The Provisionals' long march from war to peace

Anthony Coughlan reviews Armed Struggle: a history of the IRA by Richard English, Macmillan, £20 hbk

THIS IS the best study to date of the Provisional IRA. It is based on interviews with most of the key republican participants.

Their personal character seems to have impressed a Queen’s University professor of politics, of Protestant background, sufficiently to lead him to write an account that shows understanding and sympathy almost, at least with the motives if not the actions of ‘provisional’ republicanism, and certainly a remarkable imaginative empathy.

This does not prevent professor English, in political science mode, from making this overall judgement of the 1990s peace process: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that what was done in the 1990s might have been possible in the 1970s had there been -- on all sides, it must be stressed -- a greater willingness to replace a naïve hope of clear victory with the acceptance of the necessity for compromise. In that sense, it is less true that IRA violence was necessary for the achievement of reform than that it was one of the factors that delayed it.”

One of the strengths of the book is its account of the politicisation of the republican movement in the 1960s and how this influenced the civil rights movement, which broke Ulster unionist hegemony in the north. Civil rights was a mode of non-violent, ‘constitutional’ political struggle to which the current peace process is essentially a reversion.

An omission that might be repaired in a second edition is a discussion of the pros and cons of abolishing the Stormont parliament in 1972, and the fact that there existed a possible middle course between the continuance of a unionist-dominated Stormont and the imposition of ‘direct rule’ from London, something which the Provisional IRA, People’s Democracy, the SDLP and the British Labour Party called for at the time, and whose dubious delights are now being replaced by indirect rule again a quarter-century later.

This alternative was a Westminster-legislated Bill of Rights that would have restrained Stormont’s power to do harm from the nationalist standpoint, while encouraging it to do good. This concept was a product of the political genius of the late C Desmond Greaves of the Connolly Association, who drafted such a Bill. It became the official policy of the NICRA and the British TUC.

It was introduced in both House of Commons and House of Lords on 12 May 1971, when the Tories imposed a three-line whip to reject it. It shows remarkable parallelism with current efforts to establish political structures in Northern Ireland within which unionist consent to the peaceful ending of the union can realistically be attained over a generation or so.

The book has much new information. Particularly interesting is the account of the political literature read by republicans in the Maze prison in the 1970s and 1980s, which played a part in their realisation that politics as well as armed struggle can be ‘revolutionary’.

I would like to have seen more emphasis on the international context of the Provisional IRA’s campaign, in particular the influence of the Cold War on British policy in Ireland and how its ending opened up new political possibilities.

Professor English does mention the influence of the EU on British policy, although that could be teased out more. I remember back in 1985 or so, the Frenchman Jacques Delors, then president of the EU Commission, making a speech in which he said that by the end of the century Brussels would be deciding 80 percent of the legislation for the EU member states.

I recall Desmond Greaves commenting at the time: “That must mean that the IRA are banging and shooting over who is going to exercise the remaining 20 per cent.”

As republicans contemplate these realities, they might do well to reflect that the classical aim of the Irish national movement was not a united Ireland, but Irish independence, and that Irish unity was a means to this, not an end in itself. Ireland was united in the 19th century under Britain, but it had no independence, as today it has less and less under Brussels.

Professor English’s important book should be read and thought over by all those who are committed to the cause of democracy in Ireland and Britain, and to establishing permanent political good relations between the peoples of our two islands.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-05-23 10:54:07.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2003 Connolly Publications Ltd