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The surest way to corrupt a youth
is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem
those who think alike
than those who think differently.
- Friedrich Nietzsche



What do Republicans want?
Paul Fitzsimmons
Perhaps only marginally less complex and nuanced (and perplexing) than the question famously posed by Sigmund Freud - ''what do women want?" - are questions which have often crossed my mind, especially in recent years: What do Irish "Republicans" want and, indeed, who are Irish "Republicans"?

Confessing that my studies, formal and informal, of "the Irish question" extend over a mere two decades, I'd further admit that answers to those questions remain obscure notwithstanding recent ostensibly salient articles such as "Irish Republicanism: New Phase of the Struggle or Strategic Failure?'' by Liam O'Ruairc, "The Real Republican Party: Pan-Nationalist Coalition is Weakened'' by Tommy Gorman, and "The Interview (of Marian Price)'' by Carrie Twomey, each found in the Winter 2002 edition of THE BLANKET. As but one example of that obscurity, Ms. Price tells us that "(t)he R(epublican) M(ovement) is ordinary people who do extraordinary things for what they believe in, that's where it gets its strength." Without doubting her in the least, at least not in a general sense, nonetheless that description of the Republican Movement could not honestly be called elucidating.

In attempting to establish what Irish "Republicans" want and who indeed they are, surely it would be understandable - I even might venture so far as to say "rational" and "reasonable" - to begin from the basic, even if tentative, premise that an Irish "Republican" is a person living in or hailing from Ireland who favors republican forms of government:

republic [noun] 1 a (1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usu. a president (2): a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government b (1): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law (2): a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government[.]

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed. 1993).

Yet, even assuming, merely for the sake of argument, the validity of this initial premise, manifestly there are additional overlays on the political philosophies within the broad "Irish Republican family."

Happily, two potential "overlays" are apparently not currently in the minds of "Republicans" in Ireland.

First, and unsurprisingly, there seems little desire today to use republicanism as a means for "Irish cultural revanchism." Laudably, Ms. Price tells us that "Republicanism is about a secular state." She similarly states: "[T]he Republicanism that I want to build is going to be a secular republicanism that everyone would feel included and I would hope that that would include the Protestant community." Personally, I'm inclined to take her at her word on this point and, further, to assume that that small-c catholic view now extends broadly within "Irish Republicanism." (The Irish language issue might be raised as an argument to the contrary, but - and somewhat seriously - I've long thought that, if Unionists really want to kill off that lovely if complicated language, they should do what has long been done in the South: require that it be studied in all secondary schools. Moreover, it should be noted that knowing Irish well is manifestly no prerequisite among at least some varieties of "Northern Irish Republicanism.")

Rather more surprisingly, a second "overlay" on "Irish Republicanism" apparently not in the forefront of people's minds is the notion that any new "republican" state in Ireland must be expressly designed as a "socialist" state. In some "republican" quarters, the taste for Armani suits now clearly exceeds any taste for mandatory socialism, at least any type of socialism found beyond Western Europe. Whatever other problems "Irish Republicans" may have in trying to find out where they are going politically, they have seemingly - and, if so, correctly - come to the conclusion that urging the economic models of countries such as Cuba, North Korea, and the former and failed U.S.S.R. would be the very definition of "a tough sell" anywhere in Ireland. (With apologies to Churchill, capitalism may indeed be the worst form of economic model, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.)

However, recognizing that cultural and economic issues are not, or at least are no longer, at the heart of the debate within "Irish Republicanism" does not, of course, describe the converse: what is at the heart of that debate.

Mr. O'Ruairc tells us: "Irish Republicanism is in crisis. The fact that Irish Republicanism has not been able to realise its aims and has suffered a massive defeat is at the root of this present crisis." What, specifically, its aims are and what that "massive defeat" was remain, however, unclear. Of course, to him and many others, a continued British governmental presence in the North is central to both those "aims" and that "defeat" (e.g., his comment: "What has greatly aggravated [the present crisis in Republicanism] is the fact that Provisional Irish Republicanism has effectively integrated the institutions that it once tried to destroy.").

But Mr. O'Ruairc has a similar complaint with "Republican" participation in Ireland's southern government: "Far from subverting those institutions [at Stormont and "in the South"], the participation of the Provisional Movement makes them effectively administer British rule and implement neoliberal policies[.]" (Emphasis added.) Perhaps in a similar vein, Ms. Price opines that "the core that republicanism is concerned with … is the establishment of the Republic" (emphasis added), implying that, to some "Irish Republicans" at least, there can be but one true "Irish Republic." (Confusingly, though, and apparently referring to Sinn Féin's constant - if perhaps slightly "Féined" - drumbeat about the imminence of political reunion with the South, Ms. Price nonetheless chastises that party for its similar aspirations: "I wouldn't consider SF of today being republicans, I see SF as being a nationalist party.")

With all due respect, if "Irish Republicans" of the Northern variety hope to have any impact whatsoever on any future political thought on the island, they ought seriously to consider (a) whether it is at all right or proper to regard the 26-county Republic of Ireland as in any respect "illegitimate" or somehow "incomplete" and, relatedly, (b) whether their own "Republicanism" is, or should be, inextricably tied at the hip with the notion of a 32-county state.

A quite compelling historical case could be made that, four-score years ago, the 26 southern counties inappropriately - if not immorally - left Northern Catholics to the tender mercies of a British/Unionist-controlled six-county government. However, even accepting that case as fully correct, that conclusion would not itself challenge the validity of the "26 counties" as a legitimate republican state. For example, if every single person in the Republic of Ireland today said "We're happy enough with political matters as they stand, and we're not interested in any reunion with the Northern six counties," it would be nothing short of absurd and officious for any Northerner to argue in response: "Their government is illegitimate and 'unrepublican' without us and our six counties." This conclusion does not markedly change if, instead, 95 percent of that Southern population said, as they did say in the spring of 1998, "You Northerners work under the Good Friday Agreement until a Northern majority wants reunion; we'll talk again at that point." Thus, Mr. O'Ruairc may be just slightly wrong in stating: "The 26?County state is the legitimate Irish Republic in the eyes of the vast majority of its citizens[.]" Perhaps those people are instead saying simply, and rightly, that their state is a - not the - legitimate Irish republic.

Maybe, in addition to recognizing and respecting that fact, "Irish Republicans," especially "dissenters," need to reconsider "the traditional Republican project of establishing a [emphasis added] sovereign nation-state." (Mr. O'Ruairc.) As aptly recognized in the dictionary definition quoted above, whether a state is truly a republic turns not on the amount of its acreage but, instead, on whether that state's supreme power resides in its citizenry.

A nagging guilt compels me, however, to disclose at this point what I likely should have stated at the very beginning of this lengthy piece: theoretical discussions on "Irish Republicanism" might now be entirely academic. This early portion of the twenty-first century may be revealing the beginning of two events: (i) a long-term continuation of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement and (ii) a long-term continuation of the phenomenon, observed by Ms. Price, of the GFA falling "far short of a United Ireland free of British control [but nonetheless] ha[ving] the support of the greater number of the [Northern] Nationalist population."

From what I have seen and heard over the past several years, I am fully convinced that indeed a great many people want to see the Good Friday Agreement somehow prevail or, if not prevail, at least persist. Among that group are: all of the people in the SDLP (once waggishly termed by "Republicans" as the "stoop down low party"), all in Sinn Féin (which might now like to be regarded broadly, but not too broadly, as the "we stoop to conquer" party), most of those in the Alliance Party (the "which way do you want us to stoop today and how far down?" party), many people in the Ulster Unionist Party (the "no, really, we're not stupes" party), virtually all of the citizenry and political parties in the South, and virtually all in the "mainland" British political establishment. And all that before even considering broad EU and USA support.

And prevail or persist the GFA might in fact do. Everyone should expect, as many would indeed hope and as time has already shown, that every trick in the book will be used to keep the GFA afloat and that new tricks will be developed and added as exigencies require and as the basest form of political/constitutional shame permits.

If the GFA does prevail or persist, then, ineluctably, no alternative political approach will be seriously considered by any group too large to fit around an average-sized pub table. Without intending or desiring to be flippant about a subject - indeed, a cause - to which many people have given huge parts of their lives, if not their souls, I would respectfully and sincerely suggest that crying in a beer or two may be about the most productive thing for "dissident Republicans" to do while the GFA yet breathes, either on its own or by conspicuous means of artificial respiration.

Yet, in the spirit of full disclosure, there are, of course, murmurings about how the GFA will fare in and after the Spring 2003 Assembly election. Many believe that, if support for the Democratic Unionist Party adequately surpasses that of the UUP, the Good Friday Agreement will be brought down. (With that possibility in mind, one might wonder whether "dissident Republicans," especially those in areas like North and East Belfast, would strategically decide to cast their votes for the DUP. It would, though, be another of Northern Ireland's many ironies if - having been placed in the catbird seat by those dissidents - the DUP itself then had a Pauline conversion to the Good Friday Agreement scheme.)

If, for whatever reason, the GFA does not stay on course, people in Ireland and Britain may again feel, as a "Republican" friend recently told me, "a sense of implacable deadlock, of fruitless energy squandered over the decades on both sides, without progress or prospect of progress." In that case, however likely or unlikely that case may be, the political thoughts of "dissident Republicans" might become of more generalized interest.

Of course, one way for those "true Republicans" to ensure that they will in no event be listened to, within their community or without, is for them to continue with what, from the outside, seems to sound a great deal like whining (I recall you-all may refer to this as "whinging"). "There is a crisis of leadership and a strategic uncertainty." (Mr. O'Ruairc.) "We were all informed that this is the most 'revolutionary leadership' ever and that those who died would, without doubt, have swung in behind the present policies." (Mr. Gorman.) "[Sinn Féin members] didn't then have to go in the British establishment and agree to run and take part in the British rule in the Six Counties." (Ms. Price.) "[T]he fact that at present no significant section of the people North and South are mobilized and the majority of the population demobilized make the emergence of a credible radical opposition difficult." (Mr. O'Ruairc.) "[I]f we just stop and take stock, we can rebuild the Republican Movement and probably it will be a stronger movement for this, because the people who will be in the Republican Movement will be republicans, not nationalists or militant Catholics." (Ms. Price.) "[W]hat remains to be seen is under what form Republicanism will re-emerge, under a fundamentalist or a progressive one." (Mr. O'Ruairc.)

Perhaps most straightforwardly, Mr. O'Ruairc admits: "The fundamental problem is that an alternative strategy and political vision that would regenerate Irish Republicanism is very slow to emerge." To my simple American ear, that sentence seems to say: we true Irish Republicans don't know where we're going, we don't know how to get there, and, to boot, we're making lousy time.

Grandiose pronouncements simply do not and cannot help that cause, regardless of how pleasant they might seem as they are being made: "The core issue is the British presence in Ireland, and until it is addressed, through a British declaration of intent to withdraw, the basic problem will remain." (Ms. Price.) Similarly, "I would hope that if the Brits make a declaration of an intent to withdraw then Republicans and even the Loyalist community can start discussing the way forward together." (Ms. Price.) "Unfortunately I see a long hard struggle coming." (Ms. Price.) Addressing "the core issue" how? After a failed thirty-year campaign by militant "Republicans," the Brits will themselves make a declaration of an intent to withdraw why? A long, hard struggle towards what?

Love 'em or hate 'em, Sinn Féin at least has a plan: wait out the blackguards; get (and enjoy) what you can within the British system; and try to position yourself as best you can for the time - if ever - that reunion occurs.

And love it or hate it, the glib if amoral phrase "nothing succeeds like Semtex" has proven immutably false. Semtex provides a pretty efficient way of killing a fair number of people who cannot be rebuilt and damaging property which can be, but not more. And especially after "September 11," Semtex's bark is not worse than its bite. The "armed struggle" is over.

Particularly against this background, "true Republicans" doubtless realize that it would never suffice to say: "First, we'll find out in precisely which part of Ireland it is that Eden exists; then, we'll get ourselves there; then we'll live happily ever after." Is it, though, genuinely all that much different to say, or even hope, "First, we'll get the Brits to announce their departure; then, we'll come to terms with our Unionist/Loyalist brothers and sisters; then, we'll live republicanly ever after"?

Assuredly, the overall point here is, with my apologies, overworked if not belabored: if "true Irish Republicans" don't know with adequate precision what they indeed want and don't even have a remotely plausible way to get to where they may ultimately decide they want to go, it seems that "true Irish Republicans" don't have much, if anything, to offer. Merely being collectively disaffected cannot possibly be enough to constitute any sort of coherent or cohesive movement. A line from an old television commercial comes to mind: you've got to either lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Maybe, right about now, that beer is sounding pretty good.



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