Institutionalisation or Treason?

Guest writer Liam O'Ruairc responds to Owen Sullivan.

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.


  1. EXCLUSIVE: SINN Fein chief Martin McGuinness is considering legal action against former IRA supergrass Raymond Gilmour.

    It is understood the deputy first minister has asked his lawyers to look at possible legal moves to have Gilmour’s explosive new book ‘What Price Truth?’ withdrawn from circulation. The book is an updated version of his explosive book ‘Dead Ground’ which gave a fascinating insight into his life as an IRA informer in Derry. A source told Belfast Daily: “Martin McGuinness has instructed a solicitor to look at what legal action is open to him to have the book withdrawn from sale. There may be an attempt at a High Court injunction.

    Another super maybe??? The piece goes on to say.....

    'The bombshell letter will cause a major headache for the PSNI after the political fall-out following the arrest of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams for the murder of Jean McConville in 1972 and IRA membership. Martin McGuinness claimed there was a “dark side” inside the PSNI who were operating their own agenda against Sinn Fein and the peace process.

    Now police chiefs will have to decide whether to arrest the deputy first minister for questioning. Said a security source: “If he is not arrested, we will be accused by unionists of ‘political policing’. “And if we do arrest him, Sinn Fein will say the so-called ‘dark side’ inside the PSNI is operating yet again. No matter what we do we can’t win.”

    Gilmour’s revelations on the Belfast Daily has sparked huge social media interest in the story around the world.
    The 54-year-old told Belfast Daily that he decided to “lift the lid on atrocities carried out by the IRA’s Derry Brigade’’ following publication of his first story on the Belfast Daily days earlier.

    He said he has been “inundated’’ with messages of support after revealed to Belfast Daily on Friday that he would tell the PSNI that deputy first minister Martin McGuinness ordered a number of murders in Derry stretching back over 30 years.

    Possible legal threat to Raymond Gilmour’s blockbuster book ‘What Price Truth?’ His revelations were first made in his new book ‘What Price Truth?’ which has just been published.

    He has since told Belfast Daily that he will pass the names of McGuinness and seven other IRA men in Derry to police.' Gilmour says he says he has the names of those who murdered:

    • British soldier Christopher Shenton, 21, shot dead by an IRA sniper in January 1981 as he manned an observation post at Castle Gates , Derry which overlooked the republican Bogside district;

    • Protestant Joanne Matthers, a Census worker. Mrs Mathers was shot dead in Gobnascale’s Anderson Crescent in Derry as she collected forms in 1981.

    • David Montgomery who was shot dead in February 1981 at Keys timber yard in Derry. Gilmour also says he knows the identity of the killers. “One of them bragged about the shooting at an IRA meeting the next day. They had been doing dry runs the timber yard in the weeks leading up to the murder.’’

    • Lord Louis Mountbatteen in 1979 in Co Sligo by planting a bomb on his boat.

    Looks like it's all starting to un ravel.. How long before the truth outs? 1-5 or 10 years. The truth will out ( I like the addage that lies get half way around the world before truth is out of the starting blocks).. Why does the DFM need to go to court to stop a book being sold? He can't really, they couldn't do it with 'Spy Catcher'......


    “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. “ ---Liam O'Ruairc

    Donald Rumsfeld called it “…draining the swamp”.

    The British government called it: “Ulsterisation - Normalization - Criminalization"

    Like all imperial counterinsurgency, Keynesian or otherwise, it can have many prongs.

    And it works best when all are operating at once.

    But it can’t work at all without treasonous liars.

    They are the dash of salt in an otherwise unpalatable stew, the catalysts for all national treachery.

    Without which there can be no empire.

    That’s why so much effort is put into turning and co-opting them.

    It is also why they themselves put so much effort into killing and intimidating their critics.

    And that’s no abstraction.

    Read their writing on their walls.

    Visit the graves of among others Joseph O’Connor, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price.

    If only the Provo turning was just a matter of social and economic transformation.

    Then all could be forgiven.