Fintan O’Toole, review of Behind the Mask by Peter Taylor in NY Review of Books (19 Feb. 1998)

Bibliographical details: The End of the Troubles?, review of Peter Taylor, Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, et al., in NY Review of Books (19 Feb. 1998).

[Books reviewed: Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein by Peter Taylor (TV Books), 431pp.; Before the Dawn: An Autobiography by Gerry Adams (William Morrow), 332pp.

The transformation of terrorist into statesman has been in the last fifty years such a frequently recurring theme that it has almost become the political equivalent of religious redemption. In their different ways, Jomo Kenyatta, Yitzhak Shamir, Nelson Mandela, and many others have made the transition from outlaw to politician, from reviled insurgent to respected leader. Time and again, the alchemy of power has conferred retrospective sanction on what was once seen as mindless brutality.

If the current peace talks in Northern Ireland are to succeed, new conversions will have to be added to the list. For the sake of peace and political stability, those who have committed or sanctioned almost thirty years of terrorist violence, involving over 3,200 deaths, will have to be accepted as legitimate democrats. Some of them are the political representatives of Loyalist paramilitary groups who, in the name of their right to remain part of the United Kingdom, have inflicted terrible and often random violence on the Catholic community. Those groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, have, for the most part, observed the cease-fire since October 1994, when they expressed “abject and true remorse” for their “innocent victims.” Since no conceivable settlement will break the link with Britain that they are pledged to defend, they are unlikely to form a barrier to peace. Much more critical, and much more difficult, is the journey that the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, will have to make.

That journey is treacherous because, though Irish republicans would like to think otherwise, the analogy between themselves and Kenyatta or Mandela is not in fact valid. The IRA’s campaign has not been a war of national liberation, waged on behalf of the majority against an oppressive minority or a foreign power. Its enemies have not been illegitimate regimes but two liberal democracies the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland itself. The end-of-empire ritual of an old flag lowered at midnight and a new one raised at dawn will not be played out in Belfast, whatever the outcome of the talks. Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, may have made the transition from terrorist to politician, but he and his comrades are not about to take over the state. The question on which the future of Northern Ireland depends is whether, without the reward of power, an undefeated paramilitary army can be persuaded to trade the epic certainties of violence for the unglamorous ambiguities of peaceful politics. One of the most resilient and fearsome of terrorist groups, which has withstood all the efforts of the British army and the local Northern Irish security apparatus to destroy it, is being asked to settle for something far short of its goals. And for this incorporation into a liberal democracy of an armed conspiracy to overthrow it, postwar history offers no precedent.

To understand why there is, nevertheless, a reasonable chance that this transition may in fact be accomplished, it is necessary to look beyond the IRA’s brutally simple surface. It is, as the impressive solidity of its current cease-fire suggests, a tightly disciplined organization. It has, on the face of it, a clear aim the total military and political withdrawal of Great Britain from the six Northern Irish counties which remained part of the UK after the twenty-six counties of what is now the Republic of Ireland became independent in 1922. Its unyielding sense of purpose has forced expressions of grudging admiration even from its fiercest enemies. In a conflict marked by shifting aims and uncertain allegiances, its willingness to inflict and to endure great suffering has been the one constant. And yet this apparent solidity is deceptive. For one of the attractions of “war” for violent Irish republicans has been precisely its ability to give an appearance of unity and clarity to what is in fact a movement created from diverse desires. Critical to the current possibilities for peace is the fact that the IRA is not a monolith. The armed campaign it has waged over three decades has drawn support from distinct, though not mutually exclusive, sources. They have overlapped and interacted with one another, and while the conflict was in full swing they were often difficult to separate. But it is impossible to understand the IRA’s current situation without attempting to unravel them.

The first and most obvious factor in the creation of the Provisional IRA [ftn.1] in 1970 is the long tradition of armed Irish attempts to, as the eighteenth-century revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone put it, “break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils.” [ftn. 2] The Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1858 and popularly known as the Fenians, established the notion that a secretive and elitist conspiracy of dedicated nationalist revolutionaries would, by their courage and endurance, eventually establish an independent Irish republic. Though it had connections with the reformist, constitutional nationalism of the majority in Ireland, the IRB tradition has always been essentially undemocratic. Unless and until an independent state encompassing the entire island is established, the majority, in this ideology, cannot be sovereign. The “will of the people” resides not in democratic choice but in the millennial, unappeasable demand for a free, united Ireland. The failed Rising in Dublin in 1916 of which the IRB was the principal organizer and from which the contemporary IRA still draws inspiration was the most dramatic and alluring expression of this demand.

The contemporary “Republican Movement” (the umbrella term for the IRA and Sinn Fein) sees itself as the only true inheritor of this tradition, and there is indeed, in ideological terms, a degree of continuity between itself and its predecessors. But the idea of a continuing, irreducible historic struggle of which the present IRA is merely the most recent manifestation is in fact deceptive. For one thing, almost all of the political parties in the Republic of Ireland can, like Sinn Fein and the IRA, trace their origins back to the armed nationalists of 1916. And each of them has long since adapted itself to the reality that the existence of a democratic and independent state in twenty-six of the thirty-two Irish counties has fundamentally altered the logic of Irish nationalism.

In any case, traditional republicanism, with its demand for a united Ireland, was, by the time the political crisis in Northern Ireland began to develop in the mid-1960s, a depressed and marginalized movement. An IRA campaign of attacks on police stations and border posts, launched in 1956, had sputtered out after the deaths of eleven republicans and six policemen. This failure had led to a sharp turn to the left on the part of most republicans, who began to emphasize public campaigns on issues like unemployment and housing rather than military conspiracy. By 1962, the IRA in Belfast, the main city of what republicans regarded as “occupied” Northern Ireland, had just twenty-four members. [ftn. 3] Conspiratorial nationalism had been reduced, as the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams points out in his autobiography, to a few families, one of them his own. Clearly, on its own, the republican tradition cannot account for the strength that the IRA had acquired just ten years later. Two other streams of influence fed the torrent of violence that the IRA unleashed, and they, too, must be taken into account.

One is an older, more potent, and more atavistic force than Irish republicanism ethnic hatred. If republicanism is concerned primarily with the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, ethnic hatred is played out around more intimate and less formal frontiers. The day-to-day stuff of the conflict has been not an epic struggle between Ireland and Britain, but a squalid series of sectarian turf wars. In the cities Belfast and Derry the riots and pogroms between Catholics and Protestants that marked the outbreak of the Troubles in 1968 forced each of the religious communities into its own ghettoes. Intermarriage and neighborhoods with mixed housing had been on the increase, but the sudden violent conflict put a stop to this natural process of integration, creating tribal boundaries of which the laughably named “Peace Line” between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road in West Belfast is the most obvious example. In the countryside, meanwhile, there had long been a festering resentment among Catholic farmers that, since the plantations of the seventeenth century, much of the better land has been held by Protestants. If it seems fanciful to suggest that such distant historic wrongs could still be acting on the Ireland of the late twentieth century, consider the interview in Behind the Mask by the BBC journalist Peter Taylor with Gerry McGeough, an IRA activist from rural Tyrone, who served three years in an American prison for trying to acquire surface-to-air missiles:

The fact was that I was of this Gaelic-Irish stock which had for generation after generation resisted foreign rule in our country. I was conscious of Scottish planters, Protestant and Presbyterian, being brought over and being given the land of the dispossessed or displaced native Irish Catholics. So this was something that, even though it had happened many, many generations before my birth, we were still very, very deeply aware of.

Especially in parts of Northern Ireland that border the Republic South Armagh, Fermanagh, East Tyrone the idea of “taking back our land” is not, therefore, a metaphysical appeal to free Ireland but an immediate, intimate demand to get “them” (the Protestant Irish) out. It is not accidental that in these rural areas, a disproportionate number of the IRA’s victims were the only sons of Protestant farmers. [ftn. 4]

One of the things that has made the ideology of Sinn Fein and the IRA so opaque is that it is incapable of acknowledging this aspect of its campaign, as Gerry Adams fails to do in his evasive autobiography, and he is far from alone. In theory, republicans are committed to Wolfe Tone’s ideal of substituting “the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter.” In practice, the IRA has functioned at times purely as a Catholic sectarian murder squad, slaughtering Protestants simply because of their religion. In 1975, it bombed two crowded pubs on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast, killing eleven people. In the same year, it attacked a Protestant meeting hall in South Armagh and shot six men, one of them aged eighty, dead. The following year, again in South Armagh, it machine-gunned a busload of Protestant workers, killing ten. To make the sectarian nature of the attack entirely clear, the one Catholic on the bus was spared.

In 1992, the IRA attacked a minibus carrying Protestant workers, killing eight men. Gerry Adams blamed their deaths not on the people who had planned and executed the massacre, but on “the failure of British policy in Ireland.” The men who took part in such attacks, moreover, were not disowned by the IRA. Brendan McFarlane, who carried out one of the 1975 sectarian massacres, was, in 1981, during the famous hunger strikes, appointed IRA commander in Long Kesh prison in the movement’s terms, an immense honor.

At other times, ethnic contempt was expressed more passively. Time and again, the IRA, while attacking military or economic targets, proved itself utterly indifferent to the lives of Protestant civilians. In 1978, in an attack that Gerry Adams says in his book left him “shocked” and “deeply affected,” the Belfast IRA set off a horrific inferno in a hotel restaurant, killing twelve people dining there, all of them Protestants. In 1987, an IRA bomb exploded during a remembrance ceremonial for war dead in Enniskillen, killing eleven people. In 1993, a bomb on the Shankill Road, intended for members of a Loyalist paramilitary group thought to be meeting in rooms above a fish shop, killed nine Protestants going about their Saturday shopping, along with the bomber.

After these and many other incidents, the IRA routinely expressed its regret for having made “mistakes.” It is hard to believe that if the victims had been Catholic the IRA would not have learned something from so many disastrous errors. More often, however, ethnic hatred was disguised as military logic. Since the Protestant community is largely supportive of the police, the army, and the state apparatus, all sorts of people who merely happened to be Protestant also happened to be (in republican rhetoric) “legitimate targets.” Judges, prison officers, members of parliament, retired policemen, building workers who repaired the police stations damaged in IRA attacks, even a young woman collecting census forms all could find themselves, at any moment, guilty of capital offenses and punished with summary execution. It is true that the IRA also killed hundreds of Catholics by accident and design (ironically, in the first twenty years of the Troubles it killed twice as many Irish Catholics as did the security forces of the “occupying power”). But to most Protestants the “legitimate targets” were simply victims of a sectarian onslaught aimed at their entire community.

Neither of these two aspects of the IRA’s makeup conspiratorial elitism or sectarian hatred is capable of being negotiated away, and if they were all there was to the IRA, the prospects for peace would be bleak indeed. But there is a third and arguably more important factor and it is one that may well yield to political compromise. Its source is to be found neither in distant history nor in prehistoric atavism, but in the conditions endured by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Though Irish nationalists tend to regard the partition of the island by the Westminster parliament in 1920 as a heinous British crime, it was in reality an inevitable product of Irish political, economic, and religious divisions. For the industrial North, integrated into the economy of the British Empire, it would have been madness to follow the largely agricultural South into political independence and economic autarky. That Protestants would also be trading their position as part of a British religious majority for that of a minority in a largely Catholic Ireland gave this economic rationale a visceral emotional force. The alternative to partition was, and remains, a bloody civil war.

Partition itself, though, solved a large problem by creating a somewhat smaller one. It left, within Northern Ireland, a very substantial Catholic minority (now over 40 percent of the population) that owed no loyalty to the new statelet. And these Catholics were trapped in a vicious circle. Since they were assumed to be disloyal to the Protestant-dominated local administration, Protestant supremacists had an ideal excuse to exclude them from power and to treat their legitimate political aspirations as the seeds of treason. They were subjected, for fifty years, to systematic discrimination in the allocation of jobs, housing, and public services. Ironically, though, British postwar legislation providing for state schools helped to create a generation of well-educated, articulate Catholics who found their ambitions blighted by discrimination. In the international climate of the 1960s, the tensions thus created led to the formation of a mass protest movement, the nonviolent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. When this irresistible force met the unmovable object of Unionist and Protestant reaction, Northern Ireland descended into the civil chaos from which the Provisional IRA emerged.

Most of the current leadership of Sinn Fein is made up of men who were, in the 1960s, angry young Catholics. In some cases, like that of Gerry Adams, they came from republican families, but in many they did not. Indeed, many of them were reacting in anger to what they perceived to be the passivity with which their parents had endured the stigma of being second-class citizens in their own country. The violence with which this reaction was expressed may be unfathomable, but its source is not. If it can be imagined that American blacks in the 1960s had a longstanding secret army to join and a deep religious division between themselves and whites to feed off, it is not unthinkable that they, too, might have found themselves sliding into a long, bloody campaign of terror.

Each of the most important Sinn Fein negotiators in the current peace talks Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Kelly belongs to this 1960s generation, and each joined the IRA. Sinn Fein insists that it and the IRA are separate organizations but Peter Taylor, in his book, which was written to accompany his television history of the movement, has it right when he points to the close links between the two at every level. McGuinness, then twenty-two, was charged with IRA membership in 1972 and told an Irish court that he was “an officer in the Derry Brigade of the IRA.” Kelly served a long prison sentence for planting IRA bombs in England. As for Adams, his book is almost silent on the subject of the relation between Sinn Fein and the IRA, rendering it virtually useless as a document of the conflict.

Though he routinely denies that he was ever in the IRA, he was almost certainly a senior member. It is true that he has never been convicted of any violent crime, or of any IRA-related offense, except that of attempting to escape from a prison camp to which he was committed without trial. Under the then-current policy of interning IRA suspects, he was arrested in 1972, but released in order to represent the IRA in abortive talks with the British government. He was recaptured in 1973; the following year, while still incarcerated, he received an eighteen-month sentence for attempting to burn down the camp. In 1978, he was charged with membership in the IRA and held for seven months. The case, however, never came to trial, so the issue was never contested in open court.

While in prison, however, Adams wrote, under a pseudonym, a column for the Sinn Fein newspaper Republican News in which he declared that:

Rightly or wrongly, I am an IRA Volunteer and, rightly or wrongly, I take a course of action as a means of bringing about a situation in which I believe the people of my country will prosper ... The course I take involves the use of physical force, but only if I achieve the situation where my people genuinely prosper can my course of action be seen, by me, to have been justified.... Maybe in ten years’ time, if all this has achieved nothing, I’ll wonder why I wrote all this and why I thought like this. [ftn. 5]

His precise role within the IRA may not become entirely clear until a peace settlement creates the conditions in which such things can be safely discussed. But in 1996, he gave an enthusiastic endorsement to a book David Beresford’s superb history of the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s, Ten Men Dead that described him as commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade from July 1972 to July 1973. [ftn. 6] In that period, the organization killed at least 183 people, 53 of them civilians. Adams deals obliquely with the subject in Before the Dawn by including as part of his memoirs a short story in which an IRA sniper kills a British army officer:

He breathed in as the officer reached the lamppost, and he held his breath as his finger tightened on the trigger. First pressure. He let his breath out almost in a sigh and whispered “second pressure.” The heavy flat thud of the rifle exploded his words, sending the black-and-white cat scampering from the garden and the starlings from the dustbin.

For Adams and his generation in the IRA, the reforms introduced by British governments in response to the outbreak of the conflict were proof that there was no limit to what terrorist violence could achieve. The autonomous Northern Ireland administration, hated by nationalists, was abolished and replaced with direct rule from London. Discrimination in housing and employment was outlawed. The system of local government that had been rife with anti-Catholic corruption was successfully overhauled. The abuses which had sparked the conflict in the first place were largely ended. But by then the IRA had concluded that violence worked and that with enough of it Britain would grow tired of Northern Ireland and walk away. As Adams himself put it in an interview in 1995, the British “have no bottom line ... They will move as far as [we] can push them.” [ftn. 7]

This belief encouraged the IRA republicans to adopt in the 1970s a classic terrorist position shared at the time with groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy that violence would produce a reaction which would display the state in its true, fascistic colors. Instead of trying to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Catholics, the IRA was intent on destroying rational reform and provoking repression. A defense of the IRA’s bombing campaign written in 1976 and published in its own newspaper was entirely explicit about this:

The growth of reaction isn’t to be frowned upon. We can inflate its importance and at our own leisure burst its credibility. As George Jackson, that great Black revolutionary, once said, “What would help us is to allow as many right-wing elements as possible to assume political power.” [ftn. 8]

And, of course, the British government tended to oblige. One of the most striking aspects of the interviews with British officials in Taylor’s book is how many of them cheerily admit to utter ignorance of Northern Ireland before they were sent to govern it. Frank Steele, the most important British intelligence official in the province in the 1970s, confessed the limits of his knowledge before his posting there and was told, “That means you’ve got an untrammeled mind. You’ll be unbiased, so you’re just the man for the job.” Things were often no better with British politicians. James (now Lord) Callaghan, the British Home Secretary who took the decision to send the army into the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969, told Taylor:

I never do believe frankly that anybody from this side of the water understands Ireland and I’ve never flattered myself that I understand the situation fully. I think very few people do. Certainly we didn’t have enough understanding of it at the time.

This lack of understanding repeatedly resulted in actions by the state that allowed the IRA to present the conflict as a dirty war in which each side was equally violent. From the disastrous introduction of internment without trial in 1971 and the massacre by the army of unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972 to Margaret Thatcher’s hard-line attitude to republican hunger strikers in 1980 and 1981, British attempts to meet fire with fire merely added to the conflagration. Such blunders helped to create a dynamic of atrocity and counter-atrocity that kept the conflict in perpetual motion.



1. So called because it was formed as a breakaway from the “Official” republican movement, which had been pursuing a Marxist and anti-sectarian strategy. The Official IRA gradually ceased to exist, and Official Sinn Fein metamorphosed into the small socialist party Democratic Left, which formed part of the last coalition government in the Irish Republic. The Provisionals or “Provos” pursued ‘armed struggle.’ The terms “IRA” and “Sinn Fein” are used here to indicate the Provisionals.
2. In Behind the Mask, Peter Taylor follows the usual convention of histories of the IRA by tracing its intellectual origins back to Wolfe Tone. His knowledge is vague, however. He claims that Tone was a “Belfast Protestant.” In fact he was a Dubliner.
3. See Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion: A Political History of the IRA (London: Serif, 1997), p. 108. Patterson’s book is the most subtle and authoritative account of the development of republican ideology.
4. This local, territorial competition is the reason that the routing for parades and marches, especially those of the Protestant Orange Order, has so often been a source of violent conflict.
5. Republican News (Belfast), May 8, 1976. Adams’s column appears under the pseudonym “Brownie.”
6. The Observer, September 22, 1996.
7. Brian Rowen, Behind the Lines: The Story of the IRA and Loyalist Ceasefires (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1995), pp. 222-223.
8. Republican News (Belfast), March 27, 1976.

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