Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A nation once again?

(March 1996)

From Socialist Review, No. 195, March 1996, p. 16.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Over 25 years the Provos have waged the most effective military struggle since the time of Collins. But recent developments show they have not been able to escape from the contradictions facing their predecessors’

Support for the ‘peace process’ had been at the centre of Republican activity for nearly two years. Now suddenly that strategy has been abandoned and the war is back on again.

Some claim this proves duplicity on the Republicans’ part. It does not. But it points to a central contradiction facing successive generations of Republican leaders. The class basis of their own ideology prevents them mobilising forces that can achieve their goal. But each attempt to compromise on that goal leads to dissatisfaction and to bitter splits.

There were signs of at least the beginning of a split in the last months of the ceasefire. According to journalist Ed Moloney a section of the IRA was preparing to take armed action whether the leadership gave the go ahead or not. An unexpectedly large crowd of 1,000 people turned up at the funeral of Irish National Liberation Army leader Gino Gallacher, killed a fortnight after he told another journalist he feared ‘the IRA could attack INLA members’. Perhaps most tellingly, a few weeks earlier the words, ‘Gerry Adams, remember Michael Collins’, appeared on walls in West Belfast.

Collins was the central, heroic leader of the Republican forces against the British. Then in 1921 he broke with Sinn Fein, accepted the compromise treaty with Britain which partitioned Ireland and became the strongman in the new ‘free state’ government. It was not long before his government was using British guns to hunt down Republicans, who in turn assassinated him as a traitor.

Republicans who refused to recognise the free state suffered enormously in the civil war that followed. Many hundreds were killed and more than 10,000 ended up in prison camps. Yet within five years their leader, Eamon De Valera, himself split from Sinn Fein to recognise the state, forming a legal party, Fianna Fall.

In 1932 De Valera took over the government of the state whose founding he had opposed as a ‘betrayal’, and after co-opting some IRA men into the state machine, was soon persecuting the rest.

Among the new irreconcilables who held out against De Valera’s betrayal was Sean MacBride, chief of staff of the IRA in the mid-1930s. But then he too led a number of Republicans to abandon the armed struggle, founding a new legal Republican party, Clann na Poblachta – and was a government minister by the late 1940s, sharing power with the ‘traitors’ of 1921 (now known as Fine Gael).

The pattern was repeated for a fourth time in the 1950s and 1960s. A new generation of hardline Republicans launched an unsuccessful guerrilla campaign on the border in 1956. Within ten years an important section of the leadership was turning to parliamentary politics and attempting to wind down the IRA’s military organisation. But it did so just as the civil rights movement erupted in Northern Ireland and a new generation joined with a few veterans to embrace the armed struggle. The result was yet another split. The old leadership became the Official IRA, the descendants of which sit, as the Democratic Left, in the present Dublin government. The breakaway became the Provisional IRA.

Over 25 years the Provos have waged the most effective military struggle since the time of Collins. But recent developments show they have not been able to escape from the contradictions facing their predecessors. The source of these lies in the very character of Irish Republicanism itself. Its ideology is that of bourgeois nationalism – the notion that all the evils that afflict the mass of Irish people can be removed if only the British state is driven out and the ‘Irish people’ can create a united 32-county Republic.

But attempts to achieve this goal have always run into two difficulties. The forces of Irish capitalism have never been enthusiastic about an all out armed struggle against Britain. So this side of the nationalist all class alliance has never delivered the Republican goods.

Nor has the other side. Irish workers have engaged in many bitter struggles, but the Republicans have rarely been able to relate to them. So they have never had much active support among the best organised workers in the South of Ireland. It has also prevented them from ever breaking through to more than a small handful of workers in what is historically Ireland’s biggest concentration of workers: the Protestant areas of Belfast.

The result, crudely, has been that Irish Republicanism has never been able to marshal the forces needed for victory. In 1921 it could force the British to compromise but, Collins argued, was incapable of ‘beating the British out of Ireland militarily’. Over the last 25 years its support among Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority has allowed it to survive everything the British army has thrown at it. But, again, it has not been able to win, as Adams admits.

Secret discussions with the British and Irish governments led people like Adams to believe a compromise was possible. Such a compromise would not have meant anything in material terms to those in the Northern ghettos who have backed the IRA, at so much personal cost, for the last quarter of a century. But it might have involved sufficient in symbolic terms to defuse some of the nationalist feeling. In fact, the Unionists would not even concede that, and the British government, unwilling as ever to confront the Unionists seriously, used the excuse about ‘decommissioning of arms’ to avoid the first, minor step along this path: all-party talks.

The Republican leadership was left stranded. It could only hang on to its political ‘gains’ – being feted by Bruton, Clinton and the international media – if it were to abandon the symbols its followers looked to as liberation. That meant following the path of Collins, De Valera, McBride and the Democratic Left. It also meant an inevitable split in the IRA and the likelihood of internal bloodletting.

The IRA leadership has called off the truce in order to avoid this.

Yet the resumption of the war can only delay the moment of reckoning. The presence of Sinn Fein at all-party talks would not have even begun to address the exploitation and oppression that has led so many Catholics in Northern Ireland to identify with Republicanism. But nor will a resumed military campaign which cannot win. For the fifth time this century Republicanism is in an impasse – and there is no way out in nationalist terms.

Last updated on 9 November 2019