Safer to debate state of the nation than its birth
Published 15/12/2013 | 22:09
LAST week, Gerry Adams challenged his Dail critics to debate the difference between the Provo IRA and the Old IRA. Enda Kenny would be wise to evade any such engagement. Far safer to debate the state of the nation than the birth of the nation.
Adams would "win" any such debate for two reasons. Because of what I call a "leaky consensus" against the IRA's actions. And because the border between the Old IRA and the Provo IRA is not as clear as southern politicians claim -- a point proved by Ursula Halligan's second programme on Sinn Fein for TV3.
Denis Bradley, a former priest, and a respected intermediary with the IRA, convincingly castigated what he saw as a southern double standard whereby the Republic defends Old IRA atrocities but denounces Provo IRA terror. And the holes in southern hypocrisy were not filled convincingly by the contributions of either Ruairi Quinn or David Andrews.
Both politicians followed the familiar southern mantra that the Old IRA had a "mandate" from the 1918 General Election. Before dealing with that doubtful claim, let me note that Andrews struggled to find an acceptable word for his father's abortive attempt to shoot an alleged British agent on Bloody Sunday, finally rejecting Halligan's offer of "murder" in favour of "killing".
The problem for southern politicians starts with 1916. Pearse & Co acted without any democratic authority. They had no justification for killing unarmed Dublin policemen and civilians. And Adams could argue that Catholic nationalists in the south suffered less political discrimination in 1916 than Northern nationalists in 1970.
The Easter Rising deprived the Irish Republic of democratic credentials at birth. Only a tiny rump, some 6 per cent of the Irish Volunteers, (including my grandfather, Pat Harris) followed Pearse rather than Redmond. The rising was planned by a conspiracy within a conspiracy: by a seven-man Military Committee of IRB members who kept their plans secret from both the Supreme Council of the IRB, and from their legitimate leader, Eoin MacNeill.
That secrecy, manipulation and contempt for democracy has left us in a permanent political and moral fog for the past hundred years. David Andrews and most Dail deputies claim that Pearse & Co got a retrospective mandate in the 1918 General Election. But Adams can counter-claim that the Provos also got a kind of retrospective moral mandate from the Good Friday Agreement. Try to argue that away in front of a young audience.
Most Dail deputies would also agree that 1918 not only gave a mandate for previous armed actions, such as 1916, but for future Old IRA actions such as Soloheadbeg in 1919. But studies like Paul Bew's The Politics of Enmity confirm that the 1918 election was a mandate for political struggle but not for the murder of Irish policemen, Irish protestant loyalists and sundry Irish ex-servicemen.
The General Election of 1918 was essentially a nationalist vote against conscription. A typical volunteer, Sean Clancy, wrote in retrospect: "I became acquainted with the Volunteers during the conscription crisis of 1918, and the whole country was against it, and we had all kinds of parades and Novenas and everything in the evenings in the local churches."
Nor did the results give Sinn Fein a majority mandate. Sinn Fein won 485,105 votes. But Redmond's party pooled a respectable 237,393 votes. Add the southern loyalist votes and the total anti-Republican vote was 557,435, more than the Sinn Fein vote, and certainly a majority against armed struggle.
To be fair, few leaders of Sinn Fein felt they had a mandate to murder members of the RIC. Candidates were cagey about tactics. On November 18, 1917, de Valera said in Mohill, Co Leitrim: "We can work according to the will of the Irish people, working by peaceful means if you will."
AM Sullivan, a Home Ruler, in his memoir Old Ireland, summed up 1918 succinctly: "Many murderers were elected, but they had not stood as murderers." But while the majority of Sinn Fein supporters wanted a peaceful struggle, their wishes were set aside by the same kind of violent minority who had hijacked 1916.
On Tuesday, January 21, 1919, a gang of masked men from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, led by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, shot dead two Roman Catholic members of the RIC escorting a horse cart of gelignite to Soloheadbeg Quarry: Constable McDonnell, a widower with four children, from Belmullet, Co Mayo, and Constable O'Connell from Coachford, Co Cork.
Breen's gang carried out these brutal killings without any sanction from IRA GHQ, who were as shocked as most Irish people. The gang claimed their action was aimed at getting gelignite, but they never used the explosives. Their real reason was to launch a campaign of terror and force the GHQ leadership to follow them.
After Soloheadbeg, the gates were opened to the gangsterism of the gun. Certainly there were a few fair fights. Tom Barry at Crossbarry and Sean MacEoin at Clonfin fought fierce battles that did not descend into butchery.
But the majority of IRA actions were simply assassinations, and many could be called murders. Like Tom Crean's RIC brother, gunned down in Ballinspittle, most of the IRA's police victims were soft targets, shot down on foot patrol. The same was true of the Provo IRA's targets. Most of its UDR/RIR victims -- 155 out of 204 -- were shot dead off duty.
That is why I agree with Denis Bradley that it is hypocritical to draw a deep divide between the actions of the Old IRA and those of the Provo IRA. It seems to me that there are only three possible answers to the arguments of Adams & Co -- and only the third one closes down Sinn Fein completely.
First, the Provisional IRA, unlike Sinn Fein in 1918, never sought a democratic mandate to conduct a political struggle. When they finally did, again unlike Sinn Fein in 1918, Sinn Fein got only 13.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 UK General Election, a poor showing given the hunger strikes.
Second, while most Irish people in 1919-20 supported the political campaign for Irish independence, they were never fully in favour of waging a violent war. The proof of this is that a majority settled for the Treaty after only three years of armed actions.
By contrast, the leadership of the Provo IRA kept the killing going for a grim 30 years. They did so although Adams & Co had secretly long accepted the IRA could not win the war of attrition. That's what I call hypocrisy.
But finally, the only absolute answer to Adams & Co is to stop sanctifying 1916 and to reject the gangster actions of both the Provo IRA and the Old IRA. Certainly we can salute the courage of my grandfather's generation which went out in 1916 against great odds. But we should not let their deeds dictate how this generation handles our history of political violence.
Time we cut the bloody umbilical cord that binds us to the violence of 1916-1921. Time we ended a hundred years of hypocrisy. Time we wrote out our own clean birth certificate for the Irish Republic. 2016 provides the perfect date to do so.