Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

December Books 9) The I.R.A., by Tim Pat Coogan

The first edition of this book was published in 1969, and the pre-1969 text takes up slightly more than half of my fourth edition from 1994. This earlier core is an excellent historical analysis of a paramilitary movement which had at one point been central to Irish politics and had steadily been moved more and more to the fringes, as decade after decade crucial members of the leadership either defected to democratic politics or died (often through violence). Coogan has got deeply into his subject and assembled names, dates, numbers (though I can't quite believe that the I.R.A. still had 30,000 members by the late 1920s - they would surely have had more of an impact if that were the case) and has a detailed picture of who the I.R.A. were and also why it didn't really matter that much in the context of how politics developed in the Irish Free State, and eventually the Republic of Ireland.

Unfortunately the book is probably more often bought and read for the second half, the post-1969 story, which has several very serious flaws.

First, from the narrative point of view, Coogan skips over the 1969 split between the Provos and the Stickies with indecent haste and almost no detail, in stark contrast to the chapter and verse he gave for the divisions between the 'mainstream' I.R.A. and other micro-groups in the previous four or five decades. It means that the subsequent description of the activities of the Provisionals and the Officials is almost without context of why they became two separate organisations. There are other gaps, but this is the most serious one and it is pretty huge.

Second, from the analytical point of view, Coogan has the Dublin journalist's tin ear for Northern politics. He makes little of the differing agendas of the British Government, the mainstream Unionists, and the Loyalist paramilitaries. The 1974 power-sharing executive and Brian Faulkner are barely mentioned. In the short paragraph on the 1982 Assembly, almost every detail is wrong apart from the name of the body and the year in which it was elected. This persistent indifference to accuracy on such points may well reflect the interests of his subject matter and core readership as well as his own preferences, but it means that the casual reader expecting to find guidance on the wider Northern Irish political situation here will be not only disappointed but misled.

Third, from the organisational point of view, the claim on the back cover that the fourth edition has been 'completely updated and revised' is simply incorrect. While the earlier material is clearly the work of a historical thinker presenting his material in a careful structure, the successively bolted-on chapters for the later editions are poorly organised and sometimes repetitious, with no pause for global reflection.

Fourth, from the moral point of view, the missing element - for those of us who are not in Coogan's core audience, the readership in the Republic, who may be more likely to have an instinctive understanding of this issue - is any serious analysis of how and why opinion in the Twenty-Six Counties swung both against and in favour of the Republican agenda over the years. I remember vividly both the H-Block demonstrations of 1981, and the post-Warrington demonstrations of 1993. Coogan gives many other examples of popular support for Irish prisoners but deep popular disapproval of the barbarous acts that they have committed, going back over the decades. I'd love to read some decent unpacking of how and why the plain people of Ireland have been able to discriminate between men and method in this way, and am disappointed that Coogan, well-placed to do so, has not provided it.

Having said all that, there are some other interesting points in the second half. I hadn't realised that Greek Cypriots were so closely involved with the arming of the Provos - not only as middle-men for Arab suppliers (as is to be expected given the geography and geopolitics) but, Coogan suggests, directly as well. More recently, Coogan's analysis of the correspondence between the I.R.A. and the British government in the early 1990s is detailed and useful, though unfortunately lacks a balancing perspective from the British side (not that there is likely much that could be added, but the gap is there). More tellingly than perhaps intended, his profile of Gerry Adams betrays hypnotised fascination with his subject rather than any real unpacking of said subject's political agenda.

Anyway. There are many better books than this about Irish history since 1969 (and in fairness Coogan may have written one or two of them himself). But the first half is an excellent micro-study of a dangerous fringe movement. And I'm grateful to him also for quoting one of my own father's best lines, regarding a small rabid Catholic movement of the 1950s: "Perhaps it was only a lunatic fringe, but it was still of interest as a symptom. One can learn something of the tendencies in a society by observing on which particular fringe of it the lunatics break out."
Tags: bookblog 2010, world: ireland

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