10 December 2009 Edition
Standing on the shoulders of giants: The roadmap revisited
IRA VOLUNTEER Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde was killed on active service by the SAS in the early hours of 2 December 1984.
On Sunday, Sinn Féin National Chairperson Declan Kearney delivered the 25th anniversary memorial address in honour of this brave IRA Volunteer.
JUST three years ago, republicans across Ireland were immersed in the most intensive internal political discussion in decades. The great debate on policing mirrored all the defining characteristics which have sustained the republican struggle – energy, determination, passion, commitment.
During that period, an old activist friend said two roads lay before us: one which is dark and set for an unknown destination and another, whilst very twisted and bumpy and onto which people from the ditches will throw stones to block the way, is a road with signposts and lights. He said that’s the road we’re on, and it’s the right one.
His was a wise way to reflect on the direction of our strategy at that point. It was also a reminder how we used the idea of a ‘Roadmap to the Republic’ almost ten years ago to analyse republican strategy in context.
Twenty-five years ago on this night, Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde was killed in action in Fermanagh. Another Volunteer, Ciarán Fleming, also died while escaping. During December 1984, three other volunteers died: Danny Doherty, Willie Fleming and Seán McIlvenna.
Since then, unprecedented changes have occurred in Ireland. Irish republicanism has been central to that. The success of republican strategy derives from building political strength and achieving popular support for national and democratic objectives.
Our means have been to popularise republican ideas and politics, to maintain unity and cohesion among republicans, to encourage international support for our national and democratic objectives, and to promote positive alliances for and reduce negative alliances against these same objectives.
The result is that Irish republicanism has never been bigger, stronger or more powerful since the Tan War. Now Sinn Féin is the third largest political party on the island.
We are closer to national freedom than ever before.
That progress has been won by the selfless sacrifice of Antoine and the extended Mac Bride family and so many others. It is testament to the resilience of the risen nationalist people and also republican strategy and tactics.
Today we are witnessing the endgame of partition being played out. Continued political change in the North is unstoppable. Irish unity is inevitable.
The big strategic work for present-day republicans is to ensure all this is delivered on while beginning to prepare for the next phase of struggle. That means building the political foundations and momentum now, for a new republic which repudiates gombeenism and greed and enshrines equality.
The task before us is awesome indeed. But today’s republicans have overcome extraordinary challenges.
No other generations of Irish republicans have ever attempted what we have undertaken: from armed struggle to prison campaigns and negotiations and initiatives, to new modes, using political institutions as sites of struggle while remaining cohesive and united throughout. And we’ve continuously sought to use our political power to improve the lives of ordinary people.
This has been and remains a vast canvas of political activism. And yet, as a party, we remain too small in membership and capacity.
One consequence of the unfinished nature of our republican tradition is that the burden for continuing the struggle has passed from one generation to the next.
It would be a travesty for these generations having accomplished so much to do the same again.
The lesson must be that failure is not an option for us.
I first became aware of Antoine in February 1981 as a boy when he emerged from the crowd in IRA uniform at the annual commemoration in Cargin, County Antrim, to read a statement from the Army leadership. By that stage he was already a seasoned activist having served a term of imprisonment in Crumlin Road Jail.
During the Hunger Strike of 1981 I saw him regularly at protests and marches, leading and organising. I met him occasionally after that. But, whilst only knowing him in a limited way, my impression and memory of Antoine is of a quiet, polite, discreet, invariably well-dressed man.
Those who knew Antoine better speak of a dedicated Army Volunteer and committed Sinn Féin activist.
The enduring strength of Irish republicanism has always been the people who step forward to do what they can to make a difference and advance our political vision with whatever tactics and strategy were available.
Republican activists have accomplished many extraordinary things in the last 40 years. They have done so as very ordinary human beings whose potential has been realised as leaders, thinkers, planners, organisers, strategists and visionaries.
While we should never place our fallen heroes on pedestals, at risk of dehumanising their memory, Antoine personified many of these qualities.
We remember him as an IRA Volunteer who brought politics to the community and took war to the enemy. He was a planner, propagandist, organiser, leader, political soldier, cultural activist and republican revolutionary who absolutely understood the need to build the popular support for republicanism.
The potential of Sinn Féin to continue making change in Ireland sits in direct proportion to the colossal dedication and contribution of republicans such as Antoine and Ciarán Fleming and all those who made the supreme sacrifice.
Today’s generations of republicans have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants. And it is because of that we can see further, envisage what is possible, and recognise what must be done.
This is a watershed period in Sinn Féin’s political development. We are now at a point on the roadmap where we are fundamentally challenged by newly-shaped political realities and strategic challenges.
These emerge now as the endgame of partition accelerates, and as we concentrate on mainstreaming Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties. And all while republicans strive to keep our project on a trajectory towards an Ireland of equals.
Irish politics and society is in transition, North and South. Sinn Féin needs to be ahead of the curve.
Remember, our ambition transcends the transitional political institutions in the Six Counties and our current representation in the Oireachtas. To be successful we need to constantly create new political momentum and increasingly ‘up our game’.
We cannot afford to sit back or occupy comfort zones. Nor should we presume that positions in current political institutions, or existing electoral support, are sufficient to realise republican objectives.
A range of specific political realities face us, North and South.
In the Six Counties, the future sustainability of the political institutions is being threatened by DUP intransigence on the transfer of policing and justice powers and unwillingness to work in partnership and equality with Sinn Féin.
Overall, unionism is in disarray and rejectionists are setting the agenda. And more political change in the North makes more volatility within rejectionist unionism inevitable.
All that is a by-product of the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements, whose inherent transitional nature have provoked a counter-reaction from within the system.
The reality is starting to dawn that the unionist one-party state has gone forever and Sinn Féin is politically ascendant in the North. The psychological and symbolic impact of our party emerging as the largest party in the North last June should not be underestimated.
The DUP and NIO are mounting a rearguard move against political progress and equality in the North. Their objective is to replace the Good Friday Agreement with unionist majority rule.
It is not a coincidence that elements within the PSNI are again attempting to reassert the primacy of counter-insurgency tactics against nationalists, and particularly targeting south Armagh.
And, conveniently, the upswing in the activities of militarist factions is now providing a bogus excuse for elements in the British military who want remilitarisation.
In all these circumstances the question logically arises: who is pulling their strings, and what agenda is being served?
We should not be surprised. This is evidence of an old order using a dead hand to frustrate the outworking of an endgame it cannot control.
Republicans need a clear-sighted analysis of this current impasse in the North, its potential for political instability, and to avoid getting diverted by either the rejectionists or militarists. Our big focus should be on using the forthcoming elections to effect even more political change in the Six Counties.
Different realities obtain in the 26 Counties, not least because of the financial crisis and economic recession. Although we held our own in the last elections, we have much more to do.
Sinn Féin must develop a new political relevance in ordinary people’s lives to build our electoral support base. We need to put a coherent strategic plan into place which is tailored to the 26 Counties and designed to regain the party’s political momentum in the South.
This much is clear: recent months prove none of the other parties in the South represents a real alternative for change.
But neither do we in Sinn Féin have a right to take political support in the South for granted. It must be worked for. It is a long, hard project with no short-cuts.
We have to demonstrate and sustain an unrivalled calibre of political leadership and activism within local communities and systematically translate our economic plans into everyday language; and not just talk about doing so.
Understandably, the protracted nature of this phase of struggle has skewed the party’s political priorities and unevenly developed our organisation.
That reality also gives rise to the danger of activists slipping into disconnected Northern and Southern approaches to the struggle and so becoming subconsciously partitionist. That must be avoided.
We need to internalise the absolute importance of maintaining a national perspective.
From this analysis flows a new series of strategic challenges which all republicans need to address.
The frontline in the battle for hearts and minds and republican politics is now the 26 Counties.
We need to pay careful attention to the fact that, in the past, Sinn Féin’s national vote has been roughly 42.5% of Fianna Fáil’s vote in the South.
Popular opinion in the 26 Counties is crucial to expanding the popular support we need to achieve our primary and ultimate aims. Sinn Féin has to get to the point where we have more electoral support in the South than we presently enjoy in the North.
Doing that means developing the political messages which resonate with the needs of ordinary people and win popular confidence in the South.
In parallel we have to persuade even greater numbers of citizens in the North to our position – particularly from within the unionist community.
If ‘big house’ political unionism has set its face against operating equality and partnership in the North we need to clearly articulate that equality belongs to all our people.
SECTARIANISM & SOVEREIGNTY
As political unionism lurches to the Right with the potential for increased community tensions and bigotry, Sinn Féin needs to assert the primacy of Wolfe Tone’s teachings. We must redouble our efforts to combat sectarianism, forge links between ordinary nationalists and unionists, and persuade Protestant communities of our absolute commitment to create a shared future for every citizen, regardless of their religion or politics.
Wolfe Tone also emphasised the centrality of breaking the connection with England.
To date, republican strategy has effectively removed and weakened core elements of British sovereignty in the North. The strategic challenges we face now include the imperative of systematically breaking down and ending all remaining forms of British sovereignty. In this sense, transfer of policing and justice represents a key objective.
As a corollary, Sinn Féin needs to intelligently and strategically use the political institutions in the North to entrench democratic rights, make economic and social change, and institutionalise equality. They and the all-Ireland bodies need to be developed as catalysts for Irish unity.
However, our greatest challenge is the combination of state systems, North and South, and the conservative interests they serve. Modern Irish republicanism is anathema to their status quo.
For every republican strategy, conservative Ireland will produce a counter-strategy. We must confront these with maximum unity and cohesion.
Irish politics will realign beyond partition. In that new political context, Sinn Féin’s role, in alliance with other democrats and progressives, will be to organise and mobilise popular support in pursuit of a republic which prizes our people and not capital.
We can successfully meet and overcome all these challenges by identifying the key priorities we must address to accomplish our objectives.
Our long-term progress will be determined by concentrating in the short-term on our organisational and party development and building political capacity.
So we need to stop talking about our small membership base and start proactively recruiting new party members.
Sinn Féin’s membership needs to expand across and throughout the 32 Counties, to acquire the organisational infrastructure and new skills to improve our political effectiveness. With increased membership we will regenerate the organisation, encourage fresh thinking and political debate, and induct new leadership.
Young activists are central to party regeneration.
A BIGGER PARTY
Sinn Féin has to become relevant to and integrated within every local community. A truly nationally-organised party is essential to that. A bigger party is the means to popularise an organic, republican consciousness throughout wider Irish society.
This needs to be at the heart of everything we do as a party. Our very essence needs to be about bending strategy, tactics, organisation and activism towards persuading and organising popular support for a united Ireland.
So, we have much to do and a long road still to travel. We are destined to encounter many more twists and obstacles blocking our progress. But we are indeed on the right road.
Giants of men and women have gone before us in the struggle. They paved the way for these generations. We now stand on the shoulders of these giants of our struggle. Their legacy is a beacon light for our roadmap.
Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde is one of those giants. He left us all an example to follow and a legacy to fulfil. Let us finish Antoine’s work by building Sinn Féin and achieving the Republic.
REMEMBERED: Sinn Féin National Chairperson Declan Kearney making the Volunteer Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde memorial address