Henry McDonald’s Gunsmoke and Mirrors

Four years ago (I think) I turned up at St Johns College in Oxford to hear Danny Morrison and Anthony McIntyre speak on the ‘Future of Republicanism’. Inevitably, perhaps, it very quickly turned into a big struggle over the past. Since henry Patterson’s seminal 1989 Politics of Illusion, the air has been thick, it seems, with contending histories and pathologies of Sinn Fein, the IRA and the Republican movement. There are two out at the moment, and one more to come in February. Over at Three Thousand Versts, Chekov has a review of Henry McDonald’s Gunsmoke and Mirrors in which he notes:

The book isn’t a history of the IRA or an exhaustive examination of the provisional movement. Rather, it comprises a central thesis, which McDonald fleshes out over 200 odd pages. It is a compelling, and tidily presented, argument. Although its contents might seem somewhat obvious to those who have watched Sinn Féin’s metamorphosis, they benefit from being laid down in sequential, if rather atomised, fashion.

In my own view, the polemic is less compelling than the facts he peppers the beginning of the book from the movement’s own commemoration to it’s own dead, Tirghra, not least his estimation that only 36 volunteers were killed by the various factions of loyalist paramilitaries – who chose to terrorise the Catholic population by murdering innocents instead – whilst 266 were killed in ‘bungled operations. “Less than 12 where deliberately killed and targeted by loyalist paramilitaries. Moreover, only 40 per cent of IRA casualties were a result of confrontations with their main enemy – the British Army.

Figures which challenge to a large extent the idea that British used Loyalist paramilitaries to target leading IRA figure, in the way that is often suggested. Unlike the socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, who used the Grupo Antiterrorista de Liberacion (GAL), a ragbag mixture of hired killers, police assassins and intelligence agents to kill and kidnap.

McDonald also highlights leading figures on the British left, not least Ken Livingston, who in an interview with Olivia O’Leary for Magill Magazine that he’d withdraw the troops with just ten days notice:

“Red Ken clearly had no fears that in that ten-day period the Loyalists would be any trouble. In fact he tellsO’Leary that he would be prepared to stay in west Belfast for the duration of the British pull out.

“The Protestant terrorists wouldn’t get involved in a civil war. They would know that the international forces would stop them. The very balance of terror between the two sides would stop such a war and the Irish could all get down to working out a constitution, a new deal, which Protestants would be quick to have a say in”.

This is a book whose own self declared mission is not to chart a future for Republicanism but to set some records straight on the past. It remains to be seen whether that tradition has a future on the island as whole, or whether it is to confined to the Defenderist tradition of Northern Ireland. By and large according to McDonald, the IRA’s struggle for national self determination rarely raised itself above an at times fairly squalid sectarian war with it’s neighbours.

If the book lacks a certain generosity in its analysis, that may be explained in some degree by the Movement’s own lack of generosity to anyone beyond its own Republican Pale. And it is tough on what David Aaronovich terms the self-exculpatory mythology required to keep an armed struggle going in such unlikely circumstance over such an extended period of time.

He quotes Mary Alice Clancy reflecting on her thesis on the US State Department’s role in Northern Ireland under Bush:

“They were interested in how the British not only infiltrated the IRA but also shaped policy; how they promoted and encouraged those emerging bin the movement that were more realistic, the ones who realised they could not win the war. I think it is the central lession they, the US State Departmern officials I spoke to, believed they could draw for Iraq.”

And yet, out of that struggle, for good or ill, Sinn Fein has emerged the dominant political strain within Northern Irish nationalism, which notwithstanding last year’s disasterous showing in the Dail election, still retains ambitions of breakout of the leftist ghetto that previous projects like the Workers Party and Clann na Poblachta abjectly failed to do. It’s long term success or failure may depend on the impact of the kind of analytic work carried by Eoin O’Broin’s Sinn Fein and the Politics of Left Republicanism (Irish Left Republicanism). In which respect, it’s another book that’s both welcome and long overdue.

However, McDonald sets himself the more limited task of taking up Orwell’s imperative (via Johnny) “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty