The Provisional Irish Republican Army And The Morality Of Terrorism
The status of most violent Liberal Democracy in the world is not one that any country or region, unless perversely enamoured to dysfuntionalism, would seek to covet. Yet, somewhere has to get it and for its troubles tiny Northern Ireland, with its population of approximately 1.5 million, has scooped the unwanted award. There, on the northwest fringe of Europe, between 1969 and 1990 the number of people killed as a result of political violence was ‘greater than that in all other European Community countries combined.’ (1).
Despite having accounted for the majority of conflict related deaths, the Provisional IRA ultimately ‘capitulated’ (2) with little to show for its efforts as measured against its stated objectives. In The Provisional Irish Republican Army And The Morality Of Terrorism Timothy Shanahan has set out to evaluate the morality of an IRA campaign that produced little and inflicted much. Employing a number of analytical strands from the methodology of moral philosophy this study locks horns with what the Provisional IRA narrative would state are the facts on the ground of the violent Northern Irish political conflict.
Shanahan considers the application of an analytical moral framework both positive and necessary because, among other reasons, when the IRA formally announced an end to its campaign of political violence in 2005 it issued a statement in which it claimed its armed struggle was entirely legitimate. The IRA failed to mention that the violent strategy it had utilised in pursuit of both a termination of British rule and the reconstitution of Ireland as one political entity had undergone catastrophic failure.
Attempts to mask this failure have been frequently mounted. The former Sinn Fein propagandist and erstwhile IRA member Danny Morrison has persistently argued that while the IRA had not won its armed struggle it had not lost either. But for such an assertion to have merit it would need to be based on the IRA having secured a draw with the British, which it demonstrably failed to attain. For Morrison’s claim to escape being devoid of substance he would need to show at the very minimum two achievements: joint British-Irish authority, which would have attenuated British sovereignty; shared British-Irish policing structures, which would have negated any British claim to be operating as a state in totality in Ireland by depriving it, in Weberian terms, of a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.
None of these conditions are in place. Instead what exists is a de facto and de jure Northern Irish internal solution which leaves British sovereignty over the North of Ireland fire walled against any reconfiguration outside of British state terms and where Britain is the sole arbiter in terms of the ‘legitimate’ use of force. This outcome is precisely what the Provisional IRA waged a ’long war’ to circumvent.
Shanahan believed that this type of unwillingness to deal with the resounding failure of the IRA campaign was itself a mindset born of IRA mythologizing which acted as a powerful inhibitor to serious intellectual deliberation. Consequently, as a means to more incisively morally scrutinise IRA violence he opted to prise open the organisation’s myths through a process of interrogation and deconstruction: ‘A critical examination of the morality of the IRA’s armed struggle is one element of this story that has so far not been fully and truthfully told.’ (3).
This is a strong assertion to be making given the numerous moral critiques that have been made of the IRA’s campaign including those developed and lucidly articulated by the former leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the late Dr Cahal Daly. Explicitly, Shanahan is making the bold claim that his study will make up the deficit. It is an ambitious endeavour which invites the observation that its author may have created his own Mount Improbable.
In his engagement Shanahan employs a number of strands of moral theory ranging from a consideration of whether the IRA campaign ‘can be morally justified according to the criteria of Just War Theory’(4) to a paradigm which holds that it might be morally permissible to violate people’s rights if by doing so it is ‘the only way to prevent even more serious rights violations.’ (5) While he finds against the IRA from these perspectives his critique works best if rooted in his third model, consequentialism, which he applies with considerable dexterity to the stated rationale for the IRA’s warfare.
Most central to the aforementioned IRA mythology is the concept of necessitarianism. By its logic the IRA’s armed campaign was made necessary by circumstances beyond its control. It fought because all other options were closed off to it. Against this Shanahan argues that there was no compelling reason for the IRA to either come into existence or to fight until 2005: for him the clearest evidence against the necessitarianism of armed struggle lay in both its abandonment and the form that abandonment took. ‘Those who sought to destroy the establishment now aspired to become part of it.’(6).
Even where Shanahan gives some latitude, and limits IRA success to advancing the republican agenda without securing republican goals he is, not unreasonably, forced to conclude that ‘neither Gerry Adams or any other republican spokesperson has provided such a justification.’ (7)
Bluntly stated, the republican agenda fails to find reflection in the Sinn Fein position of today, the leadership of which is hegemonised by figures who directed the IRA’s war. The party has embraced what it long termed an anti-republican agenda. It has become incorporated into a state, which the military dimension of its strategic nexus sought to destroy, on terms which included republicans in government but excluded republicanism from policy. The current arrangement is the British state’s alternative to republicanism. What gains the IRA campaign achieved - which differed from those on offer from the British State via a similar 1974 arrangement that the IRA then rejected - were incremental; a change in form, not content. The consequence of the prolonged IRA campaign, in structural terms, was almost exactly as it would have been for a campaign shortened by twenty years.
Given that heavily limited outcome Shanahan’s study contends that republicans could have put more effort into persuading unionists that a united Ireland was a good option for them to embrace. This is precisely what Sinn Fein is doing today. By embracing the current settlement, which now depends on persuading unionists, the IRA cannot pretend that its wartime opposition to securing unionist consent to Irish unity - insisting instead on coercing unionists through the use of armed struggle - was as principled or as necessary as it claimed.
Clearly, the IRA campaign viewed through a consequentialist lens was hardly worth the candle. Accepting the very terms it fought against cannot justify its strategic choice of armed warfare. ‘There have been few or no benefits produced that could even begin to balance the cost.’ (8)
One persistent problem throughout this study is its working assumption that the IRA was simply a terrorist organisation. In general such a label creates more heat than light. It permits a moral critique of insurgent political violence to be a facile enterprise, easily constructed sans the difficulty involved in establishing the functionality and rigour of moral categories.
To label as ‘terrorist’ a sustained campaign that claimed the lives of more than one thousand of the IRA’s armed state adversaries is the skewed application of moral theory, amplified by the absence of a similar rigour applied to the moral acts of those adversaries. A moral category that a priori chooses one side over another through the application of asymmetrical reasoning will resonate as one hand clapping.
Generally it may be said that the IRA armed struggle was directed against military targets although it did produce numerous civilian casualties. And there were periods in its existence when it did target civilians on the grounds of their religious affiliation. This suggests that during its existence it incorporated terrorist methods without being reduced to a one dimensional terrorist ensemble.
Even where he considers the merits of rights violations from a rights-based rather than consequentialist perspective the judgemental case Shanahan makes against the IRA for using ‘terrorist’ means is undermined by a certain slippage into endorsement of what may be termed people friendly terrorism.
Acts of terrorism are initially only against the property of members of the group known to be responsible for the rights violations: care is taken to ensure that persons themselves are not injured, maimed or killed by such acts. (9)
The inference to be drawn is that the IRA’s problem lay not in it being terrorist per se but in being too terrorist. Besides possessing a moral dubiousness of its own Shanahan’s proposal seems highly idealistic on top of being practically unachievable. It also begs reflection on the question how those willing to use political violence in such an intelligent, managed and controlled manner would find it beyond their competence to devise a peaceful strategy for achieving their goals.
Moreover, an added deficiency emerges once the argument of Poulantzas enters the fray: ‘if one once starts to use force, the moment eventually comes where no one longer knows whether one will ever stop using it’. (10) In framing a moral critique Shanahan has left himself open to the charge that he has fashioned a moral dilemma that he has no means of resolving.
The problems of attaching a one size fits all terrorist label on the insurgency of the IRA are compounded by the conclusions the author draws about the behaviour of the British state and the moral implications which flow from that. How, in a work ostensibly aimed at addressing the morality of the IRA, a much less rigorous and considerably more benign examination of the role of the British state should feature is not adequately explained.
The British state is largely absolved of involvement in terrorism despite strong evidence of its involvement in the targeting of unarmed civilians. Shanahan is much too facilitating of benign interpretations of the role of the British state in this regard, accepting too readily that state terrorism may have been the work of one or two individuals or down to misfortune. For example while he accepts the events of Bloody Sunday, 1972 - in which 14 rights demanding unarmed civilians were shot dead by the British Army - as cold blooded murder he baulks at defining the act as state terrorism on the grounds that the event was ‘probably’ precipitated by ‘an unfortunate confluence of causes.’ (11)
While making some concession to the case that the British state was an accomplice before the fact the he ignores the complicity of the state in cover up and its failure to punish operatives responsible. This is visible in his handling of the vexed question of Loyalist political violence. He dismisses the oft made suggestion that this is state terror via proxy. State assistance to loyalism is described as ‘sheer carelessness.’ (12) But this is to ignore the critique more often made which is that the British state moulded the conditions which enhanced the probability of loyalist armed actions. It held the ring more often than entered it but it hardly failed to share in any purse that accrued as a result.
There is simply too much evidence available to allow Shanahan’s application of moral theory in a manner that is not even handed to pass as reasonable. He has much too easily accepted the distinction devised by Bruce, whom he cites, between state terror and pro-state terror and in doing so ascribes to armed loyalism a much stronger degree of autonomy than it merited.
Shanahan’s study may have been truthfully if haltingly pursued but the moral categories for fully evaluating the IRA’s use of physical force have not yet been fully put together. And they might never be. While Shanahan may approvingly cite Camus that ‘even in destruction there is a right way and a wrong way – and there are limits’ (13), he acknowledges that the right way is not a matter of simple choice, and that limits not only exist in respect of destruction but also in how pragmatic considerations set morality-curbing parameters in the realm of strategic decision making:
Moral theory can provide us with insight into what sorts of action are right and wrong but it cannot supply the empirical information so often needed in order to determine in a particular situation which action is right. (14)
But this is not a problem specific to the use of political violence. It affects a wide range of political decision making processes at all levels of society. This implies that any understanding of morality in politically violent conflicts cannot be easily separated out from wider societal questions of rational choice. The discursive construction of “the terrorist” whose actions society cannot morally comprehend creates a being apart from society rather than of it. Those who use political violence don’t set out on the turbulent road with a prescribed moral code which they alone understand, but, like other political actors, make choices as they move through the labyrinthine world they find themselves inhabiting, all the while responding to the moral actions of others.
The Provisional IRA certainly failed and in terms of consequence it can be argued that its violence was futile. But as a moral actor, choosing violence as its act, it did not conjure itself into existence. Much wider immoralities were at play which are not given due consideration in a work that is both stimulating and intellectually engaging.
(1) Timothy Shanahan, 2009, p 3. The Provisional Irish Republican Army And The Morality Of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
(2) Ibid, 2.
(3) Ibid, 10
(4) Ibid, 93
(5) Ibid, 147
(6) Ibid 64
(7) Ibid 133
(8) Ibid 138
(9) Ibid 158
(10) Nicos Poulantzas, quoted in Jessop, Bob, 1985, p. 304. Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy. London: MacMillan.
(11) Shanahan, op cit, 212
(12) Ibid 202
(13) ibid 224
(14) Ibid, 188
Timothy Shanahan, 2009, The Provisional Irish Republican Army And The Morality Of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.