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9 September 2004 Edition

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Academics and axe-grinders

Republicanism in Modern Ireland

Edited by Fearghal McGarry (2003) University College Dublin Press _23 paperback/_50 hardback

This book is a collection of academic essays on the subject of Irish republicanism. The contributors are for the most part academics who specialise in the field of Irish republican history: Fearghal McGarry, RV Comerford, Peter Hart, Dónal Ó Drisceoil, Terence Dooley, Eunan O'Halpin, Anne Dolan, Eugene O'Brien, Brian Hanley and Anthony McIntyre.

The essays discuss republicanism and democracy in Ireland; the drift towards armed struggle in the period 1912-1922; land distribution during the Irish Revolution; internationalism and republicanism; republican and imperialist symbols in the Irish Free State; the IRA's German links and British intelligence; the importance of republican commemorations; the meaning of important republican texts; the ideological similarities within the broad republican family; and republican intolerance of critical debate as alleged by Anthony McIntyre.

Fearghal McGarry has a brief introductory summary of the contributions to the book. He also gives a synopsis of ideological republicanism of the past and its modern day relevance, in particular in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. Here he reveals his own personal bias by saying "the intensification of sectarianism, the decline of the political middle ground and polarisation of allegiances and the persistence of paramilitary activity remain serious obstacles to peace". No mention of British failure to implement the GFA or unionist paramilitaries operating with the blessing of the crown forces or rejectionist unionists setting the political agenda as being serious obstacles here. This doesn't augur well for the rest of the book.

He then goes on to echo the dissident republican line that "the decision to share power with unionists under devolved British rule, to decommission weapons and to end the armed campaign without securing a British commitment to a united Ireland contradict the core principles of the Provisional republican movement of the 1970s and 1980s".

McGarry refuses to see the recent political direction by republicans as a strategic development in pursuit of core republican principles and instead maintains that "these changes represent not so much tactical concessions as a fundamental transformation of Provisional republican ideology". He effectively makes a double-edged attack on Sinn Féin by, on one hand, attacking the party from an establishment viewpoint for 'paramilitarism', and on the other hand, accusing it of abandoning republican principles.

The second chapter is a contribution from RV Comerford, a well-known anti-republican and revisionist historian. His article sets republicanism as being inherently antagonistic to democracy.

The following chapter by Peter Hart charts the rise of the Irish Volunteers and the drift to armed struggle in the revolutionary decade of 1912-1922 and is a relatively competent piece of scholarship.

Dónal Ó Drisceoil then dedicates a chapter to the ideological and material links of Irish republicanism with international communism in the 1920s and 1930s. This is an interesting read, as much of republican connections with communist Moscow are not too well known, and it appears to be reliable.

Fearghal McGarry then makes a contribution with his own article on the importance of symbols in the Free State and republican opposition to pro-British public displays.

Terence Dooley's article deals with the question of land distribution during the Irish Revolution (as the period 1912-1923 is now referred to). Eunan O'Halpin goes on to deal with the inter-war IRA's links with Germany and how much British Intelligence knew about this. His research draws from the recently declassified British Intelligence documents of this period.

Anne Dolan has an article on the importance of commemorations to republicans of all shades, while Eugene O'Brien deals with the semantics of well-known republican texts such as the 1916 Proclamation, the 1919 Democratic Programme and the IRA's Green Book in a rather turgid piece.

Brian Hanley's interesting article deals with republican rhetoric in the context of various republican schisms, such as the Civil War; Fianna Fáil's estrangement from the IRA; and the Provisional/Official split.

Last and definitely least is Anthony McIntyre's article on the "oppressive methods of stifling debate" in the Republican Movement, which can only be described as a truly vitriolic diatribe against Sinn Féin, its political strategy and republicans in general. It reeks with bitterness, distortion, half-truths and untruths, as well as an account of personal victimhood, which reads more like an account of a bruised ego. Its subtitle is "The peace process is watching you", an Orwellian echo of oppressive Big Brother. His contribution tests the credibility of the whole compilation.

This book does not make for easy reading and is to be recommended for those with an academic interest in Irish republicanism. Most of the articles are worthwhile, but some are not. McGarry, though a competent and critical historian, makes some questionable judgments. For example, in a recent TG4 documentary on Frank Ryan, he stated that Ryan was a "Nazi sympathiser" and he repeated this view in an otherwise useful biography of Ryan. So take a lot in this book with a pinch of salt.


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