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The Provisional IRA
Time is a great story-teller is an Irish proverb. I was reminded of it when reading The Provisional IRA by Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie, for though the account they have written is admirable, it cannot match the subtleties of the events themselves. For most people, `Northern Ireland' conjures up visual images of a volley of shots fired over a coffin, of a face lit up by the flames of a burning vehicle, of shoppers fleeing in panic from the area of a car bomb, or perhaps of a grief stricken family breaking down before the TV cameras. Our reaction to such images is conditioned by and filtered through our knowledge and perspective of the past.
The prologue to this book, `Fanatic Hearts', is an attempt to answer the question which must first come to the minds of ordinary people, "why are they doing this?" We are presented with a number of possible answers or an amalgam of them. Four basic reasons are cited in the prologue:
This pattern which is offered underlies the authors' descriptions of events. The generational obligation is brought out very clearly in the way in which the authors trace the family relations of republican activists, "Republicanism is a hereditary tradition, and certain families exert a domination influence on its history" (page 14). One criticism of the book in general but which pertains to this aspect in particular is that the influence of republican folk songs and music is underestimated. These songs constantly stress the concept of a tradition of struggle handed on through generations and also seem to link and provide historical legitimacy for present day Provisional IRA activity. One thinks of the Easter Rising of 1916 or the "Tan War" of 1920 -21. The generational aspect is reinforced by the significance given by the Republican Movement to commemorative dates in "republican history".
The second motivation of the PIRA activist given by the authors, that of a simple political and military objective, namely the removal of the Border, is open to question. The removal of the border would be just a first step towards the creation of a United Ireland. What would the constitutional structure of such a step be? What would the relation of the Protestant minority be to the Catholic majority? One attempt to answer this and other questions was the policy. It suggested a federal arrangement based on the four ancient provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. As much power as possible would be vested in the hands of regional parliaments, with the central government restricted to the duties of diplomacy and defence. The attitude of the authors of Éire Nua is positive. They describe it as "an ingenious solution to the Ulster problem" and claim that it provides an answer to the Protestants' objection that absorption into an all-Ireland state would mean the loss of political power and cultural and religious identity. For my part I do not accept that Éire Nua would have provided such a guarantee, but it was at least an attempt to recognise that there are two identities in Northern Ireland. However, Éire Nua was voted out by Sinn Féin at their 1985 Ard Feis. So we have a situation where the present day leadership of Provisional Sinn Fein does not recognise the Protestant identity and favours the imposition of an Irish identity from Dublin. (One should bear in mind that the socialist model proposed by Cathal Goulding and Roy Johnston in which class unity would destroy other identities was originally rejected in the very act of creating a provisional wing of Sinn Féin and breaking from what was later to be called the Official IRA). As the authors point out, when Morrison and Hartley replaced Sean Coughey as editor of An Phoblact/Republican News in 1978, "they used it as a platform from which to attack the regional policy at the core of Éire Nua". It ill behoves regionalists and decentralists, therefore, to support a party which seeks to impose a centrally determined identity on another community, yet that is exactly what self-declared regionalists are doing.
The third motivation for support for, the IRA which the authors examine is that of the existence of a clear enemy. But who is this "clear enemy" in any case? When British soldiers went into Northern Ireland they were welcomed by the Catholic population, as the authors themselves note. If the British army were to withdraw there would still be a large community of people who would see a "united Ireland" as a threat to their cultural identity. So, are the Brits or the Prods the "clear enemy"? If the British, then what about the atrocities committed by the Provisionals and aimed a specifically Protestant targets, atrocities of which the authors catalogue a considerable number? In 1971, as the authors note, the nominal guidelines to spare civilian lives began to be forgotten or ignored and, "during the summer of 1971 a succession of of attacks began that could only be construed as sectarian", (page 18). for instance, on Monday May 24th, a bomb was thrown at the Mountainview Tavern, apparently because it was a public house frequented by Protestants. But then, how could a conflict between the two communities not be sectarian?
The fourth motivation suggested is that of revenge. Throughout this book the reader's attention is drawn to incidents in which a British or Protestant mishandling of justice has led to increased support for republicanism. The Easter Rising of 1916 offers a classic example. The execution of sixteen rebels turned Irish opinion from the constitutionalism of Redmond's Home Rule party to the rebel cause. "Operation Demetrius", detention without trial, which began on August 10 1971, provides another example. The effect of this factor in terms of support for the IRA can be seen in the hunger strikes which began in 1980. This led to the election of Bobby Sands and subsequently Owen Carron as MPs. The conclusion one draws is that the the neutrality and perceived legitimacy of state institutions is often foolishly undermined by the actions of individuals. A case in point -: on a visit to Portadown I was sitting in a car by a supermarket listening to the radio when I saw two children, aged about five and thirteen, being approached by a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The older boy said something cheeky to the policeman. His reaction was immediate. He roughed the boy up and then threw him into the back of an armoured Land Rover. The other boy, perhaps his brother, began to cry. I wondered what the attitude of the two would be to the RUC as they grew up.
The four reasons for support provide an outline in this book for the defeat of the PIRA: undermine the generational and traditional link; criticise and expose the fallacies of their political objectives; make the fact clear that the PIRA is waging a war on the communities with no effective mandate and remove the British presence which obscures this fact; create institutions which are decentralised, accountable and even-handed and which earn the respect of both peoples in Ulster.
The Provisional IRA is a readable and thought-provoking account of the organisation. My main criticisms do not pertain so much to what is written as to what is left out. While it is clear that this is not exclusively or even principally a history, nevertheless the chapter on the "Roots of Republicanism" gives a summary of the major movements and events around which republican mythology has been created: Ridgeway in 1858, the rebellion of 1798, the foundation of the Fenian Brotherhood in 1858, the Easter Rising, Partition and the Border Campaign of the 1950s; but no mention is made, for instance of the nasty sectarian turn events took during the 1798 rebellion, when Protestants were burned alive in a barn in Wexford. The events following the 1918 election are given scant attention too: The Irish cultural renaissance of the last and present century is treated far too briefly. Readers of The Scorpion will realise that the cultural environment conditions responses to political initiatives and shapes them, but not one case study of the cultural influence on political republicanism is to be found in this book. The second chapter does succeed, however, in distinguishing between three currents present in the republican tradition: the physical force tradition represented early on by the Irish Republican Brotherhood; the Labour movement represented by the Dublin transport strike of 1913 and by James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army; and the negotiated constitutional approach of the Irish Nationalist Party. But again, with regard to the Labour tradition, there was no mention of the socialist Republican Congress of 1934. There was very little about Cumann na mBam, the women's section of the IRA, like wise with the theoretical background to the rejection of Éire Nua, likewise with an examination of changes of policy reflected in An Phoblacht, while the Provisionals' theoretical magazine Iris was not even mentioned.
The saddest aspect of the book for me was the reinforcement of the view that here is a tradition unable to adapt in any significant way. The authors describe the PIRA as "an organisation in which rigidity of thought and refusal to compromise were admired and honoured" and elsewhere they state, "its philosophy was all or nothing. In republican thinking, compromise equalled betrayal. That conviction was the IRA's strength and weakness. It sustained it in the lean years and crippled it in the good years." Perhaps the one-time Provo leader Sean MacStiofain got to the emotional root when he declared, "certainly the sacrifices and suffering of revolutionary war can never be justified by mere reform." The Provisional IRA is a thought-provoking and highly readable book which I commend to all those genuinely concerned to see a just solution to the Ulster problem.
Patrick Harrington (1992)
Reprinted with the author's permission from The Scorpion magazine. This independent English language journal of Euopean thought can be contacted at: Schnellweider Strasse 50, 5000 Köln 80, Germany.home page
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