The Spectator‘s Alex Massie penned an article last Tuesday entitled: “Jeremy Corbyn should not be allowed to rewrite the history of his support for the IRA”. Corbyn’s association with Sinn Féin – the political wing of the now-decommissioned (Provisional) Irish Republican Army – is a common line of attack used against him by his opponents. Whilst it is true that Corbyn has been happy to meet with representatives of Sinn Féin throughout his political career, what does this actually mean in context?
Last Friday afternoon, I attempted to submit a comment underneath Massie’s article on the Spectator‘s website in order to respond to some of the assertions he had made therein, but comments to the site must first undergo a filtering process before being published and it appears their censors were reluctant to publish mine.
My comment remained pending for a number of hours before being deleted completely from the Disqus commenting system employed by the site. No big deal – it is their website, after all, and I’m not entitled to use it as a platform – but I did think it odd.
Did what I had written threaten their bubble of pontification so much that they could permit over three-hundred other comments (albeit mainly anti-Corbyn in nature) but felt a pressing need to suppress mine? Did my challenge to the prevailing consensus and attempt to stimulate some alternative discourse pose too much of a risk to their cosy set-up? Was what I wrote beyond the pale? Had I crossed their line of acceptability?
As Spectator regular Rod Liddle might actually say in seriousness if he were in my shoes right now or, perhaps more accurately, if I had said something in line with his odiously reactionary outlook and had had it censored or condemned as a result: “It’s political correctness gone mad!” Indeed, the supposed “scourge” of “political correctness” is a common theme for the Spectator and its band of writers. Ah, the irony of it…
Those who so often cry about “political correctness gone mad” (when the reality is that they simply don’t like their ill-informed or insulting ideas being challenged, meaning they employ this mantra to try and discredit or police those challenging them) were the very same ones condemning Corbyn’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell for having breached their particular taboo last September; that being the expression of ideological empathy for the IRA’s cause in the past.
Everyone has their taboos and limits when it comes to thoughts and speech; the Right just seem to be a bit more hypocritical about acknowledging it. Their outrage is always fine – they’re just “standing up for common decency” – but when outrage comes from the Left, the Right call it “political correctness gone mad” and claim it is “killing free speech”. The double standard is rich. Where’s their self-awareness?
Anyhow, what follows below is a revision of the comment I attempted to submit underneath Massie’s article on Friday. I have added to it, as opposed to sanitised it.
Generally-speaking, I think there is an element of deep hypocrisy in figures of or close to the British establishment lecturing Corbyn on who he has associated or engaged with in the past or during the conflict in the north of Ireland given the activities we know the British state and its proxies were engaged in over the course of the three decades of hostilities.
What have we got? You name it: massacring of innocent civilians; extensive state collusion (from the highest levels) with supposedly-illegal loyalist paramilitaries; bombings of civilian targets; extra-judicial killings emanating from a shoot-to-kill policy; legalised death-squads operating from within the British army in the form of the Military Reaction Force, the Special Reconnaissance Unit and the Force Research Unit; false–flag operations; torture and abuse (including waterboarding and electric shocking) of detainees; mass internment without trial of “suspects” (who were rounded up simply because they matched a certain demographic, being overwhelmingly nationalist rather than unionist by an approximate ratio of 19:1); a curfew; widespread use of potentially-lethal rubber and plastic bullets; use of civilians (including children) and entire residential estates as “human shields”; miscarriages of justice; intimidation and harassment of nationalist communities; wanton destruction of nationalist households; blowing up border roads and bridges (thus worsening the already-detrimental effects of partition and further depriving many border communities of their social heart-beat and of the capability to fulfil their economic potential); black propaganda and so on…
Many of those activities aren’t quite popular knowledge like IRA misdeeds are and they’re certainly not as well-known on the British side of the Irish Sea. In fact, the British army, its generals and commanders have enjoyed broad immunity from both societal stigma and the law despite their actions during and contribution to the conflict, unlike the IRA and its volunteers.
Neither is it well-known that the British army were considerably less discriminate statistically in who they killed or targeted than the IRA were. And yet the label “terrorist” is reserved exclusively for the latter, but would never ever be applied to the former, by the British establishment and mainstream media.
For the record, a total of 54.4 per cent of the state security forces’ victims were non-combatants, whilst the corresponding total for militant republican groups was 35.6 per cent. (For further comparison, the civilian-deaths percentage for loyalist paramilitary groups was 87.2 per cent.)
If Massie truly wants history laid out bare and unwhitewashed in its entirety, as it really happened, he could always start by calling out those actually in power now – the government – and demand they release the truth instead of hiding behind the convenient and independently-unverifiable cloak of “national security”.
It is in the interests of all living within a state and subject to its laws that the state is open about its conduct when it has killed or is accused of perpetrating gross misconduct upon those it deems its own citizens. Such transparency means that we can ensure those responsible are held to account and that such conduct will not re-occur.
The “national security” clause behind which northern secretary of state Theresa Villiers has been conveniently hiding in relation to truth-disclosure over conflict legacy issues has not been verified independently by any party or body, be they internal or international.
It is a convenient cover for a state that remains in violation of article 2 (relating to the right to life of citizens) of the European Convention on Human Rights for its failure to provide effective, independent and transparent investigations into state killings and instances of suspected collusion.
It is impossible to accept the “national security” claim at face value when we know from history that the British state simply cannot be trusted in conduct governing or relating to its own purported subjects or citizens.
In specific relation to Corbyn, Massie wrote the following:
It cannot be said too often that there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about supporting the idea of a united Ireland. But if you did – or still do – support that goal you had a choice. You could ally yourself with the SDLP or you could chum around with Sinn Fein and the IRA. The choice mattered because it was a choice between decency and indecency, between constitutional politics and paramilitary politics. Corbyn, like his Shadow Chancellor, made his choice and chose indecently.
I think it is very easy for Massie, from his comfortably-detached Scottish Conservative background, to simplify the matter down to a supposed choice between “decency and indecency”. It is almost like northern first minister Arlene Foster‘s farcically-cartoonish description of the conflict; she recently described it as having been a battle between “good and evil”. Reality is much more complex and nuanced.
Those living in working-class Catholic areas (within what was and still is an inherently contested entity created via an imposed process of gerrymandering) before and once the conflict broke out hardly enjoyed the luxury of being able to academically moralise over their situation and the immediate predicament it presented.
For many, joining the IRA wasn’t to satisfy some blood-lust; it was to defend themselves, their families, their streets and their community against violent intrusions by sectarian police and against pogroms by belligerent loyalist mobs as the state stood idly by. They were brutalised by a discriminatory two-tiered system that violently denied them their civil rights (and later rejected the possibility of power-sharing).
When matters inevitably devolved into riotousness in the late 1960s with peaceful agitation for reform having been frustrated – the Battle of the Bogside, for example – the unionist government called in the British army to restore “order” and essentially buttress the existing political and social structure. The British army remained officially deployed in the region until 2007.
Most who joined or came to support the IRA did so not out of a sacred duty to “free Ireland” or in pursuit of a historic mission to vindicate the Republic but because they wanted the bigot’s boot off their necks and the British Army off their backs. If these grievances could be remedied short of the achievement of the Republic, then there was the basis of a settlement within existing constitutional structures.
It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing between decency or indecency then for many; it was a straight-up matter of desperation, poverty, alienation, insecurity, vulnerability, pain, frustration, anger, paranoia and panic. Under such conditions, the appeal and sense of purpose, belonging, protection and solution presented to them by joining the IRA was greater for hundreds of young men and women than what an inhospitable statelet and bent status quo had to offer them.
Joining the IRA was a rational response to their immediate material and structural conditions; it was a symptom of lived experience within a system that was, at best, neglectful or suspicious of the nationalist community and, at worst, actively hostile towards it on account of contrasting political, social, cultural and national outlooks.
The British state’s violent suppression of the civil rights movement said to people in very stern terms that peaceful methods in pursuit of social change would not bear fruit. Popular resistance and wider societal violence becomes inevitable when mass discontent is ignored and when rights – enjoyed by privileged others living within the very same society – are denied in such a manner; this appears to be a universal truth, from Israel-Palestine to South Africa to the US and elsewhere.
Corbyn, a man heavily influenced by leftist thought, evidently empathised with this position – the reality of the repressed and the brutalised – as well as with the broader ideal of a united Ireland, so as to motivate his engagement with and sympathy for the Provisional republican movement.
McCann is a Trotskyite who, in his 1980 edition of War and an Irish Town, regarded the IRA as “the vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland” and said that, “despite all their imperfections”, they constituted a body of volunteers to which all credible socialists worthy of their title ought to, as a logical necessity, dedicate “unconditional but critical support”. He wrote:
There is no such thing as an anti-imperialist who does not support the Provos and no such thing as an anti-imperialist who is not a socialist.
Although Corbyn is not as far to the left on the political spectrum as McCann may be, it is possible, or even plausible, that Corbyn too saw the IRA’s cause as an anti-imperialist struggle for national self-determination.
Indeed, whilst Corbyn may well have understood and appreciated their grievances, he was, like McCann, also prepared to criticise the IRA and ultimately sought a peaceful and political solution to the conflict in Ireland. What primarily distinguished the likes of Corbyn from most in the British establishment was that Corbyn, as well as acknowledging the legitimacy of nationalist grievances and the republican democratic mandate, was prepared to recognise that it was violence (and the threat of such) from all sides that was fuelling the conflict; he didn’t hypocritically parrot condemnation for just one form of violence – that of the IRA – as “wrong” or “evil” whilst remaining silent on or even endorsing as “righteous” the brutality and aggression of the British state. He acknowledged that the roots of the conflict were to be found in policy from London and that resulting wrongs were committed by all combatants.
Interestingly, even the decorated centrist Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats who was largely raised on a farm in the north of Ireland after being born in India to British colonial administrators, mused along the following empathetic lines in 2014, perhaps tellingly, after his time in public office and with what An Sionnach Fionn has termed the benefit of the “security of retirement”:
If I had been a Catholic, discriminated against in the way they were in Northern Ireland, would I have been a member of Sinn Fein or the IRA? Given my hot nature and my slightly romantic view of life, it’s quite difficult to say that you can completely discount the fact.
…you are the child of your circumstances… If you were brought up in a community that has been discriminated against and has had their human rights denied, what are you going to do?
I imagine at the very least I would have been a political activist on behalf of Sinn Fein. Whether you tip that over into something else, I can’t tell you – but I ask myself the question.
Of course, it is only to be expected that Massie would be unable to imagine or conjure up an idea of what the situation of disenfranchised nationalists might have been like in the north of Ireland over the past century.
Experience, or even mere interaction with those who did endure hardship or mistreatment, can trigger empathy or, at least, evoke a sense of understanding that there might be two sides, narratives and sets of grievances to this discussion (as was formally recognised, along with the validity of such, by all parties via the Good Friday Agreement), but the aloof Massie doesn’t appear to have any of that.
In fact, his writing is in direct contravention of the spirit of the peace process and its resulting truce. He implicitly denies the experiences of many in the nationalist community in order to score cheap political points against Corbyn. It is simply a mix of laziness, ignorance, arrogance and insult.
Insofar as the SDLP option was on the table for nationalists (and indeed for Corbyn and McDonnell too), it is not one that was always the overwhelming preference. For example, when Sinn Féin began contesting elections in the early 1980s – at the height of the IRA’s campaign – they won around 45 per cent of the nationalist vote.
Indeed, when Corbyn was meeting with Sinn Féin, the party were a legitimately functioning organisation with elected officials. They themselves weren’t an illegal or banned entity. The largely middle-class SDLP failed to adequately address the interests and concerns of many underprivileged or working-class nationalists and it was Sinn Féin who filled that deficit of representation.
Indeed, up to 150,000 people lined the roads for the funeral procession of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands after his death in the Maze Prison in 1981; that was approximately ten per cent of the entire northern population at the time, or a quarter of the total Catholic population. All of them “indecent”, according to Massie. I am afraid such a simplistic analysis just doesn’t cut it.
It should be noted that the existence of the SDLP hardly hindered the threat to nationalists from loyalist paramilitaries, nor did it prevent the violence or repression of the British state; in the absence of a state security infrastructure upon which they could rely for protection, many nationalists still therefore felt it necessary to bring the matter of their personal and communal security into their own hands and, for many, joining or supporting the IRA was a means of doing this. Indeed, it is worth noting that, during the unrest of 1969 and 1970, even those (namely Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin) who went on to found the SDLP with John Hume and Austin Currie, had actively sought arms for the purpose of defending nationalist communities.
Of course, sympathy for the IRA wasn’t universal within nationalism and plenty of “constitutional” nationalists were very open and clear in their criticisms of the IRA and its methods, but what the above all demonstrates is that the IRA’s campaign wasn’t quite as marginal, peripheral or “fringe” as Massie and others who peddle the British establishment line might like to imply.
It has also been suggested that the SDLP were able to prosper and progress “constitutionally” off the back of the IRA’s militant threat; that is to say that the SDLP’s negotiating position may have been fatally weakened had there been no threat of militancy from a separate nationalist source pushing for similar demands in furtherance of nationalist interests.
That’s not remotely to say that the two would have been in some sort of cahoots – they weren’t – nor am I necessarily agreeing with the theory as I’m not sure I’m qualified to offer an in-depth opinion on it, but it is an interesting argument all the same and not all that radical.
It also happens to be one that has been advanced with regard to Martin Luther King (purportedly profiting from the parallel militant threat of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers) whilst it has been suggested that Mahatma Gandhi had the luxury of being able to petition peacefully because others (independent of his movement) were twisting the arm of the British through physical force, thus rendering, from Britain’s perspective, Gandhi’s relatively flexible position a more appealing one with which to bargain.
As regards the cessation of conflict in the north of Ireland, contrary to Massie’s claim, there was no “military solution”; the conflict ended and relative peace was secured when political compromises were volunteered and agreed by all parties engaged. It was a hard-fought agreement for all sides (literally) that, whilst falling short of the respective previously-held political and military objectives of those involved, offered a crucial breakthrough towards copper-fastening a lasting peace.
The compromises negotiated included power-sharing and all-island institutions, equality, inclusivity, human and minority rights protections, recognition for the differing cultural identities and of the validity of the contrasting political aspirations of the people in the north of Ireland, parity-of-esteem, the demilitarisation of the region, the release of political prisoners, an agreed constitutional blue-print for Irish unity whilst recognising the principle of consent and a new 50-50 cross-community police force.
It is not accurate for Massie to assert that one side or the other was militarily defeated. For him to assert this whilst simultaneously criticising Corbyn for an alleged re-writing of history is rather baffling. The IRA still had guns, weaponry, ammunition, explosives, men, women and structures in place to oversee active service by those men and women.
It is commonly accepted by both sides that there was a military stalemate and that this would have remained the case unless and until the conditions that fuelled discontent and conflict were to be acknowledged and tackled with political resolution. Without working towards resolving the roots of the conflict, there would forever have existed the conditions, and thus a steady stream or reserve of malcontent agitators for change, to sustain it.
Talk of stalemate was not merely the rhetoric of politicians who might have had motive to play up the final position of their adversary in the interests of later reconciliation. An internal British army analytical document – entitled Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland and overseen by army general Mike Jackson – that became public in 2007 via a freedom-of-information request after its existence was discovered during research by the Pat Finucane Centre made clear that the conflict’s final settlement was rooted in a military impasse rather than in a defeat of one side over the other.
Mike Jackson and those under his direction would have had no reason to lie or “flatter” the IRA in the document given the fact that it was an internal write-up understood to be confidential and non-public at the time of writing, yet the analysis went on to describe the IRA as having been “a professional, dedicated, highly skilled and resilient force”, whilst loyalist paramilitaries and other republican groups were described in contrasting terms; as having constituted “little more than a collection of gangsters”.
Another secret assessment of note that happened to be intercepted in the post (and subsequently made public) by the IRA after being written by former commander-in-chief of UK land forces James Glover in 1978 made similar observations in respect of the IRA:
The Provisional leadership is deeply committed to a long campaign of attrition. The Provisional IRA has the dedication and the sinews of war to raise violence intermittently to at least the level of early 1978, certainly for the foreseeable future. Even if “peace” is restored, the motivation, for politically inspired violence will remain. PIRA will probably continue to recruit the men it needs.
PIRA is essentially a working-class organisation based in the ghetto areas of the cities and in the poorer rural areas. Thus, if members of the middle class and graduates become more deeply involved they have to forfeit their lifestyle…. Nevertheless, there is a stratum of intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who provide the backbone of the organisation.
Our evidence of the calibre of rank-and-file terrorists does not support the view that they are merely mindless hooligans, drawn from the unemployed and unemployable.
They will be able to attract enough people with leadership, talent, good education and manual skills to continue to enhance their all round professionalism. The movement will retain popular support sufficient to maintain secure bases in the traditional Republican areas.
The Provisionals’ campaign of violence is likely to continue while the British remain in Northern Ireland. We see little prospect of political development of a kind which would seriously undermine the Provisionals’ position.
In no way, can or will the Provisional Irish Republican Army ever be defeated militarily.
In like vein, the English centre-right Times newspaper published – on the 11th of January, 1992 – a leaked presentation from a “senior British Army officer”, commonly assumed to be John Wilsey, the general officer commanding the UK’s forces in the north of Ireland, which gave what was referred to as a “depressingly realistic assessment” of the IRA:
[D]efeat of the IRA is not on the horizon while current security policies are maintained.
[It is] … better equipped, better resourced, better led, bolder and more secure against our penetration than at any time before. They are an absolutely formidable enemy. The essential attributes of their leaders are better than ever before. Some of their operations are brilliant. If we don’t intern its a long haul.
The government knows it is up against not a bunch of evil, psychopathic criminals, as its propaganda has tried to suggest, but a highly disciplined and political, motivated guerrilla army.
If, as Massie asserts, the IRA were really defeated, there would have been no need for any negotiation or trade-off whatsoever. Why would they have been given any “spoils of the peace”? Massie’s analysis just doesn’t make sense when scrutinised against the historical evidence, statements from insiders and the conventional rules one would expect to commonly govern any competent bargaining or negotiation process.
Back-channels were operating between the British government and the IRA even in Margaret Thatcher‘s time as prime minister of the UK despite one of her spokespeople publicly claiming she “[did] not negotiate with terrorists and [had] no intention of negotiating with the IRA or their political wing”.
Other prominent members of the British establishment, such as John Major and Patrick Mayhew, made similar false denials in respect of the existence (over the course of three decades) of these covert channels for dialogue. The secret talks didn’t start upon any IRA “realisation they had lost” either. If that was the case, talks wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place as the IRA would already have been defeated, obviously.
Why would a purported victor indulge a supposed losing party if they were truly beaten and did not pose a future or potential threat until concessions were offered? In fact, it was the British government who reached out and made a plea to the IRA – via a non-militant republican intermediary from the Derry business community named Brendan Duddy – rather than the other way around. Neither were the former dictating terms.
And yet it is Corbyn – who, indeed, also met for mediation talks with loyalists – who is branded a “terrorist sympathiser” for having attempted to reach a negotiated peace by initiating a public dialogue about the terrible cost of the conflict upon both the Irish and the British people.
The lesson of the Irish-British peace process is not one of military defeats or victories but of compromise.
Cedar Lounge Revolution’s ‘WorldbyStorm’ has further challenged Seamus Mallon’s latter-day contentions that the Good Friday Agreement was a “Sunningdale for slow learners” and that a peace settlement could have been achieved 25 years earlier than actually realised.
‘WorldbyStorm’ makes the point that the appropriate circumstances or conditions simply were not in place in the early 1970s for an agreement despite it superficially appearing to be the case that they were:
And much like Israel/Palestine, to know the shape of a solution is by no means the same thing as knowing how to bring about the circumstances that would allow for the implementation of that solution. That lesson was to be taught to all the players in the subsequent 25 years.
Massie appears to assume that the British army were neutral referees there for no other reason than to impose peace. Of course, peace can’t be imposed; it is a feeling that comes from within rather than without. Neither were the British army neutral referees. They were active participants serving the interests of British power. The presence of Britain and its army in Ireland was a root source of conflict.
The British army arrived on the streets in August of 1969 whilst the Provisional movement only emerged a few months later in December of that year. Even then, the IRA remained a ramshackle outfit – generally resigned to defending threatened nationalist areas and manning barricades that sealed off “no-go areas” – until conducting a more aggressive and higher-intensity offensive from 1971 and 1972 onward after incidents like the Falls, curfew, the Ballymurphy massacre and Bloody Sunday, along with the British state’s failed policy of internment without trial, considerably boosted support for and recruitment to the organisation.
Britain’s very presence (or rule) was prolonging conflict and preventing peace in not merely the eyes of the IRA. Even Fintan O’Toole, a vehement opponent of the IRA, described the British army as having entered the arena with a “colonial mentality, viewing Northern Ireland as another field for the operations it had run in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus and identifying Catholics as the suspect population”; this approach only served to provide affirmation for the anti-imperialist narrative of the IRA.
I think it also slightly unfair for Massie to single out McDonnell for allegedly “opposing the peace-process”. The insinuation in that statement is that McDonnell was anti-peace, despite McDonnell’s own statement from a Bloody Sunday commemoration in 1998 (actually quoted by Massie) making clear he sought it.
McDonnell was very explicit in that statement that he advocated peace; at the time, he just envisaged a different route or solution to getting there. In other words, he viewed the roots, terms and narratives of the conflict differently to how Massie views them and would have, in accordance with that perspective, preferred an alternative process to the one travelled by the establishment.
It could similarly be argued that if Britain actually prioritised immediate and unconditional peace over its interests and corresponding or asserted “monopoly on violence“, it would not have bothered defending or enforcing its position by force either for three decades, but, like the IRA, it too engaged in violence whilst simultaneously asserting that it sought peace.
The peace sought by the British government was, like the one McDonnell and other concerned parties sought, a conditional peace on terms that they deemed to be suitable for themselves. All power is rooted in the threat or use of violence ultimately and all conflict is rooted in two or more sides disagreeing over respective incompatible or opposing interests. It is those interests that are ipso facto of priority for both when conflict is in process, for if they weren’t, there would be nothing over which to conflict in the first place.
Considering both Corbyn and McDonnell presently fully endorse the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement – indeed, Corbyn has confirmed that he voted for it – perhaps it is Massie and those of a like persuasion who still have some ground to make up.