Making a living from attacking the IRA ‘death cult’

Henry McDonald’s historically illiterate account of the Troubles reveals more about the bitterness and prejudice of supporters of the Workers’ Party than it does about recent Irish history.

Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig

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‘Back in 1969/70 the Provisionals revived a death cult that appeared to be flickering out, no longer casting such a predominant shadow as Ireland rapidly modernised in the late Sixties.’

In a characteristic sentence, Henry McDonald deploys a combination of mixed metaphors and garbled syntax in the service of his bitter polemic against the Provisional republican movement (now in the form of Sinn Fein, part of the ruling executive of Northern Ireland). McDonald contends that in its transition into government, Sinn Fein has adopted one by one the positions advocated by the Official republican movement (from which the Provisionals split in 1969/70) or its diverse fragments, culminating in the Workers’ Party (of which McDonald is a supporter). These positions include recognition of the political structures in Ireland, North and South, repudiation of military methods, respect for the police and the courts. Far from rejoicing at the flickering out of the shadows of the death cult, McDonald excoriates the Provisionals for their opportunism and blames them for the carnage of the past 30 years.

In fact, by contrast with the rest of the Western world, the process of modernisation was not very rapid in Ireland in the late Sixties, and Northern Ireland remained a backwater of poverty and reaction. Hence even the scrupulously moderate proposals for reform advanced by the civil rights campaigners (strongly influenced by activists who were to become leading figures in the Official republican movement) provoked fierce repression. When the savagery of the paramilitary police provoked riots that they could no longer control, British troops were deployed in Belfast and Derry in August 1969.

In 1969/70 the Provisionals were in no position to revive a death cult – or even to defend nationalist communities against police incursions – not least because the former leaders of the movement, now in the Officials, had sold off their weapons some years earlier. Indeed the Provisional IRA did not begin to operate as a military force until 1971, though its ranks were soon swelled by the radicalisation resulting from the introduction of mass internment in August 1971 and by the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972, when British paratroopers killed 13 civil rights protesters. When McDonald explains the rise of the Provisionals as a result of their subjective motivations, he neglects the particular historical circumstances from which they emerged.

McDonald’s account of the Troubles is of a futile series of atrocities, own goals and civilian casualties. But this one-sided assessment neglects the courage and determination with which the Provisional IRA fought against British forces, which were enormously superior in terms of resources and technology. Though McDonald disparages the Provisionals as atavistic Catholic sectarians, the movement’s activists were inspired by the internationalist ideals of national liberation and socialism. The enduring popular support for the Provisional movement – latterly turned into electoral backing for Sinn Fein – reflected the appeal of republican anti-imperialism in the poorer nationalist areas of the North.

The ‘peace process’ that culminated in the formation of a joint Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein administration at Stormont in 2007 was the result of military stalemate at home and the end of the Cold War abroad (and the attendant demise of the ideological appeal of both socialism and nationalism). McDonald’s ahistorical approach, which explains the shifting positions of the republican movement by the perfidy of its leaders, fails to get to grips with either the domestic or the international influences on events in Northern Ireland. (Readers in search of a serious historical analysis are far better served by Kevin Bean’s The New Politics of Sinn Fein, reviewed in an earlier spiked review of books here.)

Sinn Fein has accepted the role of representative of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland within the framework of British government over a still-partitioned province in which sectarian divisions remain as deep as ever. While its leaders proclaim a historic victory and commemorate historic struggles (such as the 1981 hunger strikes), its role appears little different from that of nationalist political parties in Northern Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. McDonald’s argument is that if the Provisionals had only accepted the Officials’ moderate proposals in 1969 the bloodshed of the following decades could have been avoided: ‘The whole sorry business was a waste of time.’

Republican claims of victory may sound hollow, but it is important to insist that the armed struggle was not in vain. The campaign for civil rights led by the Official republican movement in the 1960s achieved none of its objectives – indeed, as it led to the imposition of Direct Rule, it could be argued that it resulted in the further loss of liberties. By contrast, the outcome of the Provisionals’ campaign was that, though the objective of a united Ireland may not have been achieved, the demands of the civil rights movement were ultimately met in full. It is true that Ireland is still divided and that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. But it is also true that the British state was forced into major concessions by the impact of the Provisionals’ prolonged campaign, not least on the international stage. The British government was obliged to allow an unprecedented role for Washington – and even for Dublin – in the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland was a profoundly significant concession to nationalist feeling.

Of all the factions in Irish politics, the one with the least redeeming features is the Official republican movement/Workers Party tradition. In the 1960s this grouping brought the Stalinist politics of the pro-Soviet international communist movement into the world of Irish republicanism. This resulted in a retreat from the national question into trade union and parliamentary politics (and what McDonald condescendingly describes as ‘outreach work’ to the Protestant working class) – and culminated in the split with the Provisionals. After a number of military blunders, the Officials repudiated armed struggle, though they retained weapons for use in a series of murderous feuds with the Provisionals and other republican factions. Though a few prominent individuals enjoyed electoral success at different times in the South, the movement has become fragmented and marginal, particularly in the North.

The central unifying theme of the Officials/Workers Party tradition – its virulent hatred for the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein – has guaranteed some of its supporters influential positions in the media in both Dublin and London. Though McDonald’s historical illiteracy and crass style may cause some uneasiness, his animosity towards the IRA will always endear him to British liberals. According to the dust jacket of Gunsmoke and Mirrors, he was formerly Irish correspondent for the Observer and now writes for the Guardian.

Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig is a second-generation Irish writer from Sheffield.

Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dressed Up Defeat as Victory, by Henry Mcdonald, is published by Gill and Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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