Supporters of the Irish Republican Army
The present conflict in Ireland is a direct consequence of British colonial interference which has, for centuries, denied the Irish people their right to self-determination.
Ever since the initial invasion in 1169, the British have attempted to assert their authority in Ireland in the face of Irish resistance. For more than a thousand years before the British invasion began, the Irish had an individual and highly developed cultural identity, a progressive legal system and established political structures. To undermine and control the Irish nation, the British had to rely on the classical imperialist tactics of “Divide and Rule” and colonisation.
In the early stages of its colonial conquest of Ireland the British introduced apartheid laws which prohibited social contact, including intermarriage, between the colonists and the Irish. This apartheid legislation failed in its objective, however, because the colonists were few in number and widely dispersed so that they could not long maintain their separateness. More than four centuries after their arrival, the British effectively ruled only a tiny area of Ireland around the present capital city of Dublin, and even this area was subjected to the ever present reality of Irish resistance. Elsewhere the colonists had, as history records, become more Irish than the Irish themselves.
Britain renewed and intensified its efforts to conquer Ireland in the years following the Protestant Reformation. Since the Irish people remained overwhelmingly Catholic, they were regarded as a potential threat by Protestant Britain, especially in the era of religious wars which erupted in 16th and 17th century Europe.
A more effective method of colonisation known as Plantation, was implemented on a systematic basis with large concentrations of British people being ‘planted’ in various parts of Ireland where they received land grants. This policy was applied with particular zeal and efficiency in the northern part of Ireland (Ulster) where Irish resistance to British rule was always strongest. Here, as elsewhere, the native Irish population was dispossessed of its land and forced to flee into mountainous and boggy countryside.
The purpose of the Plantation policy was to pacify Ireland and to stabilise it in the interests of the British Government by establishing an effective garrison. The Planters constituted that garrison and their continued loyalty to Britain was secured on the basis of the social, political and economic privileges which they were given and on the continued ability of the British Government to keep them divided from the native population.
While the Plantation strategy was generally effective in stabilising British control, it was not always so, and Irish resistance continued throughout the 17th century until military defeat, dispossession and a series of Penal Laws combined to stifle opposition to Britain. By the end of the 18th century, when the religious wars were a fading memory and a new spirit of radicalism and Republicanism was spreading, it appeared that Britain’s divide and rule policy in Ireland had come unstuck when a section of the Protestant population (descendants of the Planters) joined with their Catholic neighbours in demanding an Irish Republic. The United Irishmen, as they became known, rose in rebellion in 1798 but this rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British and their native allies.
Those allies included the majority of the Protestant population (many of whom were organised in a sectarian Masonic movement known as the Orange Order) and also an emerging middle-class
which included Catholic business people and the Catholic hierarchy. All of these saw their interests being guaranteed by continued British rule rather than in a separate Irish Republic which was pledged to justice and equality for all its citizens.
In the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion the British decided that their control could only be guaranteed through direct rule from London. An Act of Union was introduced which transferred the limited legislative powers of the colonial ascendancy to the British Parliament where the interests of Ireland and the Irish people were subjected to the demands of and increasingly powerful and ambitious imperialist power.
Throughout the 19th century as the demand for Irish freedom was raised, and even the demand for limited freedom within the British Empire, the British Establishment deliberately fomented sectarian divisions and, when it suited, they gave every encouragement to the Orange Order. The Catholic middle-class which developed throughout this period articulated the demand for limited freedom through constitutional methods but they did not want to break the link with Britain. The republican tradition of militant separatism continued to win support amongst the people of no property but a large part of this support base was obliterated in the Great Famine of the 1840’s and through continued emigration to Britain, the USA and Australia.
There were several armed uprisings throughout the century but even though they followed inn the republican tradition of the United Irishmen they failed to attract the same degree of popular support and were easily suppressed.
With the gradual extension of the franchise it became clear in the late 19th and 20th centuries that the limited independence of “Home Rule” would have to be conceded if the stability which Britain needed in Ireland was to continue. In Ulster, where the descendants of the Planters still constituted a privileged Unionist majority in favour of the union with Britain, a pro-British and sectarian armed force called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed to resist the democratic demands of the Irish people as a whole. The British refused to move against this force and senior political and military figures encouraged its development.
By the early years of the present century a clear pattern had emerged between the major political forces in Ireland, a pattern which continues to this day, with the limited demands of constitutional nationalism being strenuously opposed by Unionists and qualified by British administrations anxious to ensure that their self-interest was defended. Two events combined to shatter that pattern, for a time at least; first was the outbreak of World War in 1914 which put the issue of Home Rule on the back-burner of British political considerations, and second was the decision by Irish separatist forces including the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army to take advantage of Britain’s involvement in a global conflict and to strike a blow for freedom in the ranks of a combined force called the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
On Easter Monday 1916 the Irish Republic was declared and a Provisional Government established in arms by the IRA. After a week of fighting which was largely confined to Dublin, the superior armed power of the British succeeded in crushing the rebellion.
The subsequent executions of the Republican leaders and the imprisonment of the rank-and-file was resented by ordinary Irish people. Many who had not supported the rebellion changed their
opinions and popular support for Irish separatism grew from a tiny fringe to a mass movement.
Repression breeds resistance and, as the British vainly tried to restore stability by force and the threat of force, a strengthened Republican Movement emerged from interment camps in Britain to be greeted as heroes at home. The resurgent spirit of separatism found its political expression in support for Sinn Fein and its militant vanguard in the ranks of the IRA.
Evidence that Britain would continue to ignore the democratic will of the Irish people was provided by the general election of 1918 which saw Sinn Fein emerge with a massive majority of the
Irish seats, and more than enough to justify the establishment of an Irish Parliament, called Dail Eireann, independent of Britain. Instead of accepting the democratic decision of the electorate, the British tried to suppress Dail Eireann and jailed many of its elected members. Faced with British violence, the IRA fought a guerilla campaign between 1919 and 1921 which eventually forced Britain to the negotiating table.
The outcome of those negotiations had, to some extent, been decided by the British a year earlier with the creation of the Northern Ireland statelet. This statelet was established on the basis of a sectarian headcount which created an artificial majority comprising the privileged Unionist/pro-British population which was concentrated in that area. These were given their own devolved structure of government in return for their continued service as a strategically important British garrison.
The delegation which conducted the negotiations with the British agreed to a set of proposals contained in a Treaty. These proposals fell far short of the Republic declared in 1916 and established by the popular will of the Irish people in 1918. The Treaty established two states in Ireland, one a neo-colonial Free State still tied politically and economically to Britain but with the trappings of freedom; the other was the colonial Northern Ireland statelet.
Supported by the most reactionary elements of Irish society including the Unionists, the Catholic hierarchy and major commercial interests (none of whom had ever supported the struggle for freedom) the Treaty was forced on the Irish people under threat of “immediate and terrible war”. An emerging Free State Government which had British backing set about crushing
Republican opposition to the deal. Civil war ensued but the Republican forces which had tried desperately to avoid war were quickly defeated by the increasingly well-armed and ruthless army of the Treaty supporters.
Successive Free State governments have, since the creation of their state, claimed that the re-unification of Ireland is their primary political objective. Apart from verbalising on the issue, however, they have done nothing to achieve re-unification. On the contrary Dublin based governments have from the beginning contributed to the growth of partitionist attitudes within their own state by encouraging the development of a Catholic ethos rather than that the non-sectarian pluralism of Irish Republicanism. In this and in the declaration of a nominal Republic in 1949 they have shown that their real aim is to maintain the status-quo. This is confirmed by the efforts of those governments to undermine and defeat Republican campaigns against the Northern Ireland statelet, efforts which have included continuous emergency legislation since 1939, the use of internment and active collaboration with the British authorities including the extradition of Republican activists.
With the guarantee of British support for their position, Northern Unionists set about building their statelet on the basis of political, social and economic privileges for their own artificial majority at the expense of the equally artificial anti-Unionist minority. For nearly 50 years of unbroken Unionist rule from the Stormont parliament outside Belfast, northern Catholics were forced to endure blatant discrimination in the allocation of jobs and houses. In areas of local government administration where anti-Unionists were in an electoral majority, a system of electoral rigging known as Gerrymandering was introduced to turn those majorities into minorities.
A wide range of repressive laws which were the envy of the apartheid regime in South Africa, were enforced by vindictive and puritanical Stormomt administrations while the colonial Government in Britain (whether Conservative or Labour) simply ignored what was happening in the North of Ireland.
In every decade of Stormont rule the IRA launched military campaigns of varying intensity against the Northern state but without success. The absence of a radical political leadership within the anti-Unionist population meant that popular support for a sustained campaign of armed struggle could not be mobilised.
Following the emergence of a Civil Rights Movement for blacks in the USA in the mid-1960s, however, a similar movement grew within anti-Unionist areas of the Northern state. As this movement’s campaign of peaceful street protest gained momentum in the late 1960s, the full force of the state repression was used to crush it. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a sectarian and paramilitary police force, and its equally sectarian reserve force, the B Specials, were deployed by the Stormont Government to beat Civil Rights’ marchers off the streets.
British troops were sent to Ireland in 1969, ostensibly to act as impartial mediators but in reality to lend support to the battle weary RUC and B Specials and to restore British control. As these troops adopted a progressively pro-Unionist stance it became increasingly clear to a growing number of anti-Unionists that the institutional injustices which had prompted the Civil Rights’ Campaign were merely symptoms of a deeper rooted injustice – the very existence of the Northern Ireland statelet. Many people concluded that peaceful and democratic methods could never radically alter the nature of the state which was established and sustained by violent and anti-democratic methods. For them it became clear that the solution lay in dismantling the state, ending British rule and re-uniting Ireland.
The IRA re-emerged, in a defensive capacity at first, following a series of pogroms which were directed against anti-Unionist areas of Belfast and other urban centres. Confronted by Unionist opposition to even the limited reforms demanded by the Civil Rights’ Movement and faced with violence by the official state forces as well as unofficial pro-British forces, the popular resistance campaign quickly evolved into a revolutionary struggle for self-determination. This revolution, which continues to this day, is fought on many levels, both political, cultural and social, and is spearheaded by the armed struggle of the IRA whose actions are directed against the clearly perceived forces of British rule and against the political and economic forces which sustain that rule.
British policy throughout this revolutionary struggle has been aimed at defeating Irish Republicanism, thereby restoring the stability which is necessary for them to re-assert effective control. Believing that this could be achieved through a strategy of counter-insurgency similar to the strategies employed in other colonies such as Cyprus, Kenya and Malaysia, the British tried to crush revolution by introducing internment and saturating towns and countryside with soldiers.
This ‘mailed fist’ approach failed to defeat the IRA but it did have the effect of ending the mass street demonstrations of the Civil Rights’ Campaign as rubber, plastic and even lead bullets were used to disperse such demonstrations. In the absence of massive street demonstrations it became increasingly difficult to quantify the level of support which the revolution enjoyed. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Movement, had no positive electoral role as its activities were mainly confined to protest activities. Without any evidence of demonstrable popular support for Republicanism, a second phase of the British counter-insurgency campaign began. This was based on isolating and criminalising the revolution.
The RUC took over the front line role of the British army to convey the impression that the conflict was merely a political problem. Alongside this, internment and political status were phased out and a specially designed judicial and penal system was introduced to criminalise Republican activists.
The prisoners resisted criminalisation, however, and it was their heroic protest campaign between September 1976 and the Hunger Strikes of 1981 which undermined the British strategy and
mobilised national and international interest in the Irish struggle.
Against all the odds, the IRA survived the black period from the mid to the late 1970s when torture centres and special Diplock Courts were used to rail road people into jail and the media was used to implement the policy of isolating Republicans. A re-organised and increasingly politicised IRA, committed to maintaining the armed struggle as long as necessary, emerged in the 1980s.
Like the IRA, Sinn Fein learned lessons from this period, especially the need to develop an effective political strategy which would complement the armed struggle, counter further attempts to isolate Republicanism and lay the basis for the political, cultural and economic re-conquest of Ireland.
It has been the development of Sinn Fein as an electoral force throughout Ireland (presenting a radical alternative to both the colonial and neo-colonial administrations) and the continued ability of the IRA to challenge the British presence which led to the latest counter-insurgency strategy – the Hillsborough Agreement.
This strategy attempts to undermine the Republican struggle by encouraging the middle class within the anti-Unionist population to accept and support the constitutional status-quo and British repressive measures. In return the anti-Unionists were promised reforms which, it was claimed, would give them equal status in the Northern Ireland statelet.
More than a year after the Hillsborough Agreement was signed the promised reforms had still not been delivered and, far from an improvement, the anti-Unionist population had found that their situation had deteriorated. The British were still clearly unwilling to introduce even minimal reform, in the face of almost unanimous Unionist opposition to an agreement which they regarded as a threat to their privileged position.
To a large extent the Unionist campaign of opposition to the agreement had obscured the fact that the central purpose of the strategy – the defeat of Republicanism – had been totally unsuccessful. Popular support for the Republican position had not been eroded, as intended, because after 17 years of constant struggle and 800 years of similar British strategies, a growing number of Irish people recognise that there can be neither peace nor justice until Britain, the source of violence, injustice and divisions, allows the Irish people, both natives and
colonists, the right to determine their own future as equals in a united and sovereign Ireland.
“The most powerful foe of labour is capitalistic imperialism, and in Great Britain capitalistic imperialism stands or falls by the subjection or liberation of Ireland.” – Erskine Childers
For centuries the people of Ireland have fought for the right to decide their own destiny free from external interference. The history of Ireland has been largely defined by that struggle, as generation has followed generation in a never-ending wave of resistance to British imperialism.
For more than two centuries that resistance has been intrinsically linked to the establishment of an Irish Republic. And for more than a century Irish revolutionaries have understood that that republic must be socialist in nature if it is to deliver not only national but also economic and social freedom.
In the global battle against twenty-first century imperialism the only logical place for Irish progressives to channel their energies is in the building of popular support for Irish democracy and by extension, popular resistance to British rule.
By defeating British imperialism on its own doorstep the people of Ireland could contribute a devastating hammer blow against tyranny in the global struggle for freedom and justice.
The most effective way to oppose British imperialism in Ireland today is through the building a grass-roots anti-imperialist mass movement; the objective of which should be nothing short of a total British military, political and economic withdrawal from Ireland.
“They think they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think they have foreseen everything, think that they provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. – Padraig Pearse…