Book Review: Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement, by Robert White (2017)

out-of-the-ashThe extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” wrote W.B. Yeats of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.

But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.

As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.

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Ruaíri Ó Brádaigh, addressing a rally in Dublin, 1976

To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.

“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”

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Brendan Hughes

For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.

Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:

We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.

Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.

As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.

To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”

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Gerry Adams addresses the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 1986

Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.

The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:

…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.

What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:

They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.

1a5aaa35092eb4a19b60433c700e2a42It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the book consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.

For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.

But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath the surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.

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Armed IRA members patrol the streets

But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals mostly hailed from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and their pre-split meetings together saw them developing opinions at odds with those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”

Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.

Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

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