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.
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