Trouble and Strike

Issue section: 
(269)

Review of 'The Secret History of the IRA', Ed Moloney, Penguin £20 and 'Sinn Fein', Brian Feeney, O'Brian £11.99

These are two very different but equally invaluable books charting the tortured journey of contemporary Irish Republicanism towards constitutional politics. They are particularly illuminating about the transformation of the Provisional IRA from its pursuit of armed struggle against the British presence to ministerial office in the Stormont Assembly following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which at the time of writing has been suspended for the second time in recent years.

Moloney, a highly respected journalist first with the 'Irish Times' and later with the 'Sunday Tribune', relies to a large extent on unattributable testimonies from Republican volunteers. He provides a gripping, blow by blow account of how Gerry Adams and his supporters moved Republicans away from armed resistance towards 'respectable' politics. The willingness of the volunteers to talk in such compelling detail provides his book with a genuine ring of authenticity.

Feeney is a Belfast academic and former executive member of the SDLP who provides much more of a historical and political overview of the same process. He shows how Sinn Fein became transformed during the last decade from political pariahs to 'having its leaders in government, hobnobbing with the great and the good'. He argues that this is not the first time that Republicans have travelled down this road. Michael Collins in 1921 and Eamon DeValera in 1926 both moved from armed resistance to the British to accommodation with them through constitutional politics. Adams is following in their footsteps.

Maloney graphically describes this most recent journey. By naming names and detailing who said what in IRA army council and convention meetings he has embarrassed the current leadership. Adams in particular cannot be too pleased about the revelation of the role he has played within the IRA and the levels of secrecy and subterfuge he employed in pursuing his peace strategy. What is absolutely clear is that he could not have won support for this strategy had he and his allies like Martin McGuinness not been at the centre of the debate within the IRA.

Both books describe how Adams was one of the first of today's generation of Republicans to realise the difference between defending the streets of Ballymurphy and the other nationalist ghettos and defeating the British army in a guerrilla war. His assessment, mirrored by British Army intelligence, was that while the military campaign could be sustained over an extended period it could not win. It had led Republicanism into a political cul-de-sac.

Maloney describes how, imprisoned in Cage 11 in Long Kesh from 1975 to 1977, Adams was the key figure in the debates about the future strategy of the movement. He began to advocate a shift from a military to a political strategy. He also recognised that the credibility the IRA had established in the nationalist areas could provide the basis for considerable electoral support. This assessment was vindicated in 1981 when Bobby Sands, a dying IRA hunger striker, won a stunning victory in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.

The problem Adams faced, however, was the long-established Republican policy of abstentionism from the Irish Dail, the British parliament and the various institutions of the Northern state. For the next 25 years he painstakingly manoeuvred to change this policy and to promote Sinn Fein as the political face of Republicanism.

No one should have any doubt about the scale of his success. Today there are five Sinn Fein TDs in the Irish Dail, four MPs at Westminster and (until its suspension) two ministers in the executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But what kind of politics is represented by this success? As Feeney points out, not only have the original objectives of the Republican struggle been jettisoned, but any other kind of political radicalism has too. Sinn Fein has stolen the clothes of the moderate nationalist SDLP and accepted an agreement with Britain that was worse than the Sunningdale agreement of 1973 that they fought to destroy. Their ministers pursued a policy of support for privatisation and advocated a reduction in corporation profits tax in the Northern executive. They also refused to rule out coalition with the ruling Fianna Fail party prior to the recent elections in the South despite denouncing them at the hustings. Both these books are indispensable tools in any understanding of how this process has come about.