Shiraz Socialist is not in a position to express any opinion on the alleged involvement of Gerry Adams in the 1972 murder by the Provisional IRA of Jean McConville. Adams denies any involvement. Certainly, the timing of his arrest raises the possibility that it was politically motivated. However, this 2002 article by Sean Matgamna casts a useful light on Adams’ relationship with the Provos and the “physical-force” tradition within Irish republicanism:
I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams
“Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique in… the possession of what is known as a ‘physical force party’ – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain…
“[They] exalt into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon… Socialists believe that the question of force is of very minor importance; the really important question is of the principles upon which is based the movement that may or may not need the use of force to realise its object…”
James Connolly, 22 July 1899
Seeing pictures of Gerry Adams grinning his Cheshire-cat-who-has-eaten-six-mice grin in triumph at SF/PIRA’s latest success reminded me that I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams.
His name was John Magennis. Who was he? A British soldier? A member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? A member of an Orange paramilitary group? One of the Northern Ireland workers shot by the Provisional IRA in the early 1990s for doing repair work on RUC stations?
No, John Magennis was a Republican. He belonged to the then mainstream Republican movement from which the Provisionals split away in December 1969. Those who remained were thereafter called the “Officials”. They seemed to be the left wing of the Republican movement. They talked about class and about socialism. But in fact their leaders were Stalinists.
The Provisionals were traditionalist Catholic right wing Republicans. They recoiled from the Officials for a number of reasons – their leftism, their Stalinism, their feebleness in responding to the communal fighting in Northern Ireland in August 1969, but, most of all, their turn to politics in general. The split was triggered by the decision of the IRA leaders that Sinn Fein would henceforth take any Dail seats which they might win in an election.
The split led to conflict between the two Republican groups over control of weapons and to a shooting war in which people on both sides died.
John Magennis, a member of the Official IRA, refused to surrender his gun to the gang of Provisional IRA men. They shot him, leaving him paralysed. He survived in that condition for some years and then died.
I met John Magennis only once or twice, about the time the IRA split was taking place. John Magennis was not yet an IRA member. He had come to Manchester to visit his uncle, John-John, a one-time Belfast Republican and later a prominent trade union militant on the Manchester docks, where he worked closely with a small group of Trotskyists, of whom I was one.
A big debate on Ireland had been going on in the IS group (now SWP), at that stage a democratic organisation in which such issues could be debated and of which we were members, since the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, when serious sectarian fighting broke out in Derry and Belfast. Were we for or against British troops in Northern Ireland?
The discussion was very heated. Those of us who rejected the IS majority’s tacit support to the British state in Northern Ireland were denounced as bloodthirsty “fascists” at the September 1969 IS conference.
John Magennis came with one of his uncles to one of the debates in Manchester. He said he couldn’t see any acceptable alternative to “troops in”.
I remember something he said which later took on a special meaning. He expressed it in the jargon of Catholic nationalism, which idealises patriotic self-sacrifice “for Ireland”, the so-called “blood sacrifice”: “I don’t want to die for Ireland”.
Back in Belfast, he joined the “left-wing” Republicans. I heard he had been shot and paralysed, and later that he had died. It was many years before I saw him again – on TV on a home video, filmed in a nursing home, trying to learn to walk again – staggering painfully, spastically, a poor wreck of the vigorous young man he had been.
How do I know Gerry Adams was part of the group that reduced Magennis to that state, and soon to a corpse? The BBC documentary which showed the film of the wreck of John Magennis was made by Peter Taylor, a journalist of deservedly high reputation, author of a book on the Provisionals and creator over the years of a number of careful, accurate and objective TV documentaries. Taylor identified Adams as one of the group that shot Magennis.
The point of this story is that it was a tragic incident in a conflict between primarily political and primarily militarist Republicanism, and that Adams and the Provisionals, today’s very successful politicians, were then murderously determined “physical-force-on-principle” Republicans.
It is a conflict that has occurred and recurred in generation after generation. The Continuity IRA – led by the surviving founders of the Provisionals, in the first place Ruari O’Bradaigh who split in 1986 when the Provisionals decided they would sit in the Dail – is today to the Provisionals what the Provisionals were then to the Officials. So is the “Real IRA”, a 1990s split from the Provisionals.
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 some of the leaders of the anarchist mass workers’ movement there came brutally face to face with the necessity of some sort of state if the Republic were to be defended against fascism – and they joined the bourgeois government which was suppressing the proletarian revolution and killing Trotskyists, POUMists, and revolutionary anarchists. Waves of physical-force Republicans have made the same discovery again and again – politics is necessary. And then the pure “politics-is-dirty-and-corrupt” Republicans become dirty politicians, conservative or mildly reformist.
Let us work backwards to James Connolly’s time. The physical force Republicans of the 1970s, the 1980s, and half the 1990s are now in the Northern Ireland government and willing in principle to join a Dublin coalition government.
The physical force Republicans of the 1940s and 50s became the Officials, who then became “The Workers’ Party” (secretly affiliated to the USSR as an unofficial Stalinist Party), which won seats in the Dail, and, despite its Stalinist tinge, was a supporter of conventional bourgeois politics. It split when, with the collapse of the USSR, the fact that it took money from the Russians became known. Its main offshoot, the Democratic Left, eventually fused with the Irish Labour Party.
The physical force Republicans of the late 1920s and 30s became, in the 1940s, Clann na Phoblachta, led by Sean McBride, a one-time IRA Chief of Staff. Mild reformists, they won ten seats and joined a coalition government in 1948. When one of their ministers, Noel Browne, defied the bishops by trying to create a rudimentary National Health Service in 1951, they brutally repudiated him. The party suffered electoral collapse soon after.
The “men of 22”, the physical force Republicans who, under De Valera’s political leadership, had fought a civil war in 1922-3 against the Free State government, transmuted into Fianna Fail. Mildly radical at first, it has been Ireland’s main and very corrupt party of bourgeois government for the last 70 years.
And, of course, those who fought the British in the War of Independence, led in the first place by Michael Collins, set up the very conservative Free State government that ruled Ireland for the first ten years.
Always there was a split – and a residue, more or less large, to denounce those “going political” as traitors and apostates to “true Republicanism”. And victims, like John Magennis, on both sides.
De Valera’s comrades called Collins a traitor; McBride at first refused to follow De Valera and Fianna Fail into politics; some Republicans denounced McBride and slowly rebuilt and recreated in the IRA in the 1940s; Gerry Adams, Ruari O’Bradaigh and their comrades denounced the Officials for going political; the Continuity IRA led by the self-same O’Bradaigh and the Real IRA denounce Gerry Adams .
James Connolly was already able to point out the pattern in 1899, on the basis of the experience of the physical force revolutionaries of the 1840s and of some Fenians.
“Round and round, for ever and ever…”? Until enough people understand the pattern and break it by building a real revolutionary working-class movement. The absence of such a movement has been a major factor in the continued existence of the pseudo-revolutionary physical-force caricature of revolutionary politics that is Republicanism.
That absence, in turn, has been partly due to the communal divisions in the Northern working class, and the relative social weakness of the working class in a South which until recently was mostly rural. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation in the South have created conditions to change that.
Now the Provos have enough TDs to be players in the political game among the corrupt bourgeois politicians in the Dail, the Provisionals will show what they really are in politics. Dawn Doyle makes it pretty clear. It could be a New Labourite talking.
Connolly’s point above is the central one. Revolutionary politics is not guns. Guns alone, and physical force revolutionism, are not revolutionary politics. For serious revolutionary purposes, programme, working-class orientation, policies, class composition, and consistent Marxism are what shape a movement and determine what it is.
Guns, physical force and the rest of it are a necessary and irreplaceable part of any revolutionary politics that is other than talk – but in their proper time, place and proportion. What is wrong with the Provisionals is neither their guns, nor their involvement in politics, but the use they put guns to – sectarian war, thinly disguised or open, against the Northern Ireland majority – and now, the tame bourgeois politics they adopt with a tinge of reform and radicalism to appeal to the most oppressed in the 26 Counties. And reassurance to “business”…
Like all such movements, the Provisionals are not homogeneous. Some of the Provisionals in the South – and some in the North too, I expect – are far to the left of Adams and McGuinness.
For Northern Ireland, An Phoblacht is a sectarian paper, denouncing the Unionists, that is the majority Protestant population in the Six Counties, including the Protestant working class. Their sectarianism is often dressed up as denunciation of the sectarianism of the Unionists, but that is only how the game is now played.
In the South, Sinn Fein has, as far as I know, acquitted itself well in opposition to the recent eruption of foul racism against black immigrants and against refugees.
The Provisional IRA claim to have achieved great things with their “30 year” war. In fact Ireland would probably be closer to unity now if the Provos had not existed, and the Protestant-Catholic division would probably be a lot closer to healing than it is now. What the Provos settled for in the Good Friday Agreement was available in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which the Provos and their Protestant equivalents destroyed within months. From the mid 1960s the British government was working towards dismantling Six Counties sectarian rule – indeed, it was the consequent destabilisation that gave the physical-force-on-principle Republicans their opening.
As the constitutional nationalist Seamus Mallon said: “The Good Friday Agreement is Sunningdale for slow learners”.
Many, including John Magennis, died because Adams and his friends are slow learners. But for now the Provos are on a roll.
Even so, as they watch Adams and his friends in the Dail and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, some of them will in the period ahead be forced to think about the cyclical pattern of physical force politics in Ireland and come to see Connolly’s point. And to remember John Magennis and the many others like him in the history of Republicanism.
First published by Workers Liberty