‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, Daniel Finn, Verso 2019
Daniel Finn records that at the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ Belfast Official IRA leader, Billy McMillen expressed awareness that the use of arms might only drag the IRA into a battle it could not win against a vastly superior army. His Chief of Staff Goulding also argued that this had been the situation in Derry when the Bogside had been attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Gerry Adams also recalled opposing armed action later for similar reasons.
How much this last view was due to long-term strategic considerations and not simply the IRA’s lack of guns; need for a period of preparation for the offensive war the Provisionals intended; and a consideration that British repression would radicalise support for it, is probably best answered by subsequent actions. Finn quotes Provisional leader Seán Mac Stíofáin as saying “the armed struggle comes first and then you politicise.”
A related argument has also been put that while the Officials saw a role for a primarily defensive use of arms, and the Provisionals an offensive war, there is in reality no difference – there is no such thing as a ‘defensive’ bomb. Eamonn McCann, in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, once argued something similar – “When it is the state itself which threatens to destroy you it is necessary to attack the state, not just to defend oneself against its attacks . . .”
It would however, overturn much military thinking to believe that there is no difference between defence and attack, and there really is no logic in believing that attacking a much better armed enemy is the only way to defend yourself. When the Provisionals were to go on to claim that civilian casualties of their car bombs were due to the British not acting quickly enough to evacuate civilians it didn’t stop them planting more of them, even though the political as well as the human cost was obvious. Only commitment to the idea of victory through armed struggle – an offensive war – could sustain such a view.
Finn quotes the Official’s paper the ‘United Irishman’ stating at the end of 1971 that mass participation had ‘brought the struggle of the people to a new height’, and the view of the Joint Intelligence Committee at Westminster that this was ‘perhaps the most threatening feature of the present situation in Northern Ireland.’ But while the level of mass struggle was to rise to an even greater level in 1972 it was also to fall within the year.
Bloody Friday, demonstrated the relationship between mass political action and armed struggle. Six months after Bloody Sunday, the Provisionals set off twenty-one bombs in Belfast City centre, killing seven civilians and two British soldiers. Television news showed body parts being shovelled off the street. The effect of the bombing gave the political initiative to the British state to destroy the no-go areas from which the repressive arms of the state had previously been excluded. The relationship of armed force between the IRA and British Army hadn’t changed but the political situation had, and it became apparent that it was the people who were protecting the IRA and not the other way round. After all, what else is meant by a guerrilla movement and the people being like a fish swimming through water?
The real political tragedy of Irish republicanism in this whole period of the Troubles and ‘peace process’ was not the collapse of the Provisionals into an alliance with bourgeois nationalism and the Irish State, but the failure of the initiative within the Officials to develop a healthy socialist politics. This was never seriously attempted by the Provisionals, whose sometime left wing rhetoric disguised a rightward trajectory. As one of my comrades in Peoples Democracy once put it: the Provos were full of people with left wing opinions and right-wing politics. It is possible to think of individuals for whom such a judgement would be harsh, but then, we are thinking of individuals.
Apologists for the repressive actions of the British Army during the early 1970s complain that they were ill-suited to the peace-keeping role that they were thrown into, although ‘humanitarian imperialism’ has been the rationale for such intervention ever since. But the same could be said of the IRA, both Officials and Provisionals.
The Officials wondered what to do with their new members, as recruitment surged after internment, later noting that they “had been drawn into a war that was not of our choosing.” They therefore withdrew, calling a ceasefire in May 1972, making it easier and more comfortable to also continue to withdraw into reformist politics that morphed into defence of the Northern State and pathological hatred of the Provisionals.
Unfortunately, for these Provisionals this only reinforced the identification of revolutionary politics with armed struggle. The later abandonment of that struggle by the Provisionals taught the same lesson to those now dubbed republican dissidents. To state that the failure to understand that abandonment of armed struggle was due to the prior politics developed by these movements is not enough, because for these organisations complete commitment to armed struggle guarantees their revolutionary purity.
What matters is to recognise that the republican armed struggle perpetually leads to failure, even with respect to its own limited goals. It is not in principle incompatible with reformist political objectives, and is not compatible with the struggle for socialism. When we say this, it does not mean rejection of physical force as such, but only that such force must be the weapon of a class not an army. The social revolution sought by socialists requires the revolution of social relations and not transplanting one capitalist state by another. The class that is to achieve this must defend itself, but this is a far cry from guerrilla warfare, which is in general not suited to advanced capitalist societies. The North of Ireland is proof of this, a proof hammered home again and again over many years.
The Provisionals had the same problem as the Officials, but responded by taking a radically different direction. They too were flooded with new recruits after internment and Bloody Sunday and were seriously misled in an abortive truce in June 1972, almost a month after the Official IRA ceasefire. This involved meetings with the British, which like all later negotiations by the movement were held in secret – the struggle was theirs to negotiate, not the people, and not even their own members.
The Provisional leadership demanded a British commitment to withdrawal by the end of 1974, which was an objective they were never going to get, then or afterwards. When the truce broke down Finn accurately observes that “having failed to achieve their maximum goals, the Provos had little alternative but to return to war, since the movement had no political wing that could advance their agenda in the absence of a military campaign.”
The Provisional IRA became the hammer for which every problem is a nail. While the British Army learned lessons relatively quickly about the failure of its military solution, the Provisional IRA simply repeated the attempt. As Finn records, the British Army’s history of its operations picked out two examples of ‘poor military decision-making’ in the Troubles that had ‘serious operational and even strategic consequences’ – the Falls curfew and Bloody Sunday. They stopped making these mistakes, even if they didn’t stop being responsible for hundreds of further killings.
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