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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