And so, that moment I never dwelt upon is here. Like the protest it drew its name from The Blanket could not go on forever. In the last year when journalists, academics and readers were inquiring about the hiatus in publication I put it down to a number of factors, none of which allowed for the possibility that it might just have run its course. Not that there was ever a shortage of topics to write about, as is demonstrable from the writers and cartoonists involved continuing to write and sketch elsewhere on a myriad of issues which interest them. The issue was more structural than that interweaved as it was with the origins, meaning and purpose of The Blanket.
Often in the course of social processes a particular logic inserts itself into the consciousness of a sufficiently wide number of people as to constitute a discontinuity. When the intellectual tectonic plates supporting a writerly institution begin to shift beneath it, a sure sign has emerged that a different episteme is pushing up. So it was with The Blanket. The variant of republicanism focussed on in its pages was no more. With the total demise of the Provisional republican project the symbiotic relationship between it and the writing that described it had been ruptured. The Blanket operated within a distinctly republican milieu. We are now in a post-republican world where others, such as Eirigi, have picked up the baton and hope to reverse the order of things.
From the start The Blanket’s trajectory had been well marked out for it by the peace process. It was within its contours and perimeters that Blanket writers probed and pushed, acquiring for the journal a specific character. Its maturation into an analytical tracking device which monitored and predicted changes within Provisional republicanism as a result of the peace process was widely recognised.
At the same time its fate, just like its role, was inextricably bound to Provisional republicanism whose long slow strangulation it traced. When Provisionalism, as a republican project, reached the knacker’s yard, from The Blanket’s perspective little remained to be said. Like the title from a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, The Blanket was a chronicle of a death foretold. It diagnosed the virus that ravished and consumed the body of republicanism. The dissection of the corpse involves a different branch of pathology. A new publication, The Shroud perhaps, can more appropriately deal with that.
Others were more perceptive to the reconfiguration than I. Their view, write if you will but The Blanket will only exist in a vacuum, occasioned by losing the anchor that grounded it. Writers who push ideas rather than count words not only know how to write, they know when to write. There was little appetite for behaving like those agencies who upon discovering that their raison d’etre had vanished with the end of the Cold War flailed around in search of something to justify their continued existence.
Take a moment to consider where things are at. The British are here for as long as the Irish unity veto continues to rest in the hands of those who favour union with Britain. The armed British police patrol the streets and pass on any information they gather to MI5. Sinn Fein is calling for Irish people to become informers for that same British police force. The republican content of Provisionalism has been pulped. The British state strategy of including republicans but excluding republicanism has prevailed absolutely. Britain’s long standing alternative to republicanism – a power splitting executive linked to ‘necessary nonsenses’ called cross border bodies – is embraced or supported to varying degrees by the vast bulk of people in Ireland, including those who waged a long war against any British alternatives. The British have secured the very internal solution that Provisional republicanism set out to destroy but ended up managing.
For those disinclined to follow the tedious minutiae involved, they need only look to the fact that the Provisional IRA chief of staff at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes is now calling for people to inform to the British police on republicans who have chosen to persist with the republican physical force tradition of armed struggle. The very thing that Bobby Sands died in a bid to make legitimate is now being criminalised by the leader of the IRA at the moment of Bobby’s death. Is there any clearer sign of republican strategic meltdown than that? What we are left with is a balance sheet that places the Provisional republican project irreversibly in the red.
What more is there for The Blanket to say other than ‘amen.’?
Certainly other topics were broached and issues tackled in the pages of The Blanket. On one notable occasion when theocrats used racist violence and intimidation on the streets against Danish citizens, and threatened to murder Danish artists within the secular tradition, The Blanket took the only position it could consistent with its ethos. Unlike sections of the Left which unpardonably and opportunistically galloped away from the secular tradition in the direction of Jack Straw and blasphemy laws, The Blanket aired strong moral disapproval of the theocrats and support for the secularists. These and other issues, while important, did not however define The Blanket in the public mind.
When it began its life seven years ago, it ploughed a lonely furrow. Now, some 25 million hits later, the discourse it promoted is voluble throughout the republican world. Yet there was no special attribute that should have marked The Blanket out as worthy of notice in a normal intellectual universe where ideas engage and interact with each other. But in the strict hierarchical world of Provisional republicanism where there was a moratorium on ideas not approved by the leadership there was plenty of edicts but a dearth of discussion. Dissent was discouraged, often violently. The Blanket gained both notoriety and admiration because it functioned as a lantern in a world of darkness and a beacon that defied censorship. Neither Provisional demonisation nor PSNI raids dimmed it.
The journal was open to everyone. Never once was a submission to it not carried on the grounds of political content. There was nothing to prevent Sinn Fein other than its own totalitarian instinct from having availed of the opportunity to make the case for the peace process in its pages. On the rare occasions when party members did write their submissions were carried in full.
Much of my own personal drive for writing in The Blanket came from an inability to comprehend why republican activists who had suffered so much to defend republicanism would sit in silence while it was taken apart in front of their very eyes. Worse still was their devout adherence to beliefs that had no basis in the strategic programme being pursued by the Provisional leadership. For example, it was so obvious that decommissioning of IRA arms was on the cards that to deny it seemed a serious abandonment of reason in deference to a blind faith based only on the word of leaders. Yet such examples of living in a state of permanent denial are legion.
A number of years ago I spoke at a conference organised by former Official IRA prisoners. They had come together to protest their effective abandonment by the movement they had given so much of their time to and were seeking advice from an ex-prisoners group I worked with. They appeared dispirited, prompting from me the comment that when I observed their faces I was mentally fast forwarding 10 or 15 years and conjuring up images of ageing former Provisional IRA volunteers. What baffled me most was why they let their republican project be suffocated against a background of their own silence. Some offered platitudes but no answers that either they or I believed. Another example of a republican project being murdered while participants and spectators alike could think of nothing better to say than ‘trust the leadership.’ I came away more determined than ever to challenge movement that seemed incompatible with facts on the ground. While always willing to compromise and allow better argument to defeat my own, I would never submit to censorship.
It would be different if The Blanket were withdrawing from the fray having predicted everything wrongly. Its track record speaks for itself. Little happened in the course of the peace process that was not forecast long in advance, often to the cackling ridicule of those unable or unwilling to think outside the box. When senior British strategists proclaim publicly that the republican grassroots could be led to believe anything if told it by a leader, The Blanket archives will proudly show that it is a humiliation not borne by everyone.
When a New York based writer began promoting the United Front Against Bullshit, I felt he was reinventing the Wheel. The Blanket had beaten him to it. It is a priviledge to have written for it.
Read more of Anthony McIntyre at The Pensive Quill.