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One Man's Terrorist: Daniel Finn and Daniel Baker in conversation.

by Daniel Baker, Daniel Finn / August 25, 2020

Bad New Times | Books  }
Throughout the conflict, the IRA’s military capacity and significant, but not decisive, support in working class Catholic communities gave it a power of negative veto but little chance of outright victory. 15065 words / 59 min read

Based on extensive archival research, Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA explores the relationship between the IRA, a clandestine army described as ‘one of the most ruthless and capable insurgent forces in modern history’, and the political movement that developed alongside it to challenge British rule.

DBThe release of One Man’s Terrorist feels timely given the electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin in the 2019 Irish general election, with the surge in popular support for them celebrated by many on the social democratic left at the same time as the party’s historic role as the political wing of the provisional IRA dismayed the traditional conservative elite of Irish politics and right wing media on both sides of the Irish sea. But the book has its origins in your earlier work. Could you talk us through the evolution of the book and your reasons for wanting to revisit the subject?

DFThe book came out of a PhD. I’d wrapped up my PhD several years before I got down to work on the book. I’d always wanted to turn it into a published work, and by the time I came to do so, a lot of new sources on the subject had become available — for example government papers. When I wrote the PhD, these records were only available up until around the late 1970s, but by the time I came to write the book, they were available well into the 1980s. There were new memoirs published by members of the IRA and Sinn Féin, and new literature on the subject had become available in that time.

It was a good time to be working on it as an academic historian. For the first time it was becoming possible to write about this period as history. There had been a lot of books written about the IRA and Sinn Féin, but most of these were written by journalists, people who were reporting on the conflict while it happened. There was a cluster of those books in the late 90s and the early 2000s, coinciding with the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, from journalists like Peter Taylor and Ed Moloney. They produced some very valuable work.

It was at a later stage when it became possible for historians to move in and create some kind of academic record, using historical methodology and a wider range of sources. It was an exciting thing to work on, because it felt like not too well-trodden ground. Some eras of history have a limited range of sources available and it’s very much a question of reshuffling the pack rather than coming up with something new to draw upon, but I didn’t have that sense at all. I’d go to the archives and ask for a file and realise I was the first person looking at it.

DBI’m interested in how you approach memoirs and archival sources of this nature as a historian writing on Irish Republicanism and The Troubles. There are legal complications and cross-referencing demands of a kind that must be distinct from more historically distant political conflicts, especially ones with less contested outcomes. Could you talk us through that and highlight any particular personal memoirs or archival sources you found most useful in regard to negotiating this?

DFThere’s a general question here about memoirs and oral accounts when it comes to Irish history that is worth exploring. In comparison with the early twentieth century and the history of the original iteration of the IRA during the War of Independence of 1919-21, we have a much more limited quantity of primary source material, especially of people talking about their experiences of being in the IRA.

The outcome of those two conflicts was different. In the period of 1916–21, the national revolution period after the Easter Rising, the IRA was successful, or at least partially successful. It didn’t achieve the complete, original objective that Republicans had set out with, but there was a state set up in the South manned by the people who had fought the national revolution, first Cumann na nGaedheal, then Fianna Fáil, with people like W. T. Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Sean Lemass, Frank Aitken effectively governing the country well into the 1960s.

There was no question of people being criminalised for their role in that struggle; even though the IRA was an outlaw organisation at the time, it was retrospectively legitimised. There was an oral history project set up by the state after this, but that was under lock and key for a long time, much to the chagrin of historians. When those things were released it was a huge treasure trove of materials. When people applied for pensions for their role in the revolution civil servants were very scrupulous in asking for evidence.

Whereas the outcome of the Provisional IRA’s war in the North was different. They didn’t win. You could say they achieved a compromise peace — an amnesty for their members and they were recognised as a legitimate political actor — but the British state remained in control and that also meant in control of the legal process and also of historical memory.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement there was no unilateral amnesty for the IRA; there were some people released as IRA members who subsequently became involved with dissident Republican groups and were rearrested to serve out the rest of their sentences. But there was no line drawn under the conflict in which no one would be retrospectively arrested for their role in it.

This is relevant when you see some of the outrage from sections of the right wing press over the fact that soldiers — to a very limited extent and in a handful of cases — are being subjected to legal action over their role in the Troubles. There is an insinuation that this should not be happening when IRA members aren’t being prosecuted, but in fact there is a historical inquiries team pursuing IRA members — and to a lesser extent loyalists — but former IRA members are still being pursued.

So, in terms of oral history, people can’t speak freely even if they wanted to for the sake of the historical record. It comes up in the case of Gerry Adams for example, who has never admitted to being an IRA member himself, let alone discussed candidly his career in the IRA. He’s written two memoirs which I think are very useful and valuable sources, but you need to read them against the grain and keep an eye out for what he’s not speaking candidly about.

People mocked him for this, as it seemed implausible that he would ever be arrested for membership. But in 2014, when he was arrested in relation to the Jean McConville murder, the PSNI concluded that there was no way he could be pinned to criminal charges over McConville’s death, but they did question him about his IRA membership. There’s something almost comical about it, as Adams’s whole role in the peace process hinged on the fact that he could bring the IRA to the negotiating table through his history of membership, but he was questioned on that all the same.

One of the memoirs I quote in the book is a very interesting book by Kieran Conway. His background was so untraditional for an IRA member. He came from the South, and there were IRA members from the South, but he came from a middle class background, went to university in Dublin and was training to be a lawyer. He wrote a very good book (Southside Provisional) on the time he joined the IRA and rose to become a senior member active for over two decades. It covers the period from the moment he joined the IRA up to 1975. After he resigned from the IRA in the 90s. he had to find a new career so he went back to law and trained as a solicitor. He was keenly aware of the legal side of writing a memoir.

When it was released, some Unionist politicians called for his prosecution, but he could respond that if he is asked about any of his activities as described in the book, he can only be accused of shooting persons unknown, at places unknown, on dates unknown, in association with other persons unknown. He had to hedge about his experience. The memoir also covers the period up to 1975, but he doesn’t address the later period of his membership in the 80s or 90s as he “didn’t want to say things he shouldn’t”.

There’s a difference between the manifestations of the Provisionals between those periods. In that earlier period up to 1975, the leadership of the IRA was publicly identified and common knowledge — people like Seán Mac Stíofáin, Seamus Twomey, Joe Cahill, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Billy Mckee, even a young Martin McGuinness, quoted on the press and TV as members of the IRA. There was no euphemism of them representing Sinn Féin instead of the IRA; they appeared at press conferences in that capacity.

But once you get into the 1980s, there’s a situation where IRA members and leaders who were also active in Sinn Féin were not publicly identified as being part of the IRA. Even though it was widely reported and assumed by the security services that Adams and McGuinness were not only members of the IRA but held positions on its Army Council, they denied that. Kieran Conway was identified as having attended Army Council meetings by Sean O’Callaghan, a government informer who would become a figure of notoriety wheeled out in the Tory press any time it was necessary to denounce Sinn Féin, or later Jeremy Corbyn. So the number of memoirs that have been published are still thin on the ground.

In the national revolution period of 1916-21, you have examples of some of the most famous revolutionary leaders of the period writing memoirs, some of which were avidly read by Indian revolutionaries as guidebooks for guerrilla warfare.

In the national revolution period of 1916-21, however, even before the state oral history projects and the establishment of archives on the conflict, you have examples of some of the most famous revolutionary leaders of the period writing memoirs. People like Tom Barry, Dan Breen, Ernie O’ Malley. Some of those memoirs were avidly read by Indian revolutionaries and people in Egypt and other British colonies as guidebooks for guerrilla warfare. But there haven’t been examples of similar books written post 1997 by members of the Provisionals, in particular by those close to the Adams leadership. Kieran Conway left the IRA over the direction of the peace process, and while his book is by no means an anti-Adams memoir, he’s not writing from within that camp of the movement.

A more high-profile and controversial example of this would be Voices from the Grave, the project by journalist Ed Moloney via Boston College that took testimonies from IRA volunteer Brendan Hughes and the Loyalist David Ervine, a member of the UVF and Progressive Unionist Party, on condition that it would be published only after their deaths. It was pointed out at the time by reviewers that there is an asymmetry to the views of Ervine and Hughes. Ervine is the PUP leader and it’s the view from within, he’s discreet about certain things. Hughes is speaking as someone who was once a close Adams associate but who has fallen out quite bitterly with him.

This could mean he’s inclined to speak very candidly, or it could have warped his perspective – not that he would be consciously dishonest, but looking back from today memories can be distorted in some way by the current perspective. But the fact that Hughes was willing to give statements to the Boston College project was contingent on him having fallen out with the Sinn Féin leadership.

The project, which was shut down prematurely as result of legal proceedings brought against Ivor Bell and Gerry Adams, was a project involving contributions that were made on condition they would be released only after the death of the interview subjects. The organisers of the project didn’t deliberately set out to interview those hostile to Adams, but if you contacted Adams loyalists to this day and asked them to give a statement, they’d first run it by the Sinn Féin leadership and it would be impossible to keep the whole thing relatively inconspicuous. So the stock of memoirs and oral history is much more limited than from the national revolution. We are still dependent on the work of journalists who were reporting on the IRA and the conflict first-hand.

There’s a parallel here between parliamentary centres like Westminster who have lobby correspondents cultivating people at the highest level of government. There’s a convention of quoting off the record without attribution. As a result of not being publicly identified they say things they wouldn’t say on the public record and that provides some insight as to what’s going on behind closed doors. There’s an understanding that under the 30-year rule, all documentation will eventually be released, allowing for the fact some are held back on national security grounds and that some decisions will never be put down on paper. But this does make for a comprehensive harvest of material – cabinet minutes, civil service memos etc.

Journalists that reported on the IRA had a similar understanding. They would quote “an IRA member” or an “IRA leader in Belfast/Tyrone etc”. But there’s no 30-year rule for the IRA. They did keep quite comprehensive written records of their structures, the Army Council, the conventions etc. Some researchers have been given selective access. Peter Taylor was given access to documents about the meeting between IRA leaders and the government in the 70s, but it was very cloak and dagger. He was brought to a secret location and ordered to take notes with pencil and not pen.

It’s very unlikely, wherever those IRA records are kept, that they’ll be released to researchers any time in the future. If you had meetings of the Army Council in the early 80s and you identified current members of Sinn Féin as taking part at that time, it would be a political hot potato, so we are very reliant on the reporters from those periods. My approach was to triangulate between those reports and other accounts from the same period, especially things that could not be verified or cross-referenced from other sources. My rule of thumb was to cross-reference several of those reporters so you weren’t reliant on a single source, and see what the common denominators were, and err on the side of caution, relying more on contemporary sources than on hindsight. Especially when people are talking off the record.

DBWhen we are talking about the benefits of hindsight and thinking about things as refracted through historiography by the state for the benefits of its own self image, you mention Danny Morrison’s pamphlet “The Good Old IRA” as being considered by some a pioneering work of revisionist history. Yours is a book written from a socialist perspective, and when I first became interested in the subject of Irish political history when I was younger, it was clouded by the fact that I’d be reading very studiously and legally objective accounts from a journalistic perspective, or I was reading things that made a sharp moral distinction between the old IRA of the War of Independence in contrast to the Provisionals.

Could you tell us a little about that distinction? Because those revisionist debates and comparisons between the national revolution period and the Troubles still seem to cloud various narratives today, and seem often to be used for self serving ends by both the Irish and British states.

DFThere’s a funny convergence in these debates. All through the 70s and 80s the political establishment in the South — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party — were adamant that there was no comparison between the Provisionals and the old IRA. The Provisionals were equally clear saying they were the inheritors of that tradition. At the same time in Irish intellectual life, in history departments, in universities and to some extent the media, there was a revisionist current.

Revisionism is a disputed label: those referred to as revisionists often denied being any such thing; in so far as there was a coherent tendency, it was a blistering polemical stance toward traditional Irish nationalism. It was something that some leading historians recognised themselves. For example, Ronan Fanning pointed out that the historical records for the old IRA from the British state only started to become available in the 1960s, and the eruption of the conflict in the North had influenced the work of historians on that earlier period more than they realised or acknowledged. F. S. L. Lyons made a similar point that there was a trend in the early 70s for historians to scrutinise their own work and that of their colleagues for a tendency to provide moral succour to Republican revolutionaries, and this was every bit as much of a reading of history in line with current events as the “1916 and all that” traditional nationalist reading of Irish historiography.

This material became very influential in certain sections of academia and the media. It was a strange discrepancy, where historians were saying the Provisionals have a lot in common with the old IRA and that says something bad about the old IRA — was it necessary to have had such a violent struggle? Wouldn’t it have been better to have some gradual, Fabian form of progress towards home rule that positions John Redmond as the real hero of the period? Meanwhile Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and Labour Party politicians were very happy to celebrate Pearse, Connolly, de Valera and Cosgrave. But they did not see any discrepancy in that; they would simply brush aside the argument of the Provisionals that they were the inheritors of that tradition because they had a completely sanitised view of the revolutionary period, which Morrison had no trouble in overturning.

The pamphlet itself doesn’t have his name on it, but Morrison has a unique style of writing and no one could doubt it was written by him; and to be frank he sometimes takes perhaps too much relish in the details, to the point it might be counterproductive. This may have been a factor in it making no impression on either elite or public opinion in the South when he told them their struggle was just as justified and that the oppression in the North was worse, that the IRA from the 1970s tried to take more care to not kill civilians than the old IRA.

On the other side, there were those intellectuals trying to dig up the dirt on the old IRA to reflect badly on the contemporary armed struggle in the North as its inheritors, and they were similarly bemused when their arguments made little impact. But perhaps both sides were missing something in this regard: politicians don’t care about historiographical consistency. When they talk about the past, it’s for the purposes of present-day use. So for politicians in the South, the old IRA was morally upstanding purely because the nation they governed had been born from its war. National sovereignty had been achieved and the anthem, the flag, a seat at the EU were all a product of this achievement. They were happy to pay homage to those responsible for that. By contrast, the Provisional campaign was an obstacle to the interests of the political class and their state, and they were determined to clamp down on it.

James Connolly liked to point out, when he was a labour union activist in Belfast, that when the Battle of the Boyne happened in 1690, the Pope supported William of Orange and said a mass for the defeat of King James. Connolly thought this was a way to score points against the Orange Order, but the Orange Order could not care less; as far as they were concerned, the result was the enshrinement of Protestant rule in Ireland and nothing else mattered.

These finer details are of interest to historians and matter to intellectuals — they matter to very committed political ideologues like Morrison — but they don’t matter so much to the political ruling class. So the revisionist intellectuals trying to discredit the whole Republican tradition were less effective than the people who were more mainstream from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party who simply said the Easter Rising was a good thing, the War of Independence was a good thing, but the Provisionals are in no way justified.

The fact is that Morrison’s appeal to that heritage of 1916–21 didn’t resonate with people in the South because it had nothing to do with their contemporary lives: they lived in an independent state that had as much national independence as they could reasonably hope for; it reflected their national identity, which in any case wasn’t enormously pronounced because when you’ve achieved independence, you worry about those things less than you do previously. For people in the North, British sovereignty, British nationalism and British rule was a tangible presence in their lives.

Eamonn McCann would point out to people in the South when they would express bafflement as to why there was still support for Sinn Féin and the IRA in the North, that it made sense for him to presume — as he was writing from his home in the Bogside of Derry — that there was a British soldier observing him, from a British watchtower looming over his neighbourhood. If he went out later that night, he would be stopped by squaddies from Birmingham or Glasgow or Manchester and asked for ID. If he happened to be younger and he didn’t have an NUJ card, he’d get a harder time from them. That was why the Republican movement still meant something to people in the North. These elevated academic discourses often missed that material reality entirely.

DBThis brings us to the outset of the book where you quote Martin McGuinness estimation that around 10,000 people passed through the ranks of the Provisional IRA, and Brendan O’Leary’s assessment that the figure “suggests than an extraordinarily high proportion of Northern Irish working-class Catholic males who matured after 1969 have been through IRA ranks”. Alongside this there are some revealing statistics about the levels of casualties and deaths during the conflict by comparison with other wars the British state has been historically involved in: just under 3,500 deaths and 48,000 injuries, the equivalent by population size of 125,000 deaths and nearly 2 million injuries in Britain, or roughly half the British death toll during WWII. Could you expand on why the British state were often so reluctant to concede that the conflict with the Provisionals was a war and also on the material conditions that would have existed to motivate working class young people in nationalist communities to join?

DFThose figures about the relative percentage of death and injuries in terms of population are important to stress because there wasn’t the sense in the wider world, especially after 1972, that there was a war happening in the North of Ireland — at least not in the commonly understood sense of that term. In particular, the British authorities presented it as some form of aggravated crimewave; they tried to present it as much as they could as a police matter. In some ways it did not feature some of the imagery of warfare, like sieges of whole cities, tanks and armoured personnel carriers and artillery being deployed, large-scale battles, aerial warfare. That overshadows the fact that it was a very lethal conflict and the fact it lasted for so long and had a gradual attrition of death and injures ended up affecting a large part of the population, either directly or through someone they knew in their family of workplace.

There wasn’t the sense in the wider world, especially after 1972, that there was a war happening — at least not in the commonly understood sense of that term. In particular, the British authorities presented it as some form of aggravated crimewave.

The point about the depth of participation by the Catholic working class is something that there was a taboo against mentioning. The official line of the British authorities in the North and the Irish government in the South was that the IRA was an unrepresentative gang of terrorists and criminals with no popular support. I wouldn’t go to the opposite extreme and say it was a people’s army that had unanimous support from the nationalist community, but as far as we could tell support would have ebbed and flowed — up until Sinn Féin began contesting elections in the early 80s, there was no objective benchmark. You could not rely on opinion surveys. People would be suspicious if a researcher came to their areas asking if they supported the IRA or not, so you had to surmise from other sources.

It was fairly well attested that the peak of public support for the IRA in the first phase of the conflict would have been in the later months of 1971 through to the start of 1972, when it was supported by quite a wide cross-section of the nationalist community. We can see this from the records of what Irish politicians and civil service were saying to their counterparts in London and Belfast: people like Jack Lynch were saying guerrilla warfare requires support or acquiescence from a significant number of the population. At that stage, the likes of Lynch considered the IRA to have that support to an extent.

There was a shift in British policy after Bloody Sunday, with the imposition of direct rule. Then a turn to a more reformist approach from the British government. From that point on, support for the IRA went down steadily, to the point where in the late 70s it was quite limited and isolated. Mary Holland, a good journalist reporting on the Troubles, had a piece at the end of the 70s where she said that the IRA seemed to have defied the traditional understanding of guerrilla warfare in that “the fish were still swimming despite there being no water”. They were more isolated from nationalist communities than ever before, but they were still able to keep going.

There was a report produced by the Ministry of Defence at that time called “Future Terrorist Trends”, a document leaked at the time that came into the possession of the Provisionals. They released a copy to the press because it said flattering things about them. It stressed that they weren’t criminals in the sense understood in the rest of the UK. It recognised that they were not criminals out for personal gain. It talks about the “calibre of rank and file terrorist” being quite high. It also said the Provisionals were quite isolated from their community, but that the reorganisation of the movement in the 1970s made it less reliant on that active popular support than at an earlier stage.

Coming into the 1980s, there was a very public boost via support for Sinn Féin in elections, and here we can begin to measure the specifics. There was at that point an unambiguous and unconditional support for the IRA’s campaign by Sinn Féin — all candidates had to sign a pledge of unconditional support. While someone voting for Sinn Féin might not have been an enthusiastic supporter of the IRA, they would have been aware that their vote would have indicated a level of toleration or approval for the campaign. They were able to win 30 to 40 percent of the nationalist vote in a series of elections.

There was a minority within that who supported more actively beyond the ballot box, which went up after the hunger strikes. McGuinness’s 10,000 people wouldn’t have all been members at the same time. Some joined for a few months then left; some remained members for decades having joined in their late teens. If you take that 10,000 people out of a population of a million and a half, it is a very significant proportion in its own right to be member of an illegal guerrilla army, outside the law and social approval.

But it was not from the whole population of a million and a half: almost without exception no one from a Unionist background joined, and even within the nationalist community, middle-class people tended not to join. Recruits came from urban working-class backgrounds or farming backgrounds in the countryside. They tended to be male but there were high-profile exceptions. They tended to be young for obvious reasons; people in their late teens and early 20s who hadn’t taken on family commitments or work responsibilities. So membership came from the younger, male, Catholic working class of the population, and 10,000 is a significant proportion of that.

Writing about it as history is a relief because you can try to work out what it was that induced so many to join at the time. At the time of the conflict, there was an intense push to delegitimise the IRA. If you had any acknowledgement that there might have been a rational political motivation behind joining, you were de facto endorsing the campaign of armed struggle. Now in retrospect we can see that there were rational, comprehensible, political motivations for joining the IRA; and whether you agree with their analysis or not, it’s no mystery to see why people from the Unionist community joined the Ulster Defence Regiment of the British army or the Loyalist paramilitaries as well.

The Provisionals were in a sort of half-way house between the ANC and national liberation movements in places like Vietnam and, on the other hand, groups like Baader-Meinhof, the Weathermen, N17, who were almost entirely detached from the population, with no mass base. You could never imagine a political party associated with the Red Brigades or Baader-Meinhof winning significant support. The exceptions to that rule were the movements in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country. Sinn Féin and Herri Batasuna got significant vote shares, but their level of support still wasn’t to the same extent as the ANC.

Everyone knew the ANC would win by a landslide in a post-apartheid election. The PLO had overwhelming support from the occupied territories and diaspora, whereas Sinn Féin and Batasuna were supported by a significant minority of the population, but it was still a minority. Because they had that level of support from the population, the IRA and ETA could maintain a level and tempo of activity that was higher than Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades, enabling them to prevent the normalisation of politics. They had a negative veto power, but they were unable to achieve their goals on the level of the ANC.

DBThat strikes a chord with me as an English person growing up during the 90s with incredibly frequent images of the troubles and the IRA’s war on the British state and TV screens. As someone who would grow up to become a socialist and question state narratives, I felt an unease even at a young age at the way in which what was unfolding was very cleary some form of political war, but it was presented as an entirely criminal activity…

DFThere’s another side to that too. Even outside of wanting to delegitimise the IRA, the British army didn’t want to admit to itself what it was doing in Ireland, because it didn’t fit into their sense of what a war was. When they thought about a war, it was what they were preparing for in West Germany as part of the NATO forces. There, they were preparing for a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact with tanks, artillery etc; but in Ireland, they were fighting what they saw as a shabby little war against people in jeans and t-shirts who were using car bombs and sniping at them from the wall of a block of council flats. It wasn’t the kind of war they liked to think of themselves as fighting. In hindsight, though, West Germany was the atypical conflict, not the Irish one.

Their preparations for war in West Germany were delusional. Even a conventional war there would have escalated to the use of nuclear weapons, whereas the wars the British state has actually fought since 1945 has been against guerrilla armies. The Falklands was an exception: you had wars of decolonization in the 50s and 60s in Kenya and Cyprus, Aden and so on. And since the war on terror, the conventional phase of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq was over in a matter of weeks, but followed by years of unconventional war.

The army’s own account of the Troubles, Operation Banner, is an interesting source. It’s written from a British vantage point, and it’s as self-serving as you would expect one written from the vantage point of the IRA would be. It contains a preface from Mike Jackson, who was then chief of staff of the British army, but was a commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday; so when he talks in that account about “the lessons learned in Ireland being applied to Iraq and Afghanistan”, it’s perhaps more double-edged than he intended it to be.

DBThis leads me to your conclusion, towards the closing stages of the book, that the surprising thing “is not that the Provos eventually compromised on their demands, but that they managed to avoid outright defeat.” Could you talk us through the significance of narratives of victory and defeat since the Good Friday Agreement from the perspective of both the British state and the IRA? And how the end result of the IRA’s campaign of armed struggle has been instrumentalised for different political ends?

DFOne way of looking at this is that it shows that, from the perspective of the British state, counter-insurgency war works best when it is subject to political constraints. Up until the Bloody Sunday massacre and the imposition of direct rule, there had been an escalating cycle of repression from the British government to prop up Stormont. But to keep it in place after Bloody Sunday would have involved more repression and that would have been a disaster.

In Kenya and Cyprus and Malaya, that could be brushed under the carpet. There were appalling atrocities committed in Kenya that were buried from public memory. It was never going to be possible to brush that under the carpet in Northern Ireland, a couple of hours from Dublin, Paris and London. People living there were white and spoke English and the border between North and South was open. To carry out the extremely brutal, repressive and murderous counter-insurgency effort seen in other parts of the world, you would have had to clamp down on all of that, preventing journalists from travelling to Northern Ireland, sealing the border from the South.

That would have been disastrous from the British government’s perspective, turning the Irish government and latent Irish American sentiment against them, which could flare up more intensely if there were more Bloody Sundays happening every week and every month. The advantages they might have gained from clamping down would be outweighed by the disadvantages, so they opted for a more pragmatic course. They killed civilians in ones and twos but not on a march attended by the world’s press. They came up with a reformist initiative, instead of trying to prop up Stormont as it was, to bring a section of the nationalist community into the state through the SDLP and bring the Irish government on board, offering enough at the very least to keep the Catholic middle class from going into all-out opposition to the state.

That remained the case, and the British government’s position had recovered within a year from them being on the ropes in 1972. They never went back to that place, although they came close to it during the hunger strike under intense pressure. But even during the hunger strike, those pillars of middle-class nationalism — the SDLP, the Catholic Church — held the line and it meant Sinn Féin and the IRA held the position of a minority within a minority in the North. From that point on, there was no question the IRA could win outright.

In the early 1980s, David Blatherwick, a civil servant, wrote a document speaking candidly about the fact that Sinn Féin and the IRA had popular support and weren’t isolated criminal gangs. He talked about the mood in the nationalist community, saying on the one hand nationalists, even middle-class ones, are profoundly alienated from the British government. They think the Unionists will never accept equality for their community, that the government won’t face down the Unionists, that Thatcher’s government is infected by anti-Catholicism and so forth.

In the early 1980s, David Blatherwick, a civil servant, stated as far as the Catholic working class is concerned, they have nothing to gain from power-sharing or having the SDLP represented in the structures of the state.

But he highlighted, in a way similar to some Marxist analysis of class attitudes in its frankness, the distinction between working-class and middle-class nationalists. He states that as far as the Catholic working class is concerned, they have nothing to gain from power-sharing or having the SDLP represented in the structures of the state. They suffer huge levels of deprivation, at that time unparalleled in the rest of the UK. It was worse than the situation for black or Asian people in Britain, or the most deprived post-industrial areas of Merseyside or Clydeside at the time. The unemployment rate for Catholics was even higher than that.

So they didn’t feel they had any stake in the status quo, and Blatherwick points out that even the idea that a British withdrawal would lead to violence didn’t make much difference to them. Violence was already a regular part of their everyday lives; it was something they had been experiencing since the early 70s. They saw it stretching on to the future, and if the British withdrawal was to result in violence, maybe they’d be willing to accept that if it held out the prospect of settling the issue once and for all.

The Catholic middle class had much more to lose. Under the structures of direct rule, they had been given more of a stake in the state; public-sector employment had been expanded and was open to Catholic university graduates in a way it hadn’t been under Stormont. They didn’t have the same everyday experience of violence that someone from west Belfast or the Bogside or South Armagh would have. It might touch on their lives, but it wouldn’t be the same kind of background thrum. They had more to lose and be fearful of if British withdrawal resulted in violent chaos, civil war or any of the things some were predicting. Blatherwick went on to say that it doesn’t mean they are happy with the status quo; they are unhappy with how things are, but they could be won over with political representatives of the SDLP having a place in the state.

Over the next few years, Thatcher would come out with hawkish rhetoric towards Irish nationalism, but her civil servants behind closed doors strong-armed her into signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Although Thatcher didn’t have much of an idea what she was signing up to, it had been impressed on her that she needed to satisfy that section of the nationalist community that could be won away from Sinn Féin.

So whether it was because of this or the broader political context, by the late 1980s it was clear that Sinn Féin weren’t going to overtake the SDLP. From that point on, a path towards an IRA ceasefire was clear. The only other alternative to this non-violent strategy would have been an all-or-nothing gamble, which they did discuss in the late 1980s — the idea of doing it with the weapons they had received from Gadaffi, which gave them the technical means to escalate the campaign.

The level of violence they had been engaging in wasn’t enough to break the will of the British state to stay, but if they had gone ahead with this plan, it would have been disastrous — a disaster in particular for the Provisionals because it would have just ended in defeat, not merely in the sense of being unable to fulfil their programme in its entirety, but of being completely crushed. This so-called IRA “Tet Offensive” would have ended in fiasco.

Those Provisionals who were arguing against a further military escalation maintained that the British army could always outstrip their volunteers in terms of men and arms; it was a question of breaking the political will of the British government, so they had to look towards a non-violent option. Given the fact they were isolated in the context of Northern Ireland, where the nationalist community was a minority, the IRA and Sinn Féin tried to counteract that reality by bringing the population of the South into play, but it never happened.

Tommy McKearney made the point about the hunger strike that if ever there was going to be a time that the dormant national sentiment of the South was going to rise in solidarity with the North it would have been then. That period tapped into deep feelings of martyrdom and memory — but all they got was some large rallies and some seats won by prison candidates/ It wasn’t enough to get the whole population of the South on side. They weren’t going to get more than the minority of the minority behind them.

They weren’t just going up against an Irish state with modest economic resources, but against Britain, which may not have been the power it was 50 years earlier, but was still a major NATO power, one of the most formidable military machines in Europe and one of the most advanced industrial economies in the world. It was estimated that in the early 90s, nearly half of all MI5 resources were being directed to combat the IRA as the Soviet Union became less of a concern.

In that sense, it was more surprising they avoided outright defeat and went on to a peace process where they secured an agreement that did not achieve a united Ireland, but it did give Sinn Féin political legitimacy. It granted a conditional amnesty for IRA prisoners who might otherwise have been in jail for 30 years; it delivered a number of reforms, and enabled Sinn Féin to build up support either side of the border, and that wasn’t inevitable.

There’s a way of looking back with hindsight and thinking what happened then was preordained. But even if you think the contours of the Good Friday Agreement were what the British government and Irish government had had in mind since the early 1970s and Sunningdale; even if you accept there would be something along the broad lines of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, but with a cross-border element and power-sharing that guarantees nationalist representation in the state; even if you accept that as the template for a settlement, the big unresolved question is: do you have the Provisionals in or out?

They were excluded during Sunningdale, and there was an initiative before the Good Friday Agreement that excluded Sinn Féin, with talks involving both unionist parties and the SDLP, the Alliance and the Irish government. In a way it would have been easier for the British government in dealing with the Unionists as it turned out engaging with Sinn Féin was a very bitter pill to swallow for many of them.

David Trimble took part, but he didn’t engage with Sinn Féin. It was only afterwards that he sat down face to face and negotiated with them personally, and within Trimble’s party, he was constantly harried by those who rejected the treaty. It would have been easier for Trimble to sell the agreement if it hadn’t involved Sinn Féin and prisoner releases and various other measures to keep the Provisionals on board.

This goes back to the idea of negative veto power. The Provisionals had done enough by the early 90s to incentivise the British government to make efforts to keep them on board, even within the framework of a peace process that wasn’t going to deliver their goals. There is a dispute in some ways about whether the IRA won or lost. From the perspective of hard-line Republicans, they’d say Adams was a sell-out and it was a defeat, but there’s different shades to that question.

If we talk about a defeat in terms of not achieving their aims, yes, they were defeated and contained. But there is an empirically illegitimate step from that argument from a number of academics and journalists who you could broadly describe as the British equivalent of the neocons — Policy Exchange, Michael Gove — who say that the British security forces by the early 90s had defeated the IRA and the IRA were suing for peace. They would say it was unnecessary for Blair and Trimble to make concessions to Sinn Féin; they could have booted them out and it would have been the end of things.

The “neocon” perspective is to me a delusional one. In the mid-90s, the IRA had the capacity to keep going without a huge pool of recruits. They had a certain pool of people active and reproducing the organisation, and because of the windfall of weaponry from Libya in the 80s, they weren’t going to run out of Semtex or bullets. They had so many Kalashnikovs from Gaddafi that they could afford to throw them away when they performed hit-and-run attacks, so they had the technical means to carry on with a certain level of activity.

The IRA bombing campaign of the early 90s is central to the debate — some Republicans would say it forced the British government to the negotiating table. I think that’s exaggerated because from the 1980s, you can already see from private contacts sanctioned by Thatcher with the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership that they were willing to engage as long as the price wasn’t too high — a British withdrawal or joint sovereignty. So it wasn’t that the bombings of Bishopsgate or the Baltic Exchange or Canary Wharf shifted government policy, but they did probably have the effect of concentrating minds between the two options of a peace process in favour of one that included the Provisionals and excluded some of the Unionists.

DBI think one of the benefits of your writing from a position to the left of Sinn Féin is that you also cover the strand of more straightforwardly socialist Republicanism that would further split from the Official movement in the wake of their ceasefire in 1972. This movement, the Irish Republican Socialist Party and the INLA, was distinguished from both the Officials and the Provisionals in some key ways, not least in its analysis of the question of the Unionist population in the North. How did their analysis differ to that of the Officials and in what ways did it intersect with that of the Provisionals?

DFIt would be helpful to have some kind of Irish version of the political compass here with more than one axis. There’s several ways of shuffling the pack. There’s the question of an attitude towards socialism versus conservatism, and the question of an attitude to armed struggle. There’s the attitude you adopt towards the Unionist population, too, and there are several different combinations.

For example with the Officials, there were three main planks of their platform in the early 70s. One was the commitment to left-wing politics which became an explicit pro-Soviet Marxism. There was a commitment to political engagement and the need to build up a political party. Then there was a particular attitude to the Unionist population where they said, in effect, we can’t have a united Ireland against the will of that community. If you believed you couldn’t have a united Ireland without winning over at least a significant number of Protestants and those from the Protestant working class, the whole idea of armed struggle seemed like a bloody dead end.

The programme the Officials were putting forward was effectively a civil-rights programme for reform of the state with a new political framework and a Bill of Rights with guarantees of free political expression for everyone including Republicans. Within that framework, you could work to achieve a united Ireland. It was an open question as to whether those reforms would be conducive to that goal, because you could argue that instead of encouraging Unionists to become more sympathetic to Irish unity, it might encourage nationalists to be more in favour of the status quo.

So the ceasefire the Officials called in 1972 was driven by that focus. It was more deeply held by the leadership than their members, especially those who joined through 1970 to 1972, who were often just as committed to the idea of armed struggle as those joining the Provisionals. They might have been drawn to the Officials because they were stronger in their area, or they might have been drawn to a left-wing programme.

This led in 1975 to the split with the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). Seamus Costello was the odd man out in the leadership of Official Sinn Féin and the Official IRA. He was deeply committed to a more left-wing Republican movement and always had been — he was a poster boy for the movement. When you read biographies of Costello, you wonder how he ever slept. He was involved in so many movements and campaigns, while simultaneously being a key figure in the Official IRA leadership involving himself in planning attacks and strategy. When the conflict erupted in the North, he saw it as an opportunity to build up Official Sinn Féin and the IRA; he was very in favour of taking part in elections, but in tandem with the armed struggle.

So when Costello left the Officials he took with him a significant part of the IRA leadership in Belfast, as well as places like Derry. The Official IRA unit in Derry had managed to compete on close to an even footing with the Provisionals because they were competing with them in militancy and carrying out attacks. There was also a strong Trotskyist influence there; they were close to people like Eamonn McCann. They went with Costello, as did many of their members in Belfast — people who were young. There were also people from the Marxist left; Bernadette McAliskey was the best-known figure.

Costello had a very different take on the Official Republican view as to how you could relate to the Protestant community. Costello said the British presence was the cause of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics; the Unionists were only intransigent because they were backed by Britain, and after a British withdrawal, they would be more pragmatic and there’d be no civil war.

The Officials harked back to the United Irishmen movement of Wolfe Tone, seeing Protestants as fellow Irishmen. But the Provisionals saw them as foreign settlers. You don’t have to worry how to appeal to your fellow nationals when you don’t consider them as such. At some points, the Provisionals were blunter about it. They did say it was possible that civil war might happen if the British pulled out and the Unionists might put up armed resistance. They expected to win it as the British army would no longer be on the Unionist side. This was an implicit subtext when they spoke about Algerian independence, as after that revolution, about 99 percent of the European colonists had gone back to France. So the implication was that Unionists would go to Britain and that would take care of that dilemma.

The IRSP foreshadowed in an interesting way what the Provisionals became in the 80s. Costello believed that you should have a political party alongside the armed wing, taking part in elections with left-wing community activism combined with the armed campaign, which was what the Provisionals in effect tried to do in the 1980s. People from Costello’s tradition speculate about his importance as a lost leader. But his project would have come up against a barrier very soon — even if he’d overcome the feud with the Officials that alienated people and ultimately killed him, even if he’d managed to whip the INLA into shape as a more or less disciplined force and put the IRSP on some footing of its own.

Costello was from the South in Wicklow and that was his base. There would have been no question of the IRSP winning seats in the South as long as it was associated with a group like the INLA in the North, even if potentially in the North they could have won seats. Bernadette McAliskey in 1975 would almost certainly have won if she’d run for election as an IRSP candidate, for example. But no matter how subtle or capable their leadership was in the South, it would have been difficult to win support; they’d have come up against the same objective limitation as the Provisionals did in the 1980s.

DBThe framing of the conflict as an religious civil war that seemed to dominate much of the discussion on the subject of The Troubles after the early 1970’s, especially outside of Ireland itself, could often serve as a kind of mystification that benefited the public image of the British military and served to depoliticise public opinion on the mainland in this regard. However, it’s not always helpful to completely sidestep questions of real and perceived sectarianism either and in your book you have an analysis of the role this aspect played in the IRA’s political trajectory.

DBIn a way it would have been easier for the IRA and Sinn Féin to square the circle if they didn’t have the heritage of a United Irish ideology. If they’d defined themselves as a Catholic nationalist force fighting against British rule in opposition to the Ulster Protestant community and in opposition to the British state, that would have been more straightforward. They entered the conflict with that heritage from Wolfe Tone, that you should try and appeal to the Protestant community, who were your fellow Irishman. But you have to go back a long way before 1969 to talk about why that didn’t happen.

I don’t think the United Irish conception was preposterous. There’s an interesting parallel with what was happening in the Americas not long after 1798, where people who came from European descent were able to fight for independence. It wasn’t inconceivable that those of English or Scottish settler origins could become Irish revolutionaries and define what the nation was, but in 1798 that rebellion was drowned in blood by the British authorities. By the early 20th century, opposition to being part of an independent Irish state had crystallised in the Protestant community, so for people who appealed to that heritage of 1798, you had to choose between one aspect of Tone’s legacy; you could either say you’d appeal to the Protestant community or that you were fighting in the short term for an Irish Republic.

James Connolly gave both answers to this question. At the end of his pamphlet “Labour in Irish History” he concludes with a flight of enthusiastic rhetoric, suggesting that once again, Protestants and Catholics would link arms as they did in 1798 on the basis of socialist, working-class politics. A few years later during the Home Rule crisis, Connolly essentially said “we can’t compromise with the UVF or Edward Carson in any way, they must be fought and defeated.” So that’s what the Provisionals and the Officials had to draw on. The Officials chose one side of Tone’s legacy, appealing to the Protestant community in the here and now and putting Irish unity on the back burner, and the Provisionals went with the other side: we’ll fight for a united Ireland and we either go around the Ulster Protestant community or we go against them, depending on what arises.

It’s interesting to recall, in the light of how things turned out in the 90s, the leadership team that developed around Gerry Adams when they first came to the fore was originally seen as more sectarian than the original Provo leadership team, more hawkish. Ed Moloney wrote about this in a piece on the movement’s new leadership in the late 70s, where he said that the younger Provos in the North — in part because of influences from left-wing groups such as People’s Democracy, in part because of the conflict in the North — were much more sectarian and considered not only the state to be irreformable, but also most Protestants.

That’s at the level of ideas. You can find some hair-raising rhetoric at the time. Republican News reproduced an interview where an IRA spokesman had spoken to a French magazine: he was asked about the Protestant working class, and he responded that there was no such thing; there was an Irish working class and within that, the Loyalists were a fifth column and as such were to be eliminated.

In the same interview, he stressed that he was talking about Loyalists as a political activist group, not the community as a whole, but you can understand why the Unionist community reading that would be alarmed, because this was also during the most nakedly sectarian era of the Provisionals. There was a tit-for-tat pattern of assassinations — in response to Loyalists killing Catholics, shooting a Protestant at random or throwing a bomb into a bar, and then there was the Kingsmill massacre, the most notorious thing the IRA ever did.

But in comparison with the Loyalist paramilitaries, the Provisionals were always held back from being explicitly sectarian by the Wolfe Tone heritage. They would have had to formally repudiate Tone and the people who came after him if they had explicitly targeted Protestants because they were Protestants. Once Adams took over the movement in the late 70s and put in place the reorganisation of the IRA, there was a stress on avoiding actions that would be seen as crudely sectarian.

There are other aspects to this, too. In the 80s, there was a campaign of targeting the locally recruited security forces, and there was a lot of controversy about whether that was considered it to be sectarian. The IRA had no inhibitions about targeting Catholics in the RUC, for example. But whether or not they went out to kill someone thinking they were Protestant rather than a member of the RUC or the UDR, it didn’t really matter as far as the Unionist community was concerned. If you were someone whose brother or sister or father or mother or neighbour or workmate was killed, it was just as traumatic.

It’s still a factor. You can be cynical about the rhetoric of some Unionist politicians, but there’s not many people in the leadership of the DUP or other Unionist parties who can’t talk about someone near to them who was killed by the IRA. Jeffrey Donaldson’s uncle Samuel is one example. Arlene Foster tells the story of the Provisionals shooting her school bus driver, who was also a member of the UDR. So from their perspective, it didn’t matter whether the IRA thought these were legitimate targets or not — it is not something you’ll forget in a hurry. You can multiply these stories through the whole of Northern Ireland.

The IRA also have to take full responsibility for how in the 80s, as part of the increasingly desperate or skittish attempts to broaden the focus of their campaign, they defined civilian workers on RUC or British army bases as legitimate targets. It didn’t require an especially jaundiced view of the IRA to see that as pretty sectarian, whether they acknowledged it or not.

This goes back to what we said earlier about the differences between the old IRA and the Provisionals. Those were really differences of circumstances rather than differences of inherent moral character. The Provisionals weren’t qualitatively more wicked than the old IRA. The old IRA fought a war predominantly in the South, Leinster, Munster and to some extent Connaught, in areas with an overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist population, and for only a few years. The path of the Provisionals was the exact inverse of what happened in the War of Independence: they were fighting predominately in the North with a divided population, with a major part of that population being Unionist and hostile.

In the War of Independence, the old IRA started off targeting members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and very quickly that force melted away as the majority of people in the RIC were Catholic nationalists, at least with a small n. It was one thing to be a member of the RIC before the War of Independence, but a different thing to be a member when there was strong social pressure and ostracisation to resign your commission.

That’s why they had to bring in the Black and Tans and the auxiliaries; there was no buffer force made up of the local population in the War of Independence for the IRA to worry about. But in the North, when the IRA was killing a lot of soldiers and putting pressure on the government in the 1970s, the government responded with the policy of Ulsterisation and put the UDR and RUC in the front line, letting them soak up the casualties. There wasn’t the same response to that as if young men from Manchester or Glasgow were being killed.

The fact that the war went on for 20 years also meant that there were going to be more atrocities and civilians killed. It is important to guard against an overly simplistic and apologetic view of the conflict that presents it solely as a sectarian clash between Protestants and Catholics, but that dimension is there as well. It’s no accident that a very high percentage of the casualties happened in a very restricted area of North Belfast over a few square miles, where Protestant and Catholic communities lived cheek by jowl despite security barriers and peace walls.

It is often said that the differences between the IRA in Belfast and the IRA in Derry, with the former being more sectarian, were partly due to the leadership of Martin McGuinness as the Derry commander. Various accounts state that McGuinness tried to instil vigorous military discipline on IRA members in Derry and that may have had consequences in that regard. But the difference between Derry and Belfast ultimately was that in Derry, nationalists were an overwhelming majority, while in Belfast, they were fighting against the British army, the RUC and the Loyalist paramilitaries. On the other hand, South Armagh was the closest to the platonic ideal of what the IRA wanted the war to be: a small trained guerrilla army carrying out operations against the British army and ensuring access only for the army by helicopter.

DBYou’ve alluded to the historic tension between the military and political wings of the Irish Republican movement. The extent of this demarcation and the often-strained relationship between these two aspects of Republican struggle has been a recurring feature of the previous century of Irish politics. What are the origins and specifics of these dual aspects of the movement and how does it inform attitudes towards Sinn Féin today?

DFIt’s a distinctive feature of Irish Republicanism that there has been a separation like this. In the early 20th century, Sinn Féin and the IRA grew up on separate tracks with the establishment first of the Irish Volunteers, who were then taken over by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They were then reconstituted as the IRA after the Easter Rising, with the IRB still there in the background. Officially it had no role in the IRA leadership, but Michael Collins was the president of the Supreme Council of the IRB, and he used that influence on the IRA.

Then the IRB faded into the background after the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the defeat of the anti-Treatyites in the Civil War. The IRA label was taken up by the losing side in that conflict and there was then a Sinn Féin and an IRA, no longer recognised by the Irish state and legally proscribed, in some form up until the sprouting of the modern movement.

There is a political wing and a military wing and they both have separate structures of command and leadership. Even though at certain points the people that led the IRA and Sinn Féin were the same people, it was in a different capacity. The IRA and Sinn Féin weren’t accountable to each other, at least on paper, but in practice, of course there was significant overlap. This was something that would have been surprising to other revolutionary movements such as the ANC, whose military wing uMkhonto we Sizwe was always subordinate to the ANC leadership. This was reminiscent of the communist and Leninist tradition, in which the military wing is always subordinate to the political wing.

This was an issue that came up elsewhere, outside of the context of the Provisionals. In the early history of the IRSP and their armed wing, the INLA, members like Bernadette McAliskey and other Marxists argued that the INLA should be subordinate to the IRSP and that made no sense to someone like Seamus Costello, who came from an IRA background.

You had this separation between the “soldiers” and the “politicians” that took hold in republicanism after the Civil War; the idea that politics was a dirty word.

You had this separation between the “soldiers” and the “politicians” that took hold in republicanism after the Civil War; the idea that politics was a dirty word. “Politics” is a wide-ranging term here, but it amounted to anything that wasn’t armed struggle, and “politicians” are people who partake in any of that, and they aren’t to be trusted. The only people who can be trusted are the men and women of the IRA, who are sea-green incorruptibles, who fight for Irish freedom gun in hand. This wasn’t an attitude held by everyone in the movement, but it was a significant part of their make-up. In the 1990s, it was something that had to be navigated.

The imperatives of the IRA and those of Sinn Féin would repeatedly clash. The point that most encapsulates this tension was that in 1986, both the IRA and Sinn Féin voted to ditch the policy of abstention from the Leinster House parliament in Dublin. Gerry Adams put in a big effort into this and into winning over the IRA to subsequently win the vote in Sinn Féin. The way they won over the IRA — and this wasn’t disclosed to the public at the time — was to promise IRA volunteers that this in no way would diminish the armed struggle. To show this, they sanctioned an escalation of the campaign, giving more autonomy to local IRA units.

They went on to win the vote on abstention, but that flew in the face of everything that was the point of winning the vote in the first place, as the main barrier to electoral success in the South was the IRA campaign, and particular those aspects that people found so hard to swallow, like attacks on off-duty security forces and bombs that killed civilians. As much as the IRA said they saw those people as security-force members and only saw the uniform and not the religion, it did not sit well with many in the South; many saw it as a sectarian campaign.

Those were the main obstacles to a Southern breakthrough, not abstention. But to ditch abstention, they had to sanction more attacks of that nature. In the next year or so, you have Enniskillen, when an IRA unit plants a bomb at a Remembrance Day ceremony at a Protestant church. Supposedly they thought they could avoid civilian casualties, but they killed 11 people, and it had a huge effect on the Republican movement, especially in the South. The daughter of a man called Gordon Wilson was killed and he became a celebrated figure, who was invited to take a position in the Senate in Dublin, and whose testimony after the death of his daughter was devastating for Sinn Féin. So the two sides of the movement were at cross purposes and the contradiction needed to be resolved.

Another incident that encapsulates this divide was in 1992: a speech that Jim Gibney gave at Bordentown in 1992 that was a very important landmark in the Sinn Féin peace strategy. Anyone who understood Republican ideology and how the movement worked knew that Gibney was an outrider for Gerry Adams — he would say something potentially controversial and see what the reaction was, then Gerry Adams would come along and say well, Jim has a point. It was not just the content of what he said but the tone. There was a clear reassessment, when he asked people to consider whether they had been “deafened by the sound of their own gunfire.”

The one significant thing in terms of policy was that Gibney had spoken of British withdrawal meaning a long-term process in terms of negotiations that were open-ended, without a set time for their conclusion. According to Ed Moloney in Voices from the Grave, David Ervine and his colleagues in the PUP and UVF were excited to hear about the Gibney speech. They did the Kremlinology and knew who Gibney really spoke for.

But another figure, Kevin McKenna, who was a quintessential “soldier” and long-time Chief of Staff of the IRA, was apparently greatly disturbed by the Gibney speech because of the point about there being no timetable for British withdrawal. He confronted Adams and his allies about it and was told it was a case of Gibney going off-piste and saying something that he wasn’t sanctioned to. This was reportedly enough to mollify McKenna.

On one level, it seems extraordinarily naïve that he would be satisfied with the idea that Gibney, a member of the Adams “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, would be able to say something like that without sanction from the leadership. In that sense, they were lucky that McKenna was a “soldier” without the wider political perspective needed to see through things like that. But at the same time, if he had possessed that wider political perspective, he probably would have been keener on the Adams peace strategy than he was. He wouldn’t have had a blinkered, militarist tunnel vision. Those who were active in Sinn Féin had a keener sense of how boxed in the movement was, and if McKenna was more inclined to that way of thinking, it wouldn’t have been such a challenge for the Adams leadership to manage people like him.

There’s a contrast here with the ANC. The people who led uMkhonto we Sizwe came straight from the political leadership of the ANC and the South African Communist party — people like Joe Slovo. Slovo was intimately involved in the peace process and wasn’t some kind of loose cannon who the ANC leadership had to bring on board and mollify in some way. It’s telling that over time, pretty much everyone from the Provisional leadership who had an interest in or aptitude for politics went into Sinn Féin: not just Adams and McGuinness, but also Gerry Kelly, Martin Meehan, Alex Maskey and others. They did a stint as TDs, MLAs etc and it was only those with no interest in politics who didn’t; people like Tom Murphy in South Armagh, who decided to concentrate on his business interests — some more legitimate than others — until he fell foul of the police in the South.

It’s interesting that Brian Keenan became the last point of loyalty for some IRA volunteers, as Anthony McIntyre pointed out after Keenan’s death. At first they thought that Gerry Adams was too much of a politician and too slippery in terms of commitment to the armed struggle, so they transferred their loyalties to Martin McGuiness. But then he in turn became too much of a politician, so they turned to Gerry Kelly because of his military record, and then when Gerry Kelly became too polished for their liking, they finally transferred their loyalty to Keenan. When Keenan gave his endorsement to the ceasefire and decommissioning, that got them on board. But if people were looking for someone to be loyal to, and went through all these figures, it really tells you that they were searching for some crumb of consolation and that they would find it some way or another.

It was probably fortuitous in a way that Keenan didn’t become part of Sinn Féin’s political leadership, because he was in jail in Britain in the 1980s for his association with the Balcombe Street Gang. Keenan would send letters to An Phoblacht backing whatever the latest political initiative of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness was. When he came out of prison, he became a staunch supporter of the Adams faction in the leadership.

Keenan was known to have a strong political interest, including an interest in Marxism and Third World liberation movements. If he had been at large in the 80s, he might have well become a member of the public leadership of Sinn Féin along with Adams and McGuinness and others. But since he was in prison until the 90s, it was probably useful for the leadership to have a figure like that, who possessed a measure of trust with IRA members that figures like Adams and McGuinness no longer had. It was useful to have him in that role.

DBFurther to the military/political divide in IRA history there is the relationship between different strands of ideology as a prominent feature. When I first became interested in the development of modern Irish Republicanism in the early 2000s, the orthodox view, one shared between both conventional historians of the movement and the analyses of a section of the libertarian left, was that the Provisionals, being born out of an opposition to the conventionally Marxist-Leninist turn of the Southern based leadership of the IRA (who would become known as the Officials after the 1969 split) and a perceived lack of willingness to protect the Northern nationalist population from Loyalist attacks, were a fundamentally conservative political force.

But by the mid to late 1970s there’s a clear influence of socialist thought within the younger generation of IRA volunteers, those who have been referred to as “69ers”, volunteers who would have had come of age in the 70s….

DFIn a sense the Provisionals only had themselves to blame for the stereotype of them being conservative, anti-communist, Catholic nationalists, because the early communiques of their movement are full of references to the Officials as “Red Guards”, and accusations of Cathal Goulding having turned the movement into an adjunct of the Communist Party. They referred to the Marxism of the Officials as an “alien social philosophy”. There were moments like a notorious editorial in Republican News, the Sinn Féin newspaper in the north, that denounced contraception as a British plot against the moral fibre of the Irish nation.

But at the same time, there were always elements who didn’t sign up to that programme. It was quite eclectic. The same edition of the paper carrying those articles would also carry pieces by Marxist intellectuals sympathetic to the IRA’s struggle; it was a mish-mash, as opposed to some coherent conservative Catholic ideology. People like Seán MacStíofáin and Billy McKee had that outlook, but it was more of an individual thing. MacStíofáin had all sorts of conspiracy theories. For example, he linked Goulding’s conversion to socialism to the time when they were together in prison during the 1950s in Britain. Klaus Fuchs was in the same prison, and Goulding was friendly with him, and that was supposed to have been the source of his socialist ideas.

But then you had people involved like Gerry Adams, who had been very enthusiastic about the Goulding turn to left-wing, politicised Republicanism in the late 60s but didn’t feel the Goulding leadership had a commitment to armed struggle, so he went with the Provisionals after the split. And there were people like Kieran Conway, who was a Marxist. When he was in prison, Billy McKee was the prison OC, and knew that Conway was an atheist. Conway said that it wasn’t an issue between them, but that it saddened McKee to see that young men from Derry and Belfast weren’t going to Mass on Sundays. (The subtext being that it was only to be expected of middle-class university graduates from the South.) And Brian Keenan also had Marxist leanings.

The thing that unified all these elements wasn’t commitment to a particular social or economic programme. They did have a programme, in the form of a document written by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh called Éire Nua, but even the vast majority of IRA volunteers or leaders would not have read all of it, or read it at all. What brought them all together was the commitment to armed struggle. Within that framework, you could be left-wing or right-wing.

The most common position was probably to be agnostic on those questions. When Martin McGuinness was interviewed in 1972, when he was just 21, he was asked if he believed in socialism. He said he thought it was a nice idea, he’d be happy in a country with economic equality, but before that could be tried, the country had to be united. That was the dominant view. It was only when people like McGuinness, who joined up with no previous record of political commitment, ended up in prison or internment camps, that for the first time they had to reflect on why they were there and what they were doing and what the logic behind their struggle was.

There were seminal discussions in Long Kesh, in the cage where Gerry Adams was, looking at socialist ideas. It was a particular kind of socialism they saw as relevant to their struggle. They weren’t necessarily looking at other countries in Western Europe during the post 1968 period. You won’t see much asking about the Common Programme of the left in France, or the post-Franco transition in Spain (except for the Basque Country), or the Portuguese revolution or the rise and fall of the Italian communists. They looked beyond that. The only force in European politics they really took an interest in was the British Labour left, for obvious reasons, because they thought you could get a Labour government that was more sympathetic to a united Ireland.

What they really looked to was countries like Palestine, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia; it was Third World revolutionary movements. Most of those movements were dedicated to some form of socialism.

But what they really looked to was countries like Palestine, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia; it was Third World revolutionary movements. Most of those movements were dedicated to some form of socialism, either as left-wing nationalists or as Communists. Republicans looked to Cuba or Nicaragua as some form of template, for example.

There were always limits to this, though. They publicly distanced themselves from Marxism, for example in a famous interview with Adams in 1979. There had been reports in the press about a Marxist takeover of the Provos, and he told people that Sinn Féin was not a Marxist party and there was no member of the movement who would be influenced by Marxism. It was half honest and half dishonest. It wasn’t a Marxist party; you can debate what that means, but at the very least, you have to commit to Marxism of some kind and Sinn Féin never did. But the idea that no one in the movement was influenced by Marxism was for the birds.

Adams himself in his first pamphlet from Long Kesh included Marxist writers in the bibliography, and did the same in his first published book. It wasn’t just James Connolly, who would be a standard reference point for Republicans of all types, but also people like Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann and Desmond Greaves. Greaves is an interesting one, because in the early days of the Provisionals, they had accused the Officials of allowing “Red agents” in, and it was proteges of Greaves like Roy Johnston and Anthony Coughlan that they were referring to. So they went from being supposedly these Kremlin-aligned figures to being direct influences on the thinking of the Provos.

At the same time, the interest in Marxism was quite instrumental: you could say that Adams was interested in Marxism to the extent that Marxism was interested in Ireland. He always had this idea that there is a hierarchy of goals for the movement. National independence and unification comes first, then socialism comes after that. By the time he writes his first book in 1986, The Politics of Irish Freedom, he’s already starting to believe that some of the rhetoric of Sinn Féin being a working-class party had exacerbated the gulf between them and the SDLP too much, and he wants a pan-nationalist alliance. In that context, when he talks about socialism, he says this phase cannot be fought around socialist goals. It can involve socialists and be supported by them and they should be involved, but the movement itself cannot be socialist.

These debates might seem quite scholastic, but it did become quite tangible at the Ard Fheis in 1985 on the vote to adopt a pro-choice policy. This happened without the involvement of the leadership: their minds were focused on managing the IRA and other things. New left-wing activists came into Sinn Féin after the hunger strikes, many with a background in Marxist groups like People’s Democracy, and they won the vote for a pro-choice policy. It was very advanced, very controversial, and very radical on both sides of the border.

Just a few years previously, there had been an acrimonious constitutional debate that enshrined a ban on abortion in a referendum in the South. Straight away, conservative nationalist opponents used it to hammer them. The SDLP used it as a wedge issue in elections, and Adams found it to be a liability and regretted it. In due course it was overturned. National unity as Sinn Féin understood it would have come ahead of any feminist concerns.

That became important when they started reaching out to the SDLP and to the Clinton administration. They became increasingly remote from the left-wing rhetoric of the 1980s. When asked how this squared with the traditional anti-imperialist influence within the Provisionals, Adams responded that the correct left position was to bring an end to British rule in Ireland.

I think sometimes people have been misled by the fact that Sinn Féin has this hierarchy of goals. That sometimes leads people to believe that the left-wing platform doesn’t mean anything. In the 1990s, when they were immersed in the peace process and had links with Clinton administration and were working with the SDLP, socialism certainly played no part in that, even in a moderate, social-democratic sense. It wasn’t on the agenda, so people believed it might have been consigned to the scrapheap.

But they kept it as part of their programme, albeit in a subordinate position. It’s become more important, especially since 2008, because of the new opportunities that opened up for electoral growth in the South. The only basis for Sinn Féin to win support in the South was as a left-wing, reformist party with a reasonably robust social-democratic reform agenda. When the opportunity arose with the Eurozone crisis, they forged links with parties like SYRIZA and Podemos. They had already been sitting with the United Left group in the European parliament and they looked to people like Corbyn as fellow travellers.

It wasn’t entirely incongruous with their previous stance. It’s interesting, because Sinn Féin are active in two states, so you have the “stageist” theory of revolution where the two stages are unfolding simultaneously. In the North, it’s still seen as the national liberation stage and everything they do in the power-sharing government is seen in that context. Whereas in the South, in effect, it’s as if that stage of the revolution has been completed, so they’ve moved on to the more social-democratic stage.

It does have an influence on their political character, because the people they’ve recruited as members in the South since the ceasefire have been attracted on the basis of that platform. It’s not that they’ve joined up being completely indifferent to left politics. The membership in the South take that stuff seriously. They want Sinn Féin to be a social-democratic party and to put a social-democratic programme into effect. The same is true of their voters in general.

A significant part of Sinn Féin’s political identity in the South over the last 15 years is that they haven’t pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment, and this is one of the factors around the absence of a far-right party in the South. Sinn Féin have a strong base in working-class communities, and the profile of their electorate is quite similar to the profile of some of the far-right parties in Europe like the Front Nationale in France, who have moved into areas that used to be strongholds of the Communist Party, and the Lega Nord in Italy. Blue-collar workers with no university education are increasingly moving towards far-right parties in France and Italy and in some cases Britain, but in the South of Ireland they are more likely to vote for Sinn Féin than an aspirant far-right party.

They don’t have an open borders policy, but they do have a position where they say immigration is a good, healthy, socially constructive thing, and immigrants should be welcomed in general and refugees in particular. If they’d gone out and banged the anti-immigrant drum, they could have won support on that basis. I wouldn’t be too complacent about the idea that because there’s no far-right party in Ireland, there’s no constituency for it or no basis for racism in Irish society. There definitely is, and its absence is partly because the political actors that have tried to tap into it haven’t been very competent.

But Sinn Féin could have made claims on that basis: they chose not to, and it’s a significant factor that you have to give them credit for. I’ve been very critical of Sinn Féin, and people I consider to be comrades have pressed them, deservedly so, on issues where they’ve been found wanting, and questioned where they are going and whether their whole strategy will lead to them becoming an appendage of the conservative parties in the South.

But at the same time, you have to give credit where credit is due and it’s tied in with that point about the political character of their membership: even if the Sinn Féin leadership decided that they could live with an anti-immigrant, xenophobic line, I don’t think a large part of their membership would wear it, because it doesn’t harmonise with their sense of political identity. They see Sinn Féin as broadly speaking a progressive party.

There is some confusion here when those of us on the radical left talk about whether Sinn Féin is left-wing at all, or whether Sinn Féin is left-wing enough, as those are clearly two different questions. Many parties people consider to be unquestionably left-wing can be found wanting on various positions. The points where Sinn Féin have been deservedly found wanting — even if you bracket out their record in government in the North and concentrate on what’s happened in the South, the two biggest social movements in the last decade have been Repeal The 8th, and before that the anti-water charges movement.

In both cases, Sinn Féin were very cautious. They were reluctant to try and make the political weather and get out in front of the issue (possibly because they had their fingers burned with the pro-choice line in the 80s). They almost waited until Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had adopted a pro-choice policy before making their move. On water charges, they did oppose them, but their preferred channel was to elect Sinn Féin TDs and have them abolished through the Dáil. It was the radical left, the Trotskyist groups — who unlike their British counterparts have some political and electoral weight, albeit to a limited extent — who led the call for non-payment of water charges and pushed Sinn Féin to take a more robust stance on it.

It was those three prongs of the movement that made the difference — demonstrations and electoral campaigns and the mass campaign of non-payment that involved more than half the population and would have made it untenable to drag thousands of people through the courts. So with issues like that, it’s not a question of ultra-left nit-picking: we’re talking about something that broke out beyond a left-wing ghetto and engaged mass support. Sinn Féin had been very cautious about taking a clear line on that, so when people from the left criticise them, it’s not just sectarian begrudgery. There are good grounds for it.

With Sinn Féin, I believe they are a left-nationalist party for whom national liberation as they understand it comes first. The left-wing part isn’t fake but it’s subordinated to the national side.

The formulation I’ve found for Sinn Féin that I think is most useful is this. There’s sometimes a tendency in the Marxist or anarchist scene to fix a label on to a leader or a party. Once you’ve fixed the label on them — electoralist, reformist, pro-capitalist or whatever it might be — you don’t have to think about them anymore. But it’s best to analyse the party and the movement first and see what label fits. With Sinn Féin, I believe they are a left-nationalist party for whom national liberation as they understand it comes first. The left-wing part isn’t fake or something they don’t care about, but it’s subordinated to the national side, and they’d acknowledge that themselves.

One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA is out now with Verso.


Authors:

Daniel Baker (@twilightfur)

Daniel Baker is a librarian, writer and UCU member whose work has appeared in The Quietus, Crack Magazine, Rock A Rolla and Psykick Dancehall as well as other publications. His main areas of interest are working class history, the history of Irish Republicanism, popular modernisms and cinema. He writes about these and other subjects at Twilightfurnitures.com


Daniel Finn (@danfinn95)

Daniel Finn is the deputy editor of the New Left Review. He gained his PhD for a study of the IRA’s political history during the Troubles. He writes regularly for New Left Review, Jacobin and the London Review of Books. He lives in London.