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The IRA cessation – perspectives, 25 years on

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» Mícheál Mac Donncha

“The Peace Process, fundamental to which was the IRA cessation of August 1994, has helped to transform Ireland. The days of armed conflict in the Six Counties are long past. The days of entrenched discrimination, military occupation, mass imprisonment and blatant censorship are gone and are not returning. And it is all a work in progress because key rights have yet to be won.”

As time passes historical perspectives lengthen and the broad political landscape we have traversed comes into view. In 2019 we have perspectives of twenty-five years since the first IRA cessation and the start of the Peace Process, fifty years since the armed conflict began in 1969 and one hundred years since the establishment of the First Dáil Éireann and its suppression by the British government. We can see more clearly now than ever that all three events are inextricably linked.

Armed Unionism, both in the form of State forces - the RUC and B Specials - and in the form of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, began the armed conflict. UVF murders in 1966 and bombings in 1969 were precursors to the widespread armed attacks on nationalists in Derry and Belfast in August 1969, including the pogroms in Belfast. That forced movement of thousands of nationalists and destruction of hundreds of homes did not end in 1969. It continued for months, culminating in the attack on Short Strand in June 1970 which was successfully repulsed by the IRA, and pogroms were attempted again sporadically. Loyalist paramilitary violence was for twenty-five years directed primarily at Catholic civilians, identifying them by their very existence as a nationalist and republican threat.

Far from confronting armed loyalism the British state, after the deployment of the British Army on the streets in 1969, soon recruited it as a key element of its counter-insurgency strategy. That role developed over the twenty-five years into a complex web of collusion which is still being disentangled. Shoring up the Orange state and Britain’s strategic interest in Ireland was the priority of the British Army, as seen by its implementation of internment without trial in August 1971 and its deliberate killing of civilians in Ballymurphy in that month, and in Derry in January 1972.

This context is essential to any understanding of the longevity and intensity of the IRA’s armed struggle. The very existence of the reorganised IRA as demonstrated in Short Strand in 1970 was a deterrent to loyalist attacks on nationalist areas. This continued to be so even long after the IRA went from a primarily defensive role to an offensive strategy against the Orange state and British military occupation.

The armed response of Unionism in 1969, both state and non-state, was primarily to the demands of the Civil Rights movement and its mobilisation of nationalists and as a warning to Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill not to concede to those demands. The latter factor represented the split within Unionism which had been politically monolithic since the Orange state was founded. That split has persisted to this day. Paisleyite Unionism toppled O’Neill in 1969, leading to the rise of hard-liner Brian Faulkner as Stormont Prime Minister. He presided over Internment and Bloody Sunday but these, and the increasingly intensive IRA campaign, left the British government with little choice but to save Unionism from itself and prorogue Stormont in 1972. There was no Peace Process in 1973 when the Sunningdale Agreement was signed by Faulkner, the SDLP and the British and Irish governments. Internment was in force. Sinn Féin was banned. British military occupation of nationalist areas was in full force. So much for Séamus Mallon’s jibe that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’!

Hard-line Unionists brought down the Sunningdale Executive in ‘74 as they had toppled O’Neill in ‘69. For Republicans all of this appeared to be vindication of their strategy of putting maximum armed pressure on the British state and pushing it to the crisis point where British withdrawal was a serious option. To many observers at the time, not just to Republicans, it looked as if this point might indeed be reached. The talks between Republican representatives and British government officials in London during the short-lived Truce of July 1972, seemed to support this view. Both the IRA and the British military at this time seem to have thought in terms of another ‘big push’ forcing the other side into a corner – the British pushing to militarily defeat the IRA, the IRA trying to force the British to the table to discuss withdrawal.

Of course this was not what transpired. After a low point for the IRA in 1975-’76, a political and military stalemate set in, with armed conflict fuelled by a cycle of British State repression and Republican resistance. The missing element on the Republican side at this time was any serious political development to challenge the SDLP and the Irish government. The change came slowly when the cycle of repression and resistance reached a crisis in the prisons with the British policy of criminalisation in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and Armagh Jail. The deaths of the ten young Republicans on Hunger Strike in 1981 have been described as “our 1916” in terms of lasting emotional and political impact. It could also be said that the dogged intransigence of Thatcher during the Hunger Strikes and subsequently, echoed that of the British government in the wake of the 1918 General Election and the establishment of the First Dáil. This provided further impetus for the IRA’s campaign which persisted throughout the 1980s, posing a serious challenge to British military occupation.

Sinn Féin’s electoral success in the Six Counties from 1982 to 1985 dealt a severe blow to the attempted isolation of Republicans in which the British and Irish governments and the SDLP were at one. The Hillsborough Agreement was a response to that Republican resurgence, locking the Irish government and the SDLP closer into British strategy, a project helped rather than hindered by the furious Unionist reaction to Hillsborough. The price for this was paid by nationalist communities with loyalist murder gangs stepping up their attacks and with a........

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