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Was The IRA Defeated? Or How Did The Troubles End

Dr Thomas Leahy is a lecturer in British and Irish Politics and Contemporary History at Cardiff University, and the author of The Intelligence War Against the IRA, a carefully sourced study reiterating the view among mainstream historians and analysts that the primary roots of the Irish-British peace process, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, lay in the prolonged military stalemate that characterised the latter half of the so-called Troubles in the north of Ireland.

In particular, many scholars argue that the slow road to peace – or an absence of war – began with the halting acceptance by the United Kingdom that it could not inflict a decisive military or political defeat on the Republican Movement. Or even, as the second-best option, contain the armed insurrection at an acceptable level of attrition, safeguarding the UK from serious attacks, while creating the space for some form of internal settlement advantageous to the United Kingdom and those loyal to it – the unionist community. This gradual shift in thinking, the questioning of military victory or containment as achievable objectives, eventually led to renewed back-channel talks with the leadership of the insurgency in the late 1980s and early ’90s under the premiership of Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher MP.

While initially pursued in private, the UK’s suing for peace, as it were, was eventually accompanied by a series of public statements and overtures from serving or retired British officials. Notable among these early moves was the admission during a BBC television documentary in February 1988 by Sir James M. Glover, former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, that the Irish Republican Army could not be defeated; a view quite at odds with London’s then decades-old line on the conflict. In a similar vein was the acceptance in December 1989 by Peter Brooke MP, the British government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that a military defeat of the IRA would be “hard to envisage”. This admission to the Press Association caused outrage in Britain, but in hindsight it clearly served a dual purpose of indicating to the IRA that London was ready to limit its war aims, a policy change already covertly passed through deniable interlocutors, and to accustom the British media and general public to what was to come.

On the others side, many strategic thinkers in the Republican Movement were now likewise seeking a way out from what was becoming a generational conflict, questioning the efficacy of armed struggle without end, and tentatively exploring the potential of Sinn Féin to deliver war by other means. By putting votes before guns, and by using the latter to wring out concessions and advantages for the former, they hoped to establish an electoral (and legal, social and cultural) environment in which Britain would be voluntarily or otherwise sidelined. Thus giving the Republican Movement the political space it needed in order to achieve its core aim: a reunited Ireland (regardless of its ideological character). Which, somewhat ironically, mirrored the soon to be abandoned British policy of neutralizing the power or influence of the Republican Movement to achieve a political solution favourable to Britain and its local allies.

Of course, in recent years this account of the end of the Long War, a record formally acknowledged by the principal Irish and British contributors to the peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s, has been challenged by a number of right-wing and nationalist writers in Britain. Instead of a military impasse that led to a series of complex and painful compromises by all sides, these commentators have argued for a simplistic morality tale: a heroic romance in which the ingrained intelligence and steadfastness of the Anglo-Saxon overcame the native cunning and guile of the Celt.

In this fan fiction version of UK history, where British super-spies and hi-tech wizardry exploited the treacherous and avaricious nature of the Irish, a great victory was lost to a petty peace imposed by squeamish or gullible politicians and bureaucrats from London. (Though, interestingly, in some recent versions of the story, the formerly loathed and decried Good Friday Agreement has been rebranded as the ultimate symbol of surrender and humiliation for the IRA – and one that Brexit Britain may now safely cast aside, its purpose served).

The main perpetrator of these revisionist tales has been the cadre of writers and journalists associated with the notorious Policy Exchange, the think tank in London that has provided some degree of scholarly respectability to those forces in British society that a confidant of the former UK premier David Cameroon famously described as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”. Since 2005, the ultra conservative lobby group has published or publicized countless articles and books arguing for a factually barren interpretation of the Stormont peace accords of 1998, while just as often attacking the peace process itself. It is a campaign of misinformation that has continued to the present day, with the hardline body maintaining its barely concealed colonial view of Ireland through its visceral hatred of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the United Kingdom’s trade treaties with the European Union.

In the YouTube lectures below, Dr Leahy presents the case for accepting the mainstream interpretation of how the 1966-2005 Troubles came to an end, using primary sources and accounts by key figures, while presenting new facts to support the contemporary record. He deconstructs the allegations offered by the amateur historians of the neo-right in Britain, pointing towards the years of secret negotiations between the Republican Movement and successive UK governments. In his belief, the Good Friday Agreement represents the victory of politics over violence, not violence over violence.

It is no surprise that his book has been largely ignored by the political or media classes in London, since its central message of jaw-jaw not war-war does not align with the nostalgic jingoism of Brexit Britain. Instead they have publicised and eulogised the dangerous fantasy histories of armchair generals – and those who served and failed in the Troubles – and who now downplay the threat or seriousness of a Troubles 2.0 as they advocate for a Partition 2.0 through the perpetual Long War that characterises Brexit.


11 comments on “Was The IRA Defeated? Or How Did The Troubles End

  1. My advice on that kind of debate? Sometimes talking about military victory or defeat is secondary or irrelevant at best.

    There are many examples in history with a much more blatant, conventional war (as in conventional battlefields and deaths in the tens or hundreds of thousands) where one side won the war but lost the peace and/or vice versa. Sometimes winning a war isn’t even worth the consequences of victory or how a nation reacts to losing is 100’s worse than the fact of the loss or even concessions a nation is forced to make on defeat (in particular if a Dolchstosslegende develops).

    There was once a Costa Rican politician whose name I forget who says that victory in battle can mean almost nothing by itself….It’s what happens after that makes all the difference.

    It’s dangerous in my book, to blur the distinction between terrorism, conventional warfare, and politics anyway. A lot of people do it, but the danger is two-fold. On the one hand it takes the Just War Theory criteria of “proportionality” out of the anti-war activist’s toolbox, if the war is triggered by a terrorist event. I know because I have protested a wary, largely operating on the premise that full blown war in response to terrorism lacked proportionality.

    On the other side a relativistic view of who is a terrorist that says “Well they are terrorists if we don’t like them, freedom fighters if we do” can be used by dictators to justify labeling dissidents as terrorists and extremists even if they never advocated violance- as Putin has done to Alexei Navalny.


  2. James Glover said pretty much the same in 1978 in a secret report written for the British Army as he did in 1988. I believe the report was entitled future terrorist trends. Of course the reason we know this is the IRA recovered the secret report and printed key sections of it in Republican publications. It also said the IRA membership were not a bunch of mindless psychos as they were portrayed in the British press at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think British Intelligence was really as great as its media support group would have you believe. The rivalry between MI5 and MI6 was legendary and probably cost people’s lives and kept the conflict going longer than it should have. They took different approaches to the conflict as well. MI5 believed in a military solution to the armed struggle and wanted no truck with any peace initiatives. MI6 believed in a political solution to the problem eventually realising this could not be achieved without some sort of buy in from Republicans and Loyalist paramilitaries. Of course RUC Special Branch was in the MI5 camp so no hope there. I believe a number of key Republican activists have written books about there role in the Armed Struggle. If these books are ever published we might just see a different angle on the past.


  4. Here’s why any military “victory” or “defeat” are irrelevant. Unless they can get most the kids in Northern Ireland singing “God Save The Queen” with sincere smiles on their faces, no military victory is going to have solved a darned thing…….just put it off for a while.

    To give a more extreme example. Even if Putin gets his military victory in Ukraine (hopefully not as then he might invade other countries), Ukrainians are unlikely to just become happy Russian citizens. Even if Putin eradicates the Ukrainian language (which is not that different from Russian honestly, certainly less unique than all the Celtic tongues are compared to Germanic or Latin languages), Ukrainians will remember this war. On top of Chernobyl and the Holodmor among other things, this invasion will make the people less willing to see themselves as Russians-even though as many of them have family in Russia as people in Ireland do the UK. Putin in a sense has repeated the mistake that Henry the VIII and Cromwell made centuries ago, given the choice between a friendly neighbor to the West, and one that win, lose, or draw would hate you for centuries, he opted for the latter.

    Honestly, it’s questionable in my mind that it was EVER to the UK’s benefit to colonize or rule Ireland. I’d even question that Britain was ever better off for having had that Empire at all…….including rich countries like India.

    This is not to suggest that the BE was benevolent, but that it was a huge waste. Usually debates about the BE frame it as a choice between believing in a benevolent BE or one that simply extracted resources from colonies to enrich Britain. But what if the answer is neither? What if it was just one big waste all around? Of course, in this version of events the British elite would take the lion’s share of responsiblity, as this is not a case for equal harm. Just a case for a negative sum outcome. because the resources spent on trying to control the colonies, was actually a drag on society for which the industrial revolution only partly compensated for.


  5. Things are changing in the North the Orange State is gone. Even the BBC has woken up to that. Catholics have equality and everyone is happy. The Northern Ireland Protocol has lifted the Norths economic system it would be a shame to let guttersnipes destroy everything. The DUP seem determined to wreck this place over what exactly a couple of checks at the Ports and Airports. During the BSE crisis the DUP accepted that the North’s cattle were Irish but its farmers British. So the DUP have accepted that the North is a bit different from England or Scotland. They had no problem with the 1967 Abortion Act not being applied in the North. It seems that Unionists are only British when it suits them.


  6. Diarmuid Breatnach

    So tiring to enter these discussions because quite often the participants are wishful thinkers blindly ignoring history. Of course the IRA were defeated but not militarily. On the other hand, how could they have won against a modern giant military power, fighting in one-sixth of a country where over half the population (in that one-sixth) were against them?

    The basic issues remain and the UK is still in the colony it has fought so hard to keep, a foothold after over 800 years of fighting to take over the whole nation, then to subdue a section of the colonists and the natives, then to suppress further struggles, finally supplying a counterrevolution and formally ceding five-sixths of the territory.


  7. It’s funny that Boris Johnson and Micheal Gove both think the IRA won. By the IRA bombing and shooting it’s way to the negotiating table. So does Peter Hitchens. The Irish Government in Dublin were always worried about the Brits negotiations with the Provos come to a agreement that would cut them out. Of course under FF they opened up negotiations for themselves in the 1980s.


  8. johnireland400

    “But it was for a leaked document, entitled Future Terrorist Trends, written while he was still BGS (Int), that Jimmy became a well-known figure. In it, he pointed out that the IRA had taken a calculated decision to regroup from their earlier position of weakness. It now had a new and effective cellular structure, and was equipped with all the sinews of war – men, money and weapons – and must be taken seriously. This typically accurate assessment, however unpalatable to those who did not want to accept it, enabled the army to respond appropriately.”
    “Ten years later, Glover gave an equally forthright interview on the BBC’s Panorama programme, in which he pointed out that the Provisional IRA could never be defeated militarily, being dedicated to what it called the long war, and that Gerry Adams was a man “with whom we can do business”. Glover’s Obituary
    Guardian, 16th June 2000.


  9. A win is a united Ireland. A win is NI part of the UK.

    So, who won after all the years of misery?


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