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An English View of the 'Ra

by Richard English (Macmillan, stg.£20)

Eamonn McCann • Sunday Tribune, 6 April 2003

It is Professor English's misfortune that his book comes hard on the heels of Brian Feeny's political history of Sinn Fein, "100 Turbulent Years," and Ed Moloney's provocative, definitive account of the internal life of the IRA over the last 30 years, "The Secret Army." As well, Peter Taylor's "Provos" and Lapping Production's "Endgame in Ireland(?)" are recent enough to remain fresh in the memory. There's just not enough new here to make for an engrossing read.

The phoenix arising from the ashes of Bombay Street in the summer of '69, the spluttery ceasefires of the '70s, the revelation of an electoral option by Bobby Sands' triumph in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in 1981, the unsocratic dialogues initiated by Alec Reid at Clonard in 1986/'87 and the Hume-Adams talks which followed, the role of the "Derry link" in the back-channel exchanges of the early '90s, the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the 1994 ceasefire, the Mitchell process, Clinton and the US visa, the Belfast Agreement, the decommissioning's here, all of it, perfectly competently set out. But it's been repeatedly paraded past us already. It may be crass to voice the thought, but one more telling and this tale will become tedious---particularly to those aware of the gaps and elisions and the narrowness of the perspective.

English does break new ground in relating the beginnings of the shift in Republican thinking away from armed struggle to the emergence of an alternative civil society in Catholic working-class areas, particularly in Belfast. He quotes one of Adams' "Brownie" communications from Long Kesh: "We have housing committees, street committees, defence committees, prisoners' aid committees, local policing, playschools, parish committees and credit unions...people's taxis and cooperative schemes...All around us friends! In each and every area, to some degree, people are governing and helping themselves..." Seminal stuff. Here, Adams was suggesting in 1975, was a blueprint and a structure for Republicans to involve themselves in, as an adjunct if not an alternative to armed struggle.

English might usefully have pursued this line of inquiry further. It illuminates an aspect of Republican development which hitherto has been virtually ignored---the extent to which the Republican "peace strategy" has been generated and continues to be sustained from the bottom up, as much a matter of the Provos bringing themselves into alignment with the thinking of their constituency as of cajoling reluctant supporters along a new path. But having touched on the topic, he passes it by. As ever, the mass of the people are projected as the objects, not the subjects, of history.

English is good, too, on the importance of the prison experience and, in particular, of the Long Kesh and Armagh hunger strikes, suggesting---again, it's not spelt out or developed---that an intense sense of cameraderie resulting from prolonged shared suffering may be as effective a bonding agent among ex-prisoners now as any common conception of themselves as the carriers of an inviolable tradition. This is a point of some importance, given the persuasive role of prisoners in stiffening support for the Republican leadership's current strategy. And it relates closely to the broader truth that it's been working-class Northern Catholics' day-to-day experience of struggle over the last 30 years rather than any historically-rooted reverence for The Republic which has been decisive in the shaping Nationalist attitudes.

English misses the significance of his own observation here, in part at least because---surprisingly for a professor of politics, perhaps---he's seems at sea when it comes to ideology. An introductory account of Republicanism between 1916 and 1969 reveals a startling failure to grasp what the idea of The Republic meant, or was taken to mean, to the "old" IRA. Between 1919 and 1921, we are told, "An ill-defined republic was offered as the goal of a united republican movement." No. The Republic was seen as an actually-existing entity which it was specifically the IRA's raison d'etre to defend, not as a goal, however well- or ill-defined, to be pursued by "a united Republican movement." The distinction is crucial for an understanding of what was involved in the Northern leadership's eventual break from the pristine ideology to which authentic Republicans like Ruairi O Bradaigh and Marian Price still hold hard.

A suspicion that ideology isn't Profesor English's weight arises, too, from a passing reference to Marx and Engels' reaction to the 1867 Clerkenwell bomb which suggests that he has never read Marx or Engels on the Fenians, and from his claim that Paulo Freire---the Brazilian educator and advocate of "pedagogy of the oppressed"---exerted "major influence" on Republican prisoners in the '80s.

Some other of English's original thoughts are original mainly on account of their deeper eccentricity---the notion that the collapse of eastern European Stalinism was significant in prompting a hard-left IRA element to abandon revolution for conventional politics, for example, or that the putative success of the European Union in reconciling antagonistic nationalisms served to encourage new thinking.

The book is surprisingly well-written, given that English is professor of politics at a university, Queens, which holds classics in scorn, but is occasionally prone to fey affectation---one of the lighter tomes available at Long Kesh was, apparently, "Nick Hornby's Arsenalesque memoir 'Fever Pitch'"---and bathetic understatement---"The security forces often acted in ways that fell short of proper human-rights standards."

"Armed Struggle" is a worthy effort. But if its author cut loose and followed his insights wherever they led, he might well produce a better book.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

14 April 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Maghaberry Update


"We Won The Peace, Now Let's Win The War"

PRO, POWs, Maghaberry


"In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"

Paul Fitzsimmons


Killer Peaceniks
Henry McDonald


Hillsborough and the Anglo-American Agreement to Wage War
Anthony McIntyre


An English View of the 'Ra
Eamonn McCann


In the Swim with Two Boys
Seaghan O Murchu


A Better World Without Him

Anthony McIntyre


Arrogant Propaganda
Paul de Rooij


11 April 2003


Critique of the Anti War Movement

Liam O'Ruairc


A Diversion from the Task
Eoin O'Broin


Bush and Blair Summon the Irish Contras...
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Not Firm Ground But Wet Sand: Prevaricating for Peace

Paul Fitzsimmons


Irish Leaders Miss Chance to Speak Out Against War
Eamon Lynch


London Update


Baghdad: First They Cheered and Then They...
Anthony McIntyre


America's Dual Mission

M. Shahid Alam


War: It Already Started
Paul de Rooij


Lacking Credibility
Bert Ward




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