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.

You are not logged in