The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Truth, Power and Dissent
Paper given to PSAI (Political Studies Association of Ireland) Conference, Portmarnock


Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy - Franz Kafka

Anthony McIntyre • 18 October 2003

It has been said of the late journalist Hugo Young that power and the way it was exercised were his abiding concerns. Given that power and politics, both macro and micro, are inextricably linked, any such concern, if it is to claim rigour, can hardly remain indifferent to the task set by the philosopher Jacques Derrida when he aimed to deconstruct ‘pervasive shibboleths’, arguing that ‘politics has always been a privileged space for the lie.’ Not least because, in the words of Greg Salyer, ‘institutions lie, and perhaps they can do no other because their reason for existence is not truth but power, and essential to the acquisition and maintenance of power is the production of lies in the name of truth.’

In the Foucauldian perspective power is much less centralised than we would expect to find in a political economy model being, as it is, dispersed through discourses and institutions. The dominant discursive grid energising and governing Northern Irish political conversation has for some time been the peace process. And while the North may be the epicentre of this powerful discursive formation, its decibels have on occasion sent tremors throughout the body politic in both London and Dublin, not to mention Washington. All other discourses, if not plugged into its panoptical gaze, are certainly subordinate to, or where they lack the internal strength to resist, marginalised by it.

The peace process has produced its own vernacular which, to avoid being labelled a ‘rejectionist’ or a ‘no man’ and face eviction from the gravy train, all the political actors must absorb and regurgitate a la the ventriloquist’s dummy. It is a language which fuels and fortifies concepts such as the ‘Northern Ireland state’, ‘consent’, ‘the equal validity of the two traditions’, Stormont’, ‘decommissioning’ ‘and ‘policing’ no matter how value loaded or weighted they may be. But where it reaffirms its own it also attenuates the other, persistently hollowing out concepts such as armed struggle, political violence and dissent. Articulated together as a cluster, this may be called a systemic discursive ensemble in that it was always critically situated at the heart of British state strategy and policy for dealing with the North. It was a cluster which for long was viewed as a billiard ball by those in diametrical opposition to it, who sought to strike it head on. And while the billiard ball transmuted itself into a cobweb permitting interaction between opposing forces and allowing those most opposed to it to now embrace it, it was the web where the spider rather than the guests was master. Much like Lampedusa's The Leopard's dictum that ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’, the British state has shifted remarkably little in substantive ways in order to retain the hegemonic position of its key terms within the dominant discourse.

Conversely, those who formerly deconstructed and attempted to devitalise and divest the cluster of concepts of their potency have subsequently travelled the greatest distance in order to accommodate it. One of the institutions now deeply embedded in the dominant discursive formation, through which power is filtered and dispersed, is the Provisional Republican Movement. In order to arrive at this position it has jettisoned the anti-systemic counter-discourse that had both defined and sustained it while at the same time demarcating it from the establishment. Paraphrasing Islam, the discursive mountain did not come to Adams; he went to it. Subsequently, he and his colleagues who champion the concepts they formerly waged a figurative and real war against can be welcomed into the bosom of the establishment, albeit in fits and starts. There was no disagreement between Gerry Adams and the then leader of the Irish Labour Party Ruairi Quinn, when the latter made the point that Sinn Fein was now an establishment party.

Meanwhile, those who oppose such concepts or merely pose the awkward question are forever depicted as the proverbial fly in the ointment, the cure for which is a hefty swat. But even here the institutional lie which permeates the peace process could scarcely conceal its face. In the case of Michael McKevitt, the reason for his conviction was less that he ‘directed terrorism’ for the Real IRA but that he did so for the wrong IRA. ‘Directing terrorism’ in one IRA and the terminus is Portlaoise; for directing it in another it is parliament.

One way of framing such discontinuity is through recourse to a Foucauldian paradigm that would contextualise the peace process as a discursive formation. Michael Lewis Goldberg has observed that an established 'discursive formation' is in fact defined by the contradictory discourses it embodies. Because of this it is characterised by a hierarchical arrangement at the apex of which sits the hegemonic discourse, which unites subsidiary and subordinate discourses, fragments oppositional discourses and mediates the relationship between the two. A central plank of this hegemonic discourse is the ‘regime of truth.’ One of its primary functions is, as Keeley claims, to dominate, cover up, and discredit what Foucault terms ‘subjugated knowledges’ such as those that would highlight the fundamental political failure of Provisional republicanism with their claims that each new phase of struggle announced by the Provisional leadership is a rhetorical mask behind which lies a strategic failure. For Foucault, as pointed out by Yang, the regime of truth shapes the types of discourse which society accepts and makes function as true and the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. Whether such truth is accurate is neither here nor there. As Win McCormack observes, ‘in Foucauldian theory it is power, the possession and wielding thereof, that determines what discourse prevails in any given contest, or confrontation, or battle of discourses - and not the relative merit or cleverness of the argument.’ Non-unionists re-designating as unionists in order to fortify the peace process is a truth because the power behind the peace process deigns that it should be so and designates those who query it to the sin bin.

Unfortunately - and from a radical perspective, unpardonably - the left-leaning media have been central to sustaining such a regime. The right by contrast have been more frank although certainly not more insightful. The Left merely pretend not to see what is in front of their noses. But the right too in their fury fail to see the wood for the trees. According to Michael Gove, Gerry Adams gets away with it because ‘the press is so captivated by the bogus theology of the peace process that it treats every ex cathedra utterance of St Gerry as if they were pronouncements of near-papal infallibility. Even when they’re just bull.’ With cooler detachment and stronger perspicacity Kit Kildare has discerned what exactly is bogus: It is not that Adams has set out to con the establishment about his willingness to kill off Provisional republicanism; ‘what fundamentally distorts political coverage of Sinn Fein is a profound inability by journalists to measure how that organisation has fared by light of its own objectives.’ As elucidated by Brian Feeney, republicans have ‘unsaid everything they said in the seventies and eighties and ultimately settled for less than the SDLP got in 1973, which republicans regarded then as a sell out.’ Or alternatively by Ed Moloney:

The journey from war into peace involved, from the Republican view point, enormous ideological flip-flops. These included, to name but a few, accepting the idea that Unionist consent was a precondition for Irish unity and independence, a rejection of one of the foundation stones of Republican philosophy. The peace process also meant and means Republicans accepting institutions they had died and killed to overthrow, from the local parliament to the policing and criminal justice system. It meant and means embracing a system they had once angrily proclaimed was rotten with corruption and beyond reform.

A central concern of Foucauldian analysis is to establish not so much what we know but how, in epistemological terms, we have come to know what we know. Provisional discourse, by virtue of being intermeshed with the broader peace process, has been successful in establishing itself as the hegemonic discourse within republicanism by having the power to produce its own truth, something recently alluded to by Gerry Adams when in promoting his book he described it as ‘my story, my truth, my reality.’ That such a truth, even when it is patent nonsense, can hegemonise republican discourse is in part achieved through the suppression, on occasion violently, of alternative discourses. As a localised hegemonic discourse it has exercised power in the area of setting the agenda for the republican constituency. But it also shapes and approves ‘acceptable language, symbols, modes of reasoning, and conclusions.’ A regime of truth serves it well. For this very reason Sinn Fein can argue via the pen of Jim Gibney:

If there is one big lesson coming out of the peace process over the last ten years, it is words like 'certainty' and 'clarity' are not part of the creative lexicon that conflict resolution requires if it is to be successful … demanding such words causes crisis and paralysis. They clog the peace process engine up with gunge … Give me the language of ambiguity. It has served the people of this country well over the last ten years. It has oiled the engine of the peace process. Long may it continue to do so.

At first glance Gibney’s position would appear to contradict the more general view of Bryan Appleyard that:

we inhabit a culture of lies, the one law of which is that everybody, all the time, must pretend they are telling the truth …We have finally and fully adopted a world view in which there is no such thing as truth, only an infinitely modifiable system of competing discourses.

But Gibney valiantly rides to the rescue of Appleyard, waving his demand that ‘the time has come for the British government to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their dirty war in Ireland.’

There may understandably be a temptation to think the Provisional ‘regime of deceit’ - itself reducible to but not merely synonymous with the regime of truth and which in effect is the corollary of Gibney’s logic - is exclusively located within Provisional discourse primarily as a means to pull the wool over the eyes of the republican constituency. Even where the lie - as often happens - is told to many outside the constituency, it is seemingly accepted - although not believed - by officialdom on the grounds that the Provisional leadership have to indulge in a bit of duplicity when engaging with opponents as part of the process of constituency management where the appearance of pulling the wool over the eyes of the other side is a cause celebre. This approach however, is to displace the role of the lie from its panoptical perch within the broader peace process. The British and Irish governments too have spawned a web of deception. Henry Patterson once referred to Tony Blair’s absurd comment that ‘clarity is our friend in this process, and ambiguity is our enemy.’ Patterson’s’ response was clinical:

That's a statement to which even the most hardened supporter of the peace process must respond: "Really, Prime Minister. Since when?" Ambiguity of the most subtle - and often not-so-subtle - kind has been at the heart of the peace process since the start.

Vicky Allen who recently interviewed Adams was informed by him that, ‘I have often been accused, particularly by my opponents, of being in, or having been in, the IRA. It is a charge I have always rejected. I tell the truth on these matters.’ Allen claims that this ‘seems ‘to mock the peace process’ and she is critical of the belief ‘that if you say something enough it becomes public truth.’ This is to miss the point. Such denials are part of the peace process and do not stand in contravention of it. How else do we explain Bertie Ahern claiming that IRA disavowals should be believed because the organization has a history of telling the truth? Or the situation where Mo Mowlam claims: 'we sat down with Sinn Fein. We sat at one end and they brought in some people who were obviously members of the army council'. Did her political and security advisers so poorly advise her that she believed she was sitting talking to anyone else but the army council before the army council officially appeared?

Not only has the peace process institutionalised the ‘regime of truth’, it has also licensed Provisional republicanism to become a coercive apparatus of power functioning in a milieu where, as Foucault would put it, ‘the whole indefinite domain of the non-conforming is punishable.’ Such a function is considered necessary because of the existence of what Brown has called a ‘structurally determined domination in play where some members of the community may wield more discursive power than others.’ It is further made possible because the republican leadership has rendered itself indispensable to the governments tasked with ending political violence by coming to constitute itself as, what sociologists and international relations specialists term, an ‘epistemic community.’ Drawing on the work of Thomas Ford Brown it is possible to conclude that when Adams exhorts the republican grassroots not to become mesmerised by the tactical manoeuvring of the moment performed by the leadership of a leadership-led movement and subsequently excludes them from the major decision making processes, he is doing little other than staking a claim on the part of those who lead to have specific knowledge which allows them to ‘frame issues and define salient discourse; to shape and narrow potential solutions or outcomes.’ Clearly, there is some measure of power being exercised here not on behalf of the grassroots but against them. As Chomsky contends, ‘you can make things look complicated, that's part of the game that intellectuals play; things must look complicated … it's a way of gaining prestige, power and influence.’

In issues involving some measure of complexity and uncertainty, governments turn to epistemic communities for guidance and ideas. Governments in fact demand such input. In return they provide the epistemic community with resources which, according to one IRA volunteer, in the case of his own leadership becomes one of their most potent weapons - the power of patronage. Furthermore, according to Drake & Nicolaidis an epistemic community must have access to top policy-makers through the establishment of both formal and informal channels. In the view of Antoniadis epistemic communities, by controlling knowledge, possess and exercise decisive power in an “interaction game” of the construction of the political reality. Rather than compelling others, epistemic communities more likely serve to limit the power of opponents by discrediting their definition of the situation, and by discrediting their solutions.

Looking over these characteristics it requires little agility to find points of convergence with the role played by the Provisional leadership in the peace process.

But because Provisional republicanism is tasked with presenting what is in fact a discontinuity of the earlier republican struggle as a continuity of it, the loudest word in its vocabulary is hush. But in order to impose hush there is a need to police the silence. The wider discursive formation, the peace process, silences itself. As Moloney contends how Provisional republicanism came to its present position is one of the least investigated and most unprobed stories of all time. To do this the threat of violence is always there. On occasion the Provisional leadership has resorted to murder, kidnappings, kneecappings, ostracism, threats and intimidation.

This poses a serious threat to the role of dissent not only within republican communities but in wider society. If the most vociferous dissident communities in these islands for decades can be silenced to the point of remaining mute when Sinn Fein ministers close down acute health services on behalf of the British exchequer, what chance is there of effective structures of transparency and dissent emerging elsewhere?

Yet, the useless response of armed republican dissidents has served to reinforce the very discursive formation that has been responsible for marginalising them to begin with. Rather than see the Provisionals as having lost the war, they continue with their fallacious belief that victory was in fact possible if Gerry Adams had not, as they see it, concocted a sell out. Hence they continue with their futile campaign to achieve what the Provisionals found to be unachievable.

The peace process is a powerful discursive formation underpinned from London to Washington. The notion that it can be subverted and reversed by armed groups who display the strategic precision of cattle in a field is anathema to reason. The only space available to those who wish to dissent from the peace process is to employ strategies of reversal which allow them to oppose the process but not the peace.

Throughout the world there exist epistemic communities which are anti-systemic. The challenge facing dissident republicans is one where they avoid reinforcing the epistemic community they so vehemently oppose and instead undermine it by constituting an oppositional epistemic community, seeking to create a new episteme which will draw people rather than repel them. In a political milieu where the Sinn Fein leadership cosy up to the Bush/Blair axis during their war summit at Hillsborough and where the party president attends the World Economic Forum in new York but not the World Social Forum in Brazil, the development of a radical critique which seeks to align with the Global Justice Movement creates discursive space where counter discourses may flourish. Foucault reminds us ‘discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy.’ In his words the real challenge is to:

show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed.





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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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