Daniel Finn’s 2019 book One Man’s Terrorist provided a radical reinterpretation of the Provisional IRA. Rebel spoke to him about the the conditions of their initial emergence, their changing strategies, as well as the context today two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement.
REBEL: The Provisional IRA has been written about extensively – what marks out your work from other books already published?
Daniel Finn: Much of the existing literature on the republican movement appeared 15 or 20 years ago, around the time of the Good Friday Agreement and the transition from armed struggle to constitutional politics by the Adams leadership. Many of those books were written by journalists like Peter Taylor, Brendan O’Brien or Ed Moloney, who had been covering the Troubles ‘beat’ for a long time and wanted to put the fruits of their reporting down in print; they’re still essential reading. But there’s now a lot of source material that wasn’t available to researchers at the turn of the century: state papers from the British and Irish governments, up as far as the late 1980s; memoirs by participants like Richard O’Rawe and Kieran Conway.
It’s also becoming easier to write about this period as history. Not so long ago, many of the leading political figures in the North of Ireland had been on the scene right from the beginning of the conflict: John Hume, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness etc. While I was in the course of writing the book, McGuinness died, and Adams stood down as Sinn Féin president, handing over the reins to a new, post-ceasefire generation. That transition from current affairs to history is still incomplete—in fact it may never be fully completed (just look at the ongoing debates about the War of Independence in the South!). But it’s certainly easier to see the conflict in historical perspective.
REBEL: The late 60s were marked by massive political upheavals with the emergence of the civil rights movement. Things would eventually turn sour, armed efforts coming to the fore over mass protests. Some historians argue that the fault for the violence known as ‘the Troubles’ should be primarily blamed on the IRA. However, this was the period of violent state reaction against civil rights protesters, of Burntollet, and of the so-called loyalist backlash – the IRA didn’t emerge in a vacuum. What do you see as the key factors in this shift from the protests of the civil rights movement to the development of the PIRA?
DF: There are two competing narratives about the crucial period between 1968 and 1972. The first places the blame for the conflict squarely at the door of the Provisionals. In the most extreme form, you still have Unionist politicians—Nelson McCausland, for example—arguing that the civil rights movement was a republican-communist conspiracy to overthrow the state, and that the events of August 1969 were a carefully planned IRA insurrection.
But more frequently, politicians, journalists and historians will grant that the civil rights marchers had legitimate grievances. They argue that the British government was in the process of addressing those grievances when the Provos intervened. It’s possible within this framework to argue that internment was a terrible mistake, or that Bloody Sunday was an atrocity against innocent civilians, while still seeing the actions of the British government as a response—clumsy and foolish, perhaps—to the provocations of the IRA.
That narrative glosses over the substance of British policy during the early years of the Troubles. There was a window of opportunity to carry out reforms that would have satisfied most people involved in the civil rights movement after August 1969. But the Wilson and Heath governments squandered that opportunity because they were determined to preserve the Unionist system as a buffer, shielding them from direct involvement.
Once they made that choice to keep Stormont up and running, there was a clear political logic undermining any attempt to carry out reforms: the Unionist leaders—first James Chichester-Clark, then Brian Faulkner—had to maintain the support of their own party, which required ‘law and order’ policies that were inherently sectarian. The Army commander Ian Freeland understood perfectly well what Unionist politicians meant by ‘law and order’: as he remarked in private, it was a demand to put the nationalists back in their place.
In Derry, Ballymurphy, or the Lower Falls, the Army’s increasingly repressive role had started to alienate nationalists, well before the Provos started attacking British soldiers. In that context, it’s clear that internment was more than a policy error: it was a political necessity in terms of the British government’s overall strategy. Rejecting Faulkner’s demand for internment would have required Heath to pull the plug on the Northern Irish government—as he eventually did, of course, after doing enormous damage in the meantime.
In the same way, Bloody Sunday was certainly a crime, but it was a crime that flowed naturally from the approach decided upon by British politicians after August 1969 and upheld by them for more than two years, in the face of mounting evidence that it would prove disastrous. If the Provos had never existed, nationalists would still have been demanding radical reform—especially reform of the security apparatus and its legislative cocoon—of a kind that no Stormont administration could deliver. So long as British policy was to keep Stormont in place, there was bound to be a crisis.
That’s the first narrative. The second narrative is the one put forward by the Provisionals themselves. They argue that the IRA campaign was a justified and inevitable response to state repression. In assessing that claim, we have to make some careful distinctions: for example, between the young men and women—like the Price sisters—who joined the Provisional IRA after 1969, and the core leadership team of the movement, who decided upon its strategy in the early years.
There’s no question that the core Provisional leadership started off with a plan to launch a campaign of guerrilla warfare, following the template laid down in the War of Independence. They didn’t look carefully at the sequence of events between the Derry march in October 1968 and Bloody Sunday, weigh up different strategies and say to themselves ‘armed struggle is the way ahead’. It was always their plan to take up arms against British rule. In many cases, their idea of republicanism was rigidly militaristic: they dismissed all forms of political activity as a distraction, or even a betrayal.
The irony is that their ability to launch a full-scale insurgency depended entirely on the work of activists who didn’t see ‘politics’ as a dirty word. This was obviously true of the civil rights protests that destabilized the Unionist statelet in 1968–69. But it was also true of the civil resistance campaign that flared up after internment in August 1971, with several facets: the rent-and-rates strike by council tenants, the no-go areas in Derry and Belfast, and the revival of street protest at the end of 1971, during the build-up to Bloody Sunday.
It’s remarkable how often the literature of the Troubles discusses Bloody Sunday without posing a basic question: why were there twenty thousand people marching on the streets of Derry that day? It was a conscious political choice by a loose assortment of political actors—People’s Democracy and the Northern Resistance Movement, the Officials and NICRA—to get back on the streets at that time, in the hope of giving further impetus to the civil resistance campaign.
The Provos did take part in the NRM, and some of their leaders—Ruairí Ó Brádaigh for example—hailed the civil resistance campaign. For the most part, however, they thought armed struggle would be enough to achieve their goal: a British pledge to withdraw from the North. The result of Bloody Sunday, of course, was to give them a tremendous boost, with many new recruits drawing the conclusion that it was essential to take up arms against British rule. Widgery’s cynical, mendacious report probably did as much as the massacre itself to shape their thinking.
However, there was a very different way of looking at events in the early months of 1972. Did Bloody Sunday really sound the death-knell for street protest? In fact, the NICRA march in Newry shortly afterwards was the biggest to date, with fifty thousand people defying a government ban. The rent-and-rates strike was rock-solid, and so were the no-go areas in West Belfast and the Bogside.
Solidarity action spread to the South, with a general strike that Jack Lynch’s government hastily rebranded as a national day of mourning—Lynch even pledged in the Dáil to fund civil disobedience! The position of the British government was never weaker than in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and the civil resistance campaign was a crucial part of that weakness.
The Provos didn’t really understand this: they thought that the fall of Stormont, and William Whitelaw’s subsequent invitation to direct talks, was exclusively the product of their own campaign (which of course had done a lot to make the region ungovernable). When their talks with Whitelaw predictably ended without a British commitment to withdraw, they went back to war, and thought they could blast the British state off the island with a short, sharp campaign.
But the mood of the nationalist population had shifted: Heath and Whitelaw were talking about reform, and many people were willing to give them a chance. The Provos didn’t have a political organization that could explain to people why they thought it was necessary to keep on fighting—and even if they had possessed such an organization, they would been swimming against the tide of nationalist opinion.
Their renewed campaign soon led to the disaster of Bloody Friday, which made it possible for the British government to launch Operation Motorman, smashing the no-go areas. The rent-and-rates strike gradually fizzled out, the Dublin government and the SDLP entered talks with Heath and Whitelaw, and the Provos found themselves isolated.
To go back to the starting point: on the one hand, it was British government policy, decided upon by highly experienced politicians and civil servants, that made it possible for the Provisional leadership to recruit so many young people and convince them that armed struggle was the only way to achieve justice. On the other hand, that message about the necessity—and sufficiency—of armed struggle was one that the Provos brought to the table from the very start. It wasn’t something that they worked out in response to events.
REBEL: Tommy McKearney—himself a former member of the IRA and author of an interesting book about the period—argues that the armed campaign runs into two periods. There was the early phase of what he calls the insurrectionary period and then the latter stage often described as the long war, where the Provisionals turned their back on the prospects for mass struggle, reorganised into a cell structure, and the campaign became more akin to what the Russian anarchist Bakunin called ‘propaganda of the deed’. To what extend do you think this is an accurate assessment, and were there alternatives to this long war strategy?
DF: That distinction is one that you can also find in the British Army’s official history of the conflict (which they called ‘Operation Banner’). They identify the summer of 1972 as a turning-point, when the Provos shifted from ‘insurgency’ to ‘terrorism’. In this context, they’re not using the word ‘terrorism’ in a moralistic sense: it’s closer to what Marxists like Leon Trotsky would have meant when they railed against ‘individual terrorism’—small groups of armed men and women carrying out attacks on the state forces without any wider popular engagement in their struggle.
It took several years for the new Provisional leadership grouped around Gerry Adams to develop the long war strategy and articulate it for their supporters. In the early 70s, the Provos expected to win in a short period of time—two or three years at the most. Kieran Conway has said in his memoir that they were counting down the number of soldiers killed by the IRA until it matched the casualties from the British counter-insurgency in Aden: they thought that would be the tipping-point for withdrawal.
After the breakdown of the 1972 truce, the Provos still talked about victory in the near future, but their rhetoric increasingly lacked conviction. By the end of 1974, they had been fighting for much longer than the old IRA in the War of Independence and killed many more people—soldiers and civilians alike—but there was no sign of military victory. That was the context in which Ó Brádaigh and the rest of the leadership agreed to the 1975 truce with the British government.
As Niall Ó Dochartaigh has convincingly argued in his work on this episode, it’s not realistic to suggest that Ó Brádaigh and his comrades were simply duped by British government officials. That became a crucial argument for the younger northern Provos who displaced them after the truce broke down, but it doesn’t help us understand what was going on at the time.
It wasn’t that the old guard believed they had won a military victory by the end of 1974. The truce was a calculated gamble. Ó Brádaigh was hoping that the British government would become fed up with the intractability of the situation in the North and opt for withdrawal, as much because of Unionist intransigence—the real cause of Sunningdale’s failure—as because of anything the Provisionals were doing.
The message that British civil servants conveyed to the Provisional leadership, talking about ‘structures of disengagement’ or ‘structures of withdrawal’, was ambiguous: it might have referred to the idea of an independent Northern Ireland, which is something Harold Wilson had thought about. Garret FitzGerald was very worried about Wilson’s intentions, and asked Henry Kissinger to press him over it. So it wasn’t absurd for Ó Brádaigh to think the same.
Could they square the circle between Unionist calls for an independent Northern Ireland— articulated by Vanguard and some of the loyalist paramilitaries, for example—and the Eire Nua blueprint for a federal Ireland with a 9-county Ulster parliament? Ó Brádaigh hoped so, and tried to reach out to Unionists, in public and in private. But ultimately, nothing came of these initiatives, and the year of the truce also saw the Provos engage in squalid sectarian violence, culminating in the Kingsmill massacre, as well as their failed attempt to wipe out the Official IRA. When they went back to war at the beginning of 1976, it was at a moment of extreme weakness.
When Gerry Adams and his allies gradually took over the movement, they came up with a new strategy to replace the one that had clearly run its course. I’ll address the political aspects of this strategy later: here, it’s important to stress its military side. The new-model IRA of the late 70s was slimmed down, with a much smaller active membership than before. It didn’t require large numbers of people to be involved, as members or as sympathizers. Individual attacks on the security forces could be carried out by small groups of IRA members, or even by one person alone—a sniper or a bomber.
At the end of the decade, Mary Holland suggested in an article for Magill that support for the Provisional campaign in nationalist areas was lower than it had ever been, but that didn’t appear to matter: as she put it, the Provos seemed to have defied the laws of guerrilla warfare, since the fish were still able to function without much water to swim in. You asked if there was any alternative to the long war strategy: I would argue, if the Provos wanted to carry on with an armed campaign against British rule for another ten or fifteen years, as they said they did, something like it was unavoidable. It was the only way to fight a war of that duration with the resources—both technical and political—available to them.
On the other hand, while the slimmed-down IRA was harder to beat, it was also very hard to imagine a movement like that inflicting a Vietnam-style defeat on the British state. From the late 70s on, there was no realistic horizon of military victory for the Provos. The only way for them to achieve their goals was by building a political movement that could make the British position untenable.
Now you might well argue that there was never a realistic horizon of military victory, even in the early 70s. But what’s novel about the long war strategy is the fact that the Provos acknowledged this themselves in public. Jimmy Drumm’s speech at Bodenstown in 1977 was quite clear on that point. To the extent that they still talked about the IRA campaign forcing a British withdrawal, the Provos saw it as a matter of wearing down the will of their opponents—which was a political question, not a military one, of course.
REBEL: Your book comprehensively details the political twists and turns of the Provisionals. By the 1980s the movement was seen as a radical left-wing force, perhaps even a socialist force. But when the Provisionals and the Officials split in ‘69, most people saw the Provisionals as the right wing of the equation, and the Officials as the left-wing, Marxist section of republicanism. Can you say something about the gradual shift towards a more left-wing language within Provisional movement? To what extent do you think that left-wing groups like People’s Democracy had an influence on this shift within republicanism?
DF: The Officials had certainly committed to a form of left-wing politics by the time of the split, and their embrace of Marxism became more explicit as the years went on. That led people to think, if one side in this division is the left, the other must be the right—and the Provos encouraged that perception with some of the Red-baiting, McCarthyite rhetoric you can find in early issues of An Phoblacht. But it would be more accurate to say that the Provisionals in their early history had an eclectic ideology, rather than being hard-line social or economic conservatives.
The Eire Nua programme is best remembered for its federal blueprint for an all-Ireland republic. But it also articulated a kind of petty bourgeois socialism—petty bourgeois not in the way Marxists often use that term, as a kind of political swearword, but in a descriptive sense. It was a form of ‘socialism’ adapted for small property owners—especially small farmers, who were an important part of the republican base, of course. The major industries and the banks were to be taken into state ownership, there was to be an upper limit on the size of land holdings, but small farms would be left untouched.
A lot of Provisional activists at the time wouldn’t have read that programme, if they were even aware of its existence. The key thing about Provo ideology in that period is not that it was left- or right-wing, but that it was quite minimal: to be a Provisional, you had to believe that armed struggle to achieve a united Ireland was necessary. Beyond that, you could have all kinds of different political outlooks, from Catholic conservatives like Billy McKee to left-wing radicals like Brian Keenan, along with the people who simply hadn’t thought very much about those questions. Martin McGuinness was very frank about that when he was interviewed in the spring of 1972, still in his early 20s: he said he wasn’t sure if socialism could be made to work, but in any case, there wasn’t much point worrying about it until you had a united Ireland.
If you look at Republican News in the early 70s, there was a notorious article denouncing contraception as a British plot to undermine the moral fibre of the Irish nation. Understandably, that fed into perceptions of the Provos as the ‘Rosary Beads Brigade’. But at the very same time in the paper, you had articles by Bob Purdie, for example, a Scottish Trotskyist who was a member of the International Marxist Group. It was a mish-mash of different elements, and in any case, most IRA members didn’t pay much heed to what was in their paper; they were preoccupied with armed struggle.
That began to change with the rise of the Adams leadership, and some of it was down to the influence of People’s Democracy, who had come up with a different kind of Irish Marxism that was far more congenial to the Provos. It wasn’t just the ideas, of course, it was also the people expressing them: Michael Farrell was a well-respected figure in Provisional circles, as was Bernadette McAliskey. The Provos would often dismiss the Marxist left as armchair revolutionaries, hurlers on the ditch etc., but they made an exception for people like Farrell and McAliskey. Farrell’s book The Orange State had a big impact when it came out in the late 70s.
Some of the ideas being put forward by PD fed into the new Provisional strategy, but it was very much a selective process; they took what they thought was useful, without adopting any kind of Marxist ideology wholesale. At the time, PD were arguing that the IRA campaign was a dead-end, and they called for a return to civil resistance as an alternative to armed struggle. The Provos were utterly scornful of that argument: they said it was cowardly defeatism. As far as they were concerned, the armed struggle would have to continue until victory. Political action was to be a complement to the IRA campaign, not a substitute for it.
The relationship of the Provos with small left-wing groups like PD is probably best summed up by a comment Adams makes in his memoir Before The Dawn: “It struck me that all of the potential for mobilization was ours, while PD had the theory.” He localizes that comment to the beginning of 1972 and the alliance between PD and the Provos in the Northern Resistance Movement, but I think it’s better read as a general observation about the whole period from the early 70s to 1981.
REBEL: The Hunger Strikes obviously had a massive impact on the thinking of those in the Provisional leadership, especially after the election of Bobby Sands as an MP. Can you say something about how this influenced those like Adams who wanted to enter the electoral arena?
DF: It would be easy with the benefit of hindsight to draw a straight line between the new thinking set out in Jimmy Drumm’s Bodenstown speech of 1977 and the rise of Sinn Féin as a political force in the early 1980s. Drumm had spoken about ending ‘spectator politics’ and building a political movement alongside the IRA, and here it was, surely. But that doesn’t do justice to what was going on.
In fact, the new Provisional strategy encapsulated by that speech and others at the time was never realized. The Provos talked about building a militant workers’ movement in the South that would support the struggle against British rule. That never happened. To the extent that there was class struggle in the South at that time—the tax justice marches, for example—it had nothing to do with support for the IRA. Sinn Féin didn’t build a significant political base south of the border until after the IRA ceasefire in the 90s.
In the meantime, the Provisional leadership was overlooking the issue that would actually supply Sinn Féin with a launchpad. It was people like Bernadette McAliskey, PD and the IRSP who called for a broad-based campaign in support of republican prisoners who were refusing to conform to the new regime after the abolition of special-category status.
For several years, the Provisionals were very hostile to the idea of a movement that would be open to people who didn’t give wholehearted support to the IRA campaign. When McAliskey ran on a platform supporting the prisoners in the European election in 1979, Adams and Martin McGuinness attacked her quite bitterly. McGuinness even followed her around in Derry with a megaphone telling people to boycott the election!
In 1979, the Provos changed tack and made it possible for the Anti H-Block movement to get off the ground. That was an essential precondition for the mass protests of 1980–81. During the 1981 hunger strike, Bernadette McAliskey floated the idea that she would stand in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election, but she really wanted to encourage the Provos to run a prison candidate.
The ‘mosquito groups’ of the Marxist left—as An Phoblacht once scornfully called them—then made one final contribution to the shift in Provisional thinking while the hunger strike was in progress. Sinn Féin had already decided to boycott the local elections, so PD and the IRSP ran candidates instead, and won two seats each. The Provos then said, if these shoe-string campaigns could win seats, we might have cleaned up if we’d contested the election. So by the time the hunger strike ended, they were determined to enter the field of electoral politics as soon as possible.
Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist is available from Verso here.
You might also be interested in the launch of our upcoming pamphlet by Matt Collins, Internment: 50 Years On, taking place Wednesday 25th August at 7pm. For more information, see here.