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The Trouble with Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA (A Blackstaff paperback original) by Malachi O'Doherty (1997-10-27)

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Review Text

  • By Hugh Claffey on March 26, 2008

    Overall, I disagree with his analysis, but it's a valuable viewpoint about the Northern Conflict,I had heard about this book for quite a while, it was written in 1997/8 providing an analysis of the Provisional movement as it was starting it's major change from guns to government. O'Doherty sees the use of violence by the Republican movement as a hijacking of the Civil Rights movement which frustrated political progress in Northern Ireland for decades. He sees the purpose of Republican violence as negating all internal political options for progress, by ensuring that Northern society is destabilised, in this he claims that Republican's had no problem, in general, with Loyalist violence, as it underlined instability. He quotes Gerry's Adams use of the term `armed propaganda', and makes a valid point that Republican's were engaged in neither rebellion nor revolution, but rather resistance. O'Doherty is most acute on the contradictions between the ballot box and bullet strategy. He points to a 1997 Sinn Fein demonstration about the danger of traffic to children of a particular roadway, followed by their silence when the IRA abandons a car bomb on the same roadway the following week. More pointedly, he demonstrates the changes which occurred in the British Government negotiations position before and after the killings of RUC constables Graham and Johnston in Lurgan in the same year. This latter is a telling point, concessions were made to bring Sinn Fein to the table, and O'Doherty sees the IRA as manipulating these concessions, I suppose the rest of us hope that in retrospect the negotiations/concessions brought the right result. In truth the years from the first ceasefire to decommissioning were ones in which many moral compromises were made, however, they do seem to have been vindicated by history. While I believe this is a valuable book, I think it credits IRA/Sinn Fein with too much co-ordination and foresight. I think it treats the Provisional movement, and even the IRA as a cohesive unit, which is completely rational in its aims and activities. Therefore the killings of the RUC men in Lurgan was a response of the IRA as a whole to their perception of the inadequacies of the talks on offer by the British government at the time. Given the secretive nature of the IRA, it is impossible to know if this is true. It might also be posited that the murders were the actions of a local unit, which had authorisation to act on its own initiative, and whose actions were complicating the aspirations of those in the IRA who wanted to both bring about a ceasefire and keep the movement unified. It is impossible to know the truth of this, and O'Doherty's view is valuable, even if its not valid. As someone who has lived through the hunger strikes of the early eighties, and witnessed the cluelessness of the Sinn Fein (and IRA) leadership at that time, I don't believe in their omnipotence or foresight. I think O'Doherty credits the IRA leadershop with too much unity and guile. Reading Ed Moloney's book on the ceasefires, gives, I think, a more credible viewpoint that the peace strategy within the IRA was pursued slowly, with tiny advances and major setbacks, wearing down a militant movement, without taking divisive steps. One really irritating point about the book is the personalisation. O'Doherty gives us his view of the IRA strategy, but he mixes this up with the story of his own upbringing in the Catholic community in Belfast, from which the IRA revived in the late 1960's. He does this, he says, to show his own prejudices and to let the reader judge the context. I think this jars with the cold analysis of the rest of the material.Overall, I disagree with his analysis, but it's a valuable viewpoint about the Northern Conflict, and unlike a lot of books of that era, it's value as insight has not been negated by subsequent events.


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