Viva la revolution, or not

Gerry Adams can’t have been overly happy with the analogies and eulogies to Martin McGuinness as Ireland’s Mandela – it always seemed that that was an accolade that Gerry had sought to appropriate for himself.

Of course it is still possible to question the comparison with Mandela to McGuinness, especially in relative Party contexts.

The links with the ANC go back to the efforts of the IRA to position itself politically in the trendy left lexicon of the then fashionable liberation movements such as the PLO, ANC, FSLN et al.

More recent IRA association with murderous militias has been less clear cut.

Not that the rosy comparison with other revolutionary movements has been entirely accepted by all. Here is Fintan O’Toole back in 1998:

“…though Irish republicans would like to think otherwise, the analogy between themselves and Kenyatta or Mandela is not in fact valid. The IRA’s campaign has not been a war of national liberation, waged on behalf of the majority against an oppressive minority or a foreign power. Its enemies have not been illegitimate regimes but two liberal democracies—the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland—and the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland itself.”

The most recent iteration of Irish Republicanism likes to focus on rights, taking the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as its chrysalis (before the butterfly). Unionists are too willing to accept that the Civil Rights movement was in its conception a republican plot. The foundation of the Civil Rights was to campaign for equal citizenship within the UK, not the destruction of the State. Sure the radical left of the period and elements of the IRA shared common cause; this endured even when the violence started.

Nor did the University students that vocalized the civil rights campaign have much to do with the working class. From that environment of leftie-chic, a nationalist middle-class was too willingly, and remains, attached to the politics of grievance and victimhood: rhetorical by nature, but ultimately alienating when responses are never enough and intentions never accepted as genuine. For Irish Republicanism this was the entry point for its Trojan horse.

The issues that gave rise to the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland were largely addressed by the early 1970s; certainly the structural reforms were complete. Whatever the grievances that were inherent to the Civil Rights campaign, they did not deny the young Martin McGuinness free education, free health care and a social welfare net if needed – not available to black South Africans living under apartheid.

Accepting the Civil Rights movement as being essentially ‘Republican’ only serves Irish Republican appropriation of a non-violent movement to justify its murderous campaign. As Dr Phillip McGarry said recently:

“…no respectable independent body has ever argued nor could argue that the violence of the loyalists and republicans was a legitimate or remotely proportionate response to those wrongs.”

That aside, there are bigger questions in the comparison of Mandela and McGuinness that perhaps Irish Republicans haven’t entirely thought through.

From the press coverage over these past few weeks of McGuinness political role in the past few decades has been portrayed as central to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The strategy and development of Sinn Fein as a political force, and partner in a (sort of) power-sharing Government, has been presented as the consequence of McGuinness’s vision, and broadly his alone. Like Mandela, McGuinness may in time become associated with an outcome as it might have been, rather than the actuality.

The ready comparison of McGuinness with Mandela arises from the way in which Sinn Fein has in the past placed itself alongside the ANC, such as here:

It is now clear that any vision of the violent socialist revolution, or ‘war of national liberation’, has little long-term legacy: ZANU-PF/Zimbabwe by way of example, or the PLO (now only a shadow on the West Bank, and subservient to Hamas in Gaza); and what of the less violent radical socialist movements, such as that of Chavez in Venezuela which has left the country verging on bankruptcy.

The ANC? The ANC is the Party of Government that has seen corruption and maladministration bearing down on the South African economy, on an almost industrial scale. South Africa today is in a sorry state of affairs:

The ANC is facing allegations of illegality and corruption from the top and across all levels of Government, and is falling out amongst itself. The future does not look promising. The economy is suffering under the weight of political instability caused by gross mismanagement.

Most of the above links are from just the first three months of 2017. Goodwill towards the ANC is dissipating, rapidly. It is evidence of a total lack of correlation between “delivering democracy” and any ability to actually manage an economy.

Undoubtedly this is not the ANC to which Sinn Fein would wish to be compared. Nor would it wish the current ANC to be considered as portend of its future. Sinn Fein has a much more positive view of its own future.

To which Bobby Sands is often quoted by Irish republicans as saying:

“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”

Perhaps. But history suggests that Jacques Mallet du Pan has the more prophetic and, by the example of more recent revolutionary causes, correct turn of phrase:

“A l‘exemple de Saturne, la revolution dévore ses enfants.”

Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children.

In the past few weeks, for all the bluster, Sinn Fein has suddenly become more inward looking, self-adsorbed, smaller. Something to ponder as we enter a post-McGuinness period, with Sinn Fein less obviously focused on moving forward and more obviously lacking a coherence in how and what it actually wishes to achieve.

If Sinn Fein were to become an actual Party Government of Ireland (that it already believes it is, in Sinn Fein land) we really have no idea what that would be like. To suggest Sinn Fein is ‘like the ANC’ would seem to be an unkind dystopian allusion – setting aside incidents such as the Northern Bank robbery; and Gerry Adams’s definition of a ‘good republican’.

Selective appropriation of popular narratives are always risky, especially when stretched one continent to another. Perhaps Irish Republicans will in time decide McGuinness is best viewed as not the Irish Mandela after all, just as Sinn Fein is not the ANC.

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