A Brief Note on ‘Agency’

The Arkiv review of Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, drew attention to the weakness of those arguments which alone blame ‘the alleged crimes of the British state and its surrogates for provoking the conditions which led to the Provisional campaign’. That review proposed that the IRA’s ‘Long War’, which caused the deaths of some 2000 people, was not ‘other directed’ but represented the ‘Provisionals’ own decision to recalibrate their strategy’. The matter which requires further consideration here is the question of ‘agency’.

The contention that violence is simply a by-product of objectively given conditions is an interesting claim and it is worth interrogating further. The ‘other-direction’ or external determinism of that claim reduces social actors, even ones as ideologically motivated as the Provisional IRA, to that of the mute, impassive, participants in a drama. It suggests that members had no choice but to rage violently against the system, irrespective of whether that system might be reformed by other means (which is now, post 1998 accepted as a legitimate political strategy). Equally, they had no responsibility for judging whether that rage actually achieved any tangible goals or outcomes. They might have been responsible for over 2000 deaths, and the main engine of a wider conflicted that resulted over 3,500 deaths, but this campaign is covered by the blanket of a collective ‘human tragedy’.

Equally, Loyalist paramilitaries have cited in defence of their activity the claim that Northern Ireland was (and remains) a uniquely ‘abnormal society’. Therefore abnormal behaviour (murder and mayhem) was another human tragedy and a product of that condition. Yet comparative politics show that the problems of Northern Ireland are far from unique and that a contest of allegiances is far from exceptional. If there was (and remains) anything abnormal about Northern Ireland it was the choice and the sustained determination by paramilitary groups on both sides to address those problems with guns and explosives.

It seems to be rarely acknowledged by those who argue this way that the removal of ‘strategic choice’ from the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries succeeds only in pathologizing their violence. Interestingly, this position mirrors that of conventional terrorism studies which in the past routinely viewed terrorist acts as inherently irrational. Ironically, the claim that agency was denied by the situation simply re-asserts the idea of political violence and those who conducted it as purely psychotic in nature.

Of course, as we know (and as the recent interview with the veteran republican Billy McKee in the TV programme The Disappeared revealed honestly) no self-respecting IRA member believes that they operated without choice, plans or goals. No IRA member thinks their campaign was an unfortunate accident of fate rather than part of a self-conscious tradition of armed struggle. That is the further irony of all such arguments: that they seek to de-politicize action and render it ‘mindless’ (which is a familiar popular description). These kinds of pathologizing approaches are ultimately incoherent. They are both proclaimed at one moment (we were all caught up in events) and denied at another (we

The self-refuting nature of this argument leads to other, slightly more sophisticated, defences. One of these is the doctrine of inevitability: that violence was a necessary stage on the way to peace (more popular after the Belfast Agreement than before it). Take, for example, the claim of Labour MP John McDonnell ten years ago that ‘without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years’ the Belfast Agreement ‘would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgement we would have no peace process’ (McDonnell 2003). It was unfortunate, understandable, but ultimately cathartic. This is not to deny that some people were caught up in events and reacted to circumstances over which, individually, they had little control. But political violence was the exception not the rule. Few people in Northern Ireland acted out that ethic of violent necessity.

The balance between personal agency and social conditioning is one over which philosophers and latterly psychologists have long argued. For example, over 200 years ago, in an occasional newspaper article, Hegel identified the problem as ‘abstract thinking’. For Hegel, to think abstractly meant to abstract one aspect of a complex reality and to hold firmly to it as if it were the only truth. Rather provocatively, Hegel illustrated his point by reference to the spectacle of the public execution. ‘This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality’. That is one form of abstract thinking. The other is to see nothing of the murder in the murderer. On the one side are those who can see nothing of circumstance but only evil and those who see nothing of the evil but only circumstance. According to Hegel:

‘One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther were meant’.

It is clear that Hegel understands the complexity of an historical event and, to use present day jargon, wishes to ‘contextualise’ the actions of individuals, relating them to experience and conditions. However, it is also clear what he is not doing. His reference to Goethe’s Werther means that he is not excusing actions or contextualising them away. The criminal act remains criminal. And the criminal remains accountable at law. To think otherwise, in Hegel’s view, would only represent what he dismissed as ‘a kind of slovenly sociability between sentimentality and badness’. What he implies is that the acknowledgement of personal responsibility is the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is obvious to acute observers of Northern Ireland.

For example, Malachi O’Doherty addressed the idea that IRA violence was the unfortunate result of being trapped by history and he observed: if republicans were trapped in anything they were trapped in their own tradition. In that tradition they were active participants and not passive victims. In O’Doherty’s words, republicans ‘had always made choices and they had often made bad or inappropriate choices’. Most of what the IRA did was calculated, tactically and strategically, and it was just not true that ‘the IRA campaign was a necessary phase in the readjustment of the constitutional anomaly created in 1921’ (O’Doherty 1998: 200-1).

That the political leaders of republicanism and loyalism have now ‘taken ownership’ of the Agreement is a welcome exercise in acknowledging agency but that ownership calls into question previous denials. Their choice of peace is to their credit. This credit should not exculpate their responsibility. Equally, those in the security forces responsible for criminal acts cannot escape their responsibility for agency either.

In short, there is no such thing as spontaneous or reflexive violence. The violent act, as the Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, is always a purposive one intended to fulfill political will. The use of violence, in other words, is always instrumental, and those who engage in it, for whatever reason, have agency and rationality. In that sense, the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries were goal seeking, political actors.

That recognition also confers the understanding that they are also moral actors who consciously weigh up their ways and means in order to reach their ends. Ultimately, they had – and have a choice, as do we all – even if that choice was not to do something. Choices, of course, always involve consequences. If a political actor has strategic agency, he or she is endowed with moral agency as well and becomes accountable for his or her actions. After thirty years of violence, no doubt, there are likely to be many families who will surely wish that the choices – and the agency – of those engaged in political violence had been very different.


O’Doherty, M. (1998) The Trouble with Guns. Republican strategy and the Provisional IRA, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press.

Hegel, GWF (1808?) Who Thinks Abstractly? In Walter Kaufmann. Hegel: Texts and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), pp. 113-118.

McDonnell, J (2003) ‘Why I stood up for Bobby Sands’ The Guardian, 3 June