It’s appropriate that The Blanket was conceived and executed from a small house in the middle of west Belfast. The area has for generations had a strong sense of its own separateness, autonomy of thought and civic customs and, particularly during the later part of the troubles, more than its fair share of ‘demented fractions’.
Indeed The Blanket became a chronicle for those within Northern Irish Republicanism (and latter from far beyond the narrow confines of that world) for whom the Belfast Agreement had either been a disappointment or, as in the case of former hunger striker Brendan Hughes, a decisive defeat for the cause he’d spent much of his adult life on. It allowed many individuals the space and community to think out loud about what they saw around them.
The years that followed the ceasefires saw rising inter-communal tensions from the big set piece events. What the mainstream media tended to miss were the smaller stories of intimidation, house burnings and subtle ‘neighbourhood’ management that were for some daily occurrences in housing estates across Ulster. During these difficult times the Blanket gave voice to the victims whose stories the media considered rather too ‘inconvenient’ for the sake of the wider process.
Somewhere in his voluminous writings, Carl Jung, father of analytical psychology notes that that a psychological complex begins life as a secret, that because it remains unspoken, it gradually becomes hidden from the bearer him or herself. That secret then takes on a life of its own and begins to dominate the behaviour of that person in ways in which they can neither explain nor understand. The answer is to tell the secret.
The libertarian blogger Adriana Lukas grew up in the former Communist state of Czechoslovakia. As a young woman she subsisted on samizdat copies of banned material and news. Books were buried in the garden between reading sessions at the weekend. And yet she observes something crucial about the nature of dissent, “it was never about revolution, or overthrowing the state. Rather it was about keeping sane by speaking to others who shared your views”.
However that’s not how The Blanket was perceived by many inside the political ascendancy of west Belfast. Its writing was often seen either as a threat, or as personal attacks on the larger project, i.e., the Republican Movement. In truth war tends to both to harden people, and lead them to centralize their resources in order to maximize the effects of their struggle. The default view of those external to the system is seen as a threat.
That The Blanket comes to a close now, a year after the resumption of what begins to look like a robust new era of representative democracy in Northern Ireland and the final acceptance of normal policing in almost all Republican areas across the jurisdiction, is probably telling.
The lunacy of charging IRA volunteers with keeping social order in their own communities, (a human rights scandal the scale of which can only be guessed at) is coming to an end. Dissent no longer carries with it the implicit danger of violence or threat of losing your home; or worse, your life.
More broadly an era of protest has passed. There are still a few who are attempting to carry on the armed struggle the IRA effectively abandoned fourteen years ago. But for many others, The Blanket gave another, more civil account of a term that has more commonly been reserved for Republican paramilitaries who refused to follow the lead of the Provisional IRA: ‘dissident’.
One definition of the word is “unorthodox - breaking with convention or tradition”. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of The Blanket has been its willingness cut against a very conformist Catholic grain to question the basic tenets of Irish Republicanism. In particular, the eye for telling detail some of its writers possessed had the effect of bursting those self deluding myths that have sustained an increasingly unreal sense of victim-hood.
Marianne Elliott notes towards the end of her epic history ‘The Catholics of Ulster’, that the revisionists of the Republic
‘spent several decades questioning the anti English underpinnings of their nationalist past – often in a language that shocked the greener nationalists. But the debate, even the shock therapy, was a pre-requisite to the emergence of the now confident Irish state as a player in world politics’.
Perhaps The Blanket’s greatest value has been ‘to speak truth unto paramilitary power’. It is to be hoped that the need for such has broadly passed, but that it is not to be the end of truth telling per se. Northern Ireland needs its awkward truth tellers now more than ever, if it is to free itself from both a bloody-minded past and an abiding sense of its own victim-hood. And, more importantly perhaps, begin to follow the example of the Republic and take its place in a broader and more optimistic future.
Mick Fealty is the founding editor of Slugger O'Toole.