Current Affairs History Military Politics

The Popular Armed Struggle

Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army fire a volley of shots in tribute to the so-called Gibraltar Three, unarmed IRA Volunteers Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell who were killed by British Special Forces in 1988
Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army fire a volley of shots in tribute to the so-called Gibraltar Three, unarmed IRA Volunteers Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell who were killed by British Special Forces in southern Spain in 1988. The route of their funeral cortège from Dublin Airport to Belfast was lined with thousands of mourners, stopping in several places

During the 20th and 21st centuries many myths have taken root in popular culture concerning insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. Received wisdom, oft stated by politicians and journalists, claims that no organised guerrilla army can be defeated by a conventional one. Which of course is nonsense. All types of irregular military forces have been defeated or neutralised around the world since the 19th century, by means both fair and foul. Conditions favouring the prosecution of an “armed struggle” against a nation state are relatively rare and though varying from situation to situation the prime indicator of the likely success (or longevity) of such a campaign remains popular support amongst a host population – or at least a high level of popular toleration.

In the case of Ireland and the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army both support and toleration varied greatly, as might be expected of a controversial and wideranging war which spanned some three decades. Back in 2013 I argued that (P)IRA’s ability to organise, fund, recruit, arm, train, store and engage in military operations from 1969-2005 was in large part based upon the readiness of the Irish people as a whole to permit its existence. It did not require mass support across the country for the movement to carry out its prime objective (resistance to the British Occupation Forces and their Unionist proxies while in pursuit of Irish reunification) – it merely required sufficient numbers of men and women to look the other way in order for it to do so. The further (P)IRA strayed away from the limited objectives and tactics acceptable to the Irish general public the more precarious its position became. Attacks on the British Army and the RUC raised hardly an eyebrow or were greeted with a note of approval. Gross atrocities like Teebane or Enniskillen were greeted with revulsion and at times irate opposition.

Given this scenario it is unsurprising that (Provisional) Sinn Féin’s electoral record never reflected the embedded nature of (P)IRA within broader Irish society. People inclined to vote for Fianna Fáil, Labour, Fine Gael, the SDLP and other parties of Left or Right did exactly that even when they were sympathetic to the “cause”. As a then member of the economically right-wing PDs put it to me long ago: “The Provos may have been an evil – but given the northern context they were a necessary one”.

Of course this de facto “mandate” for the armed struggle sits uncomfortably with the Irish chattering classes who like to bask in the balmy glow of British patronage. This is especially true of those who have reshaped journalism on this island nation since the 1970s into an anti-republican propaganda tool. Existing in a closed echo-chamber of likeminded ideologues they long ago severed their links to the greater part of their fellow countrymen and -women. Free of any other input but their own they have refused any truth but that fashioned by their own partisan opinions. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.

However if more proof of my contention is needed then take this from The Guardian newspaper:

“Rogue Irish police officers colluded with the IRA throughout the Troubles, even helping to prevent its entire army council from being arrested during a critical temporary ceasefire, a former director of intelligence for the republican movement has claimed.

IRA leaders received a tipoff from high up within the Garda Síochána that the force’s Special Branch was about to arrest its ruling command while it was at a secret location for talks with Protestant clergymen in 1974.

Kieran Conway, the head of the IRA’s intelligence-gathering department for a period in the 1970s, also alleges that members of the Dublin establishment including a top banker, a stockbroker, a leading journalist and several mainstream politicians aided the Provisionals in their armed campaign.

Elite figures in Irish society even ferried IRA weapons around in top-of-the-range cars and hid wanted activists in houses in some of the most affluent areas of Dublin such as Killiney – now home to multi-millionaires and rock stars such as U2’s Bono and the Edge – according to Conway.

Pressed on whether any members of the Irish parliament during the Troubles and before Sinn Féin’s entry into it helped the Provisional IRA cause, Conway responded: “I really would not want to say. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me to the names of any of those in the establishment who helped us. But there were those who definitely colluded with us.” He said that as well as moving guns around for the Provisionals, leading figures in Dublin’s elite also moved money about for the IRA.”

The “rogue Irish police officers” in most cases would have seen themselves as anything but “rogue”. As indeed did many other members of the general public, from trade unionists to businessmen, doctors to barristers, engineers to academics, who provided advice and assistance in different measures and at different times to the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. This crucial difference between toleration and opposition crippled insurgent rivals to (P)IRA, preventing them from expanding beyond small and fractured networks of support. Once the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) lost whatever initial sympathy (or glamour) it might have enjoyed the organisation quickly buckled under internal and external pressures created by a relatively hostile host population. Likewise the contemporary Republican Resistance, organisations like the (New) Irish Republican Army or Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ), are unable to sustain themselves without the blind eye the general public once turned to such militancy. The tarnish of criminality and perceived association with narco-terrorism – as well as changed political fortunes in the north-east and between Ireland and Britain – means the guerrilla fish of the (N)IRA or ÓnaÉ are gasping for air in a sea of toleration that is nothing more than a damp puddle.

53 comments on “The Popular Armed Struggle

  1. If you’re calling this conflict “The Long War”, then you also must call the IRA – “war criminals”.

    • Why is that?
      Is the reason because they tried to kill Thatcher.
      I know you love Thatcher and Reagan..because the way you see it they “won” the Cold War, so you no longer have to live behind the Iron Curtain anymore.
      But let me tell you Thatcher and Reagan have a lot of blood on their hands.
      So, let me try you out..Are Thatcher and Reagan your heroes or are they “war criminals” ?
      Your answer should be enlighting as to your world outlook.
      Oh, I don’t blame you if that is your World view..You hate the USSR so anybody who was against the USSR is your friend.
      And in the same vein,,,anyone who was against the “victors” of the Cold War is your enemy. I get it.
      But you should ask yourself ..How many crimes are you letting your “heroes” off the hook for. I suspect many 100,000’s in Peru, Chile, Guatemala, El Salador or anywhere else where Reagan sponsored Death Squads would call Reagan and Thatcher “war Criminals”
      You should spare a thought for them..Coz they went through a living hell.

      • They’re war criminals because they murdered many innocent civilians and law enforcement officials.

        Some of their crimes are mentioned in this blog post.

        • But ARE Thatcher and Reagan War Criminals.
          Thatcher supported Pinochet; over 3,000 dead in Chile and another 100,000 fled the Country.
          She sent the SAS to help Pol Pot.and the Khymer Rouge.
          Reagan I already mentoned above. Iran/ Contra etc.
          So, how about it? Are they Criminals?
          And If not. Why not?

          • Bringing up Thatcher and Reagan is whataboutism and as I said before two wrongs does not make a right.

            • Yes, I suppose it is. But It is my opinion that you look at things to the prism of the Cold War..And it is my theory that one of the reasons you are hostile to the IRA is that Thatcher was..And my theory is you are a fan of Thatcher and her works with Reagan etc. over the Cold War. Sort of like the enemy of my friend is MY enemy too.
              Nothing wrong with that per se..I suppose I can see something similar with the Irish joining with Napoleon and the Spanish to slap the Brits for their behaviour in Ireland. back in the day. Centuries ago.
              Also, my point is Reagan, Thatcher , Churchill, Anthony Eden (Suez) Blair Bush, Kennedy President Johnson,Kissinger, General Westmoreland of Vietnam, Gen Mac Arthur, Henry Truman, could all be called war criminals. Could they not.

          • ams, we can come closer in time than that and ask if President Obama is a war criminal given the US’s apparent ongoing war against Muslim wedding parties via White House directed drones…

            • ar an sliabh

              Sorry ASF, but I can’t stand that pompous, self-righteous, self-serving a….le, even if he occasionally has a point.

              • Yes, I understand..But this site would be boring if everyone shared the same views..So I guess We need our opinions tested.The reason I say I understand is that my statement above would be okay if we were talking about music, or who was the best Race car driver..It becomes harder to bear when you are Irish and facing off against West Brits, The Actual Brits and dealing with a partitioned country…It’s slightly more than a difference of opinion.
                But if we only talk to ourselves we become isolated…We need to know what the opponents think. This is the void that unionism is in (thank god ) We must not let it happen to us.

              • ar an sliabh

                I was referring to Mr. Oliver, actually. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

              • ar an sliabh

                agus… I totally agree on the opinion thing, that is why I enjoy this blog so much. Even my hard-headed behind has learned to appreciate the opposing view here several times.

            • Yes, I think it was Columbia University in the States that showed 50 civilian deaths per ” terrorist”suspect killed by US drone strikes..And Obama has ramped them up..Conducting more than Bush. So much for been a “suspect” and the due process.
              Really my belief is that that will be like the famine was to the Brits in Ireland..It will create a poisonous legacy in the decades and Centuries ahead.
              You can’t kill 50 innocent people for one suspect. That will radicalise the people.
              And create a ” terrible Whirlwind” of he likes that Gladstone was referring to over the Great hunger.

              • ar an sliabh

                Obama is the second president of the transitional period of the United States from Empire to has-been, It started with the “Patriot Act” that invalidated their constitution under Bush. Obama continued it, along with the ability for non-descript bureaucrats to declare American citizens and others “terrorists” and cause for them to be assassinated anywhere in the world including the U.S. (by drone or otherwise) or indefinitely incarcerated without due process, trial, or even filing a charge (just like during the days of the GESTAPO). The once bright beacon of democracy and guaranteed rights has declined to a system of exploitation and sale of the nation’s resources and the lower classes to make the top tier richer than ever before. The hope with Obama was an equalization of the classes and an objective focus on civil rights, establishing public trust in a functioning system. The system is breaking and trust has eroded to the point where legitimate government action is completely vilified while actual violations are overlooked. Furthermore, the flames of discontent are fanned with lies and half-truths by an “Entertainment Media Circus” which stands to profit off the backs of those irreparably harmed in the disaster created by this purposeful misinformation. The administration just looks the other way, fearing it will make itself unpopular by adopting and publishing an objective viewpoint, which would be all that is needed to avert the impending social catastrophe. In short, stick a fork in it, they are done.

        • Jānis, the “law enforcement officials” consisted of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC, a British counter-insurgency police force. One which out own present centre-right, conservative and staunchly anti-republican Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has recognised was totally unacceptable as recently as this year. So if even the Blueshirts can admit that the RUC were part of the British and Unionist war-machine why can’t you?

          • And did all those policemen really deserve the death penalty?

            • Jānis, I’m not sure. Did the policemen of the Latvijas Padomju Sociālistiskā Republika and the LSSR NKVD–MVD–MGB–KGB deserve the death penalty at the hands of Latvian partisans/terrorists?

              • Why are you comparing stalinist secret police to civilian police of a civilised country?

                Did you know that one of NKVD’s tasks during WW2 was to march behind the regular Soviet army and shoot on sight everyone who tried to desert?

                And the same units hunted Latvian partisans in the forests.

                If they were that ruthless to their own troops then it’s safe to assume that they would be even more cruel to partisans (and they were) – that’s why the right choice was to murder them all.

              • “…that’s why the right choice was to murder them all.”

                Jānis, as we say in Ireland, you’re some man for one man… 😉

              • Yeah and parties like Sinn Fein would not be able to exist in the stalinist USSR.
                You could go to prison for displaying the Latvian flag publicly well after Stalin’s death let alone in the 40s.

                If the Brits were as totalitarian as Stalin, there would not be IRA or Sin Fein – they would all be dead on in labour camps somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

              • Jānis, Sinn Féin and other Republican parties were banned for much of the existence of the “Northern Ireland” state. They did not operate except as underground organisations. The first major street disturbances of the recent conflict in the north-east of Ireland occurred in 1966 because an Irish flag was flown in Belfast. The RUC took it down, in force. The Irish flag was a proscribed symbol until the last couple of decades. Displaying it was an invite to arrest, a fine and/or imprisonment.

                In April 1963 the South African minister for justice admiringly stated that he would swap his entire apartheid-era security legislation for just one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act, draconian legislation enacted by the Unionist regime at Stormont.

                The first concentration camps in western Europe were established in Ireland by the British in the 1920s, housing thousands of prisoners (they developed the idea while fighting the Boers in what later became South Africa). In the 1970s “internment” camps like Long Kesh and others were described by Irish, British, European and US politicians as “concentration camps”.

                The British used a ship moored in Belfast Harbour to house men and boys during the 1970s who were detained and imprisoned without trial or conviction. They didn’t need to go as far as the Pacific Ocean to get away with it.

              • That of course was not good, but still nowhere near the level of Stalin and Hitler.

              • ar an sliabh

                The level was the same for the number of people they dealt with and the size of the dominions in which they exercised their atrocities (see the Boer war). If you look at percentages, that will become very clear. The British were always much better better at “public relations.” Instead of creating grim film footage of mass murder, they printed colourful picture books of their version of history.

              • ar an sliabh

                Nobody really compares to Hitler in the mechanics. But in the Boer conflict and during the famine, the Brits got very close.

              • Long Kesh was nowhere near the level of Soviet concentration camps.
                The Soviets imprisoned people for copying and distributing banned books.
                And the sentences were very harsh – 5 years or more.
                Forming underground parties was completely impossible back then.

                And when you’re comparing Northern Ireland to North Korea, you’re insulting people who suffered under genuine totalitarian regimes:


            • ar an sliabh

              It was a war. Unfortunately, in a war, it is almost always the least deserving that get killed first.

    • Jānis, the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army did carry out war crimes and did contain war criminals. I wouldn’t argue that point.

  2. Janis, indeed some IRA actions can be described as criminal. If you are suggesting that all actions by the IRA were criminal or that all members were criminal is just silly.

  3. How popular? 5% of the population? More? Blind eye often turned in fear rather than support I suspect …

    • How popular was Michael Collins? back in his day.
      So, are you happy that he risked that unpopularity to free Ireland from the Brits..Or would you rather he had stayed on with the Royal Mail in London?

      • Since you mention it, Collins and the leaders of 16 lit a spark – but its hard to refute that it was the democratic mandate achieved by SInn Fein in the later election which gave legitimacy to the War of Independence and in this Collins was rightly appointed to his position. People were disullusioned by the route being followed by the Redmonites and demanded an independent state.
        As regards Northern Ireland and the provisional movement, the reality is that the vast majority of what was achieved in the Good Friday agreement was on the table at Sunningdale and indeed, Sinn Fein later accepted many tenants which they had previously rejected in Sunningdale. But during the troubles, and despite Sinn Fein candidates and the guaranteed privacy of the election booth, Sinn Fein could muster very little consistent support. Equally their buoyant support now doesnt give retrospective justification for previous activities.
        Would 100,000 have really actively supported the IRA campaign? Not a big percentage of the population.

        • I have no idea of the numbers.
          But your logic over the Sunningdale agreement is flawed. Due to A) it was the Unionists who tore that down..and B) Those same Unionists may have just got a little bit of help from MI5 and British State Unionists to tear it down. I suspect the Dublin/Monaghan bombings fall into this as in Brit State/MI5 warning to Dublin Government keep out.

          Furthermore the IRA had a ceasefire in the 1970’s. ( I forget the dates but it lasted over a year).it nearly led to the breakup of the IRA.
          So, with this fact in mind and also the fact that this ceasefire led to the end of Ruairi O’Braidigh as the Chief of Staff..The PIRA offered a ceasefire in 1979..that was NOT explored by the British.
          This is on their heads.
          We now know that the hunger strikes lay ahead and what that meant..But an opportunity to end it was on the table in 1979 .
          The Brits said No.

 are the people of the 26 Counties so happy for partition to continue..when A) they are happy the Brits are gone from the 26
          and B) partition means the Nationalists of the Wee 6 are forced to hold the short end of the stick…What kind of Country do you live in. If we don’t look after our own? And sell them out.

          • NI is a liability for the Brits. They’re receiving huge subsidies each year from the rest of the UK. (~4-5 billion GBP or so)

            Who is going to foot the bill after the reunification?

            • Jānis: Ireland, Britain, the European Union, the United States, etc.

              Do you really think the British are simply going to walk away like the United States, Britain and the Coalition out of Iraq? There is just as much danger of “blow-back” here as anywhere in the Middle East. The whole thing will take years to work out and years to conclude. The British still had a presence in this part of the country until the late 1930s.

              • So – Are you OK with paying a ~1000-2000 €/year “Northern Ireland tax”? (A lot more than the dreaded water charges)
                The Germans are still paying their 5.5% “solidarity tax”.

                And after the breakup of the USSR Russia gave us absolutely nothing and still refuses to pay compensation for the occupation.

                So don’t count on the Brits or the Americans, but prepare to either foot the bill, or beg the Brits to take NI back 😀

          • Ams- you’re silent on low sinn fein support during the troubles. cumidhe, Who pulled down Sunningdale? Ongoing Ira violence was a crucial factor. The sdlp could explain that one. Remember the sdlp? They enjoyed huge nationalist support until the Ira realised they were p”’ing in the wind and decided to give talking a chance. That’s the Ira pink elephant, that somehow their violence achieved anything which wouldn’t have been achieved exclusively through dialogue over the same period. Had Ira stopped prior to Sunningdale , things would be very different. Alot of people would be alive for a start.back to my point, what support did the provos really have during the carnage? 50,100? 150? Ams, not sure where you’re coming from? Who said they supported partition?

            • Sorry. Dermot..I felt it more necessary to deal with your Sunningdale argument.
              As for SF support..Well it ebbed and flowed..I willl say this Margaret Thatcher cooked up the Anglo Irish agreement in part to stop the rise of SF at the polls post the hunger strikes…Events like Enniskillen damaged support for SF..But then Thatcher at the coffins made support rebound a bit..So a double edge sword there.
              The other main reason for Thatcher was to get more cross Border support from the Free State.
              So i am sorry I can’t give you numbers or percentages coz I don’t know enough to do so.
              But events both on the ground and in high offices ( 10 downing Street ) show the Brit response to the threat.
              Also, we must look at things from a Brit point of view.
              They had enough soldiers/ police/ UDR etc..for 1-in-3 Catholic males between the ages of 18 and 44 years old. to try and contain the situation.So for every 3 catholic males in this age brackett there was one State Paid trooper This being the pool of manpower that supplied the PIRA.
              This is not nothing. It shows how serious the Brits took it.
              I cannot do better than this to explain it..Other than to Say Ed Moloney in his Secret ..IRA book states a figure of 10,000 passing thru IRA ranks between 1969 and the ceasefires.
              I hope you can extrapolate from that..The level of support.

        • Dermot, you are obviously swallowing that old line that keeps getting trotted out, “The GFA is Sunningdale for slow learners” Let me ask you Dermot, “Who tore down the Sunningdale agreement, who turned off the electricity, blockaded nearly every town and village in the 6 and brought the place to a standstill, and who was it that cowtowed to these thugs. Riddle me this Dermot

    • Dermot, a lot more than 5% and for reasons far greater than fear, though undoubtedly that did play its part. However passive support or toleration existed in sufficient numbers to allow (P)IRA to exist and function. That required a lot more than 5%. Anyone familiar with revolutionary Republicanism c.1960s-1990s will be aware of finding tacit support or acceptance in the most unexpected of places. People can keep putting their head in the sand over this if they want to but the evidence is too great to dismiss. 1916-23 it was not. However neither was it what successive governments of all hues wished to present it as either. In terms of acceptance or the willingness of members of the general public to turn the other way the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was not the Red Brigades or Red Army Faction.

  4. An sionnach- what’s your definition of popular support? Ten percent? And explain this didn’t translate into a substantial support for sinn fein ?support and sympathy for suffering nationalists are two different things

    • dermot, in the post I talk about popular support and toleration with emphasis on the latter. A majority of the Irish people did not actively support (P)IRA. However neither did a majority of the Irish people actively oppose them either. If the latter had been the case (P)IRA simply could not have existed in the manner that it did. (P)IRA was so embedded into broader Irish society that it wasn’t until Irish society as a whole turned against the movement that the “peace process” became inevitable (I’m not saying this was the only factor but it was certainly a major one). From Warrington onwards (P)IRA was being pushed/leading towards negotiations on terms that did not meet their initial or stated demands. Once that was signed there was no going back as there would have been little toleration of a renewed campaign.

      The INLA failed as a republican challenger and prosecutor of armed struggle because it could not garner the passive support/toleration (P)IRA could. The Real/New IRA and ÓnaÉ are failing for the same reasons.

      • Of course most ordinary people did not actively oppose them, because no one wants to get kneecapped or “disappeared”.

  5. Apologies for typo,re 50,100, 150 – I meant thousands!

  6. The emphasis for popular is in the title spinmaster. Don’t confuse tolerance for fear. Whatever you say, say nothing. Collaborators to British rule included informers. Collaborators died. People dissappeared. Fear is a very strong motivator.

    • Spinmaster?

      “…the prime indicator of the likely success (or longevity) of such a campaign remains popular support amongst a host population – or at least a high level of popular toleration.”

      “In the case of Ireland and the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army both support and toleration varied greatly…”

      “…was in large part based upon the readiness of the Irish people as a whole to permit its existence.”

      “It did not require mass support across the country…”

      “…it merely required sufficient numbers of men and women to look the other way in order for it to do so.”

      “This crucial difference between toleration and opposition crippled insurgent rivals to (P)IRA…”

      “…the (New) Irish Republican Army or Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ), are unable to sustain themselves without the blind eye the general public once turned to such militancy.”

      “…the guerrilla fish of the (N)IRA or ÓnaÉ are gasping for air in a sea of toleration that is nothing more than a damp puddle.”

    • ar an sliabh

      After all the s..te that happened in the seventies, it was more tolerance than fear. The pain that British troops and collaborators inflicted then was what carried the passive or even active tacit support for the cause through most of the next twenty years, and it took some serious faux-pas to erode it. The first time I set foot in an “underground (Only Irish spoken here)” Irish pub in Boston after emigrating, the Ballymurphy, Bogside (Bloody Sunday), and Springhill Massacres were hot topics some 15 years (and a few pints) later, and a rallying cry for the cause still, despite some serious transgressions (mainly Droppin Well [INLA] and more recently at the time, Enniskillen) which were cause for serious disillusionment as well.

  7. Sorry, who are you quoting? Ok, so ten percent taking the fear related tolerance

    • I was quoting lines from the post, dermot, in reply to the charge of “spinmaster”. At least you are caving on your argument 😉

      • It’s getting bad when you start quoting yourself 😉
        Yes, you argue that this current intolerance prevents other groups but good intelligence focused on smaller numbers of activitists is more important

  8. And what held sinn fein back? Now, here’s a quote- Violence is the last resort of the inarticulate…

    • Actually, dermot, it’s “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”, a quote from the main character in the first edition of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (1951). It seems clever as long as you don’t interrogate the proposition too much.

      • But what stopped all this tolerance from conversion into electoral support?

        • dermot, those who passively supported or tolerated the activities of (P)IRA voted overwhelmingly for FF, FG, Labour, the PDs, etc in the southern polity. Selfish or parochial considerations came first for voters and party members alike. SF did not recognise Dáil Éireann until 1986 when the Ard-Fheis voted against abstention. It did not realistically contest national elections until the late 1980s and early ’90s. From 1970-1982 (P)SF had almost no electoral function. That changed in the early 1980s, first in the north-east and later nationally. Insisting that (P)SF’s vote reflected support for (P)IRA does not work when for the first 15 years of the conflict it had no real function beyond supporting the army. When (P)SF did contest regional elections it quickly took 40% of the northern Nationalist vote. It failed to make any headway nationally for all sorts of well-known reasons during the late 1980s and ’90s.

          Again, sympathy for or at least a toleration of the “cause” was not based on party affiliation. I know two FG party members who believed that attacks on the British military were legitimate at a time when they were happening but who would have personally thrown any Provo into Port Laoise for raising a hand against the Gardaí or ÓnaÉ (Irish Army). I just don’t think you get the attitude that was more prevalent than most are willing to admit.

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