Party of pieces

The politics of Illusion
March 20, 1998

Historic all-party talks on Northern Ireland provide a timely moment for the republication of Henry Patterson's study of Irish republicanism. Updated to include analysis of Republican strategy during the 1990s, the author seeks to show the pattern of events and forces that have brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table in an astute (if caustic and sceptical) analysis.

Patterson charts the roots of what he describes as "social republicanism" (the mixture of left-populism and nationalism which he believes defines a prominent strain in Sinn Fein and IRA thought) from early in this century through an upsurge during the 1930s and its re-emergence in the 1960s. After briefly analysing developments within the Official Republican movement until it imploded in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the author's attention falls fully on the Provisionals.

It is argued that an often-marginalised IRA would periodically attempt to "resuscitate itself after its regular defeats I (by combining) ... the legacy of the 'incomplete' Irish national revolution of 1918-21 and a range of social, economic and communal grievances". For Patterson this "politics of illusion" represents an irreconcilable contradiction. On the one hand, the movement has, at times, proclaimed a radical (often socialist) political agenda designed to amass a popular support base, on the other it has been a secretive and militarist organisation willing to subordinate all its other demands to a "purist" pursuit of "national liberation".

When Patterson's work came out in 1989 this thesis was seen to suffice in explaining the character of modern Irish republicanism. Yet there is a disjuncture between this perspective and the analysis of more recent developments within the Provisional Republican movement. The author provides a thought-provoking assessment of the rocky road to the "unarmed struggle", laying stress upon the tension between militarism and politicisation in the development of Sinn Fein's peace strategy. However, Sinn Fein's allying with other pro-nationalist political forces, mobilising mass agitation and improving its electoral fortunes has clearly not involved a leftward shift in the 1990s. It has largely dropped the language of revolutionary social and political change and replaced it with that of social reformism to achieve a "broad front" nationalist consensus.

For Patterson this has created a new illusion within Republican rhetoric designed to fill the gap between the "reformist" perspective of the leadership and the "maximalist culture" which he sees within the wider movement. Certainly lowering medium-term horizons without allowing the momentum of Republicanism as a movement to subside, has been one of the most critical dilemmas facing the leadership.

Mark McGovern is lecturer in applied social sciences, Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk.

The politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA

Author - Henry Patterson
ISBN - 1 897959 31 1
Publisher - Serif
Price - £14.99
Pages - 320

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