The Tortuous trail to a United Ireland
The Irish Free State, comprised of 32 counties, came into being in 1916 and seceded from the United Kingdom under the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. 6 counties under the control of Unionists, opted to remain with the United Kingdom.
The Irish Government introduced a republican constitution in 1937, which included a territorial claim to the 6 counties of Northern Ireland). The Oath of Allegiance to the British monarchy was abandoned and an elected President, Head of State, appointed.
In January 1939, the IRA Army Council declared war against Britain, and began a “Sabotage Campaign” a few days later. The plan involved IRA operatives based in Britain bombing British infrastructure, with a view to weakening their war effort.
But the British and Irish Governments cracked down hard on the dissidents and the campaign petered out. At the war end the severely depleted IRA membership faded into obscurity for a short period but recovered and formed a Dublin Unit which called for a ceasefire with the United Kingdom.
In 1947 a rebuilt and growing IRA held its first Army Convention since World War II and a new leadership was elected. It believed that a political organisation would be necessary to assist the progress of increasing its influence and members were instructed to join Sinn Féin. By 1950 the IRA had established complete control of the Party.
In 1949 the 26 counties formally became a republic under the terms of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, and terminated its membership of the British Commonwealth.
At the start of the 1950s the IRA started planning for a renewed armed campaign in the North and in the 6 counties, and in 1956 “Operation Harvest” was launched.
The border campaign, as it became known, involved various military units, “flying Columns” carrying out a range of military operations, from direct attacks on security installations to disruptive actions against infrastructure.
The Irish and United Kingdom Governments eventually curtailed IRA operations by breaking its morale through the introduction of internment without trial, first in Northern Ireland and then in the Republic of Ireland. The campaign faded and ended in February 1962.
The failure of the border campaign brought about a review of tactics between the leaders of the two distinct groups in the movement. A faction consisting of older IRA men who had served prison sentences together in the Curragh favoured traditionalism and now controlled Sinn Féin and a faction of younger, left-wing IRA members who now commanded the IRA Army Council.
It was made clear by the Army Council that Sinn Féin answered to the IRA, not the other way around. A hard-line stance that alienated the Curragh faction many of whom resigned from Sinn Féin in protest.
Sinn Fein/IRA adopted class-based political policies and rejected any action that could be seen as sectarian, including the use of IRA arms to defend one side, (the beleaguered Catholic communities of Northern Ireland) against the other.
In the period 1962-1969 the conduct and failure of international politics throughout the World brought with it an increasing incidence of USSR confrontational challenges to the Western nations of NATO coupled with sponsored proxy wars in Africa and South America and the Middle East. The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths and major injuries of many thousands of American and Australian service personnel.
The carnage went on for years but eventually people called time on the excesses of politicians and demanded that their voices be heard and their wishes acceded to.
The Civil Rights movement was born and millions marched for “equal rights” between 1967-1969.
In the six counties John Hume and other civil rights campaigners, appealed to the Unionist Government to ease its grip on the public, claiming they had a “right to march” and argued that other groups should be afforded the same right. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Unionist politicians were not inclined to permit any civil rights protests or marches.
But, adding insult to injury, on 12 August 1969 an Apprentice Boys march was given the go-ahead in Derry and proved to be the spark that lit the flame that became the Battle of the Bogside.
Nationalist protestors threw stones and bottles at the loyalist parade as it passed close to a Catholic area and Protestant supporters responded in kind.
Royal Ulster Constabulary officers (RUC) moved in and became involved in pitched battles with the nationalist in support of the Protestant rioters.
The rioting in Derry continued until 14 August 1969, attracting worldwide media attention. Within a few days, the trouble spread to Belfast ad the British army was deployed to Northern Ireland in August 1969.
From that time the population became totally polarised, sectarianism prevailed and barricades went up to keep protestants and Catholics safe within their ghettos.
But the citizens of the six counties wanted only to be afforded the same basic democratic rights enjoyed by other people of the United Kingdom and their wishes could have been conceded without any detrimental effect to the political arrangements in place at that time.
Luddite Unionist politicians in the six counties and London, with their stranglehold over the electorate, ignored growing tensions within the community, brought about by civil rights marchers and campaigners who encouraged civil disobedience and this led to a rapid escalation of violent clashes involving nationalists, unionists and the police. Unionist were bereft of vision and their stupidity brought the six counties to its knees.
The Provisional IRA wing of Sinn Fein took on responsibility for the defence of the minority Catholic population a policy change that morphed into a thirty-year armed struggle against the British presence in Northern Ireland.
Operation Demetrius, (Interment Without Trial) was introduced in Northern Ireland, by the Stormont Unionist Government, in the early morning of 9 August 1971 in response to warnings of a Protestant backlash if it did not act against the IRA.
Approximately 340 people from Catholic and nationalist backgrounds were arrested and locked up. The intelligence used in making the arrests was seriously faulty and scores of people ended up detained who had no connections with the IRA. Of those arrested more than 100 were released within 48 hours.
Internees were taken to the new built Long Kesh camp near Lisburn, (later known as the Maze Prison), Magilligan British army camp in Co Derry and the “Maidstone” ship in Belfast Harbour.
The operation prompted serious violence within the Catholic communities. 23 Catholic protestors were killed between 9 and 10 August, including 10 who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in West Belfast.
The extreme measures alienated Catholics and Nationalists and provided a recruitment boon for the IRA, just as Bloody Sunday would do six months later in Derry.
Internment also added impetus to the unrest and it is estimated that nearly 150 Catholics were killed and many more severely injured by the end of 1971.
Many Catholic families fled to the Republic to escape the violence and were housed in special camps.
Internment, in which over 2000 people were locked up without trial, ended in December 1975. Of that total just over 100 were loyalists. The first loyalist being interned early in 1973.
The first years of the war were intense and ferocious. In 1972 alone the IRA killed 100 British soldiers, wounded another 500 and carried out 1,300 early warning bombings. In that same year 90 IRA activists were killed, a heavy toll.
But the tactic appeared to be vindicated when, in July 1972, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, secretly met their leadership in London.
The talks came to nothing because IRA demands were too high and a fragile truce broke down in contentious circumstances. But the process convinced the Republican Movement that Sinn Fein/IRA possessed the motivation and the means to force Britain’s departure from Ireland.
In 1974 the political wing of Sinn Fein/IRA addressed its less than harmonious relationship with the 26-County Irish Republic with the issue of a new mission statement:
“Sinn Féin will lead the Irish people away from British 6-County and 26-County parliaments and reassemble the thirty-two County Dail which will legislate for and rule all of Ireland”.
The content of the statement was the subject of widespread discussion over many months since its acceptance would bring about an adoption of new political thinking while ensuring that the military campaign remained paramount but closely harmonised with the advancement of a political dialogue.
But the new pragmatic Northern Ireland leadership of Gerry Adams was determined to get Sinn Fein to occupy the political vacuum South and North of the border with the purpose of getting the opposition to the negotiating table and this meant participation in elections and required the abandonment of the Sinn Féin/IRA constitutional ban on taking seats in Dáil Eireann, the issue which split Sinn Féin/IRA in 1969-70 and led to killing feuds between the two factions for a number of years after.
Adams won the argument and with his enlightened pragmatists on board they worked hard to ensure there would be no new splits in Sinn Fein or the IRA.
Political progress over the next 10 years was hindered, stalled and often reversed due to sustained Unionist military activism against the minority population, the intransigence of ruling political establishment figures and armed para-militant organisations in the 6-Counties.
The military campaigns of both sides intensified and casualties soared amongst the innocents of the population of the 6-Counties and in England. (There were at least 10,000 bomb attacks and 3,635 killings up to 1998, including 257 children.)
Yet the impact of the setbacks also proved positive for Sinn Fein/IRA who developed sophisticated strategies and gained political support in the USA and military assistance of Libya who supplied large amounts of weaponry and explosives, (purchased using £3m, the spoils of bank robberies and kidnappings.)
In 1979 the Tory Party, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, took control of Westminster and adopted a hard-line policy against Sinn Fein/IRA .
In May 1980 on the day she was due to meet with Charles Haughey, to discuss the future of Northern Ireland, Thatcher announced in Parliament that “the future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government, this parliament, and no-one else”. Thus setting the tone for the discussions which achieved nothing.
Thatcher’s mettle was tested again in 1981, when on 1 March a number of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison went on hunger strike to regain the status of political prisoners, which had been revoked five years earlier under the Labour government.
On 5 March 1981, the nationalist MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, died creating the need for a by-election and on 9 April 1981, after 40 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands ran for the vacant Westminster seat from his cell and won gaining Sinn Fein worldwide support and significant financial contributions.
Thatcher continued to refuse a return to political status for republican prisoners, declaring “Crime is crime is crime; it is not political” and Bobby Sands died of starvation few weeks later. Still she would not relent and nine more men died.
Rights were finally restored to paramilitary prisoners, but recognition of their political status was not granted. She later asserted: “The outcome was a significant defeat for the IRA.” In all, ten men died.
Thatcher’s determination to face-down the hunger strikers, against strident international opinion, sent a message to Gerry Adam’s that the British intended to remain in Ireland.
Sinn Féin, boosted by the election of the hunger strikers entered into politics in the North in 1981 and contested seats for the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982 on an abstentionist ticket.
Results were encouraging. The Party polled around 65,000 votes making deep inroads taking votes away from the long established SDLP.
In the June 1983 Westminster election, Gerry Adams’s stood as the candidate for Sinn Fein and won West Belfast. In his acceptance speech he said that Sinn Féin’s longer-term objectives (beyond 1985) was to “become the majority nationalist party in the North” and to make considerable political inroads in the 26 counties of the Republic.
The Republican Movement had finally demonstrated that it could fight an armed struggle and win elections at the same time. Most importantly they proved beyond doubt that they had a mandate acceptable to the electorate.
The gap between Sinn Fein and the SDLP also closed significantly. Sinn Féin got 102,601 votes and the SDLP, 137,012.
The cumulative results shocked politicians and provided impetus to the UK and Irish Governments to conclude the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Gerry Adams Statement to the Speaker of the House of Commons:
“My party holds a policy of abstentionism when it comes to the House of Commons. We believe the interests of the Irish people can only be served by democratic institutions in Ireland, not in Westminster. I will not swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. In adhering to this statement we are fulfilling the wishes of the electorate that sent us here.”
The Speaker’s reply:
“I understand your position. You will not be permitted to attend the House of Commons or participate in debates until you have complied with all requirements of this house. In recognition of your electorate’s wishes you will be afforded office space, an allowance for living accommodation and unrestricted use of the full facilities of Westminster, including allowances for the costs of staff, offices, and travel.”
Unfortunately on 17 December 1983, just as a dialogue with Unionist politicians was being established the IRA (acting out with the authority of Sinn Fein) placed a bomb in Harrods of London. There was confusion over the content and length of warning of the bomb and it exploded in the midst of Christmas shoppers, killing 8 people and injuring 80. The bombing was condemned by public opinion in the UK and Republic of Ireland and resulted in the cancellation of a political dialogue
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were furious and convened an urgent meeting with the IRA Army Council at which, with the support of the “Falls Road Think Tank”: Danny Morrison, Richard McCauley, Joe Austin, Tom Hartley, Alex Maskey, Paddy Doherty and Vincent Conlon, they re-established control by retiring a number of high ranking officers and local commanders.
There remained unfinished business with Thatcher and the Tory Party who would be made to pay for the deaths of the hunger strikers. In the early morning of 12 October 1984, the day before her 59th birthday, Thatcher escaped injury in the Brighton hotel bombing during the Conservative Party Conference. Five people were killed and many injured.
The attack was the prelude to another IRA bombing campaign, but with a major change of tactics. Attacks on Military and political targets would continue but the main thrust would be to damage the British economy and cause severe disruption through the destruction of infrastructure and commercial targets in England. This would put pressure on the British government to negotiate a withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
In February 1991 the IRA launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister, as John Major, then Prime Minister, was holding a Cabinet meeting. The mortars narrowly missed the building and there were no casualties.
In April 1992, the IRA detonated a powerful truck bomb in the Baltic Exchange bombing in the City of London, the UK’s main financial district. The blast killed three people and caused £800m worth of damage, more than the total damage caused by all IRA bombings before it.
In November 1992, the IRA planted a large van bomb at Canary Wharf, London’s second financial district. Security guards discovered it and immediately alerted the police and the bomb was defused.
In April 1993, the IRA detonated another powerful truck bomb in the City of London killing one person and causing £500m worth of damage.
In December 1993 the British and Irish governments issued the Downing Street Declaration accepting the right of Sinn Fein to contribute to peace negotiations, provided the IRA committed to a ceasefire, which it did in August 1994.
By 1996, the Tory Government lost its majority and had become dependant on Ulster unionist votes to stay in power. Irish nationalists accused it of pro-unionist bias as a result.
The government began insisting that the IRA must fully disarm before Sinn Féin would be allowed to take part in fully-fledged peace talks. Arguing that the IRA could use violence, or the threat of violence, to influence negotiations.
On 23 January 1996, the international commission for disarmament in Northern Ireland recommended that Britain drop its demand, suggesting that disarmament begin during talks rather than before. The British government refused to drop its demand. Responding to the commission, Major said in parliament that, for there to be talks, either the IRA would have to disarm or there would have to be an election in Northern Ireland. Irish republicans and nationalists wanted talks to begin swiftly, but noted that it would take months to organize and hold an election.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams argued that the British government and unionists were erecting “one obstacle after another to frustrate every attempt to sit down around the negotiating table” and warned American diplomats that the British government’s actions were “threatening the ceasefire”.
Th intransigence of the British Government infuriated the IRA Army Council who said this was one concession too much and a betrayal of the terms of the negotiations that had been previously agreed. Discussions foundered.
In an attempt to break the impasse, the British and Irish governments created an international decommissioning body, chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell. This was part of a ‘twin-track’ approach, with decommissioning to accompany political talks rather than precede them. Mitchell delivered his report in January 1996, setting out six principles that should be endorsed by all parties to the talks. This included a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. Mitchell recommended that all parties should sign up to these principles and that some decommissioning could take place during the talks. However, this was not enough to prevent the slide back to violence.
On 9 February 1996, the IRA released a statement announcing the end of its ceasefire. Two hours later a flatbed truck bomb detonated in the London Docklands, killing two and injuring nearly 100 people. Damage to buildings was widespread and estimated repair costs were put at £150m.
On Saturday 15 June 1996 the IRA followed up the attack when a truck packed with 1500kg of Semtex and combustible ammonium nitrate fertiliser, (the largest bomb of the campaign) was exploded in Manchester. The IRA gave a one hour warning allowing the area to be cleared of shoppers. There were no deaths but 212 people suffered injury. The explosion caused around £1bn of damage and destroyed the commercial heart of Manchester.
The 1 May 1997 election landslide of the Labour Government proved to be the catalyst for change since it provided Blair with the opportunity to deal with the Northern Ireland problem without the constraints of the Unionist politicians of Northern Ireland.
The IRA renewed its ceasefire on 20 July 1997, opening the way for Sinn Féin to be included in the inter-party talks that had begun under Mitchell’s chairmanship. The question of decommissioning remained though, and the British and Irish governments sought to fudge the issue rather than allow it to derail the process again.
This led to Ian Paisley’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walking out of the talks, never to return. The DUP rejected the notion of making any concessions on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland or negotiating with Sinn Féin, whom they considered terrorists.
While deeply unhappy, the more moderate UUP remained in the talks. Given the DUP’s declared desire to break the talks, Mitchell wrote later in his memoirs that their decision to walk out actually helped the process of reaching an agreement. However, it was to have a lasting impact on the politics of Northern Ireland, as the DUP’s opposition to the Good Friday Agreement severely hindered its implementation.
Sinn Féin entered the all-party talks on 15 September 1997, having signed-up to the Mitchell Principles and after marathon negotiations, agreement was finally reached on 10 April 1998.
The Good Friday Agreement was a complex balancing act, reflecting the three strands approach. Within Northern Ireland, it created a new devolved assembly for Northern Ireland, with a requirement that executive power had to be shared by parties representing the two communities. In addition, a new North-South Ministerial Council was to be established, institutionalising the link between the two parts of Ireland.
The Irish government also committed to amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s Constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland, to instead reflect an aspiration to Irish unity, through purely democratic means, while recognising the diversity of identities and traditions in Ireland.
Finally, a Council of the Isles was to be created, recognising the ‘totality of relationships’ within the British Isles, including representatives of the two governments, and the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Referendums were held in both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland on 22 May 1998. In Northern Ireland 71 per cent of voters backed the Agreement, with 29 per cent voting against. While this was a significant endorsement, an exit poll for the Sunday Times found that 96 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland backed the Agreement, compared to just 55 per cent of unionists.
On 15 August 1998, 29 people were killed when dissident republicans exploded a car bomb in Omagh. This represented the largest loss of life in any incident in Northern Ireland since the start of the Troubles.
While the Omagh bombing was committed by republicans opposed to the Agreement, it returned the spotlight to the question of decommissioning paramilitary weapons, which the Good Friday Agreement had stated should happen within two years. Unionist anger at the refusal of the IRA to give up its weapons was combined with frustration at the refusal of Sinn Féin to accept the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Power-sharing proved impossible to sustain and voters in each community started to turn away from the moderate parties giving their support to Sinn Féin and the DUP, displacing the SDLP and UUP.
For a significant part of the decade following the Good Friday Agreement, devolution was suspended because of the inability of the largest parties from each community to reach agreement on power-sharing.
Progress was made on decommissioning, which was confirmed to have been carried out in September 2005, but political agreement remained elusive.
Eventually, the British and Irish governments hosted crunch talks at St Andrews in October 2006. There, Sinn Féin finally agreed to accept the PSNI, while the DUP agreed to share power with Sinn Féin.
In May 2007, an Executive comprised of the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP was finally able to take office. This time, the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement remained in place until the current political crisis led to the collapse of the Executive in January 2017.
Despite the fragility of the institutions created and the continuing bitterness between politicians representing the two communities, the Good Friday Agreement remains an important landmark in Northern Ireland’s history.
The Good Friday Agreement was able to bring to an end 30 years of violence allowing Northern Ireland’s two communities to pursue their contrasting aspirations by purely political means.
At 2015 Northern Ireland elected 8 Sinn Fein MP’s to Westminster all committed to the abstentionism policy which prevents participation in any of the activities in the House of Commons.
But the power and influence of Sinn Fein is progressing well in Northern Ireland and in the Republic and the heady ambition of reuniting all of the people of the island of Ireland under one parliament is very much on the horizon. The Abstentionism policy has been vindicated.
Content largely extracted and paraphrased from The LONG WAR: The IRA & SINN FÉIN’ authored by Brendan O’Brien (1999)