Anyone for tennis?

Philip Ferguson was a Sinn Féin activist in Dublin in the 1980s and early 1990s. He now lives in New Zealand, where he is involved in the Anti-Capitalist Alliance

The decision of the IRA leadership to 'dump arms' and end all IRA activity "of any kind whatsoever" flows logically from an orientation pursued by the overall Provisional leadership since the end of the 1980s or start of the 1990s. Because of the secret, cabal-like nature of the top leadership, the 'new course' may in fact go back to the mid-80s. By the mid-80s, the Provos had been forced back to their core support base and were in danger of being isolated around the armed struggle. At this point the question of a strategy to move things forward was very sharply posed. This led to an internal debate, which went on for a couple of years at the end of the 80s and into the early 90s, along the lines of socialist republicanism versus pan-nationalism. At the start of this debate it appeared that socialist republicanism was in the ascendancy in Sinn Féin and the IRA. By the early 1980s, the Provos had dumped their original idea of a federal Ireland, which was a concession to the unionists and would have left them in control in a nine-county Ulster, and in its place adopted the Irish Republican Socialist Party position of a unitary, 32-county socialist republic. In 1986 they had also adopted the IRSP position of participating in Leinster House (parliamentary) elections in the south and taking seats if elected. Several years later they adopted the 'broad front' idea - essentially an anti-imperialist united front, which had been promoted by IRSP founder Seamus Costello. However, shortly after the broad front had been adopted as very much a left perspective, a new debate broke out in the Provos, driven mainly by central members of the leadership in the north. This saw the broad front in quite different terms, advocating a shift to pan-nationalism. Instead of working for a broad front on a left and anti-imperialist basis, leading figures (most notably Tom Hartley) argued for a broad front that would include all nationalists, including even the southern establishment which had persecuted republicans for 60 years and which was totally committed not only to managing capitalism in Ireland, but to working as a junior partner of the British government in Ireland. In the ensuing debate, the advocates of socialist republicanism - who were centred in the SF education department - were defeated, not least by various whispering campaigns that they wanted the armed struggle called off - whispering campaigns run, of course, by the very people who called off the armed struggle only a few years later. Adams himself largely stayed out of - or 'above' - the debate, as befitted his emerging presidential role in the overall movement. However, it was clear where he stood. In fact, he had been involved in activities to shift the movement into mainstream nationalism for some time. The pan-nationalist position, of course, was nothing new. Basically it was the long-time position of the Communist Party of Ireland. This was ironic, as the Provos were originally formed in no small part out of the (mainly negative) political influence of Soviet-line 'communist' politics in the Official IRA. (The IRSP/Irish National Liberation Army was also formed in a revolutionary reaction to the increasing adoption by the Officials of the politics of the ultra-moderate CP.) The full politics of the pan-nationalist position were never, however, debated openly. Every step of the way, the leadership cynically denied the direction in which they were headed and used their considerable standing - after all these were not Blairite yuppies, but leaders forged in life-and-death struggle - to pursue policies which were never laid out openly for the membership to debate, let alone vote on. One of the problems was that, lacking a strong revolutionary politics of their own, the Provos were possibly always likely to have an ideological vacuum which was going to be filled from somewhere. In a period where the struggle was moving forward, as in the early 1980s, the main influences on the Provos were those of mass struggle helping pull them leftwards. In the downturn that followed, as the British state and its allies in Ireland regained the initiative, the pressures were to shift rightwards. This was reinforced by the general global situation and the political retreat of national liberation movements, plus the inability of the British left to build an effective 'troops out' movement. I recall, during my paper-sale round in Dublin pubs, coming across one of the most outspoken advocates of pan-nationalism sitting there supping his pint while immersed in reading the CPI newspaper. The other main thing about the resort to pan-nationalism was that this approach was a proven counterrevolutionary perspective. It was the perspective adhered to by the Griffith-Collins-De Valera triumvirate which gained control of the republican movement in 1917-1918, when the movement was being reorganised after the Easter Rising. This leadership, which was politically dominant during the 1919-21 war for independence, soon betrayed the struggle. Griffith and Collins did a dirty deal with Britain to partition Ireland and cut short the revolution and De Valera (along with his military co-thinker, Liam Lynch) politically and militarily disoriented and held back the anti-treaty forces, ensuring the treatyites would win the civil war. Griffiths's and Collins's top people ran the Irish free state as a virtual police dictatorship in the 1920s and early 1930s and, when that set-up was no longer sustainable, their fellow pan-nationalists (with whom they had briefly fallen out over the treaty) took over to salvage things, under De Valera. Back then, it was the south which was most unstable. In the 1960s, however, the north became the most unstable part of Ireland, due to its political institutions being outmoded and out of sync with changing economic, social and political realities. The first generation of catholics had gotten into university due to the British welfare state and that, along with the post-World War II economic boom, led to rising expectations among the catholic population. Yet even middle class catholics were heavily disadvantaged by the apartheid-like form of discrimination that characterised the northern state at that time and could not take up jobs for which their new university educations suited them. So there was a combination of middle and working class catholic-nationalist revolt, which included the most progressive elements of the protestant population. This began with the demand for civil rights and, when that was met with the full force of state repression and loyalist pogrom, developed into armed resistance. Out of this ferment emerged the Provos. However, the lack of any consistent revolutionary programme and analysis has meant that, 35 years on, the Provos have entirely turned their back on the struggle for Irish freedom - for national liberation and socialism. Instead, they have turned out to be the one force which could transform the north to (eventually) modernise its political set-up and restore stability, therefore ensuring the untroubled maintenance of the most important social relations (imperialist domination and class exploitation). While their politics are now essentially those of John Hume, Hume's Stoop Down Low Party has been one of the big losers. In the end the Provos' revolutionary struggle gave them the force and the kudos to get the SDLP programme implemented, something the SDLP's own moderate and collaborationist tactics could not achieve. In the south, meanwhile, the next stop for New Sinn Féin is as junior partner in coalition government with Fianna Fáil, their political forebear. Indeed, like De Valera, Adams could well end up as president of the southern state. It is all a sorry end to a once-inspiring revolutionary struggle, one which involved thousands of young (and not-so-young) working class Irish and in which so many suffered and died. As for the future of the IRA's activists, there are several possibilities. One is incorporation into a new model police force for the northern state, once Sinn Féin recognises the police authority. Another possibility is suggested by the attire of this year's honour guard at the annual Bodenstown commemoration. The old, guerrilla-style colour party was replaced by a smartly-dressed contingent in green blazers and fawn slacks. One commentator suggested they could easily have been mistaken for umpires at Wimbledon. Anyone for tennis?