Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Gunsmoke and Mirrors, by Henry McDonald


Article by Michael Carley

The film Hunger, the first directed by artist Steve McQueen, has  recently won praise for its portrayal of the death of Bobby Sands, who  died in May 1981, as a result of a hunger strike in pursuit of  political status, the final act of a protest that had started four  years previously with paramilitary prisoners refusing to wear prison  uniforms. While the film has been justly praised for its cinematic  qualities, and for the performances of the actors in it, it is  politically important for a conversation between Sands and a priest  clearly based on Father Denis Faul.

The fictional (?) conversation between the two men rehearses the  arguments about the hunger strike and makes claims you are unlikely to  find in the hagiographies of Sands and the other hunger strikers. The  first is the implication that, after four years of living in filth,  the prisoners were no longer rational; the second is that Sands,  self-indulgently, wanted to die so that he could die for Ireland.  After Sands’ death, the hunger strikers entered the republican  pantheon and the IRA campaign of terror continued for another thirteen  years before the first ceasefire which eventually led to the  power-sharing agreement under which the IRA’s political front accepted  British rule and now shares power with the most intransigent of  unionists.

The established view today is that the Northern Ireland settlement  gives republicans access to power, removing the need for violent  political struggle for the recognition of the rights of nationalists.

The problem with this view, as Henry McDonald establishes, is that it  is utterly wrong: the IRA lost. What it has gained, it could have had  thirty-five years ago. It has achieved nothing of its declared  programme.

The book is part of an argument that has been going on inside  republicanism since Sinn Féin and the IRA split, with the `Official’ wing moving towards relatively conventional class-based politics and  the Provisionals sticking to the line of winning Irish unity through  violence.

McDonald, though anti-Provisional IRA, is not a Unionist or an  apologist for Britain in Northern Ireland, but a left-wing journalist  from a republican background who grew up rejecting Provo violence and  forming part of the resolutely anti-sectarian Belfast punk scene (read  his memoir Colours). His book takes the Provisionals seriously: he has  read what the IRA said it wanted.

A phrase of Bobby Sands’ has featured often over the last few years:  `let our revenge be the laughter of our children’. As McDonald notes,  it is `a tug at the heartstrings’; it is also, however, `a fog to  cover a major political shift. Where once the volunteers fought, and  sometimes died, for such concrete goals as a United Ireland or a  32-County Democratic Socialist Republic, now all the sacrifices and  slaughter will be worth it in the end when we all return to the garden of our childhood.’ In other words, the IRA gave up and settled for  British rule. As the mother of the dead INLA hunger striker Patsy  O’Hara tells McDonald: `My Patsy didn’t die so that [Sinn Féin] can  walk into Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly]. He died for the  republic.’

One year after the hunger strike, Sinn Féin took part in elections for  a Northern Ireland Assembly. Their slogan was `Brits out! Sinn Féin  in!’ In 1991, the Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture included the  unambiguous statement that the hunger strikes `marked the beginning of  the end of British rule in Ireland.’ Today, Sinn Féin participates in  a British Assembly (it has never held power in the Republic of  Ireland), oversees health and education and demands an improvement in  the grant to Northern Ireland from Westminster.

So they have seen sense, you think, and good for them. The problem is  that they could have had much of this in the early seventies. Instead,  they conducted a violent and futile campaign of sectarian murder, as  well as carrying out vendettas against those who thought then what the  Provos think now. The resulting destruction only embittered further  the people of Northern Ireland, as well as bringing mayhem down on the  Catholic population the IRA claimed to be defending. As far as the  military prowess of the Provos goes, McDonald has done the reading for  us. The republican movement has produced a book of tributes to its ~364  fallen after 1969. At least seventy did not die as a direct result of  violence. Of the rest, about as many were killed by their own weapons  (34%) as by the British Army (40%). Less than twelve were killed by  loyalist paramilitaries. One of those killed by his own bomb is described by his obituarist as having a singing voice which `brought  the house down’.

The myth of the dedicated urban guerilla had a strong hold on sections  of the left in Ireland and the UK. While McDonald has obvious respect  and sometimes affection for the people he speaks to, and believes that  many of them have suffered in a cause which they now recognize to have  been futile, he does not indulge the Provos, nor does he let their  cheerleaders off the hook. The naiveté and stupidity are frankly  shameful. They can also be quite funny. In 1975, People’s Democracy  mocked the IRA for negotiating with Britain. In response, the organs  of republicanism denounced them as `armchair revolutionaries’ who made  sure they were far from any fighting. After some grim talk about being  ready for any fight that might be forced on them, the Sinn Féin  organizer for Northern Ireland invited a PD leader to address IRA  volunteers. After the speech, the organizer explained that the local  IRA could not break the ceasefire since their leadership was requiring  them to keep it. On the other hand, if he cared to pass on names and  addresses, he would see to it that People’s Democracy could have all  the weapons it needed. The PD leader, visibly panicked, bottled it.

The British left was no better: I still come across English people who  seem to believe that the IRA is or was fighting off imperialism with a  rusty musket and the devoted support of the peasants and  workers. McDonald anatomizes the fellow travellers and sneaking  regarders who believed in advancing the revolution by shooting workers  for their religion. The theory, such as they were pleased to call it,  was that defeat for British imperialism in Ireland would lead to the  revolution in London, c.f. Angola and Portugal. While McDonald  discusses this in terms of what Orwell identified as the need of some  on the left to see their own country humiliated, I think he misses a  trick. The violence in Northern Ireland came out of the brutal  repression of the Civil Rights movement when Catholics protested their  right to be treated like British citizens. There were explicit links  made with the Civil Rights movement in the USA and the Vietnam War was  still on. For those on the English left who could not go on Freedom  Rides through St Albans or burn their draft cards outside Basingstoke  Marine Corps induction centre, Paddy made a perfect proxy Negro cum  NLF guerilla, ripe for having his rights defended or his struggle  honoured.

But you can’t trust the Micks. The Revolutionary Communist Party, many  of whose former members now occupy leading positions in universities  and journalism, was a mad cult whose view of the IRA ceasefire in 1994  was that the peace process was `an act of continued British rule’. Of  course, it was exactly that, because the IRA had realized they could  not win. McDonald’s list of Labour MPs who really should have known  better includes Ken Livingstone and John MacDonnell, nominated for the  award for author of the `most idiotic utterance ever made by a  politician anywhere in relation to Northern Ireland’s Troubles.’

To some degree, much of this is of specialist interest: it is unlikely  that Northern Ireland will return to terrorism and the retired gunmen  now seem more interested in ordinary organized crime than on the  republic. The importance of the book to those who do not have a  particular interest in Irish affairs is in its relation to  now. McDonald describes the `mini growth industry’ of Irish  politicians and superannuated bombers travelling the world to teach  people in other countries how to get along and make a deal. This can only  happen because of the dishonest view of the Irish `peace process’  which has been accepted as fact. If any lessons are to be taken from  what has happened in Northern Ireland, we should at least try to be  clear about what has really happened.

Finally, the same indulgence to savages that the English left showed  the IRA is being shown to Iraqi and Afghan fighters. McDonald compares (some of) the left’s indulgence of misogynist, repressive murderers to  that its indulgence of the murderers in Northern Ireland. He is a  touch unfair here—many of us on the left opposed the Iraq and  Afghanistan wars without feeling the need to defend or `understand’  beheadings—but he has a point. It is well to be reminded that this  is not the first time self-declared socialists could find a good word  for sectarians.

Gill & MacMillan Ltd, 256 pp, ISBN: 978-0717142989

7 comments on “Gunsmoke and Mirrors, by Henry McDonald

  1. Moira
    January 29, 2009

    Those are fascinating statistics about the ~364 ‘fallen’ Michael.

    A powerful, thought-provoking and obviously deeply felt review … and very timely, in the light of the Eames Report (sorry – can’t think for the moment what the proper title of the thing is … something lumpen … but you know what I mean …).

    Thank you.

  2. Jackie
    January 29, 2009

    I think that too much emphasis is on “the IRA lost” as if it was a football game with guns. While it does seem as if they capitulated, it could also be that they wanted to try a more peaceful means of resolving the struggle, to work from outside in. They had never really stuck to a cease fire long enough before to see if it could work, that’s what I think is happening now. Also, about the time the treaty took hold, world viewpoint was changing on acts of violence, it was no longer a folk hero but a ‘terrorist’ doing them. Though nothing had actually changed but the label.
    The IRA has not given up their dream of a republic, I’m sure it still simmers beneath the surface and as with any group like that, I can see them getting in a huff & abandoning the treaty, though I really hope they don’t. The fact that there is somewhat more equal rights for Catholics in the North now is probably the biggest reason the violence doesn’t flare up again.
    To refute McDonald’s theory of “indulgence of the left”: it’s entirely possible to be in favor of the aims of revolutionary groups without approving of their methods.

  3. Michael Carley
    January 29, 2009

    The reason for emphasizing that the IRA `lost’ is that it means that the `armed struggle’ was futile: the people who died, innocent or otherwise, died for nothing. As Ruairi O’Bradaigh put it, once the IRA had accepted partition in 1986, there was no reason to continue bombing.

    As for being in favour of the aims of revolutionary groups, part of the left was indulgent of the Provos and ignored its politics. The IRA was not, and is not, `revolutionary’. Its politics are deeply conservative and often reactionary (there is no disagreement with the DUP on the extension of legalized abortion to Northern Ireland) and Sinn Fein is now well-funded by US business. It has swallowed the line of deregulation and `wealth generation’ which has (supposedly) brought about the Irish boom.

    Methods arise from principles. If the left wanted to support `revolutionary’ groups in Northern Ireland, there were other groups with politics similar to Sinn Fein’s who did not think that shooting Protestant workers for their religion was the way to advance the cause; there were, and are, groups with genuinely left-wing, or `revolutionary’, politics who try to take part in broad, non-sectarian activity. The problem for the Provos is that they claim(ed) to be republican, i.e. non-sectarian, but their methods showed them to be otherwise.

  4. Hilary
    January 29, 2009

    It is hard to know how to react to such an iconoclastic, plainly argued and challenging piece as this, except to thank you for it, sincerely. It has shed a light on my meagre and confused thoughts and feelings about the peace process and the current dispensation (that ubiquitous photograph of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness laughing together after being sworn in – I have been completely unable to articulate any sensible reaction to it, until now, possibly).

  5. Shay Begorrah
    October 29, 2009

    This is a bit after the fact but McDonald’s credential as a leftist are a little tenuous. He is a deeply reactionary figure who has turned against Chavez, the Palestinians and was unambiguously for the invasion of Iraq (he has described it, amusingly, as the “liberation” of Iraq.) – all essentially because republicans took the opposite position.

    The Sunningdale agreement might well have ended the NI conflict fifteen years early but it was, notably, not Republicans who brought it down and McDonald’s analysis of the war in Northern Ireland is very much that of the modern “decent left”, essentially more opposed to struggle than to injustice.

    No doubt McDonald never came across a colonial situation he could not support, somehow.

  6. paraffinalia
    October 29, 2009

    Being wrong about Iraq doesn’t make you wrong about Ireland. McDonald’s analysis of the self-indulgence of the Provos and their sneaking regarders is about right. They did carry out atrocities in support of a cause which they have now abandoned, while declaring victory. Sunningdale being brought down by one bunch of reactionaries doesn’t excuse the other bunch.

    The jibe about the `decent left’ is correct: there are plenty of people who like to think of themselves as left-wing (on identity politics, mainly) without having to support a struggle, but that is not the same thing as saying there is no anti-sectarian left which sees class as more important than religion (c.f. Eamonn McCann).

  7. Shay Begorrah
    May 25, 2010

    Just to reiterate McDonald’s analysis of northern politics is a right wing one.

    If one disagrees with him about every other major international issue (Iraq, Israel, Colombia) but agree with him and disagree with much of international leftism on the north then it might be time for a period of self examination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on January 29, 2009 by in Non-fiction: current affairs, Non-fiction: history.



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: