The English Irish Rebel and the Protestant Republican

I’ve just submitted my first piece for inclusion in New Socialist, a lengthy interview with Daniel Finn on his recent Verso publication “One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA”. Daniel was incredibly kind and giving of his time and we ended up speaking for the best part of 3 hours, covering a range of topics on the history of modern Irish republicanism. We discussed the intersecting and often strained relationship (or lack thereof) between Marxism and national liberation that influenced the various strands of republicanism in the latter half of the previous century, be they Official, Provisional or Republican Socialist, through to self perceptions of the British and Irish states during the Troubles. We touched on the inadequecy of certain dominant, overly simplified narratives to analyse the conflict (aggravated criminality/purely religious motivations) and the material reality of the unprecedented inequality that existed in the north of Ireland and led to the founding of the Provisionals in December 1969. Daniel also outlined the evolution of Sinn Fein strategy post-Good Friday Agreement and broke down some of their achievements and restrictions in terms of the hierarchy of political goals that have defined them as a party since their founding.

I’m excited for the release of the edited transcript and will be sure to link to it here when the latest edition of New Socialist is published.

During my conversation with Daniel it was inevitable that two names should come up, both of whom I’m itching to write more about when I get the chance. I’ve long been utterly fascinated by the life of both Seán Mac Stíofáin and Ronnie Bunting, not least because they both rose to the very top level of command and influence in the PIRA and INLA respectively, while famously hailing from backgrounds resolutely incongruous for two so militantly committed to physical force republicanism.

Sean Mac Stíofáin was a Londoner with only tenuous Irish heritage (a great grandmother), a notoriously devout Catholic who was famously unwilling to move contraception across borders after a contraband heist by his Active Service Unit. It was said by some of his contempraries that a sense of inadequacy in relation to his origins led to a desire to outdo his Irish born comrades in the movement and emphasise his singular commitment to armed struggle over anything approaching the political. Cathal Goulding, his one time cellmate (Goulding taught Mac Stíofáin his first words in Gaelic during their incarceration) and the figure most responsible for the Official movements eventual turn towards an orthodox Leninist political line via a civil rights and agitational program, could be particularly scathing of his former associate and his inability to view events ublinkered by the singular concerns of phsyical force.

In turn Mac Stíofáin, counterposed as the hyper-committed army man in this intertwined and uneasy relationship between politician and militarist so familiar in the history of Irish republicanism, (a defining feature of the movement), was a stinging critic of the IRA/SF left turn, castigating the influence of Marxist intellectuals such as C Desmond Greaves and Roy Johnston on the Goulding leadership as that of a malign foreign ideology alien to Ireland. It’s likely it was the influence of Mac Stíofáin, along with his fellow, more socially conservative IRA men such as Billy McKee (the Provisional OC in Belfast) , that was responsible for a notorious early editorial in An Phoblacht denouncing condoms as a British plot to sow degeneracy in Ireland.

In years to come, as the leadership of the republican movement would be taken up by “69ers”, that is to say, volunteers and activists who came of age at the outset of the Troubles as opposed to during the IRA Border Campaign of the 1950’s (or even earlier). Their lengthy spells reading, writing, discussing and thinking in Long Kesh would lead to them reformulating analyses of their own involvement in armed struggle as broadly analagous with third world national liberation movements from Palestine, South Africa, Vietnam and Nicaragua. The more more old fashioned fashioned catholic conservatism of Mac Stíofáin and McKee would be progressively sidelined, having largely been the personal preserve of its adherents in the first place and never fully reflective of what was a far more complex and hetrogenous movement in terms of political ideology and motivation than is often credited.

Mac Stíofáin’s nigh on parodical piousness would have been the kind of thing a young socialist like Ronnie Bunting might have had in mind when he opted to side with the Officials after the 1969 split in the movement. Committed to armed struggle as the only viable challenge to British imperial power in Ireland, but seeking an explicitly left agenda, Bunting would go on to side with Seamus Costello after his expulsion from the Officials, both having opposed that groups 1972 ceasefire. Bunting would go on to assume military leadership of the INLA, marshalling their operations during the period of their most high profile succesful operation, the assasination of Airey Neave by car bomb in London in March, 1979. Bunting was himself assasinated, along with fellow republican socialist Noell Lyttle, by the UDA, with alleged help from the SAS, soon after in 1980.

What links both men, outside of a shared commitment to removing the British presence in Ireland through force of arms, is the unusual and rare nature of their backgrounds as republicans. Mac Stíofáin was marked out due to his indirect and distant Irish heritage, something which I can only presume remained a source of some degree of self doubt and sensitivity for him. It is often said he went to great lengths to dispell any suspicions other republicans might have had of someone who spoke with a London inflected and semi-strained accent by foregrounding his traditionalist commitments on the majority of issues, attaining fluency in Gaelic and emphasising it as a symbol of his dedication to the cause. He had previously served in the RAF. As Brian Dooley has ably demonstrated in Choosing The Green? Second Generation Irish and the Cause of Ireland, Mac Stíofáin is hardly unique in regard to being a non-Irishman who identified strongly enough with that aspect of his (admittedly distant, but nonetheless real) ancestry to take up arms against the country of his birth. But he might be the most prominent.

Ronnie Bunting - Wikipedia
Ronnie Bunting

Yet Bunting’s background is even more jarring. In a movement comprised almost entirely of young, working class men and women from poorer areas of the north, he was not only protestant but the son of Major Ronald Bunting, a Paisley supporting British army officer active in opposing the very same civil rights campaigns that the young Ronnie had been inspired by to fight for social justice and had precipitated his turn towards revolutionary Marxism. It was a source of great embarassment to the Major that his sons political direction would differ so profoundly to his own.

Mac Stíofáin is probably the more well known figure these days, by dint of his involvement in the armed struggle having both significantly preceded and outlasted Bunting’s. Bunting would have been just 5 years old when Mac Stíofáin was first imprisoned in 1953 for an arms raid at an army officer training school in Essex, after having previously founded a London IRA unit. Mac Stíofáin also came to prominence at a time in the early 1970’s when it was common for IRA leaders to be publicly acknowledged, and for them to publicly acknowledge their membership. The famous press conference involving Provisional leadership figures Mac Stíofáin, Seamus Twomey, Daithi O Conaill and a young Martin McGuinness is perhaps the most well known example of this, but there are video clips elsewhere online of Mac Stíofáin being openly interviewed about IRA activity in the 1970’s. He also featured, later in his life, in Peter Taylor’s landmark BBC documentary series Provos from 1997, produced to coincide with the early days of the Good Friday Agreement, but he had suffered a stroke before filming commenced and his contributions are therefore more strained.

My interest in both men and the material realities and life experiences that motivated their decisions is partly due to a fascination with how their uncharacteristic backgrounds sat with their commitment to physical force republicanism. Both are outliers I’m hoping to be commissioned to explore more about at length and I’ll be pitching a feature on their lives to a few different publications in the not so distant future.

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