‘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

‘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