From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 16 – the Brits and the IRA

I have already put up a number of posts on the politics of the IRA, beginning here, so I won’t repeat myself too much here.  In narrating the start of ‘the Troubles’ it should be recalled that despite its split in 1969/70 the growth and reorganisation of both IRAs did not immediately translate into widescale and open fighting.  The first British soldier was not killed until 6 February 1971.  In Derry Eamonn McCann records that ‘in the spring of 1971 the Provisional IRA in Derry for practical purposes did not yet exist;’ and when they did start shooting at the British Army ‘it can be doubted whether initially there was mass support for this escalation.’

For ‘the Troubles’ to take the form that they did, dominated by armed republican action and a counterinsurgency campaign by the British state, which employed loyalist paramilitaries as auxiliaries, the key ingredient was the development of complete disaffection of the Catholic population from the Northern State and the necessary ground this provided for the IRA to grow and operate. Even then, the political mobilisation of the Catholic population lasted only a few years after 1969, before the prorogation of Stormont and British refinement of repression placed that mobilisation in a strategic bind, without the ability to realistically take the initiative or seriously impose its own political solution.  Thereafter its political mobilisation was a defensive one dominated by campaigns against repression – against internment, against Diplock courts, criminalisation of their struggle, against shoot to kill etc. etc.

The Provisional IRA conceived and presented its campaign as an offensive one aimed at expulsion of the British presence; but when faced with political negotiations that produced ceasefires it was utterly unable to press this solution on the British, despite illusions that this is what the British wanted.

Without a political programme short of this ultimate objective the Provisionals put forward positions that fell far short of a united Ireland and involved no necessary transition to it. An illustration of this is the front page of An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper, on 24 December 1972, at the height of the IRA’s campaign, which said that the four preconditions for an end to the IRA campaign was abolition of repressive legislation, British troops to be withdrawn, release of all political prisoners and full support for civil rights.  ‘Then – and only then – will we have a true and lasting peace in Ireland.’

These bargaining positions co-existed with uncompromising rhetoric that suggested the movement was on the brink of victory. This was used to keep it united, and to sustain morale and support by presenting the movement as strong and confident. Without it the actual potential political gains that could be made from its struggle could never inspire the military campaign and the killing and sacrifice it necessarily entailed. The current political agreement championed by Sinn Fein would have been regarded as insulting and derisively dismissed by 1970’s Provisionals.

Sinn Fein has, although recently less and less, praised the IRA for its leadership in the struggle while at the same time saying that republicans had no choice but to take up arms.  However, one can hardly be praised for doing something for which one had no choice but to do.

One can also not be criticised for defending oneself against attack.  The problem is that the choice the Provisionals made was to launch an explicitly offensive campaign aimed at expelling the British Army.  For this and all its consequences it can be criticised for adopting an objective it could not achieve and for which it therefore necessarily adopted more and more desperate measures, illustrated for example by its expanding definition of ‘legitimate targets.’

The Official IRA claimed to adopt a purely defensive campaign, although it is clear from the split that led to the IRSP/INLA that this was either not supported by many of its members or not understood.  Eamonn McCann quotes one Official IRA member as saying ‘shooting soldiers is shooting soldiers’ and seemed to endorse this view – ‘the Officials claimed their campaign was ‘defensive’ and not ‘offensive’ a distinction too nice for anyone involved in the situation to understand’. (‘War and an Irish town’)

No distinction was understood because the armed struggle strategy of Irish republicans is a principle and not a political calculation, war is assumed and not a result of prior political analysis; war might be the pursuit of politics by other means but this simply indicates the poverty of republican politics.

It would be wrong however to blame republicans for ‘the Troubles’ even if they bear heavy responsibility for their actions and for the prolongation of their campaign over decades without the slightest chance of victory.  The cardinal responsibility belongs to the British State which decided to protect and defend a reactionary unionist regime that was never reconciled to civil rights for Catholics or for their equal political participation in society.

This defence led to extreme repression which involved daily humiliation and harassment and outright torture and murder. It is exemplified by events such as the Falls curfew in July 1970 in which a whole area was effectively put under martial law, was flooded with CS gas and in which the discharge of over 1,500 rounds resulted in the deaths of three civilians, none of whom were members of the IRA.  The British Government’s Lord Carrington later admitted the operation was counter-productive and illegal.

The British Army also learned that some of it actions were mistakes and changed its tactics, something the IRA failed to do, given the increasingly limited options it had available to it to allow it to keep fighting.  As Cathal Goulding, one-time leader of the IRA and then of the Officials stated, republicans had a strategy for fighting but not for winning.

The second major event was the introduction of internment on 9 August 1971 when 342 Catholic men were imprisoned without trial after widespread arrests beginning at 4.30 am in the morning.  Some 166 were later released but no loyalists at all were arrested.

The third was the murder of 14 civil rights demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry on 30 January 1972. The victims on this day were not only those murdered but also the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) which organised the demonstration.  A week later there was another huge demonstration in Newry but NICRA was effectively dead for the purposes of challenging the existing denial of civil rights and the imposition of sectarian suppression.  It had already for some time been evacuated by the most radical elements as the vehicle of protest and organisation.

All these actions by the British State were responsible for the creation of ‘the Troubles’ and all were deliberate actions following a preconceived policy.  They came to be regarded as mistakes only because they failed in their objective.  Other outcomes other than ‘the Troubles’ as defined above were possible but not after this.

This does not mean that after 1972 nothing could be done to change the course of events as they developed, but that is a new chapter of the story with which we will not be concerned.  In the next posts I will go back to the first in this series and look at the lessons for the Left arising from the civil rights campaign and the strategy and tactics that were discussed.

Back to Part 15

Forward to the first part of civil rights and socialist strategy

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