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The End of the Troubles?

Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein

by Peter Taylor
TV Books, 431 pp., $29.95

Before the Dawn: An Autobiography

by Gerry Adams
William Morrow, 332 pp., $25.00

The transformation of terrorist into statesman has been in the last fifty years such a frequently recurring theme that it has almost become the political equivalent of religious redemption. In their different ways, Jomo Kenyatta, Yitzhak Shamir, Nelson Mandela, and many others have made the transition from outlaw to politician, from reviled insurgent to respected leader. Time and again, the alchemy of power has conferred retrospective sanction on what was once seen as mindless brutality.

If the current peace talks in Northern Ireland are to succeed, new conversions will have to be added to the list. For the sake of peace and political stability, those who have committed or sanctioned almost thirty years of terrorist violence, involving over 3,200 deaths, will have to be accepted as legitimate democrats. Some of them are the political representatives of Loyalist paramilitary groups who, in the name of their right to remain part of the United Kingdom, have inflicted terrible and often random violence on the Catholic community. Those groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, have, for the most part, observed the cease-fire since October 1994, when they expressed “abject and true remorse” for their “innocent victims.” Since no conceivable settlement will break the link with Britain that they are pledged to defend, they are unlikely to form a barrier to peace. Much more critical, and much more difficult, is the journey that the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, will have to make.

That journey is treacherous because, though Irish republicans would like to think otherwise, the analogy between themselves and Kenyatta or Mandela is not in fact valid. The IRA’s campaign has not been a war of national liberation, waged on behalf of the majority against an oppressive minority or a foreign power. Its enemies have not been illegitimate regimes but two liberal democracies—the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland—and the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland itself. The end-of-empire ritual of an old flag lowered at midnight and a new one raised at dawn will not be played out in Belfast, whatever the outcome of the talks. Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, may have made the transition from terrorist to politician, but he and his comrades are not about to take over the state. The question on which the future of Northern Ireland depends is whether, without the reward of power, an undefeated paramilitary army can be persuaded to trade the epic certainties of violence for the unglamorous ambiguities of peaceful politics. One of the most resilient and fearsome of terrorist groups, which has withstood all the efforts of the British army and the local Northern Irish security apparatus to destroy it, is being asked to settle for something far short of its goals. And for this incorporation into a liberal democracy of an armed conspiracy to overthrow it, postwar history offers no precedent.

To understand why there is, nevertheless, a reasonable chance that this transition may in fact be accomplished, it is necessary to look beyond the IRA’s brutally simple surface. It is, as the impressive solidity of its current cease-fire suggests, a tightly disciplined organization. It has, on the face of it, a clear aim—the total military and political withdrawal of Great Britain from the six Northern Irish counties which remained part of the UK after the twenty-six counties of what is now the Republic of Ireland became independent in 1922. Its unyielding sense of purpose has forced expressions of grudging admiration even from its fiercest enemies. In a conflict marked by shifting aims and uncertain allegiances, its willingness to inflict—and to endure—great suffering has been the one constant. And yet this apparent solidity is deceptive. For one of the attractions of “war” for violent Irish republicans has been precisely its ability to give an appearance of unity and clarity to what is in fact a movement created from diverse desires. Critical to the current possibilities for peace is the fact that the IRA is not a monolith. The armed campaign it has waged over three decades has drawn support from distinct, though not mutually exclusive, sources. They have overlapped and interacted with one another, and while the conflict was in full swing they were often difficult to separate. But it is impossible to understand the IRA’s current situation without attempting to unravel them.

The first and most obvious factor in the creation of the Provisional IRA1 in 1970 is the long tradition of armed Irish attempts to, as the eighteenth-century revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone put it, “break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils.”2 The Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858 and popularly known as the Fenians, established the notion that a secretive and elitist conspiracy of dedicated nationalist revolutionaries would, by their courage and endurance, eventually establish an independent Irish republic. Though it had connections with the reformist, constitutional nationalism of the majority in Ireland, the IRB tradition has always been essentially undemocratic. Unless and until an independent state encompassing the entire island is established, the majority, in this ideology, cannot be sovereign. The “will of the people” resides not in democratic choice but in the millennial, unappeasable demand for a free, united Ireland. The failed Rising in Dublin in 1916—of which the IRB was the principal organizer and from which the contemporary IRA still draws inspiration—was the most dramatic and alluring expression of this demand.

The contemporary “Republican Movement” (the umbrella term for the IRA and Sinn Fein) sees itself as the only true inheritor of this tradition, and there is indeed, in ideological terms, a degree of continuity between itself and its predecessors. But the idea of a continuing, irreducible historic struggle of which the present IRA is merely the most recent manifestation is in fact deceptive. For one thing, almost all of the political parties in the Republic of Ireland can, like Sinn Fein and the IRA, trace their origins back to the armed nationalists of 1916. And each of them has long since adapted itself to the reality that the existence of a democratic and independent state in twenty-six of the thirty-two Irish counties has fundamentally altered the logic of Irish nationalism.

In any case, traditional republicanism, with its demand for a united Ireland, was, by the time the political crisis in Northern Ireland began to develop in the mid-1960s, a depressed and marginalized movement. An IRA campaign of attacks on police stations and border posts, launched in 1956, had sputtered out after the deaths of eleven republicans and six policemen. This failure had led to a sharp turn to the left on the part of most republicans, who began to emphasize public campaigns on issues like unemployment and housing rather than military conspiracy. By 1962, the IRA in Belfast, the main city of what republicans regarded as “occupied” Northern Ireland, had just twenty-four members.3 Conspiratorial nationalism had been reduced, as the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams points out in his autobiography, to a few families, one of them his own. Clearly, on its own, the republican tradition cannot account for the strength that the IRA had acquired just ten years later. Two other streams of influence fed the torrent of violence that the IRA unleashed, and they, too, must be taken into account.

One is an older, more potent, and more atavistic force than Irish republicanism—ethnic hatred. If republicanism is concerned primarily with the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, ethnic hatred is played out around more intimate and less formal frontiers. The day-to-day stuff of the conflict has been not an epic struggle between Ireland and Britain, but a squalid series of sectarian turf wars. In the cities—Belfast and Derry—the riots and pogroms between Catholics and Protestants that marked the outbreak of the Troubles in 1968 forced each of the religious communities into its own ghettoes. Intermarriage and neighborhoods with mixed housing had been on the increase, but the sudden violent conflict put a stop to this natural process of integration, creating tribal boundaries of which the laughably named “Peace Line” between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road in West Belfast is the most obvious example. In the countryside, meanwhile, there had long been a festering resentment among Catholic farmers that, since the plantations of the seventeenth century, much of the better land has been held by Protestants. If it seems fanciful to suggest that such distant historic wrongs could still be acting on the Ireland of the late twentieth century, consider the interview in Behind the Mask by the BBC journalist Peter Taylor with Gerry McGeough, an IRA activist from rural Tyrone, who served three years in an American prison for trying to acquire surface-to-air missiles:

The fact was that I was of this Gaelic Irish stock which had for generation after generation resisted foreign rule in our country. I was conscious of Scottish planters, Protestant and Presbyterian, being brought over and being given the land of the dispossessed or displaced native Irish Catholics. So this was something that, even though it had happened many, many generations before my birth, we were still very, very deeply aware of.

Especially in parts of Northern Ireland that border the Republic—South Armagh, Fermanagh, East Tyrone—the idea of “taking back our land” is not, therefore, a metaphysical appeal to free Ireland but an immediate, intimate demand to get “them” (the Protestant Irish) out. It is not accidental that in these rural areas, a disproportionate number of the IRA’s victims were the only sons of Protestant farmers.4

One of the things that has made the ideology of Sinn Fein and the IRA so opaque is that it is incapable of acknowledging this aspect of its campaign, as Gerry Adams fails to do in his evasive autobiography, and he is far from alone. In theory, republicans are committed to Wolfe Tone’s ideal of substituting “the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter.” In practice, the IRA has functioned at times purely as a Catholic sectarian murder squad, slaughtering Protestants simply because of their religion. In 1975, it bombed two crowded pubs on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast, killing eleven people. In the same year, it attacked a Protestant meeting hall in South Armagh and shot six men, one of them aged eighty, dead. The following year, again in South Armagh, it machine-gunned a busload of Protestant workers, killing ten. To make the sectarian nature of the attack entirely clear, the one Catholic on the bus was spared.

In 1992, the IRA attacked a minibus carrying Protestant workers, killing eight men. Gerry Adams blamed their deaths not on the people who had planned and executed the massacre, but on “the failure of British policy in Ireland.” The men who took part in such attacks, moreover, were not disowned by the IRA. Brendan McFarlane, who carried out one of the 1975 sectarian massacres, was, in 1981, during the famous hunger strikes, appointed IRA commander in Long Kesh prison—in the movement’s terms, an immense honor.

  1. 1

    So called because it was formed as a breakaway from the “Official” republican movement, which had been pursuing a Marxist and anti-sectarian strategy. The Official IRA gradually ceased to exist, and Official Sinn Fein metamorphosed into the small socialist party Democratic Left, which formed part of the last coalition government in the Irish Republic. The Provisionals or “Provos” pursued “armed struggle.” The terms “IRA” and “Sinn Fein” are used here to indicate the Provisionals.

  2. 2

    In Behind the Mask, Peter Taylor follows the usual convention of histories of the IRA by tracing its intellectual origins back to Wolfe Tone. His knowledge is vague, however. He claims that Tone was a “Belfast Protestant.” In fact he was a Dubliner.

  3. 3

    See Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA (London: Serif, 1997), p. 108. Patterson’s book is the most subtle and authoritative account of the development of republican ideology.

  4. 4

    This local, territorial competition is the reason that the routing for parades and marches, especially those of the Protestant Orange Order, has so often been a source of violent conflict.

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