When the Irish government announced plans earlier this year to host a special commemorative event for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were killed in the 1919-21 war of independence, the backlash was immediate and spectacular. Having seized the initiative on the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising just a few years earlier, with an extensive programme of high-profile, state-backed events and initiatives, ministers now scored a remarkable own goal and found themselves charged with apologism for British colonial violence in Ireland. Hurried clarifications and part-denials from taoiseach Leo Varadkar and justice minister Charlie Flanagan failed to stop ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ from rocketing to the top of the Irish charts off the back of a spirited online campaign, and new cracks began to appear in an already fragile governing coalition between Fine Gael and the eclectic bunch of independent politicians in cabinet with them.
The row has usefully thrown into sharp relief how hotly contested and deeply politicised the historiography of the Irish state remains. The re-emergence of partition as a central political issue on the island, assisted by the broader crises of the British state and its diminishing political authority, has made this more true now than perhaps at any other point in the two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, between the competing historical narratives advanced by the Irish and British political establishments, the mainstream republican movement, and the various strands of unionism, the socialist left often struggles to make its own independent perspective heard. This is precisely why Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist is such a valuable read.
Repudiating more technical accounts of Irish republican armed campaigns, Finn interrogates the politics underpinning physical-force Irish republicanism and the various internal and external pressures that shaped its course over the 20th century. Although he introduces, in brief, the longer history of Irish republicanism, locating its later incarnations within a tradition stretching as far back as the Presbyterian-led United Irishmen in the late 18th century, the bulk of the book necessarily addresses the conflict in the north of Ireland from the late 1960s to the end of the millennium.
In his approach to the period, Finn centres the political activity of the masses, examining how the ebb and flow of Catholic working-class mobilisation –through marches, strikes and boycotts – influenced and was influenced by the armed struggle and the broader anti-imperialist movement. He interweaves the history of armed groups with the history of the non-violent organisations that also made significant (and often more significant) interventions in these mobilisations, sharing snippets and vivid anecdotes from the debates that raged on within the socialist movement throughout the conflict.
In refreshing contrast to other critical socialist assessments of the conflict, particularly recent ones, Finn recognises and portrays an organic image of the Irish republican movement, identifying distinct schools of thought and often class-based tensions as the drivers of political conflict within the movement rather than competition between personalities. He is broadly even-handed in his treatment of the rival wings of the anti-imperialist movement but comes across as particularly sympathetic to People’s Democracy. PD’s emergence as a militant, student-dominated group within the civil rights movement heralded the introduction to Ireland of the ‘new left youth culture’ that elsewhere gave rise to the likes of the New Left Review, which now employs Finn as deputy editor.
Finn rejects efforts to ‘caricature them as irresponsible fanatics who sabotaged any hope of a peaceful future in pursuit of a Marxist pipe dream’, and instead convincingly presents their leading members as the intellectual architects of Sinn Féin’s later journey from armed struggle to a purely political strategy under the leadership of Gerry Adams. At the same time, he skewers the Official IRA’s record, both in the late 1960s as the guarantor of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’s reformist outlook and from the 1970s after its fruitlessly hostile turn against republicanism. Although none of this is ground-breaking, it is welcome that Finn presents these robust criticisms in such a direct and accessible way.
As he moves towards the present day, Finn’s assessment of the movement becomes palpably dispiriting. Sinn Féin’s cautious, nonviolent political strategy leaves ‘little room for mass participation’ by the mid-2000s, he writes, and the party increasingly takes on the SDLP’s role in ‘trying to manage and reform’ the northern statelet.
Unfortunately, Finn does not address the failure of the left to effectively challenge this trajectory, which he so confidently credited the intellectual output of People’s Democracy with initiating. In his epilogue, already dated by the subsequent snap UK election, the final approval of the Brexit deal and the restoration of Stormont, he suggests that Sinn Féin will be pulled ‘back towards the nationalist side of its political character’, whereas it appears that an unexpectedly strong standing in opinion polls ahead of February’s general election in the south persuaded the party to confidently emphasise economic change in its programme.
This leaves a mixed conclusion to an otherwise robust read, suggesting that Finn should have heeded one of the key warnings of his own book – that Sinn Féin’s obituary is often written prematurely.
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