The IRA Was More Moral Than the British Army
Gwydion M. Williams
Much nonsense is being talked about the success of Sinn Fein in the 2020 election in the Irish Republic. Last time they had 23 seats and 13.8% of the votes. They now have a quarter of the votes and seats and are the single largest party.[A]
Shock is expressed at its links with the now-disbanded Irish Republican Army. A few commentators compare them to the Nazis – never mind that the governing Fine Gael party has the authentic Nazi links from the 1930s.
All three main political parties in the Irish Republic derive from the original Sinn Fein and IRA.
The Irish Republic exists, as did the Irish Free State before it, because the IRA successfully fought the British Empire. And likewise it was the IRA in Northern Ireland that made sure that it could no longer be governed by political parties that had no wish to represent the Roman Catholic minority.
Both of the previously dominant parties in Southern Ireland have in the past had former IRA gunmen among their leaders and MPs. Sinn Fein has them now, though not the top leaders. But its two main rivals had them for as long as there were men (and occasionally women) old enough to serve. Most notably Eamon De Valera, whose US citizenship was the only thing that saved him from being shot after his leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Who was an enormously respected international spokesman in his final years.
Also note that the IRA did not invade Iraq.
Nor inflict enormous sufferings on South Vietnam. Or extend the war to once-peaceful Cambodia. Or rat on its allies after repeated refusals to allow a moderate peace, as the US military did.
Nor fight a war in Kenya in the 1950s that most Britons now see as shameful, if they know anything about it.[B]
I was never an IRA supporter. But I see membership as a much more moral option than either the British Army or US Army. For me, only the War Against Hitler and the Falklands War were positive British wars in modern times. And few Good Wars after the Seven Years War – even that assumes that a possible United Europe dominated by an aristocratic France was not a better option.
For the Napoleonic Wars, I suspect that a victory by Napoleon would have normalised modern democratic values with much less human cost than actually happened.
For the Cold War, I had not wanted the Soviet Union to win, but I had not wanted them to lose either. The sort of convergence that seemed likely in the 1960s would have been far better. It is regrettable that Moscow hung on so long to old values, and then collapsed.
For the world now, I despise the ways in which the main Anglo media see as moral options whatever they may do.
This is not the same thing as lacking sympathy for ordinary Britons who fought in our government’s various wars. Mostly, they are victims of bad leadership and dirty politics. Those no longer able to serve usefully as cannon-fodder tend to be discarded and shamelessly neglected.
My father Raymond Williams served with moderate distinction in World War Two, after correctly deciding that pacificism wasn’t going to work in the face of Hitler.[C] Ending his brief membership of the British Communist Party, which was not supporting the war at the time he volunteered to fight in it.
On my mother’s side, I have a great-uncle who had gone to Australia, volunteered for World War One and died at Gallipoli. My sister Merryn, who is a noted poet, gave a fine memorial to one of the few lives we are connected to amidst the millions of victims of the foolish ambitions of the declining British Empire:
“Far from Devon, from Australia;
“why he went – a mystery –
“he took his skeleton, his rifle,
“leaving no posterity.”[D]
I have got on fine with a small number of former British Army servicemen I have happened to meet in the course of my life – all of them seemingly undamaged, thankfully. Also some former IRA gunmen, though as far as I know none who supported the specific policies of the Provisional IRA as they emerged with the 1970 split.
I think it a pity that Northern Ireland did not merge into the rest of Great Britain. It would have fitted well in the 1970s, when the Irish Republic was both poorer and much more distant in its cultural attitudes. But it was rejected by most British politicians, and also most Ulster Protestants, who trusted Thatcher until she ratted on them with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Thatcher apparently believed that the compromise would undermine the IRA and Sinn Fein: one of her many delusions.
The Provisional IRA made a sensible peace that it counted as a limited victory. A ceasefire in 1997, and formal disbandment in 2005. The success of what was once its political junior-partner suggests this was both a wise and a moral option.
Sinn Fein has been the political partner of the IRA from 1914, and notably in the 1916 Easter Rising and War of Independence.
Fine Gael, the government until the 2020 election, derives mostly from a new party formed by former Sinn Fein members in 1923. Formed to support the Treaty that gave Ireland limited independence as the Irish Free State.
The War of Independence was launched after the British Empire tried to crush the Irish Republic that had been proclaimed by Sinn Fein. Proclaimed with continuity with the 1916 rising after the 1918 General Election gave it 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the official United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster.[E] A Parliament that has always been England plus some junior partners, and for Ireland this had ceased to be acceptable.
(Sinn Fein also got an absolute majority of votes in those constituencies where a vote was held. Misleading figures are sometimes given, ignoring the probable Sinn Fein vote in constituencies where their candidate was returned unopposed. Unopposed elections, almost unknown in modern times, were also common in Britain in that era.)
The Irish War of Independence ended without complete independence. Lloyd George threatened a much more drastic war – perhaps a repeat of the crushing of the Boers in South Africa, which saw the world’s first Concentration Camps. The name was taken up by the Nazis, precisely because the British Empire had legitimised mass suppression of white populations. It was a significant innovation, even though mass suppression of non-white populations was already routine. And was repeated by a British officer with the 1919 Amritsar massacre.[F]
The pro-Treaty wing of Sinn Fein was a minority within the party. After crushing the anti-Treaty forces with British help, it constituted itself as Cumann na nGaedheal and became the government of the Irish Free State. After losing a general election in 1932, it merged with two smaller groups to form Fine Gael.
One of these smaller groups, the Blueshirts, was sympathetic to Mussolini and Hitler.[G] It is widely viewed as fascist. Its leader, former IRA leader Eoin O’Duffy, led a contingent that intended to fight for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. For unclear reasons, they performed very badly and were sent home.[H]
Fianna Fail was formed in 1926 by De Valera as a split with the anti-Treaty Sinn Fein. Its aim, achieved by stages, was to Republicanise the Free State. It has been the government or the leading party of government since 1932. It effectively made the ‘Irish Free State’ independent in 1937 with a radically new constitution, not authorised by Britain as the legal Last Word in the British Empire. The technical adjustment to become the Irish Republic in 1948 counted for far less.
Back in the 1920s, Sinn Fein and the underground IRA were marginalised by the rise of Fianna Fail. Some of its members fought in Spain for the democratically elected Republic and against Franco.
Showing the complex politics of the time, Frank Ryan was one of the left-wing foes of Franco, but was allowed to escape and sent to Germany. The Nazis had arranged this, and recruited him for possible German-supported IRA actions.[I] Nothing much actually came of this. Other IRA men organised a small bombing campaign in England.
During this same war. De Valera kept Southern Ireland neutral. This was inconvenient for British sea links to the USA. Churchill contemplated an invasion, but the USA would have been strongly against it.
Meantime Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders of the Indian National Congress refused to support the British Empire without a definite promise for more self-government for India. The Cripps Mission gave them nothing of substance. Just a statement that they might get more after the war, but not if the British government felt them unready for it. Indian independence was ensured only by the unexpected victory by the British Labour Party in the 1945 General Election.
There was also a split within Congress, with Subhas Chandra Bose leading the Indian National Army to fight against the British Empire as an ally of Japan. A significant minority of Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese chose to join it.[J] He died mysteriously in 1945, but he and those who fought under his leadership were and are regarded as heroes by most Indians.
Also note that most of the Tory Party were friendly to Mussolini and Italian Fascism for as long as it was not a threat to the British Empire. Winston Churchill went further than most, stating publicly that he’d have done the same as Mussolini had regular British politics failed.[K]
British histories mostly cover up Churchill’s fondness for Mussolini. They also understate the amount of mainstream sympathy there was for Hitler, both in the USA and among Tories other than Churchill.[L]
If Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler shaped the final form in which World War Two happened, the main cause was the British Centre-Right being either weak or sympathetic during Hitler’s gradual rise. Had the British Empire threatened war when Hitler re-militarised the Rhineland, he might have stopped there. Likewise a different future might have happened if Britain had not refused to sell arms to the democratically elected Government of Spain – where Communist influence was marginal until the Soviet Union became the main source of practical help.
In the post-1945 world, the IRA seemed almost irrelevant. Its border campaign from 1956 to 1962 achieved very little. It was unexpectedly revived by the Civil Rights movement, which on the face of it wanted to integrate Northern Ireland’s Catholics into the British Mainstream. This might have worked had it been allowed, but in fact Northern Ireland was always kept at a distance. Sinn Fein and the IRA gambled on the protestors becoming more radical, and it paid off. You can find a detailed account in “The Catholic Predicament In Northern Ireland” by Pat Walsh.[M]
Sinn Fein and the IRA split again in 1970, into Official and Provisional factions. The Official faction was mostly pro-Moscow. And like most political organisations that looked to Moscow in that era, it withered and came to very little. It survives as the Workers’ Party of Ireland, no longer calling itself Sinn Fein and officially without an underground army. Its politics peaked at 5% of the vote in 1989, but it is now insignificant.
The Provisional side, now just Sinn Fein, dominates the Catholic side of Northern Ireland politics. (Almost all parties there have a sectarian identity.) They have dominated since 2001, when they overtook their rivals the SDLP. Won their first seat in the Irish Republic in 1997, when they got 2.5% of the vote. Rose steadily to 13.8% in 2016, and now are the largest party by votes with 24.6%. Second by seats, in part because they only put up 41 candidates in a Parliament of 160 seats, which would have seemed sensible because of a complex system of transferrable votes.
As I write, 27th February, the future is uncertain. They have 38 seats, Fianna Fail 39, Fine Gael 35. The Green Party have advanced just as remarkably as Sinn Fein, going from 3 seats and 2.7% to 9 seats and 7.1%.[N]
[On 17th May, they were still negotiating.]
With 81 seats needed for an absolute majority, even an awkward Fianna Fail / Fine Gael coalition would need further allies. Mathematically they could do it with Green Party support, perhaps ‘confidence and supply’ outside of the government.
The Irish Labour Party has suffered exactly the same decline as other once-powerful left-wing parties. Parties that have become scared of making a radical challenge. They peaked at 19.5% and 17 seats in 2011. Now fallen to 6 seats and 4.4%. And being matched by two other left-wing parties: the Social Democrats with 6 seats and Solidarity–People Before Profit with 5. Both of these got less votes than they did in 2016. For now Sinn Fein and the Greens are the serious anti-establishment parties.
For now, the Irish Republic has no right-wing populist alternative. There is one outfit called the National Party, hostile to the European Union, Islam and Immigration. But it got less than 5,000 votes.[O]
I foresee a bright future for this latest incarnation of Sinn Fein, which after all was the force that created the state. Or a possible bright future. When the left gets timid, the Populist Right can take off. Brexit in Britain. Trump in the USA. Many examples elsewhere in Europe. So I will be watching with great interest.[P]
Note on Names
Sinn Fein is better written as Sinn Féin, and likewise some of the other names. But on the web, I do not use accents or other diacritical marks. In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/
Note also that a Briton would probably write down the sounds of the party name as ‘Shin Feyn’. This is Irish orthography, as with the names Sean and Shawn being spoken exactly the same.
[P] This article is an expanded version of one of my blogs, https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams/Irish-General-Election-another-left-wing-advance