes wealth and is inclusive of all nationalities and races, then is it a peace worth having? Peace is not the absence of war. All too often those promulgating peace ignore what Dom Helder Camara of Brazil once termed structural violence such as poverty which denies human dignity and development.

What is paramount is the need for a human rights regime underpinned by a democratic international law which is not a tool of the rich and powerful. This captures the essence of both Fergal Keane and Jacques Derrida when they argue respectively that 'the human rights culture of our age makes the impossible seem possible'; and that ‘democracy … is the political experience of the impossible’. The twinning of these concepts compels us to avoid both apathy and tuning into the monotonous chant of the status quo - 'there is no alternative'.

Such a vision can only develop if we have the means to visualise through structures of transparency and dissent. Peace and democracy cannot otherwise survive. Without these structures the likelihood increases that Ireland may produce a situation similar to that pertaining in Austria where there was never a great tradition of dissenting structures. Consequently the right wing populist Jorg Haider came to power with all the ominous potential for racial havoc and devastation therein. Are we to be so afraid of democratic experimentation that we succumb to the 'castrated democracy' of Chile about which the dissident writer Ariel Dorfman had this to say:

What politicians have done in Chile is that they’ve made democracy fragile by saying it’s so fragile we can’t touch it. Well, no. You’ve got to bring people into the process of defining democracy, testing it and pushing it. If you don’t it’s not true democracy’.

Republican dissidents who reject the prevailing orthodoxy and dissent from the use of physical force can do much for peace and democracy. More, perhaps than those who talk peace but do not actually live it.



 Current Issue

 The Blanket