A Movement for Civil Rights Underpinned Republicanism in Northern Ireland

Mainstream accounts of republicanism in Northern Ireland tend to focus exclusively on the armed campaign that produced one of the most devastating conflicts in postwar Europe. Left out, however, is the radical, grassroots movement for civil rights that was a driving force for popular republicanism from the late 1960s.

Irish civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann (center, smoking a cigarette) taking part in a campaign speech with other activists in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, circa 1970. Keystone Features / Hulton Archive / Getty

There currently exists a wide range of literature published about the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) — not all of it of high quality. What sets Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist apart from others in the field is its combination of a rigorous — and very readable — assessment of the changing politics of the modern Republican movement alongside a thorough understanding of the wider forces that wracked the North of Ireland during the “Troubles,” a journalistic euphemism for the period of low-level armed conflict that claimed the lives of some 4,000 people at the end of the last century.

The essential context for understanding these events — often been quite deliberately mischaracterized — includes the mass upsurge for civil rights directed against the Unionist’s one-party regime in the late 1960s, a challenge that faced a wave of repression from the “Orange State” and its supporters among hard-right loyalists, and later from British military and security forces. This led to a permanent crisis for the government at Stormont, and opened the door to a sustained period of communal violence from the 1970s onwards, where the Provisional IRA became the main protagonist in an armed struggle to end the partition of Ireland. 

Beyond Violence

Historiography on Irish republicanism tends to focus obsessively on the machinations of the armed campaign, bolstering a now well-worn narrative that attributes blame for the emergence of conflict disproportionally on the Provisionals. While Finn does not avoid the many — at times brutal and, indeed, indefensible — instances in which Republicans committed atrocities, unlike much of the genre his work does not lose sight of the absence of basic democracy or the propensity for state repression intrinsic to the Northern state throughout its existence. One Man’s Terrorist, therefore, offers a nuanced and balanced account, and one willing to look out beyond the “pathological” narrative to which so much of the literature subscribes.

Crucial to this perspective is Finn’s willingness to accept that there must have been some basis beyond a predilection for violence that drove thousands of mostly young and idealistic men and women — primarily from the most deprived working-class communities in the North — to throw in their lot with the Provisionals and commit to an armed campaign to end British rule. Finn maintains a certain focus on the movement’s most significant leadership figures in modern times, in particular on Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and those who surrounded them. At the same time, he pays careful attention to the “paths not taken” (including the consideration of successive splits) as well as its often under-acknowledged left-wing influences, including socialist organizations like the People’s Democracy which emerged out of the New Left of the late ’60s. 

Modern Irish Republicanism lays claim to a long anti-imperialist history, encompassing a range of many militant struggles launched from within Britain’s oldest colony. What set 1970s Republicanism apart — and this is a critical difference — is that it emerged mainly in urban working-class areas during a period of popular insurgency against the Northern state. The demise of the civil rights movement and the wider context of state and loyalist violence that buried the reform program is central to understanding the rise, and later dominance, of the Provisionals.

1968 was a seminal year for popular struggles internationally — a period to “demand the impossible,” as Che Guevara once urged. In Ireland, the spirit of ’68 encouraged an attempt to overcome the long-standing sectarian divisions in the North and an audacious, frontal challenge to the power of a government that had practiced discrimination and repression for its five-decades-long history. The civil rights movement was Ireland’s most prominent manifestation of the global revolt, and the Provisionals emerged from the upheaval when nonviolence could not find a way through state repression. 

Finn has done a great service to historians by peeling back the layers of misunderstanding that have long distorted readings of the Troubles, presenting a far more balanced picture of the turn to violence, and one that those who lived through it will recognize. For the most part, historiography has tended to present the civil rights campaign as a well-meaning movement that took up genuine grievances, but which was ultimately wrecked by its own internal contradictions. The left-wing of the civil rights campaign are often charged with having pushed “too far, too fast” ahead in pursuit of unrealistic goals, thereby provoking a sectarian reaction and the downward spiral toward the Troubles. 

The arch-bigot Ian Paisley was the first to insist that the civil rights movement was little more than a Trojan horse for Republican subversion, and academics and journalists have mostly swallowed this whole. Such interpretations have always involved a level of victim blaming, in which nonviolent civil rights demonstrators — often themselves the victims of violence — are essentially held responsible for bringing about conflict. The key focal point is the Burntollet march (1969), when nonviolent student marchers were violently attacked by loyalists and off-duty B-Specials (auxiliary police) who were aided and abetted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 

Finn skilfully reveals this turning point in the civil rights movement, drawing out the violent response to the protest — which signified the Unionist states’ inability to reform — and underscoring how a minority of civil rights activists have since been scapegoated for the descent into violence. In this Finn finds himself in the company of a small minority of working historians who have challenged “revisionist” attempts to downplay the sectarian violence and division that was endemic to Britain’s colonial role in Ireland, and the state that it established in the North. Fergal McCluskey notes how the major tenets of this revisionist discourse view Britain’s role in the conflict as “a neutral arbiter intervening in a sectarian struggle between two tribes (or nations)” in which “republicanism constituted an intrinsically sectarian, irrational and reactionary ideology.” The perception that the British military was a pig in the middle among warring tribes of republicans and loyalists has become a common sense viewpoint. But it does not hold up to serious historical research. Loyalist and state violence significantly predated the formation of the PIRA and both would continue, often in direct collusion, throughout the course of the conflict.

As One Man’s Terrorist shows, though the IRA itself was a key actor during the outbreak of the Troubles, it was initially a largely defensive response, reacting against traumatic loyalist and state violence. By the same token, its activities were at times marginal compared to the scale of mass resistance, for example at the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. In Belfast, during the same period, small groups of republicans gathered arms and tried, mostly in vain, to defend nationalist districts against loyalist pogroms in 1969. 

These events had a transformative impact on society, and on the Republican movement. One Man’s Terrorist illustrates this process, showing how the IRA morphed from a “movement that time had forgot” in the early 1960s, to Europe’s fiercest guerrilla army a decade later.

Smashing Stormont

The IRA adopted a political strategy that viewed the civil rights movement as a means to reform the Northern state, before challenging partition itself — a strategy influenced by the Stalinist approach to the Irish National Question, commonly referred to as the “stages theory.” 

Unionism, however, resisted any idea of fundamental change. While tensions within the civil rights leadership developed, many within working-class nationalist communities drew the conclusion that the violent state had to be smashed by force. The republican movement split and smashing the state became the raison d’être of the Provisional IRA.  

British military intervention confirmed the repressive role of the Northern state. It was an intervention dictated by well-worn and often brutal colonial strategies: internment without trial, shoot to kill, and “counterinsurgency” operations, such as the use of loyalist paramilitaries as allies. The increase in state violence during this period was the major contributor to filling the ranks of the Provisionals, which was advocating the most radical solutions. Finn quotes the socialist Eamonn McCann on the nature of the Provisionals: “It had grown out of the community, was physically of the communities flesh, emotionally and ideologically an element of its consciousness. As a result, when the state’s forces attacked the IRA, a sizeable part of the Catholic community felt itself attacked too.” 

There is a temptation to view oppositional politics inside the Northern Ireland state as a straightforward choice between the parliamentary nationalism of electoral forces (the Nationalist Party and later the SDLP) and the armed struggle of the IRA. The fate of the Provisional movement arguably reinforced this perception. As Finn shows, the picture is much more complex. One of the major achievements of his book is how it points to the continuity of popular struggle and mass action from below as a major driving force in Northern Irish politics throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. The civil rights campaign was to some degree a break with traditional forms of politics in the North. The movement against internment, too, would reignite the civil rights campaign in a more militant context, with widespread community mobilizations, rent and rates strikes, and local residents committees at the center of struggle. 

Later, when the center of gravity of Republican struggle moved from the streets into prisons — itself a reflection of the extremely difficult conditions under which Republicans operated — mobilizations were spearheaded by activists and the relatives of prisoners in order to support protests inside the jails, leading to what was likely the largest mass movement in the history of the North of Ireland, the Smash H Block/Armagh campaign. 

The Long War

Tommy McKearney, himself a former IRA activist who has written an important book about the subject, identifies two distinct periods in the armed movement: what he calls the early insurrectionary period, and later “the long war,” in which the Provisionals, turning their back on the prospect of mass struggle, reorganized into a cell structure. Their campaign became more akin to what the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called “propaganda of the deed.” 

Finn weaves an impressive history that charts these different periods, drawing out how the major moments of instability in the “Orange State” were brought about by mass movements from below. It shows how the Provisional campaign existed alongside, at times overlapping with, some of these movements, and in doing so brought an unprecedented war to the British establishment. But the armed struggle was always built on profound contradictions; it ultimately relied upon small groups of fighters whose very tactics were often counterposed to the strategy of mass action, whether through street protest or electoral mobilizations. 

Among the contradictions was the fact that these tactics often alienated large sections of the population from Republican aims. Provisional bombs not only destroyed lives; they were also, Finn argues, “effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass support.” The Provisionals continually faced this contradiction, which became salient during the Hunger Strike campaign in the early 1980s, amid conditions that allowed the republican movement to take the historic step toward electoral politics, but which also amplified the problems of waging an increasingly brutal war while striving for popular support. 

More broadly, Finn illustrates how the armed campaign was dragged into a communal war in the context of state violence and loyalist reaction. 1975, for example, was one of the bloodiest years of the conflict, largely due to the loyalist repudiation of reform after the civil rights revolt and the fall of the Unionist government. That year witnessed the widespread and gruesome murder of 120 Catholics — the vast majority innocent civilians — as loyalist paramilitaries operated with impunity while colluding with state forces. The Provos responded in kind, as Finn underscores, “bombing Protestant bars and shooting civilians at random, in what was unquestionably the most sectarian phase in the movements’ history.” Such actions had obvious implications for reinforcing communal division, but also gave the clear impression that the armed campaign was directionless and indeed spiralling out of control.   

It was only once it became apparent that the struggle had turned into a protracted and unwinnable war that negotiation became the central strategy of the republican leadership in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Finn’s account of the peace process refuses the easy “guns to government” narrative, which all too often relies on the great men of history perspective, usually with Gerry Adams’s “strategic prowess” at the center. Adams’s leadership in the Provisionals certainly was important — largely thanks to the politicization he brought to a movement traditionally dominated by militarism. But a variety of much wider factors contributed to the republican peace process, including, widespread war weariness after almost three decades of conflict and a more general recognition that armed struggle was incapable of winning. 

Moreover, Finn’s analysis pays important attention to the overarching strategy of British imperialism, which sought to confine the conflict to the internal boundaries of the North, initially through the strategy of “Ulsterisation” — a policy akin to its namesake, “Vietnamization” — where mainland military forces were disengaged from the conflict in favor of locally recruited forces, the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). This, alongside counterinsurgency tactics notable for their brutality, had a significant capacity to wear down the republican struggle. As the conflict dragged on, with no clear victor in sight, avenues for back-channel negotiations opened up and British strategy then sought to simultaneously co-opt the Republican movement into an agreed settlement, where it would ultimately embrace a role in managing the political system within the structures of the Northern state. 

Republicanism Since the Peace

It is difficult to disagree with the author’s assertion that the PIRA campaign ended in failure. By the time the ceasefires, peace agreements, and, later, decommissioning efforts of the 1990s and early 2000s had taken place, every major political principle of the movement had been dropped along the way (electoral abstentionism, physical force, policing, the principle of consent). Finn documents the major episodes in this journey, underscoring how the Republican leadership, far from having a masterly strategy guiding it, often “improvised in response to events, knowing roughly where they wanted to end up but ducking and weaving along the way.” 

Such an analysis is important when considering mainstream Republicanism in the wake of the peace process. After the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland temporarily benefited from a period of economic growth, with Sinn Féin, consequently, becoming avid champions of neoliberalism. In the south, the party went so far as to actively agitate for a “pan nationalist front,” and sought coalition with the traditional parties of the Right, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. 

In the North, where they eventually entered into a long period of government with the DUP, Sinn Féin presided over a range of programs that embraced institutionalised sectarianism and economic neoliberalism, including corporate tax cuts, the privatization of public services, austerity, and welfare cuts. It is worth pointing out that, in the light of such neoliberal policy agendas, Republican challengers to Sinn Féin have not been hugely successful, but socialist party forces such as People Before Profit have managed to secure small but important gains in some Sinn Féin heartlands. 

In the years since the 2008 financial crash, thanks to the combined forces of the movements against austerity and the general dysfunction at the heart of power-sharing institutions, the neoliberal applecart in the North of Ireland has been upset.  The devolved Assembly collapsed, followed by a three-year hiatus, and we’ve seen a burgeoning shift to the left in the south of Ireland, of which Sinn Féin has been the main beneficiary. 

All of this leaves us with a Sinn Féin that today continues to encompass political contradictions. One Man’s Terrorist recognizes these, and notes the presence of a left wing inside the party — centred on capable figures such as TD Eoin Ó Broin — who agitate against future coalition with the Right, as well as the broader “normalization” of the party steeped in former republican militarists, around new leaders like Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, who do not have a background in the Provisional IRA. Ultimately, Finn concludes that this leadership is likely to continue the movement’s long journey towards the center ground and that “those who still aspire to the kind of change that the most radical elements in that tradition dreamed of will have to look elsewhere.” 

Among the scattered elements of anti-Agreement Republicans — derisively labelled “dissidents” by both the state and by former comrades in Sinn Féin — there is a tendency toward believing that if only a more determined leadership had been at the helm, less prone to “selling out,” perhaps more proficient at making war, then all could have turned out differently. Indeed some want a return to conflict to see if things might turn out differently this time. As Finn’s account makes clear, such a perspective can only rest on a vast misunderstanding of the unique circumstances that gave rise to insurgency in the late 1960s — conditions which are extremely unlikely to present themselves in the same form again. As the astute Tommy McKearney has argued, the material basis that gave rise to the Orange State is gone, and it won’t be coming back. 

With Ireland now in the throes of a global health pandemic and peering into a deep recession, radical change is more necessary than ever. The future is uncertain and attempts to predict and prophesize are largely speculative and somewhat redundant. A radical, socialist confrontation with the system of capitalism is needed, one that absorbs the best of the Republican experience outlined in Finn’s account of the Provisionals, while fundamentally breaking from the constrictive nationalist framework that led to the movements’ compromise with the power of capital. 

But it is questionable whether such a force can rise from the embers of the largely extinguished Provisional phoenix. Nonetheless, it is certain that an accounting for the strengths and tragic weaknesses of the Republican project is a necessary prerequisite for the forging of a new emancipatory paradigm, around which a risen people can struggle. As the great socialist James Connolly once pointed out, the true prophets are those who carve out a better future. Understanding the past is essential to that task, and this book is an important tool in that effort.