Owen Sullivan believes that to think of the evolution of the Provisional Republican Movement as a process of "institutionalisation" (that is the logic through which radical social movements are transformed from revolutionary instruments into participants in establishment politics and thereby become absorbed by the status quo) rather than one of individual betrayal or treason is “unnecessarily more complicated” and is “at best a distinction without a difference, and at worst a denial of the obvious with euphemism”; defects from which the traitors thesis is immune.
That traitors and agents do exist and can play a key role in the transformation of an oppositional movement is not denied here. The limits of the 'traitors' thesis is that it is insufficient and a one-sided abstraction. An abstraction, because it abstracts treason from social and economic dynamics (ie. British counter-insurgency keynesianism and the growth of the nationalist middle classes etc), one-sided as it isolates it from broader forces and currents (ie. The global crisis of emancipatory projects, the tensions between universalist aspect of Republicanism and the particularism attendant on its base in the nationalist areas of the six counties etc) which are in fact its very material conditions of possibility.
The traitors thesis is also insufficient because it cannot account for the extent of the transformation of the Provisional Movement's project and in particular the form of its politics - the shift from 'resistance community' to 'community politics', how the 'risen people' have given way to the 'electorate' and mobilisation is replaced by lobbying. If agents and traitors do exist in history or society, they do not explain such historical or social dynamics.
That traitors and agents of influence are insufficient to defeat and co-opt an insurgent movement such as the Provisional republicans has been recognised by the British state itself. Sir Richard Needham, the longest serving Northern Ireland Minister, has written at length about the need for what he described as the “third arm” of British state strategy in Northern Ireland (the other two being the political and military), “the economic and social war against violence” which aims at “drawing (the Republican Movement) into the net” through state funding and making Sinn Fein a “part of that very different part-public, part-private partnership which was the essence of our long term solution”. (Richard Needham, Battling for Peace, Belfast: Blackstaff, 1998, 1 and 207-208).
It is not enough to have traitors and agents within a movement, it is necessary to change the oppositional social movement's relation to the state. It is by considering how the state has shaped the social and economic environment within which the Provisional movement operates that it is possible to understand how this process of institutionalisation occurred. Given that the transformation of the Provisional movement has been shaped more by its interaction with the state than by processes internal to the organisation, a structural analysis (institutionalisation) has more explanatory power than one concentrating on individual traitors.
Some of the limits of the institutionalisation thesis have been underlined by Mark Hayes in a review of Kevin Bean's book The New Politics of Sinn Fein which has done much to develop the argument:
There is certainly mileage in using the notion of state hegemony and the Ideological State Apparatus when discussing the apparent capitulation of Provisional Republicanism. But there is also, perhaps, a sense in which coercion and covert operations are underplayed in Bean’s thesis—is the role of Freddie Scappaticci and his ilk less important than the Springvale project? Does the failure of the major IRA offensive of 1987–88 and the belief among key activists that the military campaign was compromised, weigh less heavily than the existence of ex-prisoners in community projects? Could it be that more effective Loyalist targeting of Republicans, and a belated recognition of the fact that the IRA campaign increased sectarian polarization, played a greater role than sub-state quasi-autonomous cross-community agencies? Perhaps conventional colonial counterinsurgency is still the critical variable? Of course these are difficult questions, and Kevin Bean’s purpose is not to comment definitively on such points, but to highlight the complexity of the forces that took Sinn Fein’s journey in a particular direction. (Mark Hayes (2009) Kevin Bean: The New Politics of Sinn Fein, Democracy and Security, 5:2, 182-183)
This last point is also valid for this discussion. The 'secret' history of the IRA needs to be complemented by a 'social and economic' history of the Provisionals. Hopefully this debate about institutionalisation and treason will broaden out to how wider forces -in particular political economy, social forces, the state- have shaped the history of republicanism and continue to shape its present.