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IRA: Is It Really the End of “the armed struggle”?

“The leadership of Oglaigh na h’Eireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. This will take effect from 4pm this afternoon. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms” (Extract from IRA statement of 28 July)

So the IRA has given up the gun for the ballot box – but not for the first time.

In 1956 it was reluctantly pushed by its young activists to begin a ‘Border Campaign’. Within a few months the campaign had deteriorated into cutting down a few telegraph poles and issuing grandiose statements about the activities of their commandos. Away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic this new phase of the interminable ‘troubles’ was hardly noticed. Everybody but the IRA knew their campaign was going nowhere. Internment, both in the north and in the south, emaciated the movement and inevitably internal disputes in the internment camps began to fester among the volunteers.

It took the IRA’s Army Council five more years before it announced the formal termination of the Border Campaign but at last, in 1962, Oglaith na hEireann, the Irish Republican Army, issued what was as near as possible a notice of surrender. It admitted that it had not achieved the necessary support from the nationalist (Catholic) community in Northern Ireland; in fact it castigated the nationalists claiming that they had sold ‘their heritage for a mess of pottage’ – a reference to the scheme of welfare capitalism introduced in Britain after the war and extended to Northern Ireland.

Henceforth, the IRA was taking the gun out of Irish politics – the IRA spokesperson, the legendary ‘P O’Neill’, actually said that – and would confine its activities to political campaigns on social issues.

Behind the scenes a coterie of Leninists had defeated the death-or-glory boys of traditional Republicanism and took control of the IRA’s Army Council. This element saw the IRA as the nucleus of a political movement that would use the atrocious political and social conditions in the North as a catalyst for uniting workers who traditionally opposed one another on religious grounds. The Rosary brigade, those for whom republicanism and Catholicism were synonymous terms, were appalled by this ‘rank communism’ and left the movement.

The IRA then transformed itself into ‘Republican Clubs’ in furtherance of its plans. Up to then, the Unionist government had claimed to accept the right of republicans to use constitutional means to achieve a united Ireland. Such a claim did not represent a political threat to Unionism, which, at the birth of the state in 1921, had helped demographically tailor the territory of Northern Ireland to ensure that they had a two-to-one majority based on the religious topography of the six north-eastern counties of the ancient Province of Ulster. Despite this guarantee, they immediately banned the Republican Clubs.

Traditionally, the IRA had based its claim to use physical force on the results of the elections of 1918 which was the last general election held in Ireland before the country was arbitrarily divided by the British government. Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, won an overall majority in that election and established the first Dail Eireann which was effectively banned by the British.

Six counties

A brutal guerrilla war ensued during which the Westminster politicians showed that they were the ‘moral’ equal of those they called terrorists by recruiting mercenaries who terrorised the populace in an effort to frighten support away from the IRA. The tactic had the reverse effect but eventually, as now, British ministers sat down with the ‘terrorists’. Under threat, an unsatisfactory peace deal was negotiated which divided Ireland into the 26-county Irish Free State and the 6-county state of Northern Ireland.

This ‘solution’ split the IRA and resulted in a bloody civil war between Free State forces – armed by the British – and a rump of the IRA who were dubbed ‘Irregulars’. The latter, the ideological antecedents of the present Provisional IRA, were defeated and they and their followers glumly pronounced that both the new governments on the Island of Ireland were ‘illegal’ and a betrayal of the holy grail of ‘The Republic’ as proclaimed by the new-born IRA in the insurrection of 1916. Dail Eireann, the legend went, had transferred its executive authority to the Army Council of the IRA and, thenceforth, any group claiming to be the rightful heirs of the 1916 Declaration of the Republic could grandiosely claim to be the de facto government of Ireland.

The political leader and, then, icon of the defeated Irregulars was Eamon De Valera. Despite being the main architect of the politics that resulted in the Civil War ‘Dev’, as he was known, was a pragmatic politician who realised the absurdity of further military adventures against the Free State. In 1926 he formed a new political party, Fianna Fail, to challenge the party in government, Cumann na nGaedheal (later, as now, Fine Gael) and in 1932 Fianna Fail won an outright victory at a general election and De Valera became Taoiseach. It was a bad day for later incarnations of the IRA, for despite having created the genre of dissident Republicans, Dev, who held power until 1948, proved a bitter, even vicious, enemy of the IRA.

The modern IRA

It is important to take this brief look back at the history of the IRA because it raises an important question. Following the Civil War in 1922, the split within the movement and then the desertion of De Valera, the organisation never regained any real political influence in Ireland until 1970 and the establishment of yet another breakaway movement, the Provisional IRA.

The IRA admitted in 1962 that the Northern Catholic nationalists had not supported its brief, inglorious ‘border campaign’ but what were the new material conditions that brought about general Catholic support for the Provisional IRA after 1970? And what lessons may it have for the future, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain which is now facing a terrorist threat of an even more menacing kind?

The IRA’s 1962 decision to pursue a constitutional campaign based on social issues paradoxically fused with an aspect of the new mood of northern nationalists who had earlier rejected the IRA. Generally, after the war and the benefits of some UK social reforms, nationalists were becoming increasingly reconciled to acceptance of the northern state. In 1965 Britain and the Republic of Ireland signed a Free Trade Agreement and after this the few nationalist politicians in the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont accepted the role (and the salaries) of Her Majesty’s Opposition. But, if they were going to be loyal then they wanted the apparatus of religious discrimination and vote-rigging to be dismantled.

What happened was that the Republicans managed to tap into this mood. Unionist politicians and fascist-type bigots like the hot-gospeller Ian Paisley, were to claim that the subsequent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement was a creature of the IRA but it wasn’t this simple; in fact it was established by a younger, more active genre of nationalists, products of the 1944 British Education Acts, and it resulted in a coalescing of anti-Unionist factions including the IRA in its Republican Clubs incarnation.

Taking its cue from the American Civil Rights campaign, the new movement adopted the name Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and proceeded to use the same tactics of massed demonstrations and protests in pursuit of its demands. The Unionist Prime Minister, Captain Terence O’Neill, was not averse to granting the basic demands of the NICRA and had he been able to do so it is likely that Catholic nationalist anger would have been defused and the violence of the following thirty years avoided but Paisley was rousing old anti-Catholic bigotries in the unionist community – and, incidentally, using that bigotry to forge a political career that would bring rewards well beyond his modest Bible-thumping talents.

Faced with government bans, NICRA turned to civil disobedience and the government ordered the armed police, which the Unionists had traditionally used as their private army, to use force against ‘illegal’ demonstrations. Television pictures showing the police (RUC) attacking non-violent marchers were flashed around the world much to the discomfort of the British government which was the ultimate authority in Northern Ireland.

Events were hurrying towards a bitter sectarian pogrom. Protestant loyalists, assisted by the B Specials (an exclusively Protestant paramilitary auxiliary police force) torched Catholic homes; some ex-IRA men went to the Dublin leadership of the IRA to seek arms to defend the Catholic ghettoes in Belfast and Derry and were told that IRA arms would not be made available for sectarian warfare. In Belfast, Republican dissidents were appalled at this response; the ‘communist’ leadership was denounced by much of the rank-and-file and the Provisional IRA was born, leaving two IRA’s –the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA, both claiming to be the executive heirs of the only legitimate Dial Eireann. Extreme Catholic conservatives within the Irish government, fearful of the consequences of ‘communist’ influences, helped to procure arms for the new PIRA

Pawns in a game

The rest is the story of the brutal conflict that became Northern Ireland’s ‘Dirty War’. Now the IRA is standing down its foot soldiers. There were three sides to the war: the British Army/RUC, the Provisional IRA and the various Protestant paramilitary organisations. As a first step in accounting, we can say that none can claim victory. It is always the working class that make up the pawns in armies, legal and illegal, and the end of a war never brings them victory. The other thousands who died were just the innocent victims of those who were at war.

Ironically, Paisley’s strident anti-Catholicism played a major role in galvanising the Catholics into open rebellion. ‘No truck with Dublin’ has been his war cry but his hard-line bigotry has now brought about a situation of virtual joint authority between London and Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Paisley, whose fight for Ulster went only as far as throwing snowballs at Jack Lynch when he visited Stormont as Irish Taoiseach, is obliged to discuss policy with both the British and Irish Prime Ministers.

On the other hand, the Provisional IRA, whose war aim was to end partition, drive out the British and abolish the state of Northern Ireland have succeeded only in establishing a claim to be part of the political administration of the state they set out to abolish!

Eventually the politicians on both sides will have to reach an accommodation to work the structures of government established by the Good Friday Agreement. The salaries and the expenses are good and the leaders can write of a finish to a satisfactory war.

But what have the workers across the infamous religious divide got? As so many times before, they have simply been used as pawns.

RICHARD MONTAGUE