The Politics of Revolution
Date:1986
Organisation:Sinn Féin
Contributors:Gerry Adams, Pat Doherty, John Joe McGirl, Joe Cahill, Martin McGuinness, Seán McManus
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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

10th December 2007

Yet again from an anonymous donation to the Archive, this week we have a fascinating historical document. Here is Sinn Féin’s “The Politics of Revolution”, ‘the main speeches and debates from the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis’… it ‘includes the presidential address of Gerry Adams’. This Ard-Fheis was arguably the most important of the past two decades and it was the one where abstentionism from Leinster House was finally dropped and the power and authority of the Northern leadership of PSF was fully consolidated. The Ó Brádaigh grouping left the Ard Fheis and never came back (and entertainingly there is actually a photograph or two from the rival meeting convened by Ó B in the West County Hotel - perhaps chosen for their selection of in the main either glum looking or rather elderly activists). From here on in - although it didn’t look like it at the time - the way was clear for a fundamental and frankly staggering change in PSF tactics, if not goals.

So much to say about it but instead of a full analysis - which might be worth doing some other time - I’ll just draw your attention to a number of points. There are a number of interesting omissions. For example, there is no speech from the opposing group centred around Ruáiri Ó Brádaigh (unlike the Workers’ Party’s seminal ‘Patterns of Betrayal’ issued after the WP/DL split which carried a number of pieces from the soon to be DL proponents - which I might put up here as well sometime). There is a clear explication of the rationale for the move in all the pieces. There is a thread of social radicalism. Consider if you will the very open debates on social issues. However - and remember this is a partial sampling and collation of the Ard Fheis with effectively a single purpose - the economic side is so thin as to be transparent. Unionism? Hardly even mentioned. If the game plan was long in terms of repositioning PSF then at this point that box on the agenda had yet to be ticked.

And it is all couched in pragmatism. Republican legitimation of the RSF kind gets short shrift here. Everything is about achieving power. And in that process is it is notable that those who ‘support’ the move are very much of the militarist ilk - at least in terms of the reported speeches. A PIRA statement rubbishes legitimation arguing that ‘to suggest that the IRA is not legitimate because of the decision it has taken on abstentionism is ridiculous. The IRA predates the Second Dail and the First Dail [incidentally, what is it with ‘fada’s’ and these guys? - wbs], it’s constitution, and our legitimacy stems from organised popular resistance to British rule in Ireland, a tradition whcih was reinforced in 1916, by the Fenians, by the Young Irelanders, by the United Irishmen’. And in a final flourish an argument is used which was - no doubt - to come back to haunt them, even if only slightly, in 1997/98… ‘It’s legitimacy stems from a tradition of resistance which has been a fact of history since Britain first encroached Irish sovereignty 800 years ago’. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the twin arguments which would diverge eventually as the peace process grew momentum… on the one hand 32CSM and their outriders would push ‘sovereignty’, on the other the bulk of PSF would argue that the forms of that resistance - whether militarist or political - were less important than its effectivity in achieving goals…

Note the concentration on ‘Revolution’. In fairness to R Ó B (a sentence you will rarely enough find on this site) any ‘revolutionary’ links were very much - if not solely - the fruit of his endeavours in the 1970s and early 1980s as something of an ambassador for Irish Republicanism of the PSF stripe. But. There’s awful little about a revolutionary programme here. Republicanism remains the central ideology, and leftist thinking while apparent (although not entirely clearly explicated) is hardly the key issue. Indeed the binding narrative is one which rests on ‘convictions about sovereignty and resistance [again that duality-wbs] which have sustained republicans through thick and thin, through brutal interrogations, through the pomp of ‘courts and justice’, in desolate prison cells, against the might of the British authorities’…

And Martin McGuinness is quoted as saying: ‘They [the IRA] will not split…’

Could anyone envisage that twenty years later, or so, the same Martin McGuinness who here breathed fire about how PIRA ‘will not walk away from the armed struggle. They are the real revolutionaries. If you allow yourselves to be led out of this hall today, the only place you will be going is home’ would be shoulder to shoulder with Ian Paisley on Wall Street?

Prophetic words though about ‘going home’. And revolutions, as Martin might accept today, come in many different forms.

Apologies for the file size (incidentally if people are having trouble downloading these please tell me and I’ll see if I can scan them in at lower resolutions). It’s about 7.5 mbs…

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  • By: Ed Hayes Mon, 10 Dec 2007 16:15:23

    Questions:
    Is that the same Jim McAllister of Cullyhanna/Quinn murder fame? Gerry A was really sensitive about the Sticky tag wasn’t he?
    How much of this stuff is discussed among SF members now?

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 10 Dec 2007 16:39:10

    It is indeed the same McAllister.
    Adams was sensitive, partly because he had initially not left the IRA for the Provos, and the same was true of Mc Guinness, although unlike Adams he had not been in the IRA beforehand and been through the political education of the 1960s. But also because what was the worst thing for these people – the Officials.
    As for discussions now, I doubt it’s discussed at all. Most people now are from the generation that made the change or younger. And with the success of the move to politics, and the complete absence of any split over entering Stormont (despite all the no return to Stormont graffiti) why would anybody doubt that it was the right thing to do.
    RSF on the other hand can bask in the accuracy of its predictions. Irrelevant though it is.

    On the document itself, I noticed the same stuff WBS did, about the almost absence of the opposition and the lack of fadas. He might read more into the socialist rhetoric than I do. Adams makes a reference to the class element of the struggle, and that’s it in terms of class analysis. I definitely think the absence of any more developed analysis at the party’s showpiece demonstrates that the socialist rhetoric was only ever a veneer on traditional catholic nationalism. See the analysis on the Anglo-Irish Agreement for a more realistic reflection of self-perception (it’s all about the Catholics).

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  • By: Worldbystorm Mon, 10 Dec 2007 20:56:22

    While I agree with your broader suggestions I’m not sure that I completely agree Garibaldy with your point that it was only ever Catholic nationalism. Go look at the debates at the back and that sort of stuff wasn’t being discussed so openly and honestly in FF, or the SDLP. Which is interesting in itself because it suggests there was a strand of social liberalism which was akin to that in the WP, in parts of Labour and even perhaps in FG. Now that’s not socialist, but nor is it in any sense traditional ‘catholic’ nationalism.

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 10 Dec 2007 21:07:47

    I read the whole thing. Including the stuff on abortion, where the leadership clawed back the position passed on the sly by the ultra-leftists who had attached themselves. It’s Catholic nationalism in the connumalist sense – Irish = Catholic, even if one doesn’t have to agree with absolutely everything the church says. I note that the comment about Fitzgerald making a balls of the divorce referendum didn’t say why. I would assume now it was because it didn’t pass, but it’s unclear. Yes there was a liberal strain, but as you say yourself this doesn’t come close to socialism.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 10 Dec 2007 21:27:45

    Isn’t that though something of an argument whereby everything they do, even if not Catholic nationalist, is then reduced back to Catholic Nationalism? What other parties of a Catholic Nationalist strain would hvae allowed the situation get to that point? And my point is precisely that having a liberal strain, even to the point of open debate is actually radically different to what passes for Catholic Nationalist in other parties…

    As for Irish = Catholic, I don’t see that there, or at least not to the extent you do. I see a considerable ignorance or evasion about Unionism, which I point to above, but I also think that contextually it is difficult for anyone not to use, in some circumstances in discussions on the North the I=C, or more usually the opposite (which is not quite the same thing) formulation even glancingly.

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 10 Dec 2007 22:09:50

    I guess what I mean by Catholic nationalist is the identification through language and propaganda as Catholic = nationalist = republican, and – and this is the centre of my critique – that it is the role of those who consider themselves as republican to promote the interests of Catholics in NI. I’m not sure what else to call it. Communalist nationalism if you wish, but there’s a good argument for seeing that description as applying to unionism too.

    Clearly PSF has some more secular tendencies within it regarding whether Catholic teaching should shape the social policy of government. And this is much more pronounced now than it was then. And I do think it’s worth remembering that much of this leftist rhetoric was produced by people who were either close to or previously members of the PDs who had joined around the time of the hunger strikes. They did not represent the military wing which lay at the core of the political leadership – as this document makes clear with its numerous references to being active in the war zone etc – and proved useful for attracting a centre type of supporter while never exercising much influence. The rhetoric was tolerated by the real core, rather than representing them. I think that subsequent developments over two decades have proven it.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 10 Dec 2007 22:20:02

    I’m still dubious about it, although I know what you mean. Firstly you’ll have to look hard to find the word Catholic in that document (and worth noting that NICRA and others explicitly saw that as a category which needed to be recognised and assisted). Secondly there are problematic structural aspects to how any movement could operate in a divided polity without a base of support in one or other of the communities. I think WP exemplifies that (and perhaps oddly the PUP in a much much lesser way). Simply put once one moves to a post-nationalist point in the North, even if its ‘Republican’, there is no base left. The anchor into a base is what sustains a movement/party, as true in the South in the North. I know the WP wanted that to operate on a class level, as indeed does the SP, etc, etc. But … there’s been precious little evidence of class manifesting itself above ‘community’ as you’ll know better than I. The only party I can think of that operates on a class basis in a more modern sense is arguably Alliance, which tells us something about the nature of identity and class in the North.

    That makes me wonder whether PSF was the ‘most’ (I use the word advisedly) that could be achieved in terms of a semi- or even pseudo progressive force in the context of the North and in the context of near class based politics.

    This leads to the interesting question as to whether it is possible to be truly ‘Republican’ in the philosophical sense of the term in the North on any more than an individual level?

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 10 Dec 2007 22:51:17

    Firstly, read the responses to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Catholic all over the place. It was bad because it would produce a loyalist reaction against Catholics.

    As for the possibility of being a republican in any more than an individual way in the black North. Well in 1989, The WP got 6% of the vote in council elections in Belfast, its high point, which included several hundred votes from the Shankill. The collapse of the USSR and the DL split put paid to a great deal of that progress, as did the emergence of the PUP, speaking a socialist language while being unionist. There was indeed the possibility of being republican at more than an individual level, and that possibility remains, though due to the weakness of socialism we will not see a socially radical anti-sectarianism reflected in electoral terms any times soon.

    However, the reality is that while – as you point out – segments of the middle classes have always been and are increasingly integrated, the division within working class communities have hardened over the last 15 years, not lessened. The intensity of hatred has diminished with the ending of the violence, but the sense of separate identity and of conflicting interests has not. Communalist politics cannot change that.

    The attitude you outline above – that PSF and by extension the PUP – is the best that could have been hoped for is one I can’t accept for several reasons. First is the gap between rhetoric and action. Both sides carried out many nasty sectarian murders, regardless of the language that was spoken. The rhetoric has all too often proven to be a fig leaf. Then there is the fact that the vast majority of people within the communities where they were most powerful rejected their campaigns of violence. In fact The WP emerged from very similar circumstances, and its members made different choices. Individual agency does have a part to play. So circumstances have shown us that more progressive politics were and are possible, though incredibly difficult to sustain and develop.

    I can see why in the South, especially now when the left is so weak, PSF look very progressive, and some of the contributors to this and other sites certainly give the impression of being genuinely progressive. Nevertheless, in the North, such opinions do not represent the majority of either PSF members I have come across and certainly not of their supporters. On divorce, homosexuality etc almost everyone in NI now accepts progressive positions. But on social and economic issues, that is not the case. As we can see in the Programme for Government and the unpopularity of socialism in NI (like the rest of the island) for a start.

    In short, it’s not easy or popular to be a republican in NI. But nor is it impossible.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Mon, 10 Dec 2007 23:09:44

    I take your point about the AIA, but… what term would be more acceptable?

    I think the PUP would have emerged one way or another, I just don’t see how the WP could have drawn down support from the Unionist working class in any significant way. Someone here asked once how many from a unionist background were members? I don’t know, but I’d hazard it was vanishingly few.

    I actually didn’t say the best, I said the most, which is a bit different. I’m not suggesting it was optimal, but what I am suggesting is that in the then existing society PSF was about as radical an organisation as one might expect. That’s all. I’m not making a value judgement about PSF or suggesting for a moment that leftists should support it then or indeed now (although I can think of reasons why it should be one of a number of formations leftists should see as providing the kernel of more progressive politics in the future). As for the WP emerging from the same communities, true, but how relevant is that? OSF had it’s militarists long after the departure of the Provo’s and the IRSP. And all the time WP was diminishing in size. Which means that progressive politics was almost bound to fail. I don’t know can progressive politics work in such divided polities? I’m trying to think of comparative situations elsewhere.

    As regards the left in the South. True. But again, it’s a far from uncritical engagement. You and I would both agree that SF is far from ideologically coherent in a way we would want if we were to hitch ourselves to that star…

    As you say on economic matters the situation is grim island wide.

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  • By: Garibaldy Mon, 10 Dec 2007 23:27:46

    On the AIA, why not just stop at violent loyalist reaction? Why the constant use of the word Catholic if not to appear as the defenders of the Catholic community. Let’s not forget that that is absolutely, totally and utterly the raison d’etre for the Provos, and was central to all their propaganda for decades. Phoenix from the ashes etc. It’s also the role they act out on the ground in NI.

    I agree totally that sectarianism made The WP’s position an extremely difficult one. But as I said above, there was a time when it was achieving quite significant support from loyalist areas. Mount Vernon was another one, where Seamus Lynch, in fairness to him, took a caravan to take constituency work when nobody else would. However, and here is an indication of how loyalism had become more aggressive and depoliticised by the early 1990s, the people in the UVF there would simply not have tolerated that to have continued. As for Protestant members, as you say, not huge amounts but some significant ones.

    It was the violence and division that limited progressive politics. The divisions remain, but there is a space provided for a new development of progressive politics in NI. It will take more cooperation among progressive foces given the weaker state of the individual organisations, but the ‘tough economic choices’ rhetoric and behviour offers an opportunity, however small initially.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 11 Dec 2007 07:42:45

    True again. But that’s the narrative they used. It’s not necessarily sectarian given their base – or rather it’s only partially sectarian since they operated in an environment where communal/religious identification retained a greater strength than other identifications. And – to be completely and brutally pragmatic – it’s not as if loyalism or Unionism were going to listen to them in any case. In any case the WP provided an object example of what happens to Republicanism if you go down a certain path. What other party was going to take that route in the North (although the path taken in the South was emulated).

    Incidentally, I note you use the term Protestant when I presume you mean Unionist or at least Unionist with a small u, or at least someone from a community? These are the tangles we get caught up in on this subject. I like you find nationalist and catholic inadequate descriptions to get across what I’m trying to say.

    But taking your final thesis, if you’re correct and violence was the key to preventing the development of something close to class politics how come we don’t see that now? We’ve had a decade or so of almost no violence yet if anything communalist lines are as embedded as ever, if not as you suggest, more deeply entrenched. That’s what makes me very dubious about the WP (or analogous party/parties0 ever achieving any cross over (quite apart from the fact within its own original community it was very marginalised). The circumstances are objectively better today than ever and yet they’re also obvjectively further away.

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  • By: Garibaldy Tue, 11 Dec 2007 11:05:19

    I used Protestant because I had it in my head that was the term you had used but on looking back I see you said unionist background.

    Part of the reason there was no development of a more united identity during the last 10 years or so is because the dynamic of politics has remained very much controntational and communalist, at least up until March this year. Parades, prisoners, decommissioning, spy rings, more parades, Northern Bank, Mc Cartney etc all contributed to keeping people at each other’s throats. There’s a theory that says PSF and the DUP have been able to overtake their opponents basically because people trust them to strike as hard a bargain as possible, and that seems to me to be fairly accurate.

    I agree entirely that there is more space for class politics but that also it seems further away than ever. I think the difference is not so much just the no violence, but it’s also the fact that local politicians now have some power, and are as we can see just as right wing as everybody else. Ruane has already alienated some of her support base, and Peter and Iris Robinson have been clear where they stand. So we are perhaps seeing the beginning of some fracturing along left/right lines within the communalist blocs, though it will take a long time for that to significantly manifest itself. I also think that had this happened in say the 70s socialists would have been in a much better position to exploit this, whereas now socialism itself is in the eyes of many discredited. Perhaps the most realistic start we can hope for is the expansion of the United Community group.

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  • By: Joe Tue, 11 Dec 2007 13:20:04

    “The circumstances are objectively better today than ever and yet they’re also obvjectively further away.”

    I can’t see how you can say that they are objectively better today than ever, WBS. After what the North went through from 68 to 2000, it’s inevitable that the two communities will be very much apart and will remain so for a long, long time. People can’t easily forget what was done to them by the other side. In my view, it will be generations before the conditions will be objectively favourable to forging long-term, viable cross community class alliances. All socialists can do is work inch by inch towards hastening the arrival of such conditions.

    Surely, conditions were objectively better e.g. during the post-war period when the CP did well in elections or in the early sixties when as Denis Faul said young men in Belfast were more interested in what English football team their peers followed than in what religion they were.

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  • By: Niall Tue, 11 Dec 2007 14:31:28

    I haven’t read the post on Provisional Sinn Fein’s 1986 Ard Fheis “The Politics of Revolution” because life is too short (I’ll leave that to the completists), but from perusing the Left Archive it seems apparent to me why Ireland never had a viable left-wing alternative: nearly every left-wing organisation this country produced seems to have been comprised of terrorists or armchair terrorists.

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  • By: soubresauts Tue, 11 Dec 2007 14:44:15

    Niall, you really ought to tell us what you mean by “terrorist” and “armchair terrorist”.

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  • By: “This ‘change’ you talk of Captain Kirk… I do not understand it”… or perhaps I do. The Sinn Féin meeting at the weekend. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Wed, 12 Dec 2007 18:29:07

    […] did stress some degree of equality. And I can’t help turning back to the document posted on Monday in the Left Archive, a document that for obvious reasons did not emphasise the economic, but looked […]

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