Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicanism, by Marisa McGlinchey, Manchester University Press, 256 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0719096983
Was I aware of the chronic history of splits in the IRA and the wider republican movement? If I hadn’t been, Sinn Féin chiefs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were anxious to remind me during the most strained period of our negotiations leading to the settlement which in 2007 brought them into shared government with Ian Paisley’s DUP.
It was late in December 2006 and their stance was belligerent. Normally they were professionally tough but personally convivial. Now they threatened to go over my head to Tony Blair and get me sacked. The reason was my insistence that Sinn Féin (and by implication the IRA) sign up to support policing and the rule of law as a necessary part of an agreement.
Paisley had made it personally clear to me that he was up for a power-sharing deal if he could be absolutely sure they would deliver on that. But for him it was a deal-breaker – and quite understandably so, I thought. Sharing government with ‘SinnFéinIRA’ as the DUP always used to call the republicans, was an impossible enough ask without another “Northern Bank”, he insisted, ominously recalling the IRA’s spectacular theft of £26 million in December 2004 shortly after the DUP and Sinn Féin had come the closest yet to a deal.
But I also fully understood why it was a huge step for the republican movement to be associated with the very British law and police force they had long felt oppressed by, albeit importantly in this case devolved to Northern Ireland’s government if we could ever get it established – and thereby not “British” anymore but under Sinn Féin’s partial control through their ministers.
In January 2007 both men undertook a comprehensive programme of meetings with their republican grass roots right across the island of Ireland, determined to persuade them but always aware of the very real danger of splits. By the end Adams looked to me physically exhausted and emotionally drained. But he won the argument, maintained broad republican unity and later sealed the deal with the DUP. In May, McGuinness and Paisley ended up smiling together at Stormont in one of those “it will never happen” moments.
I mention this because – in her compelling and painstakingly researched book – Marisa McGlinchey recalls attending one of these very Sinn Féin meetings in her local West Belfast community in the Clonard Monastery. There she “witnessed heated exchanges as people at the back of the church shouted words like traitor to the Sinn Féin politicians standing on the actual altar”.
Two years later that toxic label was used by McGuinness himself when he condemned as “traitors to the island of Ireland” the small breakaway New IRA and Continuity IRA groups which between them had killed a police constable and two soldiers. As McGlinchey writes: “McGuinness’s comments were widely viewed as a watershed moment in Irish politics” which “evidenced a bitter divide within the contemporary republican world”.
Somehow, she has been able to persuade ninety members of the normally reclusive and clandestine IRA “dissident” groups to give fascinating interviews, which form the core of the book’s invaluable insights for anyone wanting to understand that underworld of paramilitarism. From an SDLP family background, McGlinchey managed to work her way into a relationship of some trust in the notoriously chippy dissident environment, at one point being threatened with arrest by the PSNI because she was spotted consorting with them. “It is a very difficult community to reach. My whole rationale was to get to the psyche of what people call dissident republicans and to me the biggest selling point of this book are the voices that comes through,” McGlinchey told The Irish Times.
She goes to intuitively impressive lengths to root them within a tradition of what she terms “radical republicanism”. An odd label in my view, for what shines out from her narrative is that it is actually fundamentalist republicanism, which has historically never advanced the cause of Irish reunification in the way the sophisticated Adams/McGuinness strategy undoubtedly has. That commentators now even discuss the prospect of a referendum under the Good Friday constitutional process being successful in the next few years is testimony to that.
If that prospect is real, it is mainly because the Irish border always was going to be the Achilles heel of a hard Brexit. Northern Ireland citizens on both sides of the divide value and wish to maintain its hard-won invisibility, apparently even at the price of challenging the Union if that were ever to be the price for keeping it completely open. That the border is invisible is almost entirely due to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the end of the IRA’s military campaign and weapons decommissioning, and the 2007 settlement – all of which were achieved with the buy-in of the much-vilified (by dissidents) Sinn Féin leadership.
And note what this has achieved in the practical terms of daily life:
the different jurisdictions on either side of the border barely matter, and to all intents and purposes the island of Ireland is fast becoming one entity with two systems. The border is completely open and invisible today because there are common rules for trading, services and people movement on both sides.
Tens of thousands of people live on one side and work on the other. Farms straddle it. Some turn left out of their front gate into Northern Ireland and right into the Republic – or the other way around. Often you’ve no idea which jurisdiction you’re in along its 300-mile length with its near-300 crossing points.
Over 100 million person-crossings take place every year. Around 5,000 Northern Ireland companies trade over the border. Worth £3.5 billion, the Republic is Northern Ireland’s biggest export destination outside of the UK.
Over 400,000 lambs and 750 million litres of milk are exported across the border to the Republic of Ireland for processing. There are about 4.6 million lorry crossings a year, along with 22 million car crossings.
Unique arrangements under the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement for north-south co-operation provide no less than 157 different areas of cross-border work and co-operation. Many of them have also been facilitated by the common legal and policy framework under Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s common membership of the European Union since 1973.
These areas of exchange and co-operation are the stuff of everyday life – the precious signs of normality in the post-conflict border region. People cross the border in both directions to go to schools and colleges and hospitals, or to get treatment from GPs and pick up prescriptions. There is systemic, continuous co-operation and common standards over food safety and farming; tourism; specialist schools; fighting crime; tackling environmental pollution; good water quality and supply; effective waste management; common bus and train services; cancer care and blood transfusions; sharing gas and electricity supplies.
McGlinchey argues that “Sinn Féin’s acceptance of the consent principle was a major departure from republican ideology”. I am in no position to contest with so authoritative a scholar about the heology of republicanism. If we are talking about what she labels the “absolutist, purist form of republicanism” of the New IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Real IRA she is almost certainly correct. But to be blunt that is a failed republicanism and in my view always will be. Its politics is akin to the fundamentalism of the global Islamist groups like Al Qaeda or ISIL: sole inheritors of the “creed”, sectarian, marginalised and ultimately self-defeating.
Instead of such impossibilism, for the first time in the history of the IRA there is a practical, achievable route to Irish reunification through the Good Friday Agreement. Yes of course it rests upon democratic consent, and rightly so. But the truth is that there is no alternative for those who want the island of Ireland to be an inclusive constitutional democracy.
These IRA splinter groups are small and isolated in republican-supporting communities. They enjoy nil support on Capitol Hill, where US Congressmen backed by the large and influential Irish-American community granted Adams and McGuinness the quasi-hero status of freedom fighters. The dissidents are also heavily infiltrated by British and Irish intelligence agents. They are infested with criminality, including drug-trafficking to fund their activity. Nevertheless, they are periodically capable of lethal attacks, cruelly highlighted by the despicable murder in April 2019 of the young, hugely respected journalist Lyra McKee.
McGlinchey, locating the dissidents within the long trajectory of Irish republicanism going back to the 1860s, argues that they demonstrate “the cyclical nature of the development of the movement. The central themes of contestation within contemporary radical republicanism – thus principles versus tactics, the ‘slippery slope to constitutionalism’, fears of ‘sellout’, and the ethics and morality of an armed campaign in current conditions – have remained consistent throughout Irish history.”
In that context, the author argues: “The Irish peace process has been transported around the world as a model process; however, the issue of ‘dissident’ Irish republicanism is not one that will ‘go away’ and constitutes the ‘unfinished business’ of Irish republicanism.”
What is not clear to me, however, is what would actually constitute “finished business” for these groups? For them conflict and “the struggle” – either with the Brits or with each other – seem to be ends in themselves. McGlinchey’s otherwise formidable analysis doesn’t really address this question, her framework being more one of the fundamentalists versus the “traitorous” republicanism of Adams/McGuiness, now McDonald/O’Neill. Surely any objective judgement would award the prize for actually advancing republicanism’s objectives – rather than purist posturing on the sidelines – to the latter?
Much more important however is the “unfinished business” of the Good Friday Agreement. The UK Tory government has consistently sided with the unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, under successive Tory secretaries of state since 2010. A notable exception was Julian Smith, who to his great credit “got” – and was respected by all the parties in – Northern Ireland (and promptly got sacked by Boris Johnson for succeeding in getting Stormont restored where his predecessors had failed). Tory prime ministers and their secretaries of state must speedily revert to the stance under Labour of being “honest brokers”, not partisans for unionism or any other party to the Northern Ireland divisions.
That was the only way over ten hard years that Tony Blair achieved and sustained the Good Friday peace process to that decisive breakthrough in 2007. It was also the only way I helped persuade the high priest of unionism, Ian Paisley, to share power with his bitter enemy and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness. Neither of those later-to-be improbable “chuckle brothers” had ever exchanged a word before the DUP-Sinn Féin agreement was sealed. So both sides had to trust Tony Blair and I to be even-handed in transmitting messages and interpreting negotiating stances.
Unless the British restore such “honest brokerage” to the process, the path ahead will be bumpy and, by undermining republican adherence to the democratic politics on both sides of the border, may even give extra oxygen to the dissident paramilitaries and vindicate Marisa McGlinchey’s conclusion that they “are set to remain a permanent feature of the Irish political landscape”.
Either way her book will remain of seminal importance.
Lord Hain was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007. He has published a memoir, Outside In (Biteback Books) and a biography, Mandela: His Essential Life (Rowman & Littlefield). His new book with André Odendaal, Pitch Battles: Protest, Prejudice and Play (Rowman & Littlefield), deals with sport, politics and apartheid South Africa and will be published in October.