Book review: ‘Gunsmoke and Mirrors’- How Sinn Fein dressed up defeat as victory. By Henry McDonald


Against a backdrop of recent resignations from the Provisional movement, election stagnation in the Republic reflected in growing disillusionment amongst the rank and file. In the words of Toiréasa Ferris "Sinn Féin simply means nothing to the bulk of people in the South....Forget the notion of trying to be a catch-all party that appeals to everyone. That way we’ll end up attracting the loyalty of no one". Scathing criticism, but perhaps a smokescreen to give the appearance of a leadership which tolerates dissent while maintaining firm control.

This book provides a refreshing analysis of Sinn Fein which has sacrificed principle and ideology for political opportunism and careerism. Confirming the anarchist analysis that parliamentary reformism has and always will be the the gravedigger of any 'radical' and 'revolutionary' movement.

The author dispels some the some central myths which has propelled the provisional movement over the last couple of decades noting “For those that joined the Provo crusade the worst sin they constantly accused others from their own ‘tribe’ of was reformism. Advocating reform, in these crusaders’ minds, was once tantamount to treachery and apostasy. The wild ones that signed up to this battle did not do so in order to run that state on any reformed basis.”(pviii)

Central to his analysis is challenging the myth portrayed by the Provisional movement that they are the modern day reincarnation of the civil rights movement. This is linked with constant mantra from the current leadership preaching the ethics of a ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘Building an Ireland of Equals’. The author uses the example of the Workers Party to argue that they had the correct political analysis at the time in terms of the conflict increasing sectarian division. Many of their policies such reform of policing structures and a Bill of rights was later adapted by the Provos.

Henry devotes special attention in his book to criticising the far left (except for the Militant Tendency), for cheerleading the armed struggle while harbouring romantic notions of the struggle from afar. He argues that it is too simplistic and naïve to compare dictatorships in Latin America and Apartheid in South Africa with the situation here, in terms of the scale of state barbarity and the dynamic of the ‘national liberation struggle’. The author rightly points out the fact that any ‘socialism’ in the movement was always of a populist nature, rather than of any real substance. Pointing to their cosy relationship with right wing billionaires in the US such as Peter King, and their influence over the later stages of decommissioning, (especially in the post September 11th climate.)

We are constantly reminded in the book of the various tendencies within republicanism historically, and the provisional movement from traditional republicanism and underlying ‘catholic defenderism’ coming to the surface in many areas such as Ardoyne, and the spate of sectarian attacks such as Teebane. He quotes Peadar O’Donnell reference in the 1930s that the IRA did not have a battalion of republicans in Belfast, bur rather a battalion of ‘armed catholics’.

Finally, the author looks at the relative success of the Provisional propaganda machine in managing and co-opting dissent within the wider republican community in every stage of the ‘peace process.’ Also, devoting attention to the American administration preference for learning the lessons of a successful counter-insurgency strategy in moulding and nurturing a compliant Provo leadership.

The recent riots in Ardoyne have again highlighted this manufacturing of revisionism by the Provos who lambasted the small ‘dissident’ groups such as Eirigi and the Republican Network for Unity for allegedly orchestrating the riots and bussing in members and supporters. We only need to rewind to the early 1990s to the Provos engaging in the same type of tactics contributing to whipping up tensions and fears during the marching season.

For those of you, who like the provisional leadership frequently refer to Michael O’Farrell’s book, The Orange State as a sole point of reference, this book is well worth a read.