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.