Tag Archives: United Irishmen

Martin McGuinness & dispelling sectarianism

On my way back to Dublin with a parcel of other 13-year-olds from a three-month stay in the Gweedore Gaeltacht in 1961, I paid my first visit to Derry to switch from bus to train.

Even for a boy who was well used to seeing the Dublin tenements, Derry was like something out of the distant past. No sign of development or modernisation but all the signs of poverty. I particularly remember a street of single-storey cottages of the sort featured in old photos of 19th century evictions, maybe mud-walled. Hovels. Ragged children, and ragged mothers. Another country.

My parents had told me about that other country. During the war, freshly married and with no ready employment in Dublin, my father had got work with Thompson & Nutt’s motor works in Garvagh in Derry, reconditioning truck bodies at a time when no new trucks were available because of the war effort.

Son of a 1916 Volunteer, and a committed republican, he worked with a mainly Protestant work-force without any problems at all. When he was the subject of a serious external death-threat, it was his Protestant workmates who sent out the message that not a hair on his head was to be touched, and that was the end of the matter.

He stayed in touch with Thompson, Nutt and his workmates for decades after, and he and my mother made regular trips north of the border from then on.

So, they made sure their children knew from an early age what the set-up in the Protestant State for a Protestant people was, and the conditions I saw in Derry in 1961 confirmed that there was no place at the table for Catholic nationalists.

The six-counties didn’t have to be a sectarian state. That was a choice, and it wasn’t made just by six-county unionists, it was a choice made in Westminster, and sustained by Westminster. And it was a choice made in Dublin and sustained through studied neglect by Dublin. Better a hegemonic conservative Catholic 26-county state than a 32-county state in which Protestants would have to be accommodated.

When the civil rights marchers were assaulted by the RUC and Loyalists at Burntollet Bridge in 1969, no surprise. When Sammy Devenney died as a result of a gratuitous beating from the RUC in Derry, no surprise. When Bombay Street in Belfast was burned to the ground in the same year by a Loyalist mob with RUC support and we had a refugee family living with us in a normal three-bedroomed house in Dublin, no surprise. When Harold Wilson sent in the British Army and it turned on the nationalist community, no surprise. When that army slaughtered civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry, no surprise. When internment of nationalists, and torture, were carried out, no surprise. When the RUC, British Army and Loyalists colluded in the murders of nationalists, no surprise. When the Orange Order repeatedly paraded their bigotry on the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree Church year after year, without state sanction, no surprise.

When Martin McGuinness and others stood up to that repression having, of necessity, armed themselves to defend their people, no surprise.

And there is no surprise either in the brutality that ensued. That is war, wherever it occurs, and civilians always bear the brunt of it. The real crime is that it lasted for decades. That was the politics of failure. Or, more exactly, it was the politics of imperialist obduracy. Westminster was going to beat Irish nationalists back come hell or high water. Hell came and went, and high water too, but the republican movement was still standing its ground, still undefeated but without the possibility of fighting the sort of decisive battle that would drive the obdurate imperialists from Ireland. And even if that had been possible, full-blown civil war would have ensued, and the imperialists would have stoked that. They have form on this island in doing that.

Stalemate is not a solution. Achieving your ultimate ambition is a solution. For republicans, that ambition is the establishment of a true 32-county republic.

Every year republicans go to Bodenstown, to the grave of Wolfe Tone, one of the principal architects of Irish republicanism. They don’t go as a single body of republicans, but in separate groups because they have fallen out with one another. Internecine disputes become more important than realising the republican ambition.

Wolfe Tone, and the other Protestant men who founded the republican movement in Ireland, left a fundamental tenet of republicanism for us to follow. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”.

There is no other way to create a true republic encompassing all of this island than by following that tenet. No republican could over-ride the will of unionists by imposing a republic on them without their assent. No republican could even contemplate expelling the unionist population from the land so as to create a republic. If they did either of those things it would be self-defeating. It would not be a republic. It is therefore necessary to persuade unionists that they have nothing to fear from the sort of republic that their Protestant ancestors laid out in Belfast in 1791, but that they have much to gain from it.

That is the project that Martin McGuinness and the rest of the willing republican leadership and rank-and-file set out on over two decades ago. Others had and have a right to a different opinion and a right to resile from that decision. Many of us have had to swallow very hard when symbolic gestures were made by republicans that went against the grain, other than as part of an overall strategy of moving towards a ‘brotherhood of affection’, or to put it the other way a ’parity of esteem’.

As Sinn Féin engaged with the political process, the party was rightly criticised for not being sufficiently ‘of the left’. Republicanism is intrinsically of the left. James Connolly stated that to be republican was to be socialist and to be socialist was to be republican, that the two are the same in terms of the social, economic and political outcomes that they should produce if they are true to their doctrines.

But political progress depends on public support, and the fact is that on either side of the border the population is conservative in outlook and cautious in the face of change, the result of a century and more of exposure to right-wing, anti-republican, anti-socialist propaganda from church, state and press. Many of the social and economic problems that people on both sides of the border endure would be solved by the left, but still the left struggles for support.

One reason for that is the presence of often bitter internecine disputes across the left, between socialists and republicans but also within socialism and republicanism. The right unites to hold power, the left fractures all over the place to avoid power. Another crucial reason is the absence of any form of progressive national media, not just now but since the imposition of partition and the creation of two sectarian states. Solving the latter is probably far easier than solving the former.

Has progress been made north of the border over the past two decades? Have attitudes changed? Has sectarianism diminished? Have the two sides moved towards better accommodating one another? Has Brexit made a difference to the question of the border? Could Scottish independence play a part in moving the border question on? Would the English ditch the six-counties to concentrate on their own post-Brexit situation? Has the 26-county political class been forced to engage with the border question in a realistic way for the first time since 1922? Is it within the left’s capability, republican and socialist, to make significant political advances over the next five or ten years on either side of the ridiculous border? Is it more possible than it was twenty years ago to imagine that republican vision that Tone and the other Protestant republicans had, coming into being?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is yes.

Are we significantly closer to “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”?


His detractors will not acknowledge Martin McGuinness’s contribution to that progress, but I do.

That snapshot I saw of a filthy sectarian six-county state in 1961, and the filthy sectarian 26-county state that I was going home to, are memories.

It is a very different country.

And I am grateful for that.

Work done, Martin McGuinness. Rest in peace.

Work to do, for the rest of us.

Create the Republic to Unify the People

A conundrum that seems to beset some Irish republicans concerns both the Irish Republic and reunification of the island, and the issue of which of these must come first. Some argue that the republic can only exist in a unified 32 County Irish State. They most often use the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as justification for that stance, but to do so allows Britain, or more precisely the English establishment, to maintain a semi-permanent barrier to both the republic and reunification by continuing to manipulate public opinion in the Six Counties, and political opinion, and consequently public opinion, in the 26 Counties.

The Proclamation states ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people’. Adopting the approach to resolving the conundrum of ‘republic first or unification first?’ that is suggested in this article does not alter that declaration one jot, or the desire that is evidently present among a significant majority of the Irish people that it should so come to pass.

It is an unfortunate, inescapable fact that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, imposed under threat of terrible war, partitioned Ireland by creating a border between the six north-eastern counties and the rest of the island. Despite the desire of a majority of the people on this island ever since to see the border removed, and despite almost three decades of war between the republican movement and Britain in the most recent campaign, there has been no change to the territorial status of either entity.

It has suited the political class north and south of the border to maintain this status quo. In the north, unionist domination of a nationalist minority prevailed from partition to the Good Friday Agreement when its worst aspects were ameliorated, while in the south what was effectively an ultra-conservative Catholic State was maintained through from 1922 to the 1990s when it finally morphed into a full-blown plutarchy, a combination of plutocracy and oligarchy – never a republic, despite the spurious description. This situation allowed for a carving up of political, administrative and professional posts along sectarian lines on either side of the border, and allowed for two entities in which right-wing regressive policies could be pursued, benefiting the upper middle class, large farmers and business, and the wealthy in both societies.

To any rational mind, the border must have seemed, from the outset, a ridiculous concept – unless the selfish interests of the English establishment and local self-interest in both parts of Ireland demanded the suspension of rational thought. For the English, the border provided a way to weaken any prospect of an independent Irish economy threatening British economic interests. For the northern unionists, the border provided the means by which the Unionist Party could maintain its hold on power, its dispensing of privilege and therefore wealth on a social class basis, and its domination of an antagonistic minority –  northern nationalists including republicans. For the southern political class, from independence through to today, the border allowed for the creation of a hegemonic capitalist state aided by an extreme form of the Catholic church, organised along ultramontanist lines, whose use to the political class was, among other things, its capacity and determination to inculcate obedience to authority into the citizens of the state, the vast majority of whom were Catholics, and its absolute rejection of the validity of either socialism or republicanism which suited the interests of the political, professional and business ‘elite’.

What partition has given us today is a small island with a contrived, porous border that distorts the political, social and economic life of both entities, demands two separate civil administrations and a duplication of the full range of public services, operates with two different currencies and tax systems, and two often very different legal systems and sets of legislation and regulation. That porous border creates a black economy on both sides, damaging local business and farming interests, diminishing tax revenue receipts, and thereby cumulatively affecting employment and economic expansion. It separates cities, towns and villages from their natural hinterlands. But worst of all, that border has divided the Irish people, not just northern Protestants and Dissenters from their southern Catholic counterparts, but as the recent presidential debates in the South showed, the citizens of the 26 Counties from those ‘north of the border’. Over the past 90 years partitionist thinking, and suspicion of the ‘other’ has become embedded among elements on both sides of the border.

In those circumstances, getting rid of that border so as to reunify the island is impossible in the short term, highly unlikely in the medium term and problematic in the long term – as long as the status quo in both parts of the island remains more or less the same. What would change that is a radical transformation in either or both parts of the island. There has been change north of the border in recent years, not enough to satisfy some, but it is incremental and reasonably progressive. If the North wrests economic independence from Whitehall that could speed up the rate of change. But south of the border, despite the virtual annihilation of Fianna Fáil at the recent general election, no change. The emperor is dead, long live the emperor. The right-wing political hegemony persists, albeit wearing the fig-leaf of Labour Party participation in a government determined to follow the diktats of the Goldman Sachs dominated EU.

If those ‘republicans’ who insist on no Irish Republic prior to the eradication of the border have their way, then not only will the border stay put for a very long time, but the 26 Counties will likely remain a hegemonic right-wing plutarchy. If the border is an absurdity, then equally absurd is the belief that a northern unionist, or a northern nationalist for that matter, would want to be part of such a corrupt, regressive plutarchy as is the southern state, that falsely describes itself as a republic when it is patently not.

There is a way of speeding up the whole process. It involves a radical transformation that lies within the collective power of the citizens of the southern state to achieve, if they have a mind to do it. Given the on-going destruction of our economy and with it the extreme social disruption that that has caused a sufficient number of citizens may be much more amenable to consider radical options than they might have been in the past. That way of speeding up transformational change is to put back into place in the 26 Counties the Irish Republic as outlined in the Proclamation of 1916, ratified in the Declaration of the first Dáil in 1919, and in suspension since the passing into law of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922.

In the history of the independent Irish state there has never been a more auspicious time to place the Irish Republic on the table as a major part of the process of reunifying the people of this small island. The election of a new president whose main election pledge was to work towards creating for the first time since independence a ‘true republic’ provides one opening for discussing what the Irish Republic outlined in paragraph four of the Proclamation might offer, not just to the citizens of the southern state, but to the people of the island as a whole. A series of centenaries of key moments and events in modern Irish history will occur over the next four years which will inevitably involve consideration of the various ‘isms’ – nationalism and unionism, republicanism and socialism, feminism, sectarianism, and so on.

In considering these things, it will be important to go further back in history, to the late 18th century and to the aims and objectives of the Society of the United Irishmen, and the Society’s origins among Protestants and Dissenters, mainly in the northeast of the island. Arising out of that, the imp of sectarianism will need to be confronted, and its origins in the machinations of the English coloniser , acknowledged in paragraph four of the Proclamation. In other words, the English succeeded through fomenting sectarianism from 1795 using the newly created Orange Order to turn the importers into Ireland of Enlightenment republicanism, Protestants and Dissenters, into becoming unionists, dividing them in the process from the Catholic majority. There lies the origins of partition.

The ethos of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic springs directly from the ethos of the United Irishmen of – “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”. Written in the main by Protestants and Dissenters, it is echoed in the text of paragraph four of the Proclamation, updated to address Irish women as well as Irish men – ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’. No better guarantee of Liberty, Equality and Community than this to be found, and it is a legacy left by the Protestants and Dissenters – and Catholics – of the 18th century to all of the people of the island today.

None of the above should be taken to imply that the process of bringing the northern unionist population to consider the potential of having direct input into the shaping of a new republic will be simple or easy. There is the central question of personal and national identity, no simple thing to deal with in any community. Understanding why and how unionism in its modern maifestation came into being and how it was developed through to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and beyond, and whether its central aim can be realised at a time when the British government is implicitly showing a willingness to disengage from the northern state for, of course, its own selfish reasons, can and should be explored during the centenary of the Ulster Covenant in 2012. The question to be asked of Ulster unionists is what ‘ism’ will replace unionism if the link with Britain is substantially broken, as it will be.

Ulster unionists are descended substantially from the Plantation of Ulster by mainly Scottish ‘settlers’ imposed by the English on lands owned by the indigenous Irish people. The Protestant people of the six counties are most often described as ‘Ulster-Scots’. It is well worth exploring the possibilities of forging a strong alliance between an independent Scotland – with the possibility that it will be a Scottish Republic – and a 32 county Irish Republic,  and of this connection being the source of a realignment of the main source of identity for northern unionists while simultaneously acknowledging the very strong connection over thousands of years between the people of Scotland and the people of Ireland. Such a solution, part of a very progressive Green Party policy document on resolving the conflict in the north in the mid 1990s, that regrettably fell at the last hurdle of ratification by the party, would represent a win-win solution for Irish nationalists and unionists and for Scottish nationalists and unionists.

How to engage Ulster unionists in the process of dismantling an absurd border? The answer lies in demonstrating serious intent to construct in the 26 counties a true republic that protects religious and civil liberties, that aims to create the conditions not just for prosperity for its citizens but their happiness too, that guarantees to treat all citizens equally and in a just and fair manner, and that sees all of the children of the nation – all of them – as the greatest resource for the future, to be encouraged and fostered in their development to full citizenship through progressive and enlightened policies.

The greatest prize for the republic would be the active participation in all decision-making and implementation of policy of the people of the six north-eastern counties, Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter and people of other religions and none, with their particular attributes and characteristics adding to the governance of a republic owned by its citizens for the benefit of all and the exclusion of none. When those voices from the north are part of a national parliament and administration the revolution will be complete, and the vision of the United Irishmen, kept alive by the revolutionaries of 1916 in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, can at last be realised.

The conundrum resolved, and important work to be done. The prize is worth it. Let’s start talking.

Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 2

By the time the American and French revolutions had taken place at the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland had been dominated by the English for half a millennium.  Substantial parts of the island, especially the north-eastern area, had been planted with Protestant and Presbyterian settlers from Britain. The Treaty of Limerick had turned Protestants into first class citizens, Non-Conformists into second-class, and Catholics into non-citizens and the subject of Penal Laws.

Parliament was reserved for the Protestant landlord class, who controlled, according to Wolfe Tone ‘…five-sixths of the landed property of the nation…the quiet enjoyment of the church, the law, the revenue, the army, the navy, the magistracy, the corporations – in a word, of the whole patronage of Ireland.’

Although there were twice as many Dissenters (mainly Presbyterians) as Protestants, they did not enjoy the same privileges, and were engaged mainly in farming and manufacturing, centred principally in Antrim and Down.  The Dissenters had supported the American Revolution and saw, both in it and in the French Revolution, the model which they could adopt and, by uniting with their Catholic fellow-countrymen, create an independent democratic secular republic.

A growing number of radical intellectuals in Dublin who were also informed by Enlightenment ideas and excited by developments in Europe and in America, including Thomas Russell, William Drennan, Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone, began to formulate a  political philosophy which was grounded on modern democratic principles.

Wolfe Tone’s pamphlet An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland helped convince the northern Dissenters of the possibility of common cause.  In October 1991 Tone was in Belfast to assist in the formation of the first United Irishmen’s club, and a short while later formed a club in Dublin. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”. By 1797 records show that the United Irishmen had 128,000 sworn members spread mainly across nine counties.

The society was legal until 1794 when it was finally suppressed by the government, but it continued to operate underground.  By now, its well organised propaganda campaigns had succeeded in politicising the population at large, and the British were very well aware that the unity of purpose between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter looked set to threaten its carefully worked out project of colonising, dominating, and eventually assimilating Ireland. A reaction to this was necessary.

In the north, in 1795, the Protestant Orange Order emerged.  Members quickly took up positions in large numbers in the yeomanry, whose function was to supplement the military arm of government at local level. This could not have happened so quickly without the government’s consent, or more likely encouragement.

The second event of significance in 1795 was the founding of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth which cemented relations between the Roman Catholic church and Dublin Castle.  The French Revolution and the closure of seminaries there had cut off the supply of priests, just as the Catholic population in Ireland was expanding.  The fear was that if those seminaries were to reopen in the future, then young seminarians who were sent there for their education might pick up bad revolutionary habits.

That is the basis of the paradox that has beset Irish republicanism, the weaning away of the very people who might most consciously adhere to the ideals of republicanism – the Protestants and Dissenters, and the beginnings of a new brand of Catholicism known as Ultramontanism in Ireland.

Ultramontane Catholicism puts an emphasis on the supremacy of the Pope over local spiritual leaders such as Bishops, but also over rulers and governments. The British had never been able to subdue the rebellious Catholic Irish, the intention now was that the Pope and his bishops and priests in Ireland would take over that task, and that Maynooth College would turn out the new brand of priest with a new authoritarianism and a sectarian message which had not been explicit in the old semi-autonomous Irish Catholic  Church.

So there is the double wedge that the British government used to destroy the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the banner of Irish republicanism. We live with the consequences of that to this day.

What was it that Wolfe Tone said? It was“England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”.

It is not that the English, or more properly the British, were done with that double act in Ireland. It became the standard British policy all around the world in every country that the emerging British Empire colonised – ‘Divide and Conquer’. The effects of setting tribe against tribe, religion against religion, do not disappear when the coloniser leaves, or in the case of Ireland, leaves partially. The negative, destructive, destabilising consequences live on and on with lethal outcomes.

Despite all that the British did to destroy Irish republicanism it survived and adopted to new ‘isms’ – nationalism, socialism, feminism – and absorbed them into the movement’s evolving ideals, the best expression of which is to be found in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. There is a line in paragraph four of the Proclamation which refers back to the events of 1795 and the British manipulation of Irish society for its own ends – “…oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past“.

There is more, of course to this story. It will be continued.

Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 1

In Ireland, and abroad, Irish  republicanism and Irish nationalism are often taken to be interchangeable terms, and both are frequently assumed to be the preserve of catholic Ireland. These assumptions are incorrect, and are damaging to the prospects of reunifying the island of Ireland through reconciling the people of Ireland with one another across religious and political divides.

Irish nationalism is motivated by by a love of Irish culture, history, language but not necessarily, historically, by a demand for national independence from English/British domination. Those who pushed for Home Rule described themselves as nationalists, and were content to seek autonomy but not a break with rule from Westminster and the British monarch as Head of State. Even Patrick Pearse, who pushed for Home Rule before he came around to republicanism, was in favour of independence from Britain but with the German Kaiser’s son as constitutional monarch of Ireland. Arthur Griffith, a committed nationalist, proposed that Ireland be independent from Britain but that it would share the British monarch.

Irish republicanism, from its first incarnation in Ireland in the 1790s through to today, is based on the demand that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. That republican ideal comes straight from the European Enlightenment and particularly from the French Revolution and its ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

What republicans share with nationalists is a love for Irish culture, history and language. Where they differ is in their ideal of a unified Irish republic, and in terms of the right-left political divide. Republicans by the nature of their ideology tend to be left-wing, whereas nationalists tend to be conservative ranging from the political centre to the right – and sometimes to the extremes of the right.

Republicans are, by the nature of their ideology, often avowedly secularist and certainly anti-sectarian. Nationalism, while containing a cohort of Protestants at various stages, tends to be widespread among Catholics, and indeed the Irish Catholic Church has associated itself strongly with nationalism while reviling republicanism at all stages since the 1790s. That outright rejection of republicanism is one that the Church shares with Unionism, which itself is mainly Protestant and is an expression of a different nationalism – a far more extreme British nationalism than most English, Welsh or Scottish nationalists would express, or even understand.

While the Catholic Church’s rejection of republicanism is in a way understandable – the Church is after all monarchical itself, the rejection of republicanism by Northern Protestants, who tend to be non-conformists (Dissenters) – Presbyterians and Methodists, is paradoxical. After all, the American Revolution, fueled in the main by non-conformists, did not set up an alternative monarchy, but a republic. And when republicanism was introduced into Ireland in the 1790s it was by Northern Dissenters and conformist Protestants initially, later joined by Protestants and Dissenters and Catholics from the South. The myth that it was introduced by returning Catholic seminarians from their studies in French colleges who had been influenced by the French Revolution is largely just that, a myth, carefully constructed to place the Catholic Church at the heart of the 1798 rising and to displace the unifying ideal of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter of the United Irishmen. The myth was founded on a lie.

The truth is that Unionists, in the main non-conformists – Presbyterians, Methodists, etc., should be, because of the values of their faith and belief-system, more naturally republican than monarchist. Nationalists on the other hand should be, due to the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church with the Pope as monarch and a strong code of obedience to authority, more naturally monarchist, although since independence they are not, in the political sense.

If it seems confusing, it is not. Many of the myths are lies, the paradoxes can be explained. There’s a clue in the words of Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, one of the principal leaders of the United Irishmen:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connexion (sic) with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects.  To unite the whole  people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.”

There it is – “England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”. More on this another day.

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