Back in 2013, while examining the thorny issue of public support for the armed struggle of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army from the early 1970s to late ’90s, I wrote:
“The big lie of the Long War is the claim by establishment Ireland, the political and media élites, that (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 Irish Republican Army was never more than six degrees of separation away.”
It was an analysis of attitudes in “the South” that rang true with many readers. In the words of one person:
“People looked the other way. It was as simple as that. It wasn’t fear. A guard or a councillor didn’t have anything to fear. For some it was more like, ok, I don’t agree with what you are doing, I wouldn’t do it, but it is your choice. I won’t interfere. For others it was again, like, I don’t really agree with it but you’re my own and they – the Brits, whatever – are not. People, even young people, understood it as a rebel thing, if you like.”
As I said, not so much majority support as majority tolerance of minority support. So to this brief interview in the Irish Times with Kieran Conway, the former Director of Intelligence on the GHQ Staff, IRA, during part of the conflict, and this snippet:
“As he travelled back and forth between revolution and south county Dublin he discovered a “fantastic human infrastructure” of fellow-travellers around the southside willing to lend a hand with B&B for weapons and visiting volunteers: “Stockbrokers, bankers, journalists, government officials, a person from the DPP’s office, a couple of guards.””
Without that infrastructure of supporters and sympathisers on a small island off the edge of north-western Europe, the Long War would have been a short one indeed.