Ireland’s National Conflict Is About Imperialism as Well as Sectarianism

Daniel Finn

Journalism on national conflicts from Belfast to the Balkans often speaks of ancient hatreds and ancestral sectarianism. But a closer look at the Irish conflict shows that questions of nationhood and identity are very modern phenomena — and have to be integrated into any serious analysis of class.

Pro-IRA graffiti is displayed on a bus stop on February 15, 2019 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland along the winding 499 kilometers of the Irish border. (Charles McQuillan / Getty Images)

Interview by
George Souvlis

In February’s Irish election, Sinn Féin took 24 percent of the vote — its best score since independence, aided by a voter revolt over housing and Ireland’s neoliberal model. While the coronavirus crisis helped the establishment parties stop Sinn Féin entering government, both its hopes of taking office and its core aim of Irish unity today seem much more plausible than even a few years ago.

Yet Sinn Féin remains deeply contradictory, given both its hierarchy of priorities — subordinating its social policies to its focus on the national question — and its participation in political structures in the North which it long repudiated on principle. It is also deeply entangled in the political history of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Troubles which took over 3,000 lives in a country of just 1.5 million people.

Daniel Finn recently published One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA. George Souvlis interviewed him about the legacy of the conflict in the North of Ireland, the importance of the unresolved national question, and Sinn Féin’s prospects today.

George Souvlis

What’s the main argument of your book?

Daniel Finn

First of all, it was important to recognize that what happened in the North of Ireland after 1969 was a war. This may seem obvious, but the British government furiously denied that it was engaged in fighting a war on its own national territory all through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The casualty figures, relative to population size, show that this was a very serious conflict. It’s easier now to accept that a counterinsurgency against an irregular guerrilla force is still a war, because that’s what the British military has mainly been doing since 1945, from Cyprus and Kenya to Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the conventional wars that were the exception.

There were also two political arguments that I made. There’s a stereotype in Irish politics that distinguishes between “constitutional nationalism” and “physical-force republicanism” — our version of Malcolm X’s dichotomy between the ballot and the bullet. But this stereotype excludes all the other forms of political activity in between those two poles, from demonstrations to strikes and boycotts, which can collectively be referred to as “civil resistance.” That term is now associated with figures like Gene Sharp, who used it as a synonym for Gandhian nonviolence. But it already had political currency in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

I argue that civil resistance played a very important part in the history of the Troubles, far more than is generally understood in the existing literature. There were three periods in particular that were pivotal: the civil rights protests of 1968–69 that destabilized the Unionist system and led to direct intervention by the British state; the anti-internment campaign of 1971–72 that helped bring about the fall of Stormont; and the movement in support of republican prisoners in 1980–81 that led to the rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral force.

The second political argument is related to the first: there were several attempts by different political actors to combine the republican tradition with left-wing politics, and they played a central role in those episodes of civil resistance. There’s a tendency to assume socialism or Marxism can’t be relevant to a society like Northern Ireland because class politics played second fiddle to national identity. But that’s shortsighted.

George Souvlis

You mention Tom Nairn’s 1970s reading of the Troubles as events that shouldn’t be perceived as remnants of the past but rather as images from the future. What do you think of this diagnosis — and did the political developments of subsequent decades vindicate him?

Daniel Finn

I quoted Nairn because on that crucial point — was Northern Ireland a throwback to the past, or a harbinger of the future? — he was proven correct. Within a couple of decades, there was an upsurge of national conflicts, largely in post-communist Eastern Europe, but struggles over national identity were also a factor in places like Scotland and Catalonia. And there was the same tendency to mystify and pathologize those conflicts, which are actually very easy to explain: when you have large national minorities with disputes over where the border should be drawn and how the state should be administered, you have the ingredients for conflict. Add in self-interested meddling by powerful states, not to mention economic crises, and it becomes more likely still.

When you read some of the commentary on Northern Ireland and compare it to the Balkans, for example, you see the same rhetorical tropes about “ancient hatreds” and “ancestral voices” summoning people to war. I’m very much in agreement with the “modernist” school of thought on nationalism. The conflicts we’ve seen, from Derry and Belfast to Sarajevo and Pristina, are driven by present-day political interests, not by voices from the grave crying out for vengeance.

In that sense, I agree with Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry, whose book Explaining Northern Ireland demolished a whole range of mystifying theories and tropes. But I disagree with them where they portray Northern Ireland as a decisive refutation of Marxism, which they present as an inherently economistic, class-reductionist ideology that can’t account for a society where class is not the primary social axis.

There certainly are versions of Marxism that fit that description. But there are also elements you can draw upon for a credible Marxist theory of nationalism. I quoted Lenin in the book’s introduction because he was one of the Marxist thinkers who was most adamant on this point: national identity was real, it couldn’t be wished away by socialist movements, and it wouldn’t simply be displaced by class consciousness in some glib fashion, even in the heat of a socialist revolution. It had to be addressed in its own right, in the most democratic way possible, on the basis of self-determination.

Now, that opens up a whole different can of worms: What is the unit in which self-determination should be exercised? People in the Balkans will know how troublesome that question can be — why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine? — and that’s the essence of the conflict in Northern Ireland, too. But the principle of self-determination is still invaluable as a guide to action.

Going back to Nairn, while he was right to stress the importance of national identity and the fault lines in “Ukania,” as he called it, some of his particular judgments haven’t stood the test of time, and Northern Ireland was a clear example of that. In The Break-Up of Britain, he suggested that the region’s trajectory was leading to a form of Ulster nationalism and independence for Northern Ireland. There was some talk of that in the mid-1970s, but it never came close to being realized — and that’s certainly for the best.

George Souvlis

Why do you think the British left never dealt substantially with the political developments of Ireland during the period you examine? How you would explain its ambivalence, and sometimes discomfort, in endorsing the movement there?

Daniel Finn

I don’t think you can generalize about the whole of the British left during the Troubles: different strands — social-democratic, communist, Trotskyist — had very different positions. Of course, the Labour Party was the dominant force, and its leadership generally stuck with the “bipartisan” line on Northern Ireland, marching in lockstep with the Tories. It was Harold Wilson and James Callaghan who sent in the British Army and decided to keep Stormont [Protestant-dominated self-government] in place back in 1969. Roy Mason, the Labour Northern Ireland secretary in the late 1970s, had an especially crude, chauvinistic reputation. Labour’s Irish policy was just another sign of its integration into the British state and its foreign and defense policies.

The main attempt to overturn the “bipartisan” line came in the early 1980s, with the rise of the Bennite left. The British media resurrected this history after Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour leader in 2015, but Corbyn himself wasn’t a major player at the time; Ken Livingstone, who was the head of the Greater London Council, was far more prominent and influential. Livingstone argued that Labour had to go into the next general election with a commitment to withdraw from the North in the lifetime of a single parliament (so there could be no room for backsliding).

Sinn Féin was very interested in the rise of the Labour left, but it proved to be ephemeral. Once Neil Kinnock became Labour leader, he wanted to put a clear distance between the party and Irish republicans. By the time Blair became prime minister in the 1990s, the “bipartisan” approach had been restored.

At a more theoretical level, there were several barriers to understanding. The lack of consensus among Irish Marxist intellectuals was one: by the late 1970s, you could find a whole range of positions, from “critical support” for the Provisionals to a kind of left-wing Unionism associated with figures like Paul Bew, Henry Patterson, and Austen Morgan (some of whom ended up as part of David Trimble’s “brains trust” during the peace process).

There was also a tendency to think Irish politics on either side of the border should have a lot in common with British politics, because they were both West European countries with a common language and a developed, industrial economy. But the experience of Ireland as a postcolonial state with an unresolved national question set it very much apart from any of its immediate neighbors. You needed a different analytical toolkit to make sense of what was happening there.

Eric Hobsbawm is an interesting example, here. He didn’t write systematically about Ireland or Irish nationalism, but the comments he did make suggested a real failure to grasp the British state’s role in Irish affairs. His comments on the so-called revisionist school in Irish historiography were also largely uncritical: he didn’t see that their skepticism toward traditional Irish nationalism, which could have been a healthy thing, was combined with a much more credulous stance towards British nationalism.

George Souvlis

Would you like to elaborate on how the relation between class, nation, and religion played out in the Troubles?

Daniel Finn

Ha, have you got a thousand pages to spare? I’ll try to be concise! I didn’t explicitly theorize the underlying ethno-national conflict in Northern Ireland in the book, but I’d define my position against the so-called “one nation” and “two nations” theories alike. The first, which is the traditional Irish nationalist view, considers Ireland to be a single political as well as geographical unit. From that perspective, Ulster unionists can be recognized as a national minority, but not as a nation with the right to a state of their own. The “two nations” theory argues that Ulster unionists form a distinct national community that can’t be assimilated to the Irish nation.

What the two schools of thought share, in my view, is an implicit view of national communities as a given, as things that already exist in a pre-political sense before states or movements with aspirations to statehood get to work. Following on from that, they assume that once you have a national community, it needs to have a state of its own, so the question of whether Ulster unionists qualify as a nation or not is vital. I don’t accept either assumption. States and national movements usually draw upon preexisting cultural communities, based on language, religion, or other factors, but they work those raw materials into something new, and that’s the stuff of politics.

The question of statehood is also much more complicated than “one mationists” or “two nationists” tend to assume. Take Iberia, for example: it clearly gives the lie to geographical determinism, because a single geographical unit contains two nation-states, Spain and Portugal. But there are more than two nations in Iberia: Catalonia and Euskadi certainly qualify as nations, by any of the usual criteria, but they haven’t (yet) become states.

Under Franco, that was because of brute coercion. Since the late 1970s, it’s been a more complicated story, a carrot-and-stick approach to national separatism by the Spanish state, with more stick than carrot in recent years. It may ultimately prove impossible for the state to accommodate Catalan or Basque national identities in its territorial framework, but that’s a political question. In principle there’s no reason why you couldn’t reorganize the state along federal, pluralist lines to make outright secession unnecessary.

Now, apply that to Ireland: by any reasonable standard, the Ulster unionists formed a distinct community, by the mid-nineteenth century at the latest. The political divide between Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists largely corresponded to the divide between Catholics and Protestants, but the dispute over national identity was far more important than any strictly theological issues.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that partition was inevitable, especially in the form that it assumed, which was very much a product of contingent political developments between the Home Rule Crisis and the mid-1920s. The partition settlement certainly had nothing to do with democracy or self-determination: the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland was proportionately larger than the unionist minority would have been across the whole island.

The Unionist Party got everything that it wanted from the settlement of the 1920s because it had the British state and ruling class to support its bargaining position. It’s not a question of seeing the Unionists as dupes of the British or a sock puppet of British imperialism. They had ideas and interests of their own, but British policy in the heyday of imperial nationalism strongly conditioned their sense of what was politically feasible.

That meant there was an inherent structural fault line built into the new Unionist statelet (not a state as such — a region within a state). The nationalist minority was too small to really threaten the existence of Northern Ireland, but it was large enough that it could still be presented as a threat. In some counties and major towns like Derry, there were so many nationalists that the Unionist Party had to impose crude gerrymandering to maintain its hegemony.

This is where the class element comes into play, I believe. There had been several major episodes of class conflict in the early twentieth century, and of course you had the specter of working-class revolution in Europe at the time. The   Unionist leaders wanted the largest possible territory they could safely control — that was their principal motivation — but there was also a Machiavellian consideration: if there were a large nationalist minority, that might abort the realignment of politics along class lines.

We know this was a factor, because the Unionist prime minister, James Craig, said as much when he scrapped proportional representation for regional elections in 1929. He was concerned about the support for Labour and independent Unionist candidates, and wanted to go back to the majoritarian, first-past-the-post system because that would ensure every election was a referendum on the state’s existence. Craig stated that rationale quite openly at the time.

So, once those factors were in place — a one-sided partition settlement, a desire on the part of the Unionist Party to keep politics polarized along communal lines, and a policy of “malign neglect” from London — Northern Ireland’s trajectory until the late 1960s was largely set. It then became a question of how the logjam in its politics would eventually be broken.

George Souvlis

How you would interpret the fact that an armed-struggle organization could enjoy such legitimacy in Irish society for such a long period? What were the IRA’s ideological origins, which of these features dominated in its initial phase, and how did these change over time?

Daniel Finn

The Provisionals have their own origin story which is still very much part of Sinn Féin’s historical self-image today. According to that story, the IRA in its modern form arose because the state responded to pressure for reform with violence, and nationalists saw there was no alternative but to take up arms. Against that, it has to be said that the Provisional IRA’s core leadership started out with a firm commitment to armed struggle: it wasn’t that they weighed up different tactics and decided that a campaign of guerrilla warfare was the best option.

During the lean years for the republican movement after the 1920s, when its remaining stalwarts had to operate on the margins of Irish politics, north and south, a view had taken hold among republicans that “politics” and “politicians” were the source of betrayal: the only people who could be trusted were those who bore arms for the cause. That view was never universally held among IRA members, but it was very widespread. The founders of the Provisional IRA believed that the left-wing leadership of the movement in the 1960s had diverted its focus away from armed struggle toward political activism and it was time now to go back to basics.

The irony is that without the political turn of the IRA in the 1960s, which included helping to set up the civil rights movement, you never would have had the crisis of 1968–69, and the Provos never would have had the opportunity to win support on a fairly broad scale. It didn’t stop after 1969 either: in 1971–72, the Provisionals relied far more than they appreciated at the time on the civil resistance campaign. The Bloody Sunday massacre gave them a massive boost. That only happened because socialists and left-wing republicans had started to organize demonstrations, aiming to get people back on the streets, and the British Army decided to use the big march in Derry as cover for a crazy operation to try and wipe out the IRA.

On the one hand, you can’t say that the Provos were responding to the Falls Road Curfew, internment, Bloody Sunday, etc. when they decided to take up arms: their core leadership team had always wanted to go down that road. But they would have been on a hiding to nothing without those episodes of state repression. The younger generation of Provos who later rose to assume the leadership of the movement went through those formative experiences in the late ’60s and early 1970s.

Pretty soon, the Provisionals had to face up to the limitations of their political strategy, which relied more or less exclusively on guerrilla warfare to extract a British commitment to withdraw. They fought their way to the negotiating table in the summer of 1972, only to find that Edward Heath’s government had no intention of pulling out. Then they went back to war, but Heath’s reform initiative wrong-footed them and they lost a lot of the support they had enjoyed in the early months of 1972.

For a couple of years, they seemed to be drifting, playing the role of spoilers without being in a position to shape the political agenda themselves. The IRA spent most of 1975 on truce, hoping that the British government was fed up with the crisis and was looking for an exit strategy, but that turned out to be a naive assumption.

It was in that context that a new leadership team grouped around Gerry Adams took the reins from the late 1970s. Through a combination of strategic planning and ad hoc experimentation, they arrived at a fresh approach by the early 1980s — a twin-track strategy based on armed struggle and electoral politics. They couldn’t have done it without the impetus from the 1980–81 hunger strikes and (above all) the mass protests in support of the prisoners. In that sense, you could say that Margaret Thatcher extended the life span of the IRA campaign by at least a decade through her provocative handling of the prison protest: directly, by supplying the IRA with a new crop of recruits; and indirectly, by enabling Sinn Féin to enter the political field with a bang, giving Adams and his associates reason to believe that their movement could still win.

By that stage, it was no longer a question of achieving a military victory, as far as the Provos were concerned. They were counting on Sinn Féin’s electoral growth to change the balance of forces, while the IRA carried on with its campaign to prevent “normalization” from taking hold and chip away at the British government’s morale. Things didn’t work out that way: Sinn Féin never overtook its main nationalist rival in the North, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and it never made a breakthrough in the South either.

By the late 1980s, it was clear that the IRA had been contained. It could carry on fighting, perhaps indefinitely, but it wouldn’t be in a stronger position than it was now — and it certainly couldn’t win. So, the Adams leadership shifted toward their peace process strategy, using the IRA campaign and (later) its weapons as a bargaining chip to strengthen their hand in negotiations. The IRA cease-fire removed the main obstacle to Sinn Féin’s growth. In time it became the largest nationalist party in the North and, at a much later stage, a significant player in the South.

In terms of popular legitimacy, obviously it’s hard to measure support for an illegal organization. Support for the IRA probably reached its peak in the first half of 1972, then receded quite sharply. By the end of the decade the IRA was very isolated in nationalist communities. The hunger strikes gave it new energy. In the 1980s, Sinn Féin had a policy of “unconditional support” for the IRA campaign that all of its candidates had to endorse, and it regularly won between 30 and 40 percent of the nationalist vote.

At its high points, the IRA was supported by a large minority of nationalists, but it never had enough support to win. Like ETA [the left-wing armed-struggle Basque organization], the IRA occupied an intermediate position, between movements like the ANC and the PLO, which were genuinely “national” in terms of support, and isolated armed-struggle grouplets like the Red Brigades or Baader-Meinhof. Both ETA and the IRA had far more social weight than the groups in Italy or West Germany, without having as much support as national liberation movements in Palestine or South Africa or Vietnam. That intermediate position became a kind of no man’s land. The only way out was to end the armed campaigns.

George Souvlis

What political heritage did the period between 1968 and 1998 leave for Sinn Féin and its makeup? How far can the past account for its current political character?

Daniel Finn

Until very recently, Sinn Féin’s leadership team was still dominated by veterans of the IRA campaign like Adams, Martin McGuinness, and others. Ex-IRA members still play a crucial role in the movement, both in public and in private. It gave rise to an organizational culture that was tightly centralized, where the leadership tended to make big decisions on policy and then go out and sell that new policy to the membership, rather than throwing the debate open. For better or worse, Sinn Féin is by far the largest party in Western Europe that still practices a kind of democratic centralism.

It’s partly a question of habits acquired during the IRA campaign. By its very nature, a secret guerrilla organization has to be quite centralized, and it can’t conduct its business in full view of the public. But it also owes a great deal to the requirements of the peace process. When Gerry Adams and his inner circle decided that the IRA campaign was going nowhere, they wanted to avoid a major split, so instead of saying to the membership “what we’re doing isn’t working, let’s talk about what we should do instead,” they developed the habit of deciding first what the next step should be, then making the pitch for it to the republican base. They wanted to marginalize the hard-line, militarist faction through salami tactics, rather than confront them directly. On its own terms, that approach was very successful, but it’s now part of the movement’s DNA.

It’ll be interesting to see how the party’s organizational culture develops over the next few years. They now have far more votes and elected representatives than ever before; reportedly they’ve also had a significant membership surge since this year’s election. The two party leaders, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, don’t have the same charismatic aura as Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. McDonald is well respected because she’s led them to unprecedented electoral success, but it’s not inconceivable that she could face a challenge from within the party if things weren’t going so well. Michelle O’Neill has already faced an unsuccessful challenge. We may see Sinn Féin becoming more of a conventional party, with open factions and jostling for position, but it’s early days yet.

The other main historical legacy that’s relevant today is the hierarchy of political objectives described — and criticized — by Eoin Ó Broin, one of their leading spokesmen in the South. For Sinn Féin, the primary goal is a united Ireland. Their left-wing agenda is subordinated to that. This is not a position that’s attributed to them by hostile critics on their left flank; it’s something that leaders like Gerry Adams have set out very clearly. It’s not that they’re lying when they say they want investment in public services, workers’ rights, etc. But Irish unity comes first. Their flip-flopping over an issue like abortion, on both sides of the Irish border, is one symptom of that.

George Souvlis

How has Brexit influenced the current Irish political scene?

Daniel Finn

It gave Sinn Féin a boost, certainly, at a time when its political prospects in the South appeared to be contracting, because it put the question of Irish unity back on the agenda. In the years leading up to the Brexit referendum, in some ways that goal seemed to be more elusive than ever, but the upsurge of British — really English — nationalism raised new questions about the constitutional status quo. The polling on a united Ireland is erratic — it depends on how the question is worded — but the Brexit crisis certainly made “soft nationalists” and “soft unionists” think again about whether the Union with Britain was sustainable.

Over the course of 2019, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what form Brexit was going to assume and even about whether it would go ahead at all. Boris Johnson’s deal and his election victory settled things, for now anyway. Instead of trying to drag Northern Ireland into a hard-Brexit arrangement that the majority of its people rejected, Johnson and the Tories have accepted that the region will go its own way, with separate trading arrangements to avoid a hard border with the South. If that leads to a united Ireland, it’ll be a fairly gradual process, not a sudden rupture. At any rate, hard-line unionists aren’t happy with the line of march and are starting to wish they’d supported Theresa May’s deal with the hated “backstop.”

George Souvlis

What should we expect from Sinn Féin’s recent election victory?

Daniel Finn

The outcome of the election came as a huge surprise to everyone, including Sinn Féin. If they’d run more candidates, they would have won more seats, but they never expected their vote share to be as high as it was. After last year’s local and European elections, it looked as if things were going in the opposite direction: Sinn Féin lost half their council seats, and they were expecting a battle to hold onto the seats they won in the 2016 general election. The party had changed its policy on coalition after 2016 to allow for an alliance with the center-right parties as a junior partner.

This year’s election result changed all that. The center-right parties might have been willing to form a government with Sinn Féin as a clearly subordinate force — a bit like the coalition between PSOE and Podemos in Spain, where everyone knew which party was top dog. It’s a different matter entirely when Sinn Féin has the biggest vote share and no reason to feel humble. In the weeks following the election, Mary Lou McDonald held several rallies that drew in big crowds.

Then the pandemic intervened. In Ireland as much as anywhere else, we don’t know what the long-term political fallout is going to be, but it certainly gave Leo Varadkar’s caretaker government an incumbency boost. He’s also benefited from having Boris Johnson on one flank and Donald Trump on the other as points of comparison: a lot of people have died in Ireland, but the public health crisis hasn’t been as bad as in Britain or the United States. The crisis provided useful cover for Fine Gael, Fianna Fàil, and the Greens to enter coalition talks.

All in all, it’s not a bad position for Sinn Féin to be in, facing a conservative government as the unquestioned leader of the opposition — none of the other parties on the opposition benches will be close to matching Sinn Féin. What happens then will depend on the pandemic and its economic consequences. At the start of the year, the conservative parties were boasting about the latest growth figures, and Sinn Féin was citing those figures as evidence that there was room to invest in public services. Now it’s going to be more of a cutthroat, zero-sum battle over resources and the division of the cake.

In the form that it’s assumed over the past twenty or thirty years, Sinn Féin is a very pragmatic party: they go with what works. Jim Gibney, an influential figure in the party leadership, once described “the principle of success” as the party’s guiding star. For now at least, tacking to the left is working for them, and it’s delivered their highest ever vote in the South.

At several points since the early 1970s, the Provisionals have found themselves facing a brick wall, or so it seemed. Then a combination of tactical flexibility and a change in the political weather allowed them to resume their march. Everyone who comments on Sinn Féin has a political axe to grind, and I wouldn’t claim to be any different. But that partisanship often obscures the fact that politics aside, they’re a fascinating movement to observe. With the possible exception of Bildu in Euskadi, there’s nothing else like them in Western Europe.