A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an AKM assault rifle on patrol, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)
So the multi-million euro Smithwick Tribunal has concluded that on the balance of probabilities the ambush by an Active Service Unit of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army of two senior officers of the RUC, the later disbanded British paramilitary police force in the north-east of Ireland, was conducted using intelligence information supplied by members of An Garda Síochána. No names are definitively named, and the evidence is at best inconclusive, but is anyone surprised?
The big lie of the Long War was the claim by establishment Ireland, the political and media élites, that the (P)IRA enjoyed little to no support on this island nation. That it was a tiny, self-selected guerilla movement of several hundred men and women existing in isolation from the Irish people as a whole. This of course was a nonsense, a fig leaf to cover the powerlessness of “official Ireland” to thwart an armed struggle that was waged for some three decades in the north-east of the country (and in the minds of some people at least, on its behalf).
The inability of those outside of Ireland to see the difference between active support and active opposition to armed struggle is the key to understanding the relationship between the Irish Republican Army and the Irish people. For while it is true to claim that the majority of people in Ireland did not actively support the IRA, it is equally true to claim that the majority of people in Ireland did not actively oppose the IRA. Pointing to the voting patterns of Sinn Féin north or south and seeing them as a barometer of support for “resistance” was always an exercise in self-delusion and most sensible observers knew that. Men and women willing to lend a hand or at least turn a blind eye to the operations of the insurgency were only slightly less likely to be found amongst the voters of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens or the Progressive Democrats as amongst Sinn Féin or the IRSP. One need only look to the autobiographies and histories of the period to see plentiful evidence of that.
Simply put it was the Irish people’s dualistic, one might almost say pragmatic, approach towards armed struggle that facilitated the environment in which the IRA could sustain itself and its insurgency for some thirty years. While the toleration waxed and waned with the unrolling of events, the latest victory or the latest atrocity, it never reached the point of collapse. It transcended political, socio-economic, generational or geographical allegiances. From conservative senior citizens in rural areas to radicalised urban youth, from the poorest working class to the most affluent middle class, the patterns of support or more frequently acquiescence were the same.
In truth throughout the latter decades of the 20th century for most Irish people a Volunteer or active supporter of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was never more than six degrees of separation away.
An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)
Despite the efforts of successive Irish governments to dry out the popular sea in which the insurgent fishes swam there was at no point any realistic prospect of Ireland being able to curtail the activities of the Irish Republican Army (or to do so without reverting to the tyranny that existed under the Free State regime during the throes of civil war). Unlike the British state, which waged a counter-insurgency war both directly through its Occupation Forces and indirectly through its terrorist fronts, the Irish state had few options available to it. The IRA existed from 1969 to 2005 because the majority of the Irish people tolerated its existence. When that tacit support began to fade, when perceptions over the necessity for military resistance to the British Occupation, to the British terror factions, to the Unionist regime changed, when atrocities like Enniskillen, Warrington and Shankill took their inevitable toll and real opportunities for political progress opened up, then the tolerance came to an end. And with it the war.
However, as always in Ireland, there are two sides to the story. For while the majority of ordinary Irish people permitted or accepted the existence of the insurgency in all its manifest forms others did not. Instead they actively opposed it. If the Irish Republican Army had its sympathisers and supporters throughout the Irish state, not just in An Garda, it also had its enemies. Enemies who tolerated their own preferred violence. who looked the other way or gave a helping hand to those who brought terror and mayhem to Irish streets and Irish towns. While the cries for retribution on those implicated in the Smithwick Report will ring loudest from within the establishment those who co-operated or covered up the murder of their fellow Irish citizens will rest easy in their beds knowing that their day will never come.
A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)