‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 1

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, Daniel Finn, Verso 2019

There have been a number of books on the history of the IRA and as the author of this book has noted, per capita, Northern Ireland is possibly the most academically analysed society of any in the world.  At the book launch in Belfast he was asked by Matt Collins, People before Profit councillor in Belfast, why he had written another.

Finn pointed out that a number had been written some time ago, around the late 90s and early 2000’s and that distance had allowed a new evaluation of what had happened. The passage of time also allowed access to some government papers, which allow a more honest presentation of the views of the British government than its public declarations, which were mainly ritualistic denunciations of terrorism or carefully scripted statements designed to achieve particular political purposes.

The history, essentially of the modern IRA, begins in the late 1960s, which is now half a century ago, but well within the living memory of many of those involved.  Finn also has distance because he is from the South – while the main struggle reviewed was in the North – but was able to make contacts with those engaged in the political activity covered in the book.

The book is also a political history, while the others have mostly been essentially military histories with political background, and with much of their value residing in new information about what was, after all, a secret organisation.

The primary value of this book therefore that it is a political history.  Not only that, but its scope is wider than those books that have dealt solely with the Provisional IRA.  It builds its understanding of the Provisional movement not just from its own actions and statements but from within a broader canvas of the wider political struggle.  He engages not just with the Provisionals but valuably looks at the political perspectives of the Official Republican Movement and of Peoples Democracy.

As I noted in my contribution to the discussion at the Belfast launch, the history of this period is either presented as one of barely interrupted political violence by the IRA fighting the counter-insurgency of the state, or of an anti-imperialist struggle whose only real actor was the Provisionals; as if no one else ever mattered or provided a different way forward.  The book is therefore extremely useful in demonstrating that this was far from the case.

It sets the scene in an interesting introduction to the modern period with a history of republicanism and wider situation up to the explosion onto the streets of the civil rights movement in 1968.  He notes the re-evaluation of strategy by the IRA following its abysmal failure in the border campaign that spluttered out to defeat in 1962, and records it’s new leader, Cathal Goulding, describing it not so much as a guerrilla movement moving through its people like a fish in water, but more ‘like a fish through a desert.’

However, in my view, the author does not make enough of the radical change in republican objectives that occurred decades before, which moved from seeking to overthrow the Free State to de facto and then de jure acceptance.  The foundational acceptance of the legitimacy of one partitioned state was clearly a result of a purely nationalist politics that had no alternative to the separate Irish State, which over a couple of decades achieved as much political independence as could ever have been expected.

Since the republican movement, even Goulding’s IRA at this point, still saw the armed struggle as the key, this meant their opposition to the southern partitioned state could only be platonic.  This imposed a fatal weakness that led to repeated incorporation of the militant opposition of fractions of republicanism into that state; beginning with the pro-Treaty ancestors of today’s Fine Gael, then Fianna Fail, then Clann na Poblachta and later the Provisional IRA, which dropped its militant opposition to the Northern State through an alliance with the political forces of the Southern State and the fatal charms of nationalist unity.  Now assumed and taken for granted, it bears on all republicans today, pro and anti-peace process.

Finn explains the development of the thinking of the new Goulding IRA leadership with its view that political agitation must play a more prominent role in IRA activity and its belief that achievement of civil rights would assist democratisation of the Northern State.   In this scenario a second stage would facilitate class politics, which would come to the fore and would make possible dissolution of the border and establishment of an all-Ireland worker’s republic.  This strategy and that of others has been the subject of a series of posts on this blog looking at the history of the civil rights movement and beginning of the ‘Troubles’, beginning here.

For this reader the chapters dealing with the years up to the late 70s are the most interesting, since these deal with the political perspectives of the various organisations and their activities when the struggle against the Unionist regime and the British State had a mass character and wasn’t, and couldn’t be, simply dismissed as a violent conspiracy by a small number of evil men.

This period includes the growth of the civil rights movement to a mass campaign; the pitched battles between Catholic workers and the sectarian state forces; the sectarian division of much of Belfast; British repression including the Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday; and the overthrow of Stormont.  This was when real advances were achieved and the mass movement won significant victories against an attempted British military solution.

These victories ultimately brought about, and included, the downfall of the Unionist Stormont regime.  As I also argued at the book launch, this then led to a struggle for an objective that the movement could not achieve – the defeat of British rule entirely and a united Ireland of some sort.  Within the potential of a struggle confined to the North it was not possible to achieve this and as we have seen, republicanism had no perspective or strategy for overthrowing the Southern partitioned state.

Before looking at the evidence that Finn provides for such a conclusion, we should recognise something else also taken for granted in most reflections on the history of republicanism.  Because of the more or less rapid demise of the Official Republican movement and its complete eclipse by the Provisionals, the importance of the split in the movement in 1969/70 is not appreciated.

Militant republicanism was a minority tendency within the Catholic population, which itself was a minority.  To think that a split in this minority could leave either side with the potential to achieve their stated goals was at best an illusion.  More objectively the split exacerbated the worst tendencies of both.  For the Provisionals, it confirmed their militarism and disregard for politics as a whole, never mind a debate on what sort of politics was needed.  For the Officials it initially created a competition with the Provisionals for armed initiatives, created a bitter and personalised division, and hardened the weakest and most rotten aspects of their increasingly Stalinist and reformist politics.  While they sought to address necessary questions that the Provisionals were simply not interested in, they came out with the wrong answers.

Saying yes to Jeremy – part 2

Brexit and any step forward by the working class in Britain are incompatible.  So what attitude do we take to a party that promises both?  Up until now the way forward was to fight for the Labour Parry to be democratised so that its Remain supporting membership, backed by the majority of Labour voters, could impose a progressive Remain policy on the leadership.  This had to be done irrespective of the Jeremey Corbyn leadership.  In other words, it was a gulp, and then ‘No, Jeremy’.

Failure to see this or to carry it to success, for whatever reason, now means that we have to face a Labour Party of MPs who don’t support Corbyn, especially any progressive policies he stands for, and are no more likely to force a radical agenda in Parliament if the Party won a majority than they were under Blair.  On the other hand, if the Party lost the election badly, Corbyn would be finished and there would be an almighty push to finish any progressive element of the Corbyn project with him.

This is one reason why socialists and working people more generally should call for a vote for Labour, because it provides better grounds on which to fight for socialism, inside the party and outwith it.

Even if the Party won, of course the fight to get the parliamentary party to take the action it needs to take to implement any sort of radical agenda would remain.  The Party would also still be run by a Brexit-supporting apparatus that would deliver up either an unsustainable Brexit or simply more years of political paralysis and crisis.  If so permitted, in either eventuality the Party would suffer, and especially the leadership that delivered either of these outcomes.  It would be better that the Tories bear responsibility for Brexit than it be implemented by Labour, although this means only that we should fight for Labour to adopt a socialist policy on Brexit, not leave it to the Tories.

A socialist policy would not simply mean opposition and support for Remain.  It would mean taking advantage of EU membership to organise on a pan-European basis, trying to win support for the social democratic policies that are currently put forward only within national limits but can only be implemented, at the very least, on a European level.  Of course, such a social democratic programme is not in itself socialist, but a fight to ensure solidarity across each member state would seek to level up labour rights, working conditions and regulations etc. in order that national differences are eroded and the nationalism that feeds off them is undermined.  In this way the grounds for the international unity of the working class can be increased.

So the socialist position is not to attempt to prevent or hold back the unity of Europe but to rapidly advance it in order that the best conditions for the organisation of workers as a class, irrespective of nationality, is created.  We don’t take the view that this cannot be done under capitalism but must somehow wait until after socialism has been created, just as we don’t wait for socialism to unite workers right now within nation states.  If capitalism breaks the restrictions of these states all the more so should the working class.

Those reactionary socialists who can conceive of socialism only as a set of sympathetic diplomatic relations between separate states have no comprehension that the real unity of workers will arise from the internationalisation of capitalism, just as the working class itself is a creation of capitalism, upon which the independent organisation of workers has been and will continue to be built.

The former can only emphasise the sovereignty and independence of separate states while the latter stands for the self-determination and independence of the working class – in opposition to these states and the institutions they create for subordinating workers at the international level, which includes the EU.  The objective is therefore a single socialist polity across the continent.

The first priority now is to campaign for all those standing in the election who at least support Remain and do so on an internationalist basis, who are seeking to advance workers’ interests in the knowledge that the principle of solidarity that ‘divided we fall and united we stand’ applies at the international level as well.

But of course, we have a problem.  Opposition to Brexit also defines the right MPs that still form a large slice of the parliamentary Labour Party, not to mention the Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

It would not make sense to call for a vote for only left-Remain Labour candidates – there are not two Labour Parties and we have not yet democratised the one we have so that it reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of the membership.  If we could ‘solve’ this by only voting for left-Remain MPs then this task would not be necessary.

A majority Labour Party is the best position at the present time to not only defend ourselves against the Tories plans for massive attacks on the working class through Brexit, but also to move forward to opposing Brexit itself inside the Party.  Such a fight would provide a way out of the prospective dangers already mentioned, of a unjustifiable and unsustainable Brexit or continuing paralysis and crisis.  So while the resources of socialists should be concentrated on supporting left-Remain candidates and campaigning more widely for the socialist Remain argument, the overall call is for a Labour vote.  In this process the left inside the Party can demonstrate the correctness of its approach through the inevitable failure of Brexit to deliver what it claims.

Where this does not apply is to those Labour MPs who have voted for the Tory Brexit and who have employed reactionary arguments to defend it, while advancing reactionary politics that essentially blame foreign workers for the problems faced by British workers. In this they are also fundamentally no different from the Tories, which is the ultimate reason why they voted for it.

So what about the Liberals and the nationalists?  They are for Remain – so why not support tactical voting in an attempt to get a Remain majority and at least prevent the Tory’s Brexit?

At this point we have to take a step back, and remember what was said in the first post.  It was argued that Brexit would entail economic disruption that ‘means loss of markets and economies of scale in production; reduced capital accumulation leading to lower economic growth, and loss of necessary labour power both skilled and unskilled without which some current production will cease, shrink, or grow more slowly.’

This is obviously no more in the interests of the bigger capitalists who engage in foreign trade, seek economies of scale and require as wide a pool of labour to exploit as possible, as it is for workers – whose interest is not in more primitive forms of capitalism, in comparison to which the form of capitalism encapsulated in the EU is actually more progressive.  It’s why the Liberals and nationalists, not to mention the Blairites and some Tories, are also for Remain.  They do not do so because, as I said, Brexit will reduce workers’ incomes and employment and diminish the capacity of a social democratic government to provide welfare payments and to redistribute incomes.  They aren’t interested in this, except to stop it; their opposition to Brexit is not our opposition and cannot be endorsed.

So, apart from the fact that the Liberals and nationalists’ keenness for an election has revealed that their priority is not opposition to Brexit but their own party, their projects cannot be supported in any way.  Their politics are antithetical to the interests of workers in the same way that Brexit is, in so far as they seek to divide workers by nationalism, and in the case of the Liberals, in pursuing an opposition to Labour that has so exceeded their differences with the Tories.  It would not even be such a massive surprise if the Liberals did another deal with the Tories after the election, if the Tories required one; a deal for example that could be packaged as a ‘soft’ Brexit.  However, even on their own account, their reactionary politics can easily encompass support for a Tory domestic and foreign policy agenda that would be perfectly consistent with a Tory Brexit.  In short – the Liberals are a party of the class enemy.

The election may facilitate increased awareness that the choice now facing working people, at least outside Scotland, is more and more to be considered as one of Johnson and his Brexit or the social democracy of Corbyn’s Labour.  Much of this awareness will come from increased understanding that the dangers posed by the Johnson-led Tories derive particularly from their plans for Brexit.  This makes it even more inexcusable that the Corbyn leadership refuses to oppose it but has effectively come down harder in its defence. Even so, contrary to speculation that Corbyn would, as he first appeared to indicate, talk about everything but Brexit, he has said more about it than expected precisely because it has become so clear that Brexit is the sharp end of Tory plans to assault the living standards and rights of the working class.

Nevertheless, the position of Corbyn on Brexit makes it less likely that the Labour Party will appear as the alternative that strong supporters of Remain would like it to be.  And we now have numerous polls indicating that a very large number of potential Labour voters fall into this category. The call for a united party from Labour spokespeople in the election has so far effectively been used to further unity around the leadership’s Brexit agenda.

Nevertheless, opposition will not be advanced by abstaining from the election on the grounds that an election victory would see the Party likely end up in the same Brexit position as the Tories.  This is because at least in the short term, this would not be the case.  While a Corbyn proposed Brexit may be of the ‘softest’ variety, it will entail a cost, and will appear all the more pointless the softer it is.  Opposition to any Labour deal from the right and from the left would end up effectively making this same argument.

The view of the left that Brexit is not in reality compatible with any radical social democratic programme will impose itself one way or another. Labour supporters will not dismiss mounting evidence of its threats as do the demoralised, blinkered and prejudiced supporters of Brexit who in their majority now favour no deal.  They will less and less accept a policy of ‘respecting the referendum’ the more this entails they’re having to respect their rights and living standards being shredded.

So the truth that socialists must always fight beside the working class, however backward it views, will find support from the majority of Party members and supporters who are opposed to Brexit.  A Corbyn policy of getting Brexit ‘sorted’, if put to the test, would encourage further efforts to sort it by stopping it.

The longer the struggle goes on to impose this reactionary project the more likely it is that the reactionary supporters of Brexit will be demoralised.  ‘Taking back control’ will seem further away the further Britain gets into the reality of Britain on its own.  Whatever the result the reality of Brexit will impose itself with the most obvious losers its Lexit supporters, whose illusions are the most absurd.

While elections are important, socialists argue that it is not fundamentally elections that are determinate. Rather elections reflect the state of politics and the class struggle and can influence them but not decide them. What is most important therefore is that the vast majority of members of the Party are mobilised in the election in such a way as to strengthen the left in the party and its capacity to impose its views by putting a Labour Government into office.  In 2016 the referendum was to decide the question and it didn’t, and neither did the 2017 general election.  It would not be a great surprise if the current election didn’t either.  In any case the the task is to ensure an election result that puts us in as strong position as possible to resist a Brexit that still has a long way to go.

Back to part 1

Saying Yes to Jeremy?

So, as far as Jeremy Corbyn is concerned, when it comes to Brexit – ‘look, this debate is now over. We’ve done it, the party has now made its decision, and that’s it; and that’s what we’re going to campaign on.”  (As quoted in The Guardian) As for his decision to support a general election in the shadow cabinet meeting – “it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”

So how do we as socialists reconcile the Labour Party’s support for Brexit, which is reactionary, and its radical social democratic programme?

Firstly by recognising that they cannot be reconciled, that ‘friendly relations’ – employing one dictionary definition – cannot be established between the two projects: they are incompatible and one will have to give.  They are inconsistent and the contradictions between them will lead to one, or perhaps both, being ditched.  Anyone believing that a Labour Brexit is part and parcel of a radical social democratic programme is therefore mistaken.

Brexit will disrupt the insertion of the British economy into its biggest trading partner, which is its main market and theatre of operation; main supplier of additional skilled and unskilled labour power; intermediate goods that enable production to be sited in Britain; and the main route through which it inserts itself into the economies of the rest of the world – through agreements and deals which it has, as part of the EU, negotiated with the United States, Japan, South America etc. etc.

Disruption means loss of markets and economies of scale in production; reduced capital accumulation leading to lower economic growth, and loss of necessary labour power both skilled and unskilled without which some current production will cease, shrink, or grow more slowly.  The loss of these markets means that the reduction of existing and potential production will also reduce incomes and employment and the capacity of the state to syphon off revenues to finance its services.  It will reduce its capacity to provide welfare payments and to redistribute incomes, which are sold as central to Labour’s declared project of reducing inequality, insecurity and poverty.

The idea that a transformation of ownership of utilities and other companies from private capital to state ownership will compensate for these effects ignores the reality that state production will be affected just as much by the loss of skilled and unskilled labour, loss of markets and economies of scale etc. as private capital.  State ownership does not by itself create new markets that have just been shut off or reduced, or provide the labour power that is necessary for the current British economy to operate efficiently and grow.

This is all obvious from even cursory examination of media coverage of Brexit’s effects, today reporting potential damage to the tourist industry, but previously in relation to international research and university teaching, to EU staff in the NHS, the whole car industry, aircraft production, financial services and seasonal workers in agriculture, and many others. When asked this morning on Radio 4 whether any sort of Brexit could be better for the NHS, the Labour spokesman evaded the question – ‘the people had voted for it so they were going to be given the opportunity to get it’, was the gist of his reply.  As if it was not obvious what the honest answer had to be.

So, left supporters of Brexit treat it as a separate issue from every other, all of which can be made amenable to the actions of the British State.  The entirely un-socialist view, that the state should and could have such power to banish all the problems created, could only come from one that believes –

1, capitalist state ownership is somehow socialist;

2, the state can suspend or abolish capitalism through its ownership, and do so  in a relatively small country within a much larger and more powerful capitalist world;

3, the division of workers by nationalism and racism can be ended by providing answers that include shutting out foreign workers as if they were part of the problem, rather than their existence in Britain seen as an opportunity for unity that can banish nationalism and xenophobia, and

4, it is possible to ignore the failure of such experiments across the world that have distorted and tarnished the understanding and reputation of socialism.

On top of all this, it describes the socialist alternative – based on an international approach to workers solving their problems – as a question of ‘culture wars.’

Whenever Costas Lapavitsas, a left supporter of Brexit, spoke at a meeting in Belfast I told him that he had come to the wrong country if he wanted to parade the British State as the answer; and I cited internment, Bloody Sunday, murder and torture as all products of the state that we are required to believe can alone deliver progress.   Brexit threatens to further divide workers in Ireland with a harder border while its left supporters complain that the EU is responsible.

Meanwhile it threatens to divide in Britain as Britain has divided Ireland.  We can see this in many ways and not just in speculation that Scottish nationalism will be strengthened.  We see it from the speeches of Brexit supporters claiming that the only way to prevent violence is to support Brexit; that the only way to respect the memory of an MP murdered by a nationalist fanatic is to carry through the policy he killed her for; to describing opposition to the nationalist and reactionary policy of Brexit as a question of ‘culture’, just as in Ireland opposition to sectarianism is declared to be opposition to Protestant ‘culture’.  A culture composed of sectarian demonstrations and burning bonfires upon which Catholic, foreign, gay and any vaguely progressive flag or symbol is burned.

Perhaps it could be claimed that Corbyn’s Labour Party might reconcile its social democratic agenda with Brexit because it doesn’t actually support it?  Except no one believes this, and not just because of Corbyn’s own presumed Brexit views.  No one, that is, except the most ardent Brexit supporters of both right and left for whom the dangers and damage of Brexit are actually its attraction – the separation and isolation, the attempt to turn the clock back, and the illusions in the special role and place of Britain in the world.

From ‘respecting the referendum result’, to seeking how it might support a Theresa May deal, to seeking to negotiate its own deal, to refusing to accept the view of the majority of its own members, everything the Corbyn leadership has done has facilitated a policy of letting Brexit happen. All on the spurious grounds that it can be dispensed with as an issue, Labour can ‘bring people together’ around its agenda and continue with the lie that Brexit is not a part of it.

A second defence is that Labour’s Brexit is not a Tory Brexit, but one that protects jobs and living standards through a customs union and adherence to workers and environmental standards, while striking one’s own trade deals and having a say in future EU deals.  In other words, a deal that shares the illusions of the Tories, before they actually had to negotiate the first step of withdrawal.

It should not need to be said – the EU will not allow Britain the benefits of membership without being a member and paying for it as every other member of the EU does.  So yes, new customs arrangements can be agreed, as can regulatory alignment, and even alignment with future regulation; but you will have to pay for these arrangements and you will have no say in them or any other deal that the EU negotiates with other countries that you will have to accept.  If the EU is so irrevocably rotten why do you want to leave if you will have to pay for accepting its rules without having any say in their formation?

Perhaps you think you can strike your own deals and improve your own protections of workers’ rights?  But you can improve workers’ rights now, if you want.  If this creates a threat that British companies will leave to avoid these new regulations, why don’t you stay in the EU and fight for them to be adopted across the continent?  Would this not give you a strategy to unite workers across Europe and challenge the EU as it currently functions, as opposed to kidding yourself you can just walk away from it?  Perhaps you think you cannot succeed in this, because changes require unanimity within the EU?  But this means your single voice at the very least is an obstacle to a race to the bottom – Brexit on the other hand threatens an unrestricted, Trump-led sprint downwards to the bottom of the barrel.

Perhaps Labour thinks its own deals with other countries will be better.  But what sort of level of workers’ and environmental regulation does it think much bigger countries and trading blocs, such as the US, China and India, will demand for any deals?  Will the EU accept unrestricted trade with a Britain that has agreed that goods can enter Britain from these countries that do not conform with the trade deals that the EU itself has agreed with them?  A relatively small country like Britain may be forced to accept the EU’s regulations or everyone else’s.  What it won’t be able to do is enforce any of its own standards, especially if they were to be higher.

What you have left is a dystopian vision of an isolated and backward Britain dominated by the state that will be declared a socialist paradise by the enemies of socialism and by the defenders of its Stalinist inspiration so discredited in the last century.

Forward to part 2