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SF and violence: an exchange

In concluding his review of Graham Spencer’s The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, https://drb.ie/essays/the-long-road-to-peace John Swift stated: “The IRA campaign of violence was a failure.” He also wrote: “Countries sometimes glorify political leaders who make horrific and costly mistakes in their younger years.”

Given that Sinn Féin is (by some margin) now the largest political party in Ireland the first proposition seems questionable. It also appears not only wrong, but disrespectful, to Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams to imply that they didn’t know what they were doing from the 1970s. When Willie Whitelaw met Adams in 1972 he recognised that he was a thoughtful, articulate, highly able and ‑ according to the minutes ‑ respectful young man.

The narrative arc of brutal, mindless psychotics and psychopaths evolving into peacemakers has been very appealing and compelling to policy-makers and society at large. However it is completely inaccurate. By definition the sole purpose of terrorism is to use controlled, tactical violence for a limited period, with the ultimate aim of securing political advancement.

Swift quotes civil servant Wally Kirwan’s view that Sinn Féin were “excessively indulged”, and describes Tony Blair’s shameful dismissal of Seamus Mallon because he “had no guns”. Taken alongside Mallon’s comment in his book A Shared Home Place that “Sinn Féin seemed to get everything they wanted at every stage of the negotiations”, one can see the weakness of the received wisdom that IRA violence was counter-productive.

In truth, the outcome of Sinn Féin bestriding the Irish political scene was the whole point of the violence; far from being a “failure”, it is actually its apotheosis.

I believe we Irish would benefit from a genuinely critical analysis of the political violence endemic in our society, rather than continuing in denial and rationalisation.

Philip McGarry FRCPsych

John Swift responds:

My understanding of the IRA campaign of violence, from 1969/70 through at least to the late 1980s, is that it had two primary purposes. These were: 1) the ending of the British presence on the island of Ireland (“Brits Out”); and 2) the establishment of a unified Irish state. To the extent that it achieved neither of these goals, I feel justified in calling that campaign a failure. Dr McGarry may perhaps share my judgement, expressed in the final sentences of the review (and based on the thought and wording of Eamonn McCann) that nothing in the circumstances of Northern Ireland can possibly justify the cruelty, misery, pain, grief and bereavement that attended the Troubles.

John Swift