Socialist republicans and progressive forces are at a crossroads, at a time of potential momentous change in Ireland. And change, however slowly, always results in a reconsideration of positions previously taken.
Human history is replete with the consequences and indeed the dialectic of change. It is only when we look back that we realise how much change has happened, even in our own lifetimes.
Technical developments and the advances in science in recent times have probably had the most profound changes on society that this generation has witnessed; and it is having a profound effect on how we live our lives, how our lives are controlled, and how we view the world, even from our parents’ and grandparents’ time.
Historical change has always had consequences for political directions, ideas, and how people live their lives. In fact how people “live their lives” must be the central tenet of how socialist republicans think about and navigate the political direction in the continuing struggle for an equal society for all. In the context of Ireland, the only way that this will come to pass is when the people of Ireland establish a 32-county Irish socialist republic, a workers’ and people’s republic. Anything short of that will be an illusion.
But we are a long way from that place, and a lot needs to be done before we begin to see the “fruits of our labour.” In the meantime we will continue to negotiate the political dynamics that are occurring all around us, not least those of Brexit.
For republicans in particular, Brexit has thrown up the potential for constitutional change in Ireland, namely the potential ending of partition. However, it is not a certainty or a utopia. And for socialist republicans, at least, it must pose the question, “What type of new, 32-county Ireland will arise from all this, and what should our part be in that potential for change? And how do we all work to prevent a defeat in the arena of potential victory?
We need to factor into our thinking the reality, at this point, that republicans don’t have unfettered access to where power resides. And would they want it? Therefore, we have to be strategic and tactical in everything we do in our actions to work with the people of Ireland to change the power dynamic. As Robert Taber said in his famous book on guerrilla strategy, “It’s the war of the flea.”* It is “guerrilla politics.” In turn, that will mean tactical and strategic compromises.
But whatever we do it must have the transformative objective and result of a 32-county Irish socialist republic, based on a participative people’s democracy, as opposed to the present system of parliamentary and representative democracy. At all costs we must never go down the reformist road. That said, it will be necessary to travel through periods of “reform” to get to where we ultimately want to get to, never losing sight of the fact that we need to hold that reform to continuous account, and that our goal is transformative—that is, ending the need for any “strategic reform” by the ending of capitalism, to be replaced by socialism.
But there is no point in telling the homeless that one day down the road we will have an Ireland where everyone will have a house as of right. Those people need a house now. So, as activists, we do whatever it takes to get those people a place to live in today, but understanding clearly that what we are doing now is not a solution to what is actually causing the housing emergency or the many social problems and exploitation we all know about: capitalism.
A major part of strategic actions will have to include alliances with other activists and indeed political groups. This is a difficult arena that can, and does quite often, end in disaster. But, equally, it has the potential to raise smaller groups to new levels of effectiveness. Again, it has and it does. In fact there are few ways that small groups can gain the necessary traction to become a potent force except to make alliances, either with a small group or groups or potentially a larger one.
Inevitably this will result in ideological contradictions. The question then, from a republican viewpoint, becomes “Do we steadfastly retain absolutely our principles, or are we prepared to compromise strategically?”—assuming that compromise is not always bad. It may be worth noting that these contradictions will be true for all the groups in any alliances. It cuts both ways. A lethal mix in all this is, of course, personality clashes and the ego factor. It’s a human reality.
It is very likely, though, that the personalities and egos have more to do with our emotional abilities and a lack of a deep and clear political understanding. Our upbringing, education and the fact that we are conditioned to compete, as opposed to thinking collectively, is also a contributor to these conditions. Religion, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, neo-liberalism and the “battle to survive” in life are all factors and can hardly be ignored as catalysts that drive these “human conditions.”
In the case of Ireland and, in particular, republicanism, deadly feuds, armed struggle and sell-outs—real or imagined—have had a detrimental effect on our ability to take the wider view. Killings by loyalists or state forces also feed into the contamination of our ability to think strategically. And it feeds a “them and us” mentality. All the above, and more, certainly contribute to understandable “negative or isolationist thinking” when we have to consider alliances or broad fronts.
All of that, if we want to build the new workers’ republic, along with the people; it is going to be necessary to make alliances and to be part of a broad front—or a series of fronts—to gain the power necessary to achieve our goals in the short, medium and long term. It is inevitable and will have to be faced sooner rather than later if we are serious about changing who has power in Ireland. We might note that “our opposition” have no difficulties with “alliances and tactical compromises,” and they will even co-opt us if we allow it.
I believe that, for the purposes of this article, there are two main parts to this power matrix. The first is the one we are governed by now. It is a parliamentary democracy, where “party politics” is the main driver, which ensures that power remains in the hands of the political and economic elite—that is, for the few at the expense of the many. Their councils and parliaments are designed to benefit the rich and powerful and to act on their demands.
The second is a new democratic paradigm—a new way of thinking about democracy, a “democratisation” of civil society. It is a people’s participatory democracy, where power resides within the general population, that is, a democracy of the 99 per cent and not just the few. That power comes from the bottom up and not, as it is now, from the top down. It is the latter model that socialist republicans must adopt; it is a strategic imperative. This community-led democracy is a potentially transformative shift on the road to an Irish socialist republic. The recent work on setting up local Dálaí in Cos. Tyrone and Fermanagh is a living example of what I am talking about.
So, what has that to do with alliances and broad fronts? Everything, I believe, in that it first of all drags power out of the parliaments and into the communities, thus breaking the grip of power of the elite few in society and reducing the power’s ability to divide and conquer. In turn, new rationales will prevail. Ordinary people will, over time, begin to see new ways of exercising power, understand that they can, and be better able to consider new alliances in their communities, if only to oppose the push back that will inevitably come from those who do not want any type of people’s democracy to prevail. We know this will happen, because the powerful and wealthy created class, racism, and sectarianism, and maintain them, at any cost, to keep the majority divided, so that they, the elite, remain in control.
To some extent we have to adopt the “model of power,” that we cannot allow friends, however well intentioned, or enemies, to impede our journey. In effect we have “interests” that ultimately culminate in a 32-county people’s socialist republic, a republic for and by the workers. So the “them and us” must go, out the window, as it is an impediment to real progress.
The reality, however, is that there always has been diversity in society, and there will always be. We cannot expect that we are ever going to have homogeneity, either in society generally or even within our own group, or groups. It just does not exist. But that can and will work in our favour too.
It’s the knowledge that there is not, nor will there be, homogeneity that we can actually use to our advantage. There will be people in other political parties and groups who will identify with what our political ethos is and are not happy with where they are. There are always opportunities with this, and they should continually be developed. But there are going to be people, groups and parties that will never accept our ethos or ideology.
To make this a positive rather than allowing it to be a negative in society and democracy, progressive republicans have to come up with a way to negate the divisions that these ideological and religious differences make. And I am not talking about this “hands across the divide” illusion that is propagated by the Northern Ireland office, Dublin, London, Washington, and their self-serving lackeys.
We need something more concrete and real than that nonsense. We need to find a way to allow all the diversity within society, North and South, to express itself in a truly democratic way, that groups, political or otherwise, have autonomy but contribute to the bigger picture. We need a well-trained and educated vanguard to lead this.
That will mean difficult conversations outside our normal comfort zones. It will mean disagreements. It will mean that governments, and their agents too, will be hard at their disruptive work. It will mean setbacks and outright failures. But it must not mean that we get diverted or give up on the prize of an Irish socialist republic for all.
*Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare (Lincoln, Nebraska: Potomac Books, 2002).