Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Brian Hanley & Scott Millar's "The Lost Revolution": Book Review

How Fenians turned leftists, and then split into militants and paramilitaries, one faction campaigning, the other operatives bankrobbing, to bring about a 32-County Socialist Republic sounds familiar. But this isn't the Sinn Féin and IRA most know (at least outside Ireland). The Provisionals, who took the media and then political spotlight, split in 1969-70 from the original, then-Marxist republicans, who were forced to call themselves Officials, but their put-down as Sticks or Stickies soon stuck (the way they wore their Easter lily pin) while Pinheads for their soon-to-be bitter rivals more than cousins never did. Brian Hanley's written a fine history of the earlier IRA, in its humbled incarnation 1926-36 after it fell from power after the Civil War and the rise of its enemies as the Free State. So, he and journalist Scott Millar possess the acumen and patience necessary to finally tell the Official's story, after five years of interviews and research.

As with the IRA in the 20c, victories proved brief and setbacks long-lived. The narrative recalls the years of regrouping after the failure of Operation Harvest, a futile late-1950s guerrilla action in the North of Ireland. Leaders entertained a political wing to accompany the traditional "physical-force" strategy. Gradually, as British-trained Communists and radicals coalesced around a Dublin-based core of believers, the 1960s found republicans involved in civil rights, resistance to British and foreign-owned businesses and property holders, and causes that placed the activists more and more on Ireland's tiny far-left, even as many republicans carried the considerable counterweight of Catholic dogma.

The dense details add up, and livelier sections of this study retell stories that any student of Irish history the past half-century will know well. However, as the perspective's for once not from the predominant Provo-oriented side, it's fresher even if often familiar. The shift in the angle reveals how bitter the Official-Provo feuds became, and how the momentum early in the 70s lay with the OIRA, given their strength in numbers and more coherent, if increasingly far-left rhetoric. This politically correct, undeviating, relentlessly logical mindset doubtless alienated more than it wooed.

The logic of their Communist and Marxist ideology led the Officials to oppose the elevation of the cause of the hunger strikers (four of whom started off with the Officials before their second split that led to the INLA-IRSP formation not long into the 70s), to back the RUC and state security forces against the Provos (despite inevitable cooperation between some republicans however unapproved during most of the Troubles), and backed by a British Communist "two-nation theory," the argument that the British community in the North had as much right to political determination of their future as did the island's Catholic majority. How this was sold to the largely native, pro-republican community, angered and turning to tit-for-tat sectarianism in revenge and self-defense however politically incorrect, remains despite this six-hundred-page study largely a mystery.

That is, I wondered how the Officials in their Sinn Féin-the Workers' Party stage (they also articulated a stagist model that argued to support the British presence for now, so as to better overthrow it come the impending dawn of Irish working-class socialism later), managed to convince their cadres, to get the vote out (often 1-2% of the total in the 26 Counties but enough by the early '80s on Ireland's preferential system to earn them up to seven representatives in the Dáil or Irish parliament, and a chance to topple one coalition), and to motivate so few to do so much for so long against what I expect were very long odds indeed.

Millar and Hanley do their best to keep the anecdotes coming, analyze the manifestoes, scour the press, and talk to the participants, their enemies, and their often rather befuddled neighbors and colleagues and recruits. And in an era when global capital appears to have won despite its own internal schisms and lack of compassion, it's bracing to read again such as Cathal Goulding after Allende's overthrow: "At what point in history was it ever possible to say to the power hungry and the rich: stop, you have had enough. You cannot ask the tiger for mercy." (267)

The Officials did perpetuate, from the 60s on, the image of the hairy-git, the dismal tract and the stolid placard-waving march. John Arden, a playwright (many intellectuals and journalists passed through their mandated study circles, more it seems in Ireland than graduated from the Provos' "University of Revolution" at such as Long Kesh prison) lamented (as he was expelled as were many progressive idealists who couldn't put up with the Leninist discipline and the Stalinist tendencies for "democratic centralism") how these politically ambitious comrades would soon be in Leinster House, "talking big and keeping quiet," while there they'd find "many masters of your craft already seated in the Dáil ready and willing to instruct your apprentice legislators." (249-250). This ambition to enter the political structures of the Irish (and Northern Irish) establishment distinguished them from their Provo rivals, who disdained this treason, at least for a few decades.

As the years went on, the Official IRA was shunted underground; by 1977 or so, the military wing had its feathers trimmed by the political Sinn Féiners who sought Protestant support for their non-sectarian platform. This naturally distanced themselves from the Catholic republican alliance, but it did win them (a few) converts from across the sectarian divide. Most republicans clung to their guns, so the Officials had a hard time convincing their "natural" constituency to surrender their ancestral and communal loyalties to Fenian identity.

In the aftermath of the Workers' Party (who dropped Sinn Féin as the vestige of an unwanted legacy) breakthough into the Dáil as kingmakers in the early 80s, they faltered. They backed an oil refinery in Dublin Bay and mocked environmentalists. They idolized industry but baited tax-dodging farmers. Their principled opposition to Provisional pieties and the cult of the hunger strikers (as they denigrated or downplayed it) made it imperative that they replace their republican base, dwindling, with a wider leftist one across Ireland. Paul Bew and Henry Patterson noted in '83 how the WP had been "reduced to a hard core of support in Catholic areas" of the North even as it continued to "expose the gap between the verbose professions of generosity and non-sectarianism of both constitutional and non-constitutional nationalism and the rather seamy reality." (499)

This sordidness also defined the Provos' one-time comrades turned enemies more than estranged relatives. Even if "special activities" of what internal WP documents called "Group B" occluded the role of the OIRA, everyone knew of their continued existence, and their threats backed up with guns, forgery, counterfeiting, and deals that led to North Korean, Soviet and Iraqi (in the regime of Saddam Hussein) skulduggery. The theories expounded by the WP drove them to oppose Solidarity, praise Kim Il-Sung, and condemn the Hungarians who rose up against tanks in 1956. The Officials were unbending leftists, who pitilessly conducted their own purges, secret trials, doublespeak, and endless self-correction. They bowed to state socialists as totalitarians-- against the rebels and dissidents; so they seemed, as the Cold War ended, to risk derision.

Paddy Woodward, in 1991 as the Officials' beloved USSR collapsed, critiqued the WP's groupthink. The OIRA to their credit gave up their futile military campaign (if not their criminality) but they perpetuated among their co-conspirators their fatal "cult of authoritarianism, the fetish for discipline," which however necessary for a paramilitary wing, poisoned their political balance. Woodward noted how the party was seen as too Communist: "rigid, hard, masculine," and their expansion into what the party pitched as their PR move to entice the "white-collar, professional, female house-owning sector" appeared limited. (566)

The internal contradictions tore the movement apart. As socialism's appeal dimmed and post-glasnost capitalism glowed, the appeal of the WP appeared miniscule. Scandals tore apart the few remaining after yet another split, the Democratic Left party, and by the end of this long march, the few remaining inspire less sympathy than they do detachment. The WP could not detach itself from its own thuggery that accompanied its slogans. Read this and remember the deaths of such fellow Irish, workers and children, those whom the party and the army claimed to liberate: Good Samaritan Sammy Llewellyn, census taker Patricia Mathers, ten-year-old bomb victim Kevin McMenamin, six-year-old Eileen Kelly shot instead of her father; the Provos apologized afterwards. They had meant to kill her Official father in one of thousands of score-settling feuds.

As often elsewhere in documenting the contradictory course of republican justification over the past forty years, ex-PIRA participant-observer Anthony McIntyre's here cited. This book nears its end with his prescient 29 October 2002 obituary in The Blanket:
the seeming losers in those feuds – the Officials – must be sitting wryly observing that, body counts apart, they ultimately came out on top. We, who wanted to kill them – because they argued to go into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the RUC, uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who disagreed with them – are now forced to pretend that somehow we are really different from them; that they were incorrigible reformists while we were incorruptible revolutionaries; that killing them had some major strategic rationale. And all the while the truth ‘sticks’ in our throats. They beat us to it – and started the peace process first. (598-599)
This history remains a welcome contribution. Many pages I admit did dull me with diligent records of bickering and revenge, pedantry and platforms, but as with any political entity, these first-hand findings deserve inclusion. These depict the applauded activity (and shadowy skulduggery) of those who aspire to power.

What I wondered is how convinced the less heralded members of the OIRA and WP were of the imminent revolution, the takeover of the island, the fact that victory could be theirs despite woeful ballot results and their increasing military and then political marginalization. Leaders are often quoted from the party, ideologues and speechmakers, but the voices of the volunteer, the canvasser, the prisoner, the recruit, as perhaps with any such organization, lurk more in the anonymous quotes, the quieter sense of rueful vengeance and youthful dreaming.

The index is slightly incomplete, but typos are nearly absent; the compilation of details and the attention to primary sources represents a lasting work. So many books about and by the Provos crowd the shelves. Now, we have one substantial study of their common ancestors turned in the course of days or months distant cousins, if still next-door neighbors.

(Here's a recent review on Only a Northern Song which I found after writing mine, as I was searching for McIntyre's original citation. Link to his current blog, The Pensive Quill and to his archived The Blanket. The moment I typed this, the BBC aired a segment on the Real IRA's opposition to the Queen's Irish visit.)

(Posted in condensed form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 4-25-11)

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