The Irish Republican Army Way – And The Taliban Way

Volunteers of an Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army preparing for a foot-patrol, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

Volunteers of an Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army preparing for a foot-patrol, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

The War Nerd (aka Gary Brecher aka John Dolan) examines the Long War military and political strategies of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army versus that of the Taliban in an interesting, if at times flawed and occasionally uninformed, article.

Several claims are clearly open to question:

The IRA never used all its strength, played very cautiously, did just enough mayhem to remind Britain they were still around, hadn’t been broken. They even refused to do vengeance attacks on the UDA/UFF/UVF/LVF “Loyalist” hit squads that would kill Catholic civvies to try to force the IRA into a tit-for-tat Catholic vs. Protestant gang war.

True and untrue. The Irish Republican Army undoubtedly did at times reserve its full potential, and when necessary exercised a precise use of military force if leverage was required elsewhere (as in the political arena where strikes in Britain became regular exclamation points in the secret negotiations with the British government). It also, officially, had no truck with engaging in communal warfare with the British Unionist minority in Ireland. But official policies and what was happening on the ground (and what the Army Council and GHQ Staff were prepared to sanction at times) were very different things indeed. And to many in the Unionist community the killing of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (or RUC, the British paramilitary police force in the North of Ireland from 1922 to 2001) or the Ulster Defence Regiment (or UDR, a branch of the British Army that functioned as a Unionist militia in the North from 1970 to 1992, until disbanded by the British as reciprocal part of the Peace Process) were seen as direct attacks on them since these forces were drawn exclusively from their community.

An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army receiving arms training at a mountain camp in Co. Donegal, Ireland, c.1980s

An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army receiving arms training at a mountain camp in Co. Donegal, Ireland, c.1980s

Some observations however are true (if overstated in the context of the conflict in the Occupied North):

It’s not how guerrilla war works at all, for an obvious reason that I should’ve realized: Guerrilla armies always represent the weaker, the smaller, the defeated side. Not necessarily smaller in population but in money, cohesion, power-projection. They win, not by battlefield victory, but by something like metal fatigue. They sag on their opponents like a fat heavyweight, they wear him out, they absorb his punches.

Others mix truth with an unintended comedy of ignorance:

The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of not striking back at stuff like this, and not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.

An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

One wonders what the CIRA, RIRA and ÓnahÉ would think of the following analysis?

In contemporary urban guerrilla warfare, at least in Western Europe, killing civvies is counterproductive. What you want to do, what the IRA had mastered by the 1990s, was messing with the incredibly fragile and expensive networks that keep a huge city going. Interrupt them and you cost the enemy billions of dollars, and they don’t even have any gory corpses to shake in your faces. Fucking brilliant, and I was too dumb to see it!

And finally the conclusion that the Peace Process was largely the creation of the leadership of the Republican Movement and that it:

…set free every IRA prisoner, dissolved the old apartheid police (RUC) and set up a new one that went out recruiting in the same slums the IRA drew its people from (PSIS), and put Adams and McGuinness in power in a local Northern Ireland Assembly to replace the old No Papists one. Sinn Fein is now the biggest political party in the place and the Brits have basically conceded all the territory west of the Bann River to them. It’s the Loyalists who seem all confused and drifting now… Martin McGuinness, ex-IRA officer and Sinn Fein “terrorist,” is the Deputy Prime Minister… Meanwhile, Adams is pushing the party into the South as well…

It’s hard for an American to get your head around any of this, but the point, and it’s very “counter-intuitive” as they say, is that Al Qaeda did everything wrong, spending all their assets and going for maximum kill, and the IRA, the poster-boy for long, slow, crock-pot guerrilla warfare, did it exactly right. In fact, it’s sort of scary how Adams and/or McGuinness seem to have thought three or four moves ahead every step of the way…

And they did it against the Brits, too, the SAS, best counterinsurgency specialists in the world, too. What can I say? I was absolutely wrong… Al Qaeda style maximum-splatter is for hotheaded idiots who forget that the real job of a guerrilla force is to stay in existence, lean on the enemy, wear him out and bankrupt him.

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

Some interesting debating points here. Clearly the present transitional arrangements are not the 32 County Socialist Republic envisioned by some: and are never going to be. But neither is the North of Ireland 2011 a clone of Northern Ireland 1968. That political entity, the last old style part of the British colony in Ireland, is gone: long dead and buried. The North of Ireland is an entity that stands between nations now, with a foot in both camps.

An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army armed with vehicle-mounted heavy and general-purpose machine guns, British Occupied North of Ireland, c.1980s

An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army armed with vehicle-mounted heavy and general-purpose machine guns, British Occupied North of Ireland, c.1980s

The Irish Republican Army may not have won a British timetable for withdrawal but they have won the method by which it will be facilitated and are creating the circumstances in which it will happen. Whether it will be strictly through political means, or take the famous ‘one more push’, is for history to decide. But in having conceded the principal the British have carved the tombstone for the Six County statelet.

Far from the end of Republicanism some would claim, the Belfast Agreement and the Peace Process is the end of Britain’s colonial adventures in Ireland. So the War Nerd, for all his occasional ignorance, simplifications and Americanisms, may well be right after all.

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an AKM assault rifle on patrol, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an AKM assault rifle on patrol, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994

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