The Irish Republican Army: A Closer Look

By Currie, Robin | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Irish Republican Army: A Closer Look


Currie, Robin, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


The declaration of a ceasefire by the Irish Republican army on August 31, 1994, has raised hopes that peace may at last be at hand for the troubled province of Northern Ireland. But caution is still required. While the IRA has announced a complete cessation of violence--a tautology since there is no such thing as an incomplete cessation--opinion is sharply divided as to-whether yesterday's gunmen have whole-heartedly embraced the democratic process, or whether the ceasefire is merely a tactical move. Only time will tell. Some fear that the IRA is merely testing the political waters and could return to violence if negotiations do not go its way. As one British official has said, without a permanent peace, the implied threat of violence would hang over any all-party talks set up to discuss the future of Ulster.(1) That the threat of terror remains is beyond dispute: one-time IRA chief of staff Gerry Adams, now head of the organization's political wing, Sinn Fein, recently told the Boston Herald that a resumption of the military campaign was still possible under a new Irish Republican leadership.(2)

Such menacing ambiguity is a favorite ploy of a group that has long bragged of seizing power with "a ballot box in one hand and an armalite rifle in the other." Although President Clinton declined to meet with the 45-years-old Adams during the Sinn Fein leader's September trip to Washington--saying that the organization had not gone far enough by declaring the ceasefire permanent--other U.S. politicians with large Irish constituencies have fallen over themselves to meet with a man that Irish historian Conor Cruise O'Brien calls "the principal apoloist for political violence for the last 15 years."(3) Few have paused to look closely at IRA methods or motives, to consider whether it has plans beyond painting Northern Ireland's red mailboxes green.(4)

BEGINNINGS

"They blow up policemen, or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William the Third." So runs the words of one satirical song about the motivations of the Irish Republican Army. But while it still cloaks itself in the traditional mantle of Irish nationalism, the IRA has always found other threads to weave into the garment, other justifications for its actions, other reasons to kill. For much of its history, the IRA has emphasized two different ideologies, one socialist, the other nationalist--the so-called Red and Green. While sometimes Karl Marx seems to be its inspiration, at other times it has resorted to an exclusive rhetoric that extols the mystical virtues of blood, soil, and nation--the Volk--that is as narrow as it is deadly.

Early on in the present "Troubles," which is the name that the Irish use for the civil strife that broke out in 1969, the Official IRA renounced violence as a means of achieving an Irish Marxist republic. A breakaway group called the Provisionals promptly split with the main body. Like the leftist Irish National Liberation Army, which also broke away, the Provisional IRA--the Provos--embraced the armed struggle and established a cadre force that would impose its own settlement on Ireland through revolution.

TWO TRADITIONS

As a first step, the IRA seeks to drive the British out of Ulster. This is despite the fact that the British presence in Northern Ireland is a consequence of the wishes of the majority of the population there, which considers itself--and has always been--British. The vast majority of Protestants in Ulster, who make up two-thirds of the population, prefer to remain part of the United Kingdom, and polls show that as many as a third of Catholics share this view.(5) The people of Northern Ireland are British as well as Irish, just as residents of Cardiff are at once British and Welsh, and Glaswegians are both British and Scottish. That notwithstanding, the Provisionals have always portrayed the security forces in Northern Ireland, which are drawn from all four countries that make up the U.K. …

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