Free Statism & The Good Old IRA by Danny Morrison (Greenisland Press, £15).

I HAVE lost count of the times I’ve heard people make unfavourable comparisons between the “good old IRA” and the Provisional IRA. The insistent message: if only the Provos were more like their angelic ancestors. 

This nostalgic fiction was debunked in a Sinn Féin pamphlet issued in 1985 which detailed the numerous examples of controversial deaths attributed to the IRA in the years from 1917 until 1921. In revised form, it comprises one half of this new book.

 

Its publication followed soon after a coruscating editorial in An Phoblacht by the late Mick Timothy, the paper’s then editor, who sought to highlight the hypocrisy of those happy to honour the republicans of old while attacking their contemporaries.

That article, headlined Béal na mBláther, a pun on the Cork townland where Michael Collins was killed, reminded readers of the blood-soaked actions during the guerrilla war he had led. Not to condemn him for what he did, but to point to the realities of his campaign, which his modern hero-worshippers had conveniently chosen to forget.  

The power of Timothy’s editorial rested on his use of a refrain, and Danny Morrison has employed the same repetitive device to hammer home a similar lesson. His diatribe is punctuated by a six-word summation of the argument advanced by those who hold fast to myths about the old IRA while lambasting its latter-day volunteers: “Our violence was good, yours bad.”      

His lengthy essay is reason alone to read the book because, apart from being a full-frontal assault on the sanctimony of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it opens the door to a much more profound debate about the state they created while turning their backs on the six counties that they abandoned to unionist rule. 

For it is very clear that the Free State, Saorstát Éireann, which those parties accepted in 1922, changed into ‘Ireland’ in 1937 and then morphed into ‘the Republic of Ireland’ a dozen years later, developed an ideology all its own: Free Statism. 

Over time, the parties of Dáil Éireann encouraged a belief that “the north” was what unionists and their British overlords wished it to be: an enclave that was not a genuine part of Ireland. For fifty years, they averted their gaze from the victimisation of nationalists in Belfast and Derry and the towns in between. 

When forced to take off their blindfolds in the late 1960s during the struggle for civil rights, they gave the demonstrators no tangible support. Nor did they do much when people were subjected to violence by the B-Specials and RUC while being burned out of their homes (beyond, it must be said, organising refuge south of the border).

Worse, much worse, followed. When republicans fought back against Britain’s colonial lackeys, quickly supplemented by professional soldiers, they condemned the fighters for their “illegitimate” use of force. That was fine in 1920, they suggested, not in 1970.

How dare the Provisional IRA employ the very tactics their forebears had used two generations before. No matter that many of the most vociferous anti-Provo TDs were the sons, nephews, nieces and cousins of men and women who had deemed it morally right to kill to realise their political ambition.  

Their ancestors’ violence was whitewashed. In the good old days, the end justified the means. This cleansing process was helped by the passage of time. (In such circumstances, time is not so much a healer as a concealer). 

Meanwhile, within their own jurisdiction, FG and FF were busy creating an entirely fallacious narrative about their own origins. In so doing, they were following a well-trodden path because it is widely accepted that history is written by the winners, and therefore framed in order to expunge not only the views of the losers, but also truth itself. As Morrison notes, Free Statism is a case in point in having relied on the rewriting of history. It has stimulated revisionism in order to legitimise the idea that the 26 counties equate to ‘Ireland’.  

This revision has been central to the continuing existence of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Oft-quoted jibes about them resembling Tweedledum and Tweedledee contain a serious message because their hostility towards each other is a charade. 

As in the nursery rhyme, where the characters forget the reason for their quarrel, the parties have long forgotten their Civil War divergence. Their similarities are greater than their differences.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in their joint adherence to the notion that the 26 counties is a nation. Eamon de Valera said as much when he observed: “France was France without Alsace and Lorraine... Ireland is Ireland without the north.”

No wonder they have been responsible for the “othering” of the six counties and the simultaneous policy of fake concern about their future. Although they pay lip service to the idea of Ireland’s reunification, their consistent line from the treaty onwards has been the avoidance of conflict with Britain. Whether we call that cynicism or pragmatism, the result has been the same. We have what we hold so let’s not rock the boat.  

To pursue Morrison’s concept of Free Statism a little further, it encourages the thought that there are now two competing nationalisms in Ireland: the 26-county “false nationalism” and the 32-county authentic nationalism advocated by Sinn Féin. 

I concede that unionists may claim there is a third, but theirs is a post-imperial make-believe whose time has come and, thankfully, gone. Republicans can ignore that fantasy. 

More saliently, as Sinn Féin campaigns to secure electoral victory in the south, it must amplify its assault on the ideology that has underpinned almost a century of two-party dominance. Free Statism would make for a thought-provoking election slogan.  

Not for the first time – think of his Armalite and ballot box intervention in 1981 – Morrison has provided republicans with a pointer to the future.