Legion of the Rearguard – Dissident Irish Republicanism by Martyn Frampton, Book Review

imageAre you confused about ‘dissident’ Irish Republicanism? Anxious about its existence and its seemingly increasingly deadly capabilities?

Martyn Frampton’s new book, Legion of the Rearguard: Dissident Irish Republicanism (Irish Academic Press, 2011) serves both as a primer on active dissident groups and a timely analysis of their historic significance and contemporary capabilities.

This book clears up much of the confusion about contemporary groups, but offers little by way of consolation regarding their continued resiliency and willingness to resort to violent action.

Frampton is Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London. Legion of the Rearguard is the most ambitious academic research thus far published on contemporary dissidents.

Frampton draws on his own interviews with prominent dissidents, existing research on dissidents (which he acknowledges has so far mostly ‘been done in the field of journalism’, p. 9), the speeches, documents, websites and publications of dissidents, and official sources such as the reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission.

As a  guidebook on dissident groups, the book is clear and informative.

The work considers the origins, current activities, and the personalities associated with groups such as Republican Sinn Féin, the Continuity IRA, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the Real IRA, the Republican Network for Unity, and éirígí, among others.

Frampton also highlights the overlapping membership in such groups. Though personalities and some ideological differences keep the groups from cooperating fully, they are all critical of the Adams-McGuinness leadership of Sinn Féin. They see the Good Friday Agreement as a defeat for republicanism and a betrayal of what they thought the Provisional IRA stood for.

Frampton spends a good deal of time considering the ideologies of the dissidents, which he situates in a longer historical context.

The first chapter of the book is on the origins of republicanism. His treatment of the 1916 Rising, including the perspectives of Padraig Pearse and Eamonn de Valera, demonstrates that the dissidents’ hardline stance and uncompromising rhetoric have clear historical antecedents among the founders of the Republic of Ireland.

This is an Irish republican tradition that often has had little respect for democracy, if democracy means respecting what the majority of Irish people want in terms of their political arrangements or the methods they want to use to achieve political change.

Here Frampton builds on the work of ‘revisionist’ historians and political scientists like Tom Garvin at UCD, detailing how men like Pearse felt that their small ‘elite’ understood what the ‘true’ will of the Irish people was – and that it was their duty to act (violently, as it turns out) to achieve it. This rather skewed conception of democracy goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of history as an almost autonomous and inevitable force, which will in the end vindicate the (violent) actions of republicans.

If one takes this longer historical perspective on Irish republicanism, it is not much of a surprise that there are still republicans who think in these terms. Fianna Fail in the Republic and, increasingly, Sinn Féin, have moved away from this version of republicanism – although on occasion they continue to claim and celebrate the heroes of 1916 in a rather uncritical (and, in my view, therefore problematic) way.

Frampton also notes that since the foundation of the Irish Free State there has never been a time when groups espousing this version of republicanism have disappeared entirely.

So, the historical significance of contemporary dissident groups is that they exist. And because they exist, they may in future serve as a resource for violent rebellion against political arrangements on the island of Ireland. This, after all, is the story of the Provisional IRA – a story that is not yet so far buried in the past that we should have forgotten it already.

Finally, Frampton’s evaluation of dissidents’ contemporary capabilities includes a forensic analysis of all of their attacks, which have increased in recent years.

In a valuable appendix titled ‘Timeline of Violent Dissident Republican Activity,’ he charts key events between 1986 and when the book went to press, April 2010.

Through this index, and the main text of the book, Frampton argues that the activities of dissident republicans owe more to the ‘internal dynamics of republicanism’ than to any gains or losses associated with the peace process.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that political stability, in the form of a workable power-sharing executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, would be the death knell of dissident republicanism – their violent activities have actually increased during times of relative stability.

This seems to be in large part because Sinn Féin’s participation in the Assembly gives dissidents something tangible to rail against – serving as a constant reminder that seats in Stormont is not what republicans fought for during the Troubles.

To conclude, I think this book offers considerable insights on contemporary dissident republicanism. But I was disappointed that Frampton did not spend more time analysing the extent of criminality within dissident republicanism. He considers criminality only briefly, which perhaps skews his analysis of dissident republicanism in favour of their fidelity to ideology.