It’s rare to see a Professor of History prepared to excuse historical amnesia, but in this article on the OpenDemocracy website, Prof Richard English seems to be saying just that, although I’m not sure that those he excuses will be fully supportive. On a similar theme to the previous OpenDemocracy article on Loyalism’s cultural identity, if less detailed, he focuses on the importance of the cultural aspects of identification with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féinism and assesses the 21st Century Sinn Féin’s “year-long party party in their own honour”I’ll extract a few paragraphs from the article –
Richard English opens with a comparison between Griffith’s party and the modern version –
The founder of the Irish nationalist political movement Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), might seem an unlikely figure for Gerry Adams’s modern-day party of the same name to celebrate. The Dublin typesetter and journalist Griffith – who publicly set out the Sinn Féin policy in 1905, when Ireland as a whole was ruled directly from London in accordance with the Act of Union of 1801 – was not himself a republican. Indeed, he drew on Austro-Hungarian experience to advocate a constitutional model based on the idea of “dual monarchy”, and his preferred version of Irish nationalism did not involve the espousal of revolutionary violence.
By contrast, Adams’s own “Provisional” movement – formed in January 1970 in a breakaway from the existing (or “Official”) Sinn Féin under pressure of spreading violence in Northern Ireland – has been explicitly and committedly republican and has (under the banner of its Irish Republican Army partner) engaged in a bloody war lasting almost three decades from the early 1970s. Griffith famously opposed socialism, and he was markedly anti-Jewish; Adams’ Sinn Féin has long proclaimed itself a socialist party, and has sought to style itself as progressive on issues of ethnic tolerance and diversity.
And on the cultural identification that lies behind the current centenary –
It wasn’t just that Ireland was culturally different from England, so the argument ran, and that it therefore deserved political independence. The point was also that Ireland would only remain under English domination as long as the Irish allowed this to be the case. Irish nationalists had the resources with which to free themselves, and they could be free if they trusted to their own ways and their own strength. As Sinn Féiners, therefore, you not only defined yourselves as different from your national enemy, you engaged in a struggle marked by self-reliant confidence.
This involved culture (with a stress on Gaelic language and sports, for example) and economics (in the form of protectionist policies); and it ultimately involved a withdrawal of elected Irish representatives from the London parliament which claimed to rule Ireland. Irish culture, economy and politics were different from England’s, and Irish nationalists could themselves simply create their own alternative world, as a way of achieving freedom. Sinn Féin was a politics of attitude. We’ll do it Ourselves.
He continues to examine the importance of the cultural identification, leading up to his assessment of the current state of things –
In this sense – in a world in which many young people, from Yorkshire to Iraq to Palestine, are now being radicalised into the role of bomber – there are surely some lessons for all to learn from Ireland. If even Gerry Adams is prepared to star at a birthday party for an irenic cultural nationalist form of politics, then there is surely some sign that even the most bloody of zealot-movements can find more peaceful politics to be a more successful way of doing business.
The picture is not, of course, an entirely pretty one. Northern Ireland is still in an utterly sectarian and divided state, and Sinn Féin’s cultural nationalism has no serious chance of bridging the divide between Catholic and Protestant there. Research shows that even the Democratic Unionist Party – the party of Protestant preacher Ian Paisley – has more Catholic support than Sinn Féin has Protestant: the figures are 1% and 0% respectively.
So what we’re facing is a culture war and a political struggle between two antagonistic communities, rather than any harmony between them. In terms of cultural output itself, there’s also a long way still to travel. Republican authors have yet to produce anything which can match the kind of post-revolutionary intellectual reflection offered by figures such as Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty or Ernie O’Malley, a literature born of disenchantment with the new Ireland created in the 1920s.
But the politics of confident self-reliance have been the basis on which Irish republicans have shifted so powerfully from bombs to more conventional politics. The attitude contained in Arthur Griffith’s marvellous brand name of 1905 has helped to ease the path from violence to something more constructive. To this extent, and for all the historical amnesia which it has involved, we should all perhaps be glad that Sinn Féin have bothered to hold this year-long party in their own honour.