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Republicanism since Good Friday

Ed Walsh from the Irish Socialist Network reviews a new book on Irish Republicanism since the Good Friday agreement.

Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism - Anthony McIntyre

Ausubo Press

Since the early days of the peace process, former IRA member and Long Kesh prisoner Anthony McIntyre has carved out a role for himself as a witty and perceptive critic of the path followed by Gerry Adams and his comrades. This collection of articles spans the whole period from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to the eve of the Sinn Féin-DUP power-sharing deal in 2007. There is no major event that escapes McIntyre’s attention, from the arrest of the Colombia Three and the outing of Freddie Scappaticci as a British agent to the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney. Any socialist or republican who is pondering the question “what now?” will benefit from reading McIntyre’s book.

Sunningdale for slow learners

One of McIntyre’s most insistent themes is that the Provos have settled for a deal that was on offer from the time of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974: a continued British presence in the six counties of Northern Ireland as long as the majority remains pro-Union, with a power-sharing government that includes nationalist ministers, based on a re-charged Stormont assembly. He ridicules the claim that the GFA should be seen as a transitional phase on the way to a united Ireland. According to McIntyre, the agreement sets the seal on a comprehensive British victory in the conflict: “The objective of the British state was to force the Provisional IRA to accept – and subsequently respond with a new strategic logic – that it would not leave Ireland until a majority in the north consented to such a move. It succeeded.”

If the terms accepted by Gerry Adams in 1998 were available from the mid-‘70s, that calls into question the legitimacy of the entire IRA campaign. McIntyre certainly thinks so, warning that “historians of the conflict … will in all probability come to view the IRA campaign much more negatively than may have previously been the case – a sad denouement to an unnecessary war in which so many suffered needlessly”. Although it contains a strong element of truth, this view deserves some qualification. While the Provos hardly gave fair wind to the Sunningdale Agreement at the time when it was signed, they weren’t the ones who destroyed it. That honour belonged to a far-right Unionist alliance headed by Bill Craig and Ian Paisley, whose violent coup against Brian Faulkner’s government was handled with kid gloves by the British Army and the RUC (something that would have been unthinkable if nationalists and republicans had launched a similar challenge to the authority of the British state).

In his IRA memoir Killing Rage, Eamon Collins recalled the impact which the collapse of Sunningdale had on his political thinking: “The unionists’ destruction of the power-sharing experiment – with the seeming collusion of the British Army – had convinced me that they were not prepared to compromise … I can look back now and say that if power-sharing had worked, I would not have ended up in the IRA.” It’s also worth noting that while Margaret Thatcher was in power, there was little prospect of any negotiated settlement between London and the Provos – even if the latter had been willing to abandon many of their key demands, the “Iron Lady” wanted total victory.

That said, McIntyre has little trouble showing the huge gap between what the IRA said it was fighting for (especially at the time of the hunger strikes), and the deal it finally accepted. All along he predicted that the Provos would end up decommissioning their full arsenal and supporting a police force whose role is to uphold British laws. McIntyre’s blunt, sceptical analysis has proved to be much closer to the mark than the comforting words of the Sinn Féin leadership (he dubs their approach to demands from unionism and the British state “never but will”, with yesterday’s unthinkable departure becoming today’s courageous move).

The trouble with guns

Decommissioning proved to be the central issue in the peace process from the time the GFA was signed until the IRA announced its full disarmament in 2005. Unionists cited the absence or inadequacy of decommissioning as the main reason for their reluctance to share power with Sinn Féin. Naturally this has prompted a lot of “Kremlinology” about the motives of the Provo leadership. Did they move as far and as fast as they dared, held back only by the fear of a split within the IRA? Or did they cynically spin out decommissioning for as long as possible, hoping to provoke divisions within the unionist camp and strengthen their own position at the expense of the SDLP in the meantime?

McIntyre’s view of this question seems to have evolved over time. In a 2000 article, he leaned towards the first perspective:

“Adams has not made the leap presumably because he feels he could not hold republicanism intact … ultimately the leaders do what they can get away with before their respective bases pull them back into line … given the virulent opposition of the Republican base to any form of decommissioning, one key leader breaking ranks and launching a public assault on the leadership’s position may be the catalyst that could lead to a divide from which could emerge a new force with more credibility than either the Real or Continuity IRAs.”

By the end of 2001, things appeared in a different light to McIntyre:

“Some commentators and politicians, while accepting the bona fides of the Sinn Fein leadership regarding its commitment to getting rid of IRA weaponry, nevertheless felt that the grassroots acted as a constraint on the leadership’s freedom to manoeuvre. But how could such an intellectually cauterised and strategically moribund body of people act as a brake? … For quite some time the Adams leadership had been free of any internal constraint … it was merely waiting on the opportune juncture to cash in the guns.”

While it is impossible to be certain about these things, McIntyre is surely over-stating the case. He argues convincingly throughout this book that the Provo leadership managed grassroots opposition to changes in policy by gradually shifting course, one step at a time, without explaining what the final outcome would be until it was a fait accompli. Their goal at all stages was to avoid a split. More than once, McIntyre refers to Ed Moloney’s book A Secret History of the IRA as a reliable source: if Moloney is to be believed, the Adams leadership only remained in control of the IRA by the skin of their teeth after the breakdown of the first Provo ceasefire in 1996. Decommissioning was an especially raw, emotional issue for republicans, bringing in its wake the implication that British Army guns were more legitimate than IRA weapons. It seems likely that Adams and co. would have erred on the side of caution.

Another factor which McIntyre doesn’t mention was surely at work too – the fear that even if they dismantled their entire war machine, the Provos would still have to watch David Trimble lose the leadership of unionism to Ian Paisley. The republican leadership may have wanted to keep their guns in reserve as a bargaining chip when the time came to break bread with the Doctor.

The Short Strand UDA

If that was the plan, it was on the verge of being fulfilled at the end of 2004 before talks with the DUP collapsed. The next month saw the biggest crisis for the Provos since the GFA was signed, as the Northern Bank robbery was quickly followed by the savage murder of Robert McCartney. While the robbery was an act of breath-taking tactical stupidity, handing the DUP the mother of all sticks to beat Sinn Féin with, most socialists will tend to feel intensely relaxed about theft from the filthy rich (as Brecht once remarked, what is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of owning one?).

The Short Strand killing was a very different matter. Some of the angriest and most eloquent writing in this collection is dedicated to the subject. McIntyre recalls the help he and his IRA comrades received from people in the Short Strand during the Troubles, and compares the “republican” killers of Robert McCartney to the infamous Shankill Butchers. While he does not hold the IRA leadership directly responsible for McCartney’s murder, he accuses them of tolerating a culture of arrogance and brutality among “ceasefire soldiers” who used the name of the IRA to lord it over their neighbours:

“During the armed conflict with the British state, IRA volunteers could never have endured were it not for access to myriad resources provided by the local population. The community had to be treated with respect, otherwise it would never have taken the risks it did to help sustain the armed struggle … today many in the IRA have lost their way. The need for immediate community support is not pressing. There is no quid pro quo between IRA volunteers and the community dictated by necessity. Certainly, Sinn Féin needs votes and cannot afford to have Republicans standing on the toes of the electoral base. But a vote in a year or two’s time does not have the same disciplinary or constraining effect on an IRA volunteer as would the need to have access to someone’s kitchen or wall cavity within which a weapon can be concealed.”

Policing and power-sharing

In the aftermath of McCartney’s murder and the bank robbery, the Provos came under intense pressure to decommission their weapons without any deal being struck in advance. The essential pre-condition before the DUP would enter a power-sharing government was Sinn Féin’s endorsement of the PSNI, which duly followed in 2007. McIntyre dismisses the arguments put forward in support of that move with some shrewd comments about the nature of policing and the limits of reform. It is naïve to imagine that a police force can be transformed if enough individuals join with the right intentions: “The individual exchanges his or her own identity for an institutional one. They may start out sporting their new institutional dimension only as a mask, but invariably the mask absorbs and constitutes the face.” Having shifted ground so radically, Sinn Féin now has a vested interest in glossing over abuses by the PSNI, for “if those most opposed to the police join them, then in a bid to minimise criticism of their decision they shall seek to minimise criticism of the police”.

Working-class communities may be plagued by anti-social behaviour and random violence, but those problems will not be solved by backing the police force of a capitalist state, which has very different priorities:

“Actions that threaten to destabilise the political equilibrium, no matter how marginally, will be robustly dealt with, whereas more serious actions that damage the well-being of a working-class community will accumulate by the hundred with minimal police intrusion … why would the British police be successful in curbing anti-social behaviour in Belfast but not in Liverpool, Glasgow, or Birmingham? … the type of crime that plagues working-class communities from Limerick to Liverpool, from Cork to Cardiff, from Belfast to Bolton, fuelling a generalised fear and immiserising numerous lives is largely impervious to modern policing. Working-class communities need a multi-agency approach that is supported by more resources rather than more rozzers.”

But there is no chance of that approach, based on radical reform to change the social conditions of working-class people in Northern Ireland, being adopted by the power-sharing government – whether or not Sinn Féin and the DUP get past their bickering. There has been so much focus on whether unionist and nationalist parties could agree to share “power” that the limited extent of that power has usually been overlooked. The Stormont administration gets its budget from London and has to work within those limits. It could not eliminate poverty even if it wanted to. The British government has made it clear that it intends to reduce the amount of money it sends to Belfast. So the climax of the republican struggle has become the opportunity to introduce cuts in public services on behalf of the British state, providing a convenient buffer between those affected and those ultimately responsible.

McIntyre tells a bitter anecdote that suggests how little has really been achieved:

“Who would have thought that when Brendan Hughes lay in a bed in a prison hospital leading the 1980 hunger strike, fellow Blanketmen would two decades later visit him in the Royal Victoria hospital where he lay on a hospital trolley because there were no available beds? The British health minister at the time was a member of the Provisional movement.”

Brendan Hughes himself put it this way when interviewed by McIntyre: “I look at South Africa and I look at here and I see that the only change has been in appearances. No real change has occurred. A few Republicans have slotted themselves into comfortable positions and left the rest of us behind.”

Out of the ashes?

If the outcome has been so dismal, why has the Adams leadership been able to maintain its support and marginalise opposition? One answer is that they have stamped on dissenters ruthlessly. McIntyre documents the social pressure and violent intimidation brought to bear on critics of the leadership – especially in West Belfast, the cockpit of the movement. Such methods have not only been used against members of rival republican groups whose aim is to re-start the war against Britain (some of whom have been killed by the Provos since 1998). Dissenting figures who oppose a return to armed struggle – such as Tommy Gorman or McIntyre himself – have found threatening mobs of Adams supporters surrounding their homes. In an interview with McIntyre, former hunger striker Richard O’Rawe describes his experience after he challenged the official narrative of the H-Block campaign in his book Blanketmen:

“They needed to bring me down from the status of former Blanketman to the level of the gutter, where it would be all the easier for people to kick me as they passed by. They had to ensure that I was something people would kick off their shoe. Right from publication day, I was persona non grata, someone who was to be ostracised. The smears started. People who I had been friends with avoided me. A former cellmate on the blanket refused to speak to me. Friends I had all my life blanked me out and made it clear when I went to a pub that I was not welcome in their company. All the president’s men cut the tripe out of me on television, radio, newspapers – anywhere they had the chance.”

The effect of such intimidation cannot be underestimated. But it is telling when O’Rawe still maintains that “like or dislike Gerry Adams, he has to be given credit for ending the unwinnable war”. That is surely the main reason why Adams has remained in command of the movement despite all the policy somersaults and tout scandals of the last decade. There is no desire for a return to armed struggle in the communities that supported the Provos from 1970 to 1994. Two decades of military pressure couldn’t force the British state out of Ireland, and a return to the battlefield can only end in failure. At one point McIntyre writes that the IRA’s current strategy, however limited its achievements, “has been infinitely better than continuing to fight a futile war for the sake of honouring Ireland’s dead yet producing only more of them”. Wise words – but they have not been taken on board by many of the best-organised opponents of the current Provo leadership, who still appear to think that a return to war will deliver the elusive goal of a 32-county republic.

McIntyre does not support that quixotic approach himself. His own proposals for the way ahead are sketchy. McIntyre’s main argument seems to be that a new form of organisation based on grassroots democracy is needed: “If republicanism re-emerges, let it be democratic rather than elitist. Army Councils only ever lead us to despair or disaster.” That is well said, but if the liberation sought by republicans is to have a class content, it has to be defined in explicitly socialist terms. The world is full of republics where the class divide has remained immune to pledges of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. A real “Ireland of equals” will only emerge when the economy has been brought under social ownership and control. Otherwise working-class people will continue to wait on hospital trolleys in miserable corridors, whether they are in Belfast, Dublin or Cork.