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Eamonn McCann

The Provisionals and Socialism

(October 1979)

From Socialist Review, No.15, October 1979, pp.24-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Standard Left assessment of the Provisional IRA:

‘Of course we must support the Provos because they are fighting imperialism. But they have no understanding of the need for class politics: their terrorist tactics stem from that’.

Now hear this:

‘The Congress (of Trade Unions) leaders will try to act as a buffer between the bosses and the rank and file ... The rank and file must itself take the leadership of the struggle’.

‘Rebuilding (Nicaragua) can take two directions – either call back the old bosses, the bankers and the foreign advisors, or turn over a new leaf and build a society for the workers, the small farmers and the poor ...

‘The Sandinistas seem to be risking the future of the struggle by not declaring openly that it is a socialist republic they are after. They appear prepared to hand over the new government to the “respectable” academic and business leaders who are proponents of a liberal form of capitalist rule’.

‘We must be actively involved with the working class in building a front of economic resistance against capitalism in the 26 Counties’.

All these statements are from recent Provisional publications. They make the. point that, whatever the Provos are, they are not the unreconstructed nationalist gunmen of popular imagining.

This will become clearer before the end of the year, by which time the Provos can be expected to have ditched formally their present political programme and substituted for it a commitment to building a mass movement fighting on economic issues as well as on the national question.

All this is a long way from the Provisional’ beginnings. When they split from the Official IRA in 1970 it was explained by one of their leaders that the new movement would ‘fight communism and atheism’. Early polemics against the Officials concentrated on the Officials’ alleged adherence to socialism and weakness for ‘alien ideologies’.

The phrase ‘faith and fatherland’ did not go unused. Trade-union struggles – indeed trade unions themselves – were dismissed as at best irrelevant, at worst downright dangerous deviations from the fight to ‘free Ireland’.

One of the reasons this has changed is that the Provisionals are overwhelmingly working-class. This might not seem of blinding significance. But the Provos are the first working-class Republican fighters in Irish history.

Irish Republicanism has traditionally been a largely rural phenomenon. In this century the Easter rising of 1916 took place in Dublin city. But the war of independence which erupted in its aftermath from 1919-1922 – and which ‘freed’ the 26 Counties from British rule – was for the most part fought in the countryside by men from the countryside.

Republicans since have tended to see their task as the completion of that war, using the Same well-tried tactics – sporadic bombing campaigns in Britain, guerrilla sorties in the border areas.

While there were occasional splits and openings to the left – most importantly in the 1930s – the movement as a whole held firm to its faith that the continued British presence in part of the country was the never-ending source of all our political ills, that all else must wait until that presence was removed.

All of which was of course grist to the slow-grinding mills of the 26 County ruling class and middle-class Nationalist leaders in the North. The IRA might occasionally shame them (’A Republican is a Fianna Failer with guts and gun’ ran one relevant aphorism). But it never really threatened them, at least not directly.

The ebb and flow of economic struggle in the cities was of merely marginal interest. The movement might sympathise. Individual Republicans might actively participate. But the movement itself had higher things on its mind, and could include in its ranks both the unemployed activist and the businessman with a penchant for patriotic perorations.

In the 1950s one eighth of the population of the 26 Counties emigrated – in itself an awesome statistic – while the bravest and the best of the Republican fighters were flinging themselves futilely at the border. There are grounds for believing that the Dublin government was not displeased to see them so divert their energies.

The Republicans’ ideology was bourgeois nationalism – the bourgeois nationalism first articulated in Ireland by Wolfe Tone in the last decade of the 18th century and which did have relevance in the first two decades of the 20th – not least to the national bourgeoisie, which wanted a state of its ‘own’. But it had steadily diminishing appeal to urban workers.

It was realisation of this which caused the Officials to make a left turn in the 1960s and seek to involve themselves in the trade union and tenant struggles – a turn which alienated the Old Guard who believed the ‘Cause’ was being sullied by sordid considerations, that all this chat about class served only to ‘split the people’.

The chagrin of the traditionalists was all the deeper when the Officials, in line with their new orientation, decided to get rid of their arms – a very unrepublican thing to do. They sold off their weapons to a comic opera faction of the ‘Free Wales Army’ which promptly lost them.

Thus when the trauma of August 1969 transfigured the Catholic ghettoes in the North and Sent the youth out raging into the streets, it was those who had kept the faith pure who spoke most directly to the immediate emotional and practical necessities. ‘Leftism’ had, literally, disarmed the people. Nothing more natural than that the youth should pour into the Provos, which they did.

Politics weren’t all that relevant. The Provisionals struck the right note, matched by the mood of the moment, provided a putative link between the struggle on the streets and the chronicle of campaigns past. The immediate motivation of the first recruits was simply a hearty hatred of the cops and the Brits, for which there was no want of fuel.

But it couldn’t go on like that. A sustained campaign demands a realistic perspective and the old guard were, and are, incapable of providing it. The rank and file were not starry-eyed idealists aglow for a great cause, but young workers from grim ghettoes, eventually battle-hardened.

The notion – still prevalent in unexpected places – that they cannot and do not analyse their own situation and draw conclusions from it, is offensively patronising – apart from being wrong.

No group of workers anywhere fights for, almost a full decade without drawing conclusions about the class nature of the society they live in and the class content of what they hope eventually to build.

Many have had ample time for analyses, in Long Kesh or Portlaoise prison, and to ask what ‘Brits Out’ actually entails. The Brits, after all, have been out of the 26 Counties for half a century which doesn’t seem to have resolved all the contradictions in its society ...

And if the Provisionals are the inheritors of long tradition of similar struggles, how come the previous struggles didn’t fully succeed?

In more practical terms, any struggle needs support. And while there have been mass mobilisations at times of great emotion – in the South after Bloody Sunday for example – these have never been sustained. The support and the emotion would subside together. How to make the struggle relevant on a continuing basis to tens of thousands of workers?

As well: to a greater extent than any previous generation of Republicans, the Provos are aware of, and have a sense of solidarity with, anti-imperialist fighters elsewhere. Up to a point, this may simply be a reflection of the fact that people are generally more aware of the world: television has something to do with it.

Republicans in the 1940s and 1950s found their inspiration almost exclusively in their own past, and depended for solidarity on their own kind – on Irish Americans, for example. But the Provos cannot avoid – not that they wish to – feeling a sense of kinship with, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Zimbabwean Patriotic Front, neither of which is pure, marxist, but each certainly carriers of ‘alien ideologies’.

All this – here put very simplistically – naturally impelled the Provies towards the Left. But as important as any of it is the simple fact that the old archetypcal image of ‘A Republican’ just didn’t fit the people doing the fighting.

They are products of a modern, purely-urban culture. As likely to be into soccer as Gaelic football, rock concerts as much as céilis. It would be easy impressionistically to make too much of this. There is certainly a genuine love for Gaelic culture among many of them. (That can, just, co-exist with appreciation of more metropolitan things). And nothing wrong with a love of Gaelic culture.

But at an Ian Dury concert, earlier this year I was bumped into by a pogo-ing IRA man. He was, to be sure, a particular case, and exception, and it would be silly to read anything of significance into his presence. Except that, 15 years ago, there was no such thing as a Republican rocker. It would have been a contradiction in terms.

The archetypal Republican of campaigns past would, on the other hand, have fitted very neatly indeed into what has been the Provos’ political programme. This is contained in the document Éire Nua (New Ireland). It envisages, through the encouragement of self-help initiatives and community effort, the establishment of ‘local power’: people in their own areas gradually taking control of local affairs, and forming local councils. And all classes in each area being entitled to ‘fair’ representation of each council.

As far as national politics was concerned, there would be four provincial parliaments, one each for Leinster, Munster, Connacht and the nine counties of Ulster, each having a federal relationship with each other through a national parliament. The class nature of the Ireland so organised would, Provisional leaders explained, be ‘a matter for the people’. If ‘the people’ wanted a socialist Munster and a capitalist Leinster, so be it ...

It was a hare-brained scheme Which related not at all to the realities of the situation situation and which, despite energetic promotion, excited little enthusiasm among rank and file Provisional. And none at all among workers in general, Catholic or Protestant, North or South.

In keeping with developments within the movement, Éire Nua will, I understand, be ditched in the next few months. A new statement of perspective – in line with the quotes at the beginning of this article – will be adopted. And all who are avid for a sign of a left-wing breakthrough in Ireland will, understandably, cheer. And quite right, too – up to a point.

Things will not of course, be quite as they appear.

It will be noted in the first instance that this fairly radical change of direction will not be preceded by any appearance of wide-ranging debate. There will be no spirited polemics by leftist Provisionals against those, still in the movement, who have denounced class struggle as unnecessarily divisive. Nor will th latter mount any sturdy defence of their position.

The main reason – there are others – for this is that the Republican Movement is, firstly, a military organisation. The military wing, the IRA, takes precedence in all things over the political wing, Sinn Fein. It could hardly be otherwise.

A clandestine army cannot have its tactics and strategy dictated to it by an open organisation. It would be literally suicidal. And since strategy and tactics flow directly from political perspectives, the military wing must also decide what that perspective is to be.

There is a form of democracy within the IRA, but it is, in the nature of things, very limited. Members accept a line and implement it, not because they have necessarily become convinced of its correctness, but because they have been ordered to. There is nothing terribly sinister about this. It is just the way with armies.

The left turn which the Provisionals are now making certainly results from a deal of thought about the society they are dealing with, and it reflects the changed dass composition of the movement. It does not mean – or at least it does not have to mean – that there has been a simple, uniform shift in the direction of revolutionary socialism.

Moreover: the shift will not be represented as, and is not seen by the Provos themselves as, a definitive break with the past. They are not into definitive breaks with the past. On the contrary, they depend for most of their political sustenance not on demonstrable public support – although that exists – but on their ability to trace back a direct link between themselves and the founding fathers of Republicanism.

It is that fiercely-felt sense of their own historic inheritance which sustained the Movement through thick and thin – sometimes thin and thin – in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And it is still very real.

The new line must be presented – and understood internally – not as a break from, but merely an updating of traditional Republican teaching. And traditional Republican teaching is irredeemably bourgeois, dating from the era when bourgeois nationalism was a revolutionary ideology.

There is an acute contradiction here, which cannot be resolved within the Republican movement. It can only be resolved within the context of building a marxist party, which the movement cannot become. It if became marxist, it would, by definition, cease to be Irish Republican.

The Provos – it should go without saying in a socialist journal – have never been the rabid sectarians or zombie gunmen of British press caricature. Anyone who has moved among them will know that if the war in Ireland could be won by dogged determination, careless courage and unconcern for self-aggrandisement, they would have won it long ago.

There will be no revolutionary party built in Ireland which does not include them in great numbers. And the increasing socialist content of their programme cannot lightly be dismissed.

But the contradictions remain and should not be underestimated either.

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