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Column Why is Alan Ryan's funeral the face of republicanism?

If politicians don’t want the masked men marching in a funeral cortege to continue being seen as the real face of republicanism, writes David McCann, they need to change the conversation.

THE SHOW OF strength orchestrated by the Real IRA last weekend at the funeral of Alan Ryan has provoked condemnation from the Justice Minister Alan Shatter and much critical comment from many of the media outlets who ran the story with pictures of masked men paying homage to a fallen member.

But missing from all these critiques is a debate about what Irish republicanism should be about in 2012 and if other parties who subscribe to the principles set out in the 1916 proclamation have created such a void that it is now being filled by these paramilitary groups.

For decades Irish republicanism has held close the notion of blood sacrifice. Most pupils can recall from their history lessons being told of the great sacrifices made by men like Pearse, Connolly and Casement in the name of Ireland and its people. Ireland is not alone in the world for commemorating the military escapades of past generations. Similarly, this piece is not arguing that there is any link between the men of 1916 and the scenes in Dublin on Saturday. But is enough being done to modernise republicanism to fit into the circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2012?

It seems par for the course now that any meeting which includes the topics of Irish unity or republicanism must come with speakers spouting outdated quotes from revolutionaries delivered more than a century ago. While I do not seek to minimise the contribution of past generations to the development of Ireland, I do find something strange about the lack of progress in Irish republicanism that the same issues it revolved around a hundred years ago are still prevalent within its base today. So the question has to be posed: why the lack of modernisation?

Since the partition of the island, Irish republicanism made its number one priority the reunification of island. Yes, there are differing views about how to achieve this long term aim but any political party in Ireland that subscribes to the term of republicanism has this as a core aim. Yet I am poised to ask how successful have political parties that seek the reunification of Ireland been in achieving this aim?

“Why is the constituency for reunification turning away from the idea?”

Ireland in 2012 is nowhere near achieving reunification as opinion surveys from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey to the Belfast Telegraph show just 32 per cent of voters in the North would approve reunifying with the Irish Republic in a referendum. More worryingly for Yes campaigners, less than half of Catholics surveyed said they would wish to join the south of Ireland in the next 25 years. You have to ask yourself why this constituency for reunification is turning away from joining an independent Republic.

In my view it is because republicanism in 2012 takes comfort from and holds onto ideas that are no longer valid in modern Ireland. Instead of preaching about the necessity for unity, no party that actually espouses the aim has actually bothered to explain to anybody who is interested what a united Ireland might look like.

What are the economic/social benefits and what are short-term costs? It is not enough to simply wish for positive outcome and expect results. If all the parties who support reunification genuinely want to see it then serious thought must be put into what shape that state might take. Otherwise, more and more people will simply turn away from the entire prospect altogether. As recent polls have shown, burying your head in the sand ignoring what’s going on around you does not work.

Reunification is just one example of the lack of new thinking but if Irish republicanism is to survive and even thrive in modern Ireland then it needs to seriously modernise and find new issues to champion other than the tired constitutional battles of past. Issues such as equality, the rights and responsibilities of the citizen and the structure of the government need to be at the centre of Irish republicanism going forward. As we approach a constitutional convention it beggars belief that we are not seeing in the media and among our politicians serious debates every day about how we can rejuvenate this republic for the next century.

“Stagnation is not the fault of any one party”

I believe that the main political parties in this country that espouse republican beliefs are genuine in their convictions and the stagnation is not the fault of any one political party or leader. But I do question the level of thought that has been given to modernising this ideology going forward.

If political leaders in this country truly want to make scenes like military funeral that took place last Saturday a thing of the past, then they must change the conversation about what it means to be an Irish republican. Otherwise, the scenes of masked men marching alongside a funeral cortege will continue to be the face of Irish republicanism.

The first step in solving any problem is first recognising there is one. If we continue to place the emphasis at a time when war was to the forefront of people’s minds, then how can we ever expect to create a republicanism that exists solely on the basis of peace and mutual respect? What we need today is a new proclamation for a new time that places an emphasis on our pride in the past but also confidence in the future. In writing this column, I hope I am in some small way contributing to this endeavour.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

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