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Unbroken Continuity

In 96-year-old John Hunt, Republican Sinn Féin traces the Fenian tradition, via the 1940s, into the present

On a Saturday in April Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) gathered outside the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square in Dublin for their national centenary commemoration.

As Garda Special branch approached members and onlookers from the public for their names and addresses, the RSF colour party formed up in front of the garden. To the music of the Coatbridge band which lined up behind the colour party, they marched down O’Connell Street, passing the Gresham hotel and the now closed Clerys department store. The parade marched alongside barricades present in the middle of O’Connell Street which had been erected ahead of the official State commemoration that took place on the 27th March, Easter Sunday.

The symbolism of the colour party’s flags brushing against the barricades as they marched was not lost. The parade turned at the Middle Abbey Street junction to continue their march up the other side of O’Connell Street to the GPO, where they ceased. Once again Garda Special Branch constituted an obvious presence, looking on as the colour parties of Republican Sinn Féin, Na Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan formed up facing the GPO and stood to attention. The occasion was in great contrast to Provisional Sinn Féin’s Easter Rising commemoration in Dublin the following day, which has been described in the Irish Times by historian Eunan O’Halpin as “necessarily decommissioned”.

Mandates and Support
When we hear the words ‘dissident republican’ in popular outlets they are ubiquitously followed by references to violence, the Omagh bombing in 1998 or low levels of public support. Since May of this year the threat level from republicans has been raised by security services from moderate to substantial. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has announced that “dissidents have no support”. Moreover, in the aftermath of the killing of two British soldiers at Masareen and PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll in 2009 the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, while standing on the steps of Stormont Castle, famously labelled so-called dissidents as “traitors to Ireland”, and referred to an absence of support for such groups in the community. Narratives about so-called dissident republicanism are shrouded in questions of mandates and legitimacy. A common criticism levelled at Republican Sinn Féin, and the Continuity IRA (CIRA) which shares RSF’s ideology, is that they lack public support- in votes – and that they fail to secure elected representatives. In fact Republican Sinn Féin does have an elected Councillor in Galway, namely Tomás O’Curraoin who has held the position since 2009. Councillor O’Curraoin has always contested the election on an RSF platform. However, to concentrate on mandates in an electoral sense neglects the historical reality that republicanism has not traditionally taken its mandate from the polls. 1798, 1916 and the First and Second Dáileanna are invoked as legitimising the current republican campaign. Legitimacy is not sought at the polls; rather, a line of continuity is drawn through republican history. To put undue emphasis on electoral mandates fails to acknowledge the core of republican ideology.

Republican Veteran John Hunt and RSF President Des Dalton
Republican Veteran John Hunt and RSF President Des Dalton

A dream deferred
As talk of continuity and unfinished business hung in the air that Saturday outside the GPO, I snapped the adjoining photo of RSF President Des Dalton and the commemoration’s guest speaker John Hunt. The image coincidentally captured the reflection of a blowing tricolour on the glass of the GPO; the reflected flag was on a pole in the centre of O’Connell Street. This image embodies more than a 1916 commemoration. It reveals a living historical link between the 1940s and present day republicanism. Competing with a helicopter over-head, John Hunt addressed the crowd with an oration entitled, ‘1916: A dream deferred’. After the speech Hunt was congratulated on his oration and the ninety-six year old veteran replied “if I hadn’t got a cold you’d have heard me at the other end of Connell Street”.

A rebel till the end
John Hunt travelled to the commemoration from Chicago in the US where he has lived since the late 1940s. Originally from Limerick he is one of only two surviving internees of the Curragh internment camp in the 1940s, Tom Doran being the other. Hunt was born in Athea in Limerick in 1920. His childhood memories include attending republican commemorations. The earliest commemoration he can recall took place when he was nine-years old. He attended a commemoration at Gortagleanna in Knockanure in County Kerry with his Father. A few years later John was among the crowd listening to a speech by Tom Barry in Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. John worked as a cobbler and was an active member of the local unit of the Irish Republican Army. Early in 1940, along with approximately 500 other men John was interned for IRA activity.

He was first taken to police barracks in Limerick and was then transferred to Cork jail. His final destination was Tintown at the Curragh military camp. In the huts the IRA maintained its structures and members reported to the Officer Commanding. In protest at poor conditions and at the treatment meted out by Free State soldiers, who were former comrades, internees burnt a number of the huts on 14 December 1940. The resulting punishment was solitary confinement for a number of the men including Hunt. In 1941 Hunt was sentenced to four years and was transferred to Mountjoy prison and then on to Arbour Hill where he spent one year before being transferred back to the Curragh. His eventual release came in 1945 when he was one of the last men active in that era to be released.

Hunt’s attendance at the commemoration was viewed through the RSF lens as conferring legitimacy to the organisation. A line of succession was stressed reaching back to the Fenians, the Young Irelanders, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen.

From the podium John Hunt bellowed out “as a young man, in the darkness of my prison cell, I understood that the sacrifices of the republicans before me would inspire generations yet unborn”. Hunt went on to quote the oft-cited words of Patrick Pearse at republican commemorations: “The fools, the fools, the fools. They have left us our Fenian dead”. Hunt’s presence at the commemoration was in itself part of a republican tradition of conferring legitimacy on the present by invoking the past. The final oration was delivered by the President of Republican Sinn Féin Des Dalton, who succeeded Ruairí Ó Brádaigh in 2009.

Dalton addressed the crowd: “The presence here today of John Hunt, one of the last surviving republicans of the 1940s, underlines that unbroken continuity. It is because of people like John Hunt that our Fenian faith has survived”.

Colour Party: RSF, Cumann na mBan and NaFianna Éireann
Colour Party: RSF, Cumann na mBan and NaFianna Éireann

Goodly company and a right noble succession
As Des Dalton addressed the 2000 strong crowd, members of RSF stood in front of him facing the crowd and holding pictures of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation.
It is interesting to note that observers close to the colour party could witness a woman attempting to ensure that the colour party’s lines were not broken. As members of the crowd occasionally attempted to walk through the colour party they were politely advised on walking around and not breaking the ranks, much to the amazement of some bewildered tourists. The incident indicated that some members of the crowd, having got caught up in the occasion, treated the colour party more as symbolic pageantry rather than an active army. In his speech Dalton linked earlier generations of republicans with current republican prisoners in Maghaberry and sent a salute to the prisoners stating, “in the words of Roger Casement we stand here in goodly company and a right noble succession”. After the release of CIRA prisoner Willie Wong this year there are currently two CIRA prisoners in Maghaberry prison which is located just outside Lisburn. The 2009 period saw approximately nine CIRA prisoners in Maghaberry. In his address Dalton went on to describe the 1916 Proclamation as “our freedom charter”.

Another key-note address was given by John-Joe McCusker, a former political prisoner and lifelong republican from Fermanagh who occupies a position on the RSF Ard Chomhairle. In his oration McCusker sent greetings to Irish people across the world and throughout his address married the historical with the contemporary. McCusker blasted: “The Proclamation of 1916 is a document which pre-empts the imposition of partition and pre-empts the treacherous establishment of the Free State and it pre-empts the St Andrews Agreement”. The proceedings concluded with Amhrán na bhFiann, played by the Coatbridge republican flute band as the crowd joined in singing the national anthem. The concluding parade marched behind the colour party back to RSF’s head office in Parnell Street.

Unbroken Continuity
Unbroken Continuity

A feisty guest of honour
John Hunt’s passing on of the torch to the next generation is in itself part of a republican tradition. At the 50th anniversary of the First Dáil, republican veteran Joe Clarke ensured that he made his presence known in the Oireachtas. Clarke was a survivor of the Mount Street battle in Dublin in 1916 and he was usher-in-charge for the First Dáil. Clarke, based on his activity in 1916 and his veteran status, continued to be issued formal invitations to commemorations which he largely refused until 1966 when an invitation arrived for the 50th anniversary of the First Dáil. He used the occasion to protest the “subversion of the all-Ireland Republic” by Free State forces and in support of the Housing Association, the DHAC. As the main speaker Éamon De Valera rose to address the crowd, Clarke leaning on his crutches stood up in protest and shouted “The programme of the old Dáil has never been implemented. This is a mockery. There are people on hunger strike in Mountjoy”, as was reported in the Irish Times the next day. Ushers speedily carried Clarke to the door where he was given his crutches and shown out. The 86 year old was not going quietly. He died in 1976 on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Rising.

Dissident; a dirty word
The emphasis on continuity which is central to republicanism explains the vehement rejection of the word ‘dissident’ by republicans. While internationally the word dissident has commanded a respect among revolutionary organisations, we must ask what exactly is meant by the word ‘dissident’ in the Irish context? Dissenting from what? It is a word which has been propagated by Sinn Féin and has entered into common usage. When used by members of Sinn Féin they are in fact referring to republicans who dissent from their organisation and their current strategy, rather than dissenting from traditional republican ideology. This battle for legitimacy is reflected in the wider republican family.

Cumann na mBan
Cumann na mBan

Cumann na mBan
There was one organisation present at the RSF commemoration that day, which is the only organisation to have never split, and that is Cumann na mBan. The women standing to attention behind the RSF colour party and alongside the Fianna Éireann colour party were not there in a commemorative capacity. They were not in dress uniform. Nor were their silver badges which were striking when the sun caught them, commemorative. Rather these are the active members of Cumann na mBan, an organisation which formed in 1914. 2016 has witnessed women partaking in pageantry, dressing up in Cumann na mBan uniforms or flying Cumann na mBan flags and regarding the organisation as of historical interest. Sharing the ideology of Republican Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan are very much still in existence, contrary to popular treatment of the organisation as historical. While the organisation is illegal in the North it is legal in the South of Ireland. On Saturday 28 May twelve male members of RSF were arrested on their way home from the unveiling of a monument in Lurgan to republicans who have died on active service in North Armagh. Travelling with some of the men arrested were active members of Cumann na mBan returning South after the event.

The Second Dáil and the illegitimacy of Leinster House
Historical legitimacy is important politically and morally to Republican Sinn Féin. Writing in the parties paper Saoirse, RSF President Des Dalton stated “it provides justification for the revolutionary position vis-á-vis the two partitioned states and reaffirms the position of the republican movement as the extension of the all-Ireland”. Leading members of Sinn Féin have questioned the legitimacy which RSF claims in its constitution to have had conferred on the organisation by Commandant-General Tom Maguire. Maguire was the last surviving member of the Second Dáil which in 1938 delegated powers to the army council of the IRA. The most common criticism of the RSF position is the belief that one person conferred legitimacy on the Continuity IRA in 1987. The dispute revolves around the fact that the second Dáil was never officially dissolved thus leading republicans such as RSF to reject claims of continuity made by Leinster House. After De Valera had entered Leinster House he still maintained the legality of the Second Dáil. As quoted in Ruairí O’Brádaigh’s book titled ‘Dílseacht: The story of Comdt. General Tom Maguire and the second (all-Ireland) Dáil’ De Valera announced to the Free State assembly on 14th March 1929: “I still hold that our right to be regarded as the legitimate government of this country is faulty”.

Conclusion: The passing of the torch
The passing of the baton by Tom Maguire to RSF has influenced relations with other republican groups. The question of republican groups unifying under one structure has commonly arisen in recent times and there has been occasional suggestion in media reports of such a coming together, such as at Coalisland on Easter Sunday 2016. But in fact the RSF constitution does not permit unity to take place with organisations such as the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Éirígí, the IRPWA, RNU or the Republican Socialist movement. The constitution is clear on the point of legitimacy and names RSF as the legitimate republican movement. RSF maintains the name Sinn Féin and in April 2016 RSF prisoners in Maghaberry jail called on Provisional Sinn Féin to cease using the name Sinn Féin. Those who walked out of the 1986 Ard Fhéis in the Mansion House reassembled in the West County Hotel in Dublin to reorganise. At that meeting Ruairí Ó’Brádaigh’s brother Seán O’Brádaigh proposed the name Republican Sinn Féin for pragmatic purposes to differentiate themselves from those who remained at the Mansion House that day, who continued to use the name Sinn Féin and are often referred to as Provisional Sinn Féin as a point of differentiation, echoing the earlier split which took place at the 1970 Ard Fhéis at which emerged Official and Provisional Sinn Féin.

RSF has rejected calls from PSF for a border poll as the unit of decision making is central to republican ideology. Therefore a border poll which would take place solely in the state of Northern Ireland is deemed illegitimate by RSF. Further, RSF rejects the 1916 societies’ ‘one Ireland one vote’ campaign on the basis that the 1916 Proclamation unequivocally states: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”. Therefore this right already exists and cannot be decided upon by one generation. Consequently battles around legitimacy and ownership of the past rage between the Provisional Sinn Féin world and the so-called dissident world. Significantly, these battles also rage among republican groups. In an address to the first Ruairí O’Brádaigh summer school in County Roscommon on 7 June 2014 RSF President Des Dalton stated “at a time of confusion as to what defines a republican, it is important to get back to the essential definition as one who’s loyalty is to the all-Ireland of Easter week. That is the rock upon which we build”.

Marisa McGlinchey is a Research Fellow at Coventry University.