A History of the Provos – part two of three
by Liam O Ruairc
The operational capability of the Republican Movement underwent a gradual decline as the 1970s progressed. At the end of 1976, the head of the RUC could report that complete IRA units had been eliminated and that charges against IRA members had doubled compared with 1975. Between 1976 and 1979, 3000 alleged IRA members were charged after breaking under interrogation (Walsh, p170).
The British government was boasting that it was “squeezing the IRA like a toothpaste”. Statistics for 1977 showed that the IRA was gradually being beaten. At the end of the year, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State was claiming that “the tide has turned against the terrorists.” He claimed that the IRA’s strength “had waned to the point where they cannot sustain a campaign” (Holland, p132).
The 112 fatalities recorded for that year was the lowest annual total of fatalities since 1970. The 81 deaths for 1978 were appreciably down from even the comparatively moderate toll of 1977. Especially significant from the government’s point of view, only 33 members of the security forces were killed compared to 46 in 1977 and 52 in 1976. “The IRA was slowly losing the war” (Kelley, p283); “The IRA had been reduced to a level where they found conducing operations increasingly difficult, and support for their activities declining” (Walsh, p171).
In 1978, a senior member of the IRA leadership admitted that there had been “a marked reduction in military activity”, and this for a number of reasons (“There will be no ceasefire until the end”, Republican News , 5 August 1978, pp6-7). The extended and more sophisticated nature of British surveillance made it increasingly difficult to operate, especially in the Belfast area. Due to counter-insurgency successes, it was necessary to reorganize the IRA as a whole by replacing battalions and companies by a cell system. The organization did not have as many volunteers as five years before. There was an absence of explosives, and it was difficult to acquire weaponry. In December 1977, a massive consignment of arms sent by Palestinian sources was captured on the Towerstream ship in Antwerp. Partly for that reason, the IRA had to cut down on commercial bombings. Blast incendiaries were used to solve the problem of lack of explosives. They were to hit the headlines when the IRA firebombed the La Mon House Hotel outside Belfast on 17 February 1978. In a premature detonation, the napalm effect of the devices killed twelve people and burned them so badly that they were identifiable only by dental records.
Another problem was Ulsterisation. Whatever republican claims to the contrary, the British state had been relatively successful in implementing its ‘Ulsterisation’ policy, by replacing the British army by the police and local army regiments at the front of counter-insurgency operations. If in 1972, there were 21,000 British troops for 15,500 UDR-RUC, by 1980 there were 19,000 UDR-RUC for 12,000 British troops. It became increasingly difficult for republicans to inflict casualties on the British army, the majority of its fatalities being RUC and UDR members, whether on or off duty. From 1976 until the 1990s two thirds of security forces deaths were suffered by local forces compared to less than one third from 1971 to 1975 (Tonge, p71). “From 1976 onwards, with the exception of the freak year of 1979, the number of deaths of local members of the security forces always exceeded the number of British Army casualties” (Bishop and Mallie, p325).
By the mid-1980s RUC and UDR personnel were killed by the IRA at a rate of almost eight to one compared to British Army soldiers (Tonge, p71). Over the course of the troubles, local security forces paid a heavy price: RUC personnel were targeted both on and off duty, 199 full-time constables and 101 reservists losing their lives, 19 were killed after having retired from the force. Adjusted for population, this would equate 50,000 police officers killed in the USA – according to the FBI, an RUC officer was seven times more likely to be killed than his or her US counterpart, but interestingly also less likely to kill a civilian. Of the 763 military personnel killed during the Troubles, 204 were UDR and RIR soldiers, 162 of them were killed while off duty and 60 others were killed after leaving the regiment. Due to the fact that the majority of local security forces were Protestants, Unionists have alleged that such attacks were sectarian.
To this accusation, republicans such as Patrick Magee have pointed that, “if the IRA had chosen to engage in the type of naked sectarianism often attributed to them, then car bombings in Protestant districts would have required far less expenditure of logistical resources than used in the effort to target specific members of the British military machine and political establishment” (Magee, p 204).
These IRA victims were not singled out for their religious affiliation but for their membership of the security forces. Allegations from some Unionist politicians that the IRA was engaged in a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in border areas do not stand up to serious scrutiny (Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden, Northern Ireland: The Choice, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994, p7). Daithi O Conaill observed that during the Black and Tan War, an overwhelming number of RIC men killed were Catholics. Then, as now, religious affiliation was immaterial (Padraig O Malley, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1983, p287).
From the government’s point of view, the Ulsterisation policy made sense given the scale of British military involvement in the North. As a much later BBC report noted: “By the height of the Troubles in 1972, there were 27,000 military personnel here, based in more than 100 locations. The numbers are quite staggering – that’s 1,000 more than the number of British soldiers deployed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more than double the combined Army force in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In total, more than 300,000 British soldiers served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and for many years it was used as a training ground for the Army’s most able officers. Seven hundred and sixty-three military personnel were killed, and many more injured and maimed. To put that in perspective, the number of combat deaths suffered by the army in Afghanistan since 2001 is 59, while in the worst year of the Troubles, 1972, the number of deaths was 129” (Vincent Kearney, Banner comes down on momentous year, BBC 27 December 2007).
The British Army presence reached its height in 1972 with 29,411 soldiers, “approaching the force-strength of the mid seventeenth-century Cromwellian campaign” (O’Duffy, p94). Not only was the British Army overstretched by its involvement in the North, thereby threatening its ability to contribute fully to NATO but, as Paul Dixon has shown, it faced a recruitment crisis which was attributed to its role in the North. The problems of recruitment were compounded by the widespread opposition of many army relatives to their sons serving in Northern Ireland and agitation for withdrawal. British politicians feared a populist campaign to ‘bring our boys’ home which had developed in Britain over Palestine and other colonies from the late 1940s (Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Palgrave, 2001, p126).
Ulsterisation was also an exercise in political containment. Seen in a wider context, the crisis in the six counties was an intrinsic part of the overall crisis of the British state and the IRA campaign part of the challenge to its ruling class (M Masters and P Murphy, “British Imperialism and the Irish Crisis”, Revolutionary Communist Papers No 2, May 1978 and T Marlowe and S Palmer, “Ireland: Imperialism in Crisis 1968-1978”, Revolutionary Communist No 8, July 1978).
Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel Something To Tell You (London: Faber, 2008) alludes to the overwhelming sense of continuous crisis in Britain in the 1970s with its strikes, IRA bombs, food and petrol shortages etc. While the British state was becoming increasingly able to successfully contain the conflict and its political effects to the North, it was unable to normalize all areas of the province. The security policy involved saturation policing throughout the 1980s with Northern Ireland having 8.4 security personnel per 1000 of population, compared to a figure of 1.6 in France for example (Tonge, p71).
The year 1977 had marked a turning point in the history of the Troubles. The British state had successfully contained political violence and reduced it to an ‘acceptable level’. In subsequent years, the conflict would never reach the intensity of the early 70s. The period 1971-1976 accounts for over 50 per cent of PIRA killing in the years 1969 to 2001 (English, pp379-380); “Political violence had been kept to an ‘acceptable level’ by the late 1970s, and Britain, as the dominant state power, ultimately determined the political parameters of the conflict and the terrain upon which the Provisionals fought their war of position” (Bean and Hayes, eds, p47).
There was a debate within the leadership of the IRA about whether or not the war should continue. In early 1976, Billy McKee was discussing with Seamus Twomey the possibility of calling off the campaign (Taylor, 1998, pp198-199; Richard O Rawe, Blanketmen: an untold story of the H-Block hunger strike, Dublin: New Island Books, 2005, pp72-73 and Walsh, pp162-163). Another faction argued that, contrary to what was believed in 1975, the British state was not on the point of withdrawal, and that the IRA should reorganize and around 1978 “projected a long war lasting for 20 years or more” (“’The military struggle will not slow down to relate to Sinn Fein’s political activity’: Michael Farrell interviews two spokespersons authorised to speak on behalf of the leadership of the IRA”, Magill, July 1983 and Vincent Browne, “The IRA’s Twenty-Year War”, Magill, August 1982, pp8-10) .That faction won the debate and the IRA stated in 1978 that it was “committed and more importantly geared to a long war” (“IRA geared to a long war”, Republican News, 9 December 1978). This would signal in the balance of power within the Republican Movement a shift towards the Adams leadership. But the movement was far from unanimous about the strategy.
In 1987 Daithi O Conaill made this enigmatic remark: “Unfortunately, there have been problems within the Movement itself. There were those who propagated a theory of a war lasting twenty to thirty years thereby condemning prisoners and people alike to indefinite suffering and damaging the single-minded approach necessary to bring the conflict to a speedy and successful end as soon as possible” (“Daithi O Conaill analyses Republican position in 1987: Major Objectives defined”, Republican Bulletin, March 1987) .
The old leadership who “had never wholeheartedly embraced the Northerners’ notion of the Long War asked why volunteers would join if they knew they had to fight forever” (Taylor, 1998, p 282). An IRA Staff Report, seized by Gardai when arresting the organisation’s Chief of Staff, Seamus Twomey, in Dublin in December 1977 indicated that IRA command areas and structures were being reorganized for the long war (Coogan, pp465-467). Re-organisation allowed it to limit attrition by the security forces: the number of people charged with terrorist type offences fell rapidly from the 1977 high of 1380 to a low of 550 in 1980. In 1979, the number of security forces deaths rose to 62, the highest since 1973.
On 22 March 1979, the IRA mounted the biggest co-ordinated bomb attack of its entire campaign, targeting banks and public buildings in 21 towns across the North with 49 devices which all went off within 90 minutes. The British Army estimated that it must have required at least 100 people to mount the operation. On 27 August 1979, in Narrow Water near Warrenpoint, 18 paratroopers were killed in a double bomb attack on the same day that the IRA succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and three relatives in an explosion in Sligo. The Narrow Water ambush was the most successful IRA attack against British forces during the Troubles: a full rifle platoon of paratroopers and the most senior officer to die in the Troubles were wiped out by radio- controlled bombs. It was the British Army’s biggest single loss of life in the current conflict and the Parachute Regiment’s worst since Arnhem. Narrow Water and the Mountbatten assassination proved that ,despite containment, the IRA still had the capacity to bring the situation to a crisis point. It seemed that the Long War strategy was changing the fortunes of the Republican Movement (see ,for example, Ed Moloney, The IRA, Magill, September 1980, pp13-28). But despite Narrow Water and Mountbatten, overall fatalities for 1979 “indicated that the long war was not being won if not being lost” (Bowyer Bell, p477).
M.L.R. Smith has argued that from a military point of view the Long War was in fact an admission of weakness. A much smaller IRA waging a more selective campaign could be more easily sustained than the intensive large scale assault of the early ’70s and this was less of a military threat to the British state (Smith, p188). “No army chooses to fight a long war when a short one will do. Long wars are fought out of military weakness” (Walsh, p207). Also, in the long term, reorganization and centralised IRA structures “made it easier not harder for British intelligence to penetrate the IRA’s nerve centres” (Moloney, 2007, pp160-161 and 317-318). A 2007 British Army document suggests that all the military structures which “eventually defeated PIRA” were in place by 1980, although it took many more years for its armed campaign to be ended (“Operation Banner: an Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland”, by General Sir Mike Jackson).
What was the strategic rationale behind the ‘long war’? In the context of the six counties, not only was the IRA waging its armed struggle without external diplomatic and military backing in a setting where the majority population (the Unionists) are hostile, but where its basis of support was restricted to a minority within the minority population (within the nationalist ghettoes). There is also a clear imbalance of forces between the IRA and the British state in terms of manpower and resources. The Provos’ ability to wage war would always be limited to a certain threshold. Such objective constraints meant that there was no question of building up a military force which would eventually confront the enemy in a conventional manner, seize territory and drive the British Army into the sea. Rather than military victory, its purpose was to inflict political defeats.
Malachi O Doherty has correctly argued that the central aim of the armed struggle was to create conditions which rendered an internal Northern Ireland settlement impossible, thus forcing a progression towards Irish unification as the only option for policy makers. He sums the IRA strategy as “a strategy of vetoing an internal settlement through the narrowing of options” (O Doherty, The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1998,p120). It is a kind of “Republican veto” (“’We have now established a kind of Republican veto’: Michael Farrell interviews Gerry Adams MP, vice-president of Sinn Fein”, Magill July 1983) which prevents any settlement on Britain’s terms: “The campaign does not primarily force the British to leave Ireland through making their presence too costly, but it sets limits to their ability to resolve the conflict internally” (O Doherty, p 96). Every time the British government comes up with a new political ‘solution’ to the Northern crisis, the IRA campaign will create a climate in which such a ‘settlement’ is hard to implement.
For example, “for years the IRA had targeted local security forces, the UDR in particular, knowing that such attacks, in the words of one Tyrone republican, ‘stop the unionists doing a deal with the SDLP’. In other words, the IRA’s attacks on Protestant security force members kept Northern Ireland unstable” (Moloney, 2007, p338). “The Hillsborough Treaty was to end all this. So was Sunningdale, the Constitutional Conventions, Round Table Talks, Rolling-Devolution, Talks about Talks – the Assembly. Twenty years on and none of them have been successful” (Gerry Adams, A Pathway To Peace, Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988, p8).
The effect of this is to narrow the political options the British government has for settling the violence “Every British attempt so far has failed, and as each option is tried, knocked back, or falls of its own accord, they will have to consider the option of withdrawal” (Gerry Adams, in Martin Collins, ed, Ireland After Britain, London: Pluto Press, 1985, p8). The British state’s political initiatives failing one after the other will ultimately force a progression towards self determination for the people of Ireland acting as a unit as the only viable political option for policy makers. “Republicans saw their campaign as narrowing the options of the British to the point where they would have to consider withdrawal…The British would continue to resist the option of withdrawal until all alternatives had been tried and proved not to have brought peace” (O Doherty, pp114-115, 120).
As Adams put it: ‘National self-determination is the democratic option which the British government refuse, at present, to contemplate. They will only concede it when their room to manoeuvre is narrowed down to that democratic option” (Adams, 1988, p80). “Our struggle and strategy has been to close down each option open to the British until they have no other option but to withdraw” (The Sinn Fein-SDLP Talks, 1988, p6).
In 1984, Danny Morrison argued: “There is no peaceful way of getting the Brits out of Ireland. There is no constitutional way. We are told to do it by the ballot box. . . . Even if nationalists got into a majority in the six counties and tried to vote it into a united Ireland, we still would not get a united Ireland. The loyalists would merely re-partition; they did it before -they were going for nine counties and went for six, they can go for three. And unfortunately that’s why the IRA exists. The IRA has to fight the Brits, has to wear down the will of the British to remain in Ireland. And I have absolutely no doubt that they will be successful in inflicting a political defeat -not a military defeat on the British Army but a political defeat on the British government. The British will have examined everything -internal settlements, assemblies, constitutional conventions, everything, until their last option: and it will be their last option, because the Brits will not examine it until that day. And that option will be British withdrawal and reunification” (“The IRA has to do what the IRA has to do”, Magill, September 1984).
Also, in a 1988 interview, Morrison justified the continuation of the armed struggle on the following grounds: “If the IRA were to stop tomorrow the situation for Nationalists would only get worse. The Brits would say, ‘Ha, we stuck it out, we screwed them in the end, now we can do what we like;’ And the SDLP would lose their negotiating power, which is built on the back of the armed struggle. The equation they work on with the British government is: ‘Give us reforms and support drops for Sinn Fein and the IRA.’ So they need the IRA. So my point is that there is no other alternative. If I thought there was another alternative which would bring justice and peace, then I would jump at it” (Joe Jackson, Troubadours and Troublemakers, Dublin: Blackwater Press, 1995, p72).
This was a point already argued in 1983 by Boston political scientist Padraig O Malley: “If the IRA called a halt to its operations, there would no longer be an overt conflict, and therefore, there would be a less pressing need for a ‘solution’. Indeed, were the IRA simply to cease and desist, the impact could be retrogressive, since there would no longer be any reason for loyalists to make any concessions to nationalists when their ‘unreasonablessness’ no longer carried with it the threat of greater instability” (O Malley, p308).
Such were the grounds for the continuation of the campaign.
Faced the fact that “the British government is not withdrawing from the Six Counties”, the Provisionals arrived at the conclusion (signalled in a 1977 speech written by Adams and Morrison but read out by Jimmy Drumm) that “a successful war of liberation cannot be fought exclusively on the backs of the oppressed in the Six Counties, nor around the physical presence of the British Army. Hatred and resentment of the army cannot sustain the war.”
Therefore the movement stressed the “need to take a stand on economic issues and the everyday struggles of the people” and called for “the forging of strong links between the Republican Movement and the workers of Ireland and radical trade unionists” which “will ensure mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the North”. This last point was essential to convince many activists who would have seen such activities as a diversion from the military campaign.
Interesting in light of subsequent developments, the speech also included these words:
“We are not prepared even to discuss any watering down of our demands. We can see no future in participating in a re-structured Stormont, even with power-sharing and a Bill of Rights. Nor certainly will we never accept the legitimacy of the Free State, a fascist state, designed to cater for the privileged capitalist sycophants. No. Even to contemplate acceptance of either of these partitionist state would be a betrayal of all that Tone preached and died for” (“Bodenstown Oration”, Republican News, 18 June 1977, p7).
As Adams later put it: “our most glaring weakness to date lies in our failure to develop revolutionary politics and to build a strong political alternative to so-called constitutional politics.” He concluded: “We must ensure that the cause of Ireland becomes the cause of Labour, a task neglected since Connolly’s time and we must also ensure that the cause of Labour becomes the cause of Ireland” (Gerry Adams, “Revolutionary politics needed to back up military gains”, APRN, 23 June 1979, pp6-7).
The reference to “the cause of labour” and “the mobilization of the working class” was essentially instrumentalist in nature. It is not that the organisation moved radically to the left or became socialist, but that it wished to attract working class support in order to generate “mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the North”. Walsh is right to note that An Phoblacht/Republican News under Danny Morrison’s editorship “gave the impression that Sinn Fein was more to the left than was actually the case” (Walsh, p217).
However this also reflected the essentially working class base of the Republican Movement and the fact that republicanism always had a social content. Most commentators attach much significance to the1977 Bodenstown speech as signalling the beginning of the ‘politicisation’ of the Republican Movement and often allege that the movement was pursuing a ‘monomilitary strategy’ until then and that there were no politics before Adams. However this is not the case.
For example as early as 1972 SF President O Bradaigh was saying the same thing as the 1977 speech almost word for word (White, 2006, pp258-259). In fact, under O Bradaigh, the Republican Movement had always been more than “just a Brits Out movement”. As White concludes: “In the 1970s he had tried to keep politics relevant when almost everyone else, it seemed, focused on the IRA” (White, 2006,p274).
To think that the ‘long war’ and ‘politicisation’ represented a new departure “overstates the political and strategic disjuncture” (Bean and Hayes, eds, p48). “Since its foundation; the Provisional Republican movement had not rejected politics. Such a perception rests upon a reductionist view of politics, associating political activity with parliamentary and institutional politics” (Murray and Tonge, p75).
In January 1980, Sinn Fein adopted a more socially radical programme, Eire Nua: the social dimension (see Seamus Boyle, “Radical Update of Eire Nua”, AP/RN, 26 January 1980). Any traces of the earlier anti-communism of the Provisional movement disappeared. It no longer spoke of a balance between Western capitalism and the Eastern soviet system but of an alternative. While the earlier version of the programme said private enterprise would still have a role to play in the new Ireland, the new version said that it would have “no role to play” at all in key industries and small businesses would be permitted only “provided no exploitation occurs”.
At the 1977 Ard Fheis, one delegate urged the movement “not to become entangled with international socialism or communism: we are not engaged in a class struggle but in a mass struggle. Ruairi O Bradaigh disagreed and said that whatever one liked to call it we were struggling against a corrupt system in which 70% of the wealth was owned by 5% of the people” (“73rd Ard Fheis”, Republican News, 29 October 1977, p1).
The Provisionals began to support all the guerrilla armies fighting wars of national liberation such as the PLO and the ANC and took a sympathetic view of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Castro regime in Cuba, although Adams was careful to stress in 1986 that there was no real basis for Ireland to become a Cuba on Britain’s doorstep. (Gerry Adams, 1986, p97). Those political developments led the British press to allege that “their aim is no longer ‘Brits Out’ but a Marxist revolution in all Ireland” (W.F Deedes, “The Changing Face of Ulster”, Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1979). If there was much more emphasis upon the socialist aims of the movement, this however was an exaggeration. Asked whether there was any Marxist influence within Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams replied: “First of all there is one thing which should be said categorically – there is no Marxist influence within Sinn Fein, it simply isn’t a Marxist organisation. I know of no one in Sinn Fein who is a Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism.”
Asked in the same interview whether he agreed that the Republican Movement had moved to the left, he replied: “To be a Republican in the true sense you have to base it on the 1916 Declaration which in itself is a radical document… Also as radical was the Democratic Programme of the First Dail. If we are to be true republicans we have to adhere to what it says in those documents. Our form of Republicanism is radical republicanism. We genuinely believe that when the struggle for independence is completed and the democratic process is re-established, the best solution or philosophy is decentralised socialism and government structures” (“The brit propaganda tag – from ‘fascist’ to ‘communist”, AP/RN 3 November 1979, pp10-11).
In the same issue, both the IRA and Sinn Fein issued statements officially stating that they were not Marxist and were ideologically based on the 1916 Proclamation (“IRA’s republican socialism is a radical native brand” and “Sinn Fein statement of aims”, AP/RN 3 November 1979, pp10-11). One had to await the 1983 Ard Fheis for the objective of the movement being changed from “a reign of social justice based on Christian principles” to “a reign of social justice based on Irish republican and socialist principles in accordance with the Proclamation of the Republic of 1916 and the Democratic Programme of the First Dail Eireann in 1919” (“A party on the move”, AP/RN, 17 November 1983, p7).
Nevertheless as Vincent Browne noted in 1981: “The old characterization of the Provisionals as right-wing militants could hardly be more inappropriate. For reasons of diplomacy they would abjure the characterization ‘Marxist’ but this is in fact what they have become. They analyse the North in terms of economic and national exploitation, their rhetoric is laced with references to class conflicts and a strong identification has grown up between them and other liberation movements throughout the world” (Vincent Browne, “The New Provo Strategy”, Magill, November 1981, pp4-5).
Parallel to this were developments in the campaign against criminalisation of republican prisoners. On 1 March 1976, the British government withdrew the ‘Special Category Status’ which separated political prisoners from ordinary criminals. The Special Category Status had been conceded by the British Government only under the pressure of a hunger strike by republican prisoners in 1972. Its withdrawal was part of the British government’s so-called ‘criminalisation’ policy, an attempt to de-politicise the Irish war and portray the IRA as mafia-type criminals. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State described the security problem in 1976 in the House of Commons as involving only “small groups of criminals” (Hansard, Vol 913, 14 June 1976, col.44). In practice it meant that if someone was sentenced for a so-called ‘scheduled’ (political) offence on 28 February, he/she would be considered a political prisoner, but if someone else was sentenced for the same offence the next day, he/she would be considered an ordinary criminal. “ “bn”
“There is no serious empirical warrant for labelling republicans as criminals ( O’Leary, pp230-232). Despite the official criminal label, the British Army’s 1978 Glover Report itself stated: “evidence of the calibre of rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and the unemployable.” Surveys of republican offenders coming before the courts found that the data ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ established that the bulk of them were people “without criminal records in the ordinary sense, though some have been involved in public disorders (but) in this respect and their records of employment and unemployment they are reasonably representative of the working class community of which they form a substantial part (and) do not fit the stereotypes of criminality which the authorities have from time to time attempted to attach to them” (Kevin Boyle, Tom Hadden and Paddy Hillyard, Ten Years On in Northern Ireland, London: 1980, p19). Studies show that application to join the IRA are directly linked to political events rather than to ‘rent-seeking’ opportunities (Robert White, “From Peaceful Protest to Guerrilla War – Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, American Journal of Sociology, 94 (1989), pp1277-1302). Famously, IRA volunteers have been resistant to prison management techniques that ‘ordinary criminals’ generally accept without organised protest (Kieran McEvoy, “Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management and Release”, Oxford University Press, 2001). Finally, there is no evidence that IRA recruits are psychologically abnormal, rather they are ‘normal’ – that is, representative of their social base. Studies have been made comparing the murderers committing political as opposed to non-political killings in Northern Ireland, and confirm this appraisal (H Lyons and H Harbison, “A Comparison of Political and Non-Political Murderers in Northern Ireland 1974-1984”, Medicine, Science and the Law, 26 (1986), pp193-198). Finally, to date rates of recidivism, political or criminal, among ex-IRA prisoners have been strikingly low, indicating further evidence against the criminal motivation thesis.
On 16 September 1976, the first post-1 March offender, Kieran Nugent, who had been sentenced two days earlier, refused to wear a prison uniform and famously told the prison authorities “if you want me to wear prison gear you will have to nail it to my back”. He was immediately thrown into a cell with only a blanket. He was subsequently joined by others ‘on the blanket’. The ‘blanket protest’ was born. By the spring of 1977, there were 70 prisoners on the blanket, and by April 1978 it had risen to 300. H3, H4, H5 and most of H6 were filled with Blanketmen (Liam Clarke, Broadening the Battlefield: The H-Blocks and the Rise of Sinn Fein, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987, pp65-66). By the autumn of 1980, there were 1365 Republican prisoners, and of the 837 Republicans who did not have special category status, 341 were on the blanket and dirty protest (Bowyer Bell, 1997, p492). The blanket men were confined to their cells, without clothes, reading material or furniture, except for a mattress which was taken away during the day. The prisoners also had to suffer beatings and harassment from the prison warders. Chamber pots used by the prisoners were constantly kicked onto the floor by prison guards, and prisoners were beaten when trying to empty them outside. The prisoners were soon forced to smear the over-flowing excrement on the cell walls in order to keep the floors dry. In March 1978, the ‘dirty protest’ was officially started. (On the Blanket and Dirty Protests see in particular: Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown and Felim O Hagan, eds, Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle 1976-1981, Belfast: Beyond The Pale, 1994.)
The IRA hit back by targeting prison officers. By April 1980, a total of 18 prison officers had been killed in an effort to exert pressure on the NIO to return to special category. But the deteriorating H-Block situation did not seem to be a priority for the organization. In a major interview in August 1978 an IRA Army Council representative failed to mention the H Block situation and in Republican News’ three-page review of 1979, the prisoners got just one economic column inch of copy (Clarke, pp91-92).
Outside the prisons, the bulk of the campaign against criminalisation was led by the relatives of the prisoners, the Relatives Action Committees, and based directly on the nationalist working class. It called for political status in recognition of the fact that the prisoners were prisoners of war captured in the course of a war of national liberation. A statement from the central RAC made the point:
“We have always maintained a firm line that our campaign is to establish that a war of national liberation is being waged in Ireland. While in the past we have publicised the inhumane conditions of the POWs. . . we have not allowed ourselves to be sidetracked into seeing the prisoners as a civil rights issue, rather than a political issue” (“Prisoners are not a civil rights issue”, Republican News, 10 Dec 1977, p9).
The struggle of the prisoners was not concerned with better prison conditions, but for their recognition as political prisoners of war. This meant that “the sharp end of the campaign should be directly cutting against criminalisation while the rudder is steering for ‘Brits Out’” (“The armed struggle and the fight for political status”, Republican News, 4 February 1978, p3). However, there were soon attempts to broaden the issue to forces and interests outside of the republican base. For this reason, in late 1979, the RACs were replaced by the National H-Block Committee which, giving prominence to middle class non-republican and constitutional nationalist elements in order to broaden the prison campaign, changed the direction of the campaign away from the nationalist working class and towards putting pressure on bourgeois nationalist elements such as the SDLP, Fianna Fail, the Catholic church and the trade unions. For the first time, unconditional support was not a requirement for participation.
At the founding conference of the National H-Block Committee, Peace People leader Ciaran McKeown was applauded for supporting the five demands, even after he asked those present to inform the police about any IRA arms dumps they might know of (Clarke, p102). This strengthened the influence of those elements and allowed the restriction of the campaign to what was acceptable to those bourgeois forces. (For an extended discussion of this, see David Reed, Ireland: Key to the British Revolution, London: Larkin Publications, 1984.) In opposition to the earlier RACs, the political basis of this united front – the so-called ‘five demands’ – was a humanitarian and civil rights approach. “What is needed now on the H-Block issue is a mass single-issue campaign aimed at drawing in whatever support possible -whether it be on a purely humanitarian basis. . . or whether it be full blooded support for the IRA’s armed struggle” (“Determination and Unity”, AP/RN, 27 October 1979, p1).
The five demands were:
· The right not to wear prison uniforms
· The right not to do prison work
· The right to associate freely with other political prisoners
· Restoration of the right to earn remission (early release time)
· The right to a weekly visit, letter, parcel and the right to organise their own educational and recreational pursuits.
“We must build a united nationalist front against the British government…The five demands form a sufficient basis for unity among the nationalist grassroots of all parties in this country” (AP/RN 16 May 1981) declared Adams. This represented a downgrading of political demands to humanitarian ones. “The talk of ‘combatants in a national war of liberation’ and ‘prisoners of war’ had gone. Even Ruairi O Bradaigh stood up at the Ard Fheis on 20 January 1980 saying ‘we urge our members to redouble their efforts with the assistance of non-members on this great issue of human rights’” (Walsh, p84).
It was the first time that the Republican Movement was attempting to build a ‘broad front’ and to find a broader base. Importantly, militant revolutionary action was not compatible with a ‘broad campaign’, because it would alienate the ‘broad forces’ of constitutional nationalism. Pushing bodies like the Catholic Church to take a stand and back door diplomacy backed if necessary by H Block activity was the new course. “Left-wingers who did not agree with the general strategy of looking for the support of the Church, Fianna Fail and the SDLP for the campaign were vigorously suppressed by Sinn Fein” (Walsh, pp181-182). The Provisional newspaper declared “Britain can be beaten when the Free State premier, the SDLP leader and the Catholic hierarchy are forced to apply their muscle instead of as at present playing at it” (quoted in Chris Bambery, Ireland’s Permanent Revolution, London: Bookmarks, 1987, p81).
At a special conference of the National H-Block Committee in January 1981, Jim Gibney spoke of the necessity of “getting the SDLP out of the Six County council chambers in order to emphasize to the British government the breakdown of the political system.” Gibney argued that if local representatives were not urged to take action, how was it possible to pressurise the British government? (AP/RN 31 January 1981).
Left wingers argued instead for greater emphasis on bringing the working class into the campaign and some called for immediate strike action, but this was opposed by Sinn Fein. “Pan-nationalist agitation aimed at bringing Fianna Fail, the SDLP and the Church into the campaign quite obviously conflicted with ideas of class struggle and strikes in favour of the prisoners, even if these had in fact been possible, which they weren’t” (Walsh, p184).
Gerry Adams dismissed demands for a call for a general strike as “ultra-leftist nonsense” and “unrealistic” (Kelley, p331 and Walsh, p190). Confrontations in Dublin between young people and the riot police was condemned by the Sinn Fein leadership as it could alienate the forces of constitutional nationalism (Reed, pp358-359). The significance of this is that it created a precedent for cooperation and not confrontation between the forces of republicanism and those of constitutional nationalism, and would open the door to an increasing drift towards reformism.
After four years of living under increasingly intolerable conditions created by the blanket and dirty protests, the prisoners launched a hunger strike in the autumn of 1980. In December 1980, with one prisoner near death, the British government appeared to accede to the prisoners’ demands. The prisoners were presented with a document of the government’s concessions and the strike was ended. However, in January 1981, the British government reneged on the concessions and resumed criminalisation. A new hunger strike began on the 1 March 1981, exactly five years after the withdrawal of Special Category Status, led by IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands.
It would be a mistake to think that what was at stake during the hunger strikes was fundamentally a ‘humanitarian’ issue or some problem about clothes, although some tried to present it that way. What was at stake was a political and not a humanitarian question. Bobby Sands wrote on 1 March 1981: “I am a political prisoner. I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.”
This hunger strike, which focused world attention on the situation in Ireland, resulted in the death of ten prisoners between May and August 1981: Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara died in May, Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson died in July, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine died in August. Seven of the hunger strikers belonged to the IRA and three to the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The hunger strikes ended when, in October 1981, with mounting pressure on the prisoners’ families from the Catholic church, some of the families gave permission to administer food to the remaining hunger strikers after they lapsed into unconsciousness (David Beresford, Ten Men Dead, London: Grafton, 1987).
After the hunger strikes, the prisoners were allowed their own clothes, education was substituted for prison work, and association (separation from other prisoners under their own officers) was conceded. ‘Special Category status’ was de facto conceded (see Laurence McKeown, Out of Time: Irish Republican Prisoners Long Kesh 1972-2000, Belfast: Beyond The Pale, 2001 for an excellent analysis of the experience of imprisonment from the prisoners’ point of view).
During the hunger strikes, to increase the pressure, a number of prisoners ran as candidates during elections. In the April 1981 Fermanagh South Tyrone by elections, Bobby Sands standing as ‘Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner’ got elected with 30,492 votes against the UUP’s 29,046. There was an 86.9% turn out. The election of Bobby Sands to Westminster while he was on hunger strike disproved the British contention that the hunger strikers had little support. This was reinforced by the elections to the southern parliament in Dublin. A general election in the 26 counties in June 1981 saw the intervention of nine H Block candidates. They generated a total of 42,798 first preference votes, with Kieran Doherty elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew in Louth. Another hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, came within 400 votes of winning a seat. The hunger strikes elections accelerated and encouraged the Republican Movement’s drift into electoralism.
The 1981 hunger strike is now the subject of a serious historical revision. In 2005, Richard O Rawe, who was the number two IRA leader and Public Relations Officer in Long Kesh during the 1981 hunger strikes, published a controversial book called Blanketmen. According to O Rawe, at a key point after the death of four prisoners, the British government made a secret offer to end the hunger strike, which would have given the prisoners 80% of their demands. The prison leadership, including himself, accepted it. A message was sent out to Gerry Adams that the prisoners wanted to accept this deal. (O Rawe, pp180, 254).
O Rawe believes Adams overruled them because if the hunger strike continued and more people died, then this would provide a platform from which he would be able to launch an electoral strategy and to bring Sinn Fein into constitutional politics. As Ed Moloney points out: “Now, if Richard is right, it means essentially that Mrs Thatcher killed 4 hunger strikers but Gerry Adams killed six, and he killed six of his own colleagues, or he allowed six of his own colleagues to die in order to advance his political ambitions.”
In August 1981 Owen Carron standing for what had been Bobby Sands’ seat got elected with 31,278 votes to the UUP 29,048. Turn out was even higher with 88.6%. The fact that the hunger strikes had not been abandoned played a significant factor in his victory. “I tried time and again, I search for a counterbalancing argument to the charge that the republican leadership let hunger strikers die to get Carron elected” (O Rawe, p254).
While the reaction of the Adams leadership to those claims has been clumsy and contradictory, O Rawe’s account has drawn support from an increasing number of other independent sources (Moloney, 2007, pp571-572 and Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 2007, p530).
The way the British government dealt with the hunger strikes gave the Republican Movement a new lease of life on a scale not seen since Bloody Sunday. The mass movement which had been on the decline since 1972 experienced an upsurge. The 100,000 people who attended Bobby Sands’ funeral were an indication of the extent of the anger of ordinary nationalist people. However, at a security level, republicans were contained during the hunger strikes. During the entire seven months crisis (March to October) the Provisional IRA and the INLA combined managed to kill 30 members of the security forces – no more than they had been able to kill during the first seven months of 1977, at a time when the armed campaign was going into decline (Holland, 1999, p159). “In 1980-1981 the IRA was certainly not winning” (Bowyer Bell, 1997, p487).
The hunger strikers had a significant impact on a new generation. Today, the H-Block protests and hunger strikes are sometimes portrayed as the origins of the later peace process. However, it is striking “how far the original goals that the hunger strikers went to jail for in the first place are at variance with realpolitik at Stormont today. However, this hasn’t discouraged those who seek to bend and twist history in the interests of camouflaging the outcome of the Provisionals’ project” (McDonald, p108). The statement ending the hunger strike explicitly stated that alliances with constitutional nationalist forces were disastrous for republicanism and that elections had no impact. It pointed out that the experience of the hunger strikes showed the limitations of calling on political establishment and Church leaders to demand the British government make concessions. It showed that the British government would not respond to diplomatic protests and electoral successes. According to the prisoners, it proved that Fianna Fail, the SDLP and the rest of the broad campaign not only failed to put pressure on the British government, but actually played a central role in undermining the campaign (see the prisoners statement in “Why We Ended the Hunger Strikes”, AP/RN, 10 Oct 1981, pp12-13). These conclusions are far removed from the principles on which the peace process was based. This is why Richard English is absolutely right to note: “Despite much latter-day assumption about the inevitability of post-1981 republicanism moving in a Sinn Feinish, electoral direction, the prisoners at the time in fact drew, if anything, the opposite lesson. Close reading of the archival evidence undermines the (now popular) view that the 1981 experience pointed unambiguously towards the rewards which electoral politics and more conventional political methods offered” (English, pp205-6).
In 1981, the IRA’s stance regarding constitutional politics was “quite simple and clear cut…outside of a thirty-two county sovereign independent democracy, the IRA will have no involvement in what is loosely called constitutional politics” (“IRA attitude on elections”, AP/RN, 5 Sept 1981, p20). However, before the end of the decade, the organization would gradually become co-opted by means of “effective incorporation through the pressure of electoral considerations and clientelist expectations” (Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion: Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland, London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989, p192) into the very institutions it was supposed to overthrow.
The electoral successes during the hunger strikes convinced some in the movement that further electoral participation would be beneficial for the movement. Ironically, those who are credited with the electoral strategy (Adams et al) had initially opposed taking part in elections, such as the European elections of 1979 (Moloney, pp200-202). In November 1981, Danny Morrison made a speech in which he famously declared: “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if with a ballot paper in this hand, and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?” (“By ballot and bullet”, AP/RN November 5 1981, p2). The ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy was born.
The purpose of contesting elections and giving an increasingly important role to Sinn Féin was not in order to become some respectable constitutional party, but to introduce a new tactic in the anti-imperialist struggle. The use of the ballot box besides the Armalite was an indication of weakness. In 1984, Morrison admitted: “If the IRA was an absolutely huge well-armed guerrilla army there would probably be no need for electoral politics. Because in most revolutionary struggles going to the ballot box takes place at the conclusion, the successful conclusion, of the armed struggle. . . rather than in the middle of the guerrilla war, as is experimentally happening with the Republican Movement in the Six Counties” (“The IRA has to do what the IRA has to do”, Magill, September 1984).
The reasons advanced for electoral interventions were, first, that it showed that the national struggle was political, not criminal, in nature. It is difficult to label people as criminal when tens of thousands go out to vote for them. It also refuted the British government’s propaganda that the republicans were a small isolated group receiving no substantial support. It also destabilised constitutional nationalism. British strategy demanded the representation of the nationalist community in the north by constitutional nationalist parties like the Social Democratic and Labour Party and, by challenging its electoral monopoly, Sinn Féin was destabilising that political force and the government’s plans simultaneously. (This is made very clear in “Revolutionary politics”, AP/RN April 25 1985, p2. See also “Ballots and bombs: electoral tactics complement armed struggle”, AP/RN February 18 1982, p1.)
In October 1982, Sinn Fein’s 12 abstentionist candidates got 64,191votes and 5 seats (10.1%) compared to the SDLP’s 118,891 votes and 14 seats (18.8%). The gap between the two narrowed in the 1983 Westminster general elections, where Sinn Fein got 102,701 votes (13.4%) against 137,012 for the SDLP (17.9%). Adams got elected for West Belfast and Danny Morrison was nearly elected in Mid-Ulster, failing only by 78 votes. British cabinet minister James Prior stated publicly his fear that SF might displace the SDLP. As Smith records, “This admission was a sign of how far the governments in Ireland and Britain had been thrown back on the defensive. For the first time in the current phase of the Troubles they were faced with a counter-insurgency problem which extended beyond the bounds of a mere security provision. A situation where there was no nationalist majority for any form of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland threatened to have serious destabilizing influence, because the basis for an internal solution would be rendered untenable” (Smith, p162).
Displacing the SDLP as the majority nationalist party proved far more difficult than anticipated. In the 1984 elections to the European Parliament, John Hume’s 151,399 votes (22.1%) were much more impressive than Morrison’s 91,476 (13.3%). The fact was that SF had difficulties rising above its electoral ceiling of about one third of nationalist voters. Who voted Sinn Fein? The party brought out “a new vote” rather than traditional voters: “The figures show the biggest concentration of support was among the urban working class, particularly first-time voters and young men in working class areas, a category of people who normally do not vote in similar constituencies elsewhere in the western world. The party also picked up traditional rural republican votes from people who had until this time boycotted elections in the North” (Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin: The O Brien Press, 2002, p312; see also Patterson, p197).
SF portrayed itself as being socially radical and representing the interests of working class people, in contrast to the SDLP’s electoral pool of conservative, middle-aged and middle class voters. The Sinn Fein vote did not simply express support for the republican struggle. Sinn Fein built its credibility on the ground and built its vote through “community work”. It transformed party premises and former truce centres into advice centres. By 1983, it had 28 advice centres, in many areas where the SDLP had none (Feeney, p317).
The party was acting as agent for people having to deal with state bodies like the Department of Health and Social Security or the Housing Executive. “By 1984 Sinn Fein was established in the ghettoes of Belfast and Derry as the most efficient means of redress against the agencies of the state, with more advice bureau than the rest of the Northern Ireland political parties put together” (Bishop and Mallie, p412). But this means the Provisionals had to cooperate with institutions it was supposed to destroy. “What quickly became apparent was the parallel between the type of strategy adopted by Sinn Fein on the ground on issues like social security, housing and welfare and the same work carried out by Labour Party activists in London and elsewhere” (Gerry Adams, in Martin Collins, ed, p3). “All the talk of community politics and electoralism appeared to signify a slide into the sort of reformism of the despised Officials” (Smith, p152).
There was the danger of republican activists becoming “glorified social workers” and increasingly identifying with the state (Eamon Collins with Mick McGovern, Killing Rage, London: Granta, 1997, p221). In its election literature, Sinn Fein stated: “While working for the abolition of the system, Sinn Fein believes that working people should organise to wrest as many gains from the system as possible” (quoted in McDonald, p115). This would encourage the view that the state was not just a source of oppression, but also a source of income (Patterson, pp207-208). The next step was not just to cooperate, but to participate within the state (Kevin Bean, The New Politics of Sinn Fein, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).
From early on, there were people like Jimmy Drumm who were warning that “entering electoral politics could be the same slippery, some would say ‘sticky’ slope” (AP/RN 8 Nov 1981). However, Danny Morrison reassured the movement that tactical electoral intervention would not lead to constitutionalism and reformism: “Sinn Féin will be fighting the elections to consolidate republican support and build a revolutionary organisation which will defend the struggle, not a constitutional party to replace it.” The Provisional movement is not “going sticky”, “there is no parliamentary road to a united Ireland or socialism” and election results “cannot either prejudice the future or the primacy of armed struggle” (Morrison writing as Peter Arnlis, “The war will go on” AP/RN September 16 1982, pp6-7). This was a fundamental point of principle.
In 1984, Martin McGuinness stressed that it was “the combination of the Armalite and the ballot box” that would achieve victory, but made clear which was the weightier of the two:
“The Irish Republican Army offers the only resolution to the present situation. It is their disciplined, well directed war against British forces which will eventually bring Britain to withdraw. We know that elections, while important, … will not achieve a British withdrawal. If Sinn Féin were to win every election it contested, it would still not get an agreement on British withdrawal … We recognise the value and the limitations of electoral success. We recognise that only disciplined, revolutionary armed struggle by the IRA will end British rule” (“We will never be slaves again”, AP/RN June 28 1984, p7).
However during the 1980s, the IRA’s ability to wage war was constrained not just by external factors but also significantly by internal ones which arose from the electoral strategy and the fact that Sinn Fein was gradually having a position of equal status with the IRA within the Republican Movement. The pressure from the security forces increased with the new ‘supergrass’ system which proved devastating between December 1981 and 1986. Supergrasses were arrested members of subversive organisations who in return for leniency and financial rewards named associates. The supergrass system has been described as a more discriminating form of internment. More than 590 people were arrested from November 1981 to November 1983 based on the evidence of eighteen republican and seven loyalist supergrasses, a similar figure to the average number of internees from 1971 to 1975 (O’Duffy, p124).
The majority of IRA supergrasses came from Belfast and most of the remainder from Derry city. Supergrass evidence did not stand up at the appeal stage: between 1981 and 1986, 66 of the 75 (88 percent) appeals against convictions in supergrass trials were upheld because of an over-reliance on uncorroborated accomplice testimony. But this did not stop hundreds of alleged IRA members being detained for months or years. By April 1984, 477 were in jail based on the word of supergrasses. To measure the extent of this, it should be remembered that in terms of active IRA volunteers “from a peak of about 1000 activists in the mid-seventies the numbers declined to about 250 by the mid-eighties, a figure which has stayed constant” (Bishop and Mallie, p387). This had the effect of disrupting the organisation and spreading paranoia and distrust within its ranks and damaging their operational capacity.
For example, information from Christopher Black led to the arrest of 38 people, leaving only four active IRA volunteers in North Belfast (Holland, 1999, p185). In Derry, around 100 IRA and INLA members were arrested on Raymond Gilmour’s evidence, of whom 44 were charged with scheduled offences. Between 1981 and 1986, the number of security forces personnel killed by PIRA diminished annually. “The ability of the IRA to inflict casualties on the security forces declined steadily after the hunger strikes. In 1981, 44 members of the police, army and UDR died at the hands of the IRA, in 1982 40, and the following year 33. In 1984 it fell again to 28. It rose again to 29 in 1985, but the downward trend reasserted itself in 1986 when it dropped to 24” (Bishop and Mallie, p416).
The death toll for the security forces in urban areas dropped dramatically, IRA actions becoming increasingly confined to rural locations and to ‘soft targets’ like off-duty RUC and UDR members. In 1983 and 1984 the Belfast IRA, once the cockpit of the organization accounted for only 11 of the IRA’s 95 victims (Moloney, p243). Over a period of two years, until June 1985, the IRA managed to detonate only one large bomb in Belfast city centre (Holland, 1999, p205). This was a far cry from the first half of the 1970s, when the bombing campaign against commercial property had led to the destruction of almost one quarter of the total Belfast city centre floor space (Peter Shirlow, ed, Development Ireland, London: Pluto Press, 1995, p86) and at one stage only 20 of Derry’s 150 shops were left standing (Taylor, 1998, p158).
The year 1985, with 54 deaths, had the lowest death toll since the Troubles began. It would have been even lower had the IRA not succeeded in killing 9 RUC officers during a mortar attack on a police station in Newry on 28 February, the highest loss of life for the RUC on a single day. During this period, attacks on Britain continued sporadically, the most significant being on 20 July 1982 when two members of the Household Cavalry and seven of their horses were killed in an explosion while performing ceremonial duties in Hyde Park while another device exploded at the same time in Regents Park killing seven bandsmen from the Royal Green Jackets as they played music to spectators.
Security forces were becoming increasingly efficient and aggressive. The killing of IRA members and the discovery of IRA arms dumps in this period was far from rare, giving rise to fears of high level infiltration. Between December 1984 and April 1985, for instance, no less than thirteen IRA members were killed in action, nine at SAS stakeouts, two in incidents involving explosives, and one, Sean McIlvenna – the Director of Operations in the North – was killed in Armagh (Clarke, p228). By comparison, the number of British soldiers killed was 5 in 1983, 9 in 1984, 2 in 1985 and 4 in 1986. Even though the cumulative number of British soldiers killed then had reached 386, more than half of those had been killed in the years 1971 to 1973 (Brendan O Brien, The Long War: The IRA & Sinn Fein, Dublin: The O Brien Press, third revised and updated edition, 1999, p135). Indeed during the whole of the 1980s, they killed fewer British soldiers than they had in 1972!
In the same period, there was a serious shortage of effective modern weapons capable of escalating the conflict. The vital US arms networks, which supplied up to 80 percent of IRA weapons up until the mid-1980s, had been largely infiltrated and broken up by the FBI, resulting in a huge shipment of arms being discovered abroad the Marita Anne off the Kerry coast in 1984. This was a double blow to IRA operations because about three quarters of the cash raised in America stayed in that country to purchase weapons.
Financial difficulties compelled the Army Council to authorise a number of high profile kidnappings in the south, of supermarket executives Galen Weston, Ben Dunne and Don Tidey, as well as a racehorse, Shergar. Unconfirmed reports say those yielded 1.5 million pounds. If IRA General Army Order no.8 forbade military actions “against 26 county forces under any circumstances whatsoever” the Don Tidey kidnapping ended with a major confrontation with 26 county forces and the death of a garda and soldier on 16 December 1983. The next day, on 17 December an IRA bomb at Harrods killed 8 people and injured 80 in the midst of Christmas shopping. This series of incidents had catastrophic effects on public opinion, particularly in the 26 counties and internationally, and negative in electoral terms (O Brien, pp121-122). This indicated a contradiction between the Armalite and the Ballot Box, a tension admitted by Danny Morrison in a 1984 interview (“The IRA has to do what the IRA has to do”, Magill, September 1984). The armed struggle was damaging electoral prospects.
Moreover, the election drive was a heavy drain on manpower and financial resources. “The propaganda effort expended during the hunger strikes cost the IRA £100,000 and the 1983 general elections campaign cost Sinn Fein £30,000. In addition, by 1983, it had to find £300,000 each year to finance the thirty advice centres. At the same time the need to court the electorate meant that overt criminal activities like robbing banks and post offices, used to finance the movement in the past, would have to be curtailed” (Bishop and Mallie, pp391-392).
Resources invested in elections could not be used for armed struggle. This led Ivor Bell and a group of others to suspect that “the campaign of violence was being turned on and off to suit the electoral needs of Sinn Fein” rather than the other way around (Kevin Rafter, Sinn Fein 1905-2005: In the Shadow of Gunmen, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2005, p195). He had been OC Belfast, OC Northern Command, Adjutant General, member of the Army Council, Chief of Staff and Director of Operations (O Brien, pp129-132). This section of opinion argued that “the fact that Sinn Fein had been allowed to grow showed that the current leadership was, at best, inept and, at worst, on the verge of ending the military campaign, albeit by stealth. They said that the present leadership obviously felt that the easiest way of ending the war was by using Sinn Fein: the best resources would be directed into Sinn Fein, thus slowly neutralizing the IRA” (Collins with McGovern, p220).
In May 1985, they were court-martialled and expelled (Moloney, pp242-245 and Alonso, pp123ff).
The use of the ballot box besides the armed struggle was not an innovation of the Adams leadership. Electoral tactics were nothing new. The IRA had used elections long before there was any talk of “armalite and ballot box strategy”. Bell’s fundamental objection was that Adams had introduced electoralism, that is the use of the struggle to advance electoral gains. There was growing evidence of a move in that direction.
In 1982, all Sinn Fein local election candidates had to sign a republican declaration giving unequivocal support to armed struggle: “All candidates in national and local elections and all campaign material must be unambiguous in support of the armed struggle” (AP/RN, 4 November 1982). Adams once said that if SF took the “unprecedented and unimaginable step of repudiating the legitimate armed struggle of the IRA, you would be looking for another president” (AP/RN, 7 Nov 1985, p11). But after the British government introduced legislation making it compulsory for anyone standing to reject proscribed organisations or illegal activities, the 1989 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis authorised councillors to sign up to this ‘anti violence’ declaration. So when it comes to choose between votes and expressing support for the armed struggle of the IRA, the party chose electoralism (White, 1993, pp162-163).
Finally, the logic of electoralism was such that there would be pressure for Sinn Fein to broaden its electoral appeal and become a ‘catch all’ nationalist party if it was to expand. In the longer term, the republican baggage would become expendable and the IRA would become a “political liability” (Feeney, p428). This is why it can be argued that the 1974 legalisation of Sinn Fein was a conscious attempt by the British state to create a wedge within the movement and draw it into constitutional politics (Reed, p407). Eamon Collins suggested in the 1980s that to encourage the development of Sinn Fein was the best way to defeat the IRA (Collins with McGovern, pp295-296).
In March 1983, a by-election victory had given Sinn Fein its first seat in a local council in the North since the 1920s. In April 1985, SF took part in local elections and put up 91 candidates in 17 of the 26 district councils. Sinn Fein won 59 seats with 75,686 votes (11.8%). An editorial in An Phoblacht promised: “Within the councils of the Six Counties, Sinn Fein elected representatives will challenge the basis of the state itself and that is why they are seen as a threat both by the Loyalists and by the so-called ‘Constitutional Nationalists’” (“No Illusions”, AP/RN 2 May 1985, p1). In theory, the republican objective was to overthrow the northern state. That was what the IRA armed struggle was about. But while the IRA was bombing and destroying the City Hall as a symbol of the state, Sinn Fein councillors were de facto accepting the state and trying to make it work.
As Eamon Collins noted, “the IRA would blow up your windows and Sinn Fein would mend them for you (or at least pressurize the Housing Executive to do so). The armed struggle was contradicting, not enhancing, the political struggle, and vice-versa” (Collins with McGovern, pp230-231). This is the point of “Riding Two Horses” (Clarke, p221). Rather than providing an alternative structure to the state as Adams had earlier envisaged in his jail writings, Sinn Fein was now susceptible to cooption by the state (Bean, 2007).
A few years later, it was evident that Sinn Fein’s attitude towards the state had evolved: “As one Sinn Fein councillor observed, ‘the loyalists and the council officials were genuinely apprehensive of Sinn Fein in the council chamber, but within a short period of time they saw that we were genuine and reasonable’” (“Advancing Under Attack – Sinn Fein In The Council Chambers”, AP/RN 2 March 1989, pp8-9). Sinn Féin councillors had “rightly received admiration. . . . from many quarters. . . and a grudging respect. . . from a hostile media and the government agencies, all of whom are in daily contact with Sinn Féin at every level” (ibid). That is because when it came to running city councils, there were practically no differences between Sinn Fein and the (other) constitutionalist parties.
Mairtin O Muilleor, a well-known Belfast Sinn Fein councillor, admitted that, “When it comes to ‘bins, bodies and bogs’ (the normal issues at council meetings) we are only a few degrees to the left of the SDLP” (“Broadening the Base”, AP/RN 30 June 1988, p3).
“The approach of the Sinn Fein councillors was by and large to work the system. In Fermanagh, where there was a clear Nationalist majority, for instance, they declined to second an IIP motion banning the flying of the Union Jack on council property and in Omagh, where a mix-up in Unionist voting gave Sinn Fein’s Seamus Kerr the chair, they went out of their way to avoid confrontation. In Derry, where one Sinn Fein councillor, Gerry Doherty, had last entered the Guildhall with a bomb in 1972, a motion calling for the selling off of council-owned Orange memorabilia for charity was tactfully withdrawn once the point was made” (Clarke, p219).
Brendan O Brien, who cannot be suspected of Republican or left-wing sympathies was one of the first who recognized the significance of this process: “In the 1970s, abstentionist Republicans would never have considered ‘recognising’ Belfast City Hall. It was the bastion of Unionism and of the British state. The Republican Movement would have none of it. They would insist on abstaining from the state until Britain was forced out through the IRA campaign. . . . By 1993 Sinn Fein had ten seats at Belfast City Hall and were looking ahead to a nationalist majority on the council. They were claiming it as their own, despite the Union Jack flying overhead and all the symbols of Unionism and Empire inside. This would have far-reaching implications for a movement which regarded itself, not just as Republican but revolutionary. They were joining the system, not tearing it down” (O Brien, pp47-49; Collins with McGovern, chapter 15).
Another contradiction is that while the IRA considered the judiciary as legitimate targets – 8 were to die at their hands including 3 judges, 4 magistrates and one official working at the office of Director of Public Prosecution – republicans were using the courts and judicial reviews to challenge Unionists who were refusing to give Sinn Fein councillors seats on committees. “Republicans exploit the system they oppose,” noted David McKittrick (David McKittrick, Endgame: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1994, p248).
The most spectacular IRA operation of the decade happened on 16 October 1984, when a bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher and most of her cabinet were staying for the Conservative Party annual conference. Five members of the Conservative Party were killed and the prime minister narrowly escaped death. As a result of the combined effects of the Brighton bomb and the rise of SF as an electoral force, the British state and the Dublin government led a number of initiatives to boost up constitutional nationalism, first the New Ireland Forum and later the Hillsborough Agreement. The Hillsborough Agreement was to curtail the rise in support for Sinn Fein and secure the position of the SDLP. Northern nationalists were broadly supportive of the Agreement. Figures for 1985 violence were the lowest since 1970. The impact of the Hillsborough treaty, improved anti-insurgency tactics, the impact of informers and the supergrass trials, exhaustion and the needs of Sinn Fein had eroded IRA offensive capacity (Bowyer Bell, 1997, p561).
The loss of political impetus was a source of concern for the Provisionals. One source admitted the movement’s “lack of ability to influence political events against a background of the Hillsborough Agreement” and added “as an organization we have not been able to come to terms with the reality of the effects of Hillsborough within the Nationalist community” (quoted in Smith, p190). The Provisionals’ reaction to the Hillsborough Agreement was “double-edged” and ambiguous. (Murray and Tonge, p147). This is evident from a Gerry Adams interview at the time. On one hand, he rejected it as “it institutionalises the British presence and pledges Dublin’s formal recognition of the six county state, partition, the loyalist veto and the British connection”. On the other, he welcomed it for its “concessions to improve the quality of life for nationalists in the six counties” (“London-Dublin Accord – what next?”, AP/RN, 12 December 1985, pp4-5). “This was an implicit acceptance by Republicans that their activities could quite readily dynamise a reformist thrust” (Anthony McIntyre, “Modern Irish Republicanism: the Product of British State Strategies”, Irish Political Studies, 10, 1995, p111).
As Smith notes: “trying to claim credit for concessions to improve a system which the movement always said needed to be destroyed came dangerously close to undermining the argument that the Northern state was irreformable. There was some internal’s criticism of Provisional Sinn Fein’s confused position of on the one hand opposing the Hillsborough Agreement but at the same time trying to claim credit for the benefits which might arise from it” (Smith, pp174-175).
The IRA, unlike its response to Sunningdale, even stated that its operations were not specifically aimed against the Agreement (AP/RN 12 December 1985). This dual attitude shows that the republican struggle was now not just about destroying the northern state but to generate reforms within it. The consequences of this are important. “The evolving tension between these two responses -rejecting partitionism, but welcoming concessions as a result of republican action- was to define the ambiguous nature of republican politics during subsequent years” (English, p242).
With difficulties in the north caused by Hillsborough, there was pressure to drop abstentionism in the south. Sinn Fein had already participated in local, national and European elections south of the border with varying degrees of success. The first post-1969 elections the party contested were the 1974 local elections south of the border, where 26 councillors were elected, a 100 percent increase (Murray and Tonge, p71). In 1979, the party got 29,798 votes and had 28 candidates elected to 30 seats. In June 1985, it won 45,054 votes and elected 36 candidates to 39 seats. In February 1982, for the first time in 20 years, SF put seven candidates in elections to the Dail. But the vote dropped to only half of what prisoners had polled in 1981, with a total of 16,894 first preference votes (1.2%). In European elections, it achieved a respectable performance in 1984 with 54,672 votes, 4.8%. If the party took part in elections, the republican attitude to the state, however, was attempting to develop an “alternative power structure”: “This was the essence of what the then Sinn Fein president Ruairi O Bradaigh called ‘dual power’, that is, alternative revolutionary power structures running alongside state structures, with the intent of subverting or overthrowing them” (O Brien, p49).
In July 1983 Ruairi O Bradaigh brought out a document entitled A Strategy for Contesting Parliamentary Elections in the 26 Counties. “Overall, he warned against attempting to win small numbers of seats and then entering Dail Eireann: the objective must be to bring down Dail Eireann, never to enter it. All those who tried that route in the past, he said, got sucked into and became part of the colonial or neo-colonial system: ‘A big and successful heave to topple and replace is what is needed rather than tinkering with the existing system.’ In advance of that, he argued the Republican Movement should set up alternative structures, alternative machinery of government. . . This means the creation of a dual power situation which is the essence of revolution.’ Dual power is the key he said” (O Brien, p114).
A section of the movement believed that Sinn Fein would increase its vote south of the border if abstentionism and the dual power strategy were dropped. But this caused a problem: “Once that concept was abandoned, Sinn Fein were inexorably on the road to ‘joining’ the system” (O Brien, p49). “It might be argued that Adams and his supporters were correct to abandon the outdated principles of former times. But these had an immense practical significance in Republican history. The abstentionist principle and the allegiance to the First Dail were the very things which kept Republicanism alive in the South during lean years between the Civil War and the 1960s. Republicanism meant nothing to the Southern Republicans, who had kept the faith while the North was dormant, without the principle of abstentionism” (Walsh, p240). This is why, when elected as president of Sinn Fein, Adams had stated: “On the question of Leinster House, we are an abstentionist party, it is not my intention to advocate a change in this situation.” He promised the delegates that he was not “about to lead you into Leinster House” (Gerry Adams, Presidential Address, AP/RN 17 November 1983, pp8-9). The issue was delicate, as it had led to the formation of the movement. But by 1987 he stated that he was “sorry that abstentionism wasn’t dropped years ago” (AP/RN, 26 February 1987). Just before Adams succeeded him as president of Sinn Fein, Ruairi O Bradaigh declared: “No splits or splinters – long may it remain so provided we stick by our basic principles” (AP/RN 17 Nov 83). But those ‘basic principles’ – are they really principles or are they just tactics?
The main argument used by the Adams leadership to abandon abstentionism was that it was not a principle, but a ‘tactic’. The question was not new. At its 1975 Ard Fheis, Sinn Fein debated recognition of the courts: was it a tactic, or was it a principle? (“A review of Ard Fheis ’75”, An Phoblacht, 7 November 1975, p3). This is sometimes presented as a matter of ‘pragmatism’ and recognizing realities. The pragmatism thesis states that under the Adams leadership, the rule book of Irish republicanism was fundamentally rewritten, ideological purity was jettisoned in favour of electoral advancement: “The trade-off has been between a position of principle combined with isolation or opting for pragmatism married to political success. In the ‘era of pragmatism’, the Adams leadership ensured which choice was made” (Rafter, p5). The problem with this characterisation is that it tends to confuse pragmatism and opportunism.
Pragmatism is about temporarily setting aside a minor ideal to achieve some higher ideal. Opportunism is abandoning some important political principles in the process of trying to increase one’s political power and influence. With pragmatism, there is unity between means and ends; with opportunism, political means have become ends in themselves and the original relation between means and ends is lost. Political circumstances change and so do tactics, but tactical flexibility is still connected to the strategic goals of the programme. Only when tactics are applied in a manner that undermines the realization of strategic aims can they be said to be unprincipled. The confusion of principles and tactics opens the road to opportunism. “The record of the Adams era shows that everything in the republican code is now a tactic. . . He has displayed a total disregard for traditional republican dogma and has refused to be hamstrung by historical principles like abstentionism and decommissioning. . .” (Rafter, p242).
On the issue of abstentionism, according to O Bradaigh: “Discussing going into Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster is as foreign and as alien as that the IRA would sit down and discuss surrender of arms” (AP/RN 17 Nov 83). Rafter comments: “In the mid-1980s, O Bradaigh may not have guessed at how accurate his crystal-ball gazing would be. But just over a decade later, Sinn Fein would indeed take seats in all but the Westminster parliament, while the IRA would sanction two acts of decommissioning before ordering an end to its armed campaign in July 2005” (Rafter, p122).
Dropping abstentionism in the context of Leinster House was sold as a tactic and something which would benefit the movement electorally, however abstention from Stormont or Westminster grass roots were told, was a matter of principle. Denying that the current leadership “are intent on edging the republican movement on to a constitutional path”, Martin McGuiness then declared: “I can give a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont. . . Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved. . . We will lead you to the Republic” (The Politics Of Revolution: the main speeches and debates from the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis including the presidential address of Gerry Adams, Dublin, 1986, pp26-27).
Eight years later, the ‘war against British rule’ was over, and five years after that Martin McGuiness was a British Minister of Education in the Stormont assembly. This again was sold as a ‘tactic’. Today Mitchell McLaughlin argues that Sinn Fein has a policy of abstention from Westminster not because it is a fundamental republican principle, but because “there was no strategic value in going to Westminster” (Murray and Tonge, p228).
There is also an argument that dropping abstentionism south of the border was about ‘recognising realities’, coming to terms with the fact that the majority of the population south of the border recognizes Leinster House as legitimate (English, p252). But if it is right to drop abstentionism south of the border because a majority recognizes Leinster House as legitimate, why not then do the same in the north as well? The argument was inconsistent (Alonso, p122).
Abstentionism was a fundamental point of principle, it was the main reason why the Provisional Republican Movement had been formed. “Once this principle was banished, Republican ideology became more vulnerable to dilution by outside forces” (Smith, p171). O Bradaigh argued that one cannot ride a horse going in two opposite directions. Revolutionary politics and constitutionalism are incompatible (White, 2006, pp289/290, 337/338, 341/342). O Bradaigh’s fundamental point is this: “How can we claim to be a revolutionary organisation if we take part in the institutions of the state which we oppose?” (White, 2006, p298). “mm”
If one does take part, this will give rise to deep inconsistencies. There is a fundamental contradiction between accepting the legitimacy of a state, of its laws and institutions, the constitutional system and the rules of parliamentarism and agreeing to operate within their framework and armed insurrectionary politics dedicated to overthrowing them. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern pointed out in October 2004 “our Constitution states there can be (only) one Oglaigh na hEireann. At the moment there are two.” One is the official name of the army of the Twenty Six counties state, the other the illegal IRA (O’Leary, p 219). One cannot accept that the state has the monopoly of legitimate force and at the same time have links to an illegal army refusing to recognise the legitimacy of two governments and ready to kill the servants of both. This generates a problem of divided loyalty which will lead to tensions and inconsistencies, particularly so in regards to the armed forces of the state – notably illustrated in the case of the 1996 killing of Garda McCabe. It is inevitable that people will have to choose either one or the other.
In 1986 when dropping abstentionism, the Provisionals promised: “If there is, by some unforeseen chance, a clash between them (gardai) and the IRA, our public position in Leinster House on such a clash would be the same public position had we never crossed the floor” (AP/RN, 6 November 1986, p2). At the same time the Provisional Army stated: “IRA no threat to the 26cos” (AP/RN, 3 December 1987, p4). However, in a 2002 television interview, Adams stated that the Irish army and the gardai were the only legitimate armed forces: “We are very, very clear in terms of our recognition and acceptance and support for the Garda Siochana as the only legitimate policing service in the State and also in terms of the legitimacy of the Defence Forces as the only legitimate force” (Adams interview with Kevin Rafter, This Week, RTE, 24 February 2002).
As to going into the state to overthrow the state, historical experience shows that it is the system that transforms revolutionaries rather than vice-versa. Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Sean Mac Bride, Cathal Goulding or Gerry Adams might not be insincere or corrupt individuals, but they all became part of the system they originally opposed. More seriously, former revolutionaries once in the state machine will not hesitate to turn on their former comrades who questioned their choices (Murray and Tonge, pp159-162).
In 1986, the IRA held its first Army Convention since 1970. In order to guarantee the endorsement of the motion to remove abstentionism, the Adams leadership packed the Convention with delegates representing ‘paper units’. Later that year, the process was repeated at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on 2 November 1986, with the decision to end abstentionism taken by 429 votes to 161, just eleven votes over the two third majorities required (Moloney, 2007, pp296-297 and White, 2006, pp309-310).
This led to the walk out of Ruairi O Bradaigh, Daithi O Conaill and their supporters who then set up Republican Sinn Fein. According to section 1b of the Sinn Fein constitution in 1986, proposals supporting entry into Leinster House were banned. Before the Adams leadership put forward a motion to enter Leinster House, they needed to change section 1b by a majority vote. They did not do so, thus breaking the existing Sinn Fein constitution and rules. The traditionalists claim that they did not split and form a new party – they kept the old one intact. (The word ‘Republican’ was added to emphasise the republican beliefs of the party.) It was Adams and the others who broke away from Sinn Fein, not them. This may sound very proceduralist, but RSF’s point is that people should not place themselves above organizational rules and regulations.
Most of those who served in the first Provisional Army Council and party executive followed O Bradaigh in 1986 (White, 1993, p157). History was coming “full circle”, a minority had once again walked out. Because of the split, Sinn Fein lost three councillors in the north and three in the south. For his part, “Adams accomplished in 1986 what Goulding failed to achieve in 1969” (Moloney, p72). The Adams leadership argued that this time was different from 1969, as they were committed to increasing the armed struggle (The Politics Of Revolution, p11).
Interestingly, it emerged that Adams had remained with the Officials during the 1970 walk out (Moloney, 2007, pp72-73, White, 2006, p300). There are no indications that he thought the political direction they were taking was wrong, but had reservations on the timing. When he later joined the Provisionals, Billy McKee was suspicious of him and thought he was a Sticky plant (Moloney, 2007, p99).
The Adams leadership was particularly sensitive about being called ‘sticks’ (Collins with McGovern, pp231-232). Trying to frame the debate about abstentionism in terms of “fundamentalism” versus “pragmatism”, “modernisers” versus “traditionalists”, or “purism” versus “new realism” is fundamentally wrong (Murray and Tonge, pp 156-159). The 1986 debate was not about dogmatism versus realism. It was fundamentally about whether the constitutional road and the revolutionary road, about whether the movement was transforming itself from a revolutionary movement into another political party seeking votes at all costs. The movement would lose its distinctiveness and become just another party.
As MLR Smith notes: “For all RSF’s dogmatism and seeming concern for the preservation of the idealism of the past over progress in the present, some of the more practical arguments RSF levelled against the Provisionals’ electoral strategy were valid. . . Inextricably, they would be drawn into the system of wheeler-dealing which would eventually result in the implicit acceptance of all the panoply of state apparatus they despised: the police, the courts, security cooperation with Britain etc. O Bradaigh put it in this way: ‘They will be signing their own extinction as revolutionaries not because they want to but because it cannot be otherwise.’ The bottom line was that. . . ‘You cannot ride two horses at the same time’” (Smith, p171).
Adams stated then: “We are not engaged in any new departure” (Adams, 1986, p160). As journalist Brendan O Brien notes, by beginning to abandon the high ground of the Republic for the practical acceptance of partitionist institutions, the movement was “Going Slightly Constitutional”.
The first casualty was socialism. “After the Ard Fheis, there was an immediate scaling down of Sinn Fein’s electoral predictions and its left-wing rhetoric. The keynote in both was provided by Adams who asserted that although it was the duty of the left to support Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein was not itself a socialist organisation” (Clarke, p239). At the time of the hunger strike there was an influx of far left people who hoped they could push SF to the left. Adams was weary of this: “We must be mindful of the dangers of ultra-leftism and remember at all times that while our struggle has a major social and economic content, the securing of Irish independence is the pre-requisite for the advance to a socialist republican society. Therefore. . . Republicans have a duty to beware of any tendencies which would narrow our demands and our base. This is true not only of forces outside our movement but also of tendencies within our party” (Gerry Adams, Presidential Address, APRN 17 November 1983, pp8-9).
This was to lead soon to the conclusion: “The republican struggle should not at this stage of its development style itself ‘socialist republican’. This would imply that there is no place in it for non-socialists” (Adams, 1986, p132). The danger is this: “This inevitably must narrow the potential support base of the Republican movement and enable other movements to claim that they are ‘republican’ though they are not socialist; for example Fianna Fail or the SDLP” (Gerry Adams, Signposts to Independence and Socialism, Dublin: Republican Publications, 1988, p13).
In an article about politics and theory, Danny Morrison stated that the Republican Movement should not become a “Marxist Esperanto Club” (Patterson, p198). The recognition of Leinster House would put an end to hopes of moving SF to the left and “upgrade socialist content of the programme” (Anthony McIntyre and Mickey McMullen, An Reabhloid, volume 1 number 2, Autumn 1988). When asked whether a vote for SF is a vote for socialism, Adams replied: “I don’t think socialism is on the agenda at all at this stage except for political activists of the left” (“What’s on the agenda now is an end to partition”, The Irish Times, 10 December 1986 p13). Social and economic policies which were too radical for the electorate where thrown out (Sarah Burke and Vincent Browne, “The Taming of Sinn Fein”, Village Magazine, 2006).
The best example was abortion. When in 1980, a women’s department was formed within Sinn Fein, it had rather conservative policies (Kelley, p321). With the growth of a feminist lobby within Sinn Fein, at the 1985 Ard Fheis a motion to support a woman’s right to chose was passed by a handful of votes (AP/RN 10 Nov 1985). In electoral terms, this was a no-winner, so the party reversed that position in 1986 (AP/RN, 16 Oct 1986). This had less to do with abortion being immoral or wrong than the opportunistic reason that it would go badly with the southern electorate in general and conservative nationalists in particular, and prevent the party getting more votes. (On the education, divorce, abortion, and women issues see Walsh, pp244-247 and McDonald, pp55-56).
The next target was not Socialism, but Republicanism itself: “We need to avoid ultra-republican positions” (Adams, 1988, p16). If the movement’s republicanism was too orthodox, it might not appeal to people who are simply nationalists. Ultimately, Sinn Fein would abandon republicanism altogether to maximize the nationalist agenda. Republicanism was gradually diluted into nationalism. The fact that abstentionism was dropped meant it was more acceptable to make appeals to Free State constitutional nationalist parties.
“What is needed is a strategy to bring the greatest possible number of people into the process of struggle. Since at this stage the majority of nationalists look to constitutional nationalism for their political leadership, this requires placing pressure on constitutional politicians to take up and defend the interests of the people they claim to represent” (Gerry Adams, Pathway, p62).
This meant not just Fianna Fail, seen by the Provisionals as their political “first cousin” (Murray and Tonge, p179), but “even Fine Gael retains its Michael Collins tendency and sections of the Labour Party have an anti-imperialist instinct” (Adams, Pathway p37). Five years earlier, the republican leadership had denounced any such move as “disastrous, because from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael can only come a dilution of the nationalist aspiration, which could be further diluted under the pressure of Loyalist and British demands” (“Fighters Against the British presence”, AP/RN, 7 April 1983, p3). The republican view was “that the two parties merely constitute two different brands of Free Statism, both with the same pro-British and partitionist message” (“Different brands of Free Statism – Same Message”, AP/RN 21 March 1981).
Adams argued that the demand for self determination was “vigorously diluted and undermined by ‘constitutional’ nationalists” (“London-Dublin Accord: What Next?”, AP/RN 12 December 1985, p5). “There can be no such thing as an Irish nationalist accepting the loyalist veto and partition. You cannot claim to be an Irish nationalist if you consent to an internal six-county settlement and if you are willing to negotiate the state of Irish society with a foreign government” (“The Summit’s Depths”, AP/RN 22 November 1984, p2).
After the dropping of abstentionism, the movement also sought to have a common approach with its main election and political rival, the SDLP (Adams, Pathway, p73). Already during the electoral campaigns for the Assembly in 1982 and the British general election in 1983, the Provisionals, while stressing the clearly defined hostility between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, were also making appeals for nationalist unity against the British government. In 1983, Danny Morrison had urged discussions on how to “secure maximum nationalist successes” (AP/RN 28 April 1983) and Sinn Fein called for an electoral pact with the SDLP during the 1983 Westminster elections (Murray and Tonge, pp124, 164).
By tending to blur the distinction between the terms of nationalism and republicanism, the Provisionals were eliding a previously mutually irreconcilable hostility between constitutional nationalism and physical force republicanism. This involved a gradual shift towards a shared ‘nationalist agenda’. If in 1981 the SDLP were castigated as “an amalgamation of middle class Redmondites devoid of principle, direction and courage” (“Why We Ended the Hunger Strikes”, AP/RN, 10 Oct 1981, pp12-13), by 1988 Sinn Fein was stating that “rather than denouncing the party, republicans should take a constructive approach with the SDLP” (“Broadening the Base”, AP/RN 30 June 1988, p3). For that reason, between January and September 1988, representatives of Sinn Fein and the SDLP held a series of four meetings which at the time ended in disagreement (Murray and Tonge, pp166-170).
“A simple but fundamental point that few paid attention at the time was that Sinn Fein wanted to cooperate with the SDLP and the Irish government” (Feeney, pp356-357) rather than oppose them as previously. This could only but seriously weaken republicanism’s anti-partitionist thrust, as those elements have always been much more hostile to the IRA than to British involvement in Ireland.