The political sage and religious thinker Sinead O’Connor has recently had the grace to describe her pro-Provisional IRA politics of the 1990s, not elegantly but accurately, as “bollocks”.
We still await similar, milder, or indeed any, self-criticism from those on the British left who in the same period refused to criticise the Provisional IRA, even when it was shooting Northern Ireland Protestant workers for such “collaborationist” crimes as fixing a lavatory or a broken window in an RUC police station.
The IRA’s was, they said, an “anti-imperialist struggle”. Ours was not to reason why - or ask who, what, where, or when either - but to give uncritical support to “the freedom fighters”.
The self-disarming of the IRA poses questions to those who took that attitude — the honest ones among them, at least.
Though self-disarmed (except for some hundreds of guns reportedly kept back for “self-defence” against still-militarist Republicans and others), the IRA has not gone out of existence. All its structures still exist. It has moved into politics.
It is focusing on politics under the identity of its alter-ego, Sinn Fein, as it has done for a decade — only now exclusively.
What is it now politically? A mildly left, or better, populist, nationalist political party. It is “left” in the sense that some British liberals are “left” and engage in “community politics”. But these community politics, in SF's mass base in Northern Ireland, are communalist, Catholic-sectarian politics.
An Phoblacht, whose masthead now proclaims it to be the “Sinn Fein” weekly, concentrates heavily on sectarian denunciation of the Protestants and Unionists — for, among other things, their “sectarianism”.
In the South disarmament has moved the Sinn Fein-IRA closer to partnership in coalition government with another (long-ago) ex-IRA, ex-militarist party, Fianna Fail. Founded by Eamon de Valera out of the IRA of the 1920s, FF has been the main party of the Irish bourgeoisie for three-quarters of a century. It was often said that the IRA were Fianna Failers with guns; now they aspire to be Fianna Failers without guns. To be just Fianna Failers.
Sinn Fein is now a very, very rich bourgeois political party. Ed Moloney, the northern editor of the Irish Times and author of The Secret History of the IRA, recently summed up what the IRA is now.
“The truth is the Provisionals were mostly in the [Catholic-sectarian] defenderist not the republican tradition, and in their world the sectarian imperative ruled…
“Ceasefires could be called, unionist consent conceded and leadership promises broken just so long as the Prods didn’t like it…
“If there was a slogan that greased the peace process inside the Provos then it was this: ‘If it upsets the Prods then it must be good…'
“If the Provos’ supporters have shallow political beliefs, then those of their leaders, to judge by the record of the last 30 years, are non-existent or, to be more accurate, they have been embraced and discarded according to fashion and self-interest and not shaped by principle.
“In this reporter’s years of writing about the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Provo leadership has travelled virtually the entire length of the political spectrum — from flirting with Trotskyism to closing down hospitals and privatising school-building; from long hair and beards to smart suits and whitened teeth; from killing businessmen to courting them; from a socialist republic to a power-sharing Stormont [the old government building in Belfast].
“The only constant in this saga is that positions were taken, stances were adopted, because they furthered the search for power, not to impose some secret agenda but simply for power’s sake. In that sense, the Provo leadership are no different, and pose no greater threat to the South should they achieve power than many another politician in the Dail.”
You didn’t have to wait for their disarmament to know that. We have been saying it for a long time. It was just as true now as it was when they were shooting Northern Irish workers in their own front rooms for “collaboration”.
As for the large swathe of the left and kitsch left (Socialist Outlook, Labour Left Briefing, occasionally the SWP) who backed the IRA, refused to criticise them, and denounced us for criticising them on the grounds that they were “revolutionaries” fighting an “anti-imperialist” war —- as far as we know, none of them have seriously commented on the “transformation” of the Provisionals, or withdrawn support from what is now not only a plain bourgeois party, but in Northern Ireland primarily a sectarian party.
Logically, of course, they should now either denounce the Provos for selling out the anti-imperialist struggle, or admit that they got it all wrong. Neither logic nor truthfulness concerns them. Nor does the need to learn the lessons of their own experience.
That is one reason why the kitsch left flounders around in perennial confusion — as in its present support for the Ba'thist and Sunni-supremacist “resistance” in Iraq.