Thursday, August 04, 2005

An exciting new era

Danny Morrison:

All Things Must Come To Pass. And so it was to be with the armed struggle.

The armed struggle got off to a slow start in the early 1970s – initially unplanned and largely improvised. There was no ideological, decisive moment when a large section of the nationalist community suddenly decided to support a campaign by the IRA, the organisation which articulated (and often acted on) the traditional republican demands of an end to British rule in Ireland and recognition of the right of the Irish people as a whole to national self-determination.

Support for the IRA in its defensive role after the pogroms of August 1969 was overwhelming in Belfast. However, support for armed struggle came testily in dribs and drabs but was to dramatically increase in reaction to British army and RUC repression. Alienation from the state had been steadily fuelled by the meanness of unionism in response to the legitimate demands of nationalists for civil rights.

The Tan War (or the War of Independence, if you are a partitionist/Free Stater) lasted but three years. The pogroms and civil disorder in the North at the time of partition, and the Irish civil war, lasted but two years respectively. The various IRA campaigns in the North and in the South lasted just a few years. Even the 1956-62 Border Campaign was truly over by 1960 and just needed calling off.

All post-partitionist IRA campaigns ended when the organisation was debilitated and with nothing but demoralisation to show for the sacrifice and suffering. However, those republicans showed incredible resilience, emerged from jail, picked up the pieces and reorganised, often in a vacuum until, that is, 1969.

No one could have predicted in 1970 that the armed struggle would have, could have, lasted so long. What explains that?

To this day, few unionists appreciate the simmering resentment and anger within the nationalist community over fifty years of one-party rule. Some, of course, are honest enough to admit that discrimination and undemocratic practices were factors in the outburst of conflict, though they will fiercely contest that those justified the IRA campaign, which is fair from their point of view.

Once the conflict broke out all sides became entrenched in fixed positions – though republicans cease fired on a number of occasions to encourage or facilitate dialogue. Once into conflict an action by one side could create a reaction on the other side and would be exploited in the parallel propaganda war in the quest for moral advantage. Thus, young nationalists became IRA Volunteers after Bloody Sunday, for example; and David Ervine says that he joined the UVF because of Bloody Friday.

That debate, over who started what and when, is irresolvable and largely subjective and is perhaps futile. It will not bring back the dead.

The war lasted so long for two reasons.

First, the IRA could not be defeated either on the street, in the countryside or in the jail. The street protest movement could not be suppressed by the indiscriminate use of plastic bullets.

Crucially, for the survival of the struggle, Sinn Féin emerged in parallel with the IRA in nationalist areas and later acquired a powerful mandate to represent the voice of republicanism and to challenge the claims of the state. Censorship didn’t work, nor did the campaign of political and sectarian assassination processed by British Intelligence through its loyalist paramilitary surrogates.

Second, the IRA, however, could not deliver a body blow to British rule in Ireland. No mass troops out movement emerged in Britain as a result of the deaths of British soldiers. (Considering how Blair resisted the massive anti-war sentiment two years ago in relation to Iraq, it might well be that a popular troops out movement in relation to Ireland in the 1970s might not have significantly shifted a British government.)

Regardless, the mainstay of the IRA campaign relied on frustrating British rule and keeping Ireland a live issue, often by bombing Britain.

Yet there was still a military stalemate – which both sides reluctantly began to concede in the 1990s.

Last Thursday’s IRA decision to formally announce the end of the armed struggle was a courageous move. Many republicans had mixed emotions – reflective, sombre – but understand and agree with the nature and wisdom of the political strategy ahead.

For me the cathartic moment wasn’t last Thursday but came with the decision to call a ceasefire in August 1994. I remember going to my cell and crying. I thought about my dead comrades and all those who had lost their lives. But I also cried with relief – that it was over or was coming to an end and that republicans had confidence in their ability to negotiate, though that would inevitably result in a compromise.

Of course, it didn’t turn out as easy as that. There was massive distrust and suspicion. John Major’s government was still fighting the war by other means, as were the unionists. Some IRA activity continued – on a reduced but still controversial scale. By frustrating peace talks and introducing new demands the British hoped to divide and conquer the Republican Movement. They failed.

It is a tribute to the leaderships of Sinn Féin and the IRA that they steered the Movement and the republican struggle through this unchartered territory. The tables have been effectively turned on the critics and opponents of Irish republicanism. Republicans have taken the moral high ground and Sinn Féin, as an all-Ireland party, will be in a prime position to influence the national politics of this island.

There are huge challenges ahead – including that posed by intransigent unionism. But there are also huge opportunities ahead.

Yes, it’s the end of the armed struggle, but it is not the end of Irish republicanism. In many ways, it’s just the beginning of an exciting new era!

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