Newspapers, magazines and pamphlets have always been central, almost sacred, forms of communication within Irish republican political culture. While social media is becoming the primary ideological battleground in many democracies, Irish republicanism steadfastly expresses itself in the traditional forms of activist journalism. Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters is a long-term analysis of the development of Irish republican activist media since 1998 and the tumultuous years following the end of the Troubles. It is the first in-depth analysis of the newspapers, magazines and online spaces in which the differing strands of Irish republicanism developed and were articulated during a period where schism and dissent defined a return to violence. Based on an analysis of Irish republican media outlets as well as interviews with the key activists that produced them, this book provides a compelling long-term snapshot of a political ideology in transition. It reveals how Irish Republicanism was moulded by the twin forces of the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the violent internal ideological schism that threatened a return to the ‘bad old days’ of the Troubles. This book is vital for those studying Irish politics and those interestedin activism as it provides new insights into the role that modern activist media forms have played in the ideological development of a 200-year-old political tradition.
Sinn Féin’s far reaching commitment to activist materials since the late 1960s included a devotion to the newspapers An Phoblacht/ Republican News. It was almost quixotically committed to producing AP/ RN and the paper became a far-reaching organ of political identity. During the Hunger Strikes of 1980/ 81 it was the authentic voice of those on the protests. Later, during the reforms of Peace Process era it articulated the changes in policy. However, Sinn Féin activists were keen to develop a mainstream vehicle for the newly dominant and optimistic strand of republicanism, one that might compete against the media outlets that had been overtly critical and hostile towards the party dating back to the beginning of the Troubles. The Belfast Media Group whose primary paper, the Andersonstown News, became associated with articulating Sinn Féin’s position throughout the 1990s and 2000s launched the republican daily newspaper Daily Ireland in 2005 in competition with the Irish News, the paper that has traditionally captured sales among the nationalist population of Northern Ireland. It was an experiment in assessing how far the shifts in the cultural and political tectonic plates of nationalism played into the media consumption habits of the people.
In the early 2000s, the Internet, the blogosphere and new online medias were said to have recreated and expanded the countercultural political uprisings of the late 1960s. The radicalism of the underground press, equality, anti-war and anti-colonial movements never quite managed the translate their counter-hegemonic activism into a dynamic restructuring of politics in the West. However, academics and activists saw potential in the Internet to offer a space with which to counter the narratives of political elites, capitalism, globalisation and the domination of western corporations. In Ireland, a group of writers, led by former republican prisoners, developed an activist media space that was critical of Sinn Féin, dissidents and the dominant narratives of the Peace Process. The print magazine Fourthwrite and the online magazine The Blanket, harnessed old and new technology to provide a sustained countercultural critique of their times. That they sustained themselves for much of the 2000s without a specific political vehicle or purpose while producing some of the most compelling and inclusive writing about the times is testament to the opportunities that technology provides for committed modern activists.
While Fourthwrite and the Blanket articulated new emerging strands of republican ideology in opposition to the reforms of Sinn Féin, they made no attempt at entering the political arena in any meaningful way. However, two new groups, largely made-up of disgruntled former Sinn Féin activists, emerged to attempt to counter the narrative of the party. éirígí emerged in 2006 with a dynamic online presence allied to hugely active repertoire of eye catching political stunts and events which mirrored the work of contemporary anti-corporate activists. Its inventive activist media activities, from website to social media, public events to YouTube videos and guerrilla activism saw it cut a swathe that belied its relatively low membership and resource base. Despite this dynamism it failed to attract a membership base big enough to run for office and has since declined in prominence. Republican Network for Unity which also emerged in the late 2000s, sought not primarily centre its activism on media materials specifically but to resurrect a republican tradition of street protest and occupations that pushed the anti-Good Friday Agreement agenda. It also, initially, achieved a public profile that belied its resource base, but which was not sustained.
Modern traditions of activist media grow out of the increased opportunities for intervention into the public sphere created by the Internet and modern technology. In recent years online media activism has been said to have been at the centre of uprisings during the Arab Spring, the development of countercultural movements like Occupy and the populist right. In Northern Ireland, this form of activism emerged but it failed to diminish much older, deeply historic tradition of activist journalism and writing in Irish republicanism. Journals, pamphlets, newspapers and free sheets all persisted in the years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement providing a challenge to the narratives of digital utopianism and its claims for a public sphere dynamically and completely restructured by the Internet.
Borrowing on a tradition of radical journalism dating back more than 200 years, modern Irish republicans, in particular, Sinn Féin, have used activist media to articulate their ideological since the late 1960s and the start of the Troubles. At times of marginalisation from the political mainstream through broadcasting bans and structural bias in the media, republicans used their own activist newspapers, pamphlets and promotional materials to convey their political messages. In the same period Sinn Féin began and finished the journey from being the marginal political wing of the Provisional IRA to being arguably the most prominent political party in Irish nationalist politics. Its transformation from minority voice of an armed organisation which saw violence as central to its goals to the main voice of republicanism that had accepted ceasefires and the political path was remarkable. Activist media was central to ideological journey of the Shinners, providing an internal space in which to articulate and interrogate dynamic shifts in ideology and an outward face to communicate these developments.
Sinn Féin’s elevation to the undoubted voice of establishment republicanism did not come without its ideological challenges which charged it with selling out ideological values of the movement which dated back at least to the 1916 Rising. These initially came from dissident republican organisations (the dissos) like Republican Sinn Féin and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement with links to armed groups still pledged to maintain violent opposition to the British presence in Ireland. Newer groups emerged to challenge older forms of traditional and militarist ideology, specifically éirígí and Republican Network for Unity, who used the Internet and activist media to communicate their positions on the changes to republicanism. Between these two blocs, an interesting group of non-aligned activists emerged in the early 2000s using old media like newspapers and new technology of the Internet to discuss alternatives to Sinn Féin’s reformism and acceptance of the compromises made necessary by the Peace Process. These writers contributed a new strand of dissenting opinion which was supported the peace but was critical of the process.
By the end of the 2010s, Sinn Féin was by far the strongest republican voice was rapidly building a stronger base in the Republic of Ireland where it had become the third largest party in the Dáil. But, the structures of the Peace Process and the Stormont Assembly meant that it was no further to significantly challenging of the political status quo in Northern Ireland. The vote for Brexit, based as it was on a binary notion of British sovereignty that had been fudged by the Good Friday Agreement, changed that. The nature of Britain’s exiting of the European Union had massive ramifications of the Irish border. With a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting to remain (with 85% of the nationalist population doing so), the unionist veto over the wishes of the wider population came under deeper scrutiny. For Sinn Féin, which had been a long-term critic of the EU, this provided an opportunity putting the border back on the agenda. For dissidents, they found themselves in the unlikely position of sharing the same political standpoint as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and, allegedly, the Queen.