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.
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 crux....it'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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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