Sunday 6 June 2010

The Republican illusion

The description by others, and by itself, of Sinn Féin as a ‘republican’ party is only partially accurate – and reflects only a minor and unimportant part of that party’s policies.

In fact, in terms of actual republican values, the SDLP is a more republican party:

The SDLP's vision is a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.

As the party of civil rights, the SDLP is working for an Ireland free from poverty, prejudice and injustice; a vibrant country of energy, enterprise and endeavour, where economic prosperity delivers better public services and greater opportunities for all.

The SDLP wants to build an Ireland where conflict, violence and sectarianism become footnotes to our past; where reconciliation, equality and inclusion are chapter headings in the new story we will write together. We will build a better Ireland where we truly cherish all the children of the nation equally.

The SDLP wants this generation and those that will follow to live in an Ireland that stands tall in the world as a champion of global justice, environmental protection & sustainable development; an Ireland that stands out as a beacon of hope for peace, democracy, human rights and respect for diversity.

Yet the media refer to Sinn Féin as the republican party, and the SDLP as nationalist. The reality is probably the inverse.

Sinn Féin’s self description is focussed on the achievement of the nationalist project:
For 100 years now Sinn Féin has been to the forefront of bringing about change in Ireland. Republicans and Socialists from Constance Markievicz, James Connolly and Liam Mellows to Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Joe Cahill have brought us closer to our goal of Irish unity and independence. Today’s generation of republicans continue that work.
The SDLP’s self-description, though also couched in the context of Irish reunification, talks much more about the type of society that it wishes to see in the new Ireland – and that society is one that is republican in the true sense.

Ironically, the aims of republicanism and Irish nationalism are unconnected, despite their popular conflation. It is not necessary to be a nationalist to be a republican – some unionists like Alex Kane are openly republican in relation to the UK constitution – and in almost all practical terms the UK is itself a republic. The residual existence of a largely powerless monarch blinds many in Britain to the fact that their country is a de facto republic.

But whether or not the UK complies with 99% of the republican agenda (the other 1% is the monarch and the undemocratic House of Lords), Irish nationalists still do not feel themselves to be a part of it, and continue to aspire to reunite their country as a single democratic republic.

In that sense both the SDLP and Sinn Féin are actually nationalist parties, but the SDLP is a republican nationalist party, while Sinn Féin is simply a nationalist party.

This distinction is not unimportant. From outside Irish nationalism may look quite monolithic (the famous pan-nationalist front of unionist paranoia), but the reality is that there are as many different and competing strands within nationalism as anywhere else. For many people, while it is important that Ireland is reunited and sovereign, the achievement of these objectives is not in itself sufficient. A repressively Catholic Ireland, or an economically-illiterate Ireland, or an inward-looking insular Ireland, are not what most true republicans want, and any political movement that promotes one is doubly unhelpful to the cause – because that party would lose the support of many true republicans, and because that party would be unable to attract the support of those outside the traditional nationalist camp.

Many commenters have pointed out the obvious truth that Sinn Féin is essentially a Catholic nationalist party, and one that remains closely associated with the 30 years of war that Northern Ireland endured. Most resign themselves to the inevitable continuation of Sinn Féin and its seemingly inexorable usurpation of the lion’s share of the nationalist vote. Few – bar the dissident republicans, who exclude themselves from normal political discourse by their continued support for political violence – dare to think the unthinkable, or to say it out loud: Sinn Féin, its history, its members, its methods and its policies, are part of the problem.

For Irish nationalism to succeed in its project – and for that project to have been worth the effort – it must be a truly republican project, and as things stand at present Sinn Féin is not.

The future of the Irish nationalist project is less certain as Sinn Féin gains in strength. The chance of attracting (ex-)unionist support drops to zero, and even Irish nationalist republicans may drift away into apathy.

Sinn Féin is not sacrosanct. It is a political vehicle that succeeded earlier vehicles – the Redmondites, the Parnellites, the Fenians, the United Irishmen … Just as parties or movements grow, they decline and are replaced by others more suited to their times. Sinn Féin’s time has passed, and it is time for Irish republicans to create a new republican party that is neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP. The latter, though republican in policy is ineffectual in practice. This is something that some SDLP members have clearly realised (including the unfortunate Declan O’Loan).

It is time for Irish republicans to start to create a truly republican party – one that robustly supports democracy, inclusion, fairness, tolerance, the rule of law, and that creates the conditions that allow all citizens to enjoy a full and worthwhile life. Of course all parties pay lip-service to such values, but a truly republican party would actually practice them.

Let a new party arise – a party that unites Catholic, Protestant, dissenter, atheist and all others is a common endeavour. Let the rump of Sinn Féin co-exist, if for no other reason that to emphasise the difference. And then let the battle of ideas commence.


Nordie Northsider said...

Some rarely-heard truths in there, Horseman. Another aspect of the story is that neither Northern party, nor indeed Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, have stood up to the dominance of the Churches in Irish society. No Republican can be happy about the Catholic Church running schools and hospitals or about citizens being compelled to feign religious belief in order to practice certain professions. Too much of secular Republicanism has been ceded to the Stickies/old Labour Party.

Anonymous said...

Food for thought. I suspect an economically illiterate SF will never be allowed too near real power by Irish people anyway either.

Although I personally can't see people in NI voting according to any other principle than orange or green for at least a generation myself, something new that appeals to all across the board north and south would be interesting.

Do you have a party in mind Horseman?

Anonymous said...

One of your finest ever posts and one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Enough with the "Ourselves Alone" and time for All Of Us.

However, for this to happen only in N.I. and to leave the politics of the South still stuck in its post civil war rigidity would be of questionable use.

The word republican may be too freighted with baggage this side of the UK ever going the last 1%. Some new brands are needed. Liberal is one I'd have no problem with, especially if it involved a decisive separation of church and state.

Such a party would have considerably more appeal across traditional divides than Sinn Fein is ever likely to.

andrewg said...

You've hit gold here. Sinn Féin is not republican in any sense that would be recognised in the outside world. Like everything else in NI, words have been twisted out of their original meaning and used as shorthand for other things. I have heard it similarly (and convincingly) argued that Fianna Fáil aren't republican either. Unfortunately therefore, if you called any new party "the real republican party" or some such it would be immediately misunderstood. Probably best to leave the R word out of it.

I'd be interested to see you expand more on what you propose. Do you see this as a "nationalist unity" project, or something with more cross-community appeal? I suspect the former, given your track record, but am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Horseman said...


Do you have a party in mind Horseman?

No, unfortunately. I don't think that there is a real republican party on the island. Some talk the talk (the SDLP talk is particularly good), but fail to walk the walk (including the SDLP!)

Personally, I would like to see a new party, truly republican in policy (though, as andrewg correctly points out, it may need to leave the word 'republican' out of its name)

And, andrewg, it would be essential for such a party to be cross-community (in the religious sense), otherwise it couldn't be a really republican party.

I'm not in favour of 'nationalist unity' (or unionist unity, for that matter), so while I would like a new better republican party, there will need to be other competing voices - socialists, old-fashioned Catholic nationalists, etc - as well as unionists. But the 'new party' would need to be better than them - visibly so. And it would need to be committed to bringing Catholic, Protestant and everyone else together in a movement to improve the quality of all of our lives. You could say that that sounds like the Alliance Party, but I don't think so - it can only work if it is a genuine mass party, not a small group of middleclass do-gooders (sorry for the characterisation, but you know what I mean). Plus I strongly disagree with Alliance's agnosticism on the border - it is bad and needs to go, and the new party should not be afraid to say so, and say it strongly. If its arguments are convincing then t will start to win (ex-unionist support - made all the easier if the party is genuinely committed to everyone's well-being.

There are a range of issues that would need to be tackled (abstentionism is one), but surely it is time to start discussing the future rather than the past.

Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally,

Horseman, cant really agree with that analysis. The term Republican has a specific meaning in Ireland and a very specific meaning in Northern Ireland which is probably best summarised as believing that Unificiation (of people and land) is the political priority .

By this stage of the proceeedings you should know better than to believe all that you read about a particular party especially when it is written by that party - and it sounds very much like the stuff SF used to write about themselves in those dreadful Eire Nua pamphlets.

I think you are just tripping youself up over your semantic shoelaces and over romanticising the good oul days back in '98.

Horseman said...

Sammy Mc Nally,

If the 'particular party' is the SDLP, then don't worry - I don't believe there is any substance behind its rhetoric. I just think that its rhetoric comes closer to real republicanism than SF's does. As you can see, I don't actually think any of the alternatives are actually very republican (in the wider sense, not the Irish sense).

And, although this too sounds too much like SDLP-speak, do you not think that a genuinely inclusive republican party has a better chance of unifying both the people and the land? I do.

andrewg said...


You were doing so well, and then...

Plus I strongly disagree with Alliance's agnosticism on the border - it is bad and needs to go, and the new party should not be afraid to say so, and say it strongly.

That's pretty much the definition of a nationalist unity project, and I expected you to say that given the general thrust of this blog. If, as you claim, you want to attract unionists to your new cause, you'll need to show some flexibility on exactly this issue.

Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally says,

"And, although this too sounds too much like SDLP-speak, do you not think that a genuinely inclusive republican party has a better chance of unifying both the people and the land? I do."

What does that translate into on the ground? I have just been arguing over on Slugger O Toole that SF and the SDLP should push to drop the Irish anthem and flag at rugby matches to show generosity of spirit with probably the best example of an all ireland instutution that works really well. The problem is coming up with policies thar are inclusive that dont piss off your 'base'. Any ideas?

Horseman said...


Sorry if you misunderstood me, but when I say we need a better republican party, the 'we' is the Irish nation. The aim is to create a better ireland, not to retain the ridiculous division of the country.

But I want us to do it in agreement, and with (ex-)unionists fairly happy and feeling involved and included. For that we need an inclusive party, one that respects everyones rights and aspirations - but that has the aim of building a majority for the reunification of the country.

Of course this is part of a 'national unity' (rather than 'nationalist unity') project. That is this blog's aim, after all!

Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally says

RE. "Of course this is part of a 'national unity' (rather than 'nationalist unity') project"

Horseman, what did I just tell you about semantics and shoelaces?

shane said...

Republicans need to stop automatically associating national conflicts with class conflicts. We need a Republicanism which is not socialist. I am sick of a left-wing agenda dominating Republicanism.

Also it's pretty poor order for Republicans like Sinn Fein to be promoting Basque separatism in Ireland (note how so many Shinners wave the Basque flag and maintain links with Basque Nationalists). Ditto the solidarity movements with Britanny, Catalonia, Quebec and even Palestine (...the fraternal links with Cuba, a Communist dictatorship, are an absolute disgrace). While I actually support the independence of these territories, politics is the art of the possible; all Sinn Fein are doing is alienating potential supporters who might see strategic advantage in an unitary independent Ireland; like the CIA, who historically saw it as a good way to bring all of Ireland under NATO. The United States or other governments are never going to give support to Irish Republicans if they are also supporting transnational separatism or socialistic movements.

Anonymous said...

"Horseman said...

Personally, I would like to see a new party, truly republican in policy "

Thanks for the response. The solution that seems to be staring us in the face- especially given that there are a fair few like minded people reading this blog- would be to set up a party according to the principles discussed here. My hope would be it could be:

-A party that is resolutely secular; to the extent of making a point of wanting to remove the Catholic grip on schooling in northern and southern Ireland- there is no better opportunity given the present circumstances to push for this.

-A party with a coherent economic strategy for Ireland; personally I favour the Scandinavian model but it would be important to include plenty of incentives for the private sector (which the RoI employed to such good effect in recent years). But what's most important is to attract intelligent, qualified people who could debate what this economic strategy would be.

-A party committed to parity of esteem for every ethnicity in Ireland. That would mean "republicans" biting their lip and supporting Ulster Scots; it means something to some Irish people and for that reason deserves respect. Gaeilge goes without saying. But Polish, Chinese, Hindi etc. etc. should be accounted for in a new Ireland too.

-In this day and age it wouldn't hurt to have a party with well thought through policies on the environment, transport and energy. Is nuclear a viable option in the absence of renewable alternatives? Should we make use of natural resources e.g. lignite, which would give an element of self sufficiency for electricity generation and create local jobs, but with the drawbacks of this fuel taken into consideration? Should we invest in an electric rail network around Ireland, rather than the dirty slow diesel network we presently have? But again, the important thing is to have strong ideas that people can get behind.

-And, in my opinion, a non-aligned, neutral foreign policy would be preferable to alliances with countries that like unpopular middle eastern escapades.

I agree that "nationalist" and "republican" would need to be purged from this new party's manifesto. I expect at least some of my opinions here to be disagreed with, but as a sounding board for ideas this blog is as good a place as any.

Anonymous said...

Sinn Féin is a republican party at core. I love your fantasy about the SDLP being a republican party and your skill in arguing that the UK is 99% a republic. Pure theatre.

A large part of me wanted just to express my admiration for your sophistry and not devalue that with an alternative view.

I have to say as someone who has and does work on SF campaigns in the South, my biggest disappointment was when SF colluded to "do" the DUP in supporting Alliance re designating as "unionist". It may have been good politics, but it was not democracy. The one thing I have always found about SF is that it is democratic. The SDLP and Alliance colluded in that undemocratic and disingenuous act as well.

Given that a republican is someone who wants a functioning democracy, an elected government and head of state, citizen's rights etc., I find it hard to take the SDLP as a republican party. They have always been more about accepting crumbs from the master's table than about asserting rights. 3 members of this "republican party" gave an oath of allegiance to "her Majesty the Queen" a few days ago, but an SDLP man who suggested co-operation with another republican party had the party whip taken away.

Ur 'avin a laff 'Orseman!

But your writing is still brilliant.

Ciaran said...

Perhaps SF and the SDLP *together* would cover all the bases?