Wednesday's Book: The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA

The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA by Malachi O'Doherty (Blackstaff Press, pounds 11.99)
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This is a thoughtful undertaking. Malachi O'Doherty begins by setting out his credentials as a commentator on republicanism. An Andersonstown upbringing entitles him to an opinion, while his capacity for insight ensures that opinion will carry a good deal of weight. He is well equipped to disentangle the various strands - the sense of grievance, historical consciousness, tribal solidarity, self-interest, self-delusion, self-perpetuating aggression and all the rest - which make up the ideological clump.

O'Doherty charts the phases of the republican movement from 1969 up to the current reinstated ceasefire. One way of regarding the rudimentary IRA of the early days is to see it as a cuckoo in the nest of the civil rights campaign, awaiting its chance to overwhelm social protest with a programme of bloody revolution. But it seems the events of the time were more confused and intricate than this might suggest. The optimistic mood of the late 1960s was quickly swallowed by shock and mayhem. It looked - in some ways still looks - as though the people of Northern Ireland were doomed to act out for eternity the old, impassioned sectarian dramas.

As O'Doherty says, it was never inevitable that working-class Catholic disaffection - a legitimate force - should hitch itself to a republican agenda. But it happened, partly in response to such phrases as "the armed struggle", "the oppressed people", and so forth, which added dignity to a campaign of murder and destruction. When you read a book like Gerry Adams's Before the Dawn you can only marvel at the sleight of hand which enables republican violence to go virtually unacknowledged while community work, social justice and neighbourhood benevolence stay to the fore throughout. This seems clearly a case of the left hand not knowing what the red hand - sorry, right hand - is up to.

A fair number of republicans, according to O'Doherty, tend to look on bombs and assassinations as a product of historical circumstances which absolves the killers from responsibility. This is not only true of republicans, of course. O'Doherty, in sardonic mode, cites the case of the Loyalist terrorist "Basher Bates" who, according to this argument, would never have taken a meat hook to a Catholic if political pressures hadn't driven him to it. Now, into the bargain, we have Sinn Fein insisting on the distinction between itself and the IRA - a distinction we all have to go along with in the interests of prolonging the shaky ceasefire.

O'Doherty believes that "republicanism is an inappropriate response to the conditions it claims to have been fostered by"; but this belief is tempered by the understanding that, at present, none of us has any choice other than "to put faith in the good intentions of the IRA". As much faith, at any rate, as we can muster. Succinct, courageous and clear-sighted, The Trouble With Guns is a telling contribution to the literature of Northern Irish politics.

Patricia Craig

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