The republican movement must not revert to futile militarism but build an alternative mass class-based politics fighting for a socialist Ireland, argues Vincent Doherty
It is almost 40 years since journalist Mary Holland's celebrated documentary Creggan, was televised, amidst murmurings that it was ‘subversive’ and unduly sympathetic to the Irish republican struggle. In a time of serious political censorship, the documentary asked questions about social conditions and examined the lives of several families growing up in the Creggan estate in Derry. An area defined by massive unemployment and widespread poverty. It was at the height of the IRA's armed struggle, and the developing crisis in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and Armagh Women's Gaol. The area was home to one of the first hunger strikers, Raymond McCartney, now the Sinn Fein MLA for the area, as well as Mickey Devine of the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) the last hunger striker to die. It was in the back bedrooms of little houses in this tightly knit community, that young men and women took the secret oath and were sworn into the IRA. It was from the local chapel that the Bloody Sunday dead were buried. This is a community which has witnessed much suffering, primarily at the hands of state forces, the British Army and the RUC.
It was in these same streets last week, Easter Week, the most symbolic week in the Irish Republican calendar, that Lyra McKee was shot dead. Those responsible were marking the week that was in it, by rioting, by ‘engaging the enemy’, and in their own way building for their big commemoration event on Easter Monday. Reminding people that they had taken up the mantle, they were fighting the good fight, that they ‘hadn't gone away, you know.’ In the course of their ‘engagement’ they took the life of a much loved young woman, a talented writer, an LGBT activist, who in the course of her work, had highlighted the loss of so many young people from areas like the Creggan to suicide. Suicide borne from a hopelessness and deep rooted alienation from a callous and careless political settlement, which served to institutionalise the sectarian structures of the northern state, whilst doing little or nothing to tackle the issues of poverty and unemployment and hopelessness.
The young men who killed Lyra McKee came of age in these streets, for long a hotbed of republican militarism. In truth they didn't set out to kill her, but their recklessness led to her death. Still the murals and political graffiti which colour the gable walls in Creggan and the nearby Bogside, trace a linear link between ‘the men of 1916’ and the Provisionals. The mythology of an unbroken silken thread between Pearse and Connolly, Bobby Sands and today's ‘volunteers.’ Indeed the local Provos are not averse, in the right circumstances, to donning para-military gear and marching in close formation. Across the whole country this past week they got out their berets and dark glasses to honour the ‘martyrs' in commemorations which glorify ‘the struggle’ and the sacrifice of the ‘dead volunteers.’
This is where the disconnect is most evident. Some of the leaders of the ‘New IRA’ are former leaders of the old IRA. They were the young men and women, recruited as teenagers in the 70's and 80's. Seduced by the immortality of youth and an ideology of sacrifice, many of them spent their best years in Long Kesh, Armagh Gaol and other prisons throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and Britain. Yet these are the communities where the ‘peace dividend’ has failed most dramatically to materialise. The Good Friday Agreement hasn't had any impact on the record levels of unemployment in the Creggan, nor has it diminished in any way the highest concentrations of child poverty in these islands.
The ‘political dispensation’ may have changed, in that Sinn Fein has replaced the old SDLP (the party which previously commanded majority support among the nationalist community) as the local political representatives. They have done so, not by embracing a radical new politics, but by appropriating the dreary old soft social democratic policies of this party as their own. Once the party of youthful revolution, Sinn Fein has morphed into a comfortable middle age, in which their local activists have become the well paid staff that run the various community projects, funded by the Stormont Executive. They are the one place where there is paid employment available locally, whilst at the same providing the infrastructure for ongoing political control. Yet to many young people in these areas they are seen as ‘traitors’ who have abandoned everything they once stood for. These young men and women can't understand why the ‘armed struggle’ of their parents’ generation and off the wall murals, has become so unpopular. They don't realise that we've been here before, in much greater numbers, given it our best shot and ended up with Stormont. The don't remember the sacrifice, they don't remember burying the hunger strikers, the haven't tasted the bitterness of defeat. But that said, we do need to take them on, to argue with them, and to point out a way forward based on a socialist analysis of where we're at and how we got here. Just bad mouthing them won't work. I think Lyra McKee would have understood that.
Next month, long after the great and the good have departed from the photo-opportunity of Lyra's funeral, long after Theresa May has gone back to London and Leo Varadkar to Dublin, the people of Derry will be left to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. That is not to say that the killing of Lyra McKee will have no impact. It has and it will. It won't be seismic but it will have an effect. Local council and European elections will in all likelihood see increased polls for Sinn Fein and their far-right coalition partners in the DUP, maintaining the sectarian status quo and steadying the ship of state. After hiding away for a while, the New IRA will re-emerge from the shadows in the hope that people with forget. But people won't. Not this time. The killing of Lyra McKee has marked a line in the sand. Those women who faced down the heavies by daubing red paint on the offices of their political mouthpiece have spoken on all our behalves. There's no going back to the armed struggle, no going back to elitist military campaigns which have always ended up in the same place.
So Lyra McKee's death might yet have some local political impact. As I understand her politics, she was broadly of the left. There is at least some hope that in some of the republican hinterlands of Derry and Belfast the Provos will be challenged in their working class citadels. In the Creggan and the Bogside, in Ardoyne and Ballymurphy, not by those who glorify militarism and the return to a futile and suicidal ‘armed struggle’, but rather by a smattering of candidates who pose a political alternative based on class politics, of mass struggle for the only kind of Ireland worth fighting for. A socialist united Ireland. We wish them well. May the road rise to meet them.
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