Critiquing the construction of ‘dissident republicans’, pt 2: The Pinocchio Syndrome

Adams, Hume, Clinton, Trimble: a right rogues' gallery

Adams, Hume, Clinton, Trimble: a right rogues’ gallery

by Larry Hughes

When SF entered talks with the SDLP intent on consolidating a mass nationalist support base and harnessing the public sympathy generated during the 1981 hunger-strikes towards Sinn Fein’s project for Irish unity it was to prove a colossal miscalculation. Rather than lure constitutional nationalism to the assistance of republicanism, Sinn Fein would be lured into a process leading them to constitutional politics, non-violence and the acceptance of partition – although arguably exactly where the leadership wanted to go. Malachi O’Doherty has correctly suggested that the central aim of the armed struggle was to create conditions which would render an internal Northern Ireland settlement impossible thus forcing a progression towards Irish unification as the only option for policy makers. He sums up the IRA strategy as “a strategy of vetoing an internal settlement through the narrowing of options”.[1]

O’Doherty characterised republican strategy thus, “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.”[2] Gerry Adams confirmed this theory and strategy himself, “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.”[3] British containment and the burden of the prolonged conflict upon the Catholic community in which the IRA was based would eventually require a tactical reappraisal. This would take time. 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.”[4]

There were serious worries within the republican rank and file that any cessation of the war would only weaken the movement. “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 ‘unreasonableness’ no longer carried with it the threat of greater instability.”[5] In order to reassure the republican activists regarding the electoral strategy Danny Morrison had even more to say.

In 1984, the year before the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed he stated:

“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.” [6]

Morrison went on to explain in graphic and blunt detail just why it was felt that the war must be brought to a successful conclusion. “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.”[7]

Some would later argue this appeared to be the notion of SF supplanting the SDLP as a fall-back position in germination. The reality was that in spite of public professions of defiance and military determination, the republican leadership were a worried group. Faced with the fact that the British government was not withdrawing from the Six Counties the Provisionals had arrived at the conclusion in 1977 that a successful war of liberation could not 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 unionism which will ensure mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the North.

However, in hindsight, the signs of political schizophrenia developing were evident at this stage. Publicly the SF position was thus: “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 ever 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 states would be a betrayal of all that Tone preached and died for.”[8] Whilst spouting this bravado for the ears of the grass-roots of republicanism, Gerry Adams for his part was suggesting the need for working class politics: “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.”[9]

The reference to ‘the cause of labour’ and the mobilization of the working class was essentially tactical in nature. It is not that the organisation moved radically to the left or became socialist, but that it wished to attract working class political groups in order to generate mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the North. Pat Walsh is right to note that the Republican News under the editorship of Danny Morrison deliberately gave the impression that the republican movement was much further to the left than it really was, if indeed it was left-wing at all.

So, if the republican leadership simply decided they would embrace a wide ranging spectrum of ‘nationalist’ opinion and utilize it as a mass base for pressure on the question of Irish unity they seriously underestimated other opinions and or overestimated their own ability. The SF position was certainly not how everyone else engaged in these talks were viewing developments. What emerged was a process in which the establishment and constitutional political parties led a post hunger-strikes, election addicted and SDLP paranoid SF along a peace-path like a drug addict searching for another fix. Tellingly Dr. Garret Fitzgerald’s recollection of the talks agenda of the New Ireland forum leading eventually to the Anglo Irish Agreement are far removed from those of Provisional Sinn Fein. “A logical corollary of this stance has been a concern to develop a constructive dialogue between the Irish state and the unionist community in Northern Ireland, which must be linked to a move to create conditions within the Irish state that economically, socially, and culturally would be attractive rather than repellant to Northern unionists”.[10] FitzGerald went further:

“First, I hoped that there would emerge from it a set of principles for the achievement of peace and stability in Northern Ireland – which was the stated aim of the forum, the terms of reference of which deliberately contained no reference to Irish unity – and that these principles would provide a common basis upon which the Irish and British governments could proceed in relation to negotiations. The second result I hoped to achieve was the emergence of a number of ‘models’ for a possible eventual resolution of the Northern Ireland problem. These would include, as well as a unitary state and a federation or confederation, the idea of joint sovereignty or joint authority – leaving open, however, other possible models which could emerge from negotiations. By securing acceptance in the report of the forum of a joint sovereignty or joint authority model I would, I believed, have eliminated, or at any rate weakened, a possible Fianna Fail objection to whatever might eventually emerge from negotiations, which would inevitably be something other than a united Ireland”.[11]

Republicans had initially slated the SDLP position on the national question: “In relation to the SDLP it was not merely the violence of the IRA which divided the party from Sinn Fein. While both parties subscribed to the notion of a united Ireland, John Hume had persistently argued on behalf of the SDLP that it could only be with the consent of a majority in the North. This earned him the dubious accolade from the republicans of a ‘weak kneed commercial politician”.[12]

Now SF wanted to amalgamate nationalist opinion into one effective pressure group for Irish unity. But the Provisional movement was itself to be drawn in and weakened by those whom it had sought to untilise for an agenda of Irish unity. A never ending ‘process’ in which they were constantly pressured into renouncing violence and accepting not only peaceful means but accepting the Hume assertion that unity would only come about through unionist consent would emerge. Garret FitzGerald states quite clearly what the objective of the Irish government was in the run up to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 for example: “From all of this it will be clear that the agreement was never envisaged by the Irish government as an attempt to ‘down-face’ the unionists, as they subsequently alleged. From the inception of the whole process that led to the agreement the objective had been to weaken support for the IRA by reducing the alienation of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland and to stabilize the position in that area by creating conditions in which this minority could identify with the system of authority there as it had not previously been able to do so”.[13]

This was a very long way from the republican movement’s position before the Hume Adams talks and the instigation of the so-called pan nationalist front. “You are not dealing with the romantic figures of Southern Irish legends. You are opposed by a risen generation of hard headed determined northerners who are not fighting for the mythical land of Tir na Og. We are fighting for freedom, freedom from want and poverty, freedom from fear and slums; freedom to develop as a race and freedom to rear our kids at home. We will only get this in a Brit free united Ireland.”[14] Something was bound to give.

The consent principle to traditionalists is nothing less than the unionist veto on Irish unity: “Essentially the consent principle means that the change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland must have the expressed agreement of a greater number of citizens of Northern Ireland. This concept was enshrined in the Anglo Irish Agreement and has underpinned the non-republican nationalist approach to conflict resolution from that point onward”.

This watering down of Provisional republicanism was relentless: “The second major point of difference identified during the SF-SDLP negotiations was the apparent contradiction between the principal of consent and the principle of Irish rights to self-determination. For the republican movement, the principle of national self-determination was the fundamental plank of its political philosophy.”[15]

Accepting the principle of consent was tantamount to accepting the unionist veto on reunification. The party leadership had increasingly accepted the harsh reality that the IRA would not achieve Irish unity alone and Sinn Fein might be left behind the ongoing political developments initiated by the two governments as in the case of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. A policy shift was required; however, they needed to retain the cohesion of the republican movement:

“Electoral advancement was the new priority. But there would be no fudging on the support for armed struggle. The two were part of the whole. This attitude it was argued would avoid the slide into reformism that O’Bradaigh had warned about. O’Bradaigh argued that one cannot ride a horse going in two opposite directions. Revolutionary politics and constitutionalism are incompatible. I would like to elaborate on Sinn Fein’s attitude to armed struggle, said Adams, tackling the subject head-on. ‘Armed struggle is a necessary and morally correct form of resistance in the six counties against a government whose presence is rejected by the vast majority of the Irish people’. The applause in the packed Mansion House was sustained”.[16]

The statement ultimately had the desired effect, not however before yet another split and walk-out in 1986 at the ending ‘once again’ of the republican stance on abstentionism, this time by Provisional Sinn Fein. At the 1986 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis a motion declaring an end to the policy of abstentionism in regard to Leinster House was passed. 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 the grass roots were told, was a matter of principle. Denying that the current leadership were 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.”[17]

This motion was a move too far for some and caused yet another split in the movement creating Republican Sinn Fein, a party committed to the ‘traditional’ republican vision of a 32 County Irish republic. It was led by the one constant in republican politics, former Sinn Féin President Ruairi O’Bradaigh, who had previously led “provisonal” Sinn Féin to split from Official Sinn Féin. The difference between this split in 1986 and the 1969 one was that there was no political crisis like the civil rights campign in 1969 to swell the new organisation with a ready flow of recruits, as had been the case for the Provisionals. Also, dissent was negligible because republicans believed something historic was taking place and they had faith in the leadership. “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”.[18]

This position was at odds with southern republicanism; again the northern leadership was asserting itself and its characteristics upon the movement. Rather than traditional republican principles a hard-nosed northern pragmatism was emerging more and more. There was also the very real slippery-slope into constitutionalism fear among traditional republicans on both sides of the border. “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.”[19] 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.”[20] The danger inherent in such a strategy for republicanism was fittingly summed up some time later by Anthony McIntyre: “For the Provisional Republican Movement, the long, slow one – way journey from the core tenets of republicanism, which sustained it through its struggle, will at some point be completed … the only destination that awaits them is the establishment sea of constitutionalism”.[21]

Whilst Provisional Sinn Fein tapped increasingly into the desires of the population in the north and throughout Britain and Ireland for an end to violence, the political path it ventured down led increasingly to constitutionalism and away from republicanism. British government interest was initially centered on bolstering the SDLP as correctly identified by the SF leadership. The northern leadership of Adams and co. felt they were modernising the movement for the ‘final-phase’. “The Republican Movement had been, by 1983 developing a sophisticated strategy for long-term survival. The thinking of the leadership was that, whatever else, the movement had to remain strong enough to become part of the ultimate political solution when the time came. They wanted to ensure that, in the event of a settlement good enough to bring about an end to the IRA campaign, the Republican Movement would not remain on the outside, marginalised, unable to reap the political rewards for their long struggle”.[22]

The reality was it is argued, that as the talks developed and dragged on, the Provisional organisation was relentlessly challenged on the issue of violence. They gradually found it necessary to slaughter every republican sacred cow along the way until in order to maintain its electoral mandate it is now bereft of any republican trappings other than the party name. Unlike De Valera with the formation of Fianna Fail and the Official IRA which transformed itself into the Workers Party, Sinn Fein under the Adams and McGuinness leadership refused to change the party name. However the truth of Sinn Fein’s political trajectory into electioneering and constitutionalism, regardless of their retention of tough rhetoric, was evident since the late 1980s. Danny Morrison had stated: “The IRA doesn’t claim to be representing the people in the twenty six counties, nor does Sinn Fein. The IRA claims to represent the IRA and the oppressed nationalists who support it. The IRA doesn’t plant bombs in the name of the people of the twenty six counties – the IRA plant bombs to bring about a political resolution to the problems of the North”.[23]

This left many IRA volunteers gob smacked, but they had been committed to the war at the time and unquestioningly confident in the Provisional leadership analysis. Furthermore, the political establishment in the UK and Irish Republic were alarmed at the rise in support for the republican movement. “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.”[24] It was felt the Provisional leadership could be trusted to bring home the bacon.

As the years went by and the Provisional leadership continued its path traditional republicans simply looked on bemusedly with an air of ‘told you so’: “At critical junctures in the history of the Republican movement, Ruairi O’Bradaigh, along with his close friend and comrade, the late Daithi O’Conaill, manned the gap against the forces of revisionism who sought to convert a revolutionary movement of national liberation into a mere constitutional political party, first in 1969/70 and once again in 1986”.[25] Republican Sinn Fein and other traditional republican groups may have indeed become marginalised and considered totally out of touch political diehards stuck in the past and seen as irrelevant to the real world of 20013. That’s as may be, their analysis of the Provisional political trajectory is however, none the less, difficult to refute. For their part the traditional republicans would keep the faith:

“We will pursue the Republican objectives by continuing the organisation of Republican Sinn Fein whose object will be to organise the Irish people, at home and abroad, in opposition to British interfence in the affairs of the historic Irish nation: to defend the interests of the Irish people against all forms of colonialism and exploitation, political, social, economic and cultural: and to devise policies for the emancipation of all the Irish people, including a system of government which will cherish all the children of the nation equally and give all a truly democratic voice in the government of their community, by the establishment of a Democratic Socialist Republic”.[26]

Republican Sinn Fein declared its intention to simply continue with traditional republican political principles and a refusal to recognise either the Dail or Stormont political institutions, referring to them as illegal British colonial entities established against the wishes of the Irish people as expressed in the election of 1918 which pre-dated partition. The two rocks upon which traditional republicanism is based are firstly that the allegiance of Irish men and Irishwomen is due to the sovereign Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and secondly that the sovereignty and unity of the Republic are inalienable and non-judicable. O’Brien has noted, “The moral position of the Irish Republican Army, its right to engage in warfare is based on A) the right to resist foreign aggression; B) the right to revolt against tyranny and oppression; C) the direct lineal succession with the Provisional Government of 1916, the first Dail of 1919 and the second Dail of 1921”.[27]

What would follow would be the essential steadfastness of Republican Sinn Fein to the traditional republican position and principles whilst Provisional Sinn Fein would follow an electoral strategy and attempt to solve the conundrum which had faced republicans on many occasions previously and which had led to so many splits; that is how to make republicanism relevant and an effective force in the present rather than harping back to the past forlornly for validity and proclaiming to be the authentic representatives of 1916. The media and political commentators refer to traditional republicans and nationalists as ‘dissidents’ which is an attempt to belittle and marginalise them.

The reality is though, from the point of view of republicanism, it is not they who have departed from the republican path, whether we consider them out of date, unrealistic or ‘un-pragmatic’ is hardly the point. Whether we agree or disagree with their politics, unlike Provisional Sinn Fein, they have been and remain ‘consistently consistent’! “In 1972, the IRA gave the British three years to leave; in 1987 Sinn Fein had extended it to the lifetime of one parliament, or five years. By 1992, not only was there no deadline but Sinn Fein acknowledged there was a role for Britain to play in Ireland.”[28]

The Provisional movement would continue down the road of electoral politics. On 15th December 1993 the Downing Street Declaration laid down the parameters for any future negotiations in Northern Ireland. “Although on the face of it the Joint Declaration was a nationalist green in colour, it was essentially a unionist document effectively enshrining the unionist veto that the Provisionals had spent years fighting to destroy. In the course of its twelve points, the principle of consent was mentioned eight times. The Provos’ reaction was interesting: Tactical reappraisal began to resemble total reconstruction. “The Provisionals had rejected the Sunningdale Agreement outright in 1973. They had condemned – sometimes stridently – the Ango-Irish Agreement twelve years later, but with some qualifications that left room for recognition that indeed it contained progressive elements. When confronted with the Downing Street Declaration, the Provisionals hesitated.”[29]

They wouldn’t hesitate very long. The leaders of Northern Ireland’s two largest nationalist parties, Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, entered into peace negotiations with Unionist leaders like David Trimble of the UUP and the British government. “The next major step was the Joint Framework Document issued on 22 February 1995. It envisaged the establishment of a power sharing arrangement in Stormont along with the establishment of minimalist cross-border bodies remarkable for their ‘banality and low-key nature’ and offered Unionists a ‘triple lock’ veto on constitutional changes”.[30] This is why after the Provisional IRA reinstated its ceasefire on 19 July 1997 the republican political agenda was degraded to the point where Gerry Adams now wrote about ‘renegotiating the Union’ rather than ending it.[31] Loyalty to the party became increasingly tested with people like Tommy McKearney suggesting that the bottom line with Provisional Sinn Fein is that they don’t have a bottom line.

This was the logical continuation of the Hume Adams talks and would lead eventually by 1998 to the IRA endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) between nationalist and unionist parties and both governments. It would be a step too far for many of those still within the Provisional movement but who had become increasingly edgy if not disillusioned over where exactly all the talks and all the political engagement and electioneering were actually leading the movement. Small factions split from PIRA to form the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) and the Continuity IRA (CIRA).

These have been slow to impose themselves militarily due to a combination of effective security countermeasures. Also state and SF heightened political expectation within republicanism and the total fatigue and disinterest once again within the population at large regarding the ‘troubles’ have impacted. The peace – process dragged on, and on, and on, becoming seemingly the only political option rather than Irish unity. Those within the Provisional movement who were anxious were now realising far too late in the day that something was amiss. The ‘process’ as seen by traditionalists was not a republican process, rather it was a strategy aimed at ending modern republicanism as manifested in armed struggle against the British presence in the north and consolidating the status-quo i.e. partition and the unionist veto against Irish unity.

The long-standing Republican demands were never serious runners for all-party talks, and none of them appeared in the final Belfast Agreement. “What the British were allowing republicans – by permitting them into all-party talks where they can argue for a united Ireland without the remotest possibility of securing it – is an opportunity to dig a tunnel to the moon.”[32] By negotiating with the Provisional movement, the British state was signalling to the IRA a way out of its armed campaign rather than a way out of Ireland for itself. The northern leadership had given the Republican movement a decidedly northern political complexion. “Essential to this process was an iconography drawn less from the ancient history of Irish republicanism than from the recent history of the troubles: Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, and occasional outrages against republican activists such as the Gibraltar shootings of 1988”.[33] As the Provisionals vacated the stage militarily and in spite of the best efforts of SF and the British and Irish governments to remove the gun forever from Irish politics, a physical force vacuum may have been left for the traditionalists to fill, if they can.

The present political positions of Provisional Sinn Fein and traditional republican groupings was arrived at by a long protracted strategy by the Adams and McGuinness leadership of Provisional Sinn Fein and a reassurance to those who placed their faith in their leadership that they were not departing from the path of Irish freedom but merely broadening the scope of the ‘war’ into a political/electoral sphere. This was necessary in order to retain the political momentum and to prevent any catastrophic splits or feuds from happening. The grass roots membership was constantly reassured that the military side of the armalite and ballot-box strategy was not being undermined.

The talks between Adams and Hume and eventually the peace process became the focus of all political attention. However there were increasingly different objectives emerging and differing analysis of just exactly what the peace process was actually all about. The truth was it is not the Dublin government and the SDLP that had come to the Republican position, but rather the Provisional movement which had moved to the constitutional nationalist position that Irish self-determination would have to be achieved with the consent of the people of the North. When the 1994 IRA internal document TUAS (Tactical Use of Armed Struggle) argued, “For the first time in twenty-five years all the major nationalist parties are rowing in roughly the same direction”[34] it was correct except for one detail, one of those parties, Sinn Fein had entirely altered its course.

As the Provisional movement became more engaged in the peace strategy more and more alarming cracks would begin to appear and eventually a gulf would open up between the Provisional Sinn Fein political position and reality. “There are two distinct uses of the term ‘peace’ in discussions of the peace process. The first is peace as the absence of conflict; the second is peace as the outcome of a process. The first was employed by the relatively unknown British Labour Party backbench MP, Harry Barnes, in a statement in response to the end of the IRA ceasefire in 1996”.[35] For the British the process was simply to attain an end to violence, the Provisionals could think what they wished. By the time the ‘process’ would have stuttered and stammered along the road to 1996 many problems had arisen and been eventually smoothed over. Traditional republicans could perhaps be consoled at their lack of support with the correctness of their assertion that a deviation from core republican principles leads to constitutionalism and acceptance of British rule. For the British it was conflict management. O’Bradaigh had pointed out the nature of southern republicanism previously asserting that the ending of abstentionism would lead to the old traditionalist republican base there falling away:

“We believe that if we can get across to the people of the twenty six counties that what is taking place in the six counties is not just a struggle for the rights of the people of the six counties but for the people of the entire thirty two counties, and that the struggle in the North is the spearhead of an effort to bring Ireland into one system and give back to the Irish people all their own resources and control of their own destinies insofar as this is possible in modern conditions, then we believe that the people of the twenty six counties will become interested about what is happening up there. But if they feel that this is to be merely an extension of the twenty six county state, they won’t give a damn for their people and neighbours of the North.”[36]

This may be in large part the reason for the inability of the Provisionals to penetrate the Fianna Fail vote in the south in the way they had successfully done with the SDLP vote in the north. Provisional Sinn Fein had been consistently forced down a path of ‘peace’ and a repudiation of violence. “However, as long as IRA violence continued it was clear that Sinn Fein could not be admitted to any formal negotiations. This meant Sinn Fein’s exclusion from the next major initiative at negotiating new institutions taken by Secretary of State Peter Brooke in 1991”.[37] This had ultimately rendered the IRA a hindrance to Sinn Fein’s political ambitions. However there were obvious signs that even a visually impaired man on a fast moving horse could see that the further they ventured down the path of populism the more bereft of republicanism they became and the more seemingly shameless their contradictory stance appeared. In republican terms they were akin to the Emperor with no clothes. The thirty two county nature of the organisational work Sinn Fein was immersed in allowed the group to present itself as the only genuine nationalist party in the north. Against this background Sinn Fein had been able to argue in the past that the SDLP’s concept of an alternative Northern assembly was partitionist and that it should be boycotted.

From a position of being blunt and direct in regard to the nature of the Northern Ireland state the Provisionals began turning things on their head and attempting to suggest the conflict had been about an interim internal Northern Ireland settlement. It is a position totally unrecognisable from the republican position in the 1970s. “This campaign is designed to bring about the downfall of Stormont, direct rule from Westminster and then a conference resulting in a final settlement of the Irish question”.[38] However, in keeping with the SDLP and government strategy the ‘process’ was pushed on at pace. Unionists with the sympathy of the British government and the other parties to the ‘process’ were adamant that Sinn Fein must show its democratic credentials before being admitted to all-party talks. “Both of the main unionist parties, with some support from the British government, insisted that Sinn Fein, because of its association with the IRA, had to clearly demonstrate its commitment to democracy before they would enter into negotiations with that party. This would be made evident by decommissioning and by Sinn Fein receiving a fresh, post ceasefire electoral mandate”.[39] Constitutionalism was calling the shots and Sinn Fein was in real danger of being left behind. “With so much groundwork laid for the kind of comprehensive approach to a settlement advocated by the SDLP in 1980, pressure now intensified to persuade the republican movement that the circumstances existed enabling Sinn Fein participation in negotiations. So after considerable internal debate on 31st August 1994 the IRA had announced a complete cessation of military operations to enhance the democratic process”.[40] This had been the first of many necessary adjustments for Sinn Fein given the capitulation on among other things the Mitchell Principles of none violence in order to become an accepted part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

The SDLP leader John Hume had enlisted American assistance. “The most practical expression of this role was the invitation extended by both governments to Senator George Mitchell to examine how paramilitary arms might be decommissioned and on the linkage between this issue and the commencement of all-party talks”.[41] Again, whilst there was indeed a widespread and deep desire among the people for peace, “O’Bradaigh argued that one cannot ride a horse going in two opposite directions, revolutionary politics and constitutionalism are incompatible.”[42] This confusion for seemingly everyone bar what remains of the Provisional Sinn Fein faithful is seemingly the result of the Provisionals attempting to be all things to all people simply to satisfy its electoral addiction. Perhaps it is a deliberate strategy as has been described quite humorously by a SF Councillor Michael McIvor in Cookestown Co. Tyrone, when he asserted in a comment on the Pensive Quill blog, “rather than riding two horses at the same time, we want to ride every horse in the race”. It is a ‘strategy’ and mind-set of which Machiavelli would have been envious. It has also been pampered and assisted by a totally compliant and acquiescent media. It seems under no circumstances may anything awkward be asked regarding the peace process. On the journey to The Good Friday Agreement SF would become increasingly desperate to be a part of the ‘settlement’ and at the same time increasingly drawn in by the constitutionalist party agenda to the point of no return: “Decommissioning was now very much centre-stage in the peace process and the issue of how to sequence decommissioning and all-party negotiations, the biggest stumbling block to progress”.[43]

Regardless of how Sinn Fein continued to sell the tactic and pragmatic approach to its remaining faithful the reality had been starkly laid bare a long time previously. This is evident from the political parameters of the peace process. During the peace process, the British government had made it perfectly clear that it would not act as a persuader for a united Ireland nor would it set any timescale for a united Ireland or even assert its value. Also, it did not contemplate joint authority over Northern Ireland shared by the British and Irish governments. It was clear that it had not reduced sovereignty over Northern Ireland. All this was evident early on, in the 15 December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which laid the parameters for future negotiations David Trimble spelt it out:

“Crucially it was soon made clear (to Republicans) that there were conditions before there could be an official engagement. The key conditions were later formalised in the Downing Street declaration of 1993 as an end to violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Equally important was the government’s commitment to the consent principle and its refusal to act as a persuader for a united Ireland, which prefigured the outcome of the formal interparty talks, the three-stranded structure of which were defined in March 1991, and the key procedural decisions taken by the parties in 1992 in the absence of Sinn Féin. When it called the cessation of its campaign in 1994, republicans were, in effect, accepting these parameters for talks.”[44]

So, after the Hume-Adams talks and all the capitulation in the guise of tactical manoeuvring and pragmatism, modernisation, and then finally accepting the principle of unionist consent; could Adams and McGuinness realistically contemplate decommissioning and if so could they really get away with it? Where exactly where they leading republicanism and just how would they keep the rank and file within the movement on-board?


[1] Malachi  O’Doherty, The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA (Belfast: The Blackstaff  Press, 1998), p.120

[2] Ibid, p.96

[3] Gerry Adams, in Martin Collins (ed.) Ireland After Britain  (London: Pluto Press, 1985), p.8

[4] Gerry Adams, A Pathway To Peace  (Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988), p.80

[5] Padraig O’Malley, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1983), p.308

[6] “The IRA has to do what the IRA has to do”, Magill September 1984

[7] Joe Jackson, Troubadours and Troublemakers (Dublin: Blackwater Press, 1995), p.72

[8] “ Bodenstown Oration”, Republican News, 18 June, 1977, p.7

[9] Gerry Adams, “Revolutionary politics needed to back up military gains”,  APRN, 23 June, 1979, pp.6-7

[10] Dermot Keogh and Michael H. Haltzel, Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.189

[11] Ibid,p.194

[12] “No compromise, no sell-out”, Republican News, 4-6 September, 1971

[13]  Keogh and Haltzel, p.201

[14] “Muddling Maudling”, Republican News, 25 September, 1971

[15] Chris Gilligan and Jon Tonge, Peace or War Understanding the Peace Process in Northern Ireland (England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 1997),p.63

[16]  O’Brien, p.113

[17] 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), pp.26-27

[18]  Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA (London: Macmillan, 2003), p.252

[19] Alonso Rogelio, The IRA and Armed Struggle  (London: Routledge, 2006), p.122

[20]  M.L.R. Smith, Fighting For Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement  (London and New York: Routledge second edition, 1997), p.171

[21] Anthony  McIntyre, “Rivers Change Their Course Sometimes But Always Reach The Sea”, The Blanket (18 April, 2003)

[22]  O’Brien, p.118

[23]  Danny Morrison, quoted in Joe Jackson, “Oh Danny Boy. Interview with Danny Morrison”, Hot Press, 25 August, 1988

[24]  Gerry Adams,  A Pathway To Peace (Cork and Dublin: Mercier, 1988), p.8



[27] O’Brien, p.104

[28]  Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2002), p.378

[29] Jack Holland, Hope Against History: The course of conflict in Northern Ireland (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), p.251

[30] Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007),p.546

[31] “Another chance for progress”, APRN 24 July, 1997, p.9

[32] Anthony McIntyre,  ‘Sinn Fein stance hinders Republican cause’, Sunday Tribune, 20 July 1997

[33] John Waters,”‘Moral energy tapped by Provisionals running dry”, Irish Times, 12 May, 1998

[34] Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge , Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation  (London: Hurst & Company, 2005), p.188

[35] Gilligan and Tonge, p.20

[36] Ruairi O’Bradaigh, quoted in, “Sinn Fein call to unionists”, An Phoblacht , September, 1971

[37] Cox, Guelke and Stephen, A farewell to Arms From Long War to Long Peace in Northern Ireland  (Manchester:  Manchester University Press 2000), p.52

[38] Joe Cahill, quoted in James Eagles,I want more British troops shot”, Evening Standard, 1 September, 1971.

[39]  Cox, Guelke and Stephen, p.57

[40] Ibid, p.55

[41] Ibid, p.57

[42] Robert White, W, Ruairi O Bradaigh: the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary  (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), pp. 289-90

[43] Cox, Guelke, and Stephen, p.81

[44] David Trimble, “Ulster’s Lesson for the Middle East: don’t indulge extremists”, The Guardian, 25 October 2007

The other sections of this series can be viewed by clicking on below:
Part One: Introduction and The Eternal Flame

And see also Liam O Ruairc’s three-part history of the Provisionals:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


Posted on October 21, 2015, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Repression in 26-county state, Revolutionary figures, Scabs, Toadyism, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Critiquing the construction of ‘dissident republicans’, pt 2: The Pinocchio Syndrome.

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