27 September 2023

‘Zombie’ attacks and the worrying rebranding of Irish republicanism


Ireland’s bruising, nail-biting win against South Africa in Paris on Saturday evening at the rugby world cup caused an unexpected furore online. 

As the final whistle sounded, the stadium tannoy played The Cranberries’ song Zombie, and its refrain, which expresses revulsion at IRA violence during the Troubles, was taken up by thousands of ecstatic spectators and many of the players. ‘It’s in your head, in your head they are fighting … Zombie,’ they roared. This celebration provoked something of a meltdown among the army of internet republicans, or ‘Shinner-bots’, who form a vocal part of Irish social media.

The rise of Sinn Fein, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, has coincided with a re-energised campaign to portray IRA atrocities as a justified and necessary response to British oppression and violence. This distortion of recent history may seem too blatant to succeed, but it has convinced many young people who have little recollection of the Troubles, but are attracted to republican politics, with its mix of populism, anti-establishment sentiment and the whiff of danger afforded by its connections to terrorist violence.

Some of Sinn Fein’s sympathisers need little encouragement to vent their fury on X (formerly Twitter) and other platforms, when their view of Ireland’s past is challenged, even indirectly. And so it was on Saturday evening.

The Cranberries’ singer, Dolores O’Riordan, wrote Zombie in 1994 to vent her disgust at the Warrington bomb, which saw the IRA attack a shopping street in the Cheshire town and kill two young children. ‘The IRA are not me. I’m not the IRA,’ she told Vox magazine later, ‘When it says in the song, “It’s not me, it’s not my family,” that’s what I’m saying. It’s not Ireland, it’s some idiots living in the past.’

In the nineties, when she expressed these sentiments, they were relatively uncontroversial, to the point of being anodyne. Throughout the Troubles, the vast majority of people on the island, nationalist and unionist, north and south of the border, condemned IRA terrorism, and the activities of other paramilitary groups, without reservation.

While a quiet majority may feel the same today, a noisy minority rails against any account of republicans’ role as perpetrators of the Troubles, rather than propaganda that depicts them purely as victims of the state. This new mood is typified by a resurgence in the popularity of the song Celtic Symphony by the folk group the Wolfe Tones, with its celebratory chorus ‘Ooh, ah, up the ‘Ra’ (Belfast street slang for the IRA).

This barely disguised terrorist anthem, which only a few years ago would have been viewed as deeply embarrassing and old-fashioned by most young Irish people, has acquired cult status with a new generation. It topped the Republic’s charts last year, after the women’s international football team was condemned for singing it in its dressing room, and, this summer, the Wolfe Tones attracted ‘the largest crowd ever’ to a stage at Electric Picnic, one of southern Ireland’s mainstream music festivals.

If you want a British analogy, imagine thousands of young people thronging the Other Stage at Glastonbury to listen to a folk group singing ‘white power’ ballads. 

It was against this backdrop that the reaction to Zombie played out online and in the media over the past few days. The stand-up comedian and actor, Tadhg Hickey, who is currently appearing across the British Isles in ‘The Marxist Terrorist-Supporting Scumbag Tour’, described the song as ‘the perfect partitionist anthem’. He claimed, ‘It encapsulates the complete lack of understanding or even basic compassion in the south for the lived experience of Northern nationalists.’

A University of Cork academic, Professor Laura McAtackney, tweeted, ‘Zombie is so far from relevant to a sporting anthem you may as well just cobble together a tune with the chorus “We hate the Shinners”.’

Other online republicans were even less subtle with their criticisms. Many X users deployed the phrase ‘West Brit’, which is a term of abuse levelled at Irish people nationalists deem too sympathetic to Britain. 

The fact that the Ireland team and its supporters celebrated a notable victory by belting out Zombie shows that these attitudes are either rejected or disregarded by a significant number of Irish people. 

It’s unlikely that most singers at the Stade de France in Paris intended it as a political statement against the IRA. It was simply an infectious tune that reflected their pride at that moment in their island, its sportspeople and its music. At the same time, it could not have contrasted more with the ‘ooh ah, up the ‘Ra’ subculture that has taken hold at other events and it echoed a consistent strain of thinking that won’t accept a distorted version of history. 

Recently, the Republic’s deputy prime minister, Micheál Martin, effectively ruled out his party, Fianna Fail, forming a coalition with Sinn Fein after the next general election in the Republic, by pointing out, ‘They still try to triumphalise it [the IRA], they still try to justify it. The problem with that is that you’re infecting a new generation of young people.’

While Sinn Fein and other republicans have tried recently to portray the successful rugby team as harbingers of what we could expect from an independent ‘new Ireland’ that encompassed the whole island, they’re now cast in their more traditional role as ‘West Brits’. The sport was always viewed, by many hardline Irish separatists, as a ‘foreign’ import, played and supported by an unreliable middle class, who often forged friendships with the northern unionist enemy through their love of the game.

The Ireland team is now rated number one in the world, and it is one of the favourites to reach the world cup final. Its adoption of Zombie as an informal anthem shows that Sinn Fein and its supporters cannot continue to contort the past without encountering challenges.

For voters in Northern Ireland, the row demonstrates yet again that republicans’ campaign for an all-Ireland state does not offer the kind of inclusive ‘new Ireland’ that they like to portray. It simply repackages ancient anti-British hatreds and bigotries for a social media generation.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.