The New Politics of Sinn Fein

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Kevin Bean, Liverpool University Press, £16.95

In 1992 and 1993 the IRA planted enormous truck bombs in the City of London. Counter-intuitively, the bombs were intended to move the emerging Northern Ireland peace process along. Irish Republicanism is built on such contradictions.

From its emergence at the beginning of the 1970s the modern Irish Republican movement has moved from the declared aim of the revolutionary overthrow of Northern Ireland to sharing the trappings of government with the Protestant supremacists of the Democratic Unionist Party.

It is important not to see this journey simply as one of sell-out. Irish revolutionary nationalism has often in its history made peace with the system.

This book is a useful addition to our understanding of that process of accommodation with imperialism. Bean argues against the idea that Sinn Fein betrayed its principles and instead argues that this process was inherent.

British imperialism was unable to smash the Republican resistance that grew up against the sectarian state, but Republicanism was incapable even at its most militant of dismantling that state.

Just as the ANC in South Africa and the PLO in Palestine learnt to collaborate with imperialism, so did the IRA.

Sinn Fein's shift was not about immediate tactical considerations. Revolutionary nationalists do not seek to end class rule, but to cut out a space for themselves within the wider system. So the shift from armed struggle to conventional politics is not as contradictory as it might at first appear.

Bean tracks in detail the debates within Republicanism to the point of power sharing, pulling together a wide range of sources.

Bean has a useful discussion on the role of "criminality" and how the fluid concept moved from being used to dismiss the Republican struggle to the gradual adoption of the concept by Republicans, first in policing their own communities and then in joining the official policing forces.

The book lacks the pace of some accounts of the same issue, for instance Ed Moloney's book, The Secret History of the IRA. The framework of the book also suffers in its concentration on the issues of identity politics. Those looking for an introduction to the politics of the peace process and the role of republicans would be better to read Kieran Allen's article in issue 114 of the International Socialism journal, Northern Ireland: The Death of Radical Republicanism.

Nonetheless, this is a detailed account that charts the ideological shifts and turns of the Republican march to respectability, and pulls together much of the debate within Republicanism in an informative way.