From International Socialism, No.57, April 1973, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Secret Army
J. Bowyer Bell
Tim Pat Coogan
Each of these books describes the history of the IRA during the period 1916-1970. Neither claims to be a political analysis of the Irish Republican movement. Both books confine themselves to a detailed account of the origins, the growth, the frequently alleged demise and the equally frequent resurgence of an organisation consistently held to be illegal or subversive in the north and south of Ireland since the treaty of partition. Both were originally published in 1970 and do not record the most recent IRA resurgence, the Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland. But there the similarity between the two histories ends. Tim Pat Coogan, editor of The Irish Times, writes in colour supplement journalese, with ‘lion-faced Dan Breen’ and ‘Jack Lynch, a quiet, pipe-smoking Corkman’ appearing in their appropriate historical roles. Apart from this annoyance, there are a sufficient number of errors in detail to seriously irritate the informed reader. The whole approach is at best anecdotal and at worst glib enough to mislead anyone who is entirely new to the history of the IRA. And, despite his ‘apolitical’ approach, when Coogan’s politics come to the fore they prove to be of a particularly reactionary form. At one stage he complains at fund-raising propaganda developed by the IRA for the USA, which suggested that republicans in Ireland were being held in concentration camps. ‘There are,’ writes Coogan, ‘no concentration camps in the North of Ireland’.
True, Long Kesh wasn’t there, but numerous republicans have spent long periods on the internment ship Al Rawdah, in the grim Crumlin Road jail and (in the south) many experienced the brutality if the Glasshouse in the Curragh. Coogan goes on to state, ‘Irish Americans still suffer from ignorance of life and politics in Ireland’. There is another cliché about people in glass houses not throwing stones, Mr Coogan. Something more of Coogan’s shallow understanding of Irish politics can be gathered from his concluding remarks; ‘if we Irish, north and south, can learn to stop hating each other in the name of god and develop the moral courage to prevent others, even those in high places, from inciting us to bigotry, other young men will have no cause to follow the example of Lynch or Fergal O’Hanlon’.
It is not at all clear which Lynch is meant, but O’Hanlon (fatally wounded during an arms raid in the 1956-62 campaign) had motives that could not be described as bigotry.
Bowyer Bell on the other hand has no hesitation in referring to the Curragh as a concentration camp (which it was and is) and he is at pains to show how it is the symbol of the persistent oppression of the republican movement by whatever ‘Irish’ government sat in Dáil Éireann.
Whenever he ventures into political commentary, which he rarely does, he shows more understanding of the realities than Coogan. He sees the Ireland of the 1930’s as ‘a desperately poor country exploited by a lumpen bourgeoisie and the City of London, filled with men of no property weened on a revolutionary tradition’.
Despite the growth of pockets of affluence, that statement remains true of present Ireland although more weight should be given now to the dominance of British capitalism. What is more important is that against that background, the socialist tendency in the republican movement, led at that time by Peadar O’Donnell, failed to change to any significant extent the political direction of the movement as a whole. It is also true of the present situation, and the failure to follow this sort of analysis is a major shortcoming of The Secret Army.
Periodically the IRA split on the development of a political programme necessary to take its struggle beyond the purely national question. The Republican Congress movement of the 1930’s, the prescribing of members of ‘communist’ organisations, the distrust of the left-inclined politics after the failure of the 1956-62 Border campaign, are all evidence of the problems foreseen by Connolly in Socialism and Nationalism. Whatever potential existed, and at times that potential was strong, for the development of a revolutionary socialist position in place of the purely nationalist, the apparently intractable ‘centrist’ nature of the IRA (a feature well documented by Bowyer Bell) ensured that it never developed. Centrism was also the cause of major divisions over the appropriate strategy for the north, especially between the Command in the north and the Dublin based, south dominated HQ. And in the south during the 1950’s the ‘Christie Group’ represented the largest faction, split from the IRA on the question of the northern strategy. Only with an adequate analysis of these major sources of division and factionalism can the present problems of the IRA, their poverty of political argument and the Official/Provisional rift be explained. Bowyer Bell does not provide it, but at least he gives the sort of detail on which the analysis could be based.
In spite of its shortcomings, Bowyer Bell’s book is far superior to Coogan’s, and for anyone wishing to inform himself sufficiently of the nature of the IRA as a revolutionary organisation the advice is simple; forget The IRA and buy The Secret Army.
Last updated on 15.2.2008