"IRA Undefeated Army" a dangerous myth


James McBarron was a long time activist in Sinn Fein before becoming an anarchist in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement. In this opinion piece he wrote for publication on republican discussion forums he argues that although it is "completely understandable that most thinking republican activists are angry and enraged at how they were duped and used by the former IRA and current Sinn Fein leadership … this does not excuse people from properly examining their own roles and politics and the politics and conditions that have lead to the current situation." He then points to four areas which he thinks represent fatal weaknesses of 'dissident' Irish republicanism in general.

Sinn Fein shops throughout Ireland sell a t-shirt with the slogan "IRA Undefeated Army". This idea is of key importance in the image that the party wishes to project of relatively recent history. The story goes something like this, the PIRA after long and heroic campaign had fought the British state to a standstill neither side could achieve military victory. Rather than fight on and cause useless suffering an honourable compromise was agreed between the protagonists that permitted republicans to share power whilst pursuing their objectives through purely non violent political means. That's the Sinn Fein version which has wide acceptance in republican circles, another version popular amongst armed force republicans is that the PIRA was run down and betrayed by a compromising political leadership who were either weary or treasonous, and were happy to gain status within the system rather than fight on.

Both versions are backed up by real events and facts. It is clear that the British made a number of concessions to republicans in exchange for peace and the dismantling of the PIRA and for Sinn Fein entering into and defending the system. It is also true that leading Sinn Fein figures completely compromised their politics in pursuit of a small share of power. The manner in which the IRA was brought to ceasefire and ultimately disbanded was not through open honest debate and democratic decision making, it was done through subterfuge, bullying, bribery and dishonesty, though also through convincing political argument with some. Many people who are now dissenters from the Sinn Fein line helped in this process unquestioningly obeying orders, persecuting earlier dissenters and behaving in a thoroughly undemocratic fashion. It is arguable whether an open honest debate about the political and military conditions would have lead to a ceasefire or even to the present deal or if such a debate was even possible in the conditions of war prevailing at the time. Nonetheless the legacy of how the deed was done have massive reprecusions even now.

"IRA Undefeated Army" is a myth propagated by the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership to cover their retreat from republican politics and enable them to hold as much of their power base together as possible. The truth was that the IRA was on the verge of defeat, heavily infiltrated by the British, diminishing in terms of volunteers, experience, capacity and support, more and more isolated politically and without a strategy or hope for a breakthrough. This is not to question the willingness or courage of those wishing to continue the armed struggle. It is simply to state the facts, the IRA was defeated in all but name. Yes armed struggle could have continued but things would have simply got worse and eventually it would have looked something like ETAs armed struggle now. It is to the credit of the then IRA leadership that at least some of them recognised the facts, but not to their credit that rather than attempt to create an honest dialogue that could have got everyone to come to a similar conclusion they decided to move to ceasefire through subterfuge. This was a product of the politics of the republican movement, not the aspiration to equality , fraterity and liberty, but the authoritarian approach to organising. British intelligence of course did all it could to aid the process, but its ability to do so was created by the political culture of the movement and the political/military circumstances which existed as a consequence of 30 years of war.

Because the current Sinn Fein leadership continue to put forward the myth of the undefeated army, they are perpetuating the disident myth "the politicians betrayed the army, which could have continued the fight to victory". The SF myth reinforces the other and prevents many republicans examining in an unblinkered fashion the real causes for the IRAs defeat and evolving strategies to achieve republican objectives. It is completely understandable that most thinking republican activists are angry and enraged at how they were duped and used by the former IRA and current Sinn Fein leadership, how people were played off against each other even used to intimidate and silence dissenters. But this does not excuse people from properly examining their own roles and politics and the politics and conditions that have lead to the current situation.

There are a number of flaws with the politics espoused by the organisations and individuals that now express themselves as republicans but who are not participants in the reformist politics and strategy of Sinn Fein. I don't wish to go into Sinn Feins politics in this article suffice to say that a 32 county democratic socialist republic (if that is still the aim?) is not achievable through parliament.

An ongoing feature of republicanism is the authoritarian structure and culture of organisations. How democratic are those organisations really, either in terms of their internal functioning or they way they respond to the opinions or actions of the broader population. Are not many organisations simply an imitation of the old provisional movement, with personality cults, manipulation, macho posturing, elitism and extremely low levels of political debate and education. When you define the Ireland you wish to see surely the way you go about it should reflect what you objectives are.

Can republicans really argue that forcing the unionist population to accept a united Ireland will lead to a democratic and peaceful society. British imperialism has to be defeated to allow us create such a society but a united capitalist Ireland holds no great attraction for protestant workers. To win a socialist united Ireland surely we need to win the protestant working class to that vision. Republican organisations in general have no strategy to address this constituency if they even talk about it.

State socialism
A legacy of republicans authoritarian view of society. State socialism has been an abject failure and created tyranny wherever it has been tried. Socialism to be successful requires popular democratic participation and support. How do republicans address this?

Armed Struggle
A strength and a weakness. Republicans are not pacifists a disease of much of the left in practice if not principle. Republicans have been key players in many social and economic struggles in Ireland and a willingness to step beyond non-violent action has been crucial to victory in many instances. However the elevation of armed struggle almost to a principle has been detrimental to the cause. There are times for violence and times for non violence. Ultimately mass struggle is what will deliver socialism and a willingness to use armed force under democratic direction is legitimate and necessary.

Cotinuation of the current armed struggle cannot deliver a united Ireland or socialism. Sinn Fein's reformism cannot do so either. Both strategies hinder the development of a movement capable of achieving socialism and freedom. Republicans should examine their history objectively see what worked and what didn't, the high points of republican struggle have always been around the mass involvement of people in struggle, these moments have passed sometimes defeated, sometimes betrayed by republicans who have taken the reformist or militarist road. Any new strategy needs to take this into account.


Shocking Comment

At a time when the rest of Ireland stood by and let our people be bunred out of their homes, beaten, oppressed and interned without trial the PIRA were the only ones to stand up and bring the war to the Orange statelet.

And you people want to slag them off. You make me sick and ashamed that their are Irish people on the island like yee.
In fact it's people like yee who stood idly by. How DARE yee criticize those who fought the struggle.