The assumption is that without national self-determination any such liberation is practically impossible. O’Ruairc reminds us that Unionists, who articulated a supremacist ideology, relied on special powers and electoral gerrymandering to secure their grotesque sectarian statelet and he makes the pertinent subsidiary observations that resistance to that state began as a “war” of liberation and that applying labels like “terrorist” make absolutely no sense in the context of “Northern Ireland”.
However, the central theme of book is that the so-called “peace process” which ended with the Good Friday Agreement, constituted a catastrophic defeat for the IRA and national liberation. In short the GFA meant accepting the legitimacy of the NI state, indeed (as Tony Blair noted at the time) it gave the Unionists practically everything they ever wanted. O’Ruairc goes on to explain, with some dexterity, the constructive ambiguity that underpinned the “peace process”, and maintains that it was in fact a “process of pacification” that was constructed on the back of a Republican surrender. As he says, “the process that the Provisional Republican Movement joined was pre-programmed to deliver a partitionist settlement”. The political parameters had already been set by the Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Documents and the Mitchell Principles and Adams effectively confirmed this by stating that the aim was to “re-negotiate” the Union.
In fact O’Ruairc notes that Sinn Fein contributed very little to the process and, as one Irish official put it, they sat “in the dunces corner”. Any “gains” Sinn Fein secured were therefore at the margins (e.g. in relation to prisoners and the so-called “equality” agenda). Here O’Ruairc reinforces the observation (made by others) that the “peace process” may have included Republicans (or more correctly, people who referred to themselves as such) but it excluded Republicanism. Of course, the GFA was described as “Sunningdale for slow learners” by Seamus Mallon but, as O’Ruairc points out, the actual terms were significantly worse than that offered in 1973, and he refers to the Agreement as the “Republican Versailles”. In fact a more apt comparator might be the Bolshevik capitulation at Brest-Litovsk, but O’Ruairc is undoubtedly correct to point out that Sinn Fein’s “realism” meant accepting all of the major preconditions set by Britain. In the end Martin McGuinness bent the knee to Royalty and MI5 now controls “security” in the north. Any Republican seeing this as a “success” needs to be sectioned.
O’Ruairc also focuses, quite correctly, on the politically significant fact that the IRA gave up its weapons. In effect this act retrospectively criminalized the armed resistance against the British state. He argues that:
there has never been a situation in the world where an ‘undefeated army’ has willingly and unilaterally handed over its weapons to its enemy. The only situation where that applies is when an army has been defeated and is forced to hand over arms as an act of surrender.
In fact O’Ruairc actually quotes Danny Morrison, whose has persistently claimed that the IRA was “undefeated”, and proves emphatically that Morrison was “demonstrably wrong” (it wouldn’t be the only time Morrison had mangled the truth would it?). O’Ruairc makes the interesting observation that surrendering arms is in breach of General Order No.11 of the IRA constitution which deemed it an act of treason punishable by death. And to rub salt into that wound O’Ruairc quotes internal documentation from the British Army in 2007 which says that their campaign was brought to a “successful conclusion”. The author of the report was General Mike Jackson – the significance of this will not be lost on Republicans. O’Ruairc also makes the point that “dissident” Republicans are not capable of waging a sustained campaign, so any actions are purely “symbolic” rather than possessing “strategic” value. Brexit, he argues, is unlikely to alter this situation.
O’Ruairc’s text also deals decisively with the so-called “peace dividend” of the GFA. The material benefits have, he argues, been meagre and based on a British subsidy that conceals the economic fragility of a “province” subservient to neo-liberal orthodoxy. This subordination was symbolically represented by the images of McGuinness and Paisley opening the Nasdaq Stock Market on Wall Street in 2007. Both Sinn Fein and the Unionists accept unconditionally the neo-liberal principles of privatization, private finance initiatives, a reduction in tax rates for corporations and cuts in public services. As O’Ruairc says “peace has, in effect, been ‘privatized’”. The new Catholic middle classes may have benefitted from this process, but those that bore the brunt of the struggle have gained nothing but more economic insecurity and social inequality. Moreover, genuine social, economic and political aspirations have been transformed into matters of cultural identity and “parity of esteem”. In this O’Ruairc is, to coin a phrase, right on the money.
However, given the focus is the actual “peace process”, the book doesn’t really examine in detail the forces that drove the Republicans down the dead end of compromise its bitterest political enemies. There is some reference to the international geo-political context, but there is no doubt that the “dirty war” conducted by the British secret services, which led to the infiltration of the IRA and the manipulation of Loyalist paramilitaries, created the context for Provisional capitulation. Indeed, in many ways the hidden hand in the peace process narrative is the secret state – for example, any really comprehensive account of the abject failure of Provisional Republicanism needs to take account the impact of the Force Research Unit, the SAS and Scappaticci. Once the British secret services had completed their malevolent machinations, the political task of manipulating the likes of Adams and McGuinness was made far easier. Of course there is absolutely no shame in losing, and Republicans have a long history of honourable failure - but the insidious way in which the whole process was kept secret from Republicans and then spun as “a new phase of struggle” raises serious questions about the integrity of those who led the movement in this period. This point is thrown into much sharper relief by the fact that internal critics of “the process” were often intimidated, disparaged and marginalized.
As O’Ruairc says, what exists now is a “negative peace” in the sense of not having open conflict but no genuine reconciliation either. In many ways Liam O’Ruiarc’s book makes uncomfortable reading for committed republicans. He has called time of death on the Provisional version of Republicanism and the corpse has been described in relentless detail. The fact that some people refuse to acknowledge this fact does not invalidate the reality of its sad demise. As Mark Twain once remarked – no amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot! It is time to move forward and leave the necrophiliacs in Sinn Fein to pursue the political path it has chosen for itself – the dead end of pragmatic constitutionalism.
Liam O’Ruairc actually refers to Provisional Sinn Fein as “counter-revolutionary” and it is difficult to disagree with this conclusion because the really serious questions, such as how to evade ecological disaster and eliminate social injustice by replacing “vulture capitalism” with a more rational and egalitarian method of distributing resources, are now being asked outside the party. Republicans need to find a way of engaging with the people who are asking such questions, and only O’Ruairc’s version of the ideology is capable of doing this effectively. That is now the key task, and maybe it is a useful topic for O’Ruairc’s next book. I hope so.
Liam O’Ruairc, 2019. Peace or Pacification? Northern Ireland After the Defeat of the IRA - Zero Books. ISBN-13: 978-1789041279
⏩ Dr Mark Hayes is Senior Lecturer in Human Sciences, Solent University, Southampton.