The New IRA and socialist-republicanism in the twenty-first century

At the end of July, several different republican military currents came together, following a period of co-operation and months of discussions.  The currents involved are the Real IRA, the Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs, and independent groups of armed republicans.  The merged organisation has adopted the name Irish Republican Army, picking up the baton abandoned by the Provisionals.  The New IRA promises to wage armed struggle against the British state, including its six-county component, until the British government is forced to the negotiating table and agrees a schedule for withdrawal from Ireland.

The organisation announced its formation in a statement shown to Guardian reporter Henry McDonald.  McDonald was driven from Derry to an isolated road in Donegal, where he was handed the statement, took it down on his notepad and then the original statement was burned!  Below is the statement as published in the Guardian – it is what McDonald took down, presumably word for word, before the original was burned:

Following extensive consultations, Irish republicans and a number of organisations involved in armed actions against the armed forces of the British crown have come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army.

The leadership of the Irish Republican Army remains committed to the full realisation of the ideals and principles enshrined in the Proclamation of 1916.

In recent years the establishment of a free and independent Ireland has suffered setbacks due to the failure among the leadership of Irish nationalism and fractures within republicanism. The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed. Instead the Irish people have been sold a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont.

Non-conformist republicans are being subjected to harassment, arrest and violence by the forces of the British crown; others have been interned on the direction of an English overlord. It is Britain, not the IRA, which has chosen provocation and conflict.

The IRA’s mandate for armed struggle derives from Britain’s denial of the fundamental right of the Irish people to national self-determination and sovereignty – so long as Britain persists in its denial of national and democratic rights in Ireland the IRA will have to continue to assert those rights.

The necessity of armed struggle in pursuit of Irish freedom can be avoided through the removal of the British military presence in our country, the dismantling of their armed militias and the declaration of an internationally observed timescale that details the dismantling of British political interference in our country.

Signed Army Council, IRA.


My comments:

The emergence of the New IRA raises a number of critical questions.  Given that all the firepower of the Provos could not, after almost three decades, shift the British state, what chance does the New IRA have of doing so?  Is it possible for a military-led struggle in a tiny area like the six counties even to make any serious progress?  Is a military response to the betrayal of those who called the shots in the Provisionals any way forward?  Given that militarism in Ireland has always led to collapse and disaster, is it even part of the answer?  Now we’re in the twentieth century, isn’t it time to just move on and forget about any sort of IRA, just as the Fenians moved on from the Young Ireland movement and Connolly moved on from the Fenians?

Over the next few months this blog will be trying to develop an analysis of what socialist-republicans need to take forward in this new century and what we need to discard.  The discussion will include a number of people in different left-republican organisations, along with independent revolutionary activists.

To start things off, here’s what I think is decisive:

  1. The national question, although it currently moves only a small section of the Irish people, remains absolutely central to any serious struggle for human liberation in Ireland.  Socialism can’t exist in one country, let alone a fraction of a country!
  2. Only the working class can lead the national struggle because only the working class has nothing to lose but its exploited and oppressed state; conversely, the working class can’t free itself without freeing Ireland.
  3. The British state won’t withdraw from Ireland unless it is forced to do so, and neither are the ruling classes on both sides of the border likely to relinquish economic and political power; they will have to be expropriated.
  4. The British and Irish revolutions are bound up together.  It’s inconceivable that the struggle for national liberation and socialism in Ireland could be victorious without a massive political-social crisis in Britain that crippled the British ruling class.  While most of the British left haven’t got a clue about ‘the Irish question’ and simply can’t be relied on when the going gets tough, it’s unlikely such currents would survive even the beginnings of a massive class shake-up in Britain; new, harder left formations would begin to emerge.  In the meantime, it’s vital for Irish revolutionaries to ‘feel out’ the ground in Britain in terms of building political support networks based around class fighters.
  5. Militarism is an absolute dead-end; not only can it not drive out the Brits but, when the guns are in charge, the politics are inevitably under-developed.  This means that when the military movement eventually needs a political wing, as it always must even at just the level of organising support for prisoners and publicising the armed cause, the politics that emerge cannot develop to the level required to meet the complex challenges of the Irish revolution.  Also, when the militarism becomes exhausted, as it always does, the lack of revolutionary politics mean that lowest common denominator politics replace the guns and bombs.  The result of militarism is disaster after disaster.  Militarism is not the opposite of reformism; it’s simply the other side of the same coin.
  6. A conscious revolutionary-political movement, a political vanguard organisation, is needed.  Politics have to be in control and when the time comes to establish a military element to the struggle, the politics have to call the shots.  The political movement has to be militant, both in order to challenge the three states that block the cause of human liberation in Ireland and also to ensure it provides radical working class youth with a real alternative to militarism.
  7. The exact form of the military aspect of the struggle cannot be known in advance, although what it can’t be is (ie militarism).  Rather, the development of the overall political conditions reach a point at which the particular form of military element necessary becomes clear – workers’ militias, armed communities, armed wing of the socialist-republican party, an armed party, or any other formation or combination of formations.

There’s no place in this for reformism, militarism or mere Irish nationalism.  The vanguard can only be built on the basis of revolutionary socialism (as opposed to the gas-and-water type only too prevalent on the Irish ‘Marxist’ left) and revolutionary republicanism (as opposed to mere nationalism, which is too sectional).  Such a vanguard needs to settle accounts with the past, being absolutely clinical in examining what is dumped – including commemorations of people who had appalling politics, like Liam Lynch – and what is developed further in the context of the twenty-first century.

And, it must be said, the merger of the militarist currents into New IRA surely must press upon socialist-republicans the need for a process of coming together of all those whose aim is the workers and socialist republic.  The answer to the New IRA is not condemnation but the building of a united, revolutionary, socialist-republican party.

Read also: Conclusion to ‘The Failure of Irish Republicanism, 1908-1927                                      For an examination of how republicans, not least through militarism, lost the initiative shortly after Bloody Sunday, see here.

Posted on August 2, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, éirígí, Economy and workers' resistance, General revolutionary history, Irish politics today, IRSP, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Public events - Ireland, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Our struggle is a socialist republican national struggle, a struggle for national & social liberation. Yes sections of the community are determined by separate faiths. That is because Britain wanted it that way, they introduced the protestant religion to a minority to divide the people and conquer them. Though it would do you well to remember protestants were the founders of Irish republicanism. As a Gaelic Irish descendant and socialist republican, brought up in the Catholic faith, I myself consider the thought of a Catholic Republic Of Ireland sickening. Religion as poisoned the world and is the sole factor in the centuries of conflict on this island between it’s inhabitants. If there was no religion maybe everyone in Ireland would consider themselves Irish and the people of Ireland would be united in their struggle against foreign occupation.

    I would like to finish by stating this unification of armed republican groups is a good strategy. Ending traditions of splits and divides in republicanism and comes at a time during one of the biggest divides or transitional periods in Irish republicanism. The provisional movement clearly works for the foreign establishment controlling British interests in our country. Hopefully this ‘new’ IRA can affiliate itself with a strong revolutionary political party and we can gather support for a proper socialist republican revolution.

    For Ireland to be united, we the people must first be united.

  2. Excellent article. Agree with the substantive points you make. Just a question out of interest – what do you mean when you say Liam Lynch had appalling politics??

    • I’m going to write something on Lynch when I get a few other things out of the way.

      To my mind Lynch and De Valera were the two reasons the anti-Treaty forces lost the Civil War. Or, to be more precise, they represented everything that was wrong, politically weak etc about the anti-Treaty forces. I don’t think the treatyites won the civil war – I think the anti-Treatyites lost it, which is quite a different thing.

      Peader O’Donnell, in Survivors, mentions for instance, how a core of anti-Treaty leaders had politics that weren’t really much different from the Treatyites. I think that’s one of the reasons they were no match for the Treatyites militarily, even though the anti-Treaty forces had all the advantages at the start – they had 11 of the IRA’s 18 divisions, they had almost al of Cumann na mBan, they had about two-thirds of Sinn Fein, they had the whole of the Fianna. They also had very solid bases of support among the landless and the urban working class.

      The only place in the movement the Treatyites had a majority was in the Supreme Council of the IRB (an interesting comment on how militarism and reformism fit together) and a few more votes in the Dail.

      Now, a leadership has to be pretty shocking to lose with those advantages.

      Lynch and De Valera, I think, represented the hopeless vacillating nature of the petty-bourgeoisie when the chips are down. Instead of going on the offensive – the only way the anti-Treaty forces could win – Lynch and De Valera politically and militarily disarmed the movement. Again, O’Donnell mentions how utterly unsuited Lynch was for the position that he held, or that he had thrust upon him. He prevaricated and prevaricated, trying to patch things up with the counter-revolutionaries – I mean it was surreal – while they got better and better organised and equipped by the Brits. Then, having allowed them the entire initiative, he ordered retreat after retreat.

      They baulked from what was necessary – rather like O’Connell at Clontarf.

      I used to not go to Liam Lynch commemorations on principle.

      Some people will probably consider this rather an awful, even outrageous, thing to say, given he was martyred, but. . . the reason he was shot in the back by the Free Staters was because they couldn’t get him in the chest, as he was always retreating. The manner of his death was symbolic of the hopelessness of his politics and leadership: the politics of retreat and confusion.

      One of the banes of Irish republicanism is sentimentality about people who we need a much more critical and clinical attitude towards – we need more of the spirit of Connolly.

      Take a look at this, which I wrote back in late 1995 or early 1996:


  3. What the feck are you on about?? Seriously like????!!

  4. Thanks for that Phil. I look forward to the development of this discussion. Maybe it’ll take someone from outside Ireland to kick start it??

    • It’s actually a very difficult one. Mainly because he did lose his life and it’s very hard to criticise someone who died the way he did. And I also feel a bit like, who am I to say this stuff about Lynch, from the relative comfort of where I am? But when I lived in Ireland and was very heavily involved in the political movement in the south I never agreed with the idea of commemorating him – or, at least, not in the way it was done. There’s a reckoning with history that is needed, otherwise we just keep going round in circles.

      I’d be interested in your impressions of the article on the civil war period.


  5. think your right about republicans being to emotive when evaluating the past for lessons. that also extends to using the word traitor. presuming an individual or a collective being studied had the best of intentions i think the word failed should be used in stead then evaluate why. SF’s failing’s can be explained by applying gramsci etc. rather than bleating on about adams et all being a traitor and an argument developing on their c.v. by applying academic tools, failure is explained as an inevitability to greater social forces rather than a personality weakness.

    more meat also has to be placed on objectives, to be able to draw out a road map that can be evaluated for successes and failures. the people who controled capital went largely untouched during the tan war. there was a plan to make the RIC ineffectual but there was no plan for that class. the french revolutionaries transformed the legal code have irish revolutionaries ever suggested doing that. brian keenan used to say that the irish make great rebels but terrible revolutionaries, he was right. we are more interested in the fight than what we can do with the win. we are probably living amongst the most educated irish generation ever. with mass unemployment and a good back to education scheme that can get an able unemployed mature student on to any 3rd college course in the state. the ranks of 3rd level educated working class could grow hugely in the next few years. the working class may be able to assemble the necessary analytical and academic skills to draw alternative legal codes, evaluations of the base super structure in Irish society etc paving the way for a revolutionary era in Irish society. maybe a first step could be to nurture that process by encouraging people to go back to education.

  6. I agree with the stuff about traitors. That was the problem I had with Moloney’s book on the IRA. It was very good on detail, fascinating in parts and a great read; but it was far too focused on Adams as Machiavelli. Kevin Bean’s book on wider changes in the six counties and the how the Provos were incorporated is much better as analysis. If you put the two books together, you have an excellent analysis and heaps of detail. But they have to be read together.

    It’s interesting what you say about third level-educated working class. This *could* help develop the analytical tools, although a formal university education is certainly not *essential* for the development of those tools – my experience of university is that it generally actively discourages much questioning. You’re allowed to question lots of things that *are not essential* to the operations of the system, but as soon as you start to question stuff that is essential to the operations of capitalism, the walls go up.

    Gramsci, for instance, talked about ‘organic intellectuals’ – ie militants in struggle who developed intellectual skills. A lot of the prisoners in the 80s did this, although a disappointingly high number of them then went on to support reformist politics when they got out and are now basically advocates for bourgeois nationalism as opposed to republicanism, let alone socialist-republicanism..

    I think that providing those kinds of analytical tools is something that socialist-republican organisations and individuals are going to have to do through developing rigorous systems of political education ourselves. Jim Monaghan and Rose Dugdale attempted to do this in the Movement in the late 1980s, but as soon as it got serious the shutters came down and they were removed from running the Education Dept by about 1990 or 1991 – that was one of the signs to me that the left development in the Provos was coming to an end.

    One of the things that I’m most interested in is the development of a rigorous education programme, something that could be used/adapted by any socialist-republicans: eirigi, IRSP, RNU, independents, whoever.


  7. Here’s another thing about Lynch. This is from the blurb of a book about the Battle for Limerick (which I’ve just ordered from the Book Depository):

    “The Civil War arrived in Limerick with a whimper rather than a bang. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the Pro-Treaty Commander of the city, Michael Brennan, negotiated a truce with the Anti-Treaty Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch. But the benefit of this lull in fighting accrued almost entirely to the Pro-Treaty side. They gained time for reinforcements and weaponry to arrive. . .”

    This is absolutely classic Liam Lynch. The anti-Treatyites have all the advantages and yet, once again, the Treatyites win, thanks to the disaster that was Liam Lynch. When reading anything about the civil war, as soon as you reach the name Liam Lynch you just know something bad is going to happen to the good guys: the anti-Treatyites are going to come off second best. It’s like his very name carries the air of impending doom. You want to win anything? – keep Liam Lynch out of your area!


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