Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement, by Robert W White, Merrion Press, 488 pp, €24.99, ISBN 978-1785370939
Funerals and obituaries can be curious occasions. Often people will rally around and one will hear nothing but praise for the dead man or woman, even if some might have hated the person while alive. In other cases, a death can also go almost unnoticed or leave people feeling there isn’t much to say. Martin McGuinness’s death was clearly in the former category. In fact the media response to it almost mirrored the political narrative he so passionately maintained – violently denied civil rights, he and many of his generation in Northern Ireland had no option but to take up arms until, after many years, he, and most of his colleagues, made peace. True, many focused on the intervening years and the brutality of the organisation of which he was an integral part, but this was usually tempered by acknowledgement, if not celebration of, his eventual peace-making role. It was also emphasised that Mc Guinness was a highly personable man, one whom it was hard, even for his opponents, to dislike. The presence of Bill Clinton and Christy Moore further supported this narrative. Certainly some in the British conservative establishment reacted negatively to his death, but, even in Britain, the overall reaction was not unsympathetic.
On the other hand when Ruairí Ó Brádaigh died in 2013, his death went largely unnoticed. RTÉ Radio called up Tim Pat Coogan for comment; television crews later went out to Coogan’s Dalkey home so he could repeat himself on TV news and then RTÉ duly passed on to the next story. In fact more attention was paid to his funeral, not necessarily because it was Ó Brádaigh’s funeral, but because it became a show of strength by an anti-Good Friday Agreement paramilitaries. In obituaries, Ó Brádaigh’s importance in the narrative of the Northern conflict was recognised, but they usually concluded with the idea that the latter stages of his life amounted to his being an uncompromising political dinosaur. In one particularly hostile notice it was hinted that he was the leader of a dangerous cult and that throughout his life he had been responsible for death and destruction – the author even linked him to post-1994 bombings with which he had no involvement.
One cannot help but wonder why there was such a difference in response to the two deaths. Is it because McGuinness’s chosen narrative is a story some crave – the idea that people change, that we can forgive our enemies and ultimately find redemption? McGuinness’s later life was full of a series of symbolic and easy-to-understand moments on which the media could feast – laughing with Ian Paisley, shaking hands with the queen, and so on. On one level this probably gave people in Britain and Ireland a sense of comfort that all was forgiven and tangible evidence of the end of the “Troubles”. Was it in some way comforting and reassuring or were there other forces at play? It could also be said that there was something strangely condescending emanating from southern Irish and British commentators – a sense that the dangerous Provo had come around, had been made to see sense and was finally working within the system: the inference being that nothing McGuinness had done beforehand had any legitimacy but that now he was finally playing by the rules. Ó Brádaigh was by no mean as historically important as McGuinness, but one wonders was his death largely overlooked because his legacy is far more troubling.
In 1986, when Ó Brádaigh left Sinn Féin in protest at the party’s decision to effectively recognise the legitimacy of the Dublin government, he warned that ultimately it would result in Sinn Féin members taking their seats in Stormont and then Westminster. He believed this would result in Sinn Féin being subsumed into the system it had set out to destroy. He further made the point that this was exactly where their opponents, British and Irish, wanted them, and that they were unwittingly playing into their hands.
In 1998, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, Ó Brádaigh then predicted that Sinn Féin would ultimately oppose and use the forces of the state against former comrades, as Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera had done. Regardless of one’s own views of Ó Brádaigh’s politics, the sight of Martin McGuinness shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson and the chief constable of the PSNI, describing the dissidents as “traitors”, ultimately vindicated this prediction.
The issue of violence in Irish life is a difficult one. In a very sympathetic TG4 documentary made some years ago on the Civil War IRA leader Liam Lynch, who was a heroic defender of principles in Ó Brádaigh’s eyes, historian T Ryle Dwyer made the interesting points that Lynch had miscalculated his stance on the Treaty, that he had helped start a war he had no chance of winning and that it was ultimately dangerous to uncritically celebrate his life. In 2022 it will be difficult for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to commemorate or celebrate the Treaty split without running into the claims that they are celebrating either unbridled militarism or attempts at overthrowing the modern Irish state. On the other hand the counter-claim can be made, that people like Eamon de Valera, Martin McGuinness, and indeed Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy saw the power and necessity of violence or viewed it as the only option, but that all recognised violence could only achieve so much, Collins and Mulcahy, with the acceptance of the Treaty, de Valera with the founding of Fianna Fáil and finally McGuinness with the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and finally the Good Friday Agreement (Clann na Poblachta and the Workers’ Party followed similar paths).
Others however would maintain that if life was to be taken it should only be taken with the sole and express aim of creating a thirty-two county republic. Sinn Féin currently maintains that the current status of apparent “equality” in Northern Ireland would not have occurred had it not been for the IRA’s campaign. The party likes to bring up the civil rights issue at every opportunity – how these rights had been denied and how through violence Sinn Féin had eventually secured them. But between 1969 and 1994 the IRA was fighting for a united Ireland, not power-sharing in a new Stormont. Undeniably, huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin deserves some of the credit. Former IRA volunteer and hunger striker Tommy McKearney makes the not unconvincing argument that ultimately Sinn Féin reinforces sectarian divisions by appealing only to Catholic/nationalist voters and that this does little to actually address the root causes of division or inequality. In other words they have become part of the system they set out to destroy.
The logic of Ó Brádaigh and his colleagues was that the 1916 Rising and War of Independence was fought on the basis of a thirty-two county republic and the Civil War was fought against the introduction of two parliaments imposed by Britain – and that every subsequent generation who engaged with either the Dublin or Stormont system was in fact giving tacit recognition of a system imposed upon Ireland by Britain. Ó Brádaigh was very much attached to this reading of history and felt it was hypocritical for some to only endorse or celebrate violence up to a given point; Fine Gael up to 1921, Fianna Fáil up to 1926 and Sinn Féin up to 1994 – when there were always others who believed in the unmodified or unadulterated tradition.
It seems there are three approaches: the first being that of Collins, de Valera and McGuinness, that violence can produce results but is ultimately limited; a second being that of Ó Brádaigh, that if violence is to be used it might as well be used until the ultimate goal is achieved; and then there is the approach of Daniel O’Connell, John Redmond and John Hume that killing is never justified when reforms can be achieved through the system (I would not include Parnell as he would often make threats about using violence). Many in the SDLP harbour considerable resentment towards Sinn Féin for being slow learners and for co-opting what they had in fact been arguing for years. From the opposite perspective dissident or anti-Sinn Féin republicans argue that Sinn Féin has simply become the SDLP. The popularity of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the continuing electoral success of Sinn Féin, and indeed the almost universal disdain with which John Bruton’s interesting if flawed understanding of the Rising was greeted would seem to suggest that most nationalist Irish people seem to agree with the second option – violence works and can be approved of up to a point.
Professor Robert White seems to believe this too, but also appears at times to consider continuing violence as legitimate. His new book has considerable merits but is not without flaws. A professor of sociology at the University of Indiana, he has long been a keen observer of Irish republican politics. Following in the footsteps of other American scholars, notably John Boyer Bell, White has been interviewing republicans and analysing their rhetoric since the 1980s. Like Bell, he deserves considerable credit for engaging with groups which many people in Ireland and Britain tried to either ignore or silence. He is to be specifically credited for taking scholars of “terrorism” to task for not recognising the agency of state actors in the escalation of conflicts. Credit is also due to him for his belief that through talking to “terrorists” or non-state insurgents it is easier to understand or evaluate their point of view, rather than simply denouncing and demonising it. Indeed a recurring motif from members of Sinn Féin and the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s was their frustration at being denied public platforms.
Out of the Ashes is a detailed and lengthy history of the republican movement from the 1950s border campaign to recent times. Much of the research is based on secondary material, together with extensive interviews with veterans and current activists. For the purpose of clarity, this essay is not a detailed review of the book but rather a reaction to some of the issues its author brings up.
White has a particular interest in Ó Brádaigh, having written a biography on him, and herein lies a strength of the book – White gives as much attention to today’s “dissidents” as he does to modern Sinn Féin. In his narrative he lets Sinn Féin supporters explain their rationale, but this is followed by “dissident” criticism of this rationale. It is doubtful whether the leadership of Sinn Féin will approve of the book since it gives such attention to their most bitter critics. White is also to be applauded for discussing and engaging with the rationale of groups most people in Irish society ignore, dismiss, laugh at, or feel threatened by – Republican Sinn Féin, the Thirty-Two County Sovereignty Movement, and by extension the Continuity IRA and Real IRA. White highlights that these groups effectively still hold on to ideas Sinn Féin held and maintained up to 1986 (when Republican Sinn Féin seceded) and then 1997 (when the 32 County Sovereignty Movement seceded).
White provides a particularly astute analysis of Gerry Adams. Adams, he writes, weighed up the risks and felt the splits of 1986 and 1997 – the former over ending abstentionism to the Dáil, and the latter over the winding down of the armed campaign – were worth it as they helped jettison principles he felt were holding Sinn Féin back from increasing their support base. But White also notes that, for many former comrades and indeed much of the wider public, Adams comes across as manipulative and deceitful.
White seems to suggest that Sinn Féin always had a considerable support base, one that was growing or always had the potential to grow. The party’s electoral success north and south shows this to be correct. White’s history of Sinn Féin is one of an almost inevitable trajectory moving towards this scenario. He does recognise the traditional republican contempt for politics as “corrupting” or “impure”, but stresses that from the earliest times the Provisionals were not simply driven by militarism but wanted social change. This is all very well, but it does not alter some other traditional anti-majoritarian views of Sinn Féin and the IRA.
In 1938, before the beginning of the bombing campaign in Britain, IRA chief of staff Séan Russell sought the blessing of the remaining survivors of the Second Dáil of 1921 who had neither supported the Treaty or joined Fianna Fáil to pass on their governmental authority to the IRA Army Council, The logic being that the Second Dáil had never been disestablished and that the other members had simply defected to the illegitimate Free State. Governmental authority was to be vested in the military as the country remained occupied and the “government” could not function. This was despite the fact that the last time the republican members of the Second Dáil had attempted to act like a government was in the autumn of 1922 when de Valera briefly attempted to resuscitate the idea of the Dáil government of 1919-21, but the idea gained little traction as the new Free State was widely regarded as legitimate. Within ten years de Valera would be governing the Free State, bestowing on it the ultimate legitimacy. Russell as chief of staff and, in his own mind, now head of state, felt he had the ability to “declare war on Britain”.
This idea of the army council amounting to the government never quite went away. The founding members of the Provisional IRA sought out the recognition of the last remaining “republican” member of the Second Dáil – General Tom Maguire. Maguire duly obliged. In 1986 he would also give his blessing to the Army Council of the Continuity IRA. White and other historians have correctly pointed out that these dynastic issues had little importance for IRA men on the ground. But the idea that the leadership of the organisation did consider itself to be the government of Ireland should not be dismissed. White argues that the younger generation of republicans continually forsook these more dogmatic republican principles but it is telling that in 1986 Adams sought out Maguire’s blessing – Ó Brádaigh got there first though.
The Provisional IRA were often challenged by the suggestion that unlike the IRA of 1919-21 they had no mandate for violence, and the response was that British occupation mandated their actions. This is all very well but it can also be argued that the Provisional IRA was guilty of a ruthless Bolshevik-like authoritarianism in which the actual complex and nuanced views of all the people of Ireland were ignored in favour of a pursuit of its own goals. The fact that the leadership considered itself to be an unelected caretaker government is testament to this.
The idea of the IRA having a mandate in 1919-21 represents a type of southern nationalist hypocrisy. Sinn Féin was not elected in 1918 on the promise that it would wage war. Michael Collins became semi-democratic in 1922 as it suited his then agenda, but continued to pursue a clandestine agenda in relation to Northern Ireland. Tim Pat Coogan has argued that Collins’s actions resembled those of a chief of staff of the Provisional IRA.
Robert White’s book is an oral history of the provisional movement and it is understandable that there are few, if any, non-provisional republican voices. There are fascinating insights into why people joined the IRA, why they thought their war was justified, and how nearly all of them have no regrets or qualms about taking up violence in the first place. But they are not asked about what kind of Ireland they wanted to create, how they felt or feel about unionists, or what role they saw for unionists in their new Ireland.
White is essentially sympathetic with his subjects’ point of view and this can prove frustrating. For instance, he adopts their view of, among other things, the SDLP. The party is frequently referred to as “middle class”, “conservative”, and so on. This gets tiresome for the reader, and is rather ironic considering that Sinn Féin, essentially, is now in favour of what the SDLP had been arguing for all along – a non-violent approach to nationalism and a united Ireland achieved by consent only.
In the closing remarks about anti-Good Friday Agreement republicans or “dissidents”, White compares them to Wolfe Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Patrick Pearse and so on, as those who “cannot be co-opted and will not compromise” and quotes Pearse that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. One would expect such sentiments from a member of a “dissident” group but in this context it comes across as sentimental, overtly emotional and inappropriate. Is White suggesting that the only solution in Northern Ireland is a return to violence, or that violence is inevitable? Certainly the sentiments he expressed could give succour to those who take this position. It is up to the reader to decide whether they consider this to be a socially responsible attitude for any historian/sociologist to take. The following is my assessment.
In 1979 Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers released their first LP, Inflammable Material, which included the high-energy but despairing song “Wasted life”. Singer Jake Burns describes the frustrating peer pressure or expectations to join a paramilitary group but cries out: “stuff their fucking armies, killing isn’t my idea of fun”. He deplores the violence around him as having ruined his life, the violence being something he considers only having a connection “with another time and another place”. The lyrics are intensely pessimistic, offering no hope, but they also denounce paramilitary groups as being trapped in the past and holding onto dangerous self-glorifying assumptions about themselves and racist stereotypes about their opponents. Burns’s lyrics also cleverly prevent the listener from having any sense of what “side” he might be coming from – the band has always been very proud of having members from both sides of the divide. In 1999 Burns returned to the subject of Northern Ireland in his lyrics to “Last Train from the Wasteland”, written in defence of the Peace Process. Burns essentially pleads that peace is worthwhile, that Northern Ireland will never be “the promised land” but that anything is better than returning to violence.
I think Stiff Little Fingers have a more astute reading of the situation than that suggested by White’s use of the Pearse quote. After all, Pearse’s words were from “another time, and another place”.