Friday, December 11, 2009

Henry McDonald's "Gunsmoke & Mirrors": Book Review

The blurb makes this book sound more like first-person interviews with IRA men. It's not that personal. See my review of his earlier memoir, "Colours," for a more intimate take on growing up among the Official IRA, the Marxist wing (aka Sticks, Stickies) as well as other Northern Irish cultural and political contexts.

As with that book, McDonald here moves rapidly over similar terrain, inevitably. The strength lies in comparisons and contrasts with current Islamist and Third World "liberation front" parallels alleged and asserted by forty years of Irish "freedom fighters." For McDonald, this belies the cant, the hyperbole, and the sheer falsehood of "dressing up defeat as victory." Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA, he insists, could have talked to the real "British presence," the Unionists, and settled their differences in the mid-'70s. Instead, their current leaders bullied any who sought by federalism or power-sharing what was decried as a "sop to loyalists"-- those on the ground kept fighting, killing, dying, and being locked up for their cause. Meanwhile, those now in charge of Sinn Féin were those who had been secretly moving towards compromise even as their public attitude remained "United Ireland" and nothing short of "Brits out."

The subtitle, "how Sinn Féin dressed up defeat as victory," sums up the argument. The chapters, as with "Colours," may confuse those less knowledgeable with the intricacies of the past fifty years, or a hundred, of Irish republican and Ulster British history, infighting, and politicking. On the siding of the British far-left with the more thuggish factions of "liberators" everywhere against the Evil Empires of America and Britain, McDonald, who has depicted in "Colours" his own youthful observations from behind the GDR as a Marxist activist, finds that "the common denominator here has always been the wish to see their own country defeated and humiliated alongside a perverse sense of siding with one group simply for the sake of being contrary to a given consensus." (46) Kim Il Sung and genocidal Serbs become glorious leaders against imperial tyranny. He also notes that some on the left think through realpolitik more soberly: "From Ireland they have learnt a valuable lesson: just because a movement which is principally nationalist and by its actions at least latently sectarian wraps itself up in the trendy garb of 'anti-imperialism', that doesn't necessarily make it progressive." (51)

The strength of this brisk book lies in such remarks. Those on the Irish struggle and its cessation, often, prove less clear and often too convoluted in their presentation, out of chronological order; the chapters seem often bursts of insight mixed with journalism blended into opinion, all jumbled. The legacy left by Adams' former comrade, the late Brendan ("the Dark") Hughes emerges most poignantly as a principled man who refused to back down from his own opposition to the duplicity that the current Sinn Féin leadership has pursued in its grab for power in the Northern statelet and the Southern state that it once vowed to smash, and replace. The use of arms to force Irish unity had been rejected by those in earlier stages of the IRA, and now, after 3,500 dead, those in the IRA did the same. Sounds admirable, but the problem was that those same IRA members and those in Sinn Féin refused, for so long, to reveal that they meant to give in, and they kept leading those under them into streets and prisons to do their dirty work, unable as the leaders were able to admit the contradictions of their deadly, radical chic, mindset.

Critiques by McDonald can hit their target. He's often efficiently cutting in citing Adams and Co. nowadays spouting what their earlier selves vowed never to utter. He's also wicked in juxtaposing pious nods to Fenian verities that the party keeps reciting to a dwindling band of believers that 2016 will somehow magically result in a united Republic. Yet, after a couple hundred rapidly written pages of this reportage, one wonders what the Irish north and south should do next, other than not voting SF. It's hard to say who'd welcome this book outside of dissident or opposing readers as suspicious of the Adams-McGuinness-Morrison triumvirate as many Irish voters, after all, have been. That is, for an international reader, this may not be the first book to pick up on the collapse of the Fenian physical-force tradition as Provoism marches alongside Paisleyism, in McDonald's wry formula.

Still, for the attention to the posturing long indulged in by progressives eager to ally dubiously undemocratic causes abroad with the Provos, this take, from one raised in the Officials' more pro-British, socialist, and working-class tradition (not one without its own contradictions, as McDonald notes) can be instructive. He parallels the Workers Party manifesto from 1982 with recent pronouncements by Adams to deadly effect, to show how what the Provos once shot people to death for proposing now becomes policy for those sharing power in Stormont and earning their salaries from the Crown's coffers. (Posted to Amazon US 11-11-09)

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