Why I think The IRA War was a failure…

Various posts by Mick Fealty and many others, most recently by Brian Walker in “Leave futile arguments about equivalence aside. We all need to come clean about why the Troubles lasted so unforgivably long” have asked us to re-examine culpability for the Troubles and the need to let the healing process proceed through a truth recovery process.

Despite their best efforts, the ensuing conversations have always descended into a welter of “whataboutery” and the sins of the other side. The attribution of relative fault and guilt between the various actors in that drama is always going to be a fraught exercise. Any historical narrative will always have to weave a complex web of action and reaction which is always open to challenge.

Any attempt to single out the actions of one side is always, by definition, going to be open to the charge of one-sidedness! But let us, for a moment consider the actions of the Republican movement in isolation, on its own terms. Did it meet its objectives? Was there no other way of meeting those objectives? And what have been the long-term consequences of the courses of action they chose?

I will leave it to others, better qualified than I, to consider the actions of others in similar terms.

I must also declare an interest here. As a teenager I was absolutely horrified by the events of Bloody Sunday. It gave me a sense of impotence in the face of gross injustice and led to a life-long search for how better to empower the powerless and ensure some sense of equality and justice could be achieved in the face of seemingly endemic oppression in many parts of the world.

But that sense of outrage never quite extended to supporting the Provos or Sinn Fein or feeling that their response was totally justified or strategically wise. I thus cannot agree with Michele O’Neill (and 70% of nationalist voters) that they had no other choice. I could however have agreed with her statement had she said that people like her father genuinely felt, at the time, that they had no choice.

But let me also acknowledge, at the outset, that it is easy to be wise 50 years after the events, and to judge people living through a hugely difficult and stressful period from the comfort of a secure retirement in a stable society. It just isn’t fair, but has to be done nevertheless, if we (and others) are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

I commented on Brian Walker’s piece as follows:

“It may have been Mandela (I’m not sure) who once said that taking up arms against a militarily superior oppressor is the worst thing you can do because you are enabling them to fight on their terms, at what they are good at, and what they want to be doing to demonstrate their superiority.

Gandhi absolutely perplexed the British ruling establishment because they knew they were beating and shooting unarmed civilians who refused to be drawn into a war they would lose. But even he left South Africa because he knew the whites would just keep shooting until there were no protestors left.

But you would want to be an absolute saint to have your head bashed in again and again and come back for more. And saints are in short supply. It is also asking a bit much of street urchins and unemployed young men to be strategic analysts with a historical perspective.

So yes, of course “the war” was strategically stupid as well as being morally wrong. They probably under-estimated the resolve of the British to defend what they thought was part of their homeland, and not some distant (and uneconomic) colony. And that is before we even mention the resolve of unionists to hold what they had even in the face of multiple atrocities and lukewarm support from Britain.

It lasted so long because once you start a war it can be devilishly difficult to stop it unless you win or lose outright. There are many sacrifices and deaths you have to justify and relatives you have to appease. Try telling someone their son died for no good reason. Try telling your comrades that you aren’t getting anywhere and it’s time to try another tack.

There is always some young Turk who thinks victory is only one more atrocity away. The trouble with any armed conflict is that it brings the most ruthless and brutal to the fore. People who might be regarded as sociopaths in a peaceful society become heroes of the war effort. Political movements started by poets and dreamers become dominated by schemers, fixers, and psychopaths.

So, I think we under-estimate the political achievement of Adams and McGuinness in persuading their hard men to try another tack which must have been extremely alien to them. There must have been many who distrusted them, felt the whiff of betrayal in the air, and perhaps schemed to kill them.

A good under-cover operative does not necessarily make a good community organiser, but Sinn Fein have transformed themselves over the past 25 years. Can the same be said of their loyalist adversaries and counterparts? It’s easy for those of us who never embraced or tolerated violence to look down our moral noses at them.

But perhaps we should be grateful they finally made the transition to peaceful politics. Better late than never. They will never be forgiven for their atrocities, but perhaps their children will. It is doubtful that raking over the coals of the past will heal the suffering of the present. Some saints will manage to forgive. Most people will just get on with their lives as best they can.

And hopefully their children will have better lives.”

To my surprise, I was never challenged on my statement: “So yes, of course “the war” was strategically stupid as well as being morally wrong” although others have argued elsewhere the Good Friday Agreement would not have been achieved without it. And indeed, Michelle O’Neill nuanced her remark by saying that the Good Friday Agreement has now given people an alternative to war making any violence now totally unjustified.

But would something like the Good Friday Agreement have been possible much earlier without the “Troubles”?

And here we come up against the problem with any historical counter-factual: It is impossible to know with any certainty what would have happened had the IRA not recruited, re-organised and re-armed into a significant paramilitary force capable of many atrocities, if not of defeating the British army or destroying the UK government’s resolve to keep N. Ireland within the UK, come what may.

Would the civil rights movement have been simply crushed? Would the UK government have continued to allow unionists to run things to their own satisfaction in their own back yard? As Brian Walker has pointed out, many of the demands of the Civil right movement had been met by the time the IRA campaign really got going. At some point Republican demands or “war aims” morphed from simple justice and protection for their people in N. Ireland to demands for British Withdrawal and a United Ireland.

Decisions about national sovereignty over territories often come about as a result of military action. The British Empire was based on precisely this model, and the views of the vast majority of colonised peoples rarely seemed to matter. It was always possible to pay and recruit a local elite prepared to make colonial rule possible, if not exactly fair or attractive to the majority. It was only when the maintenance of colonial rule became militarily impossible or economically unviable that the decolonisation process could proceed.

But N. Ireland was unique in the sense that its wasn’t just another colony. It was an integral part of the United Kingdom and the local elite had managed to secure majority support for its rule. Indeed, that was the whole point of carving out N. Ireland from the island of Ireland – to ensure there was a “democratic” majority for British rule. That was why British rule in the rest of Ireland had failed.

Any violent campaign for a United Ireland therefore came up against not only the opposition of the British government, but the implacable opposition of the unionist establishment. And whereas elements in the British establishment and Unionist elite might have been sympathetic to the Civil rights campaign, their opposition to ceding sovereignty was always going to be absolute.

But there was another complicating factor: To ensure they retained a democratic majority, the unionist elite had to ensure the monolithic loyalty of the unionist working classes many of whom were not temperamentally aligned with “Big House” Unionism and often not that much better off than their nationalist counterparts.

Previously, that had been done with blatantly discriminatory laws favouring them over Catholics (presumed nationalist). Now the IRA campaign basically did that job for them. Faced with IRA atrocities, all unionists had no choice but to cleave together and to the British security forces.

The suffering the Troubles caused also made compromise with the other side almost impossible. The peculiar genius of the GFA is that it was achieved without any real reconciliation between unionists and nationalists, or any real concessions on the sovereignty aspirations of either side.

All the Republican movement got out of the war was the end of absolute majoritarian rule and the recognition that they had a legitimate right to aspire to a united Ireland, and not have it condemned as a treasonous conspiracy.

My view (and it is easy to re-construct evidence for opposing views) is that this could have been achieved far more easily and far earlier if the Republican campaign of violence had been far less extensive, perhaps limited to defensive actions against pogroms evicting nationalists from their homes. A united Ireland was never going to be achieved by violence, and so the Republican war effort, on its own terms, failed miserably.

That is not to say that the IRA campaign had no positive effects whatsoever. It led to the dissolution of the old Stormont and moved the Overton window as to what was deemed possible and necessary by senior policy and decision makers to avert an even greater conflict and forced the British and Irish governments to take a much more direct interest and role in the affairs of N. Ireland.

But while initially welcomed by nationalists in NI as a protection from unionists and the security forces, the British army presence quickly morphed into an army of occupation employing Kitson style counter-insurgency tactics that had been developed in the colonies and which caught many ordinary and peaceful citizens in the cross hairs. This, more than anything added fuel to the IRA campaign resulting in it lasting far longer than it should have.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns kicked in, to the point where IRA violence merely stiffened unionist and UK government resolve and made political concessions more and more difficult. Ultimately it became completely counter-productive, at which point the IRA leadership started to look for a way out of the war without losing too much face.

But the end of the IRA war has also had a long term negative effect. Whereas leading up to the GFA negotiations and for many years afterwards UK/Ireland relations became better and better – culminating in a very positively received visit by the Queen in 2011 – relations between the governments have become progressively worse since Brexit and are now at their lowest point since Bloody Sunday. It is difficult to see that happening if the British government still needed the Irish government’s help to end the war.

The parallel I draw is with the demise of socialist parties in the West after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Once the Cold War was over, capitalists and their political parties no longer had to worry about the risk of social revolution at home. They became increasingly brazen in destroying trade unions, workers’ rights, and promoting ever more unequal policies.

The Tory party now doesn’t care about the risk of re-igniting the Troubles. It doesn’t care about antagonising the Irish government or the EU. It doesn’t care about its GFA duty to grant equality of esteem to both communities in N. Ireland and deal equitably with all parties in N. Ireland. The DUP is the only party that matter. Northern Ireland’s large majority rejection of Brexit and acceptance of a negotiated solution to the operation of the protocol simply doesn’t matter.

Perhaps only a humiliating defeat in a serious trade war will bring the UK governing class back to their senses. The EU needs to be aware that the current dispute over the Protocol is about much more than customs technicalities. It is about the UK wishing to prove it is the equal of the EU and like any superpower can do more or less whatever it wants without effective sanction.

If we don’t want significant violence to break out in N. Ireland all over again, the EU needs to be absolutely ruthless in its defence of the international legal order and in the protection of the interests of its local member state and the communities most effected. A trade war is still preferable to violence on the streets.

I won’t get into the moral arguments against violence, although I have always admired the Gandhian, Quaker, and SDLP commitment to non-violence. By that standard, we are probably all guilty at some stage, and it is not for me to allocate relative guilt. However, it is impossible for me to conclude that any political gains “the war” achieved were sufficient to justify the suffering caused.

In another comment on Brian Walker’s post, I wrote:

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to “leave arguments about equivalence aside” when violence was almost always a response to violence from the other side. Whatever about the culpability of those who committed crimes over 25 years ago, the far greater crime is being committed by those who, now, in an environment of almost complete peace, are busy trying to stoke up tensions in the hopes of fomenting some real violence NOW for their own sectarian political advantage. It may be fine, for academics in ivory towers, to discuss the strategic and moral merits and culpabilities of what people did 25-60 years ago, but in the real world that can only distract from current culpabilities and may indeed be intended to do so”.

The lessons of the Provo’s strategic failure apply just as much to Loyalists now. Violent Loyalist opposition to the protocol despite majority support for its retention in a negotiated form can be seen as a dry run for violent opposition to a united Ireland if that is approved by a majority in a border poll.

More importantly, for this analysis, it is also a strategic mistake. It will diminish support for the current Union; it will undermine any case for a United Ireland to become more “British” in its complexion; it will make it more difficult for the Irish government to offer a generous accommodation of unionists’ sense of British identity; and it will hinder the development of a more integrated society essential for future social, political and economic success.

Unionist influence in any part of Ireland can only decline if violence persists.

So maybe it IS time for Republicans to admit that the “war” was a strategic and political failure and that their forefathers got it wrong however justified they may have felt at the time. This may result in some difficult inter-generational, intra-family, discussions and accusations of betrayal and letting the side down. But peace now is more important than any sense of righteousness about the past.

Any unionist crowing at this admission will be balanced by the realisation that the same applies to their current attempts to stoke up tensions and provoke violence. Those who campaign for republicans to come clean on their failure had better be clean themselves. Those who don’t learn the lessons of their history are condemned to repeat them, and that applies to all sides of the conflict.


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