‘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.

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 8 – provocative civil rights

The December 1968 speech by Terence O’Neill was a landmark in unfolding events, but unfortunately there were many such landmarks.  Many critics of the militancy of some in the civil rights movement have since been too keen to blame the subsequent descent into the Troubles on their refusal to trust the bona fides of the Unionist regime, but without detaining themselves long to examine the paucity of the reforms on offer.

At the time the speech had a powerful impact on public opinion, and many were impressed at his sacking of the hard-line Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig.  The leadership of NICRA and the ‘moderate’ leaders of the Citizens’ Action Committee in Derry all accepted the request to call off their demonstrations and suspend their protests.

Peoples Democracy decided that the promises of the Unionist Government would be tested.  The speech by O’Neill had solved nothing and even the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted that universal franchise – ‘one man, one vote’ – had not been granted.  A march starting on 1 January 1969 from Belfast to Derry modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama three years before, which exposed racist violence and forced reform, would test the Unionist Government’s intentions.

The intentions of unionist hard-liners became apparent very quickly.  The march was subject to repeated harassment and struggled to take its intended course with repeated blockages and police diversions that seemed intended to facilitate loyalist attacks.  On the fourth day the RUC led the demonstration into an ambush at Burntollet in which hundreds of loyalists throwing stones and bottles attacked with clubs and iron bars.  Some RUC men joined in the attack while dozens of the attackers were later exposed as off-duty members of the B Special constabulary, especially notorious for its bigotry.  No attempt was made to arrest the attackers and later both police and assailants were to be found socialising together. The march regrouped and faced further attack but eventually made its way into Derry. City

PD had organised the march to test the Unionist Government and its State but did not anticipate the level of violent reaction it suffered; encapsulating one great problem for the whole civil rights struggle.  In the words of PD leader Michael Farrell, “either the government would face up to the extreme right . . . and protect the march . . . or it would be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster would be forced to intervene.”

The problem with this was that the Unionist Government was not concerned with sectarian thuggery in itself but only with its possible consequences, especially intervention by Westminster, although Westminster did not want to intervene.  The result was that sectarian thuggery took on, and had to take on, massive proportions before Westminster did eventually intervene, and then not primarily to stop the sectarian thugs.

Because this was not understood more appropriate preparations to defend against sectarian attacks were not taken and nor was the character of the later Westminster intervention understood, or the much greater level of violence it eventually entailed.

The idea of ‘provocation’ was not only the accusation of unionism but was also part of the calculation of some radical civil rights leaders. One marcher stated that “Our function in marching . . . was to break the truce, to relaunch the civil rights movement as a mass movement, and to show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. We knew that we wouldn’t finish the march without getting molested, and we were accused of looking for trouble. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

The PD march had been opposed by the leadership of NICRA and the Derry Citizens Action Committee, while the most prominent organiser, Michael Farrell, said he knew what he was doing – “a lot of the route was through my home area of South Derry so I knew . . . the likely reaction.”

One author of the history of the civil rights movement was not so sure:

“Farrell had not, however, anticipated the full extent of the violence. He had thought that the march would force the Government either to confront the loyalists or to drop its pretensions about reform, but he had not been clear about the further consequences of forcing the Government to resist sections of its own supporters. The loyalists might back down, or the Government might fall, forcing the British government to intervene. The purpose of the march was to upset the status quo.” (Bob Purdie, ‘Politics in the Streets’)

When the Nationalist Party had tried to march in Derry city centre in 1952, for example, the march had been banned and then broken up violently by an RUC baton charge. One consequence was a great reluctance to defy these bans and the next to do so in Derry was the civil rights march in October 1968.

As Eamonn McCann said, “the strategy was to provoke the police into overreaction”, and as he also put it, “one certain way to ensure a head-on clash with the authorities was to organise a non-Unionist march through the city centre.”  “Our conscious, if unspoken, strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities.” (War and an Irish Town p 62.)  Of October 1968 he said – “we had set out to make the police over-react.  But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.”

But if opponents of this approach have accused these radicals of provocation, they have been less keen to interrogate just exactly what justification had those who were provoked?

Given the moderation of the demands there is scant excuse for a violent reaction and the assumption of a strategy determinedly ‘non-provocative’ would appear to be that if you did next to nothing, next to nothing would be done to you.  But O’Neill’s promised reforms made it clear that the Unionist Government had no intention of granting equal citizenship rights to the Catholic minority without the strongest of pressure.  If only because pressure was being applied by hard-line loyalists on the other side, whose violence is so part of their nature that it is taken for granted by critics of the civil rights movement.  The imperative to non-provocation for these liberals thus always lies with the disadvantaged.

This does not imply that the moral righteousness of the oppressed means that no consideration need be given to the legitimacy or efficacy of methods of struggle employed.  It means that much more consideration needs to be given when you are in a position of weakness and you cannot simply declare a right to fight back by any means without accounting for its effects and its consequences.  There is no ‘right’ for Marxists to glorious or inglorious failure with its consequent casualties.

So, to demand civil rights meant challenging the sectarian parameters of society, which necessarily meant that the sectarian forces which defended these parameters were then ‘provoked’ into repressing demands for equality.  This, for example included demonstrating outside what was considered ‘your area’, which was then taken by the state as valid reason to enforce its sectarian rules by force.

For the defenders of sectarian supremacy any challenge to their sectarian rights was by its nature sectarian itself, simply by virtue of challenging the particular sectarian privileges of some Protestants.  In this view there was no such thing as non-sectarianism or anti-sectarianism because all attempts to redress the imbalance of rights necessarily impacted unequally on Protestants. In this view the inequality that existed was either denied or justified.  No claims to equality had any purchase on those with these views.  The alternative was to take a neutral view between these for and those opposed to sectarian practices, on the usually unspoken grounds that the latter were too powerful and capable, of violence.

The state defended itself not so much by arguing against the civil rights demands themselves as against those who were raising them, by arguing that the civil rights campaign involved republicans and was a republican front; in effect stating that even mild demands for change were subversive.

We have seen that no one outside of the Catholic population itself was able to build any substantial opposition to the State’s sectarian practices, so it had to come from within that population, not just logically but inevitably.  When the demands were raised by ‘moderate’ middle class figures they were ignored.  When they were raised by trade unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party they were ignored.  When they were raised on the streets it was inevitable that leftists and republicans would be involved, at which point they were no longer ignored but attacked.

The involvement of the Communist Party in NICRA meant unionism also associated it and civil rights with Communism, which had a particular connotation at this time because 1968 was also the year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.  The development of NICRA however showed that neither the Communist Party nor republicans had control of the movement.

NICRA had rejected the charge that the 5 October march in Derry was provocative and it was pointed out later that there were no clashes between demonstrators and Protestant residents but only between demonstrators and the police.  As a defence however this could not be sustained when loyalists increasingly confronted civil rights demonstrations, as they had done from the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. This was also a consideration for those opposed to the PD march but no one in the civil rights movement could afford to allow counter-demonstrations by the most bigoted Paisley supporters or attacks by off-duty police and Special Constabulary to veto their right to protest and demand for civil rights.

Either these attacks would lead to passivity and reliance on the good grace of the Unionist Government to introduce reforms, or the campaign would continue until they had been implemented, or not.

This at least seemed the logical choice, but as has been said before in this blog, political struggle is not a question of logic.  Political struggle gives rise to (or arises from) an opposition and this changes the choices that can be made.

It is clear that the civil rights movement did not foresee the vicious loyalist reaction that dragged the opposition to the sectarianism of the state into the Troubles, but they are not to be ‘blamed’ for the Troubles on that account.  Rather, if blame is to be apportioned, it is to those who violently opposed civil rights and who escalated their violent opposition as they saw the sectarian rights they were defending threatened.

Back to part 7

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 7 – civil rights takes centre stage

Image result for derry civil rights movement 1968

Television pictures of the civil rights demonstration in Derry on 5 October 1968 being attacked by police sparked anger across the North and South of Ireland and shock in Britain and further afield.  In Belfast Queens University students marched from the University into the city centre and set up a new organisation – Peoples Democracy (PD) – when they returned.

On the right of the spectrum, the Nationalist Party withdrew from its position as official opposition at Stormont and endorsed a policy of ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ and the civil rights agenda.   This did nothing to change the leadership of the civil rights movement while the running was made elsewhere as the next day PD held another demonstration to the City Hall in Belfast.  On 21 October the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that there must be reforms while the Taoiseach Jack Lynch visited London and protested against the events in Derry.  Just over a week later Wilson met the leadership of the Unionist Government and demanded the introduction of reforms.

In Derry the movement that had played such a big role in precipitating the crisis was rather easily taken out of the control of left radicals by the local Catholic middle class, intent on instilling its discipline.  Thus was created the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC) which most radicals joined, afraid of marginalisation if they didn’t, except for Eamonn McCann who walked out of the launch meeting in protest.  The presence of the majority of radicals however made no appreciable difference to the course of action taken by the DCAC.  The weakness and lack of perspectives that had been discussed by these radicals when they existed in separate loose organisation and alliance was made abundantly clear inside the Citizens Action Committee.

The DCAC brought more planning and organisation to protests, which they began organising, such as the mass sit-down in Guildhall Square later in October.  It was bigger than the 5 October demonstration, with between four and five thousand taking part, demanding a crash housing programme and points system for housing allocation. So, while denying it had any political purpose, even the new middle class leaders felt the need to extend the demands of the movement and continue its activity on the streets.

On the other hand the DCAC, run by local businessmen, did not mark itself out as centrally concerned with civil rights and hardly had much to do with NICRA at all, which in itself is symptomatic of both the limited nature of NICRA and the localised and confined perspective of leading figures in the Catholic middle class. There appeared to be no movement to compel the creation of a united and democratic civil rights campaign across the North or, on the other hand, a united left component of it, composed of the Derry radicals, PD in Belfast and others.  Instead, histories of the period note that the civil rights association and the wider civil rights movement were separate.  As so often, especially on the left, the need to prioritise activity in order to take advantage of a particular conjuncture of circumstances affected everyone concerned.

Another demonstration, defying a Government ban that the RUC could not enforce, was held on 16 November and was much larger that the October demonstration, with at least 15,000 taking part.  Two days later 400 dockworkers left work and marched and 1,000 shirt factory women also left work to demonstrate in the city centre as court proceedings arising from the first march started.  Later that night Protestant youths attacked the women as the evening shift left the factory, with clashes continuing the following day.

Two days later disagreement developed over a proposed demonstration on unemployment, which the DCAC leadership argued successfully against.  As Eamonn McCann later acknowledged, this approach “perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses” – “reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined.  The DCAC “did not challenge the consciousness of the Catholic masses.  It updated the expression of it, injected new life into it and made it relevant to a changed situation.”  As MCann also observed, it contrived to contain within itself those who wanted to destroy this consciousness.

Nevertheless, the repercussions of the Derry demonstration and the publicity it generated were carried forward – by the actions of the DCAC in leading street action and by the spontaneous demonstrations of workers. Coupled with the defection of the Nationalist Party and the radicalisation elsewhere, including demonstrations in Belfast, it contributed to growing pressure on the Unionist regime to make some concessions. On 22 November the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill announced a package of reforms.

They included a review of local government that would deal with ‘one man one vote’ in two years’ time, the abolition of the Special Powers Act as soon as practically possible, encouragement to local authorities to use a merit-based points system for allocating public housing (that they could make up themselves), an ombudsman to deal with complaints and a development commission to replace Londonderry Corporation.

One obvious problem with the reforms was that the Unionist Party leadership remained in control of the government with the only significant threat to its parliamentary majority being the threat from hard-right unionists. This dynamic ensured that the reforms were minimised for fear of losing this right-wing support and would continue got come under pressure. For example, the points system for allocating public housing was left for the local authorities to devise themselves.  The abolition of the Special Powers Act was to be as soon ‘as practically possible’, while the then Minister of Home Affairs suggested that this might not be for some time.

Most importantly, the package did not end the restricted franchise in local government and included no measures that would actually guarantee the end of unionist control of districts where nationalists were in a majority, except for Derry where a development commission was to take charge. All of the important levers of power remained in the hands of the Unionist Party. ‘One man, one vote’, which had come to crystallise the civil rights movement’s concerns had not been conceded, demonstrating that the Unionist Party couldn’t concede it because to do so threatened a split.

Unionist backbenchers were opposed to the reforms, while the cabinet had carried out analysis that showed that without the property franchise Catholics would make up a majority of the electorate in Fermanagh and Tyrone whilst threatening the Unionist Party position elsewhere.

The rioting that had followed the Derry October demonstration had given rise to concerns about future possible sectarian clashes, although it had been pointed out by ciivil rights protestors that it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that had attacked the demonstrators and not local Protestants. Nevertheless, a small civil rights march in November from Strabane to Derry had been attacked by loyalists, and at the end of the month supporters of Ian Paisley occupied the location of a civil rights march in Armagh town centre, armed with cudgels and sticks, preventing the legal civil rights march from taking its intended route.  The denial on full civil rights so evident in the limited concessions offered in O’Neill’s reform package was matched on the streets by the RUC, which stood by while loyalists prevented a legal civil rights demonstration.

It was clear rather rapidly that the reforms proposed were not enough, although they still led to a clash inside the Unionist Government, with the hard-line Home Secretary Bill Craig sacked after his criticism of a televised speech by O’Neill.   This had been designed to show the Unionist Government’s commitment to reform – “your voice has been heard and clearly heard .  Your duty now is to play your part in taking the heat out of the situation.”

The message was that the Unionist Government had played its part and now the civil rights movement was to play its – by calling an end to the demonstrations that caused so much violence and division.    Many Catholics were impressed that the previously aloof Unionist Prime Minister spoke directly to them, even if he spoke on behalf of the Protestant middle class that feared looming violence.  The unionist ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper ran a campaign in support of O’Neil with tens of thousands of its coupons backing himl being returned by its readers.

His ‘Cross roads’ speech in December 1968 warned of the situation being on “the brink of chaos”, while he appealed for the civil rights movement to call off its demonstrations, pledging that there would be no watering down of the promised changes.  NICRA and the DCAC acquiesced and called a truce on marches while nationalist newspapers welcomed the defeat of unionist hardliners and the reforms that were on their way, hoping that this promised steady progress in the future.

O’Neill had certainly changed the style and rhetoric of Unionist rule somewhat and was, as one author put it, “strong on gestures and bold statements”,  but there were very restricted limits to any reforming intentions and those that existed should be seen as part of attempts to modernise and rejuvenate industry and the economy more generally.  Unionist reformism, such as it was, assumed that the benefits of British welfarism and economic progress, plus funding for Catholic Church institutions, would nullify any demand for equality.  For O’Neill, the ‘Scotch-Irish’ Protestants of the North of Ireland were as different from the rest of the Irish people as ‘chalk from cheese’.

His premiership demonstrated no evidence that the anti-Catholic character of the Unionist Party was changing or that the Orange Order was not still an important part of it.  He wanted North-South relations to improve but there were no measures to prevent or combat discrimination in Northern Ireland.  He condemned the October civil rights march in Derry as ‘an act of pure provocation’ and supported the police despite its violent attack on it.

Undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do by the right wing of his party, which was rather rapidly and easily to become predominant, but he thought civil rights was only of interest to a minority of Catholics who he believed were more interested in houses, jobs and public services plus funding for their own sectarian institutions.

O’Neill did not so much advance a non-sectarian agenda, and pave the way for measures to reduce sectarianism, as undercut the growing but fragile movements that did and which threatened Unionist hegemony and that might have heralded a real, even if limited, advance on civil rights – the NILP in particular.  His liberal image had also made it easier to resist pressure from Westminster for some reform by the Unionist regime, which would have been harder to justify by other hard-line unionist leaders.  In this regard however, even the threats from the British Government to start interfering were not meant to speed up reforms but to avert intervention.

O’Neill sought Catholic quiescence to a unionist state, as his reaction to the 5 October civil rights demonstration showed.  Rather than criticise or apologise for the violence of the RUC he threatened to mobilise the even more sectarian and ill-disciplined B-Special Constabulary.

The limited character of the November reform package was clear, while his call for an end to civil rights demonstrations was precisely the objective of hard-line unionists, and also of the Paisley counter-demonstrations that had generated much of the violence.  Given these circumstances it was not unreasonable or even unexpected that this commitment to reform, and resistance to the right wing inside and outside the Unionist Party, would be tested.

It was only a question of time, although even today some controversy and condemnation attends to the Peoples Democracy march in January 1969 that did the testing.

Back to part 6

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