Book Review: One Man’s Terrorist: a Political History of the IRA

By Daniel Finn,

Published by: Verso Books, 2019

ISBN 978-1-78663-688-1

Reviewer: Brian Hanley


The Irish Republican Army occupies a curious place in the Irish nationalist imagination. On the one hand, there is widespread cultural approval of past campaigns of physical force or ‘armed struggle’. On the other hand, there are also endless circular debates about the legitimacy of the IRA of different eras and the morality of the violence of one era versus another.

It is refreshing then to read a history of the IRA which tries to place its activities in context. Daniel Finn’s engaging book is helpful for those who wish to move beyond the name-calling and partisanship of press and social media debates. Written from a left-wing perspective, it does not ignore how important state violence was to the emergence of the modern IRA as a mass force.

A political history of the Provisionals


The IRA most closely examined in Finn’s book is the Provisional version, who emerged from a split in the movement in 1970 and formally ended their war in 2005. The book is therefore a political history, not a catalogue of armed actions.

This is both a strength and a weakness, as ultimately the ability to deploy violence is what made the Provisionals the force they were. It is also very difficult to write a political history of the modern IRA when the reality of many of their discussions remain secret.

This book is political rather than military history of the Provisional IRA, but is hampered by the lack of access to the internal documents of that organisation, in contrast to the IRA of previous eras.

This is in contrast to the ‘old’ IRA. Perhaps surprisingly for those who assume clandestine organizations do not keep records, the IRA of 1916-23 were meticulous chroniclers of their own activities, leaving vast archives which mean historians can detail internal debates fairly accurately. Their successors in the post-Civil War era maintained the same habits.

Finn for example, discusses the divisions between left and right within the IRA of the 1930s. Those interested in that era can consult the complete minutes of the 1933 IRA convention, at which many of these questions were fought out, in the papers of the IRA’s then leader, Moss Twomey in UCD Archives.

The Provisionals however were cut from different cloth. Dieter Reinisch has recorded how, during 1970 southern-based members of the Cumann na mBan (the female auxiliary of the IRA) presented their archives to the new northern leadership. The northerners promptly burnt the documents, fearing the results if they fell into wrong hands.

Therefore, Finn, like all writing about the modern IRA, has to base his analysis on what republicans said publicly and on claims and counter claims by friends and enemies.

What was actually being argued internally often remains frustratingly the subject of speculation. The way in which policies are sold to a movement’s rank and file often bears little resemblance to the arguments presented in public. What is more, an organization like the IRA can sometimes admit things to itself that it would never concede to the wider world.

In public, if possible, mistakes are not admitted or are blamed on others. As former IRA volunteer Kieran Conway put it in his memoir Southside Provisional ‘we lied whenever we thought we could get away with it.’

The IRA, sees itself as a disciplined military body, but in reality, some volunteers (in every era) have carried out unauthorized operations, kept finances for their own use or misused the power their position has given them.

One way of examining this is the records of courts martials and so on. But these do not exist in the public domain for the scholar of modern republicanism.

As so much still rides on varying interpretations of the IRA’s actions, having to rely on inevitably partisan accounts is obviously a drawback.

Class and republicanism

Modern day support for the IRA tends to be associated with the urban poor and discontented.

Militant republicanism also appeals very strongly to rebels and to those who identify with the oppressed internationally and with causes such as anti-fascism.  Republicans also (far more so than the far-left) tend to come from among working class communities.

Their critics recognize this, as do republicans themselves. So Sinn Féin’s An Phoblacht contended in 1977 that while ‘there are good and courageous Irish people in the various classes in Ireland today … our experience tells us that the most obvious support for the armed struggle and those elements which back it against imperialism comes largely from the most deprived and oppressed, whose instinct remains uncorrupted.’

The Provisional movement was largely though not entirely working class, but it is mistake to project this social character backwards to the republican movement of the 1920s

That statement was largely, though not entirely true, of the 1970s and 1980s. Finn certainly notes this but perhaps he fails to appreciate how this was in stark contrast to the IRA of the revolutionary era, which was far more socially diverse. Hence one veteran of the Easter Rising recalled his comrades as composed of ‘doctors, solicitors, chemists and men who were prominent in the public life of the city, civil servants, tradesmen and school masters, as well as farmers, all of whom make up the decent citizens of a country.’

Ernie O’Malley’s worries on the eve of the Civil War that if the IRA did not move against the Free State then ‘our men (would) return to their farms, business(e)s or universities’ are illuminating in his assumptions about where IRA Volunteers came from.

If anything the poor were underrepresented among the ‘old’ IRA and it is a mistake to read the social background of modern Irish republicans back onto their forerunners.

One factor that republicans in different eras do have in common is an often extraordinary flexibility and ruthless political pragmatism.

So in 1920 Irish republicans could be simultaneously discussing political and military support with both the Bolsheviks and Benito Mussolini.


Finn gives a good overview of this historical background before beginning his main account during the 1960s. Here he rejects facile narratives about ‘Stalinism’ – often held to be at the core of the ‘Marxist leadership’ of what became ‘Official’ republicanism after the split of 1969.

Finn rather shows how fluid and often contradictory processes were at work in the movement’s move to the left under Cathal Goulding. As the IRA’s journal An t-Óglac argued during 1968 ‘if Socialism were imposed on us from outside it would be as alien as the British Imperial Capitalism which has been imposed on us from the outside … Hungary is a classic example of this.’

Commentators who have tended to stress the importance of the influence of British communist Desmond Greaves and his Irish co-thinkers Roy Johnston and Anthony Coughlan have often missed the eclectic nature of the thinking among republicans.

Indeed it says something for Johnson’s ‘influence’ that his Army Council colleagues planned a major armed robbery at Dublin airport (his workplace) and didn’t bother to inform him. A fuller examination of the politics of Greaves is also long overdue. His essentially nationalist ideology may help explain why today Coughlan applauds Nigel Farage as a ‘hero’ and describes Michael Gove as objectively on ‘the left.’

Finn points out that nationalism was a component of the civil rights movement as well as the social reformism of its more moderate elements.

Finn tends to be a little dismissive of the impact of republican agitation in the south (perhaps because in later years the Official republicans tended to overplay this). Yet government documents from 1969 suggest the Irish state was increasingly troubled by the IRA’s interventions into protest politics.

But it was republican activity in Northern Ireland which played a part in the civil rights movement’s emergence and hence provoked a ferocious unionist backlash.

Here Finn is right to critique those who paint the Burntollet march as the spark which derailed an otherwise steady progress to reform.

What is apparent, from even a cursory reading of newspaper reports from the time, is that nothing was clear. Nationalism was always a component of the Civil Rights movement. So, in August 1968, Kevin Agnew, a member of the executive of the Civil Rights Association, could state that he hoped to see:

‘the end of British rule in the not too distant future. If the [Unionist leaders] O’Neills and the Craigs and the others of their kind in the Stormont regime wanted to go with them, good luck to them. We can do without them here in this part of Ireland. Captain O’Neill is mistaken if he thinks any man or woman who loves Ireland is going to give loyalty to a British Queen in return for any wee job.’

A decade later Agnew addressed another rally where he asserted that ‘Ten years ago our battle cry was “We shall overcome”; today it is “Up the Provos.”

Civil rights then contained many elements and right from the beginning (and long before Burntollet) had encountered bitter opposition from unionists. 

The 1969 split and the southern dimension

Finn notes the importance of August 1969 in Belfast and the seminal role it played in the emergence of the Provos. But he does not repeat the standard clichés about what happened in Belfast and elsewhere.

Instead he tries to strike a balance in his discussion of the republican split, showing how a variety of influences were apparent on both sides.

I would have liked more on how civil rights impacted on southern politics and republicanism in the 26 counties more generally. Between 1968 and 1972 there was unprecedented mobilization in the Republic. This culminated in the three days following Bloody Sunday, during which a wave of unofficial strike action brought much of the state to a halt.

At that point, the Provisional’s leader Seán MacStoífáin could assert that ‘not since 1916 have the people of Ireland been so roused and determined to reunify this country.’  What is fascinating in retrospect is how shallow much of the identification with the northern struggle actually was. How to adapt to the quite distinct political atmosphere of the republic was a problem that dogged the Provisionals into the 1980s. But the IRA in the south are an important part of that story, as Gearóid Ó Faoleán’s A Broad Church shows. 

Provisional politics

A young Martin McGuinness in IRA uniform.

Finn does not ignore developments among the Official republicans and their progeny in the Irish Republican Socialist Party, but the Provisionals remain his main focus.

Here I would have liked him to devote as much attention to their politics as he does to the influence of groups like Peoples Democracy. Republicans sometimes displayed more nuanced attitudes towards the unionist community than did the far left.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill, occasionally caricatured as conservatives, held important talks with loyalist paramilitaries, described the Ulster Workers Council strike as being in the ‘Wolfe Tone tradition’ and stopped using the term ‘united Ireland’ because it alienated loyalists.

‘Traditionalist’ republicans could sometimes hold more nuanced attitudes towards unionists and loyalists than elements of the far left in the 1970s.

In contrast People’s Democracy’s characterization of unionists as ‘fascists’ could provide cover for a more basic sectarianism, leading the editor of its newspaper to describe the IRA’s killing of ten protestant workmen in 1976 as ‘inevitable and necessary’ (though many of his comrades rejected his argument, as indeed did Seán MacStíofáin).

Finn includes some comparison of the politics of Dublin’s An Phoblacht with Belfast’s Republican News but there is more to be said on the eclectic ideology of Provisionalism on this era.

It is difficult to imagine the current An Phoblacht carrying an article arguing that it was Cromwell’s soldiers who introduced republicanism to Ireland, but the paper did just that in 1978.

But whatever about the politics of the provos, it was, as Finn asserts the hunger strikes of 1980-81 that changed everything on the streets. Stuart Ross’s Smashing H-Block has provided a vivid picture of this movement; there is no denying its significance. But the numbers mobilized in the south were a fraction of those who marched in 1972, if substantially more politicized.

Politics vs Armed Struggle

Provisional IRA members in Belfast, 1980s.

After this point in his book Finn is really devoting as much discussion to Sinn Féin as to the IRA. To describe that relationship as ‘overlapping’ would be an understatement but it means that there is less detail about the IRA’s activities, which ultimately is what made their politics important.

In southern Ireland, for example, the IRA was able to maintain a structure of safe houses, billets, training camps and fund raising, which often depended on people with little formal identification with Sinn Féin’s politics.

Indeed supporters of mainstream political parties and people with conventional political views could support aspects of the IRA’s campaign.

In Dublin by the mid 1980s for example, republicans had become a driving force in the anti-drugs movement. There were people who had little interest in the killing of British soldiers but supported the IRA because it was prepared to shoot drug dealers.

Republican intervention in this issue reflected the desire of the post hunger-strike leadership to see political growth in the south. Danny Morrison, rightly identified as a key figure in the leadership’s thinking, argued in the early 1980s that ‘the Twenty-Six Counties (is) the key to the overall struggle … the movement has to get into the large-scale politicization of the young, especially the young people coming out of the ghettos of the larger cities and towns.’

Finn notes that neither the influence of censorship or revisionism, while important, can entirely explain the south’s rejection of republican justifications for the war.

What republicans found however, was that outside of the ‘ghettos’ (itself a revealing term) most southern workers remained impervious to their politics.

The armed struggle actually militated against wider political expansion, (a point sometimes lost on people retrospectively endorsing it). Successful IRA operations, such as killing British soldiers, gained few new voters, but unsuccessful ones, particularly with civilian victims, cost electoral support.

Finn notes one republican response in the shape of Morrison’s The Good Old IRA which compared the ‘old’ with the ‘new’ and concluded that there was not much difference. I suspect modern Sinn Féiners might wince at that pamphlet’s casual dismissal of popular mandates and some of its assertions would be hotly contested had they come from ‘revisionist’ historians.

And while it is true that many of the Provisional IRA’s tactics were not that different from those of 1919-21 version, to focus on their morality is to miss the point.  The key difference is levels of popular sympathy and mobilization, not to mention global support, in the context of a ‘world on fire’ after the Great War.

Finn is perceptive in accepting that neither the influence of censorship or revisionism, while important, can entirely explain the south’s rejection of republican justifications for the war. And he is surely right to suggest that the political context of the late 1980s made any kind of massive ‘Tet’ escalation, even with new Libyan weaponry unlikely to be successful. Some critics of the IRA leadership’s ultimate compromises refuse to see this; but there was a reason that the ‘old’ IRA achieved more with far less.

Peace and compromises

Many are determined to continually commemorate 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War but seem to learn nothing from them. In 1984 An Phoblacht/Republican News explained the Treaty by suggesting that Michael Collins ‘was flattered and fooled by the crafty smooth-talking British into betraying the cause he had fought for in exchange for false promises.’

Finn shows how political support for republicans grew after the hunger-strikes but then stagnated and declined. It was only well after the IRA ceasefires that their vote grew substantially.

Some critiques of modern republican leaderships have not developed very much from this. That the type of leadership Collins represented and their perception of what an independent Ireland would mean might have influenced his decisions seems less appealing than the belief that he was ‘fooled’ into signing the Treaty.

Finn shows how political support for republicans grew after the hunger-strikes but then stagnated and declined. South of the border Sinn Féin’s hopes for expansion were dashed in successive elections in 1987, 1989 and 1992. There, and not in the world of conspiracy, lies the explanation for the IRA’s ultimate destination.

Finn writes very convincingly about the shifts in republican politics that accompanied all this. But there could be a myriad of motivations for joining the IRA; age, location and class are all significant factors.  And the variety of politics which inspired the armed campaign at local level is more difficult to untangle; rural Tyrone is not Belfast, but Tyrone differs from Fermanagh, just as Newry differs from Derry.

Thousands of men and women passed through the IRA’s ranks and most have not (and indeed cannot) leave detailed accounts of their politics. The needs of the armed struggle also meant that armed robberies, smuggling and a whole host of activities that involved messy compromises at local level are part of the story. But while they are not easily slotted into political histories they sometimes provide explanations for why people make certain political choices.

What even the republican movements critics have to accept is that compromise has reaped political reward. The peace process has brought Sinn Féin, until recently led by veterans of the IRA’s long war, to the centre of mainstream politics, north and south. There is every chance of the party being in power in both jurisdictions in the near future.

Finn’s book is a very readable history of modern republicanism, which fought the longest armed campaign in Irish history

In the south, at least, this has less to do with the IRA then with the last recession, the housing crisis and the abject failures of the political establishment. However as Sinn Féin’s support has increased so has a largely rhetorical identification with the iconography of the armed struggle (probably more popular now than when it was actually taking place).

Continual revelations about the British state and its deep involvement in the North’s dirty war also means that many find the condemnations of republican violence to be one-sided and unconvincing.

Despite media hysteria about the danger of Ireland becoming a new Venezuela, Finn suggests that those seeking radical change from Sinn Féin are likely to be disappointed. Ironically the party has benefitted from southern voters general lack of interest in politics north of the border, whereby the party’s stances on issues like the collapse of the billionaire Seán Quinn’s empire have largely escaped examination.

Finn’s book is a very readable history of modern republicanism. It is also a useful guide to how a generation which fought the longest armed campaign in Irish history have arrived at a destination which none of them would arguably have ever taken up arms for.


One Man’s Terrorist is available for £16.99 or €20.98.

Brian Hanley is a historian. His most recent book is The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79.



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