24 January, 2010

Beards and Ballots

Right now I am reading The Lost Revolution: the Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party. This tales the tale of one side of the Provisional-Official split of the Republican movement in the early 1970s. The Officials took a leftward course that ultimately saw the Official IRA declare a ceasefire and disappear into the shadows while Official Sinn Féin became first Sinn Féin - The Workers' Party and then just the Workers' Party. It is a big book and it covers a lot of stuff. As a busy man, it will take me an age to read it, so rather than wait to write a long review of it, I will instead just throw out a few titbits as I go along.

At the moment, the book is covering the early 1970s and the immediate aftermath of the Provisional-Official split. I am struck by how badly the Provisionals come out of this. In some respects, this is not too surprising – the Provisionals tend to come off badly in anything not written by their apologists, and the book is based heavily on interviews with their Sticky* rivals. But even with that, the Provisional do come across as a bunch of reactionaries who split off because they wanted no truck with the leftward path of the Officials; after the split, the Provisionals seemed to have been blessed with a maniacal tendency that had a fondness for exploding no-warning car-bombs in central Belfast.

Several decades later, the Provisionals followed the Officials down the leftward path and declared their own IRA ceasefire. They also started taking seats in Irish elected assemblies, now sitting in government in a devolved Northern Irish government. One theme of Hanley and Millar's book is the way the Officials blazed a trail only belatedly followed by others, with this being a particularly striking example.

In fairness to my friends from the Provisional side of the split, the Officials (and their descendants in the Workers Party, Democratic Left, Labour and so on) do not come across as saints here either. It is worth remembering that many respected figures in Irish public life today cut their political teeth in an organisation that killed its political enemies and was funded by extortion. Still, there is sometimes something to be said for just forgetting the past.

image source (includes lefty review of the book)

*The Officials became known as the Stickies (or Sticks), because their badges were fastened by adhesive; the Provisionals used pin fasteners, but the name Pinheads never stuck

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