By Jack Holland
There is an interesting ideological battle going on within the republican movement, set off by conflicting, if not contradictory, interpretations of how and why the IRA arrived at its present position. On one side, a handful of disgruntled republicans are engaged in a detailed critique of the current leadership’s strategy, which they argue is a sellout and a defeat.
On the other side, the leadership’s supporters are claiming that the peace process is the successful outcome of the republican struggle and that its achievements are commensurate with the pain and suffering caused by the last 30 years of political violence.
Most recently, Patrick Magee — the man convicted of the Brighton bombing, which in 1984 could have wiped out Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet — has presented what might be called the orthodox Provisional interpretation of events. In an interview with the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post, he claimed that the armed campaign was "no longer necessary," because it had achieved "the necessary level of political leverage and in my mind there is no doubt that the peace process is that political leverage."
Magee contends that the Brighton bomb, which killed five people, was a crucial part of that campaign because "we were not being taken seriously by the British political establishment. We were trapped in the acceptable level of violence strategy and it is important that the only way we could have lost this war was to be trapped in indefinitely fighting it." The bomb, he said, "helped convince people that the war was winnable in England." That is, Magee is claiming that the Brighton bomb was the beginning of the process that led to the current settlement.
The critics of the leadership dismiss this as a fiction which is meant to disguise the fact, as they see it, that the IRA has abandoned the ideals for which it was supposedly fighting. Last July, Tommy Gorman, a former IRA man who escaped from the Maidstone Prison ship in 1972, told the Belfast Telegraph: "For me this is personal. I grieve over the death and destruction we have caused. I could maybe live with it if it had been a genuine revolution about real change, but it wasn’t. It was all about getting a couple of people into Stormont to make no change at all."
Magee counters that republican critics had "mistaken and misunderstood" what the IRA was achieving. He claims that the peace process represents a victory, Gorman that it is a defeat, for the IRA.
Republicans have invested a lot of emotion in this dispute. Their commitment to the IRA and its struggle involved them in brutal acts of violence, during which thousands died and thousands more suffered serious injury. This is not to mention the thousands of men who suffered imprisonment, and the disruption of ordinary life that was incurred. A whole generation in the North was brutalized and traumatized.
Given the huge cost, people such as Magee are clearly under intense pressure to believe that it was worthwhile. It is not an easy thing to admit that you might have wasted your life, and worse, the lives of others, in a what turned out to be a futile or at least a failed struggle. But there are former IRA members who are prepared to face up to that prospect. Gormon is just the latest to go public about it, as republicans such as Tommy McKearney, Brendan Hughes and Anthony McIntyre have done over the last few years.
Those like Magee who represent the party line have several enormous problems to overcome before their argument can be convincing. To believe them, one has to accept that the Good Friday agreement is an important advance toward the proclaimed goal of the IRA — a united socialist Ireland. Certainly, the agreement says nothing about facilitating the redistribution of wealth, and it merely acknowledges that a united Ireland is one possible outcome of the process but only as long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish it. The agreement incorporates — as have done all the major initiatives since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 — the principle of consent, which traditionally the Provisionals refused to recognize, arguing that it was illegitimate, based on the "artificial" border imposed by Britain in 1921.
It would seem to me easier to prove that this represents a defeat rather than a victory for the republican movement.
However, one can never underestimate the extent to which human beings are capable of deceiving themselves. Perhaps this explains why it has been relatively easy to persuade the majority of republicans to ignore the contradictions and support the party line. The war-weariness factor also played a role. After a generation of killing, most republicans were happy to let themselves be deceived if it could bring the horrible business to an end.
It is relatively easy for the critics of the leadership’s strategy to pick out the contradictions — they are pretty obvious to almost anyone who is not a Sinn Fein party hack. Where the critics are less convincing is on the matter of alternatives to the strategy. Ex-IRA men such as McKearney and McIntyre have not aligned themselves with republican splinter groups like the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA, whose campaigns (such as they are) they believe are futile and doomed. Nor do they advocate a return to physical force by the Provisional IRA. They accept that the armed campaign has run its course. That being so, what is the alternative to the current Provisional republican’s engagement in the peace process?
Some contend that republicans would have been more effective if they had remained outside the power-sharing government, where they could have created an opposition while retaining a certain distance from the settlement. However, this sounds like a return to the old Nationalist Party’s tactic of abstentionism, which failed to achieve anything for 50 years in Stormont.
The very nature of the peace process was to engage the Provisional movement in constitutional politics, and the internal logic pushed the IRA leadership to its current position, whether republicans like it or not.
Clearly, those like Tommy Gormon do not.
"I keep hoping that maybe this is a dirty trick that Sinn Fein will infiltrate themselves," he told the Belfast Telegaph, "and pass themselves off as a right-wing party and then get in there and do the damage. But no, I’m convinced now that they are just a purely right-wing party which is just going to become another Fianna Fail."