AM: Some of the people in leadership, perhaps sincerely, felt that their experience counted for a lot and strove to draw on it to the best of their ability rather than merely advancing their political careers. After all, they had been around from the year dot and had a sense of what was achievable. They tended to think that new blood had not yet had its enthusiasm tempered by cold hard operational experience. You took a different view.
TFW: Indeed. Because their enthusiasm was tempered by their inability to advance the struggle as they were obliged to do so. They resolutely refused to recognise their own failure. We have mentioned Brian Keenan in this regard. After his release he was sitting at the same table looking at the same faces he had been looking at twenty years earlier before he went to jail yet could not grasp just how bankrupt that scenario was. The Irreplaceable mindset at play again, and he must have felt part of that.
AM: Was longevity of position suffocating initiative?
TFW: Absolutely. One army council member told me he knew the IRA inside out and understood what it was not capable of. Fresh faces thought differently and knew what it was capable of. The attitude of that leadership seemed to be we lost the war and we are not going to let anybody else try and win it. They went into negotiations without trying to strengthen their negotiating position.
AM: You make the point that it was perfectly correct to seek to negotiate with the British or seek alliances with potential allies but in doing so all negotiations had to take place within the parameters set down by the Army Constitution, that there had to be limits to what was negotiable. Sovereignty could not be negotiated away if sovereignty was the whole purpose of the armed struggle.
TFW: That was the whole point of the Army Constitution. The Mitchell Principles were a prime example.
AM: Those principles were in essence a total repudiation of the IRA and its methodology. Anyone reading them can easily discern that they were a joint London-Dublin initiative to lock the IRA into an agreement which would itself be ringfenced by the consent principle and by necessity could only result in an internal solution. And this in turn would be firewalled against any possibility of a resumption of the IRA armed struggle. It aimed for the dissolution of the IRA and the decommissioning of its arsenal. It stated it boldly. It is not something that any effort was made to conceal.
TFW: To sign those Principles, Army leaders had to step outside the Army Constitution. They tried to get around this by saying that the IRA was not signing up to anything. This was the type of argument frequently used. Adams would say that it was Gerry Adams, not the Army, taking the decision to sign the principles. If Adams and McGuinness wanted to fall on their own sword that was fine, but they should not have been seeking to put the Army to the sword. That was one major reason the Constitution existed – to protect the Army structure and volunteers from leaders who had been seriously outmaneuvered during negotiations. At the time of the Mitchell Principles the Army released a statement saying it had some problems with what they contained. To me that was the result of McGuinness sitting in a room talking to the British and having them agree to some cobbled up statement from the IRA that would give the leadership room to maneuver – allowing it to argue that it hadn’t really painted itself into a corner. He would have told the British the statement was not a rejection of the Mitchell Principles, merely a ruse to keep the hardliners on board.
AM: Well, if Jonathan Powell was writing leadership statements to be read out at the Ard Fheis – he even joked that he was considering suing Sinn Fein for plagiarism - it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the British approved that IRA statement which on the face of it appeared to throw a spanner in the works of the Mitchell Principles. As I said previously a senior British diplomat told me - in response to my criticism that he and his colleagues had shafted republicans - that republicans had shafted republicans. I assume it was this type of subterfuge and deception that he had in mind.
TFW: That leadership, not the Volunteers, let down or shafted, to use your language, the IRA. Some of them wanted to pursue political careers, others did not want their children to go through what they did. As for the negotiations, if they were outmaneuvered the safety rail of the Constitution was always there to protect both them and the Army, but they didn’t want it.
AM: They wanted to drive without a safety belt and on the wrong side of the road.
TFW: Yes. The danger signs were there. It could be seen through the developing relationship with constitutional nationalism. It was fine to get pan-nationalism on to the republican side, but the leadership was steadily pulled on to the pan nationalist side, saying the same things they were saying, agreeing to their proposals. Constitutional nationalism is where it ended up remaining. Prior to the ceasefire those leaders were saying the Pan Nationalist Front would become a persuader for unity. Once they bagged the ceasefire the role of persuaders just vanished. It was no longer on the agenda of the Pan Nationalist Front. Peace became the goal rather than sovereignty. McGuinness was even saying he would give his life for peace. It was without doubt the most reprehensible comment in eight hundred years of struggle.
AM: But like all the leaders at that level, he managed to avoid giving his life during the war, so the likelihood of having to give it for peace was remote. The trenchant armed struggle advocate and arch critic of the previous leadership’s truce, the man described as the greatest biggest threat to the British state ended up negotiating an internal solution within that state. What would make his statement about being willing to give his life for peace so reprehensible?
TFW: Because it was a gross distortion of the fundamental nature of what our struggle is all about and it was for the sole purpose of rehabilitating himself into the new political order to solidify his career within it. A British peace in Ireland could never be a republican objective.
AM: That was always the republican position – even when the Peace People burst on to the scene, their peace demand was rejected by republicans on the grounds that it was not peace with justice, it was in fact a British peace. Gerry Adams even wrote a pamphlet to that effect, lambasting their demands. In the mix somewhere we have to deal with the fact that several leaders were clearly a protected species and their chances of being killed were diminishing in proportion to their usefulness to the British, who were deploying measures to maximise their survivability. We know this from the Brian Nelson legacy. Ed Moloney has also flagged up the sordid Top Man’s Agreement where there was an arrangement in place between the loyalists and republicans that leaders would be exempt from being targeted by the other side. John Crawley summed this up succinctly when he observed that the prevailing attitude was to survive the war, not to win it.
TFW: That would not make them agents as is often alleged. It is too easy a label to use. The British knew who they were dealing with, experience of them was the controlling factor.
AM: That is true. Often we get the charge that the leadership were made up of touts. That in my view never bore scrutiny. Most probably, there was an element of that somewhere in the mix, particularly in the agent of influence role. We can very easily conceive of a key figure working with Stakeknife so that genuine volunteers would be undermined; side-lined or smeared while some faux inquiry could take place – all to disrupt the Army rhythm; signing off on the execution of people who were either authentic agents or those who the British deemed in the old Kitsonian phrase unwanted members of the public and who were better disposed of. I have never felt Adams and McGuinness were agents of the British. But I guess they did not need to be if they were taking the movement in the direction signposted by the British – internal solution and unity only by consent. Why would the Brits need them as agents if their own interests were dovetailing with those of the Brits? Counterinsurgency strategy has moved on from just shoot the big guy at the front wearing the turban. If it could have the big guy at the front move matters in a direction conducive to the overall goal of counterinsurgency, it would be counterproductive to shoot him.
TFW: The focus should be less on the role of the agent and more on a combination of bad political strategy and no military strategy alongside no integration of both. Stating peace was the objective rather than sovereignty handed the advantage to the British. The Movement entered negotiations with Hume-Adams as their bottom line. But Hume-Adams was so weak that it had to be hidden from everybody.
AM: I recall declining to attend a march in support of Hume-Adams on the grounds that I did not know what it was I was supposed to be marching for.
TFW: They were now signalling that the issues raised in Hume-Adams were the core reason the IRA was at war, which was untrue. Hume-Adams was far removed from why the war was fought. The Army leadership once it endorsed Hume-Adams was in total breach of its own Constitution and the fundamental tenets of Irish republicanism: the bread-and-butter stuff. The army leaders tasked with conducting the negotiations wanted to be free from the constraints of the Constitution. While John Crawley in his book talks of the military illiteracy of Martin McGuinness we have to go further and look at just how that translated into political illiteracy as well. The exemption those negotiators secured for themselves is what allowed them to negotiate a very politically illiterate non-republican outcome.
AM: Internal solution is not spelt the same way as sovereignty. It is very legible and you would need to be illiterate to not see that. But Gerry Adams was politically and strategically savvy even if Martin McGuinness was not. Adams knew where it was going so it was more by calculation on his part than the result of illiteracy. What immediately leaps out at me is that if Hume didn’t fight the war to secure what was in Hume-Adams, there was no good reason for Adams to have fought it. And he did fight it, winning the admiration of many within the ranks for the risks he took on a daily basis during the early and most intense phase of the armed conflict.
TFW: The volunteers knew why the war was fought. The first ceasefire only ended to quell opposition in the ranks or on the back benches, if you like, a parliamentary phrase McGuinness utilised. There was no cavalcade through West Belfast when the second one was called. By this time people had realised there was no declaration of intent by the British to withdraw. How the Army was actually at the table when the core aim was not on the table is the result of the Constitution being sidestepped. Constitutional nationalism was actually asking for more in the New Ireland Forum than the leadership negotiators. As I said earlier, who would die for Fianna Fail? Yet Fianna Fail and the others in the Constitutional nationalist camp were asking for more.
AM: Volunteers were not being asked to risk their lives for less - that was hidden from them. They were never told that the goalposts had been shifted. What they were being asked to risk their lives for had been taken off the table by the same leaders that were asking them to risk their lives. To describe such leaders' directives to volunteers as thoroughly reprehensible is probably an understatement. It is impossible not to notice how much the Army Constitution figures in your analysis. It is something you are at pains to revisit when we discuss how implacable opponents of the internal solution ended up negotiating it and then becoming inveterate defenders of that solution against any republican who had found fault in it.
TFW: It is important to remember that the Army Executive did not view the Constitution as a holy grail. It was more of a white line in the middle of the road. Yes, there were points where the Army would have move across that line and speed up for the purposes of overtaking but never to drive the entire journey on the wrong side of the road.
AM: What was the role of the Army Executive?
TFW: Look at it as you might a Supreme Court. It concerned itself with constitutional matters internal to the Army. It decided if any move was in line with the Constitution. And where it was not in line with the Constitution, the Executive was to act as a brake. The Executive was charged with being the custodians of the Constitution. Brian Keenan would shout nobody fucks with the constitution of Óglaigh na hÉireann, a remark he made the first time I met him, yet he was supporting every breach of it. The Executive has to be a standalone body that can function without the approval of the Army Council. In this situation the Army Council was telling the Army Executive to get lost and that it was going to do its own thing never mind the Constitution. In most countries the rulings of a Supreme Court are observed by governments. We had a situation here where the Army’s supreme court, the custodian of the constitution, was effectively told we don’t care for your role or rulings and if you don’t like it vote us out. Nobody would claim on behalf of the Executive that its members were legal authorities, but they were the most seasoned and experienced volunteers available to the Army and they had a serious function but were ignored. I’m not trying to reduce the argument to a technical point but the sidestepping of the Army Constitution was one factor to explaining the original question as to why so much was given away in return for so little.
AM: I feel that historians revisiting the era are going to find that observation more and more challenging – how so little was secured compared to the lives lost on all sides, time spent in prison, families ripped apart. Ultimately, the sidestepping of the Constitution was a total contempt for the army and the volunteers.
TFW: A total contempt for republican objectives as well. They would try to find historical parallels for their stance, claiming that Sean Garland had been given exemption in order to join the British Army. Garland was infiltrating the British Army rather than joining it but that was lost on them. The new buzz word was ‘special dispensation’, a catch-all phrase that the Army Constitution made no provision for, but that leadership viewed as a licence to do what it pleased.
AM: You said above that the leadership had decided that it had lost the war but was not prepared to allow anybody else to try and win it. Do you think they were telling the British that they had accepted this defeat and were inviting the British to give them a way out that might save face?
TFW: The leadership might not have said the war is over and we need your help – remember that particular statement? But that is the message that it wanted to be communicated to the British. Once that happened the British knew they had the leadership in check and after that it was a matter of moving the pieces for checkmate. Bobby Fisher said many years ago that once you know where checkmate is you just work your way back and get all the pieces in position to make it happen. The acceptance of the PSNI and the promoting of the equality agenda, all of this was the checkmate of the internal solution working itself out.
AM: Some of the more candid amongst those who remained in the Movement but who were not beguiled by the leadership dissembling felt that the armed campaign had reached the end of the line, it had run out of road.
TFW: Nonsense. It suited the leadership’s point of view to portray the armed struggle as stagnant just as Michael Collins used that scenario to justify his acceptance of the Treaty terms in 1922. As John’s book has demonstrated the armed struggle had much more operational potential if only its leadership took their own responsibilities more seriously. I have spoken of the complete absence of a military strategy, which is damning in itself, but there was also something else missing; political targets for that military strategy to reach.
In one of the many and welcomed comments on the series the notion of the ‘impossiblist agenda’ was raised concerning the IRA and its core objective but that precludes the strategic possibility of interim objectives, both military and political being reached. A truly integrated strategy.
AM: Something to be explored further in our next outing.
⏩ The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British.
⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre
⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre