One Man’s Terrorist A Political History of the IRA, by Daniel Finn, Verso, 266 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1786636881
For Verso (formerly New Left Books), the publishing house of New Left Review, this book represents just the second on Ireland that it has launched in almost half a century. If, as the author claims, the Northern Ireland conflict was a “war without parallel in modern European history” with a human cost which in terms of relative populations would have been equivalent to 125,000 deaths and almost two million injuries in Britain, this lack of coverage is noteworthy. All the more so given the outpouring of academic books and articles on the Northern Ireland conflict that has occurred since the 1960s. The history of the publishing venture mirrored the silence of the journal throughout the Troubles. After an initial interest in the student left of the civil rights movement and a subsequent interview with Cathal Goulding, the three decades of violent convulsion were not registered in the pages of what was the most intellectually influential journal of the British left.
In an internal document produced for the journal’s editorial board and quoted in Gregory Elliott’s biography of its longtime editor, Perry Anderson, it’s “culpable silence” on the issue after 1970 was criticised: “Ireland … remained the great unanswered question of this period of the review, by common consent avoided.” In part this reflected its own tortuous relationship with the self-styled anti-imperialist current of British Trotskyism, many of whose militants were deeply involved in the “Irish Question”, starting with the anti-internment campaign and later in the Troops Out Movement. While some members of the editorial board, like Tariq Ali, were happy to appear on platforms supporting these campaigns others had qualms about an “anti-imperialism” spearheaded by the Provisional IRA. Elliott claims to find a “clear sign of hostility to the Provisional IRA” in a footnote to Anderson’s Arguments within English Marxism. The book is a response to Edward Thompson’s Poverty of Theory, with its critique of Althusserian Marxism and its alleged denigration of the role of human agency in history. More broadly Anderson is attempting to defend a view of the British state, the so-called “Anderson-Nairn thesis” he first adumbrated in “Origins of the Present Crisis” in 1964, which portrayed the English bourgeois revolution of the seventeenth century as premature and impure leading to a subaltern bourgeoisie and a hegemonic aristocracy buoyed up by the supremacy of British imperialism. Thompson’s great work, The Making of the English Working Class, was a challenge to Anderson’s depiction of the irredeemably reformist labourism of the working class. It also challenged Anderson and Nairn’s depiction of the British state as an “ancien régime” maintained by empire and now under existential threat. The footnote refers to a reference to Ireland in one of Thompson’s essays focusing on the growth in power of the security apparatuses of the British state in the 1970s. The passage quoted by Anderson is as follows: “Whatever aggravations have been afforded by British politics and by the British military presence, the source of the malaise is not to be found in contemporary ‘British Imperialism’ but in a historic conflict within Ireland itself and within the Irish working class.” Anderson comments: “Rightly condemning the Provisional IRA, Thompson wrongly commits a simplifying petitio principii here [the logical fallacy that attempts to support a claim with a premise that itself presupposes the claim, often called “begging the question”]. The obvious question, for a historian above all, is posed by a recombination of his terms: what is the ‘historic source’ of the ‘conflict’ within Ireland?” The answer, of course, was the British state. Provo violence, no matter how brutish, indiscriminate, sectarian and ultimately doomed to failure, was a symptom of a deeper ill ‑ the unjust presence of the British state in Ulster.
Whatever about Anderson’s footling condemnation, there is little doubt that it would have been impossible at the time to agree an editorial statement condemning the ongoing IRA campaign ‑ the book was published in 1980. Fred Halliday, who resigned from the editorial board in 1983, was the only member who openly disputed what he regarded as its simplistic and naive anti-imperialism, which had resulted in Tariq Ali supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet-supported communist regime. Brought up in Dundalk in the 1950s, Halliday considered the Irish question his bedrock personal experience and diverged radically from the NLR line, believing that troops out of Ireland was a completely irresponsible slogan.
It was not that leading members of the editorial board were incapable of seeing that the IRA campaign was stuck in a bloody cul-de-sac. As early as an article on the Heath government published in 1970, Robin Blackburn had written: “So long as British imperialism can count on the fanatical support of the majority of the population in the North nothing can dislodge it.” Yet throughout the next two decades, while the journal did not publish any article analysing what the British state’s actual interest in staying in the North was, or the ongoing transformation of the social and economic structures of the region, or of the politics and ideologies of unionism, loyalism, nationalism and republicanism it did provide space for Labour politicians like Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone to propagandise on the Irish question and the need for troop withdrawal. When two Irish academics criticised the journal’s meagre record on Ireland in 1995, the only substantive work that Robin Blackburn could refer to was Tom Nairn’s The Breakup of Britain. It was in a sense an appropriate choice as Nairn’s prescription for solving the Irish Question expressed the Review’s house style ‑ a de haut en bas handing down of a supposedly progressive solution forcing the Protestants to accept their own distinct national identity: “Ulster would have to find its own identity, freed from any tutelage of Westminster without any British military presence.” What the likely reaction of unionists, let alone nationalists and republicans, would be to such an eventuality was not considered worthy of any attention.
By the time of the IRA ceasefire and the emerging peace process Blackburn had to recognise that the British state under Tory tutelage had created the basis for some emerging resolution, although this was still seen in terms of Nairn’s 1977 model, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the EU buckled on: “Autonomy and power-sharing in Ulster needs an enhanced European dimension as well as an Anglo-Irish accord.” Apparently an Irish nationalism within an EU context would “maximise the opportunity for weaning many loyalists from the notion that they are simply British”. These musings on loyalism did not reflect any investigation of unionist or loyalist politics – none was commissioned between 1969 and 2019. This did not reflect simply an understandable lacuna on what was, after all, a tiny section of the British working class. The Review was similarly lacking in any serious investigation of the English, Scottish or Welsh working classes. Weighed down under the Anderson-Nairn thesis and its depiction of the ingrained labourism of the British working class, the Review looked instead to regularly proclaimed or predicted capitalist crises as possible detonators of a crisis of the British state .
In the interim, Blackburn could still find some residual progressive function for the Provos: “The mere existence of a continuing armed struggle, whatever its bloody errors and brutality, contributed to a wearing down of UK identity and the assertion of a distinctive Irish tradition.” In fact most commentators, including Daniel Finn, have noted that the effect of the IRA’s campaign has been to intensify Ulster Protestants’ British identity; whether the securing of a consultative role for the Irish state in the governance of the North was worth the toll of lives might also have caused more pause for thought.
Does Daniel Finn’s book represent an oasis in this intellectual and moral desert? The judgement has to be a qualified affirmative. Based on a doctoral thesis, its distinctive take on the much-studied Provisional movement is to focus on its location within a broader current of leftist and self-defined anti-imperialist parties and paramilitary organisations. He accords particular importance to the leading leftist intellectuals and militants associated with the Peoples Democracy group that emerged at Queen’s University after the RUC’s assault on the civil rights march in Derry’s Duke Street on October 5th, 1968. In the index, Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann have almost as many citations as Gerry Adams. Farrell, McCann and Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey played central roles in what are described as three moments of civil resistance – the civil rights mobilisation of 1968-69; the anti-internment movement of 1971-72 and the hunger strike mobilisations of 1980-81.
According to Finn ‘”it was only when republicans and others were able to mobilise those masses in their own right that their efforts left a permanent mark on Irish history”. His analysis shows that the republicans most interested in mass mobilisation in 1968 and after internment were the Officials, not the Provisionals. His treatment of the republican movement’s involvement in the civil rights movement is relatively sympathetic to the reformist strategy of Roy Johnston, Anthony Coughlan and Cathal Goulding, although noting that it needed time and patience, two commodities then in short supply. He is surely right to suggest at various points in the narrative the importance of contingency and “roads not taken”. However he dismisses the idea that there was a reformist alternative to the strategy prosecuted by the student radicals of 1968. He argues that the October 5th march in Derry and the subsequent PD march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969 did more to convulse Northern Irish politics than anything that had happened since partition, going so far as to claim that “5 October 1968 can justly be ranked as the second most important date in twentieth century Irish history, surpassed only by the Easter Rising”. At the same time he registers the fundamental problem with the strategic vision of those like Michael Farrell who saw the Burntollet march in terms of the Selma-Montgomery march in the US aimed at forcing Washington to intervene against discriminatory state governments: “Protests in Mississippi or South Carolina never called the existence of the state itself into question … and there was no tradition of African Americans making war on the state.” For Farrell the purpose of the march was to provoke an uprising in Derry and force the British state to intervene, re-opening the Irish Question for first time in fifty years. Finn comments: “It may be reasonable to question the wisdom of the PD’s approach, but to caricature them as irresponsible fanatics who sabotaged any hope of a peaceful future in pursuit of a Marxist pipe dream is profoundly unjust.” As he quotes my Ireland since 1939 in this context it is necessary to point out that in a relatively extensive analysis of PD’s role, based in part on my own membership of the organisation, I nowhere suggest that Farrell or any of his supporters were fanatics or in thrall to any particular Marxist schema. I do point out that the majority of ordinary members of PD were opposed to the march – there were profound divisions over whether Terence O’Neill should be given a short breathing space to test the seriousness of his reforming intent. There was also the issue of the inevitably polarising effect of the march as it had to pass through predominantly unionist areas.
Finn acknowledges the challenge the unionist population and in particular the Protestant working class represented to the different strands of Irish republican and socialist politics. Within PD the only leading figure who in any way recognised the depth of the problem was McCann, if only by registering the sectarian dimensions of the civil rights mobilisations: “Everyone applauds loudly when one says in a speech that we are not sectarian, we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers, but that’s really because they see this as the new way of getting at the Protestants.” Finn concludes that “there could be no denying the failure of the civil rights movement to displace traditional identities”.
The analysis of the Provisional IRA’s origins and subsequent development follows the path of the established literature, emphasising the defenderist and militarist instincts of many of its founding members. There is no support in the narrative for attempts to portray the Provo campaign as an inevitable development of a mass civil rights movement repressed by the unionist state: their leadership, he contends, always intended to launch an offensive against British rule in the North. The objective of the campaign was to exploit the bitter internal conflicts within unionism to force a British intervention to get rid of Stormont and so simplify the conflict to one between the IRA and the British state. With the help of a series of disastrous actions, from the Falls Road curfew to internment and Bloody Sunday, this part of the strategy was a spectacular success. But as Finn points out, echoing the critique of the Officials at the time, a British withdrawal would still leave an angry, fearful and well-armed unionist population to be dealt with. The Provisionals then and throughout the campaign failed to provide any convincing answer to this problem. Seán Mac Stíofáin’s view is referred to as being typical of the attitude of many Provisonals to unionists: “There would be no place for those who say they want their British heritage. They have got to accept their Irish heritage, and the Irish way of life, no matter who they are, otherwise there would be no place for them.” Finn reflects that these comments “hinted at a darker view of the unionist population as foreign settlers – ‘planters’ in the local idiom – who would have to choose between assimilation and flight when Britain was forced to pull out. In areas like rural Tyrone, which were to produce some of the most active Provo units, such attitudes run deep.”
When the original leadership was replaced in the latter half of the 1970s, the new leadership cadre around Gerry Adams, for all its much vaunted leftism, was faithful to this primordialism. Finn quotes the journalist Ed Moloney in a substantial article on the IRA in 1980 in which he suggested that the Northern Provos led by Adams were “undeniably more sectarian than their southern counterparts”. Another interview with a Provisional spokesman referred to “an element who call themselves Loyalists” whose traditional role has been to help perpetuate British rule: “These people play the role of a fifth column in Ireland. As such, they will be eliminated.” The “Long War” boiled down to “a war of attrition against the Protestant community in arms. They had to face charges of sectarian bigotry, especially when IRA Volunteers killed off-duty members of the UDR at their homes or places of work.” Even some leading Sinn Féiners lacked a strong enough stomach for the relentless toll of Protestant deaths, even if their reservations were expressed in the weasely transformation of reality into perception, as when Mitchell McLaughlin commented that “One objective reality which must be faced is that many IRA activities from the northern Protestant perception are perceived to be sectarian.” Finn’s narrative provides a sour implicit judgement on the effectiveness of this hand-wringing by highlighting the “nadir” of the Provisionals’ campaign against “legitimate targets” when a bomb killed eight Protestant construction workers in January 1992, a few years after McLaughlin’s comments.
The question of the Adams cadre’s relationship to Marxism is something that Finn, rather surprisingly, believes is worthy of discussion and he instances a policy document which he claims Adams wrote in 1979 and which was “marxist in everything but name”. The only specific policy mentioned was on the Khmer Rouge end of the Marxist spectrum ‑ the nationalisation of Irish agriculture, including small holdings. If such a document existed – the reference to it is to a journalistic article not the document itself – then it speaks volumes about Adams’s ignorance of Southern economics and politics. It is true that Adams and other leading Provisionals made use of some works of what John Whyte, in his Interpreting Northern Ireland, defined as “traditional marxism”, in particular Michael Farrell’s Northern Ireland: The Orange State. Farrell argued that Protestant working class support for the union was a product of discrimination and an ideology of Protestant supremacy. From this perspective the Provisionals’ armed struggle aimed at destroying an inherently sectarian and undemocratic state was a progressive one. At a time, at the end of the 1970s, when the Provisionals were in danger of political isolation, the Farrell/PD line that the military campaign needed to be supplemented by a politics that linked up with deepening working class militancy in the South was useful for those seeking to “broaden the battlefield”.
Although the new leftism cemented the links with the Trotskyist sects and the Livingstone/Corbyn fringe of the Labour Party in the UK, its Southern dimension was to prove much more problematic, provoking a split over abstentionism without producing any significant amount of working class support for Provisional Sinn Féin, seen well into the 1990s as little more than a tribute act to the IRA campaign in the North. The Provisionals were saved from political isolation and marginalisation by the hunger strikes, during which Finn notes that Thatcher’s abrasive style “made life harder for those who had been holding the line against the Provos since the conflict began”. Former PD militants Farrell, McCann and Devlin are credited with pushing the Provos to embrace a broader campaign supporting the prisoners and eventually into direct political exploitation of the prisoners’ demands and subsequent deaths. One of the first political casualties of hunger strike politics was the former leader of the SDLP, Gerry Fitt, who had urged the British government not to grant political status. The Provisionals boycotted the 1981 local government elections, leaving the field open for the PD to exploit nationalist rage to challenge Fitt and the other former SDLPer, Paddy Devlin. Finn quotes the PD paper: “We cannot ignore quislings like Fitt nor can we render them irrelevant simply by mass mobilisations. They must be fought and defeated on their home ground.” Fitt lost his council seat, although Devlin was able to retain his. Both suffered attacks on their homes and on family members. Fitt’s house on the lower Antrim Road was repeatedly petrol-bombed and his family forced out. Far from the republican project being rescued from oblivion by an upsurge of class struggle throughout the thirty-two counties, it rose to political prominence by surfing a wave of Catholic communalism, where, in the words of Fitt’s biographer “Rosary rallies played a large part in the agitation, as did recourse to Gaelic mythology, and all the traditional shibboleths of Catholic nationalism.”
There was never any possibility that the Provisionals would permit what they referred to as “mosquito groups” like the PD to reap the harvest of their volunteers’ deaths. The publications of people like Farrell and McCann could be used when necessary to shore up Sinn Féin’s leftist credentials to credulous British and foreign audiences, not to mention supportive regimes in Havana and Managua. In the longer term an “anti-imperialist” progressivist penumbra would surround the annual West Belfast Festival, perhaps the most self-satisfied cultural event in Western Europe. But in reality, from the mid-1980s, the armed struggle was aimed, as Finn points out, at producing a shift in ruling class strategy in London, not at spearheading some popular anti-capitalist revolution in Ireland. Belatedly, there was a dawning recognition that the British really had no economic or strategic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland and as democratic nationalist politicians like Jack Lynch and John Hume had been pointing out for years the real obstacle to Irish unity was the determination of Ulster Protestants to remain part of the UK. With the SDLP position fortified by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the disastrous results of the Provos’ so-called “Tet Offensive” – using Libyan weaponry to strike a decisive blow to bring the Brits back to the negotiating table ‑ the organisation faced a fork in the road. Finn quotes one of Adams’s key allies, Jim Gibney, writing in 1989 that “I don’t believe that the political philosophy that has emerged from the struggle over the last twenty years had the capacity any more to motivate people.” If the Provisionals did not find some way out of the impasse he warned that “you actually run the risk of being defeated”. Soon after this Gibney was publicly hinting that the “armed struggle” was a bloody albatross hanging round the neck of republicanism. Finn rightly diagnoses the bathetic ending of the Provisionals’ campaign. A movement which had argued since its formation that the Northern state could never be reformed “would be haggling over the extent of reforms for an indefinite period”. After being responsible for almost half of all those killed during the conflict, more than 1,750 people, by the standards that the IRA set for itself, “its war ended in failure”.
Finn quotes an academic sympathetic to Provisional republicanism writing in 2007 that “republicanism seems to be intellectually exhausted, giving the appearance of an ideological project that has run its course”. This, he points out, was also the implication of an analysis of republicanism and socialism written by the Sinn Féin intellectual Eoin Ó Broin in 2007 which correctly identified that for the Provisionals leftism was a largely tactical device to advance traditional nationalist objectives. Finn argues that Brexit and the possibility of movement towards a united Ireland “is bound to pull Sinn Féin back to the nationalist side of its political character”. However, his narrative of the Provisionals’ history provides little evidence that its character has ever been anything other than nationalist and, particularly in its Northern manifestation, based on a nationalism of ethnic revanchism.
In his review of The Breakup of Britain, Eric Hobsbawm accused Nairn of “painting nationalism red”. Finn’s book, despite its many serious and critical judgements of the Provisionals, is guilty of the same sin. The key problem is the absence of any interrogation of anti-imperialism. It is the notion of a broadly progressive Irish anti-imperialist project which, for all of the book’s delineation of the sectarian brutality of much of the IRA’s campaign and its ultimate strategic failure, prevents him from identifying it, and not the British state, unionism and loyalism ‑ for all of their own significant contributions to our thirty years of horror ‑ as the main force of reaction. The British state had made its willingness to leave Northern Ireland clear from at least the Northern Ireland Act of 1973, almost twenty years before it had to spell it out to the slow learners in republicanism that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in remaining in Ireland. As John Hume recognised after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Britain’s presence was largely explicable in terms of keeping the lid on a sordid sectarian war waged between the Provos and the loyalists. Much of republican energy during the early stages of the peace process was devoted to getting the British to persuade the unionists of the attractions of a united Ireland. It is a strange type of anti-imperialist movement which looks to the imperialist “other” to do its “liberation” for it. Yet it is from this primitive fraternity of “anti-Brit” forces that a whole generation of Irish leftists could not bear to separate themselves. Perhaps the present conjuncture, where Boris Johnston’s government has dealt a more profound blow to the union than thirty years of Provo bombs and bullets, is an ideal time for rethinking.
Henry Patterson is emeritus professor of Irish politics at Ulster University.