Does the handshake with the British Queen spell the demise of Republicanism as a radical alternative in Ireland?


The handshake that lasted 3.7 seconds kept the broadcast media on knife-edge as the crowning moment of the so-called peace process. However, beneath the carefully choreographed piece of political theatre is a settlement built on sand, on managing sectarianism and regulating division, rather than confronting and removing the causes of conflict in our society.

As former IRA member Tommy McKearney summed up, ‘Therein lies the real difficulty many of us have with this contrived handshake. It was merely a piece of theatre, which does nothing to address the real problems faced by the people of Northern Ireland. If anything, this type of symbolic posturing is actually harmful. It displaces and/or prevents mature and necessary debate and reflection on the unequal nature of our society and the detrimental impact of Britain’s ruling class upon the public’s wellbeing.’(1)

The media hype may have receded for now until the next showcase of ‘normality’ but the reality of living in an unequal class society where inequality is at its worst since the second world war (2), came back as a ‘monsoon’ arrived on our steps. In the face of a crumbling water and sewage system and neglect from our local political class, we were left fall back on the spirit of working class mutual aid and solidarity to tackle the devastating floods and damage to homes and communities caused by the Belfast floods.

Anarchists are opposed to the very existence of a brutal capitalist state. The archaic monarchy is a symbol of everything that is fundamentally wrong in our society. Divine right to rule is an anathema to anything progressive, especially in an era where mass poverty, unemployment and crippling debt affect large sections of the population across these islands.  The very idea that by chance of birth someone should enjoy the vast wealth and privileges of the royalty is obscene and needs to be eradicated, which is why anarchists including WSM members opposed the British Queens visit last year in the 26 counties and in the North.

Republican opposition to the Queens Visit

The decision by Sinn Fein to welcome the commander in chief of the British Army was met with the usual chorus ofbetrayal, sell-out by various elements of republicanism and st one republican rally in South Armagh last weekend Martin McGuiness was labelled a ‘jeadus.’

The reality was that for the Sinn Fein leadership further election successes in the Republic is more of a pressing concern than raising the plight of families demanding public enquires into British state terrorism, the ongoing degrading and inhuman treatment of republican prisoners in Maghaberry and the internment of Marian Price and Martin Corey.

With the exception of high profile resignations from the party, such as senior party member Angela Nelson, anyone with any illusions in Sinn Fein as a revolutionary party have long since left with just the remnants of party loyalists and careerists still clinging to the belief of Ireland United and free by 2016. Not that the scattering of ‘dissident republicanism’ can provide a real alternative to the Provisional bubble that has long ago reached its climax.

Despite fragmented and isolated protests in the city centre the queen’s diamond jubilee tour of the North passed off without major incident. In fact it was a major propaganda success story for the establishment as Elizabeth Windsor waved to over 20,000 subjects from an open top car on the steps of Stormont.

This open ceremony was in stark reality to the Queens previous visit in 1976 when the Provisional IRA promised that it would be a silver jubilee to remember. During this time, there was no waving from the steps of Stormont, as rioting erupted in nationalist areas across the North and checkpoints were set up by the IRA in the heart of West Belfast. In fact the security threat was considered so severe that Queen Elizabeth slept off shore overnight.

While some sections of republicanism have focused on this latest ‘sell-out,’ the handshake is a logical conclusion of a constitutional reformist path from a party that has long ago shredded any ‘revolutionary’ pretence and is now fully incorporated into the rotten status-quo.

In the words of anarchist Alexander Berkman who warned about the pitfalls of the parliamentary path nearly a century ago;
“With growing success in elections and securing political power they turn more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life and suffering of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie . . . they have become what they call 'practical'. . . Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they have not the strength and honesty to swim against the current. . They have become the strongest bulwark of capitalism."

Finding themselves unable to pose a significant challenge to the visit poses questions concerning the project of Irish republicanism itself as a vehicle for radical change. Republicanism in Ireland today is in period of prolonged crisis, weakened and fractured, trapped in a vicious cycle of bitter division with little direction or strategy apart from trying to steal the limelight from the Provo’s.  Various strands of ‘dissident republicanism’ may have a marginal social base in traditional republican heartlands such as West Belfast, East Tyrone and Derry but it remains confined to one section of the community. There are no serious attempts to build unity and support across the sectarian divide , republicanism will forever remain a form of catholic nationalism that merely favours one set of rulers being replaced with another.

The unveiling of massive tricolour on foothill of Black mountain overlooking Belfast with the words Erie is our Queen (Eriu representing an ancient mythical Irish goddess, hardly republican in itself) by local republicans was a reflection of an element in catholic defenderism coming to the fore, and to some extent a clear sign of weakness to the visit in comparison to the lack of building opposition in the streets and communities.

However, the 30 strong loyalist mob needed no excuse when they attacked defenceless republicans managing the fort with machetes, knives and sticks, leaving one ex-blanket man hospitalised. Indeed, any sign of ‘disloyalty’ to the crown is not only actively discouraged but brutally repressed by the forces of loyalism.  Some drew parallels by some with the attack by armed unionists in the mid-1960s against the display of a Tricolour (which was illegal at the time) in the Lower Falls area.

Instead of using the opportunity of the Queen’s Visit to raise the anti-democratic nature of the monarchy and the hereditary class system; and actually opposing the Queen’s visit based on concrete material reasons around class issues such as cuts to housing benefit, to public services, building links with working class communities across the sectarian divide there was a retreat into the comfortable cul-da-sac of ethnic identity politics even amongst the most progressive currents of republicanism which subscribe to left or socialist republicanism.

Leading up to the Queens visit there was a state sanctioned march and rally organised under the banner of Truth and Justice not Jubilation from the Falls road to the City Hall. This attracted a couple of hundred people and not the widely exaggerated figure of over a 1000 by some quarters.  The rally was an important reminder that the hallmarks of military dictatorships across South America also occurred in our own backyard such as mass torture, erosion of civil liberties, internment and state collusion with paramilitaries.

Indeed, official British government papers from July 1972 unearthed a few weeks ago highlighted that state impunity for killings carried out by British soldiers was sanctioned at the highest level of the state. (3) The meeting was a clear slap in the face for the victims and families of British state violence, but it was the spectacle and spin of two traditions coming together in the form of the handshake that made the headlines.

As Andrew Flood has noted ‘protesting the anti-democratic parasite family is good, whether in London, Dublin or Cork. But as we approach the 100th anniversary of 1916 it also makes sense to critically examine the actual outcomes of that compromise Connolly made and to ask whether it really remains any sort of valid strategy in the fight for freedom today. Does our common interest lie with the more nationalist inclined section of the domestic capitalist class or with those in Britain who have shown that they have as little time for 'their' monarchy as we have? 90 years after partition, when pretty much no one alive today remembers it, is there really a military 'solution' to the presence of the British state in the North East? Or is it now a question of recognizing that the political solution can only be based on winning over a majority to a common struggle for freedom and socialism across but no longer limited to the island?


WORDS: Sean Matthews