A Review of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA by Daniel Finn
Assistant Editor, New Left Review
This review of Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist identifies the unique features in its narrative of the Northern Irish Troubles: its emphasis on the distinct political factions within the nationalist movement, their relationships with smaller Trotskyist organisations, and the socio-economic factors that conditioned the permutable radicalism of the IRA. It evaluates the merits of this approach for understanding the twenty-first century resurgence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force in the Republic of Ireland.
Ireland – Troubles – nationalism – anticolonialism – Trotskyism – IRA
Daniel Finn, (2020) One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA, London: Verso.
Histories of the IRA are typically fixated on the violence of the Troubles: its 3,500 cadavers, 10,000 bombings and millions of pounds’ worth of property damage. There are lurid insider-accounts like Eamon Collins’s Killing Rage (1998), which charts the metamorphosis of Belfast teenagers into trained assassins, and journalistic studies like Brendan O’Brien’s The Long War (1995), which reconstructs the Provos’ military campaign. Yet this focus on the IRA’s combat tactics tends to occlude its political context: the ideological landscape in which it operated, and the clashing forces – from cultural nationalists to labour activists – that sought to influence its programme. Notwithstanding the necessarily elliptical memoirs of its central figures, it has been hard to find a comprehensive survey of the group’s political mutations, from the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s to the Power Sharing Executive of 2007. What were the calculations involved in its decision to abandon armed conflict? How did it respond to Britain’s neoliberal turn? To what extent were its anti-imperialist aims able to redress domestic power imbalances? For many who lived through the conflict, the IRA’s circuitous political trajectory – and convoluted relationship with the insurgent republican socialist movement – remains opaque: an oversight that bolsters revisionist attempts to drain Ireland’s anticolonial struggle of ideological content, presenting its partisans as terrorists or psychopaths.
In One Man’s Terrorist, the adapted doctoral thesis of Jacobin editor Daniel Finn, fine-grained archival research and first-hand testimonies of prominent republicans are used to fill in this historiographical lacuna. On one level, the book can be read as a straightforward primer on the Troubles: its opening pages offer an accessible summary of the Irish independence struggle before 1960, spotlighting the tension between its conservative and militant wings, while later chapters use that internal rift to assess the significant events of the IRA’s thirty-years’ war – civil-rights marches, internment, Bloody Sunday, prison protests and the peace process. Yet, to those familiar with the corpus of IRA literature, Finn’s text is also an original contribution which elevates neglected groups like People’s Democracy – the Northern Irish Trotskyist outfit led by Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann and Michael Farrell, among others – to the status of protagonists, arguing for their central role in shaping the IRA’s political backdrop. For Finn, these small, radical organisations demonstrated the potential for ‘republican agitation to disrupt the status quo’ (p. 35), and exerted significant pressure on the Provos, even though the latter often exhibited a fierce hostility to socialism.
The take-off point for Finn’s study is the IRA’s failed Border Campaign of the late 1950s: a landmark event that left its dwindling number of Volunteers dejected and adrift. This abortive attempt to galvanise armed resistance to the British occupation – met with little other than apathy on both sides of the border – convinced the new IRA leadership to change tack. Rather than recapitulating the covert guerrilla methods of its forerunner during the War of Independence, the group acknowledged the importance of winning grassroots support for a united Ireland. Its military operations would only be effective if complemented by a mass proletarian movement; and, by extension, a radical social programme was needed to supplant its narrow emphasis on British withdrawal. Such a movement already happened to be underway – kickstarted by Northern Irish leftists who, reading from the playbook of the American civil-rights struggle, used nonviolent resistance to challenge the anti-Catholic discrimination of the Orange State. The vehicle for this campaign was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which was dominated by Republican militants from its inception. Finn quotes a young Gerry Adams, who, at the first NICRA meeting in January 1967, described a room ‘packed by republicans, who wielded the biggest bloc vote’ (p. 39).
By embedding itself in the NICRA, the IRA intended to democratise Stormont and thus ‘prepare the ground for its destruction’. Finn terms this a ‘reformist strategy’ – although ‘stageist’ might be a more accurate characterisation. ‘First’, he writes,
the civil rights demands were to be won through a peaceful but militant campaign of protest. Northern Ireland’s political system would be democratized, its unorthodox features swept away. That would open the way for the second stage, during which the republican movement and others would struggle to bring class politics to the fore. Only when this had been achieved and left-wing forces had come to power on both sides of the Irish border would it be possible to dissolve the border between the two states and establish an all-Ireland workers’ republic. (p. 47.)
Ending partition was no longer the IRA’s immediate demand, but the eventual outcome of their proposals: a side-effect of socialist transformation, rather than a singular goal. This relegation of the national question predictably alienated republican old-timers. Although the IRA leadership insisted it was not about to lay down its arms, many rank-and-file members saw its political activity as a distraction from the task at hand: expelling the colonial power, whose presence was an ineluctable barrier to meaningful reform. By the end of the ’60s, a split was unavoidable. The breakaway Provisional IRA cleaved to an ‘austere republican orthodoxy’, while the socialist Officials combined ‘armed struggle and political agitation’ (p. 95). The former was led by ‘militarists’ like Seán Mac Stíofáin and Jimmy Steele, who claimed that a successful ground war must precede political consciousness raising, while the latter used its weapons in a purely defensive capacity: protecting nationalist communities from sectarian attack while advancing its positive agenda through nonviolent ‘civil resistance’ (p. 104). Whereas the Officials believed that their leftist programme would remedy Ulster’s religious polarisation, undermining the investment of Protestants in the apartheid state and forging a cross-sectarian workers’ front, the Provos viewed the unionist population as a ‘fifth column’ with whom no accommodation was possible or desirable. These ‘planters’ would either accept a 32-county settlement, or they would emigrate; they would not be won over to the nationalist cause by a few Marxian pamphlets (p. 140). Whether there was any viable position beyond these poles of Official accommodationism and Provisional rejectionism is unclear from Finn’s analysis. The Irish Republican Socialist Party, founded by Seamus Costello in 1974, proposed a synthesis of the Official and Provo policies: an aggressive military strategy to extirpate the British alongside an inclusive and non-sectarian socialist platform; but the group was constantly beset by factional infighting and external attacks, which destroyed its chance to gain a foothold in the six counties.
Although Finn is sympathetic to the Officials’ aims, he readily acknowledges the blind-spots in their strategy, whose greatest flaw was ‘the tacit assumption that the unionist population would remain largely passive’ in the face of a Catholic-emancipation struggle (p. 47). On the contrary, attempts to build a Gandhian resistance movement met with the full force of loyalist reaction, as Ian Paisley’s hardline unionists attacked NICRA protests with the support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. For Finn, these clashes undercut the Officials’ reformist approach, since attempts to ‘democratise’ Stormont looked increasingly improbable amid raging communal violence, and a powerful armed force seemed essential for the beleaguered nationalist population. Ironically, the more the Officials pushed their peaceful mobilisations, the more they elicited a Paisleyite backlash that drove increasing numbers toward the Provos: a cycle that cemented the latter’s hegemonic position in the early ’70s. Though the Officials attempted to reach out across the sectarian divide, they could not make inroads into Communist Party-aligned trade unions, which were reluctant to endorse the civil-rights struggle for fear that it would incense their Protestant members. This led to an unlikely situation – impenetrable to unionist politicians at the time – where the Official IRA ‘demand[ed] equal rights under British rule’, parting ways with traditionalist republicans, ‘while their communist allies pleaded for caution and restraint’ (p. 43).
Provisional recruitment soared with the introduction of internment without trial in 1971 and the shooting of 26 unarmed civilians by British soldiers the following year: events that seemed to legitimise Mac Stíofáin’s militarism. Yet just as the IRA of the early ’60s learnt that gunfights were useless without a broad support base, the Provos began to outgrow their ‘apolitical’, soldierly posture in the late ’70s, replacing their abstentionism with limited electoral engagement. In Finn’s account, the catalyst for this political turn was the prison protests of 1976–81, in which IRA inmates’ fight for special status provided the impetus for a pan-nationalist uprising. Prior to this, the left-wing activists clustered around People’s Democracy had accepted the Provos’ argument that the presence of foreign occupiers was a stumbling block to social change – and that British withdrawal should therefore be an urgent priority, rather than a distant goal. But, instead of falling wholly in line with the republican leadership, Devlin and McCann sought to ‘politicise’ the armed campaign: offsetting its ‘elitist’ tendencies by consolidating its connection with the grassroots, and combatting its military chauvinism with a popular anticolonialism. The prison protests were a perfect opportunity to advance this cause. The denial of special status was an injustice perpetrated against republican militants that chimed with the wider nationalist community – a symbol of British repression that captured the attention of hitherto lumpen working-class Catholics. It was the element that could turn the guerrilla war into a mass mobilisation: paramilitarism into people-power.
There was only one problem: the Provos were, in Gerry Adams’s words, ‘temperamentally and organizationally disinclined’ to cooperate with other groups. So when PD ‘called for a broad campaign in support of the prisoners that would not be restricted to supporters of the IRA … Sinn Féin members greeted the proposal with suspicion’ (pp. 143–4). Many in their ranks were determined to keep the civil-rights veterans at arm’s length, with Martin McGuinness going so far as to heckle Bernadette Devlin with the aid of a megaphone as she canvassed in Derry during the 1979 European elections. It took ‘three years of foot-dragging’, and substantial pressure from their own men inside the H-block prison units, before the Provos realised the potential of the prisoner-solidarity movement and threw their weight behind it (p. 203). The results were astonishing: 17,000 turned out for the first pan-nationalist march, ‘the kind of mobilization that had not been seen since the heyday of civil resistance’, while Bobby Sands – an IRA member serving time for weapons charges – was elected to Westminster in the Fermanagh–South Tyrone byelection (p. 143). This gave the Provos a ‘tremendous political boost’ (p. 148), their popularity growing further still when Thatcher let Sands starve to death in his prison cell at the age of 27. At their next conference, Sinn Féin’s leadership gave ‘approval to contest every subsequent election, north and south’ (p. 155).
With Adams installed as leader, the IRA of the early 1980s developed two strategic priorities: to reorganise the army along cellular lines in response to London’s security offensive (gearing up for a ‘long war’ of attrition rather than a return to intensive conflict), and to maintain Sinn Féin’s political momentum by formulating left-wing economic policies that would capitalise on nationalist antipathy to Thatcher (p. 157). This brought Adams into conflict with compatriots such as Ivor Bell, who became ‘concerned that he was diverting resources from the movement’s coffers to fund election campaigns’, and accused him of sabotaging a planned ‘Tet Offensive’ (p. 171) against the British (using weapons gifted by Libya’s Gaddafi). It also meant that, after years of rejecting the socialism of the Officials and People’s Democracy – sometimes using unabashed ‘Red-baiting’ (p. 244) against these Republican adversaries – the Provos hijacked their programme once it had become electorally expedient. The Officials, meanwhile, redoubled their irrelevance by adopting a quixotic brand of ‘Orange Marxism’ that repudiated anticolonialism wholesale in a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to win the support of working-class unionists – a move that Finn rightly excoriates (p. 128).
Yet, despite their belated adoption of progressive politics, the Provos’ electoral gains remained limited throughout the ’80s. Their attempts to win seats in the Southern parliament, and challenge the electoral supremacy of John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party in the north, were non-starters. Unable to dislodge the stubborn 60:40 split in support for the SDLP and Sinn Féin, the Provos’ appeal seemed to have reached a permanent ceiling, which – as Finn writes – brought its leaders face to face with an uncomfortable reality: public opposition to IRA violence would block the party’s political ascent (pp. 163–4). The ‘Armalite and ballot box’ – the two pillars of the Provos’ post-abstentionist strategy – were no longer complementary: the first was constraining the second.
This realisation opened the door to a ceasefire, which the Provo leadership believed to be the only means of surmounting its political stasis. As Hume and Adams embarked on behind-the-scenes peace negotiations, the IRA signalled its willingness to end the war – ‘as a matter of last resort’ – were there a ‘consistent constitutional strategy to pursue a national democracy in Ireland’ (p. 186). At the same time, Adams and McGuinness warned IRA Volunteers to avoid civilian casualties (disbanding a unit in west Fermanagh for ‘unethical behaviour’) and drummed up internal support for an ‘all-Ireland anti-imperialist mass movement’, bringing together ‘the broadest range of social and political forces’ in pursuit of a 32-county Republic (p. 181). Although the Provos had just recently absorbed the socialist rhetoric of PD, they now began to fear that it would impede an alliance with the SDLP, and alienate a Washington political establishment that was willing to support Irish nationalism so long as it bore no resemblance to its Third World counterpart. Adams thus started to advise against ‘the dangers of ultra-leftism’, urging IRA members to ‘beware of any tendencies which would narrow our demands and our base’, and reneging on electorally divisive policies such as Sinn Féin’s pro-choice stance (pp. 178–9). Having squeezed out its opponents on the left, the party was able to perform this volte face without fear of losing its social base. For the latter had no alternative political home, and felt an immovable attachment to the group that had banished loyalist paramilitaries and sectarian policemen from their neighbourhoods.
In Finn’s assessment, one of the final steps in this process of unravelling IRA militancy came with the Adams–Hume peace plan, which overturned the Provos’ long-held attitude to unionists (pp. 194–5). Though Adams had previously rejected the right of Ulster Protestants to obstruct reunification, he was now willing to accept a unionist veto on ending partition with only two qualifications: first, the British government must sue for a united Ireland in the long-term; and second, the legislative basis for this ‘principle of consent’ must be provided by the Irish parliament, rather than the British. A watered-down version of these demands made its way into the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which Adams accepted as the basis of a ceasefire, laying the foundations for a new Northern Irish state. This was a decisive break with the Provos’ foundational principle – that Stormont was inherently unreformable – and a reversion to the policy of the early Officials: winning democratic rights for the nationalist community and establishing cross-border institutions in the hope that this would eventually lead to Irish unity (p. 196). In a historic irony, the organisation set up to bury the ‘reformist strategy’ finally embraced it three decades later.
Finn dismisses the Provo’s newfound reformism as ‘wishful thinking’: for him, the belief that 32-county institutions ‘would somehow unleash a “transitional dynamic” leading inexorably to Irish unity’ had ‘little objective basis’, as did the idea that Sinn Féin’s steady accumulation of political power, north and south, could eventually end partition (p. 217). With no route to unity in sight, the Provo leadership finally accepted a peace deal – the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – that jettisoned the Hume–Adams principles entirely, settling for a reformed Stormont in lieu of a ‘national democracy’. If this was the final repudiation of the IRA’s republican ideals, its sporadic commitment to socialism didn’t fare much better: Adams’s Sinn Féin tried repeatedly to form a coalition with Ireland’s centre-right parties, equivocated in its support for the anti-austerity movement of the 2010s, and failed to find a clear position on the Repeal the 8th campaign – all for minimal electoral gain. ‘Having sacrificed principle for power’, Finn concludes, ‘Sinn Féin found itself with neither’ (p. 219).
Finn’s book was written shortly after Mary Lou McDonald replaced Adams as Sinn Féin leader, and its epilogue predicts that she will ‘likely continue a long journey toward the centre ground’ (p. 222). Yet the publication of One Man’s Terrorist virtually coincided with the 2020 general election campaign, in which Sinn Féin pledged to freeze rents, build social housing, reverse spending cuts and pour money into social services – making only glancing and self-apologetic references to its republican agenda. The party’s membership surged after it won the highest national vote share, recruiting activists who had participated in the water-charges and abortion-rights movements. While Adams’s personal history rendered him reluctant to endorse the civil-disobedience tactics of the anti-austerity movement (lest it validate the hysterical narrative that a Sinn Féin victory would spark a return to IRA lawlessness), McDonald, a post-Troubles politician elected to the Dáil in 2011, has no such baggage, and was therefore willing to embrace a confrontational left-populism that has shattered the country’s centre-right consensus.
Granted, her party remains committed to keeping Ireland’s low corporation-tax rate, maintaining annual budget surpluses and forming a government with Fianna Fáil’s moribund clientelists, all of which is sure to frustrate its social-democratic ambitions. But if, as Finn argues, Sinn Féin’s stance on partition has reverted to something like that of the Officials (it now promises little more than a ‘white paper on Irish unity’ and a ‘Joint Oireachtas Committee’ to review the issue), then perhaps its ideological character could similarly evoke the IRA of the civil-rights era: a new leadership, unencumbered by the orthodoxies of its predecessor, putting social demands before questions of sovereignty in a pragmatic attempt to harness popular frustration at an ailing political order. If this is the case, then Ireland’s current far-left grouplets – Solidarity, People Before Profit, RISE – could prove instrumental in ‘politicising’ Sinn Féin’s adaptable nationalism and anchoring it in community-led activism, just as People’s Democracy did in the 1960s. Rather than perpetuating the erosion of republican radicalism, then, the 2020s might return us to one of its more hopeful iterations, albeit with significant distinctions: no imminent threat of armed conflict, no sectarian state on which to focus its attention, and a divided left dominated by Trotskyist front-groups (whose organising model is more insular and ineffectual than that of People’s Democracy).
Then again, there is a recurring pattern in Finn’s narrative of the Troubles that may dampen this forecast. Irish nationalists have a historic tendency to broaden their appeal by veering left, increase their political capital, and then consolidate it by forging establishment alliances which require them to forego not only their permutable socialism, but the core tenets of their republicanism. This sequence of events unfolded with the SDLP rapprochement in the ’80s; it has animated Sinn Féin’s approach to governance in the north; and it may yet repeat itself with Fianna Fáil in the south. But readers of One Man’s Terrorist will at least be alert to such dangers – healthily sceptical of the Provos’ political descendants, anticipating their next lurch to the right, yet mindful to preserve the transformative potential that has been variously offered and withdrawn by this tradition.