The Party and the Army
Ronan Bennett writes about the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA
Shortly after the Canary Wharf bomb, John Major, speaking in the House of Commons, said: ‘As for the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I think that they are both members one of another.’ Sinn Fein, he continued, would now have to decide whether it wanted to be a constitutional party or continue as a front for the IRA. Ignoring renewed protestations from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that Sinn Fein is separate from the IRA, that it is a political party with a democratic mandate from its voters, most politicians and observers have, like Major himself, accepted almost without question the Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA. They do so in spite of the fact that few details of the relationship are known and many of the ‘insights’ plain wrong. The Sunday Times, for example, was demonstrably mistaken when it announced that Gerry Kelly, one of Sinn Fein’s chief negotiators at Stormont, is a highly placed IRA man who is not even a member of the Party. Kelly, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, may or may not be a member of the IRA army council, but he is certainly a member of Sinn Fein: he stood unsuccessfully at last year’s Árd Fheis, or party conference, for election to the Árd Chomhairle – the Party’s national executive.
If the peace process is to be resurrected with any realistic chance of success, those engaged in negotiations with the Republican movement need to make a better effort to understand the way Republicans think and work (know your enemy: it is a basic principle). Nor is there any use in pretending that the North of Ireland is the same as Yorkshire or the Midlands or East Anglia; it is not even Wales or Scotland. It is no good demanding that everyone behave as though the gun and the bomb had played no part in recent history. Sinn Fein may not be a normal political party with normal antecedents but in the Six Counties the distance between ballot and ammunition box has always been small, and not just on the Republican side.
Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican have had cause to resort to arms, and always found the arguments to justify it. It is not so long ago that Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, invited the media to a night-time parade of hundreds of his supporters as they waved their gun licences and threatened, in the name of democracy and the Protestant people, to use their weapons if Britain tried to force constitutional change on them. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, now hailed in many quarters as a ‘moderate’, was himself a supporter of Vanguard, the militant Unionist body which in the early Seventies had links with Loyalist paramilitaries. After the abolition of the Stormont Government in 1972 Vanguard’s massed ranks lined up and fell in infantry-style to be reviewed by William Craig, masquerading as a latter-day Carson. In the North of Ireland, it is better not to throw stones: many political houses are made of glass.
The North is, unhappily, a special case: were it not, there would have been no need to arm the police, to build forts, to garrison towns, to imprison large numbers of the population without trial, to deploy the SAS, to impose curfews, to eavesdrop, watch, patrol and control. It would not have been necessary to embark on peace processes, to hold secret talks, to hold talks about talks, to invite American Presidents. It would not have been necessary to do any of the thousand special things that have been done there. John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew do not like it, but one of the defining characteristics of Irish Nationalism – and Unionism, for that matter – is that it has always had a tradition of physical force. The survival of that tradition is lamentable and anachronistic, but they are foolish to attribute its continued vitality to the very man who has done most to rein it in. For more than fifteen years, Gerry Adams has been coaxing Sinn Fein away from its militarist origins, yet Adams’s achievement has gone unacknowledged and the man himself continues to receive nothing but the lowest insults. ‘I wonder if he was bullied at school,’ Alexander Chancellor wrote in the Guardian shortly after Canary Wharf:
He looks as if he might have been. He exudes that combination of aloofness and self-satisfaction which invites bullying. I can imagine wanting to smash his glasses in the playground. I can even imagine wanting to do it now. But what I think I would really like to do now would be to get somebody to hold his arms behind his back while I grasp his nose and his beard very tight and refuse to let go until he swears three times that he condemns the IRA and will never condone violence again.
Most commentators were agreed that if Adams didn’t condemn the bombing he should be cast into the wilderness. A surer recipe for prolonging the North’s tragedy would be harder to imagine.
The proponents of physical force within the Republican movement – those who have always argued that Britain only listens to guns and bombs, that the Easter Rising and the War of Independence achieved what the Home Rulers at Westminster could not, that IRA guns and Semtex would force the Brits out – have generally held sway over those who argued that violence only polarised the situation and delayed British withdrawal. John Major and Patrick Mayhew have not grasped the fact, but it is their good fortune to be in office at a time when the position of the political men relative to the militarists has been reversed. Until quite recently, most Republicans saw political activity as synonymous with compromise and betrayal. Since Partition, those who wanted to get the British out have continued to opt for the Army rather than the Party. In the Sixties – when Sinn Fein was an illegal organisation (it was not unbanned until 1974) – the efforts of more politically conscious activists like Gerry Adams to organise the Party met with little success. Sinn Fein, Adams has written, was then ‘a very small organisation ... You could almost describe it as an incestuous association made up as it was of members of a few spinal Republican families.’
During the Sixties the old, Dublin-based Marxist leadership of Cathal Goulding and Tomás Mac Giolla began scaling down the Army in an effort to modernise Republicanism and attract mass support. By 1969 the Belfast IRA was virtually non-existent and so poorly armed it could not defend the Nationalist population against the incursions of Loyalist mobs and the B-Specials. After the split of the following year, the Officials – following the Marxist model favoured by Goulding and Mac Giolla – were careful to subordinate the Army to the Party and, in spite of the obvious security implications, ordered all members of the Official IRA to join the Republican Clubs, the Officials’ version, in the North, of Sinn Fein. The local Republican Club chairman was invariably the OC of the local unit of the Official IRA, the secretary was the adjutant, the treasurer was the finance officer and so on. After calling their own ceasefire in 1972, the Officials moved steadily away from the armed struggle – though they never decommissioned their weapons – and eventually evolved into the Workers’ Party and, after another split, the Democratic Left, whose leader, Proinsais de Rossa, is a member of John Bruton’s coalition government (Adams likes to refer to de Rossa as ‘my former colleague’).
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 8 · 18 April 1996
Comparison of anything to the Nazis is rarely advisable. Recent descriptions of the Provos as Fascist have elicited the reply that Provo Republicanism lacks a mass movement. But Fascism embraced intimidation of individuals, of isolated rural communities, of commercial firms vulnerable to slander, and racist daubings – and this to the point of fatality. I cannot say, offhand, whether it embraced knee-capping. But there is no need to investigate the flesh and blood of Continental Fascism as it was in the Thirties and Forties: Ronan Bennett has captured the spirit of its latter-day off-shore enterprises with admirable fidelity (LRB, 21 March). He speaks, pianissimo, the genuine Goebbels-degook.
We are told that after local elections, held during the hunger strikes of 1981 which the IRA organised and Sinn Fein rammed home, Sinn Fein ‘found itself with over a hundred councillors. The Party also gained seats in the Irish Dáil.’ Some of this is partly true, though the local elections were notable, too, for the massive increase in support for Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party – which doubled its first preference share of the vote, to gain 26 per cent of popular support. But his comment about the elections to the Dáil deserves closer attention. Sinn Fein nominated no candidates in the Southern general election, so Sinn Fein ‘gained’ no seats. (‘Gained’ is a nice verb, suggesting that 1981 resulted in an augmentation of a representative base already established: in fact no candidates of that stripe have been elected to Dáil Eireann since 1957.)
On 22 May 1981, Kieran Doherty (a Provisional IRA prisoner in the Maze Prison outside Belfast, serving 22 years for arms offences) joined a hunger strike originally instituted the previous October. For the 1981 Southern Irish elections, he and eight other ‘H-Block candidates’ were nominated. Two were elected on 11 June: Doherty in Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew in Louth (both in border constituencies). Doherty died on hunger strike on 2 August. None of the nine stood as Sinn Fein candidates, and Mr Bennett’s ecumenism in now claiming them as such balances his declared purpose of distinguishing between the IRA and Sinn Fein.
If Doherty and Agnew really were Sinn Fein candidates, but expediency deemed it wiser not to label them so, what is expediency up to these days? Bennett initially deplores the tendency of John Major and others to use the ‘Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA’. Then he applies the Doherty-Agnew theorem to obscure the fact that those he now terms successful Sinn Fein candidates were in fact IRA men in the H-Blocks. But his own efforts to disentangle the constituent parts of ‘the Unionist formulation’ promptly collapse when he declares that ‘to ask for Sinn Fein to disentangle itself from the IRA is to miss the point about the way Republicanism’s dynamics have operated over the last two decades, driving the movement in a steadily political direction. The link, far from being an obstacle to any settlement, is indispensable to it.’
Evidently the Doherty/Agnew theorem is part of the proof that Sinn Fein/IRA is in an advanced stage of politicisation, a process which had begun even in 1981. Mr Bennett is copywriter-in-chief on this topic, but the task is onerous. Gerry Adams, the product whom Bennett is most eager to sell, was so politicised between 1987 and 1992 that he never took his seat in Westminster despite being elected by that ‘third of the nationalist vote’ claimed by Sinn Fein. Nor are we illuminated by any comment from Bennett on the party affiliation of those who, on 17 January 1992, blew up a minibus carrying civilian construction workers, with the loss of eight lives: at this stage of the politicisation process Gerry Adams was able to classify the incident as ‘a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland’.
None of the above should be allowed to obscure the fact that the politicisation of Sinn Fein/IRA is devoutly to be wished – and worked for. Nor does it negate the argument that the British Government was culpably slow in responding to the ceasefire. The problem facing Sinn Fein/IRA is this: if the people who broke the ceasefire were members of the Party then why should anyone trust it; and if the people who broke the ceasefire were not members of the Party (but of the ‘Army’ alone) why should anyone trust it? A valuable first step would be for Republicanism to renounce abstentionism and declare that it will participate in all assemblies to which it is elected. How can negotiations begin if one party, while claiming to have a democratic mandate, consistently refuses to sit in democratically elected assemblies?
Goldsmiths College, London SE14
Ronan Bennett’s article on the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA usefully stresses the fact that in the view of Sinn Fein and the IRA the question of prisoners is central to a peaceful settlement. This is not well understood in this country, but Irish TDs who have visited prisoners at HMP Full Sutton consistently make this point.
In his reference to HMP Full Sutton, Bennett is unfair when he writes that a prisoner here was ‘completely untreated’. The fact is that his condition was reviewed not only by the prison doctors but also by a general surgeon and a consultant dermatologist from the NHS. This may seem a minor point to your readers but such comment, casting doubt on health care in prison, causes understandable but unfounded fear among relatives and friends of all prisoners. In February, writing about the work of the Prison Service, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine praised the improvements in the health and well-being of prisoners. This is especially remarkable at a time when the Prison Service is receiving a record number of prisoners.
Governor, HM Prison, Full Sutton, York
Vol. 18 No. 10 · 23 May 1996
In his article on the stalled peace process in Ireland, Ronan Bennett (LRB, 21 March) made the point that the medical condition of Patrick Kelly, an Irish Republican prisoner who is suffering from cancer, went ‘completely untreated’ while he was being held in HMP Full Sutton. In a reply Mr Staples, the Governor of HMP Full Sutton, claims that this statement ‘is unfair’ and assures us that there is no need to worry about health care in British prisons (Letters, 18 April).
Patrick Kelly is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions. He was arrested in London in November 1992. Shortly before his arrest, in June 1992, he had undergone a drastic skin cancer operation on his back, in a hospital in Ireland. After his arrest and while on remand in prison in London, he felt pain again. No consultant or outside doctor was asked by the prison to see him. Instead his solicitors instructed a consultant dermatologist who, after performing a scan, reassured him that no recurrence had taken place.
After his conviction, Kelly was first moved to Parkhurst Prison and then to Full Sutton Prison. The prison authorities were aware of Kelly’s history of cancer: full details were provided to them by his solicitors and were contained in his medical records. Despite this, he was not monitored, no tests were performed by the prison and no cancer specialist consulted by them. During the following year, he repeatedly complained of pain and of inflammation of the scar on his back. Other than prescribing painkillers, no relevant action was taken. A doctor instructed by Kelly’s solicitors was reassured by Full Sutton Prison that a scan had been performed and had been shown to be clear. What was not said to Kelly’s doctor was that the scan had been of Kelly’s abdomen, not his back. Kelly’s medical records show that the prison authorities had been aware of the possibility that his cancer had recurred as early as July 1994. There was an entry on his medical notes reading ‘possible recurrence?’ entered at that date. This information was not passed on to Kelly or to any other person.
On transfer from Full Sutton to Whitemoor Prison, doctors immediately called in a consultant surgeon from the nearby Peterborough General Hospital. A major operation on Kelly’s back was performed almost immediately. During his time at Peterborough Hospital he was chained to a prison warder at all times. He was then moved back to the medical wing at Whitemoor Prison, and after a short period of time back again to the Special Secure Unit. Here he was placed on punishment in a cell that had only a mattress and no heating, sanitation or water. He was locked up for 23 hours a day and refused reading material or a radio.
In October 1995 a cancer specialist from Vancouver, Dr Shah, was brought in on Kelly’s behalf. Shah immediately observed what had not been pointed out by the prison doctors: namely, that there appeared to be relevant and worrying lumps under Kelly’s arms. In December he was finally transferred from England to Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland and in the middle of January he was operated on again at the City Hospital in Belfast. It is not clear how long he has to live.
Reports published by the Irish Labour Party and Fine Gael highlight the ill-treatment of Irish Republican prisoners in English jails; the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and British Irish Rights Watch have made a joint submission to the UN Committee against Torture. All three reports point out that conditions for Irish Republican prisoners in England deteriorated significantly after the IRA ceasefire in August 1994. The Fine Gael report says: ‘It is with regret that we report that since our last visit we have noted a marked deterioration in the condition of those held in Special Secure Units. We noticed a loss of weight, extreme tiredness and all of those still held in these units complain of sleep deprivation, barely adequate food and erratic heating. Their treatment is both cruel and inhumane. Furthermore, there is a general problem with access to proper medical attention affecting a number of prisoners with serious medical conditions. Following the life-threatening neglect of Paddy Kelly’s medical condition, who is only now receiving the second essential operation in Northern Ireland, it is not surprising that the men themselves believe that there is a wanton disregard for their health.’