From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 16 – the Brits and the IRA

I have already put up a number of posts on the politics of the IRA, beginning here, so I won’t repeat myself too much here.  In narrating the start of ‘the Troubles’ it should be recalled that despite its split in 1969/70 the growth and reorganisation of both IRAs did not immediately translate into widescale and open fighting.  The first British soldier was not killed until 6 February 1971.  In Derry Eamonn McCann records that ‘in the spring of 1971 the Provisional IRA in Derry for practical purposes did not yet exist;’ and when they did start shooting at the British Army ‘it can be doubted whether initially there was mass support for this escalation.’

For ‘the Troubles’ to take the form that they did, dominated by armed republican action and a counterinsurgency campaign by the British state, which employed loyalist paramilitaries as auxiliaries, the key ingredient was the development of complete disaffection of the Catholic population from the Northern State and the necessary ground this provided for the IRA to grow and operate. Even then, the political mobilisation of the Catholic population lasted only a few years after 1969, before the prorogation of Stormont and British refinement of repression placed that mobilisation in a strategic bind, without the ability to realistically take the initiative or seriously impose its own political solution.  Thereafter its political mobilisation was a defensive one dominated by campaigns against repression – against internment, against Diplock courts, criminalisation of their struggle, against shoot to kill etc. etc.

The Provisional IRA conceived and presented its campaign as an offensive one aimed at expulsion of the British presence; but when faced with political negotiations that produced ceasefires it was utterly unable to press this solution on the British, despite illusions that this is what the British wanted.

Without a political programme short of this ultimate objective the Provisionals put forward positions that fell far short of a united Ireland and involved no necessary transition to it. An illustration of this is the front page of An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper, on 24 December 1972, at the height of the IRA’s campaign, which said that the four preconditions for an end to the IRA campaign was abolition of repressive legislation, British troops to be withdrawn, release of all political prisoners and full support for civil rights.  ‘Then – and only then – will we have a true and lasting peace in Ireland.’

These bargaining positions co-existed with uncompromising rhetoric that suggested the movement was on the brink of victory. This was used to keep it united, and to sustain morale and support by presenting the movement as strong and confident. Without it the actual potential political gains that could be made from its struggle could never inspire the military campaign and the killing and sacrifice it necessarily entailed. The current political agreement championed by Sinn Fein would have been regarded as insulting and derisively dismissed by 1970’s Provisionals.

Sinn Fein has, although recently less and less, praised the IRA for its leadership in the struggle while at the same time saying that republicans had no choice but to take up arms.  However, one can hardly be praised for doing something for which one had no choice but to do.

One can also not be criticised for defending oneself against attack.  The problem is that the choice the Provisionals made was to launch an explicitly offensive campaign aimed at expelling the British Army.  For this and all its consequences it can be criticised for adopting an objective it could not achieve and for which it therefore necessarily adopted more and more desperate measures, illustrated for example by its expanding definition of ‘legitimate targets.’

The Official IRA claimed to adopt a purely defensive campaign, although it is clear from the split that led to the IRSP/INLA that this was either not supported by many of its members or not understood.  Eamonn McCann quotes one Official IRA member as saying ‘shooting soldiers is shooting soldiers’ and seemed to endorse this view – ‘the Officials claimed their campaign was ‘defensive’ and not ‘offensive’ a distinction too nice for anyone involved in the situation to understand’. (‘War and an Irish town’)

No distinction was understood because the armed struggle strategy of Irish republicans is a principle and not a political calculation, war is assumed and not a result of prior political analysis; war might be the pursuit of politics by other means but this simply indicates the poverty of republican politics.

It would be wrong however to blame republicans for ‘the Troubles’ even if they bear heavy responsibility for their actions and for the prolongation of their campaign over decades without the slightest chance of victory.  The cardinal responsibility belongs to the British State which decided to protect and defend a reactionary unionist regime that was never reconciled to civil rights for Catholics or for their equal political participation in society.

This defence led to extreme repression which involved daily humiliation and harassment and outright torture and murder. It is exemplified by events such as the Falls curfew in July 1970 in which a whole area was effectively put under martial law, was flooded with CS gas and in which the discharge of over 1,500 rounds resulted in the deaths of three civilians, none of whom were members of the IRA.  The British Government’s Lord Carrington later admitted the operation was counter-productive and illegal.

The British Army also learned that some of it actions were mistakes and changed its tactics, something the IRA failed to do, given the increasingly limited options it had available to it to allow it to keep fighting.  As Cathal Goulding, one-time leader of the IRA and then of the Officials stated, republicans had a strategy for fighting but not for winning.

The second major event was the introduction of internment on 9 August 1971 when 342 Catholic men were imprisoned without trial after widespread arrests beginning at 4.30 am in the morning.  Some 166 were later released but no loyalists at all were arrested.

The third was the murder of 14 civil rights demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry on 30 January 1972. The victims on this day were not only those murdered but also the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) which organised the demonstration.  A week later there was another huge demonstration in Newry but NICRA was effectively dead for the purposes of challenging the existing denial of civil rights and the imposition of sectarian suppression.  It had already for some time been evacuated by the most radical elements as the vehicle of protest and organisation.

All these actions by the British State were responsible for the creation of ‘the Troubles’ and all were deliberate actions following a preconceived policy.  They came to be regarded as mistakes only because they failed in their objective.  Other outcomes other than ‘the Troubles’ as defined above were possible but not after this.

This does not mean that after 1972 nothing could be done to change the course of events as they developed, but that is a new chapter of the story with which we will not be concerned.  In the next posts I will go back to the first in this series and look at the lessons for the Left arising from the civil rights campaign and the strategy and tactics that were discussed.

Back to Part 15

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 3

Daniel Finn records that the British Army identified the summer of 1972 as the crucial turning point, as the moment when republican guerrillas shifted from ‘insurgency’ to ‘terrorism’.

Most immediately this was the result of the removal of the no-go areas and saturation of Catholic areas by the British Army and RUC.  The number of deaths peaked in 1972, while the ability of the IRA to inflict casualties on the British declined dramatically thereafter.  The Provisional leadership however continued to declare victory – ‘we are in sight of a British declaration of intent to withdraw.’

In the following period, between 1972 and 1976, loyalist paramilitaries killed 567 people in an effort to terrorise the Catholic population, and the IRA was unable to stop them.  Its efforts at retaliation often meant killing Protestants uninvolved in loyalism and by the end of the IRA campaign loyalists had begun killing more than republicans, assisted in no small part by the British State.

This was an underappreciated aspect of the Ulsterisation process by which the British were able to distance themselves from direct responsibility for repression while seeking to de-politicise the conflict.  Facing a decline in mass political activity, the Provisional IRA continued its more isolated campaign, now carried out by a much-reduced IRA organised less openly in a cellular structure, and by this fact more separated from the population it sprung from.  The British Army took a back seat, the RUC and locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment came to the fore, and the British embarked on a policy of refusing the political character of the conflict by treating republican prisoners as common criminals.

All this followed the downfall of the Unionist regime at Stormont and the failure of the major British political initiative of a power-sharing Executive, which was brought down by a strike of Protestant workers, the success of which relied not only on a great deal of support but also on a lot of paramilitary intimidation and British Army acceptance of it.  The latter was not about to embark on a conflict on two fronts.

The Provisionals now had enough support to maintain an armed campaign, but their periodic killing of civilians repelled many in the Catholic population ensuring they could only remain a political minority within it.  The political stalemate that resulted after 1974 and the loyalist strike that year was thus a product not just of the IRA but of loyalist intransigence.  The British were not going to challenge the latter on behalf of the former.

So, the British Army evaluation of the importance of 1972 is correct, not only in terms of how the IRA conducted itself but in terms of the overall political dynamic and the health of the movement against the Northern State.  The policy of Ulsterisation, increased role of loyalism, and decline in mass political activity among the Catholic population all reflected something more fundamental – that the struggle of the Catholic minority could not achieve an end to the Northern state and bring about a united Ireland.

This is a point I made at the Belfast launch of the book.  Once Stormont was ‘smashed’ the positive political solution favoured by the Catholic population could not be imposed, while the Provisionals believed that it could.  Since this reality impinged even on them, they shifted from predicting near-time victory to the perspective of a long war.  This became a more and more pointless campaign that degenerated into further mistakes, inclusion of more targets considered to be legitimate, and such state penetration of their organisation that one of those in charge of rooting it out was a state agent.

Finn quotes from the Peoples Democracy newspaper in October 1971, which showed that this was understood by some even before the full set of circumstances that would bring it about had come to pass.  The article suggested that “while the Provos were determined to keep fighting until Irish unity was achieved, in practice much of the Catholic support would evaporate – and probably many of the Volunteers would be satisfied – if the internees were released, Stormont smashed and the British Army removed.”  But the Provos were determined to fight for more, while declaring imminent victory for a number of years.

As the second half of the 70s wore on it became clearer to the Provisional leadership that their armed struggle would not win, or at least not by itself.  Finn recognises the speech by Jimmy Drumm in 1977, written by Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, as the opening of a more political approach, which warned that the “isolation of socialist republicans around armed struggle was dangerous.”

It was seen at the time as signalling of a move to the left and a recognition of the importance of political struggle.  It might thus be seen as the adoption by the Provisionals of their own left, or socialist, republicanism that most republican organisations have felt compelled to adopt at some stage.

Finn sets out the experience of an experiment in this left republicanism that came to the fore two years earlier in a split within the Officials, and which gave birth to the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP).

This reflected the views of many in the Official Republican Movement unhappy with the ceasefire and unhappy with its growing reformism.  The split provided a potential rallying point for the left outside the republican tradition but the determination of those leading the split that political direction would be determined by the armed wing of the movement meant that the primacy of the armed struggle would be reasserted. This necessarily entailed the irrelevance of democracy in the political wing – decisions would be taken elsewhere.

The Officials were determined to strangle the capacity of the splitters from birth and the IRSP entered the world in the midst of a bloody feud.  This, and what Finn describes as the weakness of the political leadership that survived the feud, meant that the IRSP/ Irish National Liberation Army degenerated into an aggressive militarism that robbed it of any potential it might have had.

The left republicanism developed by the Provisionals was much different but no better.  It was to be tested by the hunger strikes three years later, which pushed the Provos into a mass, open campaign and which, had the turn to the left had any depth, would have been the catalyst for the opening up of the movement and an orientation to the whole working class and its movement.

Instead a fight had to be waged even for democratic functioning and the basics of political organisation such as participation in elections.  Secret negotiations behind the backs of those engaged in the struggle continued to be a central feature of Provisional practice with a top-down view of political leadership that was never to change. The lessons learned by the leadership after the campaign were that a united front should be dismissed, elections should be the property of Sinn Fein only and (after a short period) that the strategic way forward was nationalist unity.  The armed struggle was meanwhile reinvigorated by a new cohort of recruits and supply of arms.  The failing campaign was given more time in which to fail.

By 1983 Gerry Adams was warning of ‘ultra-leftism’ and the danger of breaking up “the unity of the national independence movement by putting forward “socialist” demands that had no possibility of being achieved until real independence is won.”  The old ‘labour must wait’ cry was proclaimed by Irish republicanism once again.  Finn also notes that Adams quoted Desmond Greaves in support of this approach, the same inspiration to those who had sought to guide the Goulding Officials a couple of decades earlier.

The remaining chapters record the long political striptease of political principles that was the Irish peace process.  The Provisionals were rewarded for their abandonment of their armed struggle with majority electoral support in the Catholic population that had always opposed it.

Finn presents a well-judged summary of this process which has now gone on longer than the war the Provisionals saw as their own.  Sinn Fein then began to claim that this war had not been about ‘Brits Out’ but about equality – the goal of the original civil rights movement that the Provisionals had seen as so inadequate.

Finn quotes Adams saying that equality of treatment would erode the very reason for the existence of the state but what the limits (if any) of such equal treatment would be, what its political effects would be and how republicans would take the leadership of such dynamics were not discussed.  The Officials had seen such progress as a means to unite Catholic and Protestant workers while the Provisionals drew a rather straighter line to unity of the two Irish states.

What was eventually agreed was a political settlement that Sinn Fein saw as the embodiment of equality but was in reality a sectarian carve-up that replaced civil rights for all with rights ascribed to, and the property of, sectarian groups.   Equality was not to be the route to removing sectarian difference, but equal recognition given to the differences and their continuing protection.  This took the language of ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘equality of the two traditions.’

Finn also judges well that the ‘dissidents’ policy of a new armed campaign did not challenge the Provisionals project.  In fact, by reminding everyone of its previous policy it strengthened the new one by seeming to affirm that the only alternative to it was pointless political violence.

Finn’s history prompts the question why the left was not able to capture the leadership of the struggle for civil rights and its continued development in the period up to 1972.

Part of the reason is that it was starting from a very weak position – sectarian division really did pose an enormous obstacle to the growth of socialism and socialist consciousness in both the Catholic and Protestant working class.  This weakness also existed in the South, robbing the left of the possibility of showing the concrete benefits of working-class unity on the whole island.

Immediately this mean that the necessity for physical defence of workers from large scale physical attack could not be influenced by political considerations of mass self-activity and non-sectarianism that socialist could bring to the early defence committees.  The left did not have the weight inside the Catholic areas from which the early committees had sprung.

Republicanism also provided the means for armed defence, which was on occasion required, and the left did not have this capacity.  Had it such capacity it might have provided a model for the subordination of armed activity to the democratic political debate of a working class party and its supporters.  The absence of an armed capacity subordinated to socialist politics meant that the false promises of victory through an offensive armed campaign, which was attractive to Catholic youth, was not challenged, or at least an alternative model for the role of arms was not available.  There was, in summary, no tradition of alternative political organisation.

These weaknesses were reflected in some confusion of perspective by the left in this period and some authors today mistake the reflection for the primary cause.  It was not this confusion that was primarily responsible for the weakness of the left but the weakness of the left, or rather of the working class as a political class, that was primarily responsible for the confusion.

The Catholic working class never developed a left leadership because it never developed beyond a nationalist political identity and a political understanding of its circumstances based on it, in turn the product of forces too strong for it to defeat.  The most militant advocates of such nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, won the most ardent youth while the limits of its militancy meant republicanism never went further that nationalist ideas.

We could all have done better, which would have meant being in a stronger position today to advocate socialist politics.  It is to Finn’s credit that his book provides a valuable summary of the political struggle from which we can derive lessons for the future.  The book is to be recommended.

Concluded

Back to part 2

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 2

‘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.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

‘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.

Forward to part 2

I, Dolours

‘I Dolours’ is a film about the life of Dolours Price, and her activities as a member of the IRA during the 1970s.  It is part dramatisation and part interview conducted by the journalist Ed Moloney, who is also the Producer and has written an important book on the history of the IRA.

Actor Lorna Larkin is excellent as Dolours and she needed to be, because the most arresting parts of the film are excerpts of the interview with Dolours.  She is determinedly articulate, direct and forthright.  One review has described her as a “terrifying and bitter woman”, but one person’s bitterness is another’s righteous anger.  She is unrepentant about her activities in the IRA and brutally honest.

And it is this honesty that so jars with the present, where a principal republican leader claims never to have been a member of the IRA and another claimed never to have killed anyone. While mainstream commentary ridicules such claims, it fails to register the service they do to its own anti-republican narrative.

Her unflinching justification of the IRA and its campaign will be shocking only to those too young not to have come across the ‘arrogant’ and ‘elitist’ republicans who regarded themselves as ‘defenders of the truth’, as described in Dolours’ own words.

It contrasts with the mealy-mouthed political sophistry of today’s Sinn Fein, many of whose members justify their current opportunism with their experience of previous sacrifice. As one comrade of mine put it, their descent into corruption is justified by the phrase ‘we’re worth it.’

Dolours’ interview is also interspersed with archival footage of the civil rights movement, which Dolours and her sister Marian joined, and the attacks on the movement by loyalists and police.  The demand for the most limited reforms was met by naked state and loyalist violence, with footage in the film of the ambush at Burntollet and the RUC attack on the 5thOctober civil rights march in Derry.

This has generally been passed over quickly in reviews but in the more recent media coverage, marking the 50thanniversary of these events, their importance to the creation of ‘the Troubles’ has been at least partially recognised.  It was obviously crucial to Dolours’ political development and from a socialist point of view led to a political and personal tragedy.  From such a viewpoint the alternative to the reform strategy of civil rights was not that of militarist republicanism, which Dolours notes she had at one time herself rejected.

From these attacks however, Dolours learned that “change would not be brought about by marching” and the objective of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers was the wrong one.  She came from a family steeped in republicanism, with her father taking part in the bombing of England during the Second World War, which Dolours seemed to regard as almost surreal in conception, while her aunt lived her life in the family home, having had her eyes and hands blown off while attempting to recover an IRA arms dump.

She was ultimately to be the third generation of the family to end up in jail, which might appear to lead to the belief that she was born to be in the IRA.  But if this were so then she would be less intelligent and less human than the woman that appears on the screen.  She embraced the idealism of the civil rights movement and then rebelled against its perceived ineffectiveness in fighting oppression.  She devoted herself to the IRA and consciously submitted to it discipline.  She didn’t seek to avoid danger, and refused to present herself as a hero.

She does not embellish events or her participation in them, and attributes her passion and zeal to youthful ardour.  She makes statements she knows will not gain her any sympathy, such as her defense of the killing of informers, while she displays sympathy of her own years later for only one disappeared, someone who went to his death believing that this death was deserved, just as Dolours did.

The film shows a number of clips of IRA car bombs in Belfast City Centre, and some of their grisly effects, and records her seeming endorsement of the view that one bomb in England was worth many times that number in Ireland.  It dramatises her volunteering to participate in the bombing of London, having had the risks explained, and even as other IRA volunteers walked away.

While noting the immature behaviour of some of the male IRA volunteers in England, who failed to follow orders and got drunk, she also acknowledges that this made no difference, because the whole operation had already been compromised by informers.

She and her sister were caught, imprisoned in England, and went on hunger strike to demand that they serve their sentences in Ireland.  For most of the hunger strike, which lasted over 200 days, she and her sister were force fed, an experience that eventually resulted in Marian’s, and then her, early release.

The film invites some sympathy for her during this period and her resulting continuing ill health, which led to her eventual premature death.  It can hardly do anything else, just as the picture of bomb explosions and their aftermath can hardly do anything other than evoke the opposite. But it also should prompt questions, because it does an injustice to Dolours to assume that the decisions she made were inevitable.

How, for example, was it hoped that these bombs would achieve republican objectives if bombs in Belfast mattered so little?  And why did they continue for so many years?

That Dolours was not asked these questions is understandable.  The interview was a last testament, to be shown only after her death, and her ill health at that time made her vulnerable.  The journalist Ed Moloney has explained the backstory to the interview on his blog.  She therefore said what she wanted to say.

This must also, unfortunately, explain rather unsatisfactory aspects of the film.  As has been noted elsewhere, it feels incomplete, not only on the political side but particularly in relation to Dolours future life after release. The ending feels rushed, and her opposition to the betrayal by the movement of the cause she dedicated herself to is not fully explained.  She does however say that what Sinn Fein had achieved was not worth missing a good breakfast.

Most media attention has focused on her admitted role in the killing of the disappeared: those who were considered to be informers and who were driven across the border, often it seems by Dolours, where they would be shot and their bodies buried.  Some of these bodies have not been recovered. This, she admits in the interview, was a war crime, but only it seems because families did not know their loved ones’ fate and could not be given a body for proper burial.

Of all those disappeared, the most notorious case was that of Jean McConville, a widow and a mother of ten children, who were separated from each other and put into care following their mother’s death.  Dolours is not kind after the event and makes no attempt to soften what she and her IRA comrades did.  The lack of any attempt at sugar coating gives her statements greater credence, although Jean McConville’s family protested at the film’s opening in Belfast and dispute some of her assertions.

Her other claim is only superficially more controversial and was aired long before the film, which was that Gerry Adams was not only in the IRA but also ordered the killing.  That the former has been denied by him is taken seriously by no one, which leaves denials of the latter also suffering from a problem of credibility.

The worst review of the film I have read ends with these remarks:

“Perhaps that is the saddest part of I, Dolours, is that she died feeling let down, deceived and unfulfilled, having not achieved her ultimate goal in life. Though, she does serve to be a forgotten relic of a time which indeed many would never wish to see the likes of again. Ultimately, Dolours is an unreliable narrator and we must remember that this is one woman’s perspective, and that everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The film itself is testimony to her not being forgotten, and the poignancy of her story is an invitation not to forget but to learn from.  This includes the political lessons that are especially important, since she lived and died a political woman.  She makes clear that she did not seek to excuse or exonerate her activities, on the contrary she saw no reason to do so, and the film stands as a challenge to her erstwhile comrades who have made political careers doing so.

That she is an unreliable narrator seems hard to sustain given her definite and precise approach to the telling of her story; her complete avoidance of seeking after sympathy, and plain admission to her unpalatable actions. There is no reason to believe that “everything she says must be taken with a pinch of salt.”

On the contrary, it is the truthfulness of her words that cuts through the carefully constructed silences and avoidance that characterises today’s approach by Sinn Fein to the actions of the IRA.  Continued embrace of IRA history, along with denial of everything it entailed, or attempts to make us “all” responsible for actions which specific actors were only too willing to claim for themselves at the time; all this is incompatible with the truth that Dolours continues to speak.

On the question of Dolours feeling let down by not having achieved her ultimate goal, I get the feeling that, apart from the physical and psychological damage she suffered from her experience in prison, republican defeat was not decisive in contributing to her death.  Coming from a republican family she grew up and had lived with its consequences. She understood defeat and faced it when it happened.  Not for her black taxis driving up and down the Falls Road hooting its celebration. It was the betrayal of the movement that she devoted her life to which must have demoralised more than mere defeat.

She must have been aware that she drove to their deaths members of the movement whose betrayal, in the great scheme of things, was so much less than the movements’ later complete capitulation.  And just as she did this, so later did the republican movement do it to her.

The film is authentic in its showing of a republican view of ‘the Troubles’, free from today’s spin and bogus self-justification.  In this way it is an honest and faithful portrait of its subject.

Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism

On October 24 1990, a Derry man Patsy Gillespie was abducted by the IRA, tied to the driver’s seat of a van and told to drive the van packed with explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border with Donegal.  While doing so his wife and children were held at gunpoint.  Two other such bombs were also delivered to targets on the border on the same day.  Using others to deliver bombs was a well-known IRA tactic and almost inevitably the driver got out at the target and warned of the bomb.

This time however the bomb was to be detonated by remote control or by the door of the van being opened, which Patsy Gallagher did as he struggled to free himself and get out of the van.  When it opened five British soldiers and Patsy Gallagher were killed; the largest part of him to be retrieved afterwards was part of his hand.  The use of a ‘human bomb’, as it was quickly called, caused widespread revulsion, including among nationalists.

Patsy Gallagher was killed because, according to the IRA, he was “a part of the British war machine”. He had been warned to leave his job because he worked at a British army base, as a cook.  He was, to use a more old-fashioned phase, a ‘collaborator.’

The deployment of three such attacks on the one day would had to have been sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA, whose Officer Commanding was Martin McGuinness.

Just under a decade later he was Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, the administration devolved from Westminster.  His Sinn Fein colleague in the Executive was Bairbre de Brun, who was Minister of Health.  One of her more important acts was to launch a review of acute services in Northern Ireland: “I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people.”

To lead this review she appointed a well-known figure, Maurice Hayes.  He had been the most senior Catholic civil servant at Stormont, supplying weekly reports on politics in the Irish State to the Northern Ireland Executive in 1974; later becoming head of personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and later Northern Ireland Ombudsman. He was Electoral Boundary Commissioner, a Senior Advisor to the Chair of the Constitutional Convention, a member of Lord Patten’s Commission to reform the police in the North of Ireland, and authored the report which led to the establishment of the office of Police Ombudsman.

In other words it could be said, if one wanted to, that when Sinn Fein got into office they asked the most senior ‘collaborator’ around to help them decide what they were going to do now they had got there.

Nothing epitomises the evolution of republican politics in the North of Ireland so much as the sequence of these two events.  In fact, it could be said that no two events define republican politics so much as the conjunction of these two events.  All the more important because they are now either forgotten, or, in the second case, were barely noticed at the time.

Of course, Martin McGuinness was later denounced for various actions by other republicans, including his condemnation of these republicans as traitors for shooting British troops; and for toasting the Queen in white tie and tails at Windsor Castle.  These were high-profile events but they were mainly symbolic.  The killing of Patsy Gallagher for being “a part of the British war machine” while hiring the biggest ‘castle Catholic’ when it entered office were not symbolic but very real.  These events tell us most of what we need to know about the politics of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

A working class cook had become a ‘legitimate target’ in a war which, when it ended, they could think of nothing better than to ask one of the most prominent Catholic establishment figures for advice on what they should do.  Militarist ‘anti-imperialism’ gave way to equally ineffective subordination as a parliamentary ‘opposition’ to British rule, an opposition that involved not being in opposition but being in government.  And with a party so right wing its antediluvian views resembles closely the most rabid base of Donald Trump.

Throughout their evolution, no matter what its twists and turns, the movement exhibited a complete lack of class politics.  The socialist opinions of some masked the right-wing politics of the movement as a whole.  As the old adage goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

The movement has been a vivid demonstration of lessons not widely enough appreciated – that ‘anti-imperialism’ does not necessitate socialism and that a predominantly working class base does not equate to politics defined by class.  A socialist assessment of the political life of Martin McGuinness that does not register these facts is worthless.

This is important because the political assessment of someone’s life often becomes more important than that life’s impact when it was lived.  Gerry Adams claimed that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him.”  But this of course is untrue.

Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA did go to war.  The necessity for armed defence against sectarian pogroms was usurped by the Provisional IRA into a conscious offensive war that promised victory ’72, ’73 etc. It was they who claimed that only the IRA and its armed struggle could bring victory, by which they meant a united Ireland; but their struggle degenerated as the British State inevitably crushed it by its superior power.   They failed so comprehensively they now pretend this war was about something other than declared at the time, all about equality and not ‘Brits Out’.  In all this Martin McGuinness played a leading role.

I remember being asked by the wife of a republican whether I thought Martin McGuinness was a British spy.  Not because I had any more knowledge of the secret war than she had, because I was pretty sure I had less, but because despite this she really didn’t have a clue, or rather the clues were useless.  She simply wanted another opinion of someone who might have thought about it from a different perspective from her own.  The important point is that it was a legitimate question and one that will probably never go away (see the posts here and here.)

Politically it doesn’t really matter, because informers are as much a part of the republican movement and its history as anything else.  Secret conspiracies are particularly vulnerable to much more powerful secret conspiracies to counter them, and the British state is not short on this resource.  The role any individual can play is limited in most circumstances and particularly so  in the oppressive circumstances in which McGuinness was politically active.

His legacy is one of a failed armed campaign and collapsed political arrangements at Stormont that he fought doggedly to promote.  But the grubby reality of the latter is as clear as the brutality of the former.  This includes broken Sinn Fein promises to oppose welfare cuts and support for austerity and sectarian patronage.

No amount of media spin, lamenting the botched implementation of a renewable energy scheme, or failure of the institutions to deliver effective government, can hide the fact that the scheme was not botched – it worked perfectly – and Stormont is still effective in containing politics within sectarian boundaries, even when it only functions as a prize still to be realised.

In the latter part of his political career Martin McGuinness must be judged on both his pursuit of such an unworthy goal and his failure to achieve its lasting implementation.  To rephrase slightly: pity the land that needs heroes and sad the land that needs one like this.

 

The politics of conspiracy – the case of Denis Donaldson

donaldsonI remember a number of years ago I was handing out leaflets at a Sinn Fein meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast.  It was about the relatively new peace process and it would be fair to say that the leaflet was not celebratory of the new initiative.  I was outside the room, although inside the Mill complex, but since the Provos came to regard the whole of West Belfast as theirs it came as no great surprise that one of their number decided I was trespassing on their territory.  As the years have gone by, and if rumours are to be believed, this is less and less their territory and more and more their property.

I was collared (not very roughly) by a then prominent Sinn Fein councillor and pulled (not very strongly) over to another prominent Sinn Fein member, Denis Donaldson.  The councillor wanted to know from Donaldson was it not alright that I should be handing out leaflets critical of Sinn Fein but should be told to get lost.  Denis Donaldson was no more interested in me giving out leaflets than the man on the moon and couldn’t even give a full shrug of the shoulders in apparent indifference; he couldn’t either be bothered to grunt any disapproval or otherwise.

The councillor was a bit exposed so he mouthed some vague displeasure to no particular point and I meandered back to outside the door to give out the rest of the leaflets.  As a comrade of mine put it, the Provos were more tolerant of other opinions when they were less ‘political’, when they confined themselves overwhelmingly to shooting and bombing, than they were to become during the peace process.

The point of this reminiscence is that Denis Donaldson was obviously the go-to guy at the meeting who determined what (or who) was allowed, in other words from ‘the army’.  Denis Donaldson was later revealed as a long term agent of MI5 and is now dead.  He was shot after being exposed as a spy in a remote and ramshackle cottage in Donegal. The rather pathetic circumstances of his death were fitting to someone who, unlike other agents, appeared too demoralised even to run in an attempt to save himself.

Now he has become a headline again because an ex-British soldier has alleged he was shot by the Provisional IRA and not by a ‘dissident’ IRA, which had claimed responsibility.  The headlines have been made because the ex-soldier has now written a book about his activities in the north of Ireland and accuses Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of having sanctioned the killing.  Adams, through his lawyer, has denied it.

One of Donaldson’s notable activities was his involvement along with two other men in an alleged Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont.  He was subsequently charged only for prosecutors to drop the charges “in the public interest.”  In such cases “the public interest” is anything but the public interest and is invariably in the state’s interest.

In the south of Ireland an inquest into his death has been delayed 20 times at the request of the Garda Síochána due to concern that a detailed journal found in Donaldson’s cottage contains information about the organisation of the republican movement and about his activity as informer and the activity of the state forces.  It’s doubtful either Sinn Fein or the British State want the contents revealed.

So we have an ex-soldier selling a book making one claim and Adams making the opposite claim.  The ex-soldier also claims that he was previously going to seek to join the IRA before then joining the British Army.  He regards himself as a republican and supports Sinn Fein today, indeed he claims he did so even when serving for the British Army in Ireland!  One can hardly think of anything more bizarre! Indeed it’s hard to think of anything less credible, except for Gerry Adams’ claim that he was never in the IRA.  So on purely a priori grounds of credibility the ex-Brit appears to come out on top.  Does it matter?

In so far as it impinges on Adams it simply reminds one of his lack of principle, unwilling and incapable of defending what was the primary dogma of republicanism – driving the British out of Ireland by armed force. After this was surrendered nothing remained sacred.  Following this betrayal there has no repentance of Gerry who has denied his movement more than three times.  Any further promises – to oppose austerity etc – are open to charges of relying on the same level of credulity necessary to accept his claims to non-membership of the IRA.

In so far as the headlines recall the murky intrigue of the ‘dirty war’ it reminds everyone who lived through it of just how dirty it was.  It was well enough known that loyalist murder survived upon the tolerance and sponsorship of the British state.  What has become clearer since the ‘end’ of the various armed ‘campaigns’ is the degree of this sponsorship.  But even more revelatory has been evidence of British penetration of the republican movement and the betrayal of genuine republican activists by agents of the British State inside the movement.

What all this history has demonstrated is that the conspiracy of the state cannot be overcome by any revolutionary conspiracy.  Irish republicanism is pathologically disposed to such conspiracy and has failed again and again.

As I near the end of reading a recent biography called ‘Karl Marx – a Nineteenth Century Life’, one consistent feature of Marx’s political activity recorded in the book was his opposition to conspiracy as the means of working class organisation.  The political activity that won Marx to socialism and which he in turn fought for again and again was the open organisation of the mass of workers, in struggle for their own objectives based on their own class interests.  It was Marx’s view that these interests are ultimately revolutionary and either the workers became conscious of them, became revolutionary, or they “were nothing.”  Freedom cannot be made behind the backs of workers.  A class cannot come to control society without being aware of its control.

A movement that perennially fails to recognise such basic truths signifies one of two things.  It is incapable of learning or its goals are essentially not about the freedom of the working class.  In both cases conspiracy becomes a favoured means of organisation since, like Gresham’s law, bad organisation drives out good.

Add to this a militaristic outlook and all the horrors of the dirty war are almost inevitable.  It is however not inevitable that sincere working class people end up in such demoralised circumstances that death is almost invited.