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A Tunnel To The Moon

Mark Hayes, author and researcher, reviews a book by long time republican activist and former IRA prisoner Matt Treacy.

Matthew Treacy, an ex-IRA volunteer and Sinn Fein activist who spent more than 30 years in the Republican movement, has chosen to publish a book about his experiences. Before I make any substantive observations about the content of his text, in the interest of honesty and transparency I should make a confession - I have been a friend of Matt Treacy for many years. Indeed, I remember visiting him in the dreary edifice of Portlaoise prison during the “troubles”. So disentangling personal and political motivations in the context of writing a review might be construed as a challenging task.

In fact this proposition is less onerous than one might assume because I have often disagreed with Matt Treacy, and I know he is sensible enough to welcome robust debate and intelligent discussion. Which brings us to the book itself.

Treacy’s text deals with the “endgame” in Ireland and the demise of militant Irish Republicanism: “the end of the Irish Republican Army”. This delicate subject is tackled through the lens of his own personal experience as someone who was at the very epicentre of the Provisional Republican machine for many years. If anyone was a Sinn Fein “insider” it was Matthew Treacy, which affords his recollections a heuristic value which perhaps evades other, similar account.

The first point to make is an obvious one. Treacy is a talented writer and has a keen eye for the subtle nuances of political subterfuge, and he covers the choreography of the “peace process” with dexterity and skill. Indeed, anyone wishing to track the electoral fortunes of Sinn Fein in recent years could do far worse than consult the psephological analysis contained in this text.

Treacy takes us through the “peace process” and examines how it played out from a Provisional perspective. However, in the process of outlining these historic political developments Treacy also outlines a critique of Sinn Fein which is both insightful, acerbic and, occasionally, humorous. The essence of Treacy’s thesis is that Sinn Fein is, fundamentally, an organisation which is “opportunist” and “tactically promiscuous”. Sinn Fein, according to Treacy, has had its ideology subverted by new post-modern political fashions and been bought off by the “benign corruption” implicit in British government funding of community projects in the north of Ireland. In effect Treacy argues that Sinn Fein has succumbed to the “liberal left” and the “soft power” of the British state.

The logic of this process, of course, has been to underpin the Union and reinforce sectarian categories in the scramble for scarce resources. Traditional Republican aspirations have thereby been seriously attenuated, or discarded altogether. In effect Sinn Fein has become an electoral machine designed to win votes at any cost, and what Treacy’s narrative describes is a sorry tale of relentless political pragmatism – a party driven by an instrumental calculus of cost-benefit analysis and cynical self-interest.

In terms of actual political dividends, Treacy suggests that the results for Sinn Fein have been meagre, to say the least. The Good Friday Agreement was concluded as an “internal settlement”, which has meant that the “Unionist veto” has remained intact. The much vaunted “cross border bodies” have clearly had no measurable impact on the contours of the Union, and are described by Treacy as “impotent” and “irrelevant”. He should know.

However, Treacy does make the rather more interesting point that the hostility and acrimony of the Unionists at key moments in the process made it much easier to sell the GFA to a republican constituency because there was an implicit assumption that if the loyalists were unhappy it must be good for republicans. It wasn’t. In fact, the GFA was little different (and may be worse) than Sunningdale or Hillsborough, a point that Treacy makes to good effect. Indeed, Matt Treacy goes on to say that the GFA represented “nothing less than almost total capitulation by revolutionary republicanism”. Of course, this is hardly surprising given the fact that, as noted in the book, British government official Jonathan Powell was writing speeches for Martin McGuinness, to be delivered at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. One is reminded, in reading this, of Brendan Hughes’s explanation of the acronym GFA as “Got Fuck All”.

This makes for uncomfortable reading if you are a Republican, but it is hardly news. However, in playing their particular political parlour games Treacy also reiterates that the leadership of Provisional Republicanism have been less than honest with their activists. As he points out:

…at no stage did Adams and McGuinness and their closest supporters ever let on, to the very end, to the IRA or the republican support base, that a united Ireland was not an achievable objective. Had they done so then they would not have been able to bring the IRA or Sinn Fein to the stage where they agreed to an internal settlement and de facto to Partition.

Whether this was a deliberate misrepresentation or a more piecemeal accommodation with emerging “political realities” is immaterial – the fact is that many in the Provisional movement were deceived. That Matt Treacy confirms this should at least be of some comfort to those that have claimed this all along. Many republicans were, in effect, misled into surrendering. However, according to Treacy submission was not the worst possible option, because the task which Republicanism had set itself was far too difficult to accomplish - the “war” was unwinnable.

In the book Treacy notes, in confessional tones, his own growing disenchantment with military option, despite the fact he was recruiting officer for the Dublin Brigade while working as a researcher for Sinn Fein in Leinster House. It became increasing clear to Treacy that the military strategy was no longer viable. However, he notes that during the “peace process” many in the IRA were very slow to grasp the new realities, indeed “some chaps were still avidly following the progress of an increasingly erratic ‘war’ with the blind faith of stranded Japanese soldiers on a Pacific Atoll convinced that some stroke of military genius would turn the tide in favour of the Army of the Republic”.

Interestingly, Treacy points out that to a large extent the IRA in the prisons were largely kept in the dark over key developments during the “peace process”. For example, the so-called debates around the TUAS document, which was circulated to prisoners, was designed to foster ambiguity. Treacy recollects that he was told TUAS was “Towards an Unarmed Struggle” but the various alternative explanations fitted well the “Orwellian machinations designed to convince disparate parties of whatever the Army Council thought they wanted or needed to hear”.

Treacy clearly felt that he, and other members of the IRA were “unwitting pawns in a game” where they were “unaware of the rules”. Yet some volunteers were nevertheless anxious to believe the leadership were not leading them astray: “from what I saw myself, both in prison and afterwards, most IRA members believed anything they were told, no matter how absurd”.

Treacy clearly came to a realisation that the armed struggle was a dead-end, as he puts it: I felt under no obligation to make any more stupid decisions on the basis of some illusion. It was every man for himself as far as I was concerned”.

Unsurprisingly Treacy now rejects the “deluded fantasists” and “retro Provos” who believe a new army can achieve what the PIRA could not. As Treacy confirms in a telling turn of phrase: “No doubt Adams was the consummate Machiavellian in bringing an unwinnable war to an end. If for no other reason he deserves thanks for that”.

Yet there was another dimension to the acquiescence of Sinn Fein to British rule. Sinn Fein, according to Treacy, had been subverted by an infatuation with “identity politics”. The idea of an “Ireland of equals”, “parity of esteem” or “national reconciliation” is regarded by Treacy, as vacuous nonsense, which meant Sinn Fein constructed a strategy consisting of “politically correct soundbites”.

Treacy notes that “the meaningless slogan of ‘equality’ has pretty much replaced any pretence to being socialist”. The “Shinner left” had become infected by “ultra-liberal” concerns, which focused on abortion, immigration and certain marginalised social groups. Moreover, Treacy notes that militant socialism was abruptly and unceremoniously jettisoned in order to form an alliance with constitutional nationalism in the hope of invoking the support of Irish and US governments. Diplomatic pan-Nationalism therefore displaced radical, socialist anti-imperialism as the key strategic imperative.

Treacy also points out that “the move away from anything that might be construed as Marxism caused little stir within either the IRA or Sinn Fein, where even in the rare cases that it was properly understood, had never been more than an exotic minority interest”. Sinn Fein, with its focus on “identity politics” was perfectly prepared to abandon the notion of class conflict and ride the new zeitgeist. Of course, Treacy is correct to call out the “happy clappy” lefties, many of whom had infected the “New” Labour party in Britain. Indeed, Treacy mentions Ken Livingston and Jeremy Corbyn in this context, although there are much better examples – Anthony Giddens or Geoff Mulgan for example, whose muddled musings on the “third way” and post-modern “designer socialism” nearly destroyed the Labour movement in Britain.

The bottom line for Sinn Fein, according to Treacy, was that a new breed of activists, many of whom were motivated by careerism, had replaced many of the old “revolutionaries” who were “active when it was dangerous”. Treacy is clearly angry at this transformation, and it is difficult not to concur with him that “the left” in general has indeed been infected by the most insipid type of middle class lifestyle lobbyists who have absolutely no organic link to working class people at all. They are indeed a pestilential nuisance.

However, where Matt Treacy is far less convincing is when he talks about the “shedding of ideological illusions” especially his summary dismissal of the left-wing critique of Sinn Fein. This is where, politically speaking, he and I part company. Treacy is dismissive of the Republican Congress, and he notes (perhaps correctly) that Eirigi is “moribund”, but the vitriol deployed to deride any and all efforts at egalitarian transcendence suggests a much deeper animus - and Treacy repeats this often enough in the text to suggest that he genuinely believes it. For example, Treacy talks about:

‘the urge to make men perfect against their will’. They have learned nothing from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism and Nazism and Maoism, and all the other simplistic myths that murdered tens of millions in order to make them and the rest of us better people. 

Now this is contentious stuff. It would indeed be interesting, for example, to try and tease out exactly how Nazism was designed to “make better people”. However, of greater importance for republicans is the fact that Treacy has his eyes more firmly fixed on the “delusions” of “scientific socialism”, “the failed economics of socialism” and “simplistic slogan ridden diaper Marxism favoured by left wing Republicans”. Indeed, Treacy argues that “most serious historians of political ideology would claim that there is a profound disjunction between the pursuit of a nebulous concept like ‘equality’, and democracy, other than of course equality before the law”. Enough is enough. This is just not true, in fact one of the reasons why right-wing political theorists got so agitated about the electoral process and the extension of the franchise is precisely because of the seemingly inexorable logic which drives democracy toward equality – of rights, opportunity and material outcomes.

Nevertheless, not content with traducing Marxism, Treacy quotes favourably the likes of Popper, Berlin and Hayek, and goes on to talk about “utopian totalitarian ideologies”, the “totalitarian nightmare”, “totalitarian myths of class or of race”, and “the mass murder of millions in the Soviet Union”. This is dangerous territory, and such comments are particularly disingenuous because, as Treacy surely knows, the “freedom loving” nations of the West were also constructed upon a mountain of corpses (slavery, colonialism, imperialism) and the black farce of counting victims cannot eradicate that fact.

Moreover, “totalitarianism” as a theory (as articulated by the likes of Schapiro or Brzezinski for example) was a conceptual remnant of the Cold War which was specifically designed to tar Communism with the same brush as Fascism. It is a simplistic conceptual trap which Dr. Treacy (apparently gleefully) has fallen into. The “totalitarian” theory is flawed principally because it focuses on political methods rather than desired social outcomes but, more importantly, it defames the memory of those brave communists who actually fought and died fighting fascism. To paraphrase Primo Levi, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a communism without concentration camps, but the idea of fascism without them is utterly inconceivable. In short, connecting fascism and communism is lazy politics, and “totalitarian theory” is nonsense on stilts - it is the usual neo-liberal bullshit dressed up in a tuxedo and no amount of semantic chicanery can make it otherwise. Reading Hayek et al is entirely excusable in an effort to stave off the boredom induced by enforced incarceration, but taking them seriously is quite another matter – their self-serving theoretical constructions were drivel before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the financial crash of 2008, and the idea that we should take them seriously now is risible.

Without some kind of extended analysis, Treacy’s perfunctory forays into political philosophy are not simply ill-judged, they can be easily construed as gratuitous grand-standing. Indeed, it might be argued that Treacy has thrown the baby out with the bath water because there is an obvious left-republican tradition which eschews the trendy post-modern, politically-correct notions of “equality” as deployed by Sinn Fein – and we need to look no further than James Connolly to find it (Connolly does not feature at all in the book).

Perhaps if I was forced to walk a mile in Matt Treacy’s shoes I would also be sceptical about the utility of political ideologies and their “malign consequences”. I haven’t, so I am not, but to put my point in another more personalised way, it is relatively easy to malign Martin McGuinness or indeed marginalise Micky McKevitt, but dismissing Tommy McKearney or Eddie O’Neill (men who have experienced the very worst of the “troubles” but who have retained deeply held socialist principles) is not quite so easy. Matthew Treacy knows this, and I know he knows.

Of course, Treacy is undoubtedly correct to point out that Sinn Fein “has been able to survive the regular expulsion and resignations of large numbers of experienced people including elected representatives without that cohering as a political threat”. The sooner that changes the better, but it is difficult to see how Matt Treacy can contribute to that process.

In conclusion, maybe sceptics are entitled to ask why it took Matt Treacy so long to write this book, and they might even point to the issue of remuneration and his refusal to comply with Sinn Fein’s party line on wages (which is dealt with at length), but it is very difficult to argue with his critique of Sinn Fein. Indeed, Treacy now adds his name to the ever-expanding pantheon of those who have managed to detach themselves from the eviscerated husk of Provisional Republicanism.

We might note that the title of the book “A Tunnel to the Moon” uses a phrase borrowed from Anthony McIntyre, which is entirely appropriate because McIntyre’s thesis on the trajectory of Provisional Republicanism, outlined many years ago, has proven to be remarkably prescient. I have disagreed with Matt Treacy, McIntyre, and other ex-Provisionals on many things over the years but the consensus that has been constructed around the reality of Sinn Fein’s egregious apostasy is absolutely compelling. They have abandoned militant socialist Republicanism to become a meaningless political cult that worships the electoral process and Matt Treacy’s latest treatise confirms this in a spectacular way.

Matt Treacy isn’t going to win many friends with this book, which in many ways seems deliberately designed to be provocative, but that will not bother him in the slightest. Treacy is a formidable talent and his loss to the Sinn Fein is a very serious blow – and they will doubtless try to undermine the substance of his critique by attempting to destroy his integrity. They will fail. The real tragedy, however, is that Matt Treacy, and many other so-called “dissidents”, committed themselves to a movement that was not worthy of the many magnificent volunteers that supported it.

Matt Treacy, 2017. A Tunnel to the Moon: The End of the Irish Republican Army.
Publisher: Brocaire Books, Dublin. IBSN: 5-800122-479495

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

13 comments to ''A Tunnel To The Moon"

  1. I get the impression the person writing this review has a personal axe to grind with Treacy for his position on extreme socialism. Regarding either the non existance of it in SF over the decades or indeed his personal viepoint re Communism in the former Soviet Union. It came close to putting me off getting a copy of the book. If the book degenerates into far left shite which never existed in SF then I don't want to read that kind of endless drivel. Nor does Putin I imagine. Marxism-Lenninism and serious left wing politics never existed in the Provos. Tommy McKearney made a mistake going anywhere near them on a politicl level, there was no common bond there. The Provos offered an opportunity to hit back, not a lot if indeed anything else. As for the Provos and that is a different story. On that front I would be interested in reading Treacy's personal account and experiences. But I don't give a fuck for Marx or Marxism and have zero interest in reading about people arguing about its finer points zzzzzzzzzzz.

    For example, on the lying game front, I remember reading/seeing on the news near the end of the Provo campaign there was a low loader sent from Warrenpoint (of all places) without a driver... (mind boggles) popped on the little cargo-ferry to be collected at the other side in England. That type of utter contempt for volunteers who were being told that talk of ceasefires was exactly that, 'just talk' in 1994 cannot be described as anything other than crinimal. Arm chair generals (untouchables) in the process of secretly surrendering but taking time and pleasure wiping their arses with the little cult like 'sheep at their feet'.

    If the book is about the man's personal experience then I would be VERY interested to read it. If it is about a load of lefty crap and endless arguments about Marx and Stalin, I shall avoid the library building for fear of encountering it or of even catching sight of it on the shelves.

    As for the Provo leadership, if I saw any of them hitch-hiking I would resist the severe tempatation to excellerate and mow them down for fear of scratching or denting my 2000 registerd (17 year old ) car. I think an awful LOT more of my car these days.

  2. Honest review by Mark.

    There's no birth of consciousness without pain ... well done Matt ... another bit of light brought to the darkness.

  3. A balanced review of something I want to read next. When I saw the title of the book I remembered it had been used on here by AM (and first by him in the '97 Tribune article?) and wondered if this was the reference.These things are an afirmation of sorts for this site, and its parent publications.

  4. It is a great review. Considered, thought out and detailed.

    Larry, there is no personal axe on Mark's part. A lot of political disagreement. Mark and Matt have been friends for yonks and the real aptitude here is mutual. Mark displayed great ability in criticising a friend he much admires, and Matt can easily take it on the chin without feeling precious about himself. They are talents I admire, maybe even envy, in both.

    Unless books of this kind are written and reviews of this type are made, our understanding will be greatly reduced.

    I am more sympathetic to Matt's take on the Left than I am with Mark's, but that does nothing to take away from the quality of the review.

    I hope any future book I might write is considered worthy of such a review: a book which has the power to prompt such a detailed response is an achievement beyond most of us.

    Very rarely are book reviews read by so many. This is soaring in terms of page views. Even in Dublin last night the review and book were both being discussed.

  5. I fully understand the hurt and betrayal of ex-Provos regarding the end of the IRA. Even soldiers from winning sides in all conflicts have issues of legacy, how they were treated, how they are currently treated etc So to be on the "losing" side and watch previous commanders now bend the knee must be particularly galling. However, it was inevitable. The IRA failed to win the support of the Irish people who grew angry at the killing being carried out in their name. The IRA had become an infiltrated rump. The Troubles had to stop, the people of Ireland demanded it. And the abandonment of militant republicanism was a necessary step. Whether the Bearded Satan was coerced or understood the situation is a moot point, the abandonment had to happen and the quicker the better. Ireland (the Dail and Stormont notwithstanding) is 1000x better than it was 30 years ago. What do you gain from raking over the past?

  6. Peter,

    might as well ask people not to fear dying or hunger as ask them not to rake over the past.

    Our species has a very cognitive memory and it would be most strange not to rake through what we remember. How do we use the faculty of memory to forget? Organized forgetting is a much more threatening venture than raking over the past.

    It is probably better to ask what is it that causes us to rake over the past? is it to recriminate? Then we will distort the past for that purpose. Is it to clarify and perhaps learn from? Seems a worthwhile productive venture.

    I think accuracy is important. The word truth, while it should mean the same thing, has become so value loaded. Society requires accuracy rather than the continuous banging of the truth drum. I don't subscribe to the view that truth brings reconciliation. It brings revelation. Reconciliation might best be achieved by avoiding the truth.

    I suppose we have to set out our stall in terms of what we want to achieve and then work accordingly.

  7. AM
    I agree. Raking over the past to learn from it is a worthwhile task, but for how long?

    It is just I have read many testimonials from old Provos lamenting the end of the IRA. Understandable, yes, but none acknowledge that it was a) inevitable and b) for the good of Ireland. You all have had 20 years to ruminate over the facts of the issue, can you not acknowledge these 2 points?

  8. Peter,

    how long is a piece of string?

    A person can watch a film as many times as they wish. They just need to refrain from trying to get us to watch it along with them.

    If Matt had written his book in 2027 rather than 2017 it would still be a useful addition to the historical narrative and republican historiography. Every single person should be free to write if that is their choice. It might mean that like poetry more will write it than read it but it is out there for the record.

    I would love to see the former UDR write about their past; their lives; their beliefs and actions; the impact on their families; their moral deliberations.

    I don't think there is enough written on the past.

    I need to read Matt's book but I don't get the sense from the review that it laments the end of the IRA. I think he made the point it could never win as it set itself an impossibilist objective.

    I have no idea who you have been reading when you say no former IRA acknowledge that the failure of the IRA campaign was inevitable or that it was good for Ireland.

    Having been around this blog for years you probably want to rethink that position.

  9. Peter

    Agree 99% with you verdict there. However raking over the end-game will help future generations avoid the same pitfall of idolising paedo families and scumbags. As I have said before without putting anyone in legal jeopardy I think the more talking and comparing of experiences done THE BETTER. Untouchables playing the ultra secret card when their inlaws and girlfriends / boyfriends thought they knew more about volunteers than they did themselves. AND every cunt in pubs in America knew Don fucking Corleone .... secret my hole lol

  10. Mackers

    During my university time I read somewhere an estimated 40% + of the N. Ireland economy was 'security' related. Given a max was 60% unionist in their hay-day it has probably impacted very painfully on people like Peter. Sitting in the back of a land-rover driving around N. Down all week with all the perks must be sorely missed. At his young age the fact he describes himself as semi-retired says a great deal. Prison officers, part timers in UDR RUC and service industries could all write the same book I suspect ... a one liner called,

    'WTF happened, ffs bring back the IRA before we all have to get a proper fucking job'

    I too would be interested in their story. Like how many of their wives/girlfriends dumped them when the easy cash dried up. Also why join the UDR rather than a proper regiment? Natural born leaders in the UDR were only going to lead a two vehicle convoy around the one way traffic system in Donaghadee lol

  11. Its unlikely that the past can be neatly parcelled up and certainly not so to everyone's satisfaction. it's chimera and an unrealistic expectation.

    Dependent to the degree of individual or collective trauma experienced and the resources available to individuals and communities for overcoming such I suspect we'll all eventually outgrow the past. Remembering and reflection, along with the uncoupling of excessively strong emotional tags from those memories, allows for better understanding. With better understanding comes the possibility of forgiveness and maybe even forgetting. Such processes unfold at different speeds for various constituencies according to resources and supports. For a few this may be inter-generational.
    Its useful to remember that civilised and moral behaviour is not a static achievement. Rather its an ongoing process which involves the refinement of perception at both an individual and shared level. It requires effort: thoughtful discrimination between the countless shades of grey in our collective past. If we are to maintain a civil society we need responsible adherence to these principles from historians, educators and of all who seek positions of civic leadership. And we need to courageously rebuff the propagandists and those who would seek to exploit us or others through rousing passion.

  12. Very comprehensive review - certainly seems like an interesting book and I will read it - given the uniformity of narrative that comes out of PSF - other perspectives are needed and welcome.

    Love to see another book from you AM given your experiences since the last one.

  13. Hi,
    I post this comment even if this discussion dates back to one year ago !
    I read this book, very interesting indeed. i was struck by something he wrote about decommissioning.
    Matt Treacy explains that IRA grassroots were presented with a fait accompli about the decision to decommission and disbandment.
    You referred to that lack of transparency also but Matt Treacy wrote that some, within the Republican movement, still believe that there was no decommissioning at all !
    How is it possible ?


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