IRA: Continue until total victory?

Liam O Ruairc concludes his series of articles on the republican movement by contrasting the approach taken by Sinn Féin to the Sunningdale and Good Friday agreements

It is worth looking back at events of 30-35 years ago to contrast the republican movement's attitude then to the state, constitutional nationalism, ceasefire and negotiations with the British government with that of the Provisionals today in order to measure how much it has changed. The Provisional Irish republican movement came into being in late 1969 and early 1970. Its first statement on December 28 1969 declared "allegiance to the Thirty-Two-County Irish Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, overthrown by force of arms in 1922, and suppressed to this day by the British-imposed Six County and Twenty-Six County partitionist states" (Sean MacStiofain Memoirs of a revolutionary Edinburgh 1975, p42 - a fascinating account of the birth and development of the Provisional IRA by its first chief of staff). At the time, the IRA was a small organisation, politically marginal, that had played an insignificant role in the previous events. The reasons why it broke away from the old 'Official' leadership were: "(i) recognition of Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House; (ii) extreme socialism leading to dictatorship; (iii) internal methods being used in the movement; (iv) failure to give maximum possible defence in Belfast and other northern areas in August 1969; (v) campaigning to retain Stormont instead of seeking its abolition" (Provisional IRA, freedom struggle 1973, pp10-11 - this banned publication was the IRA's own account of the first few years of the war). What were the most significant factors? The IRA had been unable to defend the nationalist areas when they came under attack in August 1969. For many, 'IRA' stood then for 'I ran away'. The Provisional movement was to give priority to organised armed defence of the northern ghettoes. The other main reason had been the decision to lift the ban on taking seats in Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House, as it led to actually recognising those institutions. The Provisional IRA rejected the partitionist parliaments and reaffirmed its commitment to waging armed struggle against British rule in Ireland. The Provisional IRA in its early days has often been portrayed as conservative and rightwing. In 1970, the first Easter message from the Provisional army council stated that "Irish freedom will not be won by involvement with an international movement of extreme socialism" (Freedom struggle p13) Later it declared: "We, the lawful leadership of the republican movement, ... publicly declare our objective to be the establishment of a democratic socialist republic based on the proclamation of 1916 and on christian principles. Accordingly we reject the atheistic Marxism ... and we are supremely confident that the overwhelming majority of the Irish people will reject this alien philosophy" (IRA statement An Phoblacht/Republican News October 1971, p2). There were pragmatic and ideological reasons for this: "Certainly as revolutionaries we were automatically anti-capitalist. But we refused to have anything to do with any communist organisation in Ireland; on the basis of their ineffectiveness, their reactionary foot-dragging on the national question and their opposition to armed struggle. We opposed the extreme socialism ... because we believed that its aim was a Marxist dictatorship which would be no more acceptable to us than British imperialism or free state capitalism ... Ours should be the democratic socialism that was preached and practised by the men of 1916" (S MacStiofain op cit p135). Their view was clearly based on crass and ignorant anti-communist prejudices (see in particular the hysterical article, 'We oppose communist dictatorship in Ireland' APRN June 23 1972, p3). There has also been considerable debate about the role of Fianna Fáil in financing the Provisionals and the extent to which the former was responsible for the development of the latter (see J O Brien The arms trial Dublin 2001). This remains highly speculative and cannot displace defence as the primary determinant in the formation of the organisation, and offers a conspiratorial, as opposed to a structural, rationale for the formation of the Provos. August 1969, not Fianna Fáil machinations, was the central reason for the formation of the Provisional IRA. The split in the IRA was not simply a left-right division. The Provisionals were right to characterise the Officials as "Redmondites of the far left" - John Redmond being a constitutional nationalist politician ('No surrender' APRN September 1970). The Provisionals were from the beginning in favour of forcing the suspension of Stormont as a major step towards ending the Orange state, whereas the Officials were in favour of retaining and reforming it (contrast Deasun Breathnach, 'Why Stormont must go' APRN September 1970 with A Coughlan, 'Stormont: to abolish or not to abolish?' United Irishman May 1970). Their attitude towards the state, whether north or south, was revolutionary. Whereas the Officials concentrated on a reformist struggle for civil rights, the Provisionals were preparing to fight a revolutionary war of national liberation. The Officials' gradualist attitude and downgrading of armed struggle, even in the face of events in the north, drove many into the ranks of the Provisionals, despite their apparent conservative social attitudes. And it was in the working class nationalist areas of the north that the Provisionals found their strongest support, based on their promise of arms and militant action. By doing most of the fighting, they proved to have the most radical anti-imperialist position (see D George, 'These are the Provisionals' New Statesman November 19 1971; and 'Left or right?' APRN editorial, January 11 1974). The war aims of the republican movement were clear. They were to get the British government to acknowledge the right of the whole people of Ireland, acting as a unit, to decide their own future; declare a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces; and announce a general amnesty (D O Conaill, 'Three basic war aims' APRN August 5 1978, p8). In the light of subsequent developments it is important to stress those. "The success of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s lay in the fact that there was no deviation from these demands, which encapsulated the Irish national demand. It was only when the Provisionals turned their backs on the demand for British withdrawal and degenerated into administrating British rule in Stormont that the struggle for Irish freedom faltered" ('O Conaill rejected Hume approach in 1972' Saoirse January 2001). Their ultimate aim was a "federal democratic socialist republic, based on the proclamation of 1916" and "to establish a reign of social justice based on christian principles, by a just distribution and effective control of the nation's wealth and resources" (Sinn Féin, constitution and rules, 1980, p2). Their 1971-72 programme, Eire Nua (until its revision in 1979) sought "a balance between western individualistic capitalism, with its poor and hungry amid plenty, on the right, and eastern Soviet state capitalism (or any of its variations) with its denial of freedom and human rights, on the left". Thus, while there would be public control over financial institutions and large industries, as well as an upper limit on the amount of land any individual could hold, nevertheless private enterprise would still have a role to play in the economy, but on a small scale. Economic development would be 'distributivist' and 'cooperative' in nature. The new Ireland would pursue an independent foreign policy, unaligned with power blocs such as Nato or the Warsaw Pact. Membership of the European Economic Community was also opposed. Finally measures would be set up to strengthen Irish language and culture. The countries the Provisionals were inspired by ranged from Tanzania to Switzerland and Denmark (see R O Bradaigh, interview APRN July 9 and 16 1976). Despite the 'distributivist' nature of their programme, what was significant was that the Provisionals were then seeking a full alternative to the existing states rather than trying to reform them from within. Early in 1970, the army council "agreed that the most urgent priority should be area defence. All our energies would be devoted to providing material, financial and training assistance for the northern units. The objective was to ensure that if any area where such a unit existed came under attack, whether from loyalist extremists or British forces, that unit would now be capable of adequate defensive action. As soon as it became feasible and practical, the IRA would move from a purely defensive position into a phase of combined defence and retaliation. Should British troops ill-treat or kill civilians, counter-operations would be undertaken when the republican units had the capability. After a sufficient period of preparation, when the movement was considered strong enough and the circumstances ripe, it would go into the third phase: launching all-out offensive action against the British occupation system. It was also agreed that selective sabotage operations would be carried out, at the discretion of the national and local leadership, in the northern areas concerned" (S MacStiofain op cit pp145-146). That was a coherent strategy on how to respond to events. It was premised on the inevitability of confrontations. The army council knew that with the marching season, sectarian clashes would be inevitable. These would provide the opportunity to demonstrate the 'defence' skills of the Provos. It knew that with the 'law and order' imperative, the British army would sooner or later confront the catholic population, with civilians being injured or killed. In the circumstances of increasing catholic hostility to the British army, a full-scale offensive would then be possible after an initial period of retaliations. From 1970 to 1972, the Provisional republican movement grew from a tiny group to a mass insurrectionary movement. The Provos developed as a response to the inability of unionism to reform itself and the failures and excesses of the British government rather than from a deeply rooted republicanism. Their escalation of insurgency shaped political developments of the period. The Provisional IRA called a three-day ceasefire in March 1972 to demonstrate to the British government that the whole organisation was under the control of the leadership and that a truce was actually possible. Their first success was to bring down Stormont in March 1972. In those days they were not saying, 'It's our Stormont too!' or calling for the British government to 'Re-establish the institutions'"¦ Round that time, Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume tried to convince the main IRA strategist, Daithi O Conaill, of the need to join together in a constitutional political movement: "In June 1972 John Hume said to O Conaill: 'I think it is time you (the republican movement) cashed your cheque and took what is on offer. You know the SDLP and the best of the republican movement together would make an irresistible force in Irish politics.' O Conaill rejected the offer which was the same formula which Hume offered to Gerry Adams in 1993-94 and resulted in the end of the Provisionals' active struggle and their acceptance of British rule in the Six Counties" ('O Conaill rejected Hume approach in 1972' Saoirse January 2001). Then, in July 1972, the Provisionals called a temporary cessation and an IRA delegation held talks in London with representatives of the British government. The significance was huge: for the first time since 1921, the British government was involved in direct talks with the IRA. As recorded in the House of Commons, "They called on the British government to recognise publicly that it is the right of the people of Ireland acting as a unit to decide the future of Ireland. They called on the British government to declare its intention to withdraw all British forces from Irish soil, such withdrawal to be completed on or before the first day of January 1975. Pending such withdrawal, the British forces must be withdrawn immediately from sensitive areas. They called for a general amnesty for all political prisoners in Irish and British jails, for all internees and detainees and for all persons on the wanted list" (see S MacStiofain op cit p282). However, the British government had no intention of conceding those demands. The British used the truce to evaluate the then IRA leadership (identify and strengthen the 'moderates' at the expense of the 'hardliners'), to entrap the IRA in a prolonged truce and assess the probability of a ceasefire. The IRA leadership understood that, the longer the truce lasted, the more difficult it would be to go back to war, and this is why they brought it to an end after little more than a fortnight. "There will not be another truce until our demands have been met," declared MacStiofain on behalf of the army council. "Let it be placed on record that the army council is determined to continue the armed struggle until total victory" ('Sean MacStiofain reads message from the provisional government' APRN November 10 1972). In 1973-1974, the British government devised a political strategy to marginalise republicanism. Its alternative consisted in a power-sharing system in the north with cross-border bodies and a Council of Ireland to recognise the 'Irish dimension'. This materialised in the 1974 Sunningdale agreement. The IRA emphatically rejected out of hand the various constitutional initiatives and the agreement, viewing them as a British attempt to marginalise republicanism and isolate the Irish freedom struggle. MacStiofain wrote the editorial of An Phoblacht totally rejecting the green paper and calling for a boycott of the Darlington conference (see S MacStiofain op cit pp329-330). The March 1973 white paper was immediately rejected by the IRA (see 'Provisionals reply' APRN March 30 1973; and also Freedom struggle pp89-90). For Sinn Féin president Ruairi O Bradaigh, "the green paper solves nothing" - it "merely seeks to perpetuate Britain's grip on Ireland"; the white paper was devised to "stabilise the situation and perpetuate her own control over the area"; the Sunningdale agreement "constitutes a step backwards rather than an advance" for the liberation struggle (R O Bradaigh Our people, our future Dublin 1973, pp31-32, 43, 50-52, 59-60). The Provisionals opposed the Sunningdale agreement and when it failed to secure necessary unionist support and was brought down by the May 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike, this was praised by the Provisionals. Constitutional nationalists who accepted the Sunningdale agreement and saw it as a stepping stone to a united Ireland were denounced. Gerry Adams accused the SDLP, because it had endorsed the arrangement, of being the first catholic partitionist party (see G Adams The politics of Irish freedom p110). However, "It is worth pausing for one moment to reflect upon the many political characteristics that are common to both Sunningdale and the subsequent 1998 Belfast agreement. Both agreements were founded upon the unionist veto and both sought to establish power-sharing executives within the six-county state which were designed to co-exist alongside minimalist cross-border institutions. While bearing these similarities in mind, perhaps we should also remind ourselves of the fact that hundreds of republican prisoners have served thousands of years in jails across Ireland and Britain between 1973 and 1998 and we must also never forget the graveyards across Ireland that are filled with republican dead who fell on active service during this period. When one considers these facts, one must ask oneself: how in 1998 could the Provisional leadership morally justify their acceptance of the Belfast agreement, which was procured at so great a human cost, while its political equivalent, the Sunningdale agreement, was rejected in 1973?" ('The Irish republican struggle 1969-1998', www.newre-publicanforum.ie). In December 1974, some protestant clergymen approached the republican movement with a view to obtaining a ceasefire. They met six members of the army council and, as a result of that meeting, on February 10 1975 a bilateral truce was agreed between the Provisionals and the British government. The terms of the truce were based on British concessions on prisoners, internment, withdrawing troops to barracks, scaling down arrests and stop and search operations in exchange for an IRA cessation of operations. To monitor the truce, seven incident centres, managed by the Provisionals, were set up with a direct line to the Northern Ireland Office. What was the Republican movement hoping to gain from the truce? One of the clergymen, William Arlow, claimed that the IRA had been given an undertaking by British officials that they would withdraw from Ireland (New Statesman May 30 1975). The Provisionals were convinced that this was what their negotiations had achieved, failing which they would simply go back to war. "The present truce (not ceasefire, as our opponents deliberately misinterpret it) enables us to push our demands - withdrawal of British forces, amnesty, etc. We are confident our demands will be met. If they are not met in peace, then they will be achieved in war. The struggle must be continued, secure in the knowledge that we will emerge victorious" (IRA statement APRN August 9 1975, p1). However, Labour politicians and members of the Northern Ireland Office have been quite prepared to admit that the real purpose of the truce was to divide and weaken the Provisionals and to get rid of internment as a prelude to treating Provisional actions as criminal (see P Bew and H Patterson The British state and the Ulster crisis London 1985, p87). Merlyn Rees's aim was "to create the conditions in which the Provisional IRA's military organisation might be weakened. The longer the ceasefire lasted, the more difficult it would be for them to start a campaign again from scratch" (M Rees Northern Ireland: a personal perspective London 1985, p224; see also pp180-181). It is in this context that the British government was deliberately ambiguous on whether it was going to withdraw. In order to keep the truce going and fragment the republican movement, all the British had to do was to promise 'withdrawal' and keep them talking: "Obfuscation was central to state policy" (P Bew and H Patterson op cit p87). The republican leadership really believed that a British withdrawal was imminent (see R O Bradaigh, 'Brit withdrawal now inevitable' APRN October 25 1975, p1). The truce had been a highly elastic notion for much of the period it operated. More people were killed in 1975 than in 1974. During this period of truce with the state forces, the IRA became involved in feuds, while open sectarian warfare became commonplace. On November 11 1975, Rees announced that the incident centres were to be closed down, thus unofficially bringing the truce to an end. With that the IRA gradually returned to the offensive. From a British government perspective, the truce was a success, in that the atrophying effects of military inactivity on the IRA severely damaged the organisation. The feuds and the sectarian attacks also had a highly demoralising effect on the nationalist population. Republicans later admitted that the British government was very close to defeating IRA during that period. The disastrous experience of the 1975 truce convinced Republicans that there should be no more truces or ceasefires until the end. As a representative of the IRA leadership stated, "There is no foreseeable prospect of another truce or of any cessation along the lines that obtained in the last two bilateral truces ... The army's present position on truces is that it will no longer be involved in any sort of truce; that a ceasefire from the IRA can only be secured by a British declaration of intent to withdraw "¦ Because the British were not serious, honest or in any way forthright about their intentions, and because they were just trying to divert the IRA into a demoralising and damaging ceasefire situation, I cannot foresee any circumstances in which the army will get involved in that situation again" (IRA interview Iris: the Republican Magazine No1, 1981) l