Anthony McIntyre gave a talk in November at the Political Studies Association of Ireland which was held in Maynooth.
Marisa McGlinchey’s excellent book Unfinished Business has given the kiss of life to a corpse in terms of once again generating serious intellectual interest in dissident republicanism. Over the years there have been other solid and informative works by writers like Martyn Frampton, John Morrison, John Mooney, John Horgan and Paddy Hoey, for example, but none seem to have ignited the public imagination quite like this one.
The stamina of the author of Unfinished Business is remarkable. A deeply insightful piece of work, it brought into the public arena plenty of heat from the interviewees, but in terms of strategic acumen or vision, absolutely no light whatsoever. And had it existed, I am sure Marisa would have found it.
Had it not been for that work by Marisa McGlinchey, I doubt I would have been sufficiently motivated to talk about armed republicanism. But having had a reaffirmation by the book of my view of the useless violence employed in the service of armed republicanism, here I am.
In Drowned And The Saved Primo Levi distinguishes between useful and useless violence. The twin concept has merit when applied to modern physical force republicanism. Whatever ethical hang-ups people have about the campaign of the Provisional IRA, its limited political outcome measured against the stated goals of the organisation nevertheless show that its violence had some political use value.
This type of observation about the efficacy of republican violence is just that. To observe is not to diminish the serious ethical concerns about the use of violence. Useful violence is not by any stretch of the imagination good violence, just useful in terms of some strategic purpose being served. Levi, although a survivor of the concentration camps of World War 2, for this reason considered the Nazi gassing of Jews as useful. It furthered the Nazi objective. It hardly needs said that he did not approve. Other Nazi practices - violence deployed for the gratification of the guards - was considered useless violence: "occasionally having a purpose, yet always redundant, always disproportionate to the purpose itself."
Much of the Provisional IRA armed struggle might be best categorised as useful violence. It was not just something that produced nothing other than political careers for some of its key leaders. It was an instrument for progress, even if not the far-reaching transformation envisaged by its members and supporters. The IRA’s armed struggle was an agency for change, although in the wake of the excellent BBC Spotlight compilation, A Secret History of the Troubles, we may be forgiven for thinking there were more agents than agency involved.
No such claim can be made on behalf of the utility of the violence employed by groups like the New IRA. In political terms they make absolutely nothing happen. They do not operate in a political vacuum, but independent of one. Or at least the political vacuum that does exist is not the cause of their existence or continued activity. With or without the political institutions, Brexit or a hard border, the New IRA and others of like mind would continue much as they are. As articulated to Channel 4 News earlier this week:
Regardless of the form of occupation, whatever kind of border there is, be it soft or so-called hard border – that’s irrelevant. We are talking about an illegal occupation here that means the IRA reserved the right to attack those who are upholding that illegal occupation along the border and elsewhere and the illegal partition that goes with it. And those who are upholding that.
Determined to persist in their rain dance, they are not driven by wider political considerations, make no effective political interventions, and serve up a discursive diet of self-referential shibboleths. The explicatory and exculpatory statements released by Saoradh after the death of Lyra McKee earlier this year seemed so far removed from reality, that even for republicans who had waged the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign, there was a cringingly embarrassing ring to them.
Jean Hatzfeld in one of his oral histories rooted in the Rwandan genocide reflects on this sense of disconnect. His research brought him face to face with Interahamwe members responsible for the mass killings of civilians. Hatzfeld talks of his dismay at the military theatre language deployed by one of his interviewees, where everything was laid out in terms of a serious military battle with fortified positions assaulted and taken, coupled with huge scale manoeuvres strategically put in place by both sets of military combatants. Hatzfeld merely commented something to the effect that the military framing was all so far removed from the wanton slaughter of babies at the heart of the interviewee’s military operations. While the New IRA is not remotely comparable to the Interahamwe in terms of genocidal intent, the ability to self-delude about fighting a war is wholly similar. Yet, the violence of the Interahamwe was useful in the sense outlined by Levi. The same cannot be said for the New IRA.
The New IRA is like a fish out of water in terms of timing, finding as Heraclitus did the practical impossibility of stepping in the same river twice, the raging insurrectionary torrent that had its source in how the British behaved while in Ireland rather than the fact of their being in Ireland, having become a trickle.
They possess no strategic awareness or military acumen. Unlike the Provisional IRA they lack the military capacity to effect political change and effectively admitted as much in a recent interview given to the Sunday Times by members of the New IRA army council. Which leaves it difficult to see how their violence can be anything other than useless.
During the Provisional IRA campaign had the British state faced the level of armed activity currently being mounted by the New IRA, the attitude would have been one of celebratory delirium. In 2008 I attended a book launch in London and listened to a senior spook tell his listeners that by the early 1990s, the IRA campaign had become so manageable that it no longer absorbed such huge amounts of government time. Yet it dwarfs anything the New IRA serves up and retained the potential to work towards some sort of political solution.
While far short of what the Provisional IRA campaign was ostensibly about, this reinforces the view that because it failed absolutely in terms of usurping the consent principle and expelling the British the likelihood of the New IRA succeeding with much fewer bangs and much fewer bucks in the same tracks where we saw the Provisionals come off the rails is highly fanciful.
Physical force republicanism occupies a space from which it can offer nothing but the "stupid and symbolic violence" described by Levi. A flavour of this is provided in the interview its army council gave to the Sunday Times.
We fully accept we cannot defeat the British militarily, or even drive them from Ireland, but we will continue to fight for as long as they remain here. The attacks are symbolic. They are propaganda. As long as you have the British in Ireland and the country remains partitioned, there will be an IRA. It doesn’t matter if the two governments imprison the current leadership, others will still come forward and fight. Being a member of the IRA was never popular … You ask, is this madness? There will be madness as long as there is armed occupation in Ireland.
Self-confirmed madness to the point that others seem to share it. It seems strange that three decades after the peace process began to be floated by armed republicans, two decades after the stated armed cessation by the dominant republican group, a decade and half after the same group announced its war was over, that the New IRA - the least effective, most incapable armed body in the history of any IRA - continues to grab the headlines.
Witness the large dose of alarmism from security circles about the level of threat. Stephen Martin, a senior PSNI figure, took to describing it as being at the “upper end of severe”. This in turn has helped feed into an amplification spiral in the media where the Pied Piper of Brexit is seen as having the awesome potential to take the peace into a tenebrous cave, where the cave dwellers wearing balaclavas will proceed to strangle it to death in some solemn republican ritual. Banner headlines appear trumpeting to the world that Brexit Will Be A Gift To Dissident Republicans In Northern Ireland. Even more sober commentators like Gene Kerrigan feel that:
the consequences of casual, reckless decisions by British politicians has opened possibilities for the "one more push" brigade. The only people unaware of the dreadful possibilities appear to be Her Majesty's ministers.
Truth is physical force republicanism has the capacity to effect no change with or without Brexit. Violence by its nature is always dangerous but it for the most part the violence of the New IRA is nuisance violence. It will not give rise to a crisis of transformative potential but can only hope, forlornly, to benefit from any that might emerge.
Shortly after the killing of Lyra McKee, the writer Eamonn McCann featured on Prime Time to make the case that NIRA and Saoradh regard themselves as the purist of the pure in terms of republican principles. No doubt a view genuinely held by McCann but it comes from perhaps listening to the rationalisation rather than addressing the facts on the ground.
Perhaps there are some in both bodies who are of such a disposition although I do not know who they are. While ostensibly opposed to the Good Friday Agreement as evidenced from the Sunday Times interview, enough within the New IRA remained with Sinn Fein while it slaughtered every sacred cow of republicanism: some only bolted after they had helped Sinn Fein arrive at its Suck The Truncheon moment when the party fell upon its knees before the PSNI with the promise to put manners on the force. The recent extradition of John Downey at the behest of the PSNI amply demonstrated who is daddy on the manners block. They ostracised, bullied and intimidated republicans critical of the Good Friday Agreement, on occasion expressing a desire to kill them. They simply could not get enough of the bull. If they were purist they would not have been with the Provisionals post 1986; if they were remotely Provisional republicans with their roots very much in the post 1969 insurrections in the North, 1998 would have been the cut-off date.
Anyone who stayed with the Provisional movement after the Good Friday Agreement is in a weak position to shout "sell-out" at others or hoist above their own head the Proclamation of 1916. So whatever motivates NIRA and Saoradh it is certainly not for the purposes of defending purist republican tradition.
By their very allegiances post Good Friday, they have denied themselves the comfort blanket of purist republicanism that might have allowed them to ague a continuation back to 1916.
So what do the New IRA bring in circumstances where there is in the words of Jonny Byrne “no ideological or political rationale."
An alternative view has been proffered which discerns an “emotional longing for the simplicities of the gun" as a means to allow people "to fool themselves they're at one with the heroes of old.” Fooling themselves seems to capture the essence of Levi’s coining of the term useless violence. Republican violence, if ever there are grounds for its application, should only be for the political advancement of the many and not for the psychological gratification of the few.
It might be suggested that there is a hyperdeveloped culture of honour to borrow a term from Stephen Pinker, more subcultural than political. When Saoradh members troop out of a Derry court in unapproachable and haughty fashion, shoulder to shoulder, trapped in their own isolated and insular space the resemblance is more to that of a cult than a mass movement. The contrast with the popular opposition on display in Catalonia this week towards judicial treatment of their leaders could not be greater. As the leadership of the New IRA pointed out to the Sunday Times it knows that the public will not protest if they are “all rounded up” by the security forces and imprisoned.
There was no organisation with people that had the political credibility, a revolutionary experience that could install any confidence in republicans to continue the fight for Irish reunification. Saoradh is absolutely necessary. Once there is an occupation of your country, Irish people have the right to oppose this occupation by whatever means necessary.
This type of vision with its nod to political credibility, which can only come via the attainment of popular support, was palpably absent from the actions around the killing of Lyra McKee. According to Stephen Pinker campaigns like that waged by the New IRA reach the “all rounded up” moment when they cross the line into depravity and turn all public sympathy to their victims. Instead of credibility here was useless violence which completely undermined the credibility of Saoradh. Even allowing for the political manufacture of bias and revulsion on a scale probably not seen since the 2005 killing of Robert McCartney, the head of opprobrium steam towards republican actions was significant. The barbaric killing of Paul Quinn by South Armagh republicans did not seem to reach the same level of intensity.
There is also another factor that underscores the uselessness of republican violence. The extent to which secularisation and the rebellion against traditional and unaccountable forms of authority in Irish society has arguably played a part in the alienation of armed republicanism is probably worthy of consideration, even if at present difficult to gauge.
Absolutism should be the antithesis of republicanism. As those structures who have relied on absolutism to enforce their writ have come to find their authority under increasing challenge both North and South it would indeed be strange if the societal mood were to be tolerant towards a new self-appointed and self-anointed committee of public safety claiming the right to wage war on their behalf.
So when armed republicans hark back to the need for observance of republican tradition they sound remarkably similar to and as relevant as the Bishop of Waterford & Lismore Alphonsus Cullinan, who seeks to have yoga and mindfulness prohibited in public schools.
If there is one salutary lesson that should have come out from the Provisional IRA war in the North it is an awareness of the dangers of using violence to achieve ends whether that violence is useful or useless. Useful violence should only be a measure of last resort, when all options run out and when it is a necessity driven unavoidable strategic imperative. It must never be the first and preferred choice born out of tradition.
Unfortunately armed republican necks are never craned far enough to be able to appreciate that the Provisional IRA’s most celebrated volunteer, Bobby Sands, was at the height of his power when using the most passive, not the most violent of tactics.