By Jack Holland
As Irish history has shown time after time, there is always more than one variety of republicanism around. In recent years, however, they have multiplied, thanks largely to the peace process. Peace, you see, puts ideologies under a greater strain than does war. Cathleen Knowles-McGuirk, vice president of Republican Sinn Fein, espouses one variety, and dismisses the others as largely fraudulent, especially that associated with the Provisionals. But she does so articulately, without bitterness, in spite of splits and disputes.
Knowles-McGuirk was in New York at the end of January to attend the Michael Flannery memorial dinner, held at Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers and sponsored by the Irish Freedom Committee.
Like any republican who has been in the movement for more than a quarter of a century, she has a lot upon which to reflect. She joined the Provisional wing of the republican movement in 1971, less than two years after the IRA and Sinn Fein split into Provisional and Official wings. In those days, it seemed relatively simple to select a variety of republicanism with which you wanted to identify. There were only two. And for Knowles-McGuirk there seemed never to be a doubt about which she would espouse. It was the Daithi O Conaill variety. O Conaill, a republican hero of the border campaign, was a founding member of the Provisionals.
"He was the main strategist, military and political," she said. She firmly believes that he was the greatest republican of his time but laments that the Provisionals have now effectively written him out of the story. "There’s been no one like him in the last 30 years," she said. He took part in the cease-fire negotiations in July 1972. "The Brits knew they had met their match in him," according to Knowles-McGuirk, who believes that the British government was then on the verge of withdrawing from Northern Ireland.
The British, of course, dispute this. Gerry Adams also offers a different version of the events. He too was at the July meeting in London when the IRA leadership spoke with representatives of the government. He didn’t say much, convinced that the enemy was merely on an information-gathering exercise with no intention of conceding to Provisional IRA demands.
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However, the version of history which Republican Sinn Fein extols and which Knowles-McGuirk accepts is that twice, once in 1972 and again in 1975, Britain was ready to do a deal with republicans but was undermined by the Irish government and Britain’s own intelligence agencies. She believes, indeed, that the republican movement was winning again, in 1986, by which time she was general secretary of Sinn Fein. That’s when a new party of republicanism emerged — Republican Sinn Fein, when the leadership of the Provisionals reneged on the movement’s commitment to nonrecognition of the Dail. She quotes O Conaill as remarking at the time of the split, "We’d almost got to the top of the hill, now we are at the bottom again."
"I walked out of the Mansion House with O Conaill and O Bradaigh," Knowles-McGuirk recalled. "I could see it coming." She asserts that the change started when "Belfast got a grip" on Sinn Fein and the IRA. In 1982, the Provisionals’ document "Eire Nua" was dropped as official policy. It advocated a federal Ireland, with a nine-county Ulster with its own regional government. The Northerners, led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, took over both wings of the movement in the early 1980s and denounced "Eire Nua" as a sop to loyalism. By 1986 Northerners were more or less running the whole show.
She partly blames the hunger strikes for what happened in 1986.
"I saw a lot of people come into [the movement] after 1981 who were not republican and took what Belfast said as gospel," she said. "These were the people who voted to end abstentionism — by nine votes."
Republican Sinn Fein languished in the shadow of its bigger brother until 1994 and the first IRA cease-fire. What happened to Provisional Sinn Fein after that, according to Knowles-McGuirk, was inevitable. Talks with the British led to acceptance of the Good Friday peace agreement and then of the new assembly, in which the Provisionals are prepared to take their seats.
"Adams hasn’t learned the lessons of history," she said. "As sure as night follows day, he will have to condemn others who continue the fight." Under the circumstances, she does not understand why the Provisional IRA does not decommission. "They’ve thrown in their lot with Fine Gael, Corporate America, enemies of the IRA," she said. Later in her speech at the dinner, she said that "logic dictates that revolutionary politics and constitutional politics are not compatible." According to her, the Provisional IRA will not go back to war.
As ever, in Irish history, as one republican force fades away another emerges from the shadows. Shortly after O Conaill formed RSF, he was asked by a Belfast journalist if he had an army. "Not yet," he replied. In spite of threats, he went ahead and created the Continuity IRA. However, O Conaill died (on Jan. 1 1991 at age 52) before his new organization ever saw any action.
Knowles-McGuirk still has friends within the Provisionals, including Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein’s representative in Washington, D.C. In the 1970s, she and O’Hare were charged with possession of explosives. O’Hare was convicted but Knowles-McGuirk was acquitted. She helped take care of O’Hare’s children while their mother was serving her sentence. They remain close, according to Knowles-McGuirk.
Asked how the Continuity IRA could possibly succeed where the Provisional IRA, with its far greater resources, failed, she returns to the past and talk of how they almost succeeded once before. But there is no sign of that happening again. The situation in Northern Ireland has changed drastically since the 1970s, as has the world.
"The heat is now on us," she said, referring to the constant attention the Special Branch gives to Republican Sinn Fein members. "It’s making it doubly hard to organize with all the surveillance. If I said the agreement is great, all would be hunky-dory. But republicans have always been isolated. It’s nothing new to us. . . . We think things are bad now. But nothing could be worse than the 1940s. But we knew we would rise again."