The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
An Autopsy On The Provos
Sandy Boyer • 12.12.03

The Provisional republican movement – both the armed wing the IRA and Sinn Fein the political wing – is effectively dead. This may seem a strange assertion considering that Sinn Fein holds seats in the Irish and British parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is also easily the richest political party in Ireland thanks to extensive US fundraising.

But the republican movement from its beginnings in the late 18th century had only one overarching mission – freeing Ireland from British rule. The idea that the everyone living in Ireland is Irish - regardless of religious tradition or whether they are of settler or native descent - has also been a central part of the republican ideology.

Now Sinn Fein is, in the words of one of its prominent local leaders, “enforcing British rule in Ireland.” Until recently it had two cabinet ministers in the local Northern Ireland administration set up under the Good Friday Agreement which is so completely subordinate to the British parliament that Tony Blair was able to simply suspend it. Martin McGuinness, a former IRA Chief of Staff who still serves on its ruling Army Council, was the Minster for Education before the suspension. Bairbre de Brún was the Sinn Fein Minister for Health.

Their experience in office illustrates the nature of the devolved Northern Ireland government. When de Brún took office, the budget she had been given by the British government dictated that one of the two Belfast maternity wards - one located in a primarily Protestant area and the other in a primarily Catholic one – had to be closed. Rather than refusing to close either de Brún, who considers herself a feminist, promptly closed the maternity ward in the Protestant area.

Later she went on to close a hospital serving a predominantly rural area, again because that was what the budget required. When McGuinness was confronted with a demand by school aides to be paid for the summer in the same way as teachers are, he replied that he sympathized with their demand. But, he said, there was nothing he could do because it wasn’t in the budget.

Their rapprochement with the British government and their unwillingness to offend the US administration has also forced Sinn Fein to abandon its previous left-wing stance. During the invasion of Iraq, Adams and McGuinness met with George Bush and Tony Blair in Hillsborough Castle outside of Belfast despite calls for a boycott by the Irish anti-war movement. When George Bush called, all Sinn Fein’s previous rhetoric about a “32-County Democratic Socialist Republic” had to be ditched.

When a person dies in mysterious circumstances, an autopsy is conducted to determine the cause of death. It is certainly worth attempting a political autopsy to try to determine the causes of the death of provisional republicanism.
The immediate cause was suicide. They have signed up for the Good Friday Agreement whose central provision is that Northern Ireland will be governed by the British government until and unless a majority in the North votes otherwise. This not only forbids the Irish people as a whole from ever voting for any other arrangement, but also forbids the people of England Scotland and Wales from separating Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

In 1976, the republicans rejected an almost exactly identical arrangement and carried out a fierce bombing campaign attempting to bring it down. So what had changed in 22 years?

Ed Moloney’s groundbreaking book, A Secret History of the IRA (W.W. Norton 2002), which was a number one bestseller in Ireland, reveals that by the late 1980’s a group around Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein and a member of the IRA Army Council, had decided that the IRA’s armed struggle was incapable of forcing a British withdrawal. Instead of going to the movement and arguing for calling off the armed struggle, they embarked on a campaign of secret diplomacy with the Irish and British governments which eventually produced the Good Friday Agreement.

This represented a complete break from traditional republicanism. When the IRA was unable to sustain their military campaigns in the 1920’s, '30’s and '50’s, they declared a cease fire, stored their weapons, and waited for an opportunity to resume the struggle. This may have been short-sighted and a continuation of their near-total dependence on an armed struggle, but it at least preserved the anti-imperialist core of republican politics.

The interesting question is why Adams and Co. didn’t follow this tradition. And why have they been able to persuade the overwhelming majority of IRA and Sinn Fein supporters and of the Nationalist population of the North, to accept the Good Friday Agreement which is, on the face of it, a complete violation of the most basic republican principles.

The answer has to begin with the events that produced the Provisional movement. It arose out of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and especially from massive attacks on Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast by Protestant mobs.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement was a response to massive institutionalized discrimination against Catholics. Its principal demands were equality in voting rights and an end to discrimination in housing and employment.

Since the formation of Northern Ireland in 1920, the province’s central government as well as its county and city administrations had been in the hands of the 100% Protestant Unionist Party. They were determined to preserve Protestant/Unionist power in the face of a 1/3 Catholic minority which felt no loyalty to Northern Ireland.

The result was gerrymandering and discrimination in hiring and housing. The Unionist Party refused to allocate public housing to Catholics or to hire them for government jobs. In Fermanagh, a county with a nationalist majority, the Unionist County Council refused to build housing at all.

Northern Catholics crowded into some of the worst slums in Western Europe. They were excluded from virtually all public employment and from the well-paid industrial jobs especially on the shipyards.

Starting in 1968, the civil rights movement protested this with non-violent demonstrations consciously modeled on the African-American civil rights movement. Their demands, in the somewhat sexist language of the time, were “one man one vote, one man one job, one family one house.” These demonstrations were repeatedly violently attacked by bands of Protestants who felt the civil rights movement endangered their relatively privileged status in the North. The escalating tension from the civil rights agitation soon produced a huge anti-Catholic pogrom centered in Belfast. Tens of thousands of Catholics were burned out of their homes by loyalist mobs. The police stood by and watched. The IRA, as it was then constituted, was both unable and unwilling to defend the Catholic ghettoes. The Dublin-based leadership had few arms available and little interest in waging armed struggle even to defend nationalist neighborhoods. Graffiti on Belfast walls proclaimed “IRA – I Ran Away.”

The Belfast programs fueled the split in the republican movement that produced the Provisionals. Soon they would launch their military campaign against the British army and the police, Thousands of young people flocked into the Provisional IRA and later Sinn Fein.

In latter years continual repression aimed primarily at young Catholic males provided the IRA with a steady stream of recruits. The British army, and even more frequently, the virtually all-Protestant Northern Ireland police force or the locally recruited British army regiment, routinely put young Catholic men up against a wall and searched them; and beatings were common place. In US terms this would be like recruiting a Black liberation army in response to systematic police violence.

The IRA provided first and foremost arms and a chance to fight back. It also provided an ideology that explained nationalist oppression and offered a strategy for resistance. In its simplest terms this said that you were oppressed because you were Irish, the solution was to end British rule and the way to win that was armed struggle.

In the process the republican movement was transformed. Its membership, previously concentrated in the south, was now predominantly drawn from Northern Ireland. By the early 1980’s, Gerry Adams and a group of younger, Northern republicans had gained control of the IRA and consequently Sinn Fein.

This new leadership was rooted in the northern experience rather than the ongoing republican tradition dating back to the Easter 1916 rising. Many, like Martin McGuinness, had little family history of republicanism. They had been shaped by the civil rights movement and, especially by the Belfast pogroms and the ongoing security force harassment of nationalist youth. Openly contemptuous of the older republican leadership who had declared cease fires, they repeatedly stated that they were going to go on fighting until Britain left Ireland once and for all.

In reality they did the opposite. Once they concluded that the armed struggle wasn’t going to drive the British out, the Provisional leadership set about coming to terms with the British and Irish governments. They have even done what would have seemed unthinkable a few years ago by allowing a representative of the British and Irish governments to verify that the IRA had rendered much of their armaments inoperable. The IRA recently carried out its third act of decommissioning which reportedly included all its heavy weapons and a large portion of the supply of plastic explosives. In a carefully choreographed move, Gerry Adams promised that the IRA would permanently end all armed resistance to British rule.

All this has been accomplished with only minimal resistance from the republican rank and file. There was a split that produced the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the so-called “Real IRA,” Bur that split has been fairly easily contained. If some republicans have been unhappy with the movement’s direction, they have tended to just drop out and get on with their lives. Demoralization has been far more common than resistance.

By now it seems very clear that the Provisional movement at both the leadership and rank and file level had at best a very thin commitment to the ideals of republicanism. Their defining experience had been Protestant attacks on the Catholic working class ghettoes and the brutality of the overwhelmingly Protestant security forces. It would appear that for most the republican ideology was only an elaborate justification for the reality that they were just fighting for the interests of Northern Catholics not the ostensible goal of a 32 county democratic socialist republic.

When they realized that the armed struggle wasn’t about to end British rule, Adams and Company turned to promoting Catholic interests inside a Northern Ireland government subordinate to the British parliament. In the Northern Ireland administration, Sinn Fein has functioned explicitly as a representative of the Catholic/Nationalist populations, sharing power with the Unionist Party which represents the Protestant community. They have jettisoned any pretense of even seeking to represent, what Theobald Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism called “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.”

The disputes within the Northern Ireland administration were virtually never been about political principles or even priorities. Instead they were about communal interests and the pace at which the IRA will disarm and move toward disbanding. By the time this article is published Sinn Fein will, in all probability, be back in coalition with the Unionist Party.

These are at least some of the immediate causes of the Provisional movement’s accommodation with Britain and with the southern government. But there were also elements in traditional republican ideology that facilitated this. Adams and Mc Guinness are not the first IRA leaders to abandon the cause. Eamon de Valera, the last commander to surrender in Easter 1916 and the President of the Irish government during the War of Independence, became the Prime Minister of the partitioned Irish Free State. From there he went on to order IRA members interned and even hung. In addition to Adams and Mc Guinness at least two previous IRA Chiefs of Staff have come to terms with constitutional politics and the southern establishment.

Republicans have always seen armed struggle as the primary, if not the only, strategy for resistance. The IRA, not Sinn Fein, controlled the republican movement. The IRA, as an army fighting a secret war, had to command unquestioned obedience. Secrecy was a military necessity so there could be no free exchange of information.

A Secret History of the IRA makes it clear that Gerry Adams used this habit of secrecy and obedience to negotiate the deal that became the Good Friday Agreement not only behind the backs of the IRA and Sinn Fein but, at times, of other members of the Army Council.

The Republican Movement’s almost complete lack of a class analysis, especially of the southern state, also helped to make the deal possible. Southern governments have been seen as either less or more nationalistic, depending on their policies and pronouncements. This tradition made it natural for Gerry Adams to begin the peace process by soliciting the support of Charlie Haughey, the soon-to be Irish Prime Minister who was perceived as the most nationalist southern politician.

Republicanism has never had any understanding that there is a ruling class in the south with its own interests and concerns and its own ties to Britain. The Irish ruling class is about as interested in leading a struggle against Britain as the Mexican ruling class is in leading a struggle against the US. Throughout the peace process the Irish and British governments have worked in tandem, sharing the objective of ending the IRA’s struggle and bringing new stability to Northern Ireland.

Support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process has gone well beyond the ranks of the IRA and Sinn Fein. They have been overwhelmingly popular with the Northern nationalist electorate. Sinn Fein’s vote has grown steadily as the process has gone on, at the expense of Social and Democratic Labour Party, In the November Assembly elections they supplanted the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

Much of this support can be attributed to war-weariness after nearly 30 years of conflict. Ordinary people speak with great emotion about being able for the first time to go anywhere in their own cities and towns without fear of violence. Until the IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups declared their cease fires, many working class young people seldom went out of their own small ghettoes.

But the deal’s popularity goes beyond simple war weariness. There have been great changes in the North since 1968, especially in conditions for nationalists. Gerrymandering and discrimination in the allocation of public housing are a thing of the past. Housing for working class people, once the worst in Western Europe is now among the best. Generous subsidy programs are available to allow people to build homes courtesy of the British Exchequer. In employment there has been substantial progress for middle class Catholics with education even when working class people are often left behind. Discrimination in employment is at least formally illegal. The Catholic to Protestant unemployment rate has declined from two and a half to one to two to one. Unemployment and poverty in Northern Ireland today probably have more to do with class than discrimination.

To a very large degree, the demands of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement – an end to discrimination in housing, employment and voting – have been won. Catholic neighborhoods are filled with new housing built at British government expense and many have their own community center. There are a myriad of community self-help and cultural organizations funded by the British government and/or the European Union. As noted earlier, employment discrimination is now illegal and Catholics with a university degree can enter a comfortable middle class existence.

Much of this, especially the massive spending in nationalist neighborhoods, undoubtedly began as pure British government conflict management strategy. It was obviously intended to wean the nationalist population away from the Provos. In that it failed. But it did succeed in helping to create a hunger for normalcy and peace in much of the nationalist population. This can be seen in the steady rise in the Sinn Fein vote as the peace process has gone on. Large numbers of middle class, professional, Catholics have switched their allegiance to Sinn Fein, as they have see it become the most able and energetic proponent of their interests.

If these are some of the reasons behind the success of the peace process, the question of what this means for the future of Irish republicanism and revolutionary politics in Ireland remains. The time has surely come for a thoroughgoing re-thinking of the republican tradition. The goal of an independent, democratic 32-county republic that, in the words of the Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, “cherishes all the children of the nation equally” is still a starting point for any republican or socialist politics in Ireland.

The politics and strategies of the republican movement, especially its near-total reliance on armed struggle and absence of class politics, need to be fundamentally re-examined. This is especially crucial because historically republicanism and the labor movement have been the two sources of radicalism in Ireland. This is not to suggest that there is a magic bullet for the Irish left any more than there is for the US left. There is no policy that, if once adopted, will lead inexorably on to the revolution or even to building a new mass movement.

What is needed now is a period of discussion and debate, including with and among republicans. It will be equally important to participate and learn from whatever actual struggles there are on the ground – from the anti-war movement, to campaigns for political prisoners, to protests over new charges for rubbish collection in the south. Only that combination of debate and discussion with involvement in day-to day struggles holds out any hope for an escape from the present political quagmire.

Note: This is a slightly updated version of an article written for the US socialist magazine, New Politics



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

17 December 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


An Autopsy on the Provos
Sandy Boyer


The PSNI Threat

Anthony McIntyre


Seize the Opportunity, Seize the Moment
Liam O Ruairc


Happy Xmas from Little England
Eamon Sweeney


Dublin Cover-up Was Government Policy
Father Sean Mc Manus


Warm (Flat) Earth
Michael Youlton


13 December 2003


The Right Road to Power
Anthony McIntyre


University Challenge

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Money Talks
Mick Hall


Bloody Sunday Inquiry
Liam O Comain


Stalemate for the GFA
Paul Mallon


The GFA and Other Fairystories
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh


Dies IRAe
Ruth Dudley Edwards


Conversion of Constantine
Terry O'Neill


Republican Prisoner Attacked in Hydebank YOC



Civil Rights Veterans on Prison Situation
October 5th Association




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices