Warrior Talk

A study of war, peace and politics

by Sally Watson (Author)
Monographs XX, 248 Pages

Table Of Content

←viii | ix→

Abbreviations, key political actors and terms



African National Congress and the main political force opposing Apartheid in South Africa.


Continuity Army Council.


Continuity IRA, formed in 1986 and shares an ideology with Republican Sinn Féin.


Combined Loyalist Military Command grouping of loyalist paramilitaries including UVF, UFF, UDA and Red Hand Commandos.


Downing Street Declaration.


Democratic Unionist Party, formed by Ian Paisley.


Irish National Liberation Army formed 1974 known as the military wing of the Irish republican socialist party and involved in republican hunger strikes in 1981.


Irish Republican Brotherhood, predecessors of the IRA.

New IRA:

A merger of RAAD, Real IRA and republicans operating independently.


Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.


Northern Ireland Women’s coalition.


Official Irish Republican Army, a republican paramilitary organization reluctant to get involved in the violence in Northern Ireland in 1969. Their politics was far left and focussed on uniting the six counties with the thirty-two counties into a republic with a federal structure of government.


Óglaigh na hÉireann is a term used OIRA, PIRA and now various republican groups. It means ‘Soldiers of Ireland’.


Provisional Irish Republican Army founded in 1969 and disbanded 2005.


Provisional Sinn Féin.←ix | x→


Police Service of Northern Ireland.


Republican Action Against Drugs.

Real IRA:

republican armed group formed in 1997

Real UFF:

Real Ulster Freedom Fighters founded in 2007 by ex UDA and UFF members.

Red Hand Commandos a loyalist paramilitary group whose aim is to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. They are historic enemies of the IRA but disarmed in 2009.


Republican Network for Unity formed 2007.


Republican Sinn Féin formed in 1986 in protest at the political strategies of Provisional Sinn Féin, which were deemed to be counter to Irish republican principles.


Royal Ulster Constabulary and replaced by PSNI in 2001.


Social Democratic Labour Party.


Ulster Defence Association, an Ulster Loyalist defence organization, formed in 1971 and key participant of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, ended armed campaign, 2007.


Ulster Defence Regiment. An infantry regiment of the British Army, 1970–1992.


Ulster Freedom Fighters, a paramilitary group formed by more militant members of the UDA.


Ulster Unionist Party, dominant unionist party that governed Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. Unlike Sinn Féin, unionist MP’s taken their seats in the Westminster parliament in London.


Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary organization formed in 1966 and active throughout the ‘Troubles’.

←xvi | xvii→


In 1998, I was awarded a Masters in Peace Studies by the Richardson Institute, at Lancaster University, the oldest peace and conflict research centre in the UK. I researched the Oslo Accords (1990/1991) and was fascinated by the work of Norwegian facilitators in brokering a peace settlement in the Middle East. I was intrigued by the behaviours of German and British soldiers on Christmas Day 1914 (the Christmas Day Truce) and decided to study this phenomenon in greater detail. During the year of study, my interests in the dynamics of global war and peace grew until a chance remark stopped me in my tracks. One of my fellow students from Sri Lanka asked me about the conflict in Northern Ireland. In that moment, I suddenly realized the magnitude of events in a part of the world, 188 nautical miles from Lancaster. A moment in time that changed my thinking, my career path and me.

My Masters dissertation was focussed on the Good Friday Agreement and a study of the unionist, nationalist and republican discourses generated during 1997–1998. In 2002, I published a PhD on Sinn Fein political transformation from 1969 to 2002 and developed a discourse model to support further research into republican discourses. Between 2003 and 2019, the research work continued and the content of each book chapter is supported by extracts from the material collated during those years. The focus on republican discourses was a deliberate choice to ensure a sound basis for the analysis of warrior talk. The timeline of republican discourses allowed me to concentrate on observable patterns and themes and look more closely at both the surface rhetoric and deeper meaning.

The warrior talk of all parties to conflict is a critical component of a sustainable peace process and the source of material for facilitators and mediators in conflict resolution. My commentary on warrior talk in other settings is based on a long career in conflict resolution in the private and public sectors and more recently with not for profit organizations.←xvii | xviii→

My writing intention was to create a book about warrior talk that was easy to read, with a balance of theory and practice, and the opportunity for the reader to apply their learning in a practical way. This aspiration resulted in chapters designed to integrate theory and practice combined with opportunities for practical application and further reading. Readers may have different learning preferences and interests and therefore each chapter presents a range of options on how the material can be studied.

The book has been written for a varied audience of readers. Some of you may be interested in Northern Ireland or Irish republican history and its impact on current Northern Ireland politics.

For readers intrigued by discourse analysis, there is chapter on research methodology with practical tools and exercises for you to test out. For those readers primarily interested in peace studies and conflict resolution, the case study acts as a practical context for your learning and deeper understanding of the cycles of violence and retaliation that can emerge in a lengthy conflict.

Finally, there is a commentary, at the close of the book, on the forms of warrior talk in our everyday lives and while this is short, I hope it will leave you thoughtful about how language impacts your thinking and actions, and how warrior talk impacts your communities and the wider world.

Dr Sally E Watson

Lancaster, UK

←xviii | xix→


I would like to personally thank my family, friends and colleagues for the support given to me during the writing of this book, the team at Kentmere Book Services, Tony Mason and the staff at Peter Lang.

A special thank you to my nephew Greg, a timely conversation in a coffee shop showed me how important it was to make this book a practical read.

←xx | 1→

Chapter 1

An introduction to warrior talk


We are always writing the history of war, even when we are writing the history of peace.1

The focus of this book is the enduring nature of warrior talk, its role in political discourses and impact on human relationships. Warrior talk is a fundamental part of our human existence and exists in many forms of communication between individuals, groups and nations. On a global level, it is perplexing that so few modern conflicts have been resolved and sadly many continue to display a disturbing level of direct physical violence.2 There is very rarely a neat symmetrical outcome that is sustainable despite the rhetoric of peace talks and the high-profile events where peace agreements are signed. This study of warrior talk will help to illuminate why some conflicts remain in perpetual cycles of violence and retaliation. The roots and causes of conflict are communicated through stories, metaphors and symbolic language: this process serves to trap conflicting parties in past grievances. A peace process represents an imagined future and is therefore unknown whereas the past is well known, albeit often contested.

The language of war may have a role to play in obstructing the progress of peace negotiations, but the language of peace is equally problematic because it brings with it an expectation that there will need to be a compromise in positions and interests. In practice, a peace process can be challenging to initiate and sustain, and it frequently moves through phases of ‘process fatigue’.3 A major stumbling block to sustainable peace is the trust that is needed between all the stakeholders, and this includes the conflicting ←1 | 2→parties, politicians, grassroots communities, armed groups, negotiators and facilitators.4 In this context, warrior talk can be a potent communication tool with a positive influence that can be used to force an endgame within a peace negotiation, but there is always the risk of destroying trust.

The language of war has a key role in human conflict whether on a global level or in the day-to-day experiences of human life because it sustains a narrative that one party or position will eventually dominate the outcome. Warrior talk contains stories of good and evil deeds; its narratives need heroes, villains and scapegoats to support the storyline. The outcomes are frequently a polarized interpretation of complexity, a situation which reduces social and political discourses to an alternative ‘battleground’ with exchanges as fearsome as the rallying cries of an advancing army.

The purpose of this book is to raise awareness of the potency of warrior talk and the forms it takes in human experiences, whether in crises, conflicts or war. The research approach draws on a case study of the Northern Ireland peace process and examines a timeline of Irish republican discourses, 1969–2019, to investigate the role of warrior talk through a period of violent conflict, a lengthy peace process and the political consequences of a peace agreement. A generic definition of warrior talk will be applied throughout this book to encompass the forms which have emerged in the research study:

Language, terms and metaphors associated with war and violence used in political discourses or appropriated into everyday settings to influence people and situations.5

Research context

The history and legacy of the Troubles6 in Northern Ireland have been extensively documented but not necessarily well understood. This book focusses on the multiple discourses produced by republicans to demonstrate that Irish republicanism is a more complex political phenomenon than has historically been acknowledged. For example, the development of Sinn Féin from a political wing to a mainstream political party is frequently presented as a linear process of transition from war to peace, from ←2 | 3→notoriety to community champions. The reality is more convoluted than that, and this can be observed in the co-existence of the language of war and the language of peace within republican political discourses.

Republican discourses and the language of warrior talk have traditionally been used to provide legitimacy, consistency and continuity for the republican cause. However, the political development of Sinn Féin since the 1970s has resulted in a major expansion of discourses, many of which were colonized from sources outside the republican movement. Warrior talk was clearly a key communication tool used by republicans in Northern Ireland and full of heroic stories of courage and personal sacrifice. Warrior talk became a visible thread running through Sinn Féin political discourses, and this has become arguably the greatest challenge to Sinn Féin’s political credibility.7 Sinn Féin appear to have achieved significant political success but at a cost to unity within the republican movement. The rise of new republican groups, the voices of republican prisoners and republican academics are all now bracketed within the label of ‘dissidents’, and this indicates the emergence of new forms of warrior talk.

The peace process

The Good Friday Agreement (1998) marked a pivotal moment for republicans in Northern Ireland. It heralded a peace process and brought a serious challenge to the physical force tradition of Irish republicanism. The negotiations were facilitated with international support, brokered by key international figures, and engaged a full spectrum of political stakeholders including Irish republicans. In 1998 the presence of Sinn Féin at the negotiating table made history and accelerated their political rise over the following twenty years. On the surface, the peace process was a successful story of intervention by governments and international third parties, and its culmination was marked by an event that would be lodged in the history of conflict resolution.8 Within the republican movement, the negotiations for peace presented a seismic challenge to traditional republican views on the British state, and the outcomes presented a philosophical ←3 | 4→dilemma for Sinn Féin. The Good Friday Agreement provided all parties with a structured process towards peace in Northern Ireland, but it did not promise an early removal of British influence. This meant the British government remained a legal entity in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement altered the terrain for all political groups in Northern Ireland, but it is possibly Sinn Féin who gained the most. They accelerated their political transformation and have achieved political power in Northern Ireland – but they also have the most to lose. Their credibility as serving elected officials in two governments, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, could be seriously damaged with a return to violence. In that sense, the war for Sinn Féin is over, but the conditions for more violence in Northern Ireland continue to exist.

How the research was done

Your job is to pick out what is our warrior talk and what is relevant.9

During the research that underpins this book the origins of republican warrior talk were examined to establish how their discourses have presented the republican cause. In the first period of research, the discourse findings were analysed to build a rich picture of republican warrior talk. A practical discourse model was created to track the relationship between core and colonized discourses across a time period between 1969 and 1998. During this period warrior talk appeared in several guises despite a significant development in Sinn Féin’s political strategies, and these findings were published in 2002. In a second phase of research, which focussed on republican discourses from 1999 to 2019, warrior talk continued to feature in Sinn Féin political discourses despite their rhetoric of peace, transition and transformation. Through this period of significant political change within the republican movement, warrior talk remained a key communication tool.

At the time of writing strands of militaristic language remain in the Sinn Féin repertoire of discourses, appearing as set pieces at republican ←4 | 5→gatherings and commemorations. On the surface it seems paradoxical that a political party positioning itself within a peace process should continue to use the language of battle. However, the discourse findings reveal clear patterns in the ways that warrior talk was used and the role it continues to play in republican politics. The outcomes from the two phases of discourse research (1969–1998 and 1999–2019) will be presented as a narrative which spans five decades and which provides a comparative analysis of warrior talk in the context of war, peace and politics.

Peace is not just the absence of war10

The differentiation between the terms ‘peace’ and ‘war’ will be an important framework in this exploration of republican warrior talk and specifically the analysis of colonized Sinn Féin discourses after the Good Friday Agreement. The language of war and the language of peace were evident throughout the timeline of republican discourses, 1969–2019, and this co-existence of apparently oppositional messages was a good source of research material.

A war is generally defined as a state of armed conflict between groups. The term ‘war’ instantly polarizes opponents into ‘good’ or ‘evil’ and influences external perceptions of the situation. The polarizing effect of the language of war with terms such as ‘the enemy’ heightens emotional reactions. The term ‘conflict’ does not necessarily mean that the situation is violent. The terms ‘conflict’ and ‘war’ have been used interchangeably in Northern Ireland, by different political stakeholders, to account for violence involving the British state and sectarian violence between communities. The precision of these terms will be important to the exploration of republican warrior talk.

Galtung’s11 definition of peace will be used to differentiate between ‘negative peace’, which means stopping the violence, and ‘positive peace’, which addresses the root causes of the conflict through structural and attitudinal changes. A sustainable positive peace is therefore more than a peace treaty but a collective will between all parties to change and operate ←5 | 6→differently. Violence does not necessarily manifest as armed conflict or war. This means that violence is not simply a physical act but a complex chemistry of diverse human needs, interests and behaviours which can result in a range of acts, including some that may be non-physical. For example:

  • Direct violence: killing, maiming, rape
  • Structural violence: repressive regimes, injustice, disenfranchisement, exploitation
  • Cultural violence: religious beliefs and language to deny or debase the values or identity of another or justify structural violence
  • Behavioural violence: domestic abuse, coercion and bullying

The range of approaches to resolving conflict may appear complex, but this is a reflection of the multiplicity of settings which involve direct or indirect violence. The field of conflict resolution has developed through concepts from organizational behaviour, psychology, sociology and political science, and by good practice developed by those working in the field. The following framework will be referred to in later chapters on peace, transitional and transformational discourses:

  • Conflict prevention, where actions are taken to prevent escalation into violence
  • Conflict settlement, a negotiating process to end violent behaviour and reach a peace agreement
  • Conflict resolution, which involves addressing the root causes of the conflict and seeking new and lasting relationships with opposing groups
  • Conflict transformation, which addresses the wider social and political context of the conflict and brings positive social and political change

How to get the best from each chapter

The approach taken by this book is one of collaboration between the writer and the reader. This is not a conventional textbook, and it will not ←6 | 7→repeat what has already been written about Northern Ireland in other than brief terms and to illustrate the conditions in which political discourses were generated.

The book chapters are written to provide a structured process flow through the discourse material and build a comprehensive picture of the political journey of republicans in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the present day. Each chapter has a purpose and a role in presenting a timeline of discourse material. Early chapters introduce the reader to discourse analysis and present a political context for the research process. The origins of republican core discourses are explored and form a basis for understanding the political development of Sinn Féin into mainstream politicians. In later chapters the development of Sinn Féin’s peace, transitional and transformational discourses are studied with specific reference to the Good Friday Agreement and its impact on the republican movement. The role of warrior talk as a component of republican core discourses will be compared with the forms of warrior talk used in Sinn Féin’s colonized discourses. The paradox of the continued presence of Sinn Féin warrior talk during what is essentially a time of peace will be used to highlight the current challenges facing the republican movement in Northern Ireland.

Format of chapters

Each chapter will contain extracts from discourse findings along with a commentary about the different themes. Key findings will be supplemented with some suggested reading from a range of authors that includes academics, journalists, republican activists and republican veterans. Each chapter will close with a practical study task and references to support further secondary research. The practical study tasks are tailored to the chapter content and designed to help the reader conduct their own research and make their own analysis of republican discourses.

Throughout each chapter, Provisional Sinn Féin will be termed ‘Sinn Féin’ to distinguish the organization from other republican groups. The Provisional Irish Republican Army will be termed ‘the IRA’ to distinguish them from other armed republican groups. Republican opposition ←7 | 8→to provisional republicanism is termed ‘radical republicanism’ throughout this book and further explanations of different republican grouping can be found in the glossary and in Chapter 6.

Reading and study resources

The book is focussed on political discourses and the role of warrior talk in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process. It would, therefore, be presumptuous of the author to give an expert view on Northern Ireland politics, and this is the rationale for including an additional resources section in each chapter. The reader will be able to draw on further ideas on a range of topics depending on their specific needs and interests, for example, the Northern Ireland peace process, Irish republicanism, political discourse analysis, or theory and practice in peace studies.

Each chapter is designed to bring a balance between theory and practice to the study of warrior talk in recognition that some readers may be part of an academic programme and others will be engaged in their own research. For some readers, the material of the book will intrigue them and draw them to further study. Each chapter offers a customized approach to learning with three resources:

  • Suggested reading section
  • Practical study task
  • Chapter references and endnotes

The suggested reading sections focus on the specific themes of each chapter and includes material that the author found useful in preparing this book. All discourses are political in nature and created in a specific context and for a specific purpose, and this is the reason for the inclusion of secondary material from a broad spectrum of writers and time periods. In discourse research, it is important to avoid the temptation to search for a concrete answer or to drop into a polarized position on the topic. The key is to stay focused on analysing presentation and rhetoric rather than questioning content and truthfulness.

The practical study tasks are an opportunity for the reader to consolidate their understanding of the chapter findings and test out their skills at ←8 | 9→political discourse analysis. The purpose of the study tasks is to integrate theory and practice and to encourage a critically reflective approach to the material on warrior talk. Each study task relates to the themes of the chapter. The tasks become progressively more challenging and will require some additional reading to get the most from the experience. The suggested reading section contains practical tips to guide the reader efficiently to what they need.

Practical study tasks include:

  • Chapter 1: Are we at war with Covid?
  • Chapter 2: A personal case study
  • Chapter 3: Easter commemoration
  • Chapter 4: How to recognize core and colonized discourses.
  • Chapter 5: Maskey lays Somme wreath
  • Chapter 6: New IRA Easter speech
  • Chapter 7: Writing assignments and personal development task

References and endnotes provide additional information and explanations on specific points in the chapter. This may include additional contextual detail that helps the reader to understand why and how discourses were created or specific historical detail that is important to a critical analysis of the material. Finally, a glossary can be found at the front of the book and a bibliography follows Chapter 8.

Book structure

Glossary, abbreviations, key political actors and terms

Chapter 1: An introduction to warrior talk

This chapter is an overview of the rationale and purpose for the book with an introduction to the research process and the specific focus on warrior talk. It is a guide to the book structure, flow of chapters and additional resources to make the learning experience both meaningful and practical.←9 | 10→

Chapter 2: Decoding political discourses

This chapter presents the research methodology, theoretical research perspectives and an introduction to discourse analysis. A conceptual framework of core and colonized discourses is outlined with illustrations from republican discourses. This framework is used throughout the book to analyse the relationship between political discourses and warrior talk.

Chapter 3: The republican code

This is an important contextual chapter that sets out a brief history of Irish republicanism and establishes the origins of warrior talk. The development of republican core discourses is used to understand the historical legacy behind republican politics in Northern Ireland and the emergence of the provisional republican movement.

Chapter 4: The political journey of Sinn Féin

The political transformation of the provisional movement is studied through their discourses and responses to changing political opportunities and the potential threats to the republican goal. The dynamics between republican core discourses and the politics of the provisional movement is used to explore the role of warrior talk in Sinn Féin politics.

Chapter 5: War is a waste if we don’t win the peace

This chapter examines the political development of Sinn Féin through their production of peace discourses and subsequent engagement with the Northern Ireland peace process. The role of warrior talk in the context of peace is used to illustrate the complexity and plurality of the ←10 | 11→republican movement and the internal tensions that emerged during the peace talks in 1997.

Chapter 6: A greyhound trained to race

The impact of decommissioning on the republican movement is used to examine the relationship between provisional and radical republicans.12 The development of Sinn Féin transitional discourses is studied in the context of the emergence of new republican groups and their reasons for opposing the Good Friday Agreement. The emergence of new war-like discourses, for example, ‘Dissidents’, is explored to understand further the political dynamic between provisional republicans and the wider republican movement.

Chapter 7: Transformational discourses and warrior talk

This chapter charts the rise of Sinn Féin transformational discourses following the Good Friday Agreement and explores their role in facilitating a political republican route to a united Ireland. The role of warrior talk is analysed in the context of Sinn Féin’s transformational agenda for Northern Ireland. Current political challenges facing the republican movement are reviewed using both theoretical perspectives and good practice from peace building and transformational change.

Chapter 8: Warrior talk and peace

This final chapter summarizes discourse findings from all previous chapters and presents a commentary on the role of warrior talk and its various forms. The potential relevance of warrior talk for Sinn Féin in the future is analysed, along with the wider implications for the sustainability of the Northern Ireland peace process. Some observations will be made on the role of warrior talk in other conflict settings and the power of symbolic language to bring peace or fuel conflict.

←11 | 12→

Practical study task

Are we at war with Covid?

This first exercise is for you to consider the role of warrior talk in a context that is not a conflict or all-out war: this will help you become more aware of the prevalence of warrior talk in your life. Read the extract below and then use the questions which follow to reflect on the appropriation of warrior talk to a global medical crisis. The full article is referenced below.

Coronavirus and the language of war13

It is portrayed as a battle against a cruel enemy that must be defeated. At the ‘front line’, health care professionals put themselves at risk. In research laboratories, scientists endeavor to find a vaccine to repel the invading pathogen.

In China, Xi Jinping summoned the words and spirit of Mao Zedong as he declared a ‘people’s war’.

In France, Emmanuel Macron put the country on a ‘war footing’. Donald Trump calls coronavirus a foreign threat and pronounces himself a wartime president.

There are a number of objections to the war analogy. It is offensive to suggest that those inflicted by the disease have been called to combat and their response is a test of character. When governments use war analogies to respond to national emergencies they invite disappointment e.g. wars on poverty, crime, drugs and cancer.

Reflective study questions

The following prompts are to guide you through an analysis of the political discourses used to respond to the global pandemic of Covid-19. The purpose of the exercise is to become more aware of your current views on warrior talk:

It is worth making some notes at the beginning of the book and keeping a journal of your insights and learning before you move onto another chapter. When you reach Chapter 8, return to your reflections from this exercise and notice if there are any changes in the way you perceive warrior talk and its role in shaping your perceptions of others.


1. Foucault, M. (2003). Society Must Be Defended, London: Penguin.

2. <https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/? category=us> 12 November 2020.

<https://www.cfr.org/programs/center-preventive-action> 2 December 2020.

3. Powell, J. (2014). Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, London: Random House. Jonathan Powell uses a ‘bicycle theory’ to describe how to keep a peace process moving, p. 205.

4. A differentiation is made in this book between negotiators (who frequently represent the interests of one party in a conflict) and facilitators (who generally have a third-party role that is focussed on the process rather than the substantive content of the negotiation).

5. This definition has been developed by the author based on findings from discourse research and will be applied in each chapter.

6. The ‘Troubles’ is a term used to describe the conflict in Northern Ireland, 1968–1998. From a discourse perspective, this term reflects the complexity of the political issues in Northern Ireland and the different perceptions of the key stakeholders involved. The ‘Troubles’ describes both a political/nationalist conflict and a long history of ethnic and sectarian violence. In the 1970s the level of violence could be described as a low-level war.

7. Maillot, A. (2005). New Sinn Féin: Irish Republicanism in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford: Routledge.

8. Mitchell, G. (1999). Making Peace: The Inside Story of the Making of the Good Friday Agreement, London: Heinemann.

←13 | 14→

9. Watson, S. E. (2002). Sinn Féin Politics and Republican Ideology: A Study of Republican Discourse and Political Transition, Lancaster University, p. 3. This statement was by way of a challenge from Eoin Ó Broin, a Sinn Féin republican activist in Belfast, 1999 and currently an elected MP for the Dublin Mid West constituency.

10. Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization, London: Sage.

11. Ibid.

12. The distinction between these terms is discussed in the glossary. This distinction will be explored throughout this book.

13. Freedman, L. (2020). Coronavirus and the Language of War, New Statesman, 11 April 2020.

←14 | 15→

Chapter 2

Decoding political discourses


Changes in republicanism are rarely conducted in public.1

Political discourses have many roles and it is essential that a robust study looks beyond the surface level for the deeper meaning of the symbolic language being used. In the previous chapter, an international case study of a peace process was introduced as a source of learning about the discourses of war and peace and specifically the part played by warrior talk. In this study of republican discourses during the period 1969–2019, the Good Friday Agreement (1998) represents an event that saw a major expansion of Sinn Féin’s peace discourses using language such as reconciliation, forgiveness, cultural change and transformation.

Despite the proliferation of peace discourses, warrior talk has remained in Sinn Féin’s repertoire of political speeches and it still occurs in the present day. The role of warrior talk has evolved over time and is disseminated in different ways and a variety of contexts. Warrior talk can be a powerful catalyst in a conflict situation because it presents the situation through clearly defined positions and encourages stakeholders to take sides psychologically and, at times, physically. The outcome is an increased polarization of views and a decreased appreciation of the complexity and history of the conflict.

The rhetoric of war and the rhetoric of peace draw us into creating rigid mental models and norms, which then shape our behaviours and allegiances. We rally around emblems and flags and find ourselves fiercely defending our views and – worse – we defend our assumptions. It could be argued that warrior talk is a crude linguistic tool to agitate, inspire, compete and even go to war. However, in some settings, especially negotiations, ←15 | 16→warrior talk can be used more peaceably, as a deliberate tactic to force an opponent to back down.

Chapter purpose

This chapter presents a rationale for discourse analysis as a research approach in the study of republican warrior talk. A conceptual framework is introduced, including an outline of the philosophical influences that have shaped the research design. In preparation for the next four chapters, a practical model of core and colonized discourses is discussed and illustrated with text from republican discourses. This model will be used throughout the book and provides a practical structure to examine republican discourses.

The political context in which republican discourses were created is presented along with some recommended reading to allow the reader to study political events in more detail and according to their specific interests. It is important to recognize that the various commentaries about and analyses of the Troubles also constitute forms of discourse, each written for a purpose and within a specific political context. The chapter will equip you with practical tools and theoretical insights to expand your knowledge and research skills, and at the same time, develop a discerning, critical approach to political discourse.

Chapter structure

Research methodology: Theoretical perspectives

  • Interpretative research
  • Positive research
  • Universal and particular
  • Structure and agency
  • Identity and power
←16 | 17→

Discourse analysis

Research methodology: Practical considerations

  • A conceptual framework for discourse analysis Core and colonized discourses

Core discourses (1969–2019)

  • Historical discourses
  • Justification discourses

Colonized discourses (1969–2019)

  • Peace Discourses
  • Transitional Discourses
  • Transformational Discourses (1998–2019)

Chapter summary

Suggested reading (chapter specific)

Practical study task: A personal case study

Research methodology: Theoretical perspectives

This section presents a short summary on the theoretical perspectives behind the choice of research methodology. It is not a detailed study of relevant philosophy but an introduction to the key concepts that have shaped the field of discourse analysis. The recommended reading contains a selection of both specific and general reading material for the reader to follow up on their specific interests. Chapter 2 is a preparatory chapter will provide concepts and practical tools for use in later chapters.

This form of study requires close, patient reading of the text, to appreciate how individuals and groups, engaged in peace building communicate their identity and values. The struggle between conflicting parties is frequently a struggle over the meaning and interpretation of a shared history. In a conflict situation, language is frequently used to legitimize war as an option to resolve social, economic, religious or political differences between groups, organizations and nations. The justification for conflict may be sustained by symbolic language such as stories, myths and metaphors. Political discourses are a complex choreography of signals to create and sustain the legitimacy and continuity of political ideologies. Closer examination of discourse production reveals anomalies, paradoxes and ←17 | 18→places where the continuity of the message has been radically challenged or changed.

The story of Northern Ireland and the influence of republicanism has been predominantly told in terms of a stark duality between war and peace. The research methodology outlined in this chapter has been designed to look beyond the discursive certainties and ambiguities of republican discourse over time. While changes in republicanism are rarely conducted in public, their discourses provide a powerful insight into the relationship between their core philosophy, political ideologies and political strategies. The question of why and how republicans continue to use warrior talk will be explored through rigorous discourse analysis and attention to the political context in which republican discourses are created, developed or abandoned.

The following section will outline the key concepts that informed the research design and provide a summary of the key challenges that face a researcher of political discourse.

Interpretative research

The main focus of an interpretative research approach is the subjective responses of human beings. The researcher acknowledges that humans rarely respond objectively to their experiences. An interpretative approach is based on the assumption that our reality is not a concrete fixture but a construction of the mind. Individuals see the same situation in different ways but may choose to communicate with one another in an effort to understand those differences and develop a shared meaning.

Politics is a socially constructed phenomenon between humans that is observable through symbolic language and discourses. Human beings are social actors with the capacity to create, interpret and modify discourses. Language becomes more than a vehicle for communication but a process where people can understand, organize and express their political positions. The surface level of discourse or rhetoric is therefore an access code to understand the deeper underlying political dynamics and power relationships.←18 | 19→

If human beings are social actors and symbol users, then the collective medium of language, even with misunderstandings and mixed messages, provides rich material to study. The discourse patterns and anomalies that emerge over time can be mapped against the political context in which the discourses were generated. A rigorous approach is key, as it enables countering of challenges about the reliability and credibility of a subjective approach.

Positivist research

A fundamentally different approach to that taken in interpretative research is known as positivism. This assumes that political organizations are closed systems where reality is more concrete and human behaviour more predictable. The principle of cause and effect shapes the research design and it is likely to be quantitative and to emphasize the search for clarity. In this research paradigm the priority is to achieve an outcome that is a rational and objective with a concrete answer. The research priority is to find the ‘right’ answer and prove it is reliable and predictable. Historically, the positivist approach was the research philosophy of the physical sciences: these fields dominated academic research and over time legitimized a positivist perspective as superior.

In the field of peace and conflict resolution, critics of a positivist approach argue that an objective reality of the social world is not the central issue.2 It is the way the social world is interpreted by the human actors that is important. In the specific context of the Northern Ireland peace process, it was clear that the scale of plurality and complexity in republican discourses challenged the conventional polarized interpretations of republican politics. This meant that a research study of warrior talk required a methodology that would bring greater understanding of multiple and, at times, conflicting discourses.

Universal and particular

Human beings are born with organizing principles in their minds to make sense of their experiences.←19 | 20→

A simple example is how we might categorize an experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Over time, we develop a repertoire of categories derived from previous experiences, and through interactions with others we are able to envisage new categories. These organizing principles can be universal or particular depending on our reaction to changing circumstances. This process is observable in both the content and context of discourse formation.

The categories may be time-bound especially if the context changes and requires a new response. The universal nature of Irish republicanism can be seen in their core principles, which are often perceived as a sacred message about Irish freedom that has passed through several generations. Outsiders to the republican movement may not possess the necessary ‘category’ to fully understand this or the desire to look beyond the absolute nature of the categories. This can be illustrated in their historical position on the British state:

We are on firm ideological ground and our analysis of the political situation has proved correct. We look to the future – a future without a British military presence. We will never be reconciled with British rule in Ireland nor will we accept any dilution of the national demand. The sovereignty and unity of the Irish Republic are inalienable and non-judicable.3

In direct contrast to this absolutist view is the concept of the particular nature of the human mind which can be observed in the new terms and categories created to manage with the unknown or unexpected. The peace discourses created by Sinn Féin during the Northern Ireland peace process are a good example of the particular nature of republicanism. The peace process brought a fundamental change in the relationship between republicans and the British state and this required new discourses to articulate the new particular categories. The text below represents a clear contrast between the universal, philosophical position, shown above, and a particular, ideological position taken by Sinn Féin and revealed in their 1990s peace discourses:

The British government’s departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and this will arise out of negotiations … such negotiations will involve different shades of Irish nationalism and Irish Unionism engaging with the British government.4

←20 | 21→

Both universal and particular aspects of republicanism were important to the research underpinning this book because they helped to explain some of the complexity of multiple discourses evolving over time. The role of warrior talk took on many forms and reflected both universal and particular aspects of republicanism.

Structure and agency

Another philosophical consideration underpinning the research design was the need to understand how a structural explanation of human nature might impact the production of discourse. An example of a structural perspective can be seen in speeches made by the Sinn Féin leadership in 1997, when republicans were prevented from joining peace talks. The Mitchell Principles outlined a series of requirements for the negotiations and one of them was a cessation of violence.5 Republicans argued that other parties to the talks were still armed and active:

What excuse can there be in this new situation for refusing to recognize the rights of a sizeable section of the electorate here and for them to be represented at the talks.6

This text represents the republican response to an external structure which appears, in the above statement as preconditions imposed on Sinn Féin to allow them to join peace talks. The discourse cited above uses the notion of a ‘political mandate’ to communicate a political moral high ground for the republican cause. ‘Agency’ is a term used to describe the notion of human ‘free will’, which can be applied to individuals, groups or organizations. The collective agency of a group of human beings within a political or social structure is termed ‘empowerment’. A good example is the electoral success for Sinn Féin as a result of hunger strikes in 1981. Republicans mobilized political support from their grass roots and communities and challenged the status quo of social and political inequality:

We believe the age-old struggle for Irish self-determination has been immeasurably advanced by this hunger strike and therefore we claim a massive political victory.7

←21 | 22→

The concepts of structure and agency impact research into discourse formation because they bring a vital source of information about the context in which the discourses are being produced. The relationship between structure and agency is key to understanding the power dynamics operating between different stakeholders within a social or political system. Neither philosophical position fully addresses the fact that not all human beings in a social or political system are equally powerful. A focus on structure versus agency without a deeper understanding of the power dynamics runs the risk of polarizing the interpretation of republican politics. To counter this, the work of Paul Dixon and his ‘strategic relational’ approach was incorporated into the research design of this book.8

For research purposes, language operates as the medium for an exchange of human understanding and their relationships with both structural power and an expression of free will. The role of myths, metaphors and stories embedded within discourses indicates that language is more than a messaging system and the words that people use are key to understanding how the discourses of war, peace and politics interact.

Identity and power

Both structural and agency perspectives fall short of a deeper understanding of how power relations are signalled in political discourses. By the 1990s, academics and thinkers were searching for new concepts to explain the complexity of discourses and challenge the bipolar explanations of structure and agency, as these were deemed to be too narrow. An era of post-structuralism emerged and offered a more integrated view of human actors, power and their organizations:

The weak always have some capabilities of turning resources back onto the strong.9

The formation of groups is heavily influenced by discourses that polarize through the creation of the ‘Other’. Linguistic tactics such as scapegoating, victimizing, disapproving and trivializing all conceal relations of power between different groups and different individuals. The current republican ←22 | 23→‘Other’ refers to republicans and a variety of groups who oppose the political strategies of the current Sinn Féin leadership with discourses which bracket a diverse body of republicans under a category termed ‘dissident’.

Power can also be described as a form of discipline arising from within the social system or organization rather than a process of domination from outside the system.10 Republican power is communicated through their core discourses as both a historical response to British colonial power (structural perspective) and as a justification for armed struggle in Northern Ireland (agency perspective). Another reading of power is the link with identity. Power relationships are observable in discourses by the way in which they shape and sustain different identities. The power dynamic between humans may be more complex than a surface reading of the discourse.11 Authority is therefore an exercise of power over those who are subjected to it but it is vital to understand that those subjected to power may have decided not to resist as a tactical response. This outcome immediately challenges the duality of the structure/agency perspective on power. This makes an analysis of power within republican discourses more complex than it first appears and this requires a research method that can accommodate plurality and subjectivity.

Discourse analysis

Discourses are consciously and unconsciously produced by people and groups to influence key internal and external stakeholders. To a researcher, discourses provide an early warning device that may reveal, signal or even mask a changing situation. Discourses contain empty signifiers, which operate as containers to transmit political messages.12 Empty signifiers may appear to have a clear message and a good example is united Ireland which sustains the illusion of a political closure. Another example of an empty signifier is the term ‘inequality’ which represents a powerful universal message which can influence individuals and groups to initiate change. Empty signifiers are an effective way of making shifts in political strategy and at the same time appear committed to a historical political ideology.←23 | 24→

The production and communication of discourses is an effective way for leaders to reassure both internal and external stakeholders and boost confidence in the leadership strategies. In practice, this manifests as multiple discourses which contain both transparent and hidden messages. The contradictions inherent in multiple discourses are a source of learning because they bring insights into the power relationships between stakeholders. This can be illustrated by the emergence of Sinn Féin peace discourses in the 1990s, which grew in complexity as they communicated the republican position on peace to different audiences. New discourses emerged to signal a transition from armed struggle to a political route towards a united Ireland, but the armed struggle discourses and warrior talk remained in use.

The role of language within discourses is key because it provides signals of political change. The signals may be subtle, but they are likely to represent social and power relations within a group or organization. Warrior talk is a form of language that is clear and binary in that a warrior needs an enemy to exist but when the war is over the identity of the warrior is challenged. In a peace process, roles and boundaries are shaken as key parties search for new meaning and new identities. New forms of language are needed to explain the anomalies and complexity of making peace. The irony is that warrior talk delivers a clear message and represents a level of consistency and continuity. The language of peace is full of empty signifiers which are open to multiple interpretations and which can be endlessly debated. The co-existence of war and peace discourses is a possibility, but it requires a research methodology that can accommodate competing narratives and analytical framework that supports the political reality of modern societies.

Of particular importance is Foucault’s work on archaeological and genealogical perspectives on discourse.13 An archaeological interpretation considers the political context in which the discourse was created. A genealogical perspective takes into account the use of discourse to account for events in the past. This is a useful conceptual model when reading and conducting literature reviews. All discourses, written or spoken are political acts situated in a specific time or context and therefore it is important to look beyond what the writer is saying and question why and how they are communicating. A traditional approach to literature is to compare opposing ←24 | 25→views; a good exercise in intellectual development but the process runs the risk of reducing complex issues into polarized arguments.

Research methodology: Practical considerations

The continued presence of warrior talk in republican discourse presented a clear focus for the research. The research design is grounded in the notion that language can function as an access code embedded in discourses, and close analysis of language can enable the researcher to study power relationships. Language is both an expression of intent and a mechanism for understanding why and how the discourse was generated. For practical purposes, the discourse and language sources examined in this book were drawn from speeches, conference reports, newspaper articles and reports of specific events such as annual conferences and republican commemorations.

A conceptual framework for discourse analysis

Two phases of research that underpin this book were conducted, firstly focused on the period 1969–2002, and secondly 2002–2019. This provided an opportunity to compare republican discourses before and after the Good Friday Agreement (1998). The first phase of research resulted in an analytical model of four major discourse themes: historical, justification, peace and transitional which will be applied throughout this book. In the second phase of research, the model was adapted to include a transformational theme, a new form of colonized discourse which became more obvious in Sinn Féin speeches after the Good Friday Agreement. While the final five-theme model is a practical research tool, it is important to recognize that these discourse themes are another set of labels and, as such, the social construction of the author. To avoid the trap of simplifying and polarizing republican discourses into manageable but unreliable concepts, ←25 | 26→the reader is invited to test out the practical study task at the close of each chapter and conduct their own analysis.

Core and colonized discourses

During the construction of the original discourse model, a differentiation was made between core and colonized discourses.14 This proved an essential distinction and has been used to compare early republican discourse production with the later proliferation of Sinn Féin colonized discourses. The political context impacting the production of republican discourse continuously changed and the use of language shifted to respond to internal, local, national and global influences. Over time, the major changes in discourse formation emerged from Sinn Féin who systematically colonized new language to secure their influence in a wider arena of national and international politics. The core republican discourses remained constant and communicated the traditional republican principles.

The contrast between early core discourses and the later colonized discourses became stark over the time period of the study:

  • Core discourses focus on republican identity and are used to maintain consistency and continuity for the republican goal of a united Ireland. These republican discourses generally relate to a historical legacy, signal a political response or provide a justification for radical actions. During violent events in Northern Ireland, core discourses were used to sustain the republican identity and limit the damage to Sinn Féin’s reputation as a political party. Core discourses emerged as repeating patterns or fresh adaptations of previous historical discourses. A practical example is shown in this recurring theme in many Ard Fheis speeches:

Guided by our patriot dead.15

Change must be managed and the anchor of change is dialogue.16

The interaction between core and colonized discourses provides key insights into the political role of warrior talk for republicans. The next section will illustrate the discourse model and illustrate with practical examples:

  • Core discourses; historical; political; justification (1969–2019)
  • Colonized discourses; transitional; peace (1969–2019)
  • Later colonized discourses transformational (2003–2019)

Core discourses (1969–2019)

Historical discourses

In 1916, republicans articulated the Irish republican goal as a revolution against a colonial power. This communicated a clear republican rationale for armed struggle, which over time positioned the IRA as champions of justice, freedom and democracy. This historical context shaped republican politics across Ireland and had a major influence on a new generation of republican activists in the 1970s. Historical discourses were full of stories of heroic deeds and represented the enduring nature of republican values. This form of discourse provided a moral high ground to sustain the republican tradition, and, at the same time, ←27 | 28→keep the message relevant for the next generation. The ability to create and retain a republican moral high ground became a repeating pattern for over fifty years.

The sacrifice of previous republican generations was used to legitimize a military strategy and sustain the republican goal as a noble project. Historical discourses evolved over time to account for new heroes and to include civilians, for example innocent bystanders (Bloody Sunday, 1972 republican prisoners and hunger strikers, 1981/1982):

The Irish Republic was proclaimed by the only way possible, by force of arms and only by force of arms can the Republic we seek be established.17

Justification discourses

Sinn Féin’s justification discourses developed in two ways. The traditional republican principle of physical force was a moral justification, especially in response to the intervention by an arguably rogue British state. However, a growing civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was helping to politicize local communities and it was unsurprising that republican communities would turn to their ‘Army’ for protection against sectarian violence. A new form of justification discourse presented physical force as a defensive necessity:

Our people’s only means of support is the IRA. The only thing that will prevent wholescale slaughter is a strong IRA.18

Over time, justification discourses became a powerful source of the republican moral high ground and frequently expressed as warrior talk. This extract is one of many examples of a distinctive ‘no choice’ justification for violence:

Evidence confronts us of the determination of the British government to pursue its senseless policy of military oppression. The Irish Republican Army has no choice but to continue the campaign of armed resistance.19

←28 | 29→

Historical and justification discourses appear to have a complementary role and both provide an explicit explanation for republican actions.

Colonized discourses (1969–2019)

Colonized discourses have different characteristics from core discourses. Sinn Féin’s colonized discourses use material from sources outside republicanism to a secure a political moral high ground externally. This material is adapted and used internally to present new political strategies to the republican movement. In this discourse model, they are subdivided into transitional and peace discourses.

Transitional discourses focus on change as a series of planned stages and the achievement of the republican goal is framed as a journey. They are different from justification discourses, which are used to account for a past event and apportion blame to another party. Transitional discourses tend to be colonized from external sources or are adaptions of earlier core discourses. The job of transitional discourse is to normalize unpredictable futures and outcomes. The transition to a united Ireland is presented as a dynamic and evolving process that might involve inclusive politics.

Peace discourses

The emergence of Sinn Féin peace discourses represented a major shift away from the traditional goal of Irish unity. Sustainable peace requires a cessation of military action combined with a structural reform of the political and social systems which caused the original conflict.20 The statement below delivers a clue about the relationship between Sinn Féin and the wider republican community. In an interview given in 1995, Gerry Adams made an explicit statement that social reform in Northern Ireland was crucial to peace:

It is not just a matter of Brits out. It is a matter of transforming Irish society.21

←29 | 30→

Sinn Fein became adept at colonizing discourses from other international conflicts and the addition of language such as forgiveness and reconciliation appeared pre-emptive when the British state was still in control in Northern Ireland. Peace discourses sought to communicate a new inclusive political message to all communities across Ireland. The leadership specifically promoted reconciliation across Northern Ireland as a politically acceptable precursor to Irish unity. This did not sit well with some, including those republicans and their families who had suffered from sectarian violence.

By the 1990s Sinn Féin peace discourses were discursively a long way from the traditional radical republican position:

The depth of our republican vision is its capacity to lift us above our negative feelings. Our vision compels us to build a bridge into the hearts and minds of those whom we once described as our enemy.22

The moral high ground of peace discourses made it difficult for internal stakeholders to challenge the political direction of travel. For some republicans, the Sinn Féin peace strategy traded away the leverage of the armed struggle, criminalized IRA veterans and weakened the republican position in Irish politics.

Transitional discourses

In the 1970s there were few references to the concept of transition and little discursive evidence for a flexible political strategy to achieve the republican goal. Core republican discourses were primarily focused on the unification of Ireland after a forced withdrawal of the British government.

Transitional discourses started to develop more fully in the 1980s with language that described change as dynamic, chaotic but manageable. Phrases such as taking stock, phases of struggle and the republican way started to appear. This change signalled a realization amongst the Sinn Féin leadership that Irish unity was a long-term project. Neither the republican strategies of electorialism or military intervention were having quick results:

←30 | 31→There are no short cuts in the task of making revolution. Only by painstakingly perfecting, educating and structuring our organisation so it becomes relevant to our people.23

Transitional discourses reinforced the message that republicans could win their goal by using the electoral system and political power. Internally, the future was presented as a long road that delivered respite from armed struggle and included terms such as phased demilitarization and release of political prisoners. The power of transitional discourses is that they appear to offer a sturdy bridge between events of the past with political aspirations of the future. This allowed Sinn Féin to present armed struggle as a legitimate step towards political change and peaceful outcomes:

The mass and popular uprising of the early seventies through intense armed conflict and prison struggles including the hunger strikes, electoralism and the Sinn Féin peace strategy.24

Transitional discourses appear to signal that old conventions and meanings were being challenged inside the discourse. The surface rhetoric claimed a moral high ground but beneath the surface were complex narratives and meanings.

Transformational discourses (1998–2019)

In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement (signed on 10 April 1998), Sinn Féin started to position themselves as custodians of peace. The language of cordial union, primacy of community and reconciliation appeared in their earlier peace discourses and they continued to use their transitional discourses to warn that Irish unity was a long journey. There was a distinctive turn in their discourse from transition to transformation, which gave them a multipurpose form of discourse, visionary and flexible if short on practical detail. Their strategy was, however, clear that the route to Irish unity was a societal transformation of Northern Ireland first followed by the ending of partition:

←31 | 32→That is why republicans have to be long-headed and strategic in our approach. We are the ones who want maximum change. Sinn Féin is the one party who wants to see a total transformation of the situation, so we have to be patient, resolute and magnanimous.25

Transformation was seen as both the transformation of Northern Ireland and the transformation of Irish society, which spelt out a major ambition for Sinn Féin to govern a united Ireland. The distinction between transitional and transformational discourses is subtle but important. Transition implies a series of planned stages to reach a destination and a metaphorical bridge which acts as a structure to travel across. Transformation implies that the destination will be totally different and the bridge is only a temporary structure and there is no going back. Indeed, a political or social transformation may be so dramatic there is little time to build a bridge or indeed question whether a bridge was the appropriate means to travel. The impact of transformational discourses is highly relevant to the study of conflict resolution and the processes of building a sustainable peace and will be explored in more detail in Chapter 7.

Chapter summary

An insightful examination of warrior talk requires a research methodology that goes beyond a literal interpretation of political discourses. It also requires a case study, which has substantial material to draw out patterns and themes in a range of discourses. The case study selected is a narrative of war, peace and politics and one that requires a research design to enable readers to look beyond surface rhetoric.

A philosophical framework to the research design has been introduced with a rationale for discourse analysis. In the suggested reading section, there is a selection of text for the reader to explore depending on your individual interests. Both theoretical and practical aspects of discourse research are outlined in this section. In this chapter, a practical discourse model has been introduced to guide the reader through the format of the ←32 | 33→next six chapters. The model is an easy to follow structure as each chapter examines an aspect of the republican journey in Northern Ireland, 1969–2019 to gather insights into the role played by warrior talk.

Suggested reading (chapter specific)

This chapter has outlined the limitations of a positivist approach to research and introduced the rationale for discourse analysis. Below is a brief summary of key thinkers and researchers who have contributed to the development of a more interpretative perspective on research. The reader will notice some of the sources are from the 1980s and 1990s, and this is a reflection of the scale and speed of change towards a more subjective interpretative approach to research. The legitimacy of discourse analysis grew in this time period and is now become embedded in social and political sciences. Many of the authors have continued to publish but the discourse of their early work brings an interesting insight into meeting the challenges from an established traditional paradigm. The bibliography at the end of the book will highlight further reading.

Research methodology: Theoretical perspectives

For those readers who are drawn to the theory of positivist and interpretive research paradigms and the case for qualitative research, Sociological Paradigms and Organization Analysis (1985) and The Case for Qualitative Research (1980)26 provide more detail on post structural thinking and an appreciation of interpretative research approaches.

Prison Notebooks (1971)27 is an important read because the author challenges an authoritarian conception of power and introduced the notion of collective will. The book also discusses the importance of symbolism and myths to the transformation of social relations.

The Phenomenology of the Mind (1931)28 was an early challenge to a universal interpretation of social and political systems. This work opened up ←33 | 34→the way for an alternative explanation of human interactions and gives a philosophical basis for appreciating the plurality and diversity found in modern political discourses.

Consequences of Modernity (1990)29 focuses on human agency and the transformative impact of collective power on social practices and systems that exercise control. His thinking on power will help the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the politics of hunger striking.

Two key books stand out for their integration of theory and practice in the research of political discourses. They bring a clear comprehensive analysis of the rise of postmodern thinking and the practical impact on research practices. Situating Social Theory (1999)30 uses a timeline approach called the Seven Traditions (pp. 33–62) and New Theories of Discourse (1999)31 gives a fuller explanation of terms such as structure/agency, universal/particular and power/authority.

Structural Anthropology (1963)32 was an early work on myths as universal structures of the human mind, which promote collective understanding in groups and organizations. The topic of myths in the context of Irish republicanism will be covered in more detail in later chapters and the relevant literature sources will be outlined.

Research methodology: Practical considerations

The development of Discourse Analysis can be understood more fully by reading Studies in Ethnomethodology (1984)33 and Cognitive Sociology (1974)34 to gain an appreciation of the different strands such as linguistic analysis, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

For more detail on the term ‘colonization’ read Language and Power (1989)35 and New Labour, New Language (2000)36. Language, Power and Ideology (1990)37 is essential reading for all chapters of this book.

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1989)38 A good text for more detail on archaeological and genealogical approaches to discourse production.

Talking Politics (1996)39 brings a practical approach to demonstrate how discourse both constitutes social and political practice and is constituted by it. This means that discourses can be viewed as evolving, flexible ←34 | 35→processes that can change with external conditions or co-exist with other discourses.

Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989)40 gives some good insights about language as a symbolic representation of reality. The author challenges the idea of knowing the ‘truth’ and this helps to understand the process of discourse analysis.

Course in General Linguistics (1981)41 concludes that language is a medium for an exchange of consciousness between members of a human system. This work made a significant contribution to the development of a more linguistic approach to discourse analysis.

Language and Symbolic Power (1992)42, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985)43 and Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (2000)44 all impacted the research design for this book. These texts are representative of a new era of interpretative research and give practical understanding of how discourse analysis has gained credibility. They all highlight the importance of being curious about anomalies in political discourses. All these texts provide good explanations of the term ‘empty signifiers’.

Practical study task: A personal case study


Select a personal experience of a conflict, which you are familiar with or specifically interested in. This could be something in your personal or professional life or an issue in your team or community. It is important that the conflict situation is meaningful to you. If you are a student of politics, conflict resolution or related subject, then you may wish to select a conflict that is on your syllabus.←35 | 36→


Now use the following questions to explore the conflict in more detail:

  • What is the background to this conflict?
  • What is the current context and challenge you face?
  • How does history impact the situation?
  • How does history impact your thoughts and feelings?
  • What do you notice about your assumptions?
  • How does it make you feel towards the different stakeholders?
  • How is warrior talk used in this context?

Keep notes of your observations and as you read a chapter, return to your notes and progressively develop your thinking on warrior talk.


1. Smyth, J. (2005). ‘The Road to God Knows Where: Understanding Irish Republicanism’, Capital and Class, 29, pp. 135–158.

2. Little, A. (2011). ‘Debating Peace and Conflict in Northern Ireland: Towards a Narrative Approach’, in Haywood, K., and O’Donnell, C. (eds), Political Discourse and Conflict Resolution: Debating Peace in Northern Ireland. London: Routledge, pp. 209–223.

3. Wolfe Tone Commemoration, 6 September 2000, Cathleen Knowles McQuirk, Vice President of Republican Sinn Féin, <http://free.freespeech.org/republicansf/boden00.htm> 2 December 2020.

4. Jim Gibney, Bodenstown Address, An Phoblacht, 25 June 1992.

5. Mitchell, G. (1999). Making Peace, London: Heinemann.

6. Adams, G. The Irish People, 2 August 1997, p. 8.

7. An Phoblacht, 10 October 1981.

8. Dixon, P. (2001). Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Basingstoke: Palgrave, p. 27.

9. May, T. (1999). Situating Social Theory, Buckingham: Open University Press.

10. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1986). Nietzshe, Genealogy and History: The Foucault Reader, London: Penguin.

11. Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse, Oxford: Blackwell.

←36 | 37→

12. Laclau, E. (1990). New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso.

13. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock.

14. Fairclough, N. (2000). New Labour: New Language, London: Routledge.

15. IRA New Year speech, Irish Republican News, 2 January 2002, p. 1. Notice the date of this core discourse which illustrates the longevity of republican history.

16. Adams, G. (1998). Belfast Telegraph, 13 May 1998, p. 13.

17. An Phoblacht, April 1970, p. 1.

18. An Phoblacht, April 1971, p. 1.

19. IRA statement, An Phoblacht, 30 March, p. 1.

20. Galtung, J. (1990). ‘Cultural Violence’, Journal of Peace Research, 27, no. 3.

21. Adams, G. (1995). Interview with Reality, June 1995, p. 8.

22. Adams, G. Belfast Telegraph, 13 May 1998.

23. 80th Ard Fheis report, An Phoblacht, 4 November 1984.

24. Adams, G. (1998). An Phoblacht, 7 May 1998.

25. Adams, G. (2000). ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, article in the Irish Republican News, 18 May 2000.

26. Burrell, G., and Morgan, G. (1985). Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis, Aldershot: Gower; Burrell, G., and Smircich, L. (1980). ‘The Case for Qualitative Research’, Academy of Management Review, 5, pp. 491–500.

27. Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from Prison Notebooks, London: Laurence and Wishart.

28. Hegel, G. (1931). The Phenomenology of the Mind, London: George Allen and Unwin.

29. Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

30. May, T. (1999). Situating Social Theory, Buckingham: Open University Press.

31. Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse, Oxford: Blackwell.

32. Levi-Strauss, C. (1963). Structural Anthropology, New York: Basic Books.

33. Garfinkel, H. (ed.) (1986). Ethnomethodological Studies of Work, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

34. Cicourel, A. (1975). Cognitive Sociology, London: Penguin.

35. Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and Power, London: Longman.

36. Fairclough, N. (2000). New Labour, New Language, London: Polity.

37. Wodak, R. (1990). Language, Power and Ideology: Studies in Political Discourse, Amsterdam: Benjamin.

38. Foucault, M. (1989). The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Routledge.

39. Gamson, A. W. (1996). Talking Politics, New York: Cambridge University Press.

40. Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

41. Saussure, F. (1981). Course in General Linguistics, Suffolk: Fontana.

42. Bourdieu, P. (1992). Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity.

43. Laclau, E., and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso.

44. Howarth, D., Norval, A. J., and Stavrakakis, Y. (eds) (2000). Discourse Theory and Political Analysis: Identities, Hegemonies and Social Change, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

←38 | 39→

Chapter 3

The Republican Code


The past emboldens the rebel in great matters.1

Irish republicanism has a long history of struggle with the British state that predates 1969 and the start of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The republican philosophical position has remained very clear and consistent with their demands for a united Ireland as well as an end to what they perceive as an illegal partition that was imposed by the British state in 1920. As the Northern Ireland peace process evolved, there were two key outcomes, the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and IRA decommissioning (2005), that signalled a major change in the traditional relationship between the republican movement and the British state. Fast forward to the current situation in Northern Ireland: the fact that it exists at all as a political entity indicates that a united Ireland has not been achieved. The peace process has brought greater political influence for republicans, but the British government is still in control.2

Two key principles have guided the republican movement in their ambitions for a united Ireland. The legitimacy of physical force to remove the British state from Ireland, and the concept of ‘abstention’, which is the refusal to recognize the British government as a legal entity within the island of Ireland. Both these principles represent deeply held convictions amongst republicans and are based on a long legacy of republican philosophy and ideology. This legacy is key to understanding the impact of the peace process on the republican movement and the continuing role of warrior talk in republican discourses.←39 | 40→

While the philosophical basis for Irish republicanism is sacrosanct, republican ideologies have flexed to enable provisional republicans to engage in inclusive politics and electoral strategies. It is in the domain of republican ideology that the republican movement has experienced the greatest challenges to their internal unity. The peace process in Northern Ireland heightened external pressure on the republican leadership to abandon the physical force tradition and relax their position on the withdrawal of the British state.

The principle of republican abstention was debated in 1987 to enable Sinn Féin politicians to take up seats in the Stormont parliament. This was a shift in republican ideology presented as a political tactic and a practical route to Irish unity and was supported by all republicans because it challenged their core principles. The relationship between republican philosophy and ideology is key to understanding an internal dynamic that continues to exist within the republican movement. For some republicans, ideological shifts are pragmatic and represent a ‘long game’ with the British government that does not represent an abandonment of republican philosophy and principles. Others regard a change in republican principles as a betrayal of Irish republicanism and a noble cause:

Republicanism is effectively decommissioned. Discursively it lives on but this is little more than lip service.3

Irish republicanism has a powerful legacy whether it is understood as a form of lip service or as a binding code, and the tension between these two positions continues to impact unity across the wider republican movement. Whether pragmatist or purist, republican political intentions have traditionally been communicated through a fiery mixture of political ideology and military intentions. Their warrior talk delivers a robust and consistent message:

For mark this well, our enemies will never concede or surrender their Power, Position or Privileges to anything but armed men who are determined, committed and trained in every field of Revolution. Our strategy must be the perfect blending of politics and violence.4

←40 | 41→

This extract is a good example of justification discourse and illustrates a traditional republican perception of their relationship with their enemy, the British state. A second extract, cited below, illustrates a blend of historical and justification discourses. Here republican warrior talk is communicated in a poem used by Gerry Adams in 2016, eighteen years after the Good Friday Agreement.

The time span between the two extracts is over fifty years and this evidences the continuity and longevity of Irish republicanism:

Chapter purpose

This chapter maps the origins of Irish republicanism and the philosophical influences which have impacted republican politics in Northern Ireland. This is an introduction to a historical legacy that has influenced republican discourses rather than a detailed chronological account of Irish republicanism. There is a wealth of literature published on Northern Ireland available and a suggested reading section is at the close of this chapter.

The historical roots of Irish republicanism reveal the origins of both philosophical and practical dilemmas facing the republican movement today. Republican warrior talk is a legacy of that history and signifies a dilemma for the current republican leadership and their political aspirations in Northern Ireland. This chapter illustrates how warrior talk has evolved in this context over time and how it is used for different purposes and by different republican groups. The conceptual model of core and colonized discourses, introduced in the previous chapter, will continue to act as an analytical framework in this chapter.←41 | 42→

Chapter structure

  • Roots of republicanism
  • Republicanism and physical force
  • The legacy of the Easter Uprising, 1916
  • The northern provisional movement (1970s)
  • Republican hunger strikes (1980s)
  • Republicanism and abstentionism
  • Provisionals and republican unity
  • Chapter summary
  • Suggested reading (chapter specific)
  • Practical study task: Easter commemoration

Roots of republicanism

The hour of your emancipation is at length arrived.6

This exhortation to rebel against the British colonial system in Ireland in 1798 is attributed to Wolfe Tone as he prepared republicans for a military operation; ironically the rebellion failed but it left a lasting political legacy for republicans to cherish for generations. Tone advocated the co-operation of Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters, as Irishmen, to fight together against British interference.7 His political position on an Irish republic was essentially inclusive and, in that sense, quite different from the exclusive republican politics which dominated Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

The origins of Irish republican roots and discourses can be traced back to ancient Greece, and two world-changing revolutions in France (1789) and America (1765).8 From ancient philosophical roots and radical politics came the notion of a republic, identifying it as a viable form of government in the whole of Ireland. These roots became the cornerstone for Irish republicanism and a consistent moral high ground for republicans. An ancient Greek philosophy became a cornerstone for Irish republicanism and a lasting moral legitimacy for a democratic and just form of government.←42 | 43→

Irish republican politics and their discourses were influenced by Cicero’s notion of democracy.9 Classical republicanism can be seen today in the republican language of justice, freedom and democracy and these words consistently permeate both their core and colonized discourses. Cicero believed that people were the foundation of a democracy. In his view, democracy was the property of the people and the safety and freedom of society should be enshrined in law. A manifestation of this can be seen in Northern Ireland when the republican leadership proposed People’s Assemblies in the 1970s as an alternative power structure to the British state.10 Northern republican views on democracy, at that time, illustrated a remarkable continuity of a political ideology. Cicero’s influence can be seen consistently in the traditional republican perspective on the British state.

Republican discourses frequently use the writings of both Wolfe Tone, named the father of Irish republicanism, and Thomas Paine, who was a keen observer of the American War of Independence (1775–1783). Both men were heavily influenced by the French revolution (1789–1799), another key event which had a profound impact on modern history and triggered a decline in absolute monarchies. In France, workers rose up and rebelled against an unjust social and political system administered by a monarchy. In America, the rebellion was against an unjust colonial power, also a monarchy. Both revolutions were characterized by a willingness to use violence to achieve political freedom.

Both Wolfe Tone and Thomas Paine advocated the use of arms to secure a democratic political alternative and this could be seen in the Irish republican principle of physical force. For them, the American War of Independence against British rule provided historical evidence that a colonial power could be defeated through the force of arms. When Wolfe Tone established the Society for United Irishmen, he adopted the values of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ and colonized the discourse of the French revolution to rally people to the idea that inequality could be challenged by radical action. This theme also emerged in the American War of Independence and which created the political legitimacy for the people to rise up against an unjust state.

All these historical influences contributed to Irish republicanism and are present in their core discourses as a mechanism to transmit and sustain the continuity of their political legitimacy. From a republican perspective, ←43 | 44→this makes armed struggle a legitimate form of rebellion against injustice. The influence of Tone and Paine on Irish republicanism can be seen in language that positions the British state as an enemy of a republic. Republican warrior talk originates in a context where citizens took up arms and revolted against their unjust states. Citizens became warriors with a new identity of freedom fighters whose actions became heroic stories for another generation. Tone’s vision of freedom was greater social, economic and religious equality across Ireland and his position on violence was a contributing factor to republican warrior talk:

Swear with us the eternal war against the avarice and ambition of England to which your liberty, your property and your blood have been so long sacrificed.11

All republicans, irrespective of their political views and position on physical force, continue to commemorate Wolfe Tone and Thomas Paine at annual events.

Republicanism and physical force

In its more extreme form it was thought not only right to die, but to kill for that version of Ireland.12

A key republican principle is the right to use physical force to achieve Irish unity. This position sanctions a military strategy as a legitimate response to injustice and sanctions violence as a moral choice. This rationale can be seen repeatedly in republican historical and justification discourses:

I believe in the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence and the right of any Irish man or woman to assert this right in armed rebellion.13

In the late 1960s a civil rights movement had started to grow in Northern Ireland with supporters intent on bringing social justice for nationalist (mainly Catholic) communities and the political reform of a unionist-controlled government. In August 1969 an ongoing series of campaigns ←44 | 45→to gain civil rights for a minority Catholic nationalist population in Northern Ireland resulted in violent encounters with Protestant unionists and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).14 The Irish Republican Army (IRA), traditionally the custodians of Catholic communities, was unprepared for the scale of street violence in Belfast and Derry. The provisional republican movement was originally a breakaway group of Northern republicans comprised of Provisional Sinn Féin (PSF) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA). Members of the IRA who stayed in the original formation were then termed the Official IRA (OIRA). The rise of the provisional movement is an important aspect in the timeline of Irish republicanism and will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter.

In 1969, the British Army were deployed to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to keep the peace and were initially given a positive reception from the communities under siege.15 The relationship between nationalists and soldiers deteriorated as the promised neutrality of the British intervention started to be questioned by nationalists experiencing brutal responses from both RUC and the British Army. On Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, a civil rights march met with an armed response from the British military. The death of twenty-six unarmed civilians was a turning point for republicans. From their perspective, both OIRA and PIRA were now engaged in the protection of Catholic communities and at war with the British state.

Initially the primary republican goal was to achieve a declaration of intent by the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.16 The shift to armed strategy was rapid and legitimized by the republican principle of physical force. Provisional republicans publicly argued that PIRA’s escalation of retaliatory violence had a philosophical mandate that was deeply embedded in republican roots. However, Provisional Sinn Féin had political aspirations for Northern Ireland and was keen to promote civil rights, mobilize grass roots supporters and secure social justice for disenfranchised communities.17

The escalation of violence in Northern Ireland and especially the deployment of British troops reinforced the perception of the British state as enemy of the republic and the defender of a corrupt unionist government. The republican narrative was one of victimhood and that the IRA ←45 | 46→was forced to respond with physical force against, what they perceived to be an oppressive state security in Northern Ireland. This can be seen in the language of self defence, which became a recurring theme in republican justification discourses. The following extract is a clear indicator of the outrage felt by provisional republicans in the 1970s:

A grim determination that never again would the forces of the British Crown run riot with impunity through any Irish city, town or village.18

In the 1970s the traditional republican principle of physical force was consistently used to legitimize both OIRA and PIRA activities in Northern Ireland. This brought a political complexity for northern republicans. Their discourses reveal two core strands of political aspirations: the historical demand for Irish unity and the pressing need for social justice for northern Catholics. Both aspirations were ambitious and complex, but the immediacy of escalating street violence bounced the IRA into an armed struggle. As the violence escalated, the provisional leadership turned to their historical roots to justify PIRA operations and positioned the British state as the enemy:

Violence in Ireland is the result of British Imperialism; of the British connection and the British presence.19

The physical force tradition, and its main signifier – warrior talk – represented discourses that reflected only one facet of republican politics in the 1970s. Beneath the surface, the seeds of later discord within the provisional movement were being sown. The historical republican agenda was to create a democratic republic across the whole of Ireland and now some northern republicans could see the merits of a socialist agenda to create social, political and economic justice specifically in Northern Ireland. The primacy of republican philosophy and principles was in danger of being overtaken by the political opportunities for reform in Northern Ireland. For the next fifty years the internal debate within the republican movement continued to revolve around the ‘means’ and ‘ends’ of achieving Irish unity.←46 | 47→

The legacy of the Easter Uprising, 1916

A strange alchemy of Irish politics that transmuted sixteen executed men into martyrs.20

For republicans in 1916 the Easter Rising was seen as an attempt to change an unjust society that was administered by a rogue state. The British Army’s armed response was followed by mass imprisonment, executions and backlash from nationalists and republicans. The Easter Rising brought physical force republicanism back into Irish politics, which for nearly fifty years had been dominated by constitutional nationalism. The warrior talk emerging from the Easter Rising became a potent rallying call for Irish freedom:

It was one hundred years ago, on Easter Sunday 1916, in the centre of Dublin, when a small band of revolutionaries proclaimed an independent Irish republic. This group of poorly equipped Irish men and women took on the might of the largest empire the world has ever seen.21

By executing the signatories and other leaders, the British government removed the revolutionary leadership and the most advanced and progressive thinkers.22

The American Revolution (1765–1783) against the British state had strengthened the justification for armed rebellion as the act of honest people against an unjust state. The Easter Rising delivered political gains and the chief beneficiary was Sinn Féin with a decisive General Election victory in Dublin in 1918.23 Following this success, Sinn Féin established an Irish parliament in Dublin, the first Dáil Éirean in 1919.24 In the aftermath of the executions, the British government came under international pressure to agree to Home Rule for Ireland but faced fierce opposition from a Protestant majority in the North. The result was a historic fudge manifested as the formal partition of Ireland in 1920, which established two parliaments, in Belfast and Dublin, both under British jurisdiction. Republicans have never accepted that partition or the continuing involvement of the British government was legal.←47 | 48→

The impact of partition was brutal and it ruptured communities as both unionists and nationalists found themselves on the wrong side of the border. This division of Ireland was deemed to be undemocratic and illegal and, to this day, some republicans refer to the South as the twenty-six counties and the North as the six counties. In 1921, the South gained their independence and the Republic of Ireland (Éire) was created. Republicans have continued to push for the reunification of Ireland, using both political and military strategies.

In 1918, Sinn Féin electoral successes were boosted by a backlash at the decision by the British Government to execute the leaders of the Easter Rising for treason. This was a deliberate choice not to dignify the rebellion as an act of independence but to punish republicans for an act of treason. The executions created martyrs and their sacrifice became a powerful and emotive narrative for republicans. The Easter Rising remains a solemn annual commemoration.

The Easter Rising brought an awareness that armed rebellion could encourage renewed political support for a nationalist agenda. In the 1920s the electoral successes gained by Sinn Féin demonstrated an early engagement with constitutional politics when they won 124 out of 128 seats. The full impact of their political achievements was largely lost because Sinn Féin did not take up their seats in the Irish Dáil because of their principle of abstention. Republicans regarded the Irish Dáil as illegal government because it was administered by the British state and they set up their own Dáil.

The sacrificial nature of republican philosophy and ideology were further legitimized by stories of the Easter Rising, which added drama and richness to republican historical and justification discourses. This phenomenon can be seen in the core discourses of northern republicans throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which were greatly influenced by heroic deeds and courage. The following extract from Bobby Sands’ diary illustrates a powerful moral timeline:

I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence and the right of any Irish man or woman to assert this right in armed rebellion. (1 March 1981.)25

←48 | 49→

Historically, republican ideology had been predominantly exclusive, offering universal principles about the relationship between the state and the people but focusing on the republican population. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, however, Sinn Féin experienced the benefit of greater political collaboration across nationalist and republican communities. The republican values of justice, freedom and democracy had appeal for disadvantaged and disempowered groups, both Protestant and Catholic.

From 1916 onwards, republican historical and justification discourses were sustained by the story of the Easter Rising. The identity of Irish republicanism is a continuous unbroken chain, which has a clear consistent message to the present day. The emergence of the provisional movement in the North did not break that chain but the leadership of Provisional Sinn Féin brought existential challenges to the core republican principles of physical force and abstention that would have been inconceivable in 1916.

The northern provisional movement (1970s)

The Good Friday Agreement now rests with a party that began its existence dedicated to the destruction of the government of Northern Ireland and the partition settlement that underlay it, but the same party has ended up utterly and absolutely reliant on them.26

The emergence of the provisional movement took place in the context of escalating violence in Northern Ireland and the perceived need to defend Roman Catholic communities against the actions of both a unionist government and the British state. This is the same movement that later engaged in a peace process, signed the Good Friday Agreement and decommissioned their army. The scale of political change initiated by the provisional leadership will be examined in more detail in Chapter 4.

August 1969 was a pivotal month in Northern Ireland. An explosive combination of civil rights activity, sectarian violence and overzealous policing by the Royal Ulster Constabulary tipped Northern Ireland into a period of time which became known as the Troubles. In the same month, ←49 | 50→British troops were deployed to restore order and this effectively galvanized Northern republicans into an extensive civil rebellion. In the words of Seán MacStiofáin:

A colonial power does not send in its army to hurry up social reforms.27

British troops were not trained in peacekeeping or community liaison and the escalation of sectarian violence between nationalists and unionists was met with a forceful response. It was Bloody Sunday, in 1972, that consolidated the perception of the British state as a colonial enemy. The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had politicized republican and nationalist communities but the British Army conducted the policing of their civil rights marches. Bloody Sunday stands out in history because it resulted in civilian deaths and was a major traumatic event. In 1998 a judicial inquiry was established by the British government as part of the peace process; it finally produced a report in 2010.28

An armed response from the British government became the initial republican justification for the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland. The stated purpose of the British Army was to ‘keep the peace’ but in a very short time soldiers became embroiled in a conflict and, worse, they were not seen as neutral but as the instruments of state-sponsored violence inflicted on republican and nationalist communities. From the republican perspective, a unionist government supported by the British state continued to deny them their human rights:

Those seeking an insight into the origins and development of the Provisional IRA need look no further than 1969 and subsequent state policy. British indifference created the organisation and British repression sustained it. Its volunteers did not carry some genetic code dating back to 1916 predisposing them toward physical violence.29

However, it noticeable that the provisionals adopted traditional historical discourses to provide a continuous link with 1916 and confer legitimacy on their new republican movement:

Evidence confronts us of the determination of the British government to pursue its senseless policy of military oppression. The Irish Republican Army have no choice but to continue the campaign of armed resistance.30

←50 | 51→

Their surface rhetoric presented both military and political strategies, but in reality Sinn Féin activists were developing a political agenda based on socialist principles that made reforming Northern Ireland a priority over the traditional republican goal of a united Ireland. It is unsurprising that republican veterans would over time leave the provisional movement, shocked at the scale of departure from principles of Irish republicanism:

The Provisional movement carefully manipulated and articulated the tradition of republican ideology into provisional discourse.31

Today the ideals we fought for are never spoken of. Our beliefs are traded for the realities of the current process, a process that suits the interests of political parties and not the common people.32

The notion of physical force to eject a rogue state remained a key justification for the provisionals, but their new role of community protectors opened up the space for them to become politically active in Northern Ireland. The political development of Sinn Féin brought a spotlight to the unresolved tension between a universal message of republicanism and their pragmatic desire to influence northern politics. This meant that the republican principles of physical force and abstention would sooner or later be put the test.

Republican hunger strikes (1980s)

It is not those who inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.33

The words of Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in an English jail in 1920, became another powerful legacy adopted by provisional republicans. Hunger strikes were a political act of defiance against the perceived injustice inflicted by the British state and a means to draw attention to the plight of Catholic communities across Ireland. This personal sacrifice represented a different form of physical violence and enshrined ←51 | 52→martyrdom in republican culture for another 100 years. The discourse of personal sacrifice was reconstituted in the 1980s when the provisional movement resorted to hunger strikes in the North.

The language of the hunger strikers in the early 1980s indicates that they believed their actions to be an alternative front in a war with the British. Although engaged in a ‘Long War’ with the British state, the provisional leadership was discreetly drafting political strategies to steer the movement away from revolutionary violence.34 Their political focus was on social and political reforms in the North and the hunger strikes gave them a route to move from a position of radical resistance to one of community politics:

On a practical, and indeed at local level, it demonstrated the ability of the grass roots membership of the organisation to be an effective political force. The hunger strike campaign generally proved our ability to influence people in the community in which we lived.35

The election of Bobby Sands as an MP for the Westminster parliament in 1981 was a major watershed for northern republicans, even though the principle of abstention prevented him from taking his seat. The political support for Bobby Sands from nationalist and republican communities was an avalanche. His death, and the deaths of nine other young republicans, was a shocking event and reinforced the stories of martyrdom already embedded in republican historical discourses.36 New stories of martyrdom and sacrifice portrayed the absorption of suffering rather than an infliction of violence on others. The original republican grievances against injustice in Northern Ireland were rational demands for economic, social and political justice. Republican hunger strikes evoked a strong emotional reaction from a wider body of people nationally and internationally. For republicans, the purpose of hunger striking was to communicate suffering as act of dignified rebellion and one that positions the enemy as a persecutor.

One of the key outcomes of the hunger strikes in the 1980s was an increasing politicization of nationalist communities in Northern Ireland and this increased republican political support. Sinn Féin learned the values of electoral power but there was a price, as this meant their political focus shifted closer to the nationalist community and constitutional politics. ←52 | 53→They maintained their allegiance to the core republican goal of Irish unity but there was a distinctive shift to a broader pan-nationalist approach to their political strategy. Through their discourses, Sinn Féin were able to make political capital from the hunger strikes and stay faithful to the republican code:

We believe that an age-old struggle for Irish self-determination has been immeasurably advanced by this hunger strike and therefore we claim a massive political victory.37

Sinn Féin’s growing commitment to a political solution to ending partition during the 1980s was a qualitatively different message to their physical force republicanism in the previous decade. The hunger strikes started as a traditional republican response to the British state and were fundamentally about the status of republican volunteers in prison. With the international status of prisoner of war, their armed struggle was legitimized with a guarantee of special status in prison.38 The identity of prisoner of war remains an important symbol for republicans because it recognizes the legitimacy of their struggle. In 1975 the special category status was dropped by the British government and overnight criminalized years of republican struggle. The republican response was to create a new battlefront in prison and that elevated their struggle to another form of sacrifice for the republican goal. The blanket protest was initiated and a different form of violent standoff confronted the British government.39

The British government are responsible for the hunger strikes. The ending of special category status was a political tactic used to criminalize the Republican attack on British imperialism in Ireland.40

Our comrades have lit with their lives an eternal beacon which will inspire this nation and people to rise up and crush oppression forever.41

In the years following the hunger strikes, a new transitional discourse started to emerge and this indicated that the Sinn Féin leadership were ready to challenge the traditional republican principle of abstention and take a more pragmatic stance to constitutional politics in Northern Ireland. The following extracts acknowledge the republican principle of physical force as a goal, but they also subtly challenge the principle of abstention. The discourses signal that Sinn Féin were anticipating a ←53 | 54→fundamental change in the traditional relationship between republicans and the British state:

Those in favour of contesting elections that do so is a tactic – political gains must flow to the people associated with the armed struggle.42

There is room for republicans to examine if the struggle for independence can be improved by an intervention in the electoral process in order to show clearly that people support radical republicanism. What should not be the basis for discussion is whether this intervention means the run-down of an armed struggle. It patently does not. We must fight on many fronts. The armed struggle has been historically shown to be important.43

The political terrain for republicans was about to change but their warrior talk of martyrdom and sacrifice remained. Despite the political leverage of the hunger strikes, the military rhetoric remained primary and the following statement was published during a period of inclusive talks with nationalist politicians. The warrior talk was directed at other republicans:


XX, 248
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XX, 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Sally Watson (Author)

Sally Watson had an extensive career in developing organizations and their leaders within private, public and not for profit settings prior to joining Lancaster University Management School in 1998. Consulting work included facilitation and conflict resolution with senior executive teams and boards of national and international organizations. This experience adapted well to the style of executive education programmes at Lancaster University and an opportunity arose to gain a PhD with the Richardson Institute for Peace. The combination of practical experience in conflict resolution, academic rigour and expertise in learning design is manifested in the style and content of this book. The reader is centre stage in this book with a variety of choice of how to engage with warrior talk. The author is currently a visiting Professorial Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and continues to work in conflict resolution from both theoretical and practical perspectives.


Title: Warrior Talk