Out of the Ashes, Robert W. White

Reviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Out of the Ashes. An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement, Robert W. White

Merrion Press (imprint of Irish Academic Press), Newbridge 2017
ISBN: 978-1-78537-093-9

Paperback, with photographs in colour, appendices, notes, sources and bibliography and index
488 pages
€ 24,99

An historical and sociological approach of Irish republicanism

With the stepping down of Gerry Adams as President of Sinn Féin the Irish republican movement briefly stood in the international spotlights again after quite some time. And although large-scale violence has come to an end, politically Nationalists and Loyalists still keep engaged in bitter conflict, fighting with words rather than with guns however. Studies about the conflict in the north of the Emerald Isle have filled many a bookcase, but White’s study takes an original approach. Like the book by Aaron Edwards on the Ulster Volunteer Force, White makes use of interviews he held with participants in the movement. In fact, White’s study relies heavily on this kind of source material, for his intention was to write an oral history of Irish republicanism, the history of the so-called ‘provisional’ branch of the movement to be exactly. In doing so, he combines history with sociology to reach a deeper understanding as to why people join social movements and why they do or do not stay involved in them. White is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and has written extensively about social movement and Irish republicanism.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) emerged when the IRA split in the years 1969-1970 when violence escalated in Northern Ireland. The author states that though the question of the defence of the North split republicans in Belfast, the disunity over the policy of abstentionism (the taking of seats in parliament after elections) split the Republican movement as a whole. This led ultimately to the creation of the Provisional IRA, so called after the fashion of the 1916 rebels who created a ‘provisional’ Irish Republic. The definitive split between the Provisional and Offical IRA, as the latter came to be called, that occurred in 1969-1970 had several reasons that were mutually intertwined. The most important were that the Officals wanted to stop the practice of abstentionism, thus in effect recognize the parliaments of Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House and thus partition. Secondly the Provo’s feared the increasing radicalization of leftwing politics in the organisation and thirdly there was the failure to protect Catholics in the North from Loyalist attacks in 1969.

The popular myth of the Provisional IRA ‘rising like a phoenix out of the ashes’ left after the 1969 attacks is disproved by White. The leaders of the Provisionals were long-established IRA veterans from the campaigns of the forties and fifties, a large majority of which didn’t even come from the North. They were mainly from the South and West of the Republic, while the Officials’s leadership was largely Dublin-based. Instrumental in the new movement were Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí O’Connell. They led the Provisionals to what in hindsight was their finest hour in 1972 and to the truce in the struggle in 1975. In later years they were heavily criticized by the younger members of the movement such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams for the decision to call a truce at that moment in time. As it turned out, the IRA would never become as powerful as in the first years of the seventies. Although their decision to call a truce was justified because the PIRA was exhausted by the continuing harassment of the British army, Ó Brádaigh, O’Connell and the rest of the Old Guard eventually had to give way to the youth. Interestingly, it were these new leaders that set the Republican movement on the road to disarmament and constitutional politics. In order to do so, they had to do what they had blamed their onetime leaders so hard for; call a ceasefire. To bring the armed campaign to a peaceful end, Adams and McGuinness had to lure their militant followers along. They mostly succeeded in doing this, although on the way there were two more splits in the Republican movement, by people who wouldn’t accept the U-turn in principles and policy both the IRA and the political wing Sinn Féin had made. They were denounced as dissidents, where in fact the Provo’s had become dissidents to the Republican ideals. History is often written by the ones who are the most powerful.

In telling the story of the forty years of Provisional Irish republicanism with a lot of statements and quotes by participants and (former) members of the organizations involved, White makes a valuable contribution to the written history of Irish republicanism. Moreover, he shows why and how people became involved, why they stayed or left the movement and what part the movement played and plays in their lives. One of his conclusions is that it were mostly working class young people who came from republican families that became active in the movement. To have a sympathetic environment around you helps staying involved, as it does in the case of other social movements. Sometimes the repression by the authorities led to abandonment of the movement, but mostly it just caused a greater stubbornness to continue. White’s book helps giving many of the men and women active in the republican movement a voice, since they are quoted extensively throughout the publication. It also helps to give us a better understanding of what they did, and why they did it.

Wouter van Dijk