Our Day Will Come: Lessons From the Armed Struggle of the PIRA

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The armed campaign of the Provisional Irish Republican Army against the British state lasted several decades and claimed thousands of lives. In the end, the group did not manage to completely eject British influence from its home turf of Northern Ireland, and the results it did achieve were only a fraction of the original goals stated by the mid-20th century Irish republican movement. Regardless, the actions of the PIRA had a profound effect on Irish politics and the tactics they utilized, especially near the end of the conflict, hold valuable lessons for insurgent and paramilitary movements. There are many paths one can take when analyzing the PIRA campaign, but the material results of the war and the strategic acumen of the PIRA are worth exploring.

The progenitor of all organizations claiming the Irish Republican Army name was the force that fought Britain during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1922). The treaty that ended this war resulted in the first split of the IRA into pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces. Anti-treaty republicans took issue with the fact that the treaty did not guarantee full Irish independence from the United Kingdom and left what is now known as Northern Ireland under direct British control. The ensuing Irish Civil War cemented the pro-treaty IRA as the official army of the new Irish Free State, while the anti-treaty forces were forced underground. From 1922 until 1969 the anti-treaty forces morphed into what became known as the Official IRA and, through many leadership changes and disagreements over political strategy, adopted a predominantly Marxist outlook on Irish politics.

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British soldiers on Bloody Sunday, the 1972 massacre of 14 unarmed civilians by British authorities in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Repression of the Irish Catholic population in Northern Ireland had reached a fever pitch by the late 1960s, as the British administration and their mostly Protestant loyalist allies in Northern Ireland cracked down on a rising Irish civil rights movement. Class based politics prevented the Official IRA from involving itself in what their ruling Army Council viewed as sectarian distractions while they sought to unite all Irish workers and transcend the traditional Catholic/Protestant divisions. Northern Irish nationalists then decided that they could no longer abide inaction by the Official IRA in the face of anti-Irish violence. A second IRA split resulted in the creation of the Provisional IRA. The PIRA was the main driver of what would become internationally known as the Troubles, the IRA’s thirty-year armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland.

On the strategic level, PIRA commanders made several crucial errors but displayed a willingness to learn and evolve as much as their ideological commitments would allow them to. The PIRA’s original organizational structure took the form of a traditional army, with the PIRA Army Council delegating orders to its Northern and Southern (Republic of Ireland) Commands. Ground level units were divided into battalions (although their numbers never reached those of a typical standing state army). Over time, the drawbacks of this organizational method became apparent. Organizing one’s guerrilla group in the style of a conventional army requires strongholds of free movement and the ability to match one’s adversary in conventional warfare, both of which were in short supply or completely absent by the end of the 1970s.

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IRA guerrillas display their weapons in 1977.

Commanders and imprisoned republicans began to formulate a new military strategy based on the experiences of other fighters such as Palestinian and Basque resistance groups. The PIRA decided to reorganize itself into a cell-based structure, going underground and shedding many of its members in order to circumvent British efforts to infiltrate and confront them. The personnel of these cells usually numbered in the single or low double digits and this stemmed the tide of spies, deaths, and arrests that had plagued the PIRA. Cells were encouraged to develop their own methodology and operated with a great deal of autonomy in planning and executing attacks. This came at the cost of years of institutional learning, as the individual cells did not have much contact with each other while operating in their respective territories. However, this cell structure likely ensured the survival of the PIRA during its long war against the British military and loyalist gangs.

By the early 1980s the PIRA had decided on an overall strategy of dual power, the fabled “Armalite in one hand, ballot box in the other” methodology. Bombings and attacks on the British presence in Northern Ireland hadn’t driven them from the island, but the British policy of interning republican prisoners without trial had created a sort of imprisoned brain trust that had spent their incarceration formulating a new direction for the republican movement. The Official/Provisional IRA split had also broken the traditional Irish republican political party, Sinn Fein, in two.

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IRA honor guards escort the casket of Bobby Sands, the republican icon who died of starvation in 1981 during a prison hunger strike. The strike was conducted in protest of Britain’s refusal to classify IRA captives as political prisoners.

The Provisional side of this split became the Sinn Fein known today, while the Official side eventually changed its name to the Workers Party. Sinn Fein operated as the political wing of the PIRA. By 1983, recently released Northern republican prisoners had seized control of Sinn Fein and unified its goals with that of the armed struggle. Political and military campaigns would no longer be conducted in a compartmentalized way, but as interrelated aspects of the greater movement. Sinn Fein would mobilize public and political support and eventually stand in elections (although they did not occupy any seats won in the UK Parliament out of protest), while the PIRA and related groups would take the fight directly to their oppressors in the tradition of armed republicanism. The strategy was intelligent and deliberate, but the twin pillars of struggle would constrain each other in unforeseen ways.

The PIRA’s cellular structure may have been necessary for its survival but it did not allow for the type of organizational discipline that would have complimented the political struggle. Botched attacks, civilian deaths, and sectarian violence allowed the British to paint Sinn Fein as terrorist collaborators and limited its international base of support. Conversely, many PIRA militants chafed under the expectation that their violence be in service of an associated party. The physical force tradition of Irish republicanism runs deep, and sectarian hatred invites attacks that serve no political or military purpose. Sectarian violence was one of the catalysts for the Provisional-Official break in the first place, but it would ultimately be the downfall of the organized republican movement.

The PIRA continued to clash with British units and loyalist paramilitaries throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but by this point the military struggle had fallen into a rut. Insurgent violence alone would not force the British to abandon Northern Ireland. Political education within the PIRA and Sinn Fein alike had degenerated into simple nationalism. Sinn Fein began to shift toward a social democratic view of Irish politics and expunged much of the class analysis of years prior. The early republican socialism of James Connolly all but passed into memory. The class politics that characterized the IRA of the 1960s had all but disappeared, and a mass expulsion of the British would never be possible with the level of Catholic-Protestant animosity present in Northern Ireland. Proper application of class politics is the more important process, and would not have guaranteed victory over the British. However, without the theory, even applying this strategy to Northern Ireland was impossible. The jettisoning of socialist thought from the majority of the republican movement may have minimized accusations of “communism” toward Sinn Fein and the PIRA, but it crippled their vision of an Ireland united against its real oppressors.

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Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein leader and former IRA member, stands in front of an IRA mural in Belfast in 1985.

The loss of class analysis doomed the idea of a 32 county socialist republic, but the PIRA of the 1990s forced the British to the negotiating table with a shift in bombing strategy. Sinn Fein sought a peace settlement with the British and negotiations on what a post-conflict Northern Ireland would look like. The British government was standoffish toward Sinn Fein until two massive truck bombs rocked the financial heart of London. PIRA bombings and attacks on the British mainland were not uncommon in the past, but the Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate truck bombings of 1992-1993 were calculated daggers in the side of the British financial elite. The two bombs combined caused an estimated £1-1.5 billion in damages, greatly outstripping the total monetary damage caused by every PIRA bomb of the previous thirty years put together. Warnings by the PIRA and strategic choices of detonation times resulted in only four total deaths.

Focusing attacks on the British financial sector sent ripples of panic throughout the ruling class, nearly brought about the collapse of the British insurance industry due to high payouts, and demonstrated that the PIRA was prepared to bring the war into the heart of London. The Irish knew from brutal experience that the British ruling class could tolerate explosions in Northern Ireland until the end of days, but financiers and government officials only begin to sweat when their pocketbook is threatened. The new bombing strategy targeted the wallets of the British upper class, and it was remarkably effective.

The British agreed to include Sinn Fein in formal peace negotiations eight months after the Bishopsgate bombing on the condition that the PIRA accept a ceasefire, which they agreed to. However, by 1996 it became clear that the British had no intention of beginning peace talks until the PIRA disarmed. The government’s reliance on Northern Irish loyalist votes in order to stay in power kept Sinn Fein and the PIRA on guard, and the PIRA was resolute in its stance that disarmament could only come as a result of peace talks, not as a prerequisite. Giving up arms before any agreements could be made was a farce that the Irish would not easily accept. The PIRA broke the fragile ceasefire in 1996 and detonated two more massive truck bombs in London and Manchester.

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Aftermath of the 1996 Docklands bombing.

These bombs caused an additional £850 million in estimated damages and forced the British to reconsider their hard-line stance on IRA disarmament. In an astonishing display of strategic acumen, the PIRA had bombed the British back to the negotiating table and caused around £2 billion in damages while killing only four people. Evacuation warnings by the PIRA turned four of the largest bombs detonated in Britain since World War II into something like economic terrorism by way of performance art. In this phase of the conflict at least, the PIRA demonstrated an ability to learn from past experiences and synthesize their political and military campaigns.

The aforementioned negotiations resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland was recognized as a part of the United Kingdom, but provisions were included to recognize it as part of Ireland if majorities in both the North and South voted to incorporate it. The PIRA and loyalist paramilitaries agreed to disarm. Irish and British civilians alike cheered the official end of hostilities. On the other hand, some Irish republicans viewed this as a pyrrhic victory.

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Longtime Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams (center) and Martin McGuinness (center left) after the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Many questioned whether the agreement actually constituted a fulfillment of republican goals, and the fabled 32 county socialist republic was far from a reality. In order to appeal to a greater portion of the electorate Sinn Fein has consistently moved toward the political center, receding from the radical left as its enemies in the loyalist parties backed away from the radical right. The new social democratic Sinn Fein may be able to more consistently contest elections, but it is far from a revolutionary socialist party. Northern Ireland now possesses its own devolved government, but officially remains under the British heel. The solid theoretical foundations of the “Armalite and the ballot box” strategy were undermined by sectarian violence and the failure of the political and military wings of Irish republicanism to synthesize in the face of British and loyalist assaults.

What lessons can be drawn from the PIRA’s military campaign? Paramilitary or rebel groups can learn a great deal from the struggle of the Irish republicans, from their successes and crucial missteps. The defining failure of the late 20th century Irish republican movement was a hobbling lack of political education. James Connolly’s legacy of materialist class analysis was essentially discarded by the 1990s, leaving in its wake a stew of nationalism and sectarian hatred. Community organization was almost abandoned. Without class politics, militancy had nothing to offer the populace besides a vague promise of ejecting the British. This eliminated any chance of appealing to the Irish working class across traditional barriers and caused much of the violence to degenerate into sectarian dogfighting. Even the ostensibly more class-conscious elements of the republican movement, such as the Irish National Liberation Army, were mired in revenge murder and infighting. The gun controlled the party rather than the party controlling the gun. Sectarianism was the death knell of the 32 county socialist republic. “Brits out” is a rousing slogan until you need to worry about that shady bloke from across the street spraying your local pub with a submachine gun.

The PIRA campaign did succeed in certain areas, specifically with the bombing campaign of the 1990s. A strategy of maximal economic and structural damage coupled with minimal casualties allowed the PIRA to attack the wallet of the British establishment while avoiding the backlash that accompanies unnecessary deaths. The Irish demonstrated that this strategy was viable and effective against a disproportionately powerful enemy, even in the modern era. If one strategic lesson can be taken from the PIRA, it is this: in an age of global capitalism, finance is the prime mover and most highly valued target.

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