‘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

From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 3 – nationalist failures

As we argued in the previous post, the civil rights movement grew out of the failure of the traditional alternatives which Catholics in the North of Ireland looked to in order to address their grievances.  These had sought to address the problem at source – through removing partition and ending the Northern State itself.

The first of these was through the Nationalist Party, whose various participation and absence from Stormont were equally ineffective.  Belfast Catholics also voted for various Labour parties and individuals and some radicals joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s, especially in Derry where they later played an important part in the civil rights movement. The Nationalist Party however was hardly a party at all, with no party structure, only holding its first annual conference in 1966, and was dominated by small businessmen, farmers, professionals and the clergy.

As the Anti-Partition League (APL) the Party had sought in 1945 to unite all those in the North opposed to partition and, like a couple of decades later, hoped that the new Labour government in London would be more sympathetic to its cause. The Party also appeared attuned to the times when Fianna Fail in the South ramped up its nationalist rhetoric when faced with a greener competitor on its flanks: Clann na Poblachta as part of a coalition Government in the South declared the Irish state a Republic in 1949.

The League tried to build a real organisation with offices and branches and to create a campaign with meetings and rallies across the North, also looking to the Irish in Britain and US, as well as in the Irish state.  Hopes of progress faced an intransigent Unionist government that banned nationalist demonstrations, while the Unionist Party increased its grip on Protestant workers assisted by Labour politics in the North splitting over partition.

The inevitable failure of the APL and lack of organisation of its successor signaled that Catholic disadvantage would not be reduced through constitutional campaigning. Relying significantly on local Catholic notables and the Church, the latter was more interested in its own temporal power than that of its flock, and this entailed funding from the Stormont regime and an amicable relationship with it.

The strongest Irish nationalist movements were the political parties in the South, but they too were more interested in the security and strength of their own partitioned state, which also came to be seen as linked to an amicable relationship with the Unionist State.

The second force within the Catholic population was nationalism in its more militant guise of republicanism. After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces in the civil war the defeated IRA sought a ‘second round’ of struggle against the Free State, the traitors who had split the movement and betrayed the true Republic.

Despite strenuous claims by republicans as to the continuity of their movement it is the discontinuities which are most remarkable, and the greatest break in the continuity of the movement in the 20th century was its attitude to the Irish State.  Today the idea that the main goal of the IRA should be to overthrow the Irish State would seem incredible, but this only illustrates how much the movement has changed.

A further split in the Anti-Treaty movement and the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 exposed the weakness of militant republicanism and its nationalist politics. With Fianna Fail in government the lack of any principles based on class left it with no political rationale for prioritising overthrow of the new Irish State.  Popular opposition to any such project made ditching this objective easier, while also simpler to pass over the change in programme without anything being learned.  It was however now saddled with a policy that sought to abolish partition but without fundamental opposition to one of the partitioned states, the one previously considered to be the immediate and principal enemy.

Robbed of the perspective of a ‘second round’ against the Free Staters, the IRA embarked on a bombing campaign directly against Britain in 1939, which exposed the strategic weakness of the movement.  It was however saved from even greater humiliation by bigger concerns created by the much larger conflict.

The remaining target was the Northern State itself, which had witnessed isolated IRA action in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became the central target of a border campaign launched in 1956.  This however spluttered out long before it was brought to a formal close in 1962, when the IRA was forced to dump arms while blaming the people for lack of support.

In fact, elections in 1955 had shown that there was significant support in the areas where the campaign was expected to operate, so it appeared again that no real lessons were learnt, although it should have been clear what these were.   The restriction of IRA activity in Belfast already indicated some appreciation of weakness, but without any apparent consideration about what this might have meant for the effectiveness of its strategy as a whole and republican politics more generally.

There were now no more strategic targets left, with all three states in opposition to it having easily crushed attempts at armed rebellion.

At this point some in the republican movement did begin to learn lessons, which if fully comprehended and absorbed would have radically transformed the movement.  Unfortunately, the new emphasis in the 1960s on economic and social agitation was not in itself an alternative to belief in the power of armed struggle, and when this radical reconsideration was later completed by the Official republican movement it was not to lead to the embrace of socialism, but to the stultifying and corrupting grip of Stalinism.

Since Irish Republicanism had long become a militant form of nationalism, and Stalinism had long become a nationalist form of socialism, the difference between militant nationalism and nationalist socialism was both easy to cross over and easy to erase. Nationalism was common to both, as was the understanding of socialism as primarily amounting to state intervention by the existing state, with the cherry of a left governing party at the top of a capitalist cake.  Today some left-wing republicans have attempted to come to terms with the defeat of Provisional republicanism through embracing the current incarnation of Stalinism, although in doing so they have simply repeated the experience of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the identification by some republicans of the need for attention to be given to economic and social agitation did provide an important thread that led to the creation of the civil rights movement. In this they were joined by concerned members of the Catholic middle class and radicals and leftists in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In doing so these various currents would come together to identify a radical approach to the growing concern of many, a concern with what might seem to be a programme of limited reform, but which contained within it much more explosive potential.

That diverse movements came separately to this point indicates that forces more fundamental than themselves were working, and we will look at these in the next post.

Of course, in the end, the nationalist consciousness of the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland was not broken by the civil rights movement despite the earlier failures of such politics.  As a result of this, more radical socialist and even left republican politics were not so much defeated as marginalised by the dynamics of developments as these ran into the ‘troubles’.  But before we get to that we will look at the progenitors of the civil rights movement.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

 

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.

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

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