Paramilitaries in the Troubles
At the outset there are two popular misconceptions about the paramilitaries that should be challenged. First, that all were all mindless thugs devoid of any political motivation who got their kicks from killing. This was seldom the case – although there were exceptions. Many were driven to join their respective “struggles” as a result of what they had witnessed or suffered – be it Bloody Sunday or Bloody Friday. The likelihood is that had these young men and women lived in any other part of the United Kingdom, most would never have become involved in violence.
The second misconception is that the conflict is about religion, republicans being Catholic and loyalists being Protestant. It is not religion that lies at the root of the Troubles. The conflict in Ireland is about national identity and territory and not about being Catholic or Protestant. Unlike Al Qaeda, religion is not what drives the paramilitaries.
The ultimate goal of republicans is to achieve a united Ireland by ending centuries of British rule. Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom after the south won its independence in 1921. The goal of loyalists is to maintain that constitutional link with the rest of the UK. Both republican and loyalist paramilitaries are prepared to use violence to achieve these incompatible ends.
The main paramilitary group on the republican side is the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Its roots go back to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and the war of independence that led to the partition of Ireland.
At various points in its long and violent journey the IRA has split into different factions, usually because of ideological differences over the recognition of political institutions north and south of the border. As the poet and playwright Brendan Behan is quoted as saying: “Whenever three IRA men are gathered together, the first item on the agenda is the split.”
In terms of understanding the role of the IRA in the Troubles, it is necessary to understand the split that occurred shortly after their outbreak, in 1969. The ‘old’ IRA had decided to recognise the sovereignty of the Irish parliament in Dublin, which was heresy to traditional “dyed-in-the green” republicans.
The acrimony between these new “constitutionalists” in the IRA and those who regarded them as traitors was exacerbated when the ‘old’ IRA failed to defend the Catholic enclaves in the north – in particular in Belfast – when they came under attack from Protestant mobs. The handful of IRA men who rushed to the defence of these areas in 1969 became the founders of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) the following year. Their erstwhile comrades in the ‘old’ IRA became known as the Official IRA. The ‘Provisionals’ will subsequently be referred to here as the IRA.
Further splits followed with the emergence of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in 1974. Its politics were predominantly Marxist. In the years that followed, bitter and often bloody rivalry developed between these various IRA factions.
The IRA fought a long and bloody campaign of attrition designed to force the British government to disengage from Northern Ireland. While claiming to focus on the “legitimate targets” of the forces of the British state their campaign, including some sectarian attacks, claimed the lives of over 600 civilians.
The oldest loyalist paramilitary organisation is the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). It takes its name from northern Protestants who, on the eve of the First World War, had volunteered to fight to defend their British identity against any attempt to force them into a united Ireland.
The UVF was not regarded as a “terrorist” organisation at the time. But in the aftermath of 1969 and in the years that followed, its members certainly were “terrorists” and proscribed as such after responding to the IRA’s campaign by using indiscriminate sectarian violence against Catholics.
In 1972, IRA violence led to the emergence of the second main loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Initially it was what its name suggested, a “defence” organisation which thousands of Protestants joined in the belief that it would stand up to the IRA threat in the face of a perceived lack of determination by the British government.
In the early days, the UDA was not regarded as a “terrorist” organization, but that changed as the UDA spawned violent offshoots operating under the banner of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), most of whom had dual membership with the UDA. Their tactic was to target and kill innocent Catholics to force their community to put pressure on the IRA to end its campaign.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the UFF had focused its tactics on targeting and killing known republicans, be they members of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, or suspected members of the IRA itself. Shockingly, it later emerged that they were assisted in their targeting by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch and a secretive British Army intelligence cell known as the Force Research Unit (FRU). Both had recruited informers from within both the IRA and their loyalist counterparts, a strategy that inflicted great damage on the paramilitaries of both sides.
By this time, the conflict was approaching a stalemate, with the IRA realising it was not going to defeat the British and the British realising that it was not going to defeat the IRA. The historic compromise of the Good Friday Agreement followed in 1998, laying the foundation for the return of self-government to Northern Ireland.
The IRA agreed to decommission its weapons, to renounce violence, to recognise the devolved government and to agree that Ireland could only be united with the agreement of the majority of citizens in the north. The loyalist paramilitaries also agreed to decommission their weapons as the IRA was no longer a threat. Loyalist violence had always been largely reactive – with no IRA, there was no need for the UDA and UFF. In return for the paramilitaries’ agreement to decommission their arsenals, the British government released all loyalist and republican prisoners.
But once again, the IRA split over the issue that had divided it in 1969 – the agreement by the majority of its members to enter a British devolved government. Again this was seen as the betrayal of a cardinal tenet of republicanism. Some senior IRA men left the organisation and set up what became known as the Real IRA (RIRA), rivaling a much older dissident IRA faction known as the Continuity IRA (CIRA). The Real IRA then split again into Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH) with the original splinter group later joining other dissident republicans in another armed group referred to by commentators as the ‘New IRA’.
Both organisations and their offshoots are committed to carrying on the “armed struggle” where their predecessors left off. The UVF and the UDA still exist and pose a potential threat should the Troubles erupt again.
So what did the violent campaigns of the paramilitaries achieve? IRA violence broke the sectarian mould of Northern Ireland’s politics. Sinn Féin is now the second largest party in Northern Ireland and the fourth largest in the Republic of Ireland.
And what of the loyalist paramilitaries? They were never able to build the political base that Sinn Féin did so successfully, but at least they have the satisfaction of seeing Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom. In weighing the paramilitary balance, republicans still have to achieve their final goal. Loyalists have secured theirs for the foreseeable future.
Peter Taylor was writing in February 2013
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