Review: Kevin Bean’s The New Politics of Sinn Fein

downloadKevin Bean, The New Politics of Sinn Fein, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2007; reviewed by Philip Ferguson

Having fought British imperialism to a standstill for two decades, the leadership of the Republican Movement in Ireland, most particularly the cabal around Gerry Adams, politically and militarily disarmed this anti-imperialist movement, made peace with the British state and entered its institutions in the north-east of Ireland with the purpose of helping run the six-county state for Britain.  The most serious threat to the British state in many decades turned into a new prop of the British state.

Kevin Bean’s book is a deep-going investigation of what happened to the Provos, of how and why they became incorporated into what is essentially British counter-insurgency strategy in Ireland and are now, effectively, agents of the British state.  The book should be read alongside Agnes Maillot’s The Politics of New Sinn Fein, Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA, the analyses made within Ireland by socialist-republicans such as Liam O Ruairc, Anthony MacIntyre, Socialist Democracy and others, and the material available in the CPGB archive on the issue at

Bean explores situates the evolution of the Provos within several key contexts: the shift of liberation movements globally from revolutionary nationalism to mainstream (bourgeois-nationalist) politics, the exhaustion of the military side of the struggle in Ireland in conditions in which neither the Brits nor the IRA could prevail, the use of counter-insurgency methods by the British which involved both stick and carrot dimensions, and weaknesses within the Provos’ own political conceptions from their beginnings in 1969-1970.

Through such a multi-faceted approach, Bean avoids the narrow reductionism of Ed Moloney’s fascinating and essential but somewhat conspiracy theory-driven work in which a Machiavellian Gerry Adams engineers the sell-out virtually by himself.  Whereas Moloney focuses on a technical blow-by-blow account of the Provo leadership shift, Bean is focussed on explaining the politics.  One of the most interesting parts of Bean’s analysis how the Provos, in the course of constructing a ‘resistance community’ in the six-counties, a kind of alternative state, were drawn into a veritable spider’s web of links with the British state which used not only repression but also its own forms of ‘civil society’ engagement as part of an overall counter-insurgency strategy.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Belfast, the Provos’ chief stronghold (pp27-30; 34-37).

The result was the development of “a complex dialectic between the British state and Republicanism” (p13).  Thus whereas Moloney sees the conspiratorial hand of Adams everywhere, Bean notes that New Sinn Fein developed organically in nationalist civil society in the six counties, albeit watered by British strategy (p15).

One of the notable developments from this intersection was the emergence of a new Catholic middle class, most especially in the public sector, and a new layer of Catholic capitalists.  Bean cites Eamonn McCann as noting that “new Catholic money” was “the group who had won the civil rights struggle” by the early 1990s (p41).  Indeed, the rising middle- and upper-class Catholic layers contrasted rather sharply with the downturn in the fortunes of the Protestant section of the working class faced with the erosion of their former jobs trusts in engineering, ship-building and other declining industries.  During the 1990s Sinn Fein began increasingly recruiting from these new upwardly mobile Catholics and they, in turn, furnished a new base of support for the Adams cabal and the rightward shift of the Provos.

Bean identifies the hunger strikes and the electoral interventions around them as playing a key role in the political shift of the Provos, while noting that these were not strategically planned by the Movement but “accidental or pragmatic responses to circumstances” (p61).  Indeed, in Bean’s analysis, contingency plays a substantial role as the Provo leadership reacts pragmatically to events, albeit from within the limits imposed by their ideological framework.  Bean notes that the hunger strike period was the last great wave of Republican street activism (p67) and, whatever the intentions of the leadership, the reality was that the “armalite and the ballot box” was more dichotomy than realistic strategy.  A key change represented by the electoral strategy was that the “active subjectivity of the political project was replaced by the idea of the activist as mandated delegate” (p68).  In other words, in place of a community mobilised against the state, the community would be represented within the state by Sinn Fein, although at this stage only in local government chambers.

Increasingly, a new rhetoric of mandates and consent developed out of working in “a political context defined by the structures and policy framework of the British state” and this later provided a model for the peace process (p70) and the development of a “Provisional quangocracy” (p97) which poses serious problems for revolutionaries trying to develop an alternative to the Provo junior partners of British imperialism.

Bean notes that the Good Friday Agreement and the new political dispensation have “represented a decisive defeat for Republicanism” (p49) but not for the Provos as a movement, a point made very forcefully over a number of years by Anthony MacIntyre.  What has resulted, argues Bean, is a “hybrid form” of power in the north in which the Provos, but not Republicanism, are incorporated.  This “transitional period” seems to have become permanent, he argues, because the Provos are “necessary for the future political stability” of the six counties (pp130-1).

In explaining the evolution of the Provos, Bean draws attention to their ideology as having been incomplete, indeed contested.  He notes, for instance, the contradiction between the universalist aspect of Republicanism and the particularism attendant on its base in the nationalist, in fact, Catholic, areas of the six counties.  He argues that this contradiction is more important than any between armed struggle and electoralism (p137) and that the New Sinn Fein approach, in which the Provos represent a specific identity in the six counties, is simply a new form of an identity politics aspect that was present at the birth of the Provos.  Of course, this raises some key questions for revolutionaries – questions which fall outside the scope of this book as an academic text.  How, in Ireland, could a fight be waged for the civil rights of six-county Catholics and nationalists (the two are not necessarily the same), while avoiding any form of particularist/identity politics, especially when, at the time, the privileged position of Protestant workers blocked their ability to act as part of a class?

Usefully, Bean identifies international factors – the end of national liberation movements, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the establishment of a single superpower (the US), along with the ‘success’ of the ANC in becoming the ruling party in South Africa – as providing an impetus for realpolitik in the Provisionals.  In this situation Sinn Fein finally triumphed over the SDLP because it was seen as being a tougher negotiator with Paisley and the DUP than the Stoop Down Low Party.  In power, albeit as junior partners, the Shinners have embraced the dominant economic policy, acting merely as ‘protectors’ of ‘nationalist interests’, and thereby helping manage capitalist austerity and reinforce the sectarian divisions within the six-county population and within the working class in particular.

An important factor that is not dealt with by Bean, however – perhaps because of the difficulty of including it in an academic text – is the shameful role of most of the British left in failing to champion and prioritise the issue of Irish freedom.  The possibility of helping create a serious socio-political crisis in Britain in the early 1970s by weaving together the question of Irish liberation and the heightened class conflict in Britain was passed up in favour of the economism so beloved by the British far left.  And so it remained ever after.  Moreover, when left sections of the Labour Party made connections with Sinn Fein in the 1980s these reinforced the idea that bourgeois politics were a viable option.  In the military stalemate that had been reached by the 1980s, the Provos could have been drawn left or right.  The fact that were drawn rightwards was in no small way the product of the lack of a credible anti-imperialist, ie truly revolutionary, left in Britain.

Kevin Bean’s book is essential reading for anyone wanting to know how and why the Provo leadership have ended up as agents of British rule in the northeast of Ireland, and salivating for posts in the 26-county neo-colony.  But the most important thing for serious leftists in Britain to consider is not so much the Provo leadership’s sell out but the culpability of the British left in failing to champion Irish freedom in the way Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky argued British radicals and communists should and the effects of this failure in Britain as well as in Ireland.

The above review first appeared in the Weekly Worker, August 7, 2008

Posted on August 1, 2011, in Provos - then and now, Reviews - books. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Phil, Nice review of Bean’s work. Along the same lines, Terry Robson’s book *The State and Community Action* also tracks the role of PSF’s community activism shifting from mobilizing the community to representing the community within a British 6 county statelet.

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