Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

The Provisional IRA appear now like an almost incomprehensible manifestation from another time.  Their militaristic ideology hardly aligns with the current avatars of the Anglophone Left – not the pacific grandfatherliness of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, much less the multicultural intersectionality of AOC or Ilhan Omar. 

The Provos’ use of violence against civilians has no analogue on the Left anywhere in the West today.  The nation they claimed to represent – poor, culturally isolated, staunchly Catholic – is, indeed, a far remove from the Ireland of Leo Varadkar, gay marriage, and ostensibly secular neoliberalism.  And there is the obvious phenomenon that terrorism has, from 2001 onwards, become almost exclusively coded with an Islamic vocabulary.

One Man’s Terrorist by Daniel Finn – a longstanding contributor to the New Left Review – is not exactly an internal history of the IRA’s politics; rather it’s a history of the political context within which the Provos operated.  Material is mainly drawn from external sources – British government reports, memoirs, contemporary newspapers; documents internal to the IRA are either non-existent or, for obvious reasons, not available to researchers.  At several other key points, it is not clear if this is a history of the IRA or of their political wing, Sinn Féin, but it is also never clear if such a distinction is in any way meaningful (given the porous borders that separated both organizations).  The closing chapters are more tightly focused on internal deliberations within Sinn Féin and the IRA, perhaps due to a greater willingness of those present to talk on the record about peace than about war.

The book opens with an alternating discussion of the IRA’s place within the longue durée of Irish nationalism, from 1798 onwards, and an investigation of the British state’s war with the IRA that situates it in the history of counter-insurgency up to and including the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The latter of these discussions is the more interesting, with the former coming a bit too close to the “800 years of English oppression” school of Irish history.  Of surer ground is Finn’s tracing of the various radical republican movements and episodes that collectively form a kind of pre-history of the Provisional IRA; the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1867, Irish nationalism in the years after the Easter Rising of 1916, the abortive IRA border campaign in the 1950s, the growing Marxist and anti-Marxist factions within the IRA from the early sixties on, which in turn provided the ideological backdrop to the separation of the Official IRA from the Provisional IRA at the close of the decade.

It is really at this point that the book’s narrative starts, circulating from the Provisionals to Sinn Féin to the wider context of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and their frustrated attempts to wrest civil rights from the Stormont government.  Finn has a broader international sensibility when it comes to re-telling all this (broader, at least, than is usually the case in Irish history-writing).  As he points out, the emergence of “The Troubles” at the end of the 1960s was, on the one hand, a part of the “Spirt of ’68”, on display in Belfast and Derry just as it was also in Paris and Prague.  Yet as Finn begins the book by observing, “This devastating conflict unfolded in a highly developed West European state with a reputation for political stability” and is anomalous in the broader currents of Western European political history.  Finn also has a perceptive ability to critique Irish republican ideology; on the much-loved comparison of Northern Irish Catholics and African-Americans, he notes that there did come a clear point “at which lessons from the US civil rights movement began to lose their relevance.”  Black nationalism was essentially a form of “cultural self-assertion” and the Black civil rights movement never called the U.S. state’s entire existence into question, in the manner that the IRA would later do for the Ulster statelet.  Irish Republicanism never birthed a leader with the charisma of Martin Luther King.

Finn’s accounting of the Troubles continues in this pattern; the tripartite story of the Provisional IRA, the republican movement within which it moved, and the broader context of Northern Irish politics; Northern Ireland’s place within international developments; succinct and pithy political analyses.  And there is a welcome refusal to avoid controversy here, as Finn moves from the introduction of internment without trial in 1971 (“using techniques that had been fine-tuned in colonial wars”), to the use of torture by British forces in the same period, which radicalized and never pacified the target population, and the burgeoning use of car bombs by the Provisionals (which, in Finn’s sights was less a sign of IRA strength and more of a plateauing of any hopes for achieving their goal of a United Ireland).  Nor does Finn shy away from naming Irish government material support for elements within the IRA or that some agents of the British government almost certainly had a hand in the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings, which killed thirty-three civilians in the Republic in May 1974.

As the violence wore on into the late 1970s, the sheer length of the conflict became a deciding factor in the development of the Troubles; the Provisionals seemed to have recognized that they had reached a political and military stalemate and longed to get back to the dizzy levels of mass protests of the previous decade.  A solution presented itself via the Hunger Strikes – most famously that of Bobby Sands in 1981 – when IRA prisoners refused food as part of a push to be treated as political (rather than criminal) prisoners.  There were at least 1,200 protests in Northern Ireland during the ’81 hunger strikes, attended by over 350,000 people.  This was almost certainly a far larger mobilization than occurred in 1968 or 1969.  In hindsight, it was probably the high water mark of any kind of popular support for armed republicanism.  Bobby Sands’ election to parliament during his ultimately fatal hunger strike is also, in hindsight, a portent of what was to come.  Finn points out that from the post-Hunger Strikes period onwards, Sinn Féin had two clear objectives: to overtake the Social Democratic Labour Party as the main voice of nationalist opinion in the North, and to carve out a political foothold in the South.  By these lights, the party has been a remarkable success, since both goals are fully achieved.  Though it has also come at the “cost” of the party abandoning many of its once sacred shibboleths.  Finn deftly unpacks this evolution, in a narrative that remains tightly focused on the IRA (thus perhaps ignoring important changes within – and concessions made by – the British state).

By the 1990s, Sinn Féin was negotiating a peace treaty that would eventually see them sharing power with Loyalists at Stormont and taking seats in the Dáil, the parliament in Dublin.  And Finn ends with a resume of Sinn Féin’s more recent political trajectories; Left-leaning and certainly anti-austerity but unwilling to enter into electoral coalitions with the longstanding Trotskyist parties of the Irish far-left (though, to be fair, there is much mutual suspicion there); vaguely radical but still enough of a Catholic party that a clear policy on abortion remains impossible; at perennial odds with the Irish establishment, but tacitly open to junior coalition partnership with either of Ireland’s two right-wing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.  In Finn’s neat summation:

The Provos had been the purest example of an anti-systemic movement in Western Europe: not only did they possess their own army, which doubled as a community police force, they also had their own media, entertainment industry and even transport system (the “black cabs” of West Belfast).  When Gerry Adams argued for Sinn Féin to scrap its abstentionist policy in 1986, he referred in passing to the question of “electoralism as a means of revolutionary struggle”, which had “affected all struggles in areas where parliaments with universal suffrage exist”.  Sinn Féin’s link to the IRA campaign was, he argued, the true guarantee of its revolutionary character.  As the party finally severed that link, the full extent of its transformation since the 1980s should have been readily apparent.

The contemporary context of Brexit – an issue that is as pertinent as it is wearying – is also noted.  Daniel Finn is clearly a capable writer and analyst, weaving a wide range of material and viewpoints into a nimble overview of the last forty or fifty years of Northern Irish political history.  The result is a solid introduction for those looking to discover the seemingly lost world of militant Irish republicanism.

Bill Nevins is poetry editor at Logos.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Erik Grayson: Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

By Warren Leming: Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

By Iain Ferguson: The Unconscious in Social and Political Life, (London: Phoenix Publishing House 2019)

By Ben Shepard: Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

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