The Wilson Quarterly

In a recent documentary, VICE News profiled the Ireland’s Na Fianna Éireann (The Warriors of Ireland), a small youth group that holds fast to the doctrine of dissident republicanism. This militant current disavows the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; it upholds the struggle, generally conceded to be over, to unify the Republic of Ireland with the six counties of Northern Ireland. Na Fianna Éireann are, in VICE’s words, “Ireland’s last true republican boy scouts.”

Founded in 1909, Na Fianna Éireann combines paramilitary drilling and ideological instruction with more traditional scouting activities. But the dissident republicans as a whole include more violent types as well, notably the Continuity Irish Republican Army (C-IRA), a splinter group from the now-inactive Provisional IRA whose members still consider themselves in a state of war with Great Britain.

For the C-IRA and other militants, 2015 has been a rather successful year. Over the last eight months, violence linked to dissident republicans has spiked, according to the Irish Times and the BBC.

Still, Na Fianna Éireann is tiny — about thirty members, VICE estimates, even as only half a dozen or so appear onscreen. The extensive footage of them on maneuvers, dressed in fatigues while aiming fallen tree branches in place of rifles, only makes their smallness more apparent. One of the boys is eleven years old, and looks about eight.

Na Fianna Éireann’s spokesman in the documentary is an articulate young man of about eighteen, earnest but not glib. He takes his activism seriously, but stops short of mania. It’s remarkable: in a movement whose members rant on and on about the coming Bloody Sundays and the Irish blood that Britain continues to shed, only one person in the documentary fits the image of the raving, spit-spraying blowhard. That latter specimen is the bearded man speaking at this year’s 99th Easter Rebellion memorial. The rest seem intelligent, even charming.

Whether the dissident republicans are “right,” whether Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland, and whether violence was or is a necessary means to that end, are important questions in their own right. Similarly, the paradox of a clearly intelligent man buying into clearly ridiculous beliefs is worth exploring we’ve seen it before, whether in Malcolm X in his Nation of Islam days, claiming that white people were the invention of a medieval mad scientist, or in the well-educated men who brought down the World Trade Center. In a minor way, we see this same paradox in the well-spoken youth of this documentary, who sincerely predict more massacres à la Bloody Sunday in the near and continuous future.

But the more interesting question is “Why?” Why people — especially Europeans brought up in the age of Pixar and Barack Obama and the smartphone and the Celtic Tiger — should be attracted to hardline militancy.

Why should people — especially Europeans brought up in the age of Pixar and Obama and the iPhone and the Celtic Tiger — be attracted to hardline militancy?

As the Quarterly recently pointed out, people’s motives for entering fringe politics, especially militant politics, vary wildly from case to case. A single explanation will never fit every individual.

Nevertheless, there is a strange rift underway across the globe, cracking the surface of politics and culture along the margins of the NATO West. The beaming, optimistic force of liberalism — business-friendly policies and Enlightenment values, whose touchstones now are American-approved government and sleek new Apple gadgets — is facing its equal and opposite reaction.

This trend against the Enlightenment values and freewheeling consumerism that America has long exported is certainly nothing new. But it’s growing more visible in places like Turkey and Russia and Europe’s debt-burdened South, in little corners of Ireland and in the broad territories held by the Islamic State.

The ideologies that comprise this anti-liberal current often have little in common. Vladimir Putin’s strongman nationalism hardly resembles Alexis Tsipras’ 21st century Marxism, which in turn looks nothing like the nightmarish neomedievalism of the Islamic State. But these ideologies, along with Ireland’s dissident republicans, Greece’s other radical movement — the far-right Golden Dawn — and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Ottoman nostalgia, seem to share little besides a common disdain for the chug-along, secular, business-friendly, democratic agenda of the European Union, NATO, and the United States.

One thing shared by these groups, so often nostalgic for empires or the romance of Lost Cause mythology, is a sense of human, corporeal satisfaction. The frustrations of American or EU-style liberalism are not limited to political coercion masked by a smiling insistence on “cooperation,” or long, bloody wars waged in the name of Freedom. It is that Freedom itself, with its capital F, which is sometimes worse. Liberal ideology hinges on abstractions: human rights, freedom, justice. And abstractions are tenuous under the best of circumstances, rarely satisfying at the carnal, human level.

The first principle of politics is not a principle at all. It’s the human body, with a beating heart and churning guts and, perhaps lastly, a brain.

The high ideals of the France’s 1789 revolutionaries, who tried to reduce the universe into neat abstractions and user-friendly formulas, turned almost immediately into a kind of perverse worship of the human body, the roaring of the mob for fresh heads from the guillotine. And soon thereafter, that worship refocused on a specific body, that of Napoleon. Today in Russia, Vladimir Putin has taken the lesson to heart. He undresses for the news cameras, revealing to the world his own animal humanity. His entire policy is encapsulated in that bold nude torso, and the Russians have responded energetically: despite problems at home and pressure from abroad, Putin’s popularity continues to soar.

The first principle of politics is not a principle at all. It’s the human body, with a beating heart and churning guts and, perhaps lastly, a brain.

When the Greeks went to the urns this summer for the bailout referendum, they faced a choice between German abstractions — Money and Debt and Responsibility — and the body of a weeping grandfather. They chose the grandfather.

And for Western jihadis who move to the Islamic State, no spit-shined TED-talk trope will ever be as moving, as viscerally stirring, as the image of a bearded man on horseback, waving a war banner, or pointing one finger to the sky.

In the scheme of European politics, Ireland occupies a strange position. It’s a member of the infamously titled “PIGS” (for Portugal, Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Spain), the Eurozone’s microcosm of the Global South; its economy has been doing better than, say, Greece’s, but nevertheless, unemployment and public debt are high. And like Greece, and like Syria, Ireland has been shaped by a history of colonial exploitation, bloodshed, and hypocrisy.

A dissident republican in the VICE documentary appears in a slouch hat and Sam Browne belt, Irish Civil War-era regalia amid street scenes filled with iPhone typists and Facebook gawkers. The passersby, captured by the camera, could well be Germans or Americans; the reenactor, by the same token, could be one of the troopers at the Turkish presidential palace, carrying an Ottoman sword. Both are immune to the glib, rational, abstract rhetoric of the Obama White House, to the Silicon Valley aesthetic, to the finger-wagging of Berlin. The dissident republican, for better or for worse, is a soldier for the physical, the corporeal, the animal in politics. Though he’s a rare species on the streets of Dublin, he’s not in Moscow, or in Athens, or in Raqqa. And we cannot afford to ignore him.

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Further reading:

VICE News, “The Republic’s Dissident Youth: Ireland’s Young Warriors,” July 23, 2015.

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