- - Thursday, December 26, 2019

After more than three decades of civil war between the militant groups of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, this conflict was resolved in the late 1990s with the British- and Irish-governments’ mediated peace agreement.

In the aftermath of this power-sharing settlement, it was hoped that it would lead to political stability and prosperity for this historically conflicted province, which is part of the United Kingdom. 

In the current period, however, the pending Brexit deal between Britain and the EU is expected to negatively affect Northern Ireland, as the province is inextricably linked economically to its southern Republic of Ireland neighbor, which is part of the EU.

This is briefly discussed toward the end of this highly informative book about the origins and evolution of Sinn Fein (“We Ourselves”), the IRA’s political front. It represents a dark cloud over the culmination of the numerous efforts by Sinn Fein’s leaders to moderate their movement’s initial objectives to establish a unified Ireland with a negotiated settlement reached between the Province’s Catholic and Protestant communities to end their long history of intercommunal conflict.

What is astonishing about this conflict, author Daniel Finn explains, is that for 30 years Northern Ireland “was the site of a war without parallel in modern European history,” with the British army facing “an enemy that lurked in the shadows, wearing denim, not khaki, armed with light weapons and homemade explosives” that presented to the United Kingdom an “unprecedented security challenge in [its] backyard.” 

This conflict produced one of the highest casualty figures for a Western country. Out of Northern Ireland’s population of an estimated 1.8 million (with 48 percent Protestant and 45 percent Catholic), it led to 3,500 deaths and 48,000 injuries over a 30-year period, with 70 percent of them civilians. This would be equivalent to U.S. figures of 600,000 deaths and almost 9 million injuries.    

On the military front, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which later became the Provisional IRA (PIRA), numbered several thousand members. Its terrorist attacks, according to the author, were responsible for nearly half of the conflict’s deaths.  

While numerous books have been written about the PIRA (popularly known as the IRA), this book is one of the few to focus on its political front, Sinn Fein. The London-based author is a veteran journalist who has long covered Sinn Fein, and this book reads like an insider’s account of the evolution of Sinn Fein’s political objectives. 

As the author explains, Sinn Fein’s role was “to function as a bridge between the underground activities” of the IRA and the Province’s Catholic population, with no contradiction seen between political engagement and the use of terrorism. This led the party’s leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, to be accused of “representing the party in public while directing the IRA’s military campaign from behind closed doors.”

After being banned for many years in the United Kingdom, Sinn Fein was legalized to contest parliamentary elections in 1974. In a further step, in 1981 Sinn Fein’s conference authorized the party to contest every subsequent election.

From this period onward, the Sinn Fein’s primary rival as the representative of Irish nationalism was the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), a moderate, middle class party led by John Hume. Sinn Fein’s constituency was considered more “working class.” 

Interestingly, the author points out that in the late 1980s Sinn Fein’s leadership was influenced by the example of the South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), where the guerrilla movement was “unable to secure outright victory” through insurgent means, so it decided to achieve its goals through a negotiation process with the South African government.

This led Sinn Fein’s leadership, which realized that the IRA’s violent struggle had reached a futile dead end, to “discreetly” open a communications backchannel with the British government, which, itself, had realized it could not defeat the IRA militarily.

In a parallel development, Mr. Adams and Mr. Hume had developed a close working relationship, which led both of them in the early 1990s to draft an “Irish Peace Initiative” on principles for the conflict’s peaceful settlement. This, in turn, led to the more formal “Downing Street Declaration of December 1993,” which was followed by a reciprocal ceasefire by the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries in August 1994.

David Trimble, the leader of the [Protestant] Ulster Unionist Party, also joined the peace process which was effectively managed by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister). This is how the power-sharing arrangement of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of April 1998 was reached, with the further support of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. 

In resolving terrorist insurgencies, the IRA and Sinn Fein are considered templates for successful conflict resolution, as they possessed the foresight and pragmatism to moderate their early extremist positions to join a peace process to resolve their conflict. This book’s account of how Sinn Fein’s leaders played an instrumental role in making this possible is an indispensable guide to understanding how this template can — and cannot — be applied to resolving other terrorist conflicts, as well.   

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C,-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

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By Daniel Finn

Verso, $26.95, 288 pages

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