When future Historians come to study the minutiae of the PIRA insurgency, which began in 1969 and finally came to an end on the 26th March 07, when the SF President Gerry Adams sat alongside Ian Paisley at Stormont Castle, to hear the United Kingdom’s ‘Governor General’ in the north announce that a power sharing Executive would be formed to administer the UK’s Irish statelet, there will be those who will claim that the PIRA’s ‘long war’ was never about the completion of the Irish National Revolution, but was an unnecessarily violent insurgency that began in the tradition of the Irish Defenders, and culminated in a struggle for the democratic and human rights of the minority Catholic community within the northern state-let, whose democratic and human rights had been continuously repressed by Stormont governments after Ireland was partitioned by the British government in 1922.
Due to the outcome of the recent conflict, this slipshod analysis of the struggle is already gaining ground — not only amongst Revisionist Irish Academics and English Establishment types, but also Dissident Republicans, leftists like the journalist Eamonn McCann and [off the record] members of Sinn Fein, who are increasingly using this argument to justify their own accommodation with the British State. McCann, in a recent Sunday Business Post article, wrote the following, which typifies some of those who are coming to support this incomplete viewpoint of the conflict.
The mass of Northern Catholics have never been republicans in the sense in which Sinn Fein has used the word. Commentators frequently refer to the Falls Road as ”traditionally republican”. But Gerry Adams was, in 1983, the first republican ever elected in the area. In the December 1918 general election – which, until recently, the modern manifestation of Sinn Fein insisted was the last legitimate election held on the island – West Belfast was one of only two constituencies in which Home Rule trounced republicanism: Joe Devlin hammered de Valera.
Whilst there is undoubtedly some surface truth in the Defenders/civil rights argument, it is far from the whole picture and for a man such as Eamonn McCann, who is a Trotskyite revolutionary, to attempt to give such a shallow and bourgeois interpretation of these momentous and bloody events, displays a lack of understanding on his part of just how revolutions and popular revolts come into being.
It is perfectly understandable that revisionist historians and UK apologists would attempt to place such a hangman’s noose around the neck of Irish history: it absolves the UK State of all responsibility for the nasty little entity it created and called Northern Ireland, and for the inevitable misery and bloodletting that flowed from it. It is therefore hardly surprising that the British government would wish to obscure in the mists of time what motivated those who joined the insurgency that broke out in 1969. It has no wish to highlight the fact that the northern statelet became a ‘permanent’ entity after the British Prime Minister of the day, David Lloyd George, made the most dire threats of “dreadful and escalating war” if the Irish revolutionaries refused to bow to his demands and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which the Second Dáil finally ratified on 7 January 1922 by a vote of 64 to 57.
Of course, popular revolts rarely go to order and to make an issue of the fact that northern Catholics and nationalists prior to 1969 in the main supported nationalist and not republican political organizations is to miss the point entirely. If one was to use this yardstick, one would have to dismiss as illegitimate almost every popular revolt in history going back to that of Spartacus, for had not the majority of revolutionaries who rose up along-side Spartacus previously accepted their slavery passively? I will not go that far back but use the example of the Russian October Revolution. Prior to that historic event, only a small minority of the Russians Masses supported the Bolshevik brand of socialism. True, Lenin’s Party had elected parliamentarians within the Russian Duma in the period leading up to WW1, but they were not even the largest party amongst the Socialist Deputies, let alone the political parties who made up that Assembly as a whole.
Yet when the suffering of the Russian masses became intolerable, they reached for Lenin’s Bolsheviks as the nearest vehicle to hand which they thought might offer them some respite from oppression, and give them their best chance to bring their sufferings to an end. Whether their choice was wise is not for this article. My point is when people feel their oppression has become intolerable, they reach out for what ever revolutionary organization is to hand and offers them the best chance of getting out from under the yoke of their oppressor.
For the working class Catholic youth of the north of Ireland who were to become the backbone of the PIRA insurgency, Irish Republicanism offered them their best hope. These young people had grown up with Irish nationalism; many of their parents had been active supporters of it, voting decade after decade for the various northern politicians who sailed under the reformist flag. Far from this lessening their load, they had seen their parents endure political impotency, mass unemployment and sectarian discrimination in the allocation of public housing stock, in which there had been a post-war boom in the UK due to the policies of the Attlee government at Westminister (which in the rest of the UK had brought respite from appalling housing conditions by offering millions of working class people a decent Council House). For many of these young workers the final straw was the brutality dished out to the supporters of the NICRM by the RUC, working under orders from the Stormont government, whilst the UK State turned a blind eye.
No one should have been surprised that the Nationalist working class youth turned to the one organized political force that had not only opposed the northern State since its inception but had always proclaimed that it was non reformable, the Irish Republican Movement. True, in the north and especially in Belfast the Republican Movement had an element of Catholic Defenderism about it, but these people were a minority within the organization nationally. And even those who held a Defenderist outlook never looked across the Irish Sea to Westminster for their salvation, but to the Irish nations as constituted in the Republic of 1916.
Many of the aforementioned young workers soon found themselves in the ranks of the newly formed PIRA, and within a short space of time the British State found themselves fighting a full blown insurgency which could have threatened the very existence of the United Kingdom. The Westminster government quickly took control of the situation, by sending the Unionist administration at Stormont packing and in the process they instigated Direct Rule from London and poured enormous military and economic resources into crushing the insurgency. This in itself makes nonsense of the Defenderist theories, as, if true, the UK State would have quickly conceded to the Catholic minority that which all other citizens within the UK then attained.
Far from the failure of the PIRA’s ‘long war’ proving that the Catholic and progressive part of the population within the north of Ireland were always opposed to Irish Republicanism, the opposite is true. For at a time of great crises and turmoil, by joining and supporting the PRM, the working class and rural youth from within the nationalist community clearly demonstrated that they had absolutely no confidence in reformist Irish Nationalism. The only real conclusion we can draw from the failure of the PIRA insurrection is that the UK State was prepared to sit it out, conscious of the fact that revolts and insurrections have a limited time frame. If revolutionaries are not successful within a comparatively short span of time they will in all probability fail.
There will be those who will deny this by using the Vietnamese struggle for Independence as their example. They would be mistaken however, as the Vietnamese people’s titanic struggle for national liberation was not only a national insurrection, but it was also a link in the chain of the Cold War, then being fought between the United States and their allies and the USSR and the fraternal States that supported it. Thus the USSR and its allies were able to provide much of the economic, medical, human, military and strategic resources, which enabled Ho Chi Minn to lead his people to victory in a ‘long war’. That the Adams leaderships failed to factor in this when they set their movement on the ‘long war’ strategy is one of the main reasons we are where we are in the north of Ireland today.
Finally, I wish to touch briefly on the ‘what if question’ that is often asked metaphorically of Republican hero’s such as the PIRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, as it has some relevancy to the issue under review here. In my opinion, no Irish Republican ever took up arms to usher in human and democratic rights for the Nationalist and Catholic people who live within the UK Statelet in the northeast of Ireland. Just as in Michael Collins’ day, no Republican fought the war of Independence with the aim of partitioning the nation politically.
But as I wrote above, revolutions and insurrections cannot be ordered on Spec, they are always a work in progress. So just as it would be ridiculous to conclude that Bobby Sands or any deceased Republican would have taken up arms for what the leadership of SF has now accepted; that in itself does not, as some Dissidents claim, make what Mr. Adams and his leadership clique have settled for wrong in and of itself, although most progressive people would baulk at their methodology.
For in their own way Adams and his leadership have achieved something Michael Collins and the Free Staters failed to do. When they signed the Treaty in 1922, the Free State government assigned the Catholic and Nationalist people, who found themselves stranded within the new Northern Ireland Statelet, at the mercy of a vengeful Unionist bourgeois ascendancy, who were determined to make the nationalist communities lives a misery; and so they did.
Despite their reactionary methodology, the Adams leadership of SF, knowing the war was lost, have managed to at least gain the means for the Nationalist minority community to defend themselves politically against any backlash from the British State and their northern acolytes, which in truth is something which is not to be regarded lightly, as history shows. As to the political future, the real question Irish republicans and all progressive people on the island must now face up to is not about the rights and wrongs of the GFA, for that will now be for the historians. What we have to resolve is how we move forward to a Thirty Two County Socialist Republic. Perhaps it would do no harm if we all mulled over John Lennon’s words. How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I am facing?
This article first appeared in The Blanket e-magazine. [http://lark.phoblacht.net/index.html]