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100 Years of Sinn Fein – Part 6

Joe Craig

10th September 2005

When the Provisionals split from the Official Republican Movement in 1969/1970 they gave five reasons for doing so. Firstly the ‘recognition of Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House; (ii) extreme socialism leading to dictatorship; (iii) internal methods being used in the movement; (iv) failure to give maximum possible defence in Belfast and other northern areas in August 1969; (v) campaigning to retain Stormont instead of seeking its abolition.’ (‘Freedom Struggle’, Provisional IRA, 1973).

These were all connected. The perceived failure of the Goulding leadership to give due prioritisation to the IRA and its military requirements were held to flow from its ‘extreme’ socialism which resulted in the ‘incomprehensible’ policy of campaigning in favour of retaining Stormont and the undemocratic measures taken against those in the movement who opposed it.

The Republican Movement was held to have failed to protect Northern nationalists from the attacks of loyalist mobs, who had been aided and abetted by the forces of the local state, bringing down humiliation on the IRA, which had failed in what it considered a primary role – nationalist defence. It was this failure that has been held as key to the development of the new Provisional movement, to the extent that some have argued that the Provisionals have never been an authentic representative of the Irish Republican tradition but a modern version of Catholic defenderism.


This is not just a question of the origins of the Provisionals but relevant to an evaluation of them today and what their current failure is precisely a failure of. In effect the argument is that today’s collapse of the Provisionals into reactionary constitutional nationalism is not a failure of Irish Republicanism but of Provisional defenderism. Political perspectives follow in terms of what type of politics are now required to carry forward the fight for the objectives the Provos once, and still do, claim to stand for.

It can be pointed out that the historic role of defence of the nationalist population is much exaggerated. The border campaign avoided Belfast precisely because the IRA was unable to protect Catholics from unionist reprisals. The perceived failure in 1969 has been the rule rather than the exception. The IRA played a crucial role in episodes such as defence of Short Strand in 1970, and over the last thirty years there is little doubt that its presence has at times dissuaded loyalist attack, but the IRA proved unable to prevent literally hundreds of loyalist sectarian murders or, in the latter stages of the past thirty years, even to protect its own members. As we shall see, it failed the latter problem of defence precisely because of its military conceptions.

However the five reasons given for the birth of the Provisionals are all entirely consistent with the Irish Republican tradition as life was breathed into it by the sectarianism of the Northern State and the policies of the British. Those who point to these factors in reviving the republican tradition are correct – we have seen in our earlier history the historical impasse Republicanism had been driven into. It must however be appreciated that it was Irish Republicanism that was revived. The evolution of the Provisionals would demonstrate this. It is this tradition which has now been shown to have failed. A new tradition needs to be built to carry out the democratic tasks Republicanism set itself but was unable to achieve.


This is demonstrated by the fact that the new movement did not remain content for long to pose only the question of defence.  It soon addressed itself to the question of an offensive and pursuit of what it regarded as the traditional goals of Irish Republicanism – British withdrawal and a united Ireland. In 1970 the army council of the Provisional IRA ‘agreed that the most urgent priority should be area defence… As soon as it became feasible and practical, the IRA would move from a purely defensive position into a phase of combined defence and retaliation… when the movement was considered strong enough and the circumstances ripe, it would go into the third phase: all-out offensive action against the British occupation system.’ (Sean MacStiofain, ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’)

The Official IRA at this time had an approach based on the second of these policies but the Provisionals moved quickly to the third. (This incidentally exposes their continuing claim that they had no alternative to their armed campaign) This was understood in the most militaristic of terms – the Brits could be defeated militarily by the IRA.

The split from the Officials revealed a Provisional movement with only a very primitive understanding of politics. While a Provisional IRA was born there was barely a Provisional Sinn Fein, which wasn’t legalised by the British until 1974. Its political manifesto, Eire Nua, was not so much a political programme in the sense of a strategic document setting out a route that married objectives to the means of achieving them, as rather a picture of the future Ireland once all the problems of strategy had somehow or other been resolved and overcome.

The more aggressive stance of the Provos allowed them to grow as young nationalists sought the means to hit back not only, or even primarily, at the loyalists but at the British Army whose widescale repression rapidly made them the sharp end of the State assault on the nationalist working class. The Provos were also very clear that they were opposed to the hated Stormont regime and in this, for all their political primitiveness, they had a policy that easily marginalised the Officials. Stormont was the instrument of the sectarian State, which articulated its policies and rallied the unionist alliance, behind which the British could hide its own responsibility for what was happening. It was the weakest link in the machinery of imperialist control of the island and was correctly the object of opposition of the radicalising nationalist working class.

This working class had expelled the State’s security forces from their areas and had become more and more hostile to the State itself. Loyalist attacks, assisted by the RUC or B Specials and increasing British Army repression, including the Falls Curfew in 1970, all failed to break opposition to Stormont. Unionists meanwhile called for tougher and tougher repression. When internment was introduced in August 1971 and failed to quell resistance, the writing was on the wall for the Stormont regime.

The SDLP had been compelled to withdraw from Stormont the month before the introduction of internment after the shooting of two people in Derry by the British Army and a rent and rates strike had been called that was to encompass about a quarter of the Catholic population. Many Catholic representatives withdrew from councils and public bodies. When fourteen civil rights demonstrators were murdered by the British Army on Bloody Sunday at the beginning of 1972, in a failed attempt to terrorise the opposition, and action spread to the South, Stormont was effectively finished. It was prorogued a couple of months later in March.

The Provisionals recruited heavily after each wave of repression. They were seen as the most militant and the most effective way to hit back at the British. They also promised victory and ‘victory ’72’, ‘victory ’73’ and ‘victory ‘74’ became not just Provo slogans but Provo predictions. The defeat of Stormont was claimed as a victory for their armed campaign and for a long time afterwards became the primary argument used by them to justify the efficacy of their armed campaign, until it became embarrassing when their primary objective became its return.

The Provos completely failed to register that their armed campaign was only a part, and not the most important part, of a mass political opposition. Without this mass movement their campaign would not have existed, would not have succeeded and would later decline and degenerate. While this opposition advanced and grew it could cover for the bankruptcy of republican militarism. These lessons were apparent for those who cared to look.  For example a pivotal event in July 1970 was the Falls curfew, but this was broken not by the Official or Provisional IRA but by the mobilisation of Falls Road women.

All attention, at least from the British and unionists, seemed to centre on IRA armed exploits. The mass recruits, the fall of Stormont and negotiations with the British all appeared to vindicate the movement.  But the movement’s political weakness was to be exposed.

The Provisionals neglect, in fact disdain, of politics – intensified by the split from the hated ‘sticks’ – led to an exclusive focus and concentration on war, what we have called militarism. But the most famous maxim of war is that it is just politics by other means:

‘Once again: war is an instrument of policy. It must necessarily bear the character of policy and measure by its standards. The conduct of war, in its great outlines, is therefore policy itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen, but does not on that account cease to think according to its own laws.‘ (Carl von Clausewitz, ‘On War’)

The Provo conception of politics was one of war but since war is politics Provo politics could be described as militarism. They could not escape primitive politics through military activity because military activity requires a strategy, and strategy is essentially political. The Provos didn’t have one and never have had one. What they have called strategy has simply been a set of assumptions upon which has rested a series of operational tactics. These depended heavily on individual ability to carry out so that the quality of individual volunteers has been crucial. Where they have shown courage, determination, ingenuity and self-sacrifice the Provos have congratulated themselves, not without cause. But this is no substitute for strategy. Individual volunteers have also been ill-trained, inexperienced, incompetent and blinkered. They have also become the informers that ravaged the movement, but this phenomenon is not one due primarily to individual failings. It is a result of strategic failure. Wherein did this strategic failure lie?


The Provisionals have never been more than a small military force facing a much more powerful enemy. The British State for the last thirty years has been part of the world’s most powerful military alliance, NATO, for most of this time ready for war with the Soviet Union. It has, despite retraction forced on it by reduced circumstances, maintained an effort (in the words of the ex-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd) to ‘punch above its weight’ in world affairs. This has, if anything, become more important to Britain as inter-imperialist rivalry has increased with the end of the Cold War and defeat of the Soviet enemy. The British State is one of the strongest in the world, something disguised by the overwhelming power of the United States. It is a member of the G8 most powerful group of nations and sits as a permanent member of the UN Security Council by virtue of its victorious status after World War II and its possession of nuclear weapons. It has a modern, professional and well-trained army well versed in colonial suppression.

Yet the IRA continually during its campaign claimed it could, indeed was, defeating this State. The disparity of forces meant this could only be credibly claimed if it could be shown that the British State had no real interest in occupying the North of Ireland and therefore could be compelled to leave relatively easily. The Provos generally did not attempt to demonstrate this, although plenty on the left did. They did not partly because they believed that if they were to agree that Britain had no interests in occupation this would undermine their claim to be fighting an anti-imperialist struggle. In fact the British presence is a frustration of democratic rights no matter what purported justification it gives itself.

The Provos however did claim that because of their campaign the British wanted out, but this claim prevented them from coming to a realistic assessment of British interests. Such an assessment would have shown that their efforts were so far from out-weighing British determination to stay that their military activities were always going to be a failure. The determination of the British to fight over the last thirty years is itself eloquent testimony to their calculation of where their interest lies.

A British State unable to defend its own claimed territorial integrity would be severely weakened in its efforts to project its power across the world. The stability of capitalism in Ireland is bound up with partition and British occupation of the North. It is not necessary to tot up British private investment in the North, or even add that of the British State itself, in order to come to a bookkeeping theory of imperialism that would show that it is costing imperialism to stay in Ireland. Subsidising the needs of private capital and financing its own needs is what the capitalist State is all about. It has been pointed out that the US spends $50 billion on security in the Persian Gulf yet the value of imported oil from this region is only $11 billion, or 10% of US consumption. Yet few would fail to recognise the imperialist nature of US intervention in the Gulf. The very proximity of Ireland renders it a strategic concern of Britain. It is inconceivable it would be unconcerned about its influence there.

All the quotes from British Secretaries of State who have complained of ‘what a bloody awful country’ it is (Reginald Maudling) ironically demonstrate this overriding interest. These sort of remarks also blow out of the water the British claim to be in Ireland because unionists want them to be.

Britain is in Ireland, partly by default, because there is no Irish capitalist class that could guarantee its, and others, strategic political and economic interests. The unionist capitalist class has withered over the last century and was incapable of acting as political hegemon in the whole country before that. The ‘nationalist’ capitalist class has outdone itself in hypocrisy about wanting to reintegrate the national territory but was completely united when it signed away its claims by deleting Articles two and three of its constitution while getting nothing legally significant from the British in return. It too is incapable of providing political stability over the whole country. Its greatest fear, put by Garret Fitzgerald, is that ‘the situation there could get out of control and threaten the whole island,’ a theme echoed by British Secretary of State James Prior who warned of ‘a Cuba off our western coast.’

Two little episodes illustrate this class’s panic at the merest suggestion that they take over responsibility for the whole island. In 1969 one of the aides to the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson recalled the Taoiseach’s reaction to an idea for Irish unity floated by the former: ‘I had thought they would jump for joy, but their reaction was more akin to falling through the floor.’ When Garret Fitzgerald worried about the same thing in 1974 he sought out Henry Kissinger to seek American assistance ‘in persuading Britain not to embark on a course of action that could be so fraught with dangers.’ He needn’t have bothered, the British have never had this intention, and the fears have been groundless.

British leaders have repeated their commitment to occupation so often it does not register, especially with unionists, or some on the left who think they know better. In 1982 for example James Prior stated that ‘our proposals are the most likely to tie Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom’ and more recently Tony Blair has insisted that he will never live to see a united Ireland. British actions have been entirely consistent with such expressions of intent.

This situation of imperialist power, interest and intent only partially sets the strategic context for anyone contemplating a military solution. The British have had the inestimable benefit of having the support of a majority in the occupied area. The vast majority of the Protestant population have supported the imperialist occupation and the British have not failed to use this to their advantage.

It has meant that analogies by the Provos with Vietnam have been wide of the mark. There would be no demoralisation and disintegration of the imperialist army, not just because of the lower level of casualties and the volunteer character of the British Army. The British could and did replace many of them with locally recruited armed forces, the police and locally recruited regiments – the UDR – so that they would take the brunt of IRA activity. This was the policy of Ulsterisation which also allowed them to more easily claim the conflict was purely a sectarian one. There could be no question of breaking the will of these forces to stay, they were recruited from a population that lived in the occupied area. The British also employed elements from this population in an unofficial manner by sponsoring the loyalist paramilitary death squads which made up in sectarian brutality what they lacked in efficiency. An anti-imperialist policy to the pro-imperialist population required political considerations that were excluded from the militaristic thinking of the Provos.

All this meant that the IRA could never have succeeded militarily, but this overwhelming concentration on armed struggle meant that during the period of mass radicalisation of the nationalist population they failed to build a political movement. This seemed not to matter, not only because of their militarist perspective, but also because the nationalist population had been united in its rejection of Stormont. Having succeeded however in bringing down Stormont this unity collapsed. The Provos and others on the left wanted to end British rule while the SDLP wanted a place for the Catholic middle class inside the State. After the downfall of Stormont the latter were able to take the political leadership of the majority of nationalists in pursuit of this objective.

This was to fail not because of Republican opposition but because of unionist rejection both at the polls and in the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 which brought down the power sharing Assembly. This strike also proved the unwillingness of the British to take on and defeat its most rabid supporters. The strike had succeeded not mainly because of voluntary support but because of massive loyalist intimidation that the British did nothing to prevent. The loyalist mobilisation pushed the political terrain sharply to the right and set the scene for a period of political stalemate as the Unionists were unable to persuade the British to re-impose a Stormont Assembly because the latter realised the nationalist population would not accept it.


Typically it was not these political developments or others such as the rise of a mass (albeit temporary) ‘peace people’ movement that forced the Provos to examine their ‘strategy.’ Militarism had reduced the field of vision to purely military concerns, so it was adverse developments on this front that forced a rethink.

Much of the purely military capacity of the IRA rested on the fact that it operated from areas where the State could not enter. In Belfast and Derry no-go areas had been set up through mass mobilisation of the local population and their existence were a standing affront to the British and unionists. Following the fall of Stormont the IRA accelerated activity and in May 1972 carried out twelve hundred operations. On 21 July they planted 20 of their new car bombs in Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130. Television pictures of body remains being shovelled into bags vividly illustrated the horror. The British were able to use the political conditions created to invade the no-go areas on 31 July. The Belfast IRA then moved its headquarters to the middle-class Malone Road area of South Belfast.

The real loss was a political one. While the IRA congratulated itself on not being sucked into a battle with the British Army it could not have won, the fact that there was no mass political resistance was of much more significance. This reflected the fact that the Provos had done nothing politically with the no-go areas, not even set up quasi or embryonic governmental structures that would at least have organised those behind the barricades, if not acted as a base to do the same for those outside them.

The loss of the no-go areas boosted the British Army’s ability to wage their intelligence war. This, combined with the truce in 1975, the engagement in feuds with the Officials and blatantly sectarian attacks, demoralised the IRA and its supporters. The number of British soldiers killed fell from 108 in 1972 to 15 in 1975 and 13 the following year. The illusion could not long be sustained that the IRA would defeat British imperialism even though Republican leaders claimed they were on the point of victory.

In fact the new policies of criminalisation, normalisation and Ulsterisation appeared to be succeeding. Republicans later claimed that at this time, because of the disastrous truce that lasted through most of 1975, the British were close to defeating the IRA but that this had been averted by a reorganisation masterminded by Gerry Adams. This included moving away from the existing company and battalion structure to a cellular system that was supposed to be more difficult for the British to penetrate. This and other steps, including the promise of no more ceasefires, were held to have allowed the IRA to weather the storm and confound the most optimistic predictions of the British.

This version of events has come into question: both the extent of the reorganisation and its beneficial effects. There was certainly no return to the level of activity of the early seventies and although the IRA continued to survive this was a long way from being able to proclaim victory. Unfortunately however survival appeared to have been achieved by further isolation which simply delayed defeat but did not prevent it.

It is not necessary to take a view one way or the other on this controversy. Once again the development of events cannot be understood in military terms. In fact, like so much of republican history we have looked at in our survey it was events and developments around them that shaped republican politics rather than republicans shaping events. For example, while the Provos have argued over the enfeebling effects of the 1975 truce on the IRA, they have appeared oblivious to the political effects that further increased their isolation. Their popular support had been assured that the British were leaving and that they were negotiating with the British to achieve this. The only role for the people was to sit back and await their freedom; a strategy more designed to demobilise, confuse and demoralise could hardly be imagined, especially when the British refused to oblige.


On any objective evaluation the IRA was moving further away from achievement of its objectives. In guerrilla warfare the irregular forces operate in a more and more regular fashion as they move towards victory; while the reorganisation and loss of the no-go areas signalled the opposite. Alternately regular forces confronting guerrillas begin to operate in a more and more irregular fashion in order to defeat the enemy. This is what the British did more and more. Use of local state forces, intelligence gathering and use of informers, avoidance of mass arrests and searches, use of specialist troops in shoot to kill ambushes and assistance to loyalist paramilitaries in targeting republicans and their families were all to come into use in order to grind down the opposition. The British were able to sponsor the loyalist death squads and pay relatively little political price for it because they could hide behind the cover provided by the unpopularity of the Republicans’ own armed activity.

Much of this lay in the future but in the meantime the IRA had to re-evaluate its perspectives. This re-evaluation was to see the IRA move towards what it called the long war, where victory was to be the result of a process of attrition and the wearing down of the will of the British to continue. The armed struggle was still to be the ‘cutting edge’ but now it had to be supported by other activities. Politically this new thinking involved a move to the left, although as late as 1975 IRA prisoners had been ordered to burn all Marxist books. There was thus no long period of reflection and collective discussion that would have given it stronger foundations. The new turn was heralded by the 1977 Bodenstown speech of veteran republican Jimmy Drumm.

Drumm referred to criticisms of the Provos, that they had ‘been devoid of political thinking, dependent entirely on the bomb and the bullet.’ He outlined new conceptions that were supposed to inform Republican politics:

We find that a successful war of liberation cannot be fought exclusively on the backs of the oppressed in the six counties, nor around the physical presence of the British Army. Hatred and resentment of this army cannot sustain the war, and the isolation of socialist republicans around the armed struggle is dangerous and has produced at least in some circles, the reformist notion that “Ulster” is the issue, which can somehow be resolved without the mobilisation of the working class in the 26 counties. We need a positive tie in with the mass of the Irish people who have little or no idea of the suffering in the North because of media censorship and the consolidation of conservatism throughout the country. We need to make a stand on economic issues and on the everyday struggles of people. The forging of the strong links between the Republican movement and the workers of Ireland and radical trade unionists will create an irrepressible mass movement and will ensure mass support for the continuing armed struggle in the North.’

It is now clear a generation later, at least to those willing to see, that this turn to the left failed, indeed did not last very long, but it would be a mistake to view it as some sort of manoeuvre without genuine or sincere motivation. Its failure was played out through the struggle the Republicans engaged in, so that a full explanation for its failure must include this history. There were, however, more fundamental reasons for the lack of success.

Firstly the primary, ‘cutting edge’, role of the armed struggle remained and any genuine socialist political strategy would have immediately subordinated this armed struggle to its political programme. Armed struggle continued to be the hallmark of genuine revolution but this allowed the Provos to avoid all the questions posed by class analysis that really does determine what is revolutionary and what is not.

Drumm’s analysis is reminiscent of that of Goulding, although the rethinking of the Provisionals was never so radical, in the sense that it accurately diagnosed problems and pointed towards solutions without at all elaborating a political analysis, perspectives and programme that could turn these into practical organisation and mobilisation. The inability to turn left rhetoric into practice condemned it for many republicans as abstract theorising but it was actually the lack of adequate theory that meant it had so little practical import.

In 1979 Gerry Adams signalled that the left turn would ultimately fail when he said ‘There is no Marxist influence within Sinn Fein. I know of no one in Sinn Fein who is Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism.’

Based on a pragmatic response to the retreat of its struggle, no fundamental rethinking of the nature of Republican politics was involved. The movement remained nationalist and its class character remained petty bourgeois. How do we evidence this latter claim? Well, let us rehearse what Drumm was saying. He argued that the struggle limited to the North would fail and that it needed support from the Southern working class. He approached the understanding that this mobilisation could not be based on Southern workers simply opposing the Brits in the North but must be based on their own economic struggles. (We will ignore the idea that only their economic demands are relevant or that they could be mobilised to back armed struggle in the North.)

Even if these weaknesses had been overcome Republicans would have had to accept that if a strategy of mobilising the workers of the South was key to the liberation of the whole Irish working class, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, this could not be done by elitist methods and could only be done in opposition to all the other nationalist parties. They would have had to oppose the existing nationalist leadership, trade union leaders and the Catholic Church. In other words they would have had to define their politics in class terms and reject the idea that only a purely national revolution was on the agenda. The Southern working class could only be mobilised to destroy the Northern State if it was prepared to destroy the other partitionist State in Ireland and they could only pose this task for themselves as part of a socialist programme. One that would have made the national question only a part of its perspective. No one in the Provisionals appeared to understand all this or have had any inkling as to the revolutionary changes required in Republican thinking to carry it through. It was one thing to use left phraseology to seek to widen popular support and quite another thing to give this rhetoric a real content.

Support for socialism on pragmatic grounds meant that it was supported as long as it seemed to ‘work’ but the commitment to socialism by workers is not based on whether in any short term sense its politics ‘work.’ It is based on certain knowledge that socialist – Marxist – politics are necessary for the liberation of the working class from exploitation and oppression. Only episodically will the idea of revolution seem practical to the mass of workers. In the meantime it is necessary to succeed in defending workers’ interests and educating them in uncompromising opposition to capitalism. This does not mean that reformist or opportunist politics cannot temporarily appear more successful, even if the inescapable contradictions of capitalism ultimately show these politics to be bankrupt.

To genuine revolutionaries socialism is practical not because of any immediate prospects of success but because in longer, historical terms, it is the only humane alternative to continued capitalist oppression. Republicans were soon to find that elections ‘worked’, but they worked only to the extent that they dropped their Republicanism. What didn’t work was Republican opposition to British occupation, partition and the Unionist State.

The left turn never became the directing force of the movement. What it produced then is what exists within the Provisionals now – people with left wing opinions about this, that and the other but about nothing that would fundamentally affect Republican ‘strategy’ or practice. So today you can oppose privatisation but defend Sinn Fein ministers that carry it out. You can demand the end of the unionist veto while voting for its inclusion into the Southern constitution. And you can hate the sectarianism of the DUP and Paisley but continue to press for implementation of what remains of the Good Friday Agreement that would make Paisley Prime Minister of the Northern State.



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