"Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique - in the possession of what is known as a 'physical force party' - a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force - [A party that] exalts into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon - men as the only means of attaining it." — James Connolly, 1899
The special Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin, on January 27, 2007 decided, in principle, to recognise the reorganised Royal Ulster Constabulary, now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to support it in policing the Six Counties.
There were qualifications, which may be politically important in the weeks ahead. Recognition of the PSNI is coupled with the re-establishment of a power-sharing Government in Belfast, and that depends on Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist party.
Even so, the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis's decision in principle is of enormous significance for the Irish Republican movement. With that decision, the provisional Republican movement has abolished the last important distinction between Sinn Fein (now, so to speak, incorporating the disbanded IRA) and the constitutional nationalists of the SDLP, who had opposed the Provos' 23-year war.
The Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein waged its quarter-century war from early 1971 until August 1994 (and resumed it briefly, and only in Britain, in 1996-7). Though British soldiers killed and were killed, and though the IRA said and believed that it was fighting Britain's "Crown forces", that war was fundamentally, a civil war.
It was fought against the Protestant-Unionist Six County population. Against their economy - the centres of most towns were bombed into smithereens, some more than once. And against those of them enrolled in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the soldiers of the locally-raised Ulster Defence Regiment.
For the Protestant Unionists too it was a civil war - a civil war waged often by the random sectarian slaughter of Catholics.
Which of the objectives for which the IRA fought that quarter-century war have been gained?
* There is a formal British commitment to legislate for a united Ireland if a majority in Northern Ireland wants that. But that was already in place three and a half decades ago. Implicitly, it was there long before that. The first referendum on this question was held as long ago as March 1973.
* There will never again be government like that of the old Protestant majority rule, under which Northern Ireland was governed for fifty years, governed under blatantly sectarian rule. But Protestant majority rule was abolished in March 1972. Since then the Northern Ireland Catholics have exercised a veto over majority rule in the Six Counties.
* Any future Belfast government will operate by way of obligatory power-sharing. Ian Paisley and the DUP being willing, the consequence of the recognition of the PSNI at the Ard Fheis, will be that Sinn Fein will once again go into such a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government in Belfast.
But Catholic-Protestant power sharing as the precondition for any sort of Northern Irish self-government from Belfast was established by the Sunningdale Agreement as long ago as November 1973.
The first such government was set up as long ago as January 1974 - neither the DUP-Paisleyites nor the IRA-Sinn Fein took any part in it Ñ between the Catholic Nationalists and the then mainstream Unionists.
It was brought down and destroyed by a combination of the IRA's war and, decisively, by a Protestant General Strike.
A number of efforts to re-establish it were made over the years between the fall of the Belfast government in May 1974 and the Good Friday Agreement 24 years later.
Power-sharing government was an established principle of future Northern Ireland governments for the two bloody decades before the IRA's ceasefire of August 1994.
A different model of power-sharing, which was less intricately sectarian in its structure, and which did not stipulate as a precondition of Belfast self-government that the political "extremes" - Sinn Fein/IRA and the Paisleyites - must participate in it.
What in terms of uniting Ireland has been gained?
* Dublin has a major involvement as LondonÕs partner in deciding what happens in Northern Ireland.
But that system was set up by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, nine years before the IRA stopped their war. Dublin in fact had already played a major time at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement a dozen years earlier.
* There is a Council of Ireland, loosely linking North and South.
But such a council was already part of the Sunningdale Agreement signed by London, Dublin and the SDLP constitutional
nationalists and the old mainstream Unionists - Paisley is now the "mainstream" Unionist! - in November 1973, (under which the early 1974 power sharing government was created in Belfast. The one destroyed by the IRA and the Paisleyites, the main partners in any new power-sharing government in Belfast).
True, the attempt to activate that part of the Sunningdale Agreement which stipulated a Council of Ireland was a major grievance of the Orange General Strike of May 1974. If the IRA had called off their war after the Sunningdale Agreement, it probably wouldnÕt have been.
Leaving the Protestant Unionists aside, what did the Catholic nationalists gain from the last 22 of the 23 years of war?
What was achieved in the 25 years between Sunningdale and the Good Friday Agreement?
Unless one counts the dead, the Catholics shot at random by Unionist paramilitaries lashing out at those they believed succoured the IRA, those killed in IRA explosions, shootings, the policemen and the UDR men shot in front of their families in their own front rooms, the IRA members and unaffiliated Catholic civilians shot by the British - nothing else!
Nothing at all? Nothing at all!
If any or all of the things won can be claimed as the result of the IRA war - and the destruction of Protestant majority rule can reasonably be claimed for that - they were won already in the first year of the 23 year war.
Nothing else has been gained.
Correction: a party has gained - Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness play the leading role in nationalist politics which Gerry Fitt and John Hulme played at the time of Sunningdale. How many of the lives lost - many of them republican lives - was that substitution of one lot of constitutional nationalists for another worth?
The IRA war has been an exercise in which they have come in a large bloody circle all the way round to the politics of the SDLP constitutional nationalists at the start of the 70s. An exercise in Republican militaristic futility!
The Sinn Fein/IRA Republicans themselves have travelled the road already travelled by numerous groups of republicans before them. People who, like the early Provos, defined revolutionary politics as essentially military politics and then, at a slower or quicker pace belatedly recognised "politics", and turned themselves into bourgeois and petit bourgeois social-conservative politicians.
Some Fenians, after the 1860s travelled that road. Michael Collins who fought the British (1919-21) did. So did physical force "De Valera Republicans" who lost the civil war of 1922-23. They took over the government of the Twenty Six Counties peacefully in an election in 1932 and ruled without a break Ñ and at the end very corruptly - for 16 unbroken years.
So did the physical force republicans of the 30s under Sean McBride.
So did the physical force men of the 40s and 50s, who went constitutionalist in the 60s (the Provisional IRA split from them in 1969-70). So now does Sinn Fein/IRA.
All these twentieth-century republican physical force groups took into mainstream bourgeois politics and into the political parties they set up large elements of the militaristic discipline of a paramilitary organisation. It made them very formidable. As tight-knit unprincipled political gangs, jockeying for power and good positions at the bourgeois feeding-trough.
Sinn Fein now - "incorporating" the Provisional IRA - is a formidable force, as well as being a phenomenally wealthy organisation.
There is a good chance that after the next Twenty Six County General Election in a year or so, Sinn Fein will become junior partner in a coalition government in the Twenty Six Counties with Fianna Fail - with De Valera's old party, the physical force republicans of the Civil War and the first half of the twenties.
It has long been the main party of the Irish bourgeoisie. It is notoriously, even extravagantly, corrupt.
The Provisional IRA was never in any but the most superficial sense a revolutionary movement. Their guiding assumption that Britain and not the will of the Irish Protestant Unionist majority in north-east Ulster was responsible for partition - and that partition could be ended by war - was never valid never an adequate appreciation of the Irish reality they aspired to reshape.
The Provisional IRA/Sinn Fein was a militaristic, sectarian movement of Northern Irish Catholics trapped within the artificial Six-County state.
As constitutional nationalists in Northern Ireland and in the south a new edition of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein is unlikely to be either a progressive or a benign force in Irish politics.
— Editorial, Solidarity, Feb. 9, 2207