The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Biggles and the Provos

Book Review

Republicanism in Modern Ireland
Edited by Fearghal McGarry
UCD Press, Dublin, 2003-10-02
ISBN 1 900621 95 9
Paperback £17.99

Kevin Bean

This collection of essays arose from a conference in May 2002 that considered the place of republicanism in modern Ireland and deals with a wide range of themes with varying degrees of success and effectiveness. This variety, however, indicates some of the strengths and weaknesses of our current understanding of republicanism, both as an historical force and a contemporary political movement. Central to these essays is the issue of historical continuity and the power of tradition in republicanism. One dominant academic reading of Republicanism is of as an historically driven ideology with a self-referential framework of thought; how far can we take republicans’ own insistence on the historical continuity of their politics at face value? Following Conor Cruise O’Brien, Bowyer Bell and Toolis, how important is the mandate of the dead generations and ancestor worship in the political practice and ideology of actually existing republicanism in the post-Good Friday Agreement era?

In considering aspects of these questions most of the contributors avoid the easy parallels and the simple definitions and point up both the problems and potentially fruitful areas for further research and discussion. Anne Dolan, for example, looks at Republicanism, monuments and commemoration as a way of understanding the popular base for republicanism and the complicated relationship between mainstream Fianna Fail politics and what she describes as ‘the men and women known only by the vague term republican’. She argues that the attendance and participation in commemorative activities is due to a variety of factors beyond clear political commitment and that we need a more subtle reappraisal of the divisions and varieties of republicanism ‘beyond the higher and more documented echelons’.

R.V.Comerford also examines the relationship between the political mainstream and republicanism; he explains the historical tendency for republicans from the Fenian New Departure onwards to be incorporated into the state as part of a gateway process giving outsiders entry into the constitutional power game. However by joining the game they contribute to new rules of constitutional propriety becoming not only slightly constitutional, but also only slightly Fenian as well.

In discussing actually existing Provisional Republicanism Comerford avoids a simplistic historicism and believes that the acceptance of the post Good Friday dispensation is a ‘spectacular case of the old trope of republicans coming to terms with democracy…albeit it one with several original twists.’ Amongst the original twists considered are the unwritten rules of the new order which tolerate what Comerford describes as ‘localised mafias’ that confirm the social and political power of the republican leadership over its bases of support.

It is this theme of control, and repression that forms the core of Anthony McIntyre’s discussion of what he describes as ‘Provisionalism’s internal politics, inequities and modes of repression’. Drawing on a unique form of participant observation as a former IRA prisoner and republican activist, he charts the process as one of bureaucratisation where the Republican movement cannot function without the routinised exercise of structural power. McIntyre’s account deals not only with the treatment of dissidents and potential political challengers to the leadership, but also with wider issue of social control of the nationalist community. In some illuminating interviews, he traces these structures back to the republican experience in the gaols and shows how the military conspiratorial ethos of some activists and an appeal to collective loyalty can be used to create a culture of conformity and control. McIntyre’s analysis is structural and focuses on power rather than ideology or individual careerism as the motive for this ‘pattern of repression’. In this reading Provisionalism takes on some of the functions of a pseudo-state, both mediating between the British state and sections of the nationalist community and carrying out some law enforcement and social control functions in its own interest.

Some of the most challenging essays deal specifically with the problems of defining republicanism and placing its ideology in a wider analytical framework. Fearghal McGarry's introduction poses some of the questions concerning the relationship between republicanism and democracy. He sees a degree of continuity within republican tradition and political practice and believes that tradition is still a significant source of legitimation for the leadership; however he also argues that historically republicanism has been marked by ideological incoherence and political flexibility in working within constitutional structures that fall short of the movement’s aims and expectations. In this introduction and in other essays McGarry and others point towards possible tensions between aspects of this tradition and the allure of electoral politics and constitutional legitimacy.

In discussing these issues McGarry et al also reflect a wider crisis of contemporary politics and political discourse. This concerns not just the nature of the legitimacy and authority of political power, but calls into question the underlying frameworks of post Enlightenment political thought.

This crisis of politics is best illustrated by Eugene O’Brien’s consideration of the republican imaginare. This densely argued essay draws heavily on Lacan’s psychoanalytical perspectives as a way of understanding the basic framework of republican thought. Comparing a political ideology to the development of the individual ego O’Brien defines republicanism as an attachment to an ideal image of the nation. The movement attempts to find meaning through the creation of the ideal, but since this rests on the ‘false fixities of an imaginary world’ it is doomed to failure and disappointment. To O’Brien the invention of historical narratives and the impossibility of matching ideal identity with hard reality are evidence of the essentialist, irrational nature of nationalism and republicanism. Whilst O‘Brien has some interesting things to say on the construction of particular aspects of the republican tradition, the broader implications of his description of the mystifying and debilitating impact of the ideal seem to deny the possibility of any concept of political imagining or project of social change. Above all his approach seems ahistorical in that it ignores the significance of the contingent on the development of republicanism and of the depth of the ideological shifts that have taken place in Provisionalism since the late 1980s.

Brian Hanley also takes up themes of continuity in his look at the rhetoric of republican legitimacy. He finds common elements and notable similarities between the arguments deployed by republican leaderships in the twentieth century to defeat and marginalize opposition to their new political directions. From Cosgrave’s attack on ‘Trucileers’ through to Gerry Adams’ contemporary comments on ceasefire soldiers these justifications have an all too familiar ring. Above all Hanley performs a valuable service in bringing to our attention the career of a previously unsung hero of the republican movement, one Clarence Edward Biggles or Cathal de Bigleas.

Lying behind many of these essays is an attempt to challenge a number of unspoken assumptions and pose some usually unasked questions. In particular how can we accurately define a republicanism that stretches from Fianna Fail-the republican party- through to the Thirty-Two County Sovereignty Committee? Surely, such a broad spectrum of organisations and political positions is impossible to define in terms of common elements and, as such, the word has become so devalued as to be meaningless as either a description or an analytical tool? Perhaps all we can conclude is that it is easier to talk of republicanisms and that both spatially and temporally republicanism is like Bishop Berkley’s river in that we can never jump into the same movement twice.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

22 March 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Momentous Week in Madrid
Douglas Hamilton


Shinner Sing-A-Long
Brian Mór


Biggles and the Provos

Kevin Bean


'The Solidarity of Those Who Struggle for Justice'
Willie Gallagher


Truth, Power and Dissent
Anthony McIntyre


The Irish Hero - A Multidisciplinary Conference in Irish Studies
Centre for Irish Studies


The 2004 Jonathan Swift Poetry Competition
Dr John Hirsch


The Letters page has been updated.


19 March 2004


Terrorism Defined and Exemplified
Don Mullan and James Mullin


Can Catholics Now Trust the Police?
Sean Mc Manus


Sinn Fein & The Hate: Interview with Martin Cunningham

Anthony McIntyre


Splits and Distortions?
George Young


Cellar Dwellers
Brian Mór


The Blanket, Eamonn McCann and the use of language
Gerry Ruddy


From Paras to the FRU
Kathleen O Halloran


"Expose the Awful Truth"
Carrie Twomey


The Maze
Belfast Exposed


Dublin Public Meeting on Referendum
Residents Against Racism




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