Period of Troubles in Ireland

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During the time period between 1969 and 1998, The British province of Northern Ireland was experiencing a turbulent era of conflict and division brought about by religious conflict between its populations of Protestants and Catholics. This period came to be known as the troubles. Years of oppressive and discriminatory policies aimed at securing Protestant control over Northern Ireland resulted in extreme civil unrest within the region. These tensions exploded in 1969 when Catholic civil demonstrators were ruthlessly cracked down upon by a police force that was almost entirely composed of Protestants. British troops were deployed to the region and a debate ensued within the Irish Republic (Cowell).

The Irish Republican Army was divided. One group, formed in the Republic, sought to use diplomacy to convince the British that unification was the best solution. This wing of the group faded into nearly total irrelevance with a lack of popular support in the early 70’s because of the rising death toll and a base who craved action. The other side, from Belfast, sought to use violence to compel the British to leave Northern Ireland by force. These activists became known as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and were the primary actors against the British regime in Northern Ireland (Gregory).

Backing PIRA was a political party called Sinn Fein, a left-wing Republican party legalized in Northern Ireland after an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Operations) Act of 1973, operating in both the Republic and Northern Ireland (Arthur and Cowell-Meyers). The two groups coordinated their efforts in order to move slowly but surely towards attaining concessions from the British Government through an adaptive approach of guerilla warfare and political maneuvering. This paper will analyze the evolution of this movement as their combined forces transitioned from a strategy of insurgency, relying on open violence in the streets, to the disarmament of PIRA forces and Sinn Fein’s recognition as a legitimate political party in Northern Ireland.

The PIRA forces were organized into two main groups, the Southern Command and the Northern Command. The Southern Command oversaw the counties of the Republic and was primarily responsible for supporting the operations of the Northern Command. The Northern Command ran any actions considered to be in the active warzone that was constituted by the counties of Northern Ireland. Under each command were small self-contained cells known as active service units (ASUs). Each ASU usually contained between five and eight combatants who took part in the actual guerilla fighting. This organizational structure provided PIRA with security through its network of relatively unconnected cells. If the authorities managed to capture a member of one cell, they wouldn’t know anything about the operations or members of other cells. Unfortunately, the system had drawbacks as well. Because the cells required secrecy to protect themselves, they had to pull away from the communities they were supposed to be protecting resulting in a loss of trust (O’Brien 159-161).

At a 1970 meeting of the Army Council, an organization of elected representatives overseeing both the Northern and Southern commands, priorities were set. They knew they needed to put forward a force with sufficient capabilities to defend themselves from British and Unionist forces. The council agreed that by protecting predominantly Catholic neighborhoods they could build up to a full scale offensive campaign. They were also relying on the Catholic residents of Northern Ireland becoming disillusioned with the questionable actions of British forces that were supposedly tasked with protecting them. This pushed public sentiment in their favor and give them access to a new, motivated pool of recruits. They bided their time, acquired weaponry, and recruited heavily until by late 1971 they had started a campaign of bombings on commercial and strategic targets. The leadership of PIRA recognized that they didn’t have the capabilities to stand toe to toe with the British in a conventional war but they believed that they could force them into negotiating a withdrawal from Ireland. Essentially, they wanted to test British resolve on the issue by turning the conflict into a war of attrition.

In the early stages of the war, very few Republicans in Ireland thought that the British populace would be willing to pay the price in blood and lives that would be necessary to hold Northern Ireland. As a result, they were optimistic that a military strategy would render a quick and relatively easy victory (McCallister). Because there was a general sense of confidence in the militarized PIRA, the political influence of Sinn Fein was deemed relatively unimportant to achieving their goals. Resources were funneled towards recruitment, weapons, and the planning of attacks while Sinn Fein was left out in the cold. It wasn’t even the most successful party among the Catholics that PIRA was supposedly defending.

Perhaps Ironically, given how long the war dragged on for, McAllister points out that a majority of the British public actually supported withdrawing and that clandestine discussions with representatives of the IRA, a move that would have appeared to indicate that the British were actually considering cutting their losses in the early 1970’s. If this was the case, there appears to have been some substance to the idea that the PIRA forces could bully the British into leaving Northern Ireland. This idea is made more believable by the fact that many British citizens on the mainland never really saw the Northern Irish as British in the first place and many would have actually supported their government if they encouraged unification. There are several reasons that might explain why this didn’t happen.

One is that the Irish government actually asked the British not to leave which, when it came out, caused quite a stir in the Republic because the government had reached power on a nationalist platform seeking the unification of Ireland (Guelke and Wright, 55-56). Other explanations might include a security interest in preventing groups hostile to British national interests or simply wanting to protect the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland from the conflict that would likely ensue should the Catholic minority, having been oppressed for so long, suddenly find themselves supported by the unchecked influence of the Irish government. It would be logical to assume that acts of retribution would be expected.

As the conflict dragged on, Sinn Fein started to become more central to the advancement of the movement’s plans. In the earlier stages of the conflict, the party’s actions were characterized by their policy of abstentionism. They would have candidates stand in elections but in the event they won, they wouldn’t take their seats in “any parliament in the British Isles” to protest of the legitimacy of the government (McCallister). This was useful in advancing the military campaign of the IRA because the militants could claim that the election results, when they were favorable for the Republicans, could be portrayed as a mandate from the people to justify continuing to carry out their violent campaign. Unfortunately, there were limits to how much success the IRA would be able to achieve with this strategy. As is the situation today, governments are hesitant to negotiate with terrorists because there is a legitimate concern that making any concessions will simply incentivize them to continue their actions in the hopes of getting more.

The IRA recognized that they needed to do something to shift the situation into their favor. In 1981, IRA prisoners in a Northern Ireland jail went on a hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. When the strike ended, Sands continued with several other prisoners and after sixty six days without food, he passed away. Nine other prisoners died before the strikes were called off but massive amounts of international sympathy were drawn to the conflict (Borders). Resources and money began to flow in from abroad, much of it coming from the large Irish-American population in cities like Boston and Chicago. This support not only raised the profile of the conflict abroad but also served to demonize the British involvement in general. Perhaps the most significant effect however was an event that occurred during the protest.

Mr. Sands, a prisoner, was nominated to stand for office in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the Republic as an official Sinn Fein candidate. He was duly elected to the British Parliament but died in prison (Melaugh). While he never got to take his seat, Sands’ victory gave Sinn Fein enough confidence to use it’s own name to put forward candidates in elections that followed. The success of the hunger strikes and the success of Sands at the polls demonstrated to leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein that carrying out a military campaign and accumulating popular support which could be converted into governmental influence in the South were not mutually exclusive.

The Military Strategy used by PIRA

The movement was quickly gaining influence among the population and they wanted to make use of this newfound political power but the policy of abstentionism was still in place. The PIRA’s new political strategy involved utilizing the votes for Sinn Fein as a shield to prevent their militant forces from being cut off. The more votes the political wing was able to accrue, the more effective the protection offered by public support would be.

The obstacle posed by abstentionism was eventually dealt with as the party and the IRA changed their reasoning so that taking their seats was no longer giving consent to an illegitimate government but instead was simply a means to an end, gaining power to bring about a rectification of the injustices forced upon Ireland by the British. Unfortunately for the politically minded republicans, convincing the leadership of the IRA that abstentionism should be scrapped was a difficult proposition. The deal that resulted was a less than perfect compromise.

The militaristic hardliners were reluctant to accept any formal agreement that might result in the limitation of their campaign of violence and so demanded larger freedoms for the individual cells of fighters. As a result, the movement became more unstable with weaker central leadership over the military actions of it’s members. This directly contradicted the reasoning in favor of removing abstentionism in the first place. If the attacks carried out by republicans were uncoordinated and sloppy, it would likely decrease the effectiveness of their efforts to gain credibility and popular support (O’brien, 127-130).

Cite this paper

Period of Troubles in Ireland. (2021, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/period-of-troubles-in-ireland/

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