History Irish Republican Military

Was The IRA Defeated?

One of the great modern myths of the Troubles, the insurgency and counterinsurgency conflict that raged in the British-ruled north of Ireland from 1966 to 2005, is the claim that the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was eventually defeated through the combined efforts of Britain’s military, paramilitary and intelligence services, suing for peace in the early 1990s. In fact this story has only gained relative popularity and credence over the last ten years or so and was absent from most authoritative accounts and memoirs of the final “peace process” phase of the war itself, and for many years thereafter. Certainly the British Army made no real effort to challenge the talks’ policy adopted by the Conservative Party government of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s as it gradually accepted the existence of a military stalemate in the Six Counties and sought to reopen back-channel negotiations with the Republican Movement (following on from similar contacts in the early and mid-1980s). On the contrary, official documentation and media briefings from the period make it clear that war-weariness and despair were the primary emotions in the political and security circles of London when it came to addressing the Troubles in the late ’80s.

For those promoting the myth of a UK victory in “Northern Ireland” in the 1990s the factual history of the era has forced a turn to the murky intelligence war between the Irish Republican Army and the likes of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch, the British Army’s Intelligence Corps (and various secret units within it, notably the Force Research Unit), the Security Service (the SS; better known as MI5) and other branches of Britain’s intelligence community. Simply put, it is a lot easier to craft dubious histories based upon dubious suppositions and allegations when they are placed in the context of a world of deceit, lies and obfuscations. Consequently is is through the work of figures associated with various right-wing think tanks and pro-union groupings in London, notably the Brexit-supporting Policy Exchange, that the legend has emerged in British popular culture, a culture still unable to come to terms with the reality of the Irish-British peace process let alone the conflict that proceeded it, that “wot won it” was a legion of “James Bond”-style spies and agents directed by the genius “Ms” of Britain.

Thankfully the highly politicised need by some UK-based authors to turn what was in effect a British defeat-through-stalemate into a victory-through-informers has been challenged by a new wave of academics who have cast a very cold eye on the legend of Britain’s successes in the Troubles. Through the work of historians like Professor Paul Dixon of the University of London or Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh of NUI Galway serious questions have been raised over the recent tabloidisation of the Troubles by some of their more ideologically-motivated colleagues or the amateur historians of the UK press. One of the highlight publications in this area is The Intelligence War against the IRA by Dr Thomas Leahy of Cardiff University. Expanding upon an earlier 257-page thesis (free to read in this link), Leahy challenges the myth of a British intelligence victory and finds it wanting. In fact a host of other factors, primarily in Ireland and primarily political, along with a confluence of changes in London and Washington, outweighed any notions of British super-spies changing the course of the conflict.

As I noted in a previous post on this subject, in 1969 Henry Kissinger summarised a long essay examining the US defeat in Vietnam with these words:

“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”


13 comments on “Was The IRA Defeated?

  1. My own thoughts, for what they’re worth, are that militarily the troubles ended in stalemate. As was clear would be the outcome for at least a decade to the more astute on either side (the British and Republicans). Politically, it’s hard to argue that Republicans achieved much except an end to military conflict and the means by which, sometime in the future, a unitary state could be peacefully achieved. A counter argument might be that electorally Republicans achieved an awful lot. But what good has that been politically, vis a vis their ultimate goal? It could also be argued that the unionist parties and Brexit have inadvertently, at least where the first is concerned, done more to advance a unitary Irish state than Sinn Fein. None of this is in any way to criticise the peace process, and the major role that Republicans played in it. They did absolutely the right thing in helping bring an end to the troubles.


  2. john cronin

    Well, is Ireland united? hardly an IRA victory.
    Scum: cowards who left bombs in pubs.


    • gendjinn

      As many in history have pointed out. When you are fighting the British, you have to join them on their level.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bombing German women and children an RAF specialty, As early as 1942, 45,732 tons of bombs were dropped on Germany by the RAF, and even at that early stage, only 4% of them were aimed at industrial targets or ports! The rest were squarely aimed at city centers and civilians, not because their weapons were “inaccurate” or “unsophisticated” but because it was planned. Allied bombing would be killing thousands of German civilians a day by the later stages of the war because of this homicidal, morally corrupt and largely unsuccessful policy. The Brits are masters of ignoring contrary historical facts that do not support the Myth of the British and WW2.


    • John Murphy

      What about the brit soilders that killed innocent people, what about the brit police that put innocent people in jails, what about the brits that burn our cities ya they where brave men alright cowardly fuckers and still are


  3. gendjinn

    It is interesting and informative to see who engages in the PIRA were defeated by British intelligence debate, and who does not.

    The recent and excellent Spotlight series Troubles: A Secret History drew attention to the timeline of British Army, UDR, RUC and Loyalist actions from the 80s through the peace process. At one point boiling it down to blunt terms – the RUC Shoot-to-Kill was then pursued by British Army, for example Gibraltar, Loughall. Loyalists were directed by British military intelligence to attack family members and friends of volunteers.

    If indicting the UK state as a rogue terrorist entity that should be in the dock at the Hague is the argument you want to make, I’m all here for it.

    But if UK intel defeated the PIRA what were Downing St ’91, Baltic Exchange ’92, Bishopsgate ’93, Heathrow ’94. Canary Wharf ’96? When were the PIRA defeated exactly?

    Was it when Blair became PM, and along with Clinton and Ahern got into talks and just under a year later the GFA was signed. Then ratified overwhelmingly by the public north and south?

    The need to raise this question is more interesting and revealing of those raising it, and the times they believe we are living through, than it is illuminating of the topic under discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “If indicting the UK state as a rogue terrorist entity that should be in the dock at the Hague is the argument you want to make, I’m all here for it.”

      Who among the participants in the Northern Ireland armed conflict wasn’t guilty of war crimes? Think about that and you’ll realise why none amongst the various armed actors has ever gone down The Hague route.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gendjinn

        I do agree with you that the RUC, UDR, B-Specials, British Army, and British Military intelligence were all war criminals guilty of war crimes.


        • In fairness, Gendjinn, we can’t point fingers of blame at the Brits unless we accept our own role in the conflict and those actions that can be barely justified, if at all. Proxy bombs and other incidents were clearly criminal in nature. The Brits may do double-think and hypocrisy but we should be above that. Let’s be honest with ourselves and those we inflicted harm on, and be all the better for it. What the British choose to admit or not admit is with their conscience.


          • gendjinn

            In fairness, ansionnachfionn, would you ever remember conversations from a week ago? WbS and I recently covered this topic, but well done ignoring my previous written position to get on that high horse.


            • I wasn’t on high horse and apologize if you saw it that way. Just pointing out that the mirror needs to face both ways. I know your views are far more realistic and nuanced than British Army all bad, IRA all good.


  4. Ha, ha sorry for drawing attention to the major (and painfully obvious) flaw in your “Hague” contention, but no need to take it like that. 🙂


  5. I think this is why the Brits and there Unionist allies are so absolutely opposed to any sort of truth commission process. It would expose all the myths and legends they have tried to build up since the ceasefires. Most IRA operations were being thwarted in the last 18 months of the conflict. 1 in 2 IRA volunteers was a informer or British agent. Of course it’s not just the IRA I have seen it said by spook sources feeding their tame journalists that 90% of the UVF were working for the Brits. The UDA inner Council half were in the pay of RUC Special Branch the other half in the pay of MI5.


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