Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, vol.149, no.6 – December 2004
Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, by Richard English, Macmillan, 2003, £20.00
Julian Lewis on the appeal of extremists
There is a myth in civilized, intellectual circles that those who resort to political violence are stupid, simplistic and inarticulate. History suggests otherwise. In the age of dictators, Fascist and Nazi leaders had plenty to say for themselves, as Goering ably demonstrated in his testimony at Nuremberg. Many were masters of rhetoric and hugely skilled propagandists. Their marginalized, far-Right, post-war successors have often been university graduates skilled in the art of defending the indefensible. When democratic politicians, like the Appeasers of the 1930s, or brilliant academics come into contact with high-grade terrorists, they are in serious danger of being seduced. Instead of mindless thugs, they find people who argue for their cause with relentless logic, fluency and ingenuity. Yet, that does not make their conduct any less evil.
Richard English is undoubtedly a brilliant academic. Armed Struggle will undoubtedly be indispensable for students of modern Irish history for decades to come. Its greatest strength is the way in which it sets on record the motivations and reflections of leading IRA figures in their own words. This is invaluable source material; but there is something disconcerting about the project as a whole.
It is not as if Professor English glosses over the atrocities which militant republicans committed: you will find as comprehensive an account of them here as in any partisan pro-Unionist tract, together with a chilling statistical breakdown of who killed whom between 1966 and 2001. Nor is he to be seen as an IRA apologist. Indeed, he is quick to remind us that
'it was the IRA which had an alliance with the Nazis ... While the IRA were colluding with Hitler, Lord Mountbatten and Airey Neave'
– two of their most distinguished victims –
'had been fighting against him'.
Indeed, his achievement in persuading former terrorists to talk is the great strength of the book.
Much light is shed on the apparent change of strategy by most of the IRA leadership which led to the peace process. Some, like Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, surprisingly concede that
'events in Eastern Europe during the course of 1989 impacted considerably'
on all but the
'odd hopelessly "unreconstructable" [IRA] Marxist'.
So the baleful influence of Communism on the bloody history of the Twentieth Century is once again acknowledged.
Credit is given to President Clinton for helping militant Irish republicanism out of the ghetto to which its own brutal tactics had largely consigned it, but the principal reason for the change is seen to be the dawning realization that the terrorists had underestimated the resolve of their opponents:
"Put bluntly, their war of attrition had not had the intended effect of breaking British will to remain in Northern Ireland."
Nor, in fact, had it broken the will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to remain British.
The result was Sinn Fein's acceptance of a deal (providing sufficient face were saved) offering less, in the view of the refuseniks of the Real IRA, than the defunct Sunningdale Agreement of 1974.
Still, throughout this book runs a thread of none-too-grudging admiration for the strength of personality, commitment and determination of the militants. Thus 1970s London bomber Marian Price is 'famous' for her 'courageous hunger strike in jail'. She is 'articulate and trenchant', whilst 'from their own perspective' Irish republicans are 'understandably proud of the IRA'. (The words 'courageous' and 'understandably' are Professor English's own, not the IRA's.) Nor is his explanation, at the end of almost 400 pages, entirely satisfactory. Though some
'will consider it inappropriate to have taken the IRA's views so seriously',
he regards looking
'closely and respectfully – but not uncritically – at this very serious revolutionary movement'
as the only proper way to respond to the conflict. True, Professor English is, at the end,
'not really persuaded by the IRA's argument that their violence was necessary or beneficial';
but even this reassurance is qualified by him not being
'satisfied with a depiction of the IRA which casually or myopically condemns them'.
Somewhere out there is a clutch of academics gearing up to write the definitive history of the Red Brigades, the Shining Path, the 9/11 suicide squad and the hostage-takers of Baghdad. If they are as conscientious, as widely read and as impressionable as Professor English, they will produce something very like Armed Struggle. Their readers will learn that a lot of these terrorists were diligent, resourceful and intelligent to a degree which incites the admiration of authors who would never dream of condoning the atrocities they committed.
Such works add to our understanding of the mentality of extremists whilst recording the history of what they did. But it is all too easy to be overwhelmed by their force of personality and this is the trap which Professor English has failed to avoid.
Julian Lewis MP is Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and was, until recently, an Opposition Defence Spokesman.