The Irish Republican Army was long considered by uk and us authorities as one of the most efficient and deadly terrorist groups in the Western world. It was responsible for almost half the 3,600 deaths in the conflict that raged in Northern Ireland for thirty years, from the 1960s to the 1990s. The ira killed British Army soldiers and security forces; it killed civilians, both Protestant and Catholic. It operated not only in Ireland, on both sides of the border, but also in Britain and further afield. Its armed strategy was justified, in the eyes of its supporters, by its ultimate goal: the reunification of Ireland, putting an end to centuries of Anglo-British rule. It saw itself as the heir of the ‘old ira’—the first guerrilla army of the 20th century to achieve at least a qualified victory against the mighty British Empire. Thanks in part, at least, to the ira’s role in the 1919–21 war of independence, the uk’s oldest colony became only the second, after the us, to gain its independence—at a price. Under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the island was partitioned and both territories, the 26-county Irish Free State and 6-county Northern Ireland, granted a degree of autonomy. While the South, step by step, asserted its sovereignty and declared itself a Republic in 1948, the North remained within the Union; power and privilege within the province were firmly retained by the Protestant elite.
Yet the ira never relented in pursuit of its objective—a free, independent, reunified Ireland. Building upon the Northern Ireland civil-rights movement of the 1960s, it waged a protracted armed campaign that kept the British Army in check for thirty years, not winning, but not losing either. And while both British and Irish authorities qualified the ira’s activities as terrorist, significant numbers of people in Northern Ireland supported those they saw as young idealists or community defenders. Eventually, seven years after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, the ira decommissioned its weapons in the summer of 2005 and stated that its military campaign was over. This was subsequently confirmed by the Commission set up to monitor paramilitary activities. Nevertheless, the shadow of the ira lingers on. To this day, its Army Council is accused by political opponents of influencing the leadership of Sinn Féin, the lineal descendant of Ireland’s historic pro-independence party, and it continues to haunt Ireland’s collective memory. Its long history and central role in the Troubles still raise questions that have yet to be answered about the existence of such an anomalous political force within a European context: its resilience, its ideology, its ability to draw in new recruits and to sustain the level of support that its very presence required.
Daniel Finn, in One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the ira , sets out to analyse the troubled history of Irish republicans. Revisiting the history of the ira now is a bold project, as the author joins a long line of writers who have grappled with these issues. Two books by journalists, Dublin-based Tim Pat Coogan’s The ira and the American John Bowyer Bell’s The Secret Army, both released in 1970 and subsequently updated, were notable early interventions. Patrick Bishop, a Daily Telegraph war correspondent, and Eamonn Mallie, a Belfast radio reporter, followed with The Provisional ira (1987). In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, Ed Moloney, Northern Ireland editor of the Irish Times, produced A Secret History of the ira (2002), drawing on his discussions with its high-ranking figures. The following year, Richard English’s Armed Struggle (2003) was the first attempt at an exhaustively researched overview by a professional historian and political scientist. However, the complexity of the organization demands a continuing reassessment, renewing our knowledge with fresh approaches, analytical frameworks and perspectives. Different aspects of the ira’s strategy during the Troubles and the peace process are still regularly scrutinized by political scientists, historians and specialists of the conflict.
None of these, however, has analysed the fluctuating relationship between radical left-wing movements and the ira. This is what Daniel Finn’s book does, and does remarkably well. His chosen lens allows One Man’s Terrorist to offer a new perspective on this well-trodden narrative. From the outset, the ira was constrained by a rigid set of strategies that had been elevated to the status of principles, making straightforward ideological choices all the more fraught both among its rank-and-file members and within its military high command. Was the republican movement to aim at social transformation as well as national independence, basing itself on the all-Ireland working class? Or should it retain a more consensual approach to the national question, seeking to bring broader conservative forces on board? These tensions were already at play in the statement that James Connolly is believed to have made to his daughter, on the eve of the 1916 Easter Rising: ‘The socialists will never understand why I am here; they will all forget that I am an Irishman.’
One Man’s Terrorist provides a swift and efficient synopsis of the first fifty years of the ira’s existence. Following Sinn Féin’s victory in the 1918 election, the ira became a central protagonist in the war of independence. But after Sinn Féin split over acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and partition, the ira was on the losing side of the ensuing 1922–23 civil war. Sinn Féin, too, was reduced to a shadow, as one set of its leaders after another—most notably Éamon de Valera, who quit Sinn Féin to establish the Fianna Fáil party in 1926—accommodated themselves to operating within the states established by the Treaty. ‘Abstentionism’ from electoral participation became a point of principle for the small group of ira leaders who remained dedicated to the fight for an all-Ireland republic.
Through the bleak years of the 1930s and 40s, however adverse the circumstances, the ira never completely left the stage. Its attempts in the 1930s to reinvent itself by mounting a left-wing challenge to the political establishment of the Irish Free State fell flat; some of its members left to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1950s, as national-independence ‘winds of change’ blew through the colonial world, a new generation of ira militants—Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Cathal Goulding among them—tried to rekindle the movement with bomb attacks on border police posts. But there was little public appetite for armed struggle, and the leadership was forced to reckon with the question of how to win popular support. The failure of the 1956–62 border campaign, which Finn correctly describes as a watershed in the ira’s history, prompted the new leadership (Goulding was now Chief of Staff) to make a turn towards open political engagement. The goal, in Finn’s summary, was to organize a mass movement among workers and small farmers that could overthrow the two Irish states, North and South, and replace them with an all-Ireland socialist republic.
The new road map was meant to anchor the connection between republicanism and socialism and resolve once and for all the meandering route that the ira had travelled since the 1920s, which had led to an impasse. Goulding’s left turn recruited some bold young thinkers such as Roy Johnson and Anthony Coughlan. But suspicions among the old-guard members ran high. This was uncharted territory and, for the ‘dwindling core of faithful activists’, potentially divisive, raising the spectre of a de Valera-style political compromise. The new strategy was further complicated by the simmering sectarian tensions in the North and the rise of a radical civil-rights movement, challenging the Unionist government’s systematic discrimination against Catholics, especially working-class Catholics, in the fields of housing, employment and the franchise. Finn paints a vivid picture of the range of forces brought together in the nicra, the civil-rights campaign, alongside the Derry housing-action group and the student radicals of People’s Democracy. But as he points out, Goulding and his fellow leaders had failed to factor in the radicalizing Unionist response and the rise of Protestant paramilitary groups. In 1968 nicra marches were baton-charged by the Unionist police force, the ruc, and attacked with iron bars and cudgels by loyalist counter-mobilizations. Rioting broke out and no-go areas sprang up in Derry and Belfast. In August 1969, the Wilson government sent in the British Army. A force ranging from 17,000 to over 20,000 troops would remain there until 2007.