The recent bombings in Newry have once again raised
the profile of the physical force tradition as
its adherents seek to emulate the Provisional
militancy of yesteryear in a world that has vastly
changed since the hunger strikes of 1981. Then
armed struggle perched loftily as the sole strategic
imperative of modern republicanism.
saw Provisional republicanism undergo the most
intense ideological moment of its existence. It
worshipped the god of physical force which in
turn allowed no false god of constitutionalism
before it. Sinn Fein, quintessentially 'ourselves
alone', claimed exclusive ownership of the republican
Holy Grail. 25 years on the party bears little
resemblance to what it was in that heady era.
Summersault by summersault, Provisional republicanism
has steadily abandoned any notion of a Republic.
And like all failed revolutionaries, no shortage
of transitional phases of struggle have been found
to pack the distance between what was promised
and what was actually achieved.
journey has been from Brits out at the point of
a gun to pleading for Paisley to be head honcho
at Stormont and republicans to hand themselves
over to British courts where they are certain
to be jailed for their part in the Bobby Tohill
abduction in Belfast two years ago. Sinn Fein
would seem to have more in common with the Workers
Party of the hunger strike era, than it would
with its erstwhile self.
involved in what they term 'revolutions' often
- not always without good reason - find the gravitational
pull of pragmatism, reformism and gradualism too
strong to resist. But having stoked the fires
of revolutionary fervour, the compromises and
U-turns that go hand in hand with charting a less
ambitious course can be difficult pills to swallow.
Making the retreat is not enough; it must also
so it is that some Sinn Fein councillors have,
in the pages of the Irish News, taken to criticising
dissident republicans who wish to persist with
futile armed activity against the British state.
Councillor Oliver Hughes, forgetting what the
hunger strikers were in prison for, cannot understand
why republicans would want to plant bombs, finds
their actions 'absolutely disgraceful' and wants
them brought to justice; presumably British, there
is no other. Councillor Michael McIvor in his
pop claimed that the campaign waged by the Provisional
IRA was radically different from that being fought
by both the 'Brit loving' Continuity and Real
critique holds true only for the largely ineffectual
physical form of dissident activity. It cannot
be sustained when it seeks to section off the
ideological content behind such activity. Like
the Provisional republicanism that preceded it,
the dissident variety must rely on popular support
if it is to make even minimal headway, but in
its own eyes requires no popular support to make
it legitimate. It simply draws from the same ideological
well long frequented by the Provisionals, the
waters of which drowned all reference to wider
democratic nationalist sentiment.
was certainly more support for the Provisional
IRA campaign but it was never anything other than
minority support. The primary demarcation line
between it and the dissident IRAs is little other
than the size of either's minority. From this
perspective the jutting difference between the
dissident Omagh bomb and the Provisional Enniskillen
one is a matter of dates. Otherwise, the people
of Fermanagh are to be denied the same right not
to be killed by republican bombs as the people
complications would seem to confound the narrative
of the two Sinn Fein councillors. They want to
defend the militant republican tradition against
those who continue to abide by it. There is no
acknowledgement on their part that because of
the terms it settled for, the Provisional IRA
campaign has arguably been stripped of any authenticity
it lays claim to as a war against British rule.
Justification for having waged it can now only
be found through revisionist recourse to fictional
constructs that it was all about equality for
nationalists within a reformed northern state.
But we know that was never the reason it was fought.
Provisional IRA was the distillation of a wider
nationalist insurrection. The Provisionals framed
that insurrection in terms of it being against
the British presence. It was a rebellion,
okay, but less against the British being here
and more against the manner in which they behaved
while here. Which meant the British did not have
to leave in order to placate the constituency
behind Provisional republicanism. They had merely
to modify their behaviour.
dissident armed activity is to be nullified -
as it must be given the potential for another
Omagh-type massacre - rather than disingenuously
parried, Councillors Hughes and McIvor would make
a better case were they to state that militant
republicanism was abandoned because it rather
than the Northern state proved to be a failed
political entity. The physical force tradition
needs to be deconstructed in its entirety, not
cherry picked over for short-term political advantage.
Dissident physical force republicanism is a wholly
inadequate response to the British presence, but
only as inadequate as its Provisional predecessor.