Steve Potts reviews the first edition of Fourthwrite, the new journal of the Irish Republican Writers Group
The IRWG describes itself as “small in number, an amalgamation of people inclined towards radical politics, including both those who oppose the Belfast Agreement and those who support it” defining its aims as facilitating the “discussion and analysis of republican ideas. Of primary interest are those ideas which deal with strategic matters and which address the question ‘what is to be done?”
Edited by ex-republican prisoner Anthony McIntyre, the contributors to issue one include two of the 1980 hungerstrikers, Brendan Hughes and Tommy McKearney, who was also one of the founders of the League of Communist Republicans in Long Kesh during the mid-eighties. And in emphasising an open approach to debate, what it calls “Wolftone’s philosophy of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter”, Fourthwrite also contains an article by Unionist and David Trimble advisor, Steven King.
What sets it apart from other publications critical of the Provisional movement’s strategy is that it avoids the crude analysis of sell-out parroted by those on the left or the simplistic doctrine of ‘back to war’ that often appears the sum total of strategic thinking amongst the various republican splinter groups. As Tommy McKearney states in the opening article ‘Republicanism in the 21st Century’, “others think that supporting armed struggle is of itself somehow the essence of republican fidelity”, whereas correctly, McKearney makes the point that “[republicanism] must be a living, vibrant philosophy or it becomes a stagnant mantra”.
So what does Fourthwrite offer us instead? The central thrust coming from the main contributors runs something like this: ‘that the peace process has enabled the British and Free State governments to successfully integrate republican revolutionaries into establishment politics. That far from Sinn Fein changing the system, the system will actually change Sinn Fein, with pragmatic accommodation replacing cherished principles. That Sinn Fein is now treading the same, well-worn path taken by the Workers Party during the ’70s when what was being offered from the Brits then was no worse than what is on offer now, and certainty wasn’t worth a further 20 years of war. That SF has become little more than an electoral machine, which has begun attracting the nationalist middle classes and is creating a class of professional, republican, politicians, from the Brits’ funding of numerous community projects, even to the point where some stand to gain personally from these. That the traditional loyalty to the republican movement, crucial during the war years, is now being exploited by the leadership to stifle genuine debate’.
Undoubtedly the rapid growth of SF will attract ambitious members of the nationalist middle classes who, while conspicuous by their absence during the war years, will be quick to recognise that SF is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with, north and south. Already the speculation in the media is more about when rather than if SF will enter into coalition government in the south. Certainly SF is not, nor would it claim to be, a communist party, the republican movement is a broad church, incorporating elements of both radical and conservative Irish nationalism. The road ahead is full of dangers and there are no divine guarantees they won’t be sucked-in by the old order, forced to compromise their principles, until their principles become meaningless in the same way many argue has already happened to the ANC.
At least for the moment though, this remains purely conjecture. SF are probably the only progressive political party in the whole of Western Europe that can boast a leadership, membership and support base made-up overwhelmingly from the working class. It has taken up and campaigned on social issues with vigour, winning it support not just in what the media like to call, ‘the ghettoes’ of the Bogside and Ballymurphy, but across whole areas of Ireland. It is also at the cutting edge of new thinking amongst working class communities, the Community Restorative Justice initiatives, are clear evidence of that.
What really stands out from the first edition of Fourthwrite, however, is not the strengths or weaknesses of the analysis offered (that will depend on your own viewpoint, and Red Action’s own thinking on the Peace Process will be familiar to any of our regular readers), but the stark fact that not once amongst the eleven main contributions does anyone seriously attempt to answer the question, ‘what is to be done instead?’ Only when this matter is properly addressed might Fourthwrite become part of the ‘must have’ set.