Peeling back the truth about the stickies
the lost revolution: The story of the official ira and the workers' party brian Hanley & Scott Millar (penguin Ireland, €24.99)
Published 10/10/2009 | 05:00
This is the sort of book which is risky to review without a good libel lawyer at your elbow. It is not that the content is scandalous, but so many people have been outed from previous incarnations which they would prefer to forget, that it is dangerous to name names or to draw the most obvious conclusions from the facts presented in this most comprehensive study.
It is not only exhaustive, but exhausting. The authors have interviewed an impressive list of activists, have trawled through minutes and memoranda, academic publications, contemporary newspapers and ephemera, and have had access to unpublished drafts and memoirs.
And yet, in getting to the truth behind this mass of information, one is faced with the unpleasant fact that most of it comes from an organisation for which a lie was not so much a moral dilemma as an instrument of policy, a weapon to be deployed in a ceaseless war.
One of the main sources, indeed the main continuity line in the narrative, the seemingly indestructible Sean Garland, in asserting his own willingness to lie for the cause, dismisses some of his older colleagues as "too honourable to be revolutionaries".
The title, too, is somewhat misleading. This is less the lost revolution than the one that never happened -- and a very good thing too, many will think. It is the story of the congenitally fissionable Left in Ireland in an uneasy relationship with the serially splitting Republican tradition, always on the margins, in an upper room or in the cellar, talking out of the side of its mouth, dreaming of the next revolution, looking backwards to the last, to lost leaders, and outside to models and mentors who were themselves to prove all too fallible.
The information is presented without moral judgments and in an unvarnished, at times tediously dull, style. Murder, though, is not diminished, even when recorded in the clinical language of the academic analyst, but it does begin to grate when the serial murders of those who deviated from the party line are recorded in the same tone and language as failure to have an amendment carried in a packed AGM.
It is hard to know, too, what credence to give to the witness of people who could come on TV to flatly deny the existence of an armed wing which they were themselves directing and in whose criminal activity they were themselves participant. However, like their fellow participants in terror on both sides, whatever they were at, we could all be glad when they stopped.
The book, in its carefully researched and scholarly way, uncovers an eclectic mix of committed terrorists, political ideologues, visionaries, civil-righters, socialists of various shades and social democrats, petty criminals and opportunists -- sometimes several of these personas in the same individuals.
For some, involvement in the struggle was an end in itself, for others a form of community defence; for some, a response to peer-group pressure, for others a rite of passage.
In practice, as others moved on into practical politics, the ideologues and the revolutionary diehards remained behind, becalmed in the Sargasso Sea of memory.
The story traces the well-known narrative in specific detail and with well-researched exactitude, which makes it, if not an easy read, an indispensable handbook for those who would explore the byways of Left and New Left politics in Ireland.
The usual landmarks are mapped: the new departure under Cathal Goulding and his academic mentors after the failure of the 1950s' border campaign; the social agitation in Dublin; the crucial role in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA); the cynical decision by Charles Haughey and others in Fianna Fail to divert Sinn Fein from protest action in Dublin to a campaign of violence in the North; the emergence of the Provisional IRA, the split-off to INLA of those for whom the Provos were not red enough and the Stickies not bloody enough; the progressive mutations through Sinn Fein to the Workers' Party to Democratic Left and to the Labour Party -- at which point, the title seems to imply, the revolution was lost.
En route there is the continuing tension between traditionalists who wish to hold on to the gun and those who seek to embrace democratic politics -- with some wishing to ride both horses for as long as possible. Throughout, the debate between the diehards and the politicians, between Stalinist centrism and a looser approach to policy formulation, is conducted with a fraternal acerbity which ranges from verbal ferocity to witch hunt, and in extreme cases, to murder.
There was the progressive infiltration of trade unions and the media, particularly RTE -- entryism on the grand scale of which objective truth was often the first casualty.
The picture portrayed is of those trying to move forward being held back by others shackled to past practices and the memory of the dead.
They did manage to get it right in so many ways -- in the early civil rights movement, in a more subtle analysis of the issues, in the recognition of unionists as a community with their own interests and values, in the need to restructure Stormont and reform the police, and in the principle of consent. In the rush to recognise Protestant rights, however, they were prepared to discount those of Northern Catholics, who found themselves re-defined from victims to villains.
Still, it took the other (initially dissenting) branch of republicanism another 30 bloody years to reach roughly the same position.
It is not that the Sinn Fein/Workers' Party/Democratic Left transition was entirely bloodless either. There was still an army, even if masquerading as Group B, which some, at least, of the senior politicians knew all about, when forging banknotes was a cottage industry, and cash in transit was being liberated for the cause.
If others were blissfully ignorant, they might, as one Belfast activist tartly put it, have asked themselves where the money was coming from.
What it does show is the difficulty of that transition, the time required to make a clean break with past habits and mindsets, and the heroic fortitude required where there is a secret army and an inherited culture of control and conspiracy.
This account can be read as the pilgrimage of some brave souls from the bomb and the bullet to the ballot box and democratic politics -- a journey which the Provisionals in their time have had to make too. It can also be read as a graveyard of lost leaders and buried hopes.
Anthony McIntyre has described the Good Friday Agreement as the death of Irish Republicanism. Depending on your point of view, and the evidence of this substantial, valuable and timely study, this is either pessimistic or too optimistic.
Meanwhile, the politicians have broken free from the shackles of a doubtful ideology and an imperfectly understood history, leaving the disgruntled to regroup in the shadows.
Both groups could usefully study this volume as a cautionary tale.
Maurice Hayes is a former Ombudsman in the North