Republican separatism traces its origin to the ‘United Irishmen’ movement, inspired by and contemporary with the French revolutionaries of the last decade of the 18th century. Despite—or rather, because of—the changing composition of the class blocs which have adopted it, republicanism has remained British imperialism’s most serious ideological opponent in Ireland ever since. During the National Revolution (1916–23) it was the dominant tendency for long periods, but was finally defeated by the forces of ‘constitutional nationalism’ which installed a régime of the commercial bourgeoisie in the South. These also acceded to the partition of the nation, thereby providing republicanism with a rationale for a further indefinite period.

Today republicanism chiefly finds its expression in the organization Sinn Féin, which was founded some time after the Second World War as the party through which it could undertake ‘legal’ political work, such as contesting Imperial elections in Northern Ireland. The military wing of Sinn Féin is the Irish Republican Army (ira), which preserves a direct organizational continuity with the forces defeated in the Civil War which concluded the National Revolution. During the intervening years these achieved a significant place within the social and cultural structures of the Irish Free State, despite the fact that their fortunes constantly oscillated between military defeat and political disaster.

It is evident that in order to persist in this way modern republicanism must represent substantial social groups. In fact it expresses the aspirations of a large body of the small peasantry, it draws upon vast reservoirs of resentment, frustration, sentiment and guilt which were the pathological legacy amongst virtually all classes of the political and territorial incompletion of the National Revolution, and it additionally reflects a growing working-class extra-parliamentary opposition in Southern urban centres.

These three tendencies, if not completely incompatible, are sufficiently diverse to mean that the republican movement today contains groups united by only the twin co-ordinates of catholicism and nationalism. This false unity has only been possible in the absence of genuine class politics, and the split which took place in Sinn Féin’s January Congress was occasioned by these politics finally making themselves felt.

The present split can be traced back to the early sixties and the abysmal failure of the ira’s last guerrilla campaign (1956–62), which was aimed at destroying British control over Northern Ireland by physically detaching areas of it and placing them under an ira provisional government. The only positive aspect of this campaign was that the gravity of its failure called into question the political practice of all generations of republicans since the twenties. In 1962 the movement faced the alternative of destroying itself by further armed adventures which drew only negligible support from the populace or re-orienting its activity toward legal political agitation. It chose the latter, although it was generally understood that such agitation would remain primarily directed at the question of partition. However, the period 1963–65 was marked by the emergence of a different line, namely, that this agitation should be aimed at imperialism throughout Ireland: in the North at the British occupation, and in the South at neo-colonialism. From the period of the emergence of this line, through its acceptance (1967) until last summer, the emphasis placed upon physical force was phased out and the ira became completely subordinate to Sinn Féin, which now displayed autonomy as a political party. It had begun the decade as the political bureau of a military organization and ended it as a political party with a military wing.

The emergence of a new anti-imperialist party upon the political stage of the Free State had a cathartic effect and the enthusiasm generated by its initial successes obscured the forces of dissension which were gathering momentum within it.

The basis of these differences revolved ideologically on competing conceptions of imperialism. The ‘physical force’ tendency regarded imperialism as a formal colonial occupation and exploitation of Northern Ireland by Britain. The ‘agitational’ tendency regarded it as a system of economic, social and ideological domination both sides of the border. For the physical force tendency, routing imperialism was in the first instance a matter for military action, while for the others armed struggle was only one of a series of possible tactics.