The Provisional IRA exploded on the Irish political stage in 1969 and within two years was involved in a full-scale guerrilla war against British rule in Ireland. By the third year of its existence it had forced the collapse of the Northern Ireland government. British rule continued, only now it was directly administered from London and not through any subsidiary parliament in Belfast. The IRA's war against that rule continued for an additional 22 years but ultimately failed to overcome it.
As a 16-year-old, I succumbed to the magnetic lure of battle. The British army enraged rather than subdued me; IRA funerals inspired rather than deterred me. Phoenix-like, a people's army had arisen from the ashes of blazing Catholic homes to fight and die in the face of overwhelming odds.
And so as a young man not even out of my teens, I entered the ranks of this steely republican fighting machine. Within days I was pitting both my wits and my seriously inadequate sniping skills against the might of the British empire. I came through. Many others did not. Among those who died were the 10 hunger strikers in 1981.
I knew some of those hunger strikers from prison, where I spent 18 years for killing a loyalist paramilitary. I joined them in a prison protest after being informed by prison management that I was no longer a political prisoner but a common criminal. What transformed my status was simply the act of trying to escape.
I was in an army -- the IRA -- not a criminal gang. There was no way I would wear the prison uniform of the criminal. For the next three years I stayed naked, alongside hundreds of my comrades, our only cover prison blankets.
The British government never did succeed in forcing us to wear the criminal uniform. We forced it to concede to us the right to wear the clothes we waged war in: our own everyday apparel. Such was our collective determination to resist the label of criminality that we withstood everything the British state could throw at us, from deprivation to death. We were a world removed from the type of criminality that saw Robert McCartney stabbed to death Jan. 30 outside a Belfast bar by psychopathic thugs belonging to the IRA.
Upon my release in 1992, I made my way back into the organization to which I had given my most productive years. But it had changed. The totalitarian grip of its foremost leader, Gerry Adams, smothered any serious internal discussion. Adams surrounded himself with head-nodding lackeys rather than critical thinkers. Suffocated by mindless sycophants and hounded by thought police, I broke with the IRA completely in 1998.
The political timing for my departure was right. The IRA leadership had embraced defeat in its acceptance of the Good Friday agreement. That "solution," with its built-in guarantee of continued British rule, enshrined everything I had spent a lifetime opposing. I could accept defeat. It happens all the time in wars. I was not, however, prepared to celebrate it.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. Under the leadership of Adams, the IRA has lost its way and is now bereft of legitimate purpose. Without any strategic framework for securing the withdrawal of the British state from Ireland, the IRA is now little more than a fundraiser and enforcer for its political wing, Sinn Fein.
With the IRA no longer involved in a war to expel the British, a checklist of its activities suggests it is more like a national crime syndicate than a national liberation army: extortion, robberies, mutilations, intimidation and the occasional murder of members of its own community.
Despite the murder of McCartney, the vast bulk of IRA volunteers are not motivated by criminal intent. But they are victims of a leadership that has stained republicanism by using the tradition, legitimacy, heritage and ethos of yesteryear for a radically different project that enhances the power and prosperity of republican leaders but does nothing to further the republican objective of a united Ireland.
The IRA started out as a guerrilla army. It has since changed into an armed party militia, and is now in danger of becoming a gang. Republicanism still has a role to play. It has the capacity to remain faithful to its original promise to perform an emancipatory function without resorting to armed force and certainly not criminality. But it cannot do so under the autocratic leadership of Adams and his coterie of martial politicians. The project they continue to oversee has led to the IRA being termed the "Rafia" -- a hybrid of IRA and Mafia. Adams et al have one contribution to make to republicanism: They should stand aside and clear the way for others from within Sinn Fein to divest the cloak of criminality that has enveloped a once honorable fight for freedom.