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: Perhaps the most left-wing period within the Provisionals was during Adams’ rise and the eventual ousting of those around Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. This was a period when Sinn Féin talked about socialism and the need to challenge capitalism. Some traditionalists have claimed that this left turn was simply a contrived cover for a shift to the right, as SF entered into electoral politics and abandoned some pillars of traditional republicanism like abstentionism. But there’s no doubt that there were those in the party who were genuinely committed to some version of socialism. What’s your take on these developments?
Daniel Finn: There’s probably some truth in the idea that Gerry Adams and his allies were using hard-left rhetoric as a stick with which to beat the old guard. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was just rhetoric. Adams gave a famous interview at the end of the 1970s that historians have often quoted, where he said that Sinn Féin wasn’t a Marxist organization and nobody in the movement was influenced by Marxism.
The first part was clearly true: whatever it means to be a Marxist party, surely you have to call yourself one, and the Provos never did that. The second part was a case of Adams pulling a fast one, as Richard Behal observed soon afterwards. You only had to look at the bibliographies that he included with his own published work, from his first pamphlet, written in Long Kesh, to his book The Politics of Irish Freedom: Adams himself had clearly been influenced by Irish Marxist writers, from Connolly and Desmond Greaves to Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann.
It would be more accurate to say that the Provos had a purely instrumental relationship with Marxism: they were interested in Marxism to the extent that Marxism was interested in Ireland. And it was always filtered through their own version of ‘stages theory’: the national question comes first, then you can talk about social change or social revolution. Adams later justified that by reference to James Connolly—in fact, it was a very particular interpretation of Connolly by Desmond Greaves that he was drawing upon. I don’t mean to suggest that Adams adopted a ‘stageist’ perspective because of Greaves. I think Greaves helped supply historical or theoretical ballast for a viewpoint that Adams would have wanted to put forward anyway.
These debates might have seemed quite abstract and scholastic to a lot of people, but it came into focus very sharply over the issue of abortion. At the 1985 Ard Fheis, while the Sinn Féin leadership was preoccupied with other questions, delegates voted to adopt a pro-choice policy. Straight away, conservative nationalists on both sides of the border started attacking Sinn Féin as baby-killers. It was a very advanced position for the Ireland of the time.
Adams saw that as a liability, so he made a very clear argument: we can’t adopt positions that are going to narrow our potential base of support—not until we have a united Ireland. Obviously that had implications for issues other than abortion too. For the Provisional leadership, nation came before class or gender; indeed, it still does.
REBEL: The Provisionals moved towards an end to the armed struggle in the 1990s. A narrative has emerged amongst some republicans that this was all the result of scheming by the likes of Adams in the leadership. But isn’t it also the case that by the 1990s the armed struggle was running its course, that prosecuting a war was becoming more difficult? How do you explain the ceasefire after 25 years of armed actions?
DF: In order to explain the shift in republican strategy from the late 1980s, you don’t have to fall back on accusations of treachery or manipulation by government agents, as the ‘dissident’ or traditionalist groups often tend to do. You just have to look at some of the basic political and military realities facing the Provisionals.
On the political front, Sinn Féin’s electoral rise was grinding to a halt. By 1989 at the very latest, it was clear that they weren’t going to overtake the SDLP as the dominant nationalist party—not as long as the IRA campaign was still in full swing. Nor were they going to make any significant breakthrough in the South: Adams and his comrades hoped that ditching the policy of abstention from Leinster House would open the way for them to win seats, but the armed struggle was the real barrier to electoral success in southern constituencies.
At the same time, there were diminishing returns from the IRA campaign itself. ‘Ulsterization’ ensured that the majority of security-force casualties now came from the RUC and the UDR, not the British Army. That meant there would be no repeat of what happened in Vietnam, where the families of US soldiers had no idea why their sons were dying on the other side of a world in a far-away country, and just wanted the conflict to end as soon as possible. Northern Irish Protestants whose relatives the IRA had killed would never call for the British government to withdraw its troops: in fact, it just made them more determined to resist.
There’s a lot of talk about the idea of a ‘Tet Offensive’ strategy that might have been put into effect by the IRA in the late 1980s, using the weapons they had received from Libya. No IRA document explicitly articulating this strategy has ever come to light, so we can only rely on off-the-record interviews from IRA members describing what it would have involved: a sudden change of tactics, with IRA units fighting pitched battles, aiming to create ‘liberated zones’ along the border in South Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
Whether or not there was a serious possibility that the IRA might go ahead with this plan, one thing should be clear: it would have been a failure. The IRA simply didn’t have the manpower or the political support to make it work. There might have been a few weeks of chaos, but then the British Army would have gradually rolled them back, and the final outcome would almost certainly have been outright defeat.
In any case, there was no ‘Tet Offensive’ at the time. There was a more limited escalation of the IRA campaign that was still compatible with the long war strategy, which resulted in a higher level of security-force casualties for a time, but the IRA wasn’t able to sustain that into the early 90s. The bombing blitz in British cities did cause a lot of economic damage, especially in London’s financial centre. However, it wasn’t enough to extract the ‘declaration of intent to withdraw’ that the Provos had been seeking all along, and there was always the danger that a ‘blockbuster’ bomb would go disastrously wrong and kill dozens of civilians.
If you put it all together—an IRA campaign that couldn’t win, while it was also holding back the political growth of Sinn Féin—it’s hardly surprising that the Adams leadership started thinking about alternatives. It’s not that they were cowardly, or treacherous, or duped by British agents. Jim Gibney set out the logic quite frankly in a speech in 1989, marking the anniversary of the civil rights protests. Gibney said he didn’t think the philosophy that had developed out of the struggle over the previous twenty years had the capacity to motivate people any longer, and he warned that the Provos ran the risk of being defeated. Danny Morrison was equally candid in an unpublished article that he wrote for An Phoblacht after the UK general election in 1992.
You don’t really have to speculate about what their thinking was at the time; it’s all there in black and white. You don’t have to agree with their thinking either, of course, but there’s no need to posit some kind of nefarious hidden agenda.
REBEL: The 1990s also signified a shift to the right in verbiage from the movement. Gone was much mention of socialism, to be replaced with talk of the need for a pan-nationalist front, including elements of the SDLP, Fianna Fáil, and conservatives in Irish America, codified in the infamous TUAS document. Can you say something about why this shift occurred, but also why such a pan-nationalist front never materialised?
DF: The idea of pan-nationalist unity went through some interesting mutations. In 1993, John Taylor was criticised for using the term ‘pan-nationalist front’ in reference to the Hume-Adams talks, because the UDA was using the same term to justify attacks on SDLP members, and by extension on the entire nationalist community. Taylor responded by saying that he was just borrowing the term from Gerry Adams.
In fact, when Adams started talking about pan-nationalism in the mid-1980s, he had something very different in mind. Adams gave a speech at that time where he spoke about the experience of national independence struggles around the world. He said that there were countries where conservative, middle-class elements had remained in the driving seat (Ireland during the War of Independence, Cyprus, Kenya) and countries where more radical elements had come to the fore (Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique).
He probably had something comparable in mind when he first talked about reaching out to the SDLP, that Sinn Féin would emulate the revolutionaries in the second group and leave their ‘partners’ behind in the course of the struggle. Of course, that never happened; nor did it ever look like happening. In Cuba and Nicaragua, Castro’s 26 July Movement and the Sandinistas came to power through an insurrection that broke up the old state machine and its army. When Castro clashed with Manual Urrutia, the liberal who was Cuba’s first post-revolutionary president, it was very easy to sideline him; in the same way, the Sandinistas had no trouble marginalizing the bourgeois parties who wanted to put the brakes on social change after 1979.
The balance of forces was completely different in Ireland. On both sides of the border, the existing states remained firmly in command of their respective territories. The Provos themselves were a minority force in the North and a completely marginal force in the South. Any form of ‘pan-nationalist unity’ with the SDLP and Fianna Fáil was going to involve the Provos moving towards their positions, not vice versa.
You can see this unfolding in print if you read all the different versions of the Hume-Adams document that eventually became the ‘Irish Peace Initiative’ and then fed into the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. In other words, John Taylor was disingenuous in his use of the term ‘pan-nationalist front’: by that stage, everyone could see that it would be on terms laid down by John Hume, and by extension Albert Reynolds and Martin Mansergh.
On the other hand, once pan-nationalism had got as far as the Good Friday Agreement, it was only a matter of time before it ran out of road. You can get a foretaste of this in the speech Adams gave at a private Sinn Féin conference towards the end of 1996, after the breakdown of the first ceasefire. The text of his speech soon leaked out, and there was a lot of fuss about comments where he tried to claim all the credit for what had happened at Drumcree that year for Sinn Féin (or all the blame, as Unionists would have seen it). But the whole speech is a really interesting document.
Adams says bluntly that it would be much better if Sinn Féin didn’t have to work with the SDLP or the Irish government and could just go its own way; it was too soon for that, because the party lacked the necessary political strength. After 1998, his main priority was to build up Sinn Féin as an electoral force, which happened rather quickly in the North, overtaking the SDLP by 2001, and much more gradually in the South. For both Fianna Fáil and the SDLP, that disrupted the original calculus behind pan-nationalism: they wanted to deal with Sinn Féin as a junior partner, not as the dominant player in the alliance.
REBEL: Obviously the ceasefires, and the subsequent decommissioning and endorsement of the PSNI, put huge pressure on the Sinn Féin leadership. However, in the main those who split have not been able to challenge the hegemony of Sinn Féin or reignite the armed struggle to anywhere near the same scale. Why do you think those around Adams were able to hold together the majority of the movement?
DF: There are at least three constituencies worth talking about here: the IRA membership; the wider republican base, where signed-up Sinn Féin activists shade into strong supporters or sympathizers of the movement; and the nationalist community as a whole, especially those who already voted for Sinn Féin before the Good Friday Agreement. As far as the IRA membership is concerned, I think Anthony McIntyre made a very interesting comment about the role of Brian Keenan after Keenan’s death.
He said that many IRA members had transferred their loyalties from Gerry Adams to Martin McGuinness at quite an early stage because they came to see Adams as too much of a politician; then, when McGuinness in turn went down the same road, they looked instead to Gerry Kelly. Finally, when Kelly lost his image as a hard-line militarist and became part of Sinn Féin’s public leadership team, it was Keenan to whom they turned for reassurance. Having Keenan on board for some of the crucial moves after 1998 was vital for minimizing the number of defections.
But it does raise the question: if IRA members successively transferred their loyalties from Adams to McGuiness, from McGuinness to Kelly, and from Kelly to Keenan, without leaving the movement altogether, doesn’t that suggest that they were looking for a reason to stay on board if at all possible? Were they really dupes of the Adams leadership, or were they willing to give this new strategy a chance because they thought the alternative—pressing on with the IRA campaign—was likely to prove a dead-end?
Now, that’s not to say that pressing on, in the hope of achieving some kind of military victory that had proved elusive since the early 70s, was the only alternative available. A lot of people who were sceptical about the Adams peace strategy said that they supported the peace but not the process. But for the likes of Republican Sinn Féin and the 32 CSM, that was the main proposal they had to offer. The various splinter-groups that have emerged since 1997 or thereabouts have never achieved any kind of critical mass.
Things might perhaps have been different if they had understood the need to put the horse before the cart—to organize people politically around your agenda before trying to persuade them that armed struggle is the best way to advance it. But even if traditionalist republicans had made that effort, it’s doubtful if they would have got very far. Those wider layers of people in the republican base and the nationalist community as a whole don’t seem to be very interested in the ‘one more heave’ school of thought.
That’s the negative side of the equation. On the positive side, Sinn Féin and the Adams leadership have been able to preserve a sense of forward momentum, which has been very important—not without some hiccups along the way. From 1998 until the mid-2000s, it seemed as if Sinn Féin was making big advances on the electoral front, particular in the North but with some real gains in the South as well.
Then they hit a wall of sorts: IRA decommissioning came at a moment of weakness, after the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney, and Sinn Féin under-performed in the 2007 southern election, so the idea of Sinn Féin ministers holding office in Dublin and Belfast simultaneously now seemed to be out of reach. Whether that would have constituted a step towards a united Ireland is a very different question, of course.
The economic crash of 2008–09 gave Sinn Féin fresh impetus, mainly in Dublin rather than Belfast. Just as their political growth in the South appeared to have stalled and gone into reverse, Brexit opened up new possibilities north of the border for constitutional change. I don’t think Irish unity is inevitable over the coming years, or even the most probable outcome, but it does seem a lot more plausible than it did in the wake of the global financial crisis, when the prospects for a successful border poll appeared to be very slim. Finally, of course, there was the Sinn Féin breakthrough in the 2020 southern election, with the prospect of becoming the largest party in the Dáil next time round and perhaps leading a government.
It hasn’t been a linear trend since 1994 or 1998. There have been several points where Sinn Féin appeared to be facing a brick wall. But they’ve managed to pull through those moments, partly because of their own choices, but also because of major developments in British, Irish, and European politics that were beyond their power to shape.
The successes Sinn Féin have had in the past two decades aren’t what they were looking for in the 1970s and 80s. Things probably haven’t worked out the way Adams and McGuinness expected in 1998, either. But there’s clearly an attraction in being part of a movement that’s going places, even if that means zigzagging hither and thither—especially when their traditionalist critics seem to be going nowhere.
REBEL: It could be argued that the main challenge to Sinn Féin has not emerged from what is often described as the dissident movement but instead from the left, with socialist forces like People Before Profit securing small but significant gains in Sinn Féin heartlands. The constitution of Sinn Féin says that its eventual goal is the creation of a democratic 32-county socialist republic. To what extent do you think that this is the direction they are headed in? Can we expect that SF can win a 32-county republic, and what evidence is there to suggest that the goal they are working towards is a socialist one?
DF: There are two questions about Sinn Féin’s character as a left party: what does it mean by ‘left’, and how serious is the party about that commitment? To start with the first question: Sinn Féin’s understanding of left-wing politics is clearly reformist and social-democratic. The manifestos they’ve put forward call for social reforms that would change the way capitalism works without abolishing it.
You could say the same thing about several of the parties they sit with in the United Left group in the European parliament. Syriza, for example, wasn’t pledging to overthrow Greek capitalism during its rise to power. Its goal was to roll back the austerity of the Troika programmes—something that Tsipras obviously failed to do after taking office. The manifestos of the British Labour Party developed by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were also plans for making certain changes—expanding public ownership, strengthening workers’ rights—that would have been very welcome, but would still clearly have been within the overall setting of a capitalist economy.
That raises an important point: in the age we’ve been living through, which is still the age of neoliberalism, do social-democratic reforms have much more radical implications than they did in the post-war decades? Would it be necessary to overcome entrenched opposition from capitalist elites, through mass mobilisation and a confrontational approach, just to carry out policies that would have been considered fairly moderate in the hey-day of Keynesianism? The experience of some of the ‘pink tide’ governments in Latin America is very interesting in that respect. None of the European left projects of the last decade have got far enough to test the waters, although the first six months of the Syriza government, up as far as the Oxi referendum, came pretty close.
In terms of the second question: Sinn Féin is a left-nationalist party which is more nationalist than left—or to put it another way, it prioritizes the national objective over the social and economic ones. This is not an interpretation of Sinn Féin’s ideology that’s been imposed on them from the outside by left critics. You can find it being set out explicitly by Gerry Adams, going back as far as the 1980s, and also from a rather more critical perspective by Eoin Ó Broin in his study of left republicanism. Within that ideological framework, you can tack to the left or to the centre, depending on what seems more likely to advance the goal of a united Ireland.
Clearly there’s another complicating factor here: Sinn Féin as a party organizes itself in two states on the same island. We can sometimes lose sight of how unusual that is. I can’t think of a single other case in Western Europe where a party has a substantial electoral base in two separate jurisdictions. The whole dynamic of political competition is very different in the North and the South.
In the North, Sinn Féin’s main appeal to nationalists is as a party that will represent their interests within the British state in the here and now, while pressing for the rollback of that state from the island over the long run. The fact that they’ve made little or no progress towards enacting a left-wing agenda while in office since 2007 hasn’t been fatal for them: they may have lost votes to People Before Profit in Derry and Belfast, but they haven’t taken the same kind of hit that the Irish Labour Party did after implementing austerity in government between 2011 and 2016.
It’s almost forty years since Gerry Adams made his famous comment that Brits kicking down doors in Ballymurphy wouldn’t win you votes in Ballymun. Although a lot has changed in the meantime, the basic point is still valid. The rise in support for Sinn Féin after 2008 and in the 2020 general election doesn’t reflect a greater prioritization of Irish unity by those voters—not primarily anyway.
I’m sure most people who vote for Sinn Féin would be happy to see a united Ireland, but that’s not the main factor in deciding how they cast their ballot. The Sinn Féin electorate in the South, which is now much larger than it’s been at any point in the party’s modern history, wants to see changes carried out in the southern state that will make their lives better. The housing crisis, which has been a central focus for Sinn Féin’s campaigning work recently, is just one of several issues that people want to see addressed.
If Sinn Féin do end up leading a government in Dublin, they’ll certainly want to use that position to advance the cause of national unification through a border poll. However, that won’t be enough to satisfy their voters in Dublin or Cork or Galway if the health service is still creaking and housing is still unaffordable five years down the line. They’ll have to show something tangible on that front.
How or whether they manage to keep these different balls in the air over the next decade is one of the most interesting questions in Irish politics, north and south. It’s conceivable that Sinn Féin will end up leading a government on both sides of the border, yet strictly speaking, that doesn’t mean a united Ireland will be within reach. The movement will have to come from within the North, with opinion shifting on the question of a border poll.
I don’t think it’s a far-fetched prospect by any means: there’s still a long way to go, but things have already moved a lot further in that direction than we might have anticipated back in 2012 or 2014, and the situation appears quite fluid. Trying to pin down Sinn Féin’s ideological character is an important part of the question. But we also need to look at the political environments in which they have to operate.
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.