Belatedly I want to pick up from Mick’s treatment of Fionnuala O’ Connor’s interesting question about origins, prompted by the inevitable controversy surrounding Michelle O’Neill. At the outset, I’m reconciled to the fact that my brief analysis, partly based like Fionnuala’s on contemporary observation, will be disputed. I want to be as fair as I can. There’s nothing more pointless than one sided polemic. Her question relates to the present and future.
To make ‘reconciliation’ possible do republicans have to say IRA violence was unjustified?
Whereas Michelle’s remark is focused specifically on the past. It actually distances today’s Sinn Fein from it to some extent, if you look carefully.
“I think at the time there was no alternative, but now, thankfully, we have an alternative to conflict and that’s the Good Friday agreement.”
The short answer to the first is that reconciliation to be meaningful has to involve a sense of mutual responsibility rather than one sided surrender unless we are dealing with Nazis or the equivalent.
The shortest answer to the second is: what else could she have said?
But let’s go further.
I believe that once violence had seriously taken hold, republicans and loyalists alike could justify their actions to themselves at almost any point in the escalating cycle of events. It’s futile to argue that the surge in support for the IRA was unjustified after Bloody Sunday when in the circumstances of over two years of the army presence everyone knew it would be the inevitable response. To pass judgement on activity you have to be able to get into the heads of perpetrators as well victims. Bloody Friday will evoke different responses all round; and so we get bogged down in Whataboutery. A fiendishly complicated blame game produces no clear result. The worst it can do is polish up a narrative of victimhood among the perpetrators in which they absolve themselves of major responsibility. Whatever it does, it achieves nothing like reconciliation and serves only as ammunition for war by other means.
But Michelle said ” at the time.” What time was that? It must mean going back to the origins of the Troubles. As I understand her, she was making the ideological case, not a point about reacting to others’ violence. The aim of the emerging Provisionals in 1970, replacing the effete old socialist Officials was explicitly to overthrow the Orange state and drive the Brits out of Ireland. It was not about defending the people against the RUC’s futile and aggravating incursions during the Battle of the Bogside or Protestant sectarian attacks like the sacking of Bombay Street. This is the essential point to grasp. It was revolutionary politics . If it had been purely defensive strategy they made a pretty poor job of it. They made human shields of the people behind whom they planned and executed offensive operations. Once guns came out, the army were going to reply in kind. Acting like an army of occupation – the Falls curfew etc, created a deep well of grievance the Provos were able to exploit to build their military campaign. Tea and buns were long over.
Prior to internment, in March 1971 the IRA’s murder of the three young Scottish soldiers was a deliberate act to remove any trace of ambiguity about accepting the army as a peace keeping force between two sides. Both sides were waging a war, the IRA drawing on wars of liberation for inspiration and the loyalists on the traditions of reaction.
The idea therefore that the IRA were fighting for social justice that was only achieved by the GFA is invalid according to the movement’s own credo. Only by ceasing violence did the achievement of their aims begin to look plausible. Their existential aim didn’t stand a chance . Unionists had a comfortable majority well able to withstand British wobbles which were in any case much exaggerated. Nor could they argue against ruthless British occupation while at the same time claiming a few nudges would get them out. The whole case was a tragic illusion, only given credence because too many nervous Prods believed it too.
Was there another way?
How many people realise that the essential civil rights demands had been substantially addressed by the Spring of 1969? But the caravan had moved on. Once violence had taken hold, any chance of developing anything like “normal’ politics went out the window. Violence had taken over and everything changed utterly very much for the worse. Tragically because violence divided them and their people even further, the “constitutional ” politicians had no answers. Pursuing politics without addessing violence was a futile exercise but it was a lesson that took years to learn. In that narrow sense, violence paid.
The one strong card in the republican’s pack was the British abolition of the old Stormont. This would not happened as it did without the IRA campaign. It is indeed hard to see how the majoritarian system could have been replaced without upheaval of some kind. But well directed pressure continuing in the civil rights manner supported by the British government might well have succeeded. The inevitable Protestant backlash in my view could have been contained because they had nowhere else to go. My conclusion here is influenced by the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement. I don’t hold John Hume’s memory to account for the single remark but he told me that if the Brits had taken on the loyalists he would have made internment look like a tea party.
The IRA drew inspiration from the UK’s withdrawal from Empire The pullout from Aden was in 1967 following anti-colonial campaigns in Kenya and Cyprus. But they ignored the fact that most departures had been fairly smooth at least for the British. .American civil rights greatly influenced the movement here but was never given its full chance. The essential inspiration for the Provos was home grown, incubated by justified grievance but harking back to the early 1920s when the local campaign was easily crushed. Not this time, they grimly decided. The early leadership was ghetto minded, tough and implacable but hardly sophisticated . The trajectory of Adams and McGuinness and figures like Tom Hartley, now the historian of the movement but once a key strategist, will be worth reading one day if truth telling ever catches on. A mature political rationale didn’t emerge until much later, agonisingly – unforgivably? – later.
Whose fault was that? We all share it. The next move forward is that we all must admit it. Sinn Fein have no need to grovel but they should come clean.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London