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The End of the Troubles?

At other times, ethnic contempt was expressed more passively. Time and again, the IRA, while attacking military or economic targets, proved itself utterly indifferent to the lives of Protestant civilians. In 1978, in an attack that Gerry Adams says in his book left him “shocked” and “deeply affected,” the Belfast IRA set off a horrific inferno in a hotel restaurant, killing twelve people dining there, all of them Protestants. In 1987, an IRA bomb exploded during a remembrance ceremonial for war dead in Enniskillen, killing eleven people. In 1993, a bomb on the Shankill Road, intended for members of a Loyalist paramilitary group thought to be meeting in rooms above a fish shop, killed nine Protestants going about their Saturday shopping, along with the bomber.

After these and many other incidents, the IRA routinely expressed its regret for having made “mistakes.” It is hard to believe that if the victims had been Catholic the IRA would not have learned something from so many disastrous errors. More often, however, ethnic hatred was disguised as military logic. Since the Protestant community is largely supportive of the police, the army, and the state apparatus, all sorts of people who merely happened to be Protestant also happened to be (in republican rhetoric) “legitimate targets.” Judges, prison officers, members of parliament, retired policemen, building workers who repaired the police stations damaged in IRA attacks, even a young woman collecting census forms—all could find themselves, at any moment, guilty of capital offenses and punished with summary execution. It is true that the IRA also killed hundreds of Catholics by accident and design (ironically, in the first twenty years of the Troubles it killed twice as many Irish Catholics as did the security forces of the “occupying power”). But to most Protestants the “legitimate targets” were simply victims of a sectarian onslaught aimed at their entire community.

Neither of these two aspects of the IRA’s makeup—conspiratorial elitism or sectarian hatred—is capable of being negotiated away, and if they were all there was to the IRA, the prospects for peace would be bleak indeed. But there is a third and arguably more important factor and it is one that may well yield to political compromise. Its source is to be found neither in distant history nor in prehistoric atavism, but in the conditions endured by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Though Irish nationalists tend to regard the partition of the island by the Westminster parliament in 1920 as a heinous British crime, it was in reality an inevitable product of Irish political, economic, and religious divisions. For the industrial North, integrated into the economy of the British Empire, it would have been madness to follow the largely agricultural South into political independence and economic autarky. That Protestants would also be trading their position as part of a British religious majority for that of a minority in a largely Catholic Ireland gave this economic rationale a visceral emotional force. The alternative to partition was, and remains, a bloody civil war.

Partition itself, though, solved a large problem by creating a somewhat smaller one. It left, within Northern Ireland, a very substantial Catholic minority (now over 40 percent of the population) that owed no loyalty to the new statelet. And these Catholics were trapped in a vicious circle. Since they were assumed to be disloyal to the Protestant-dominated local administration, Protestant supremacists had an ideal excuse to exclude them from power and to treat their legitimate political aspirations as the seeds of treason. They were subjected, for fifty years, to systematic discrimination in the allocation of jobs, housing, and public services. Ironically, though, British postwar legislation providing for state schools helped to create a generation of well-educated, articulate Catholics who found their ambitions blighted by discrimination. In the international climate of the 1960s, the tensions thus created led to the formation of a mass protest movement, the nonviolent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. When this irresistible force met the unmovable object of Unionist and Protestant reaction, Northern Ireland descended into the civil chaos from which the Provisional IRA emerged.

Most of the current leadership of Sinn Fein is made up of men who were, in the 1960s, angry young Catholics. In some cases, like that of Gerry Adams, they came from republican families, but in many they did not. Indeed, many of them were reacting in anger to what they perceived to be the passivity with which their parents had endured the stigma of being second-class citizens in their own country. The violence with which this reaction was expressed may be unfathomable, but its source is not. If it can be imagined that American blacks in the 1960s had a longstanding secret army to join and a deep religious division between themselves and whites to feed off, it is not unthinkable that they, too, might have found themselves sliding into a long, bloody campaign of terror.

Each of the most important Sinn Fein negotiators in the current peace talks—Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Kelly—belongs to this 1960s generation, and each joined the IRA. Sinn Fein insists that it and the IRA are separate organizations but Peter Taylor, in his book, which was written to accompany his television history of the movement, has it right when he points to the close links between the two at every level. McGuinness, then twenty-two, was charged with IRA membership in 1972 and told an Irish court that he was “an officer in the Derry Brigade of the IRA.” Kelly served a long prison sentence for planting IRA bombs in England. As for Adams, his book is almost silent on the subject of the relation between Sinn Fein and the IRA, rendering it virtually useless as a document of the conflict.

Though he routinely denies that he was ever in the IRA, he was almost certainly a senior member. It is true that he has never been convicted of any violent crime, or of any IRA-related offense, except that of attempting to escape from a prison camp to which he was committed without trial. Under the then-current policy of interning IRA suspects, he was arrested in 1972, but released in order to represent the IRA in abortive talks with the British government. He was recaptured in 1973; the following year, while still incarcerated, he received an eighteen-month sentence for attempting to burn down the camp. In 1978, he was charged with membership in the IRA and held for seven months. The case, however, never came to trial, so the issue was never contested in open court.

While in prison, however, Adams wrote, under a pseudonym, a column for the Sinn Fein newspaper Republican News in which he declared that

Rightly or wrongly, I am an IRA Volunteer and, rightly or wrongly, I take a course of action as a means of bringing about a situation in which I believe the people of my country will prosper…. The course I take involves the use of physical force, but only if I achieve the situation where my people genuinely prosper can my course of action be seen, by me, to have been justified…. Maybe in ten years’ time, if all this has achieved nothing, I’ll wonder why I wrote all this and why I thought like this.5

His precise role within the IRA may not become entirely clear until a peace settlement creates the conditions in which such things can be safely discussed. But in 1996, he gave an enthusiastic endorsement to a book—David Beresford’s superb history of the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s, Ten Men Dead—that described him as commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade from July 1972 to July 1973.6 In that period, the organization killed at least 183 people, 53 of them civilians. Adams deals obliquely with the subject in Before the Dawn by including as part of his memoirs a short story in which an IRA sniper kills a British army officer:

He breathed in as the officer reached the lamppost, and he held his breath as his finger tightened on the trigger. First pressure. He let his breath out almost in a sigh and whispered “second pressure.” The heavy flat thud of the rifle exploded his words, sending the black-and-white cat scampering from the garden and the starlings from the dustbin.

For Adams and his generation in the IRA, the reforms introduced by British governments in response to the outbreak of the conflict were proof that there was no limit to what terrorist violence could achieve. The autonomous Northern Ireland administration, hated by nationalists, was abolished and replaced with direct rule from London. Discrimination in housing and employment was outlawed. The system of local government that had been rife with anti-Catholic corruption was successfully overhauled. The abuses which had sparked the conflict in the first place were largely ended. But by then the IRA had concluded that violence worked and that with enough of it Britain would grow tired of Northern Ireland and walk away. As Adams himself put it in an interview in 1995, the British “have no bottom line…. They will move as far as [we] can push them.”7

This belief encouraged the IRA republicans to adopt in the 1970s a classic terrorist position—shared at the time with groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy—that violence would produce a reaction which would display the state in its true, fascistic colors. Instead of trying to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Catholics, the IRA was intent on destroying rational reform and provoking repression. A defense of the IRA’s bombing campaign written in 1976 and published in its own newspaper was entirely explicit about this:

The growth of reaction isn’t to be frowned upon. We can inflate its importance and at our own leisure burst its credibility. As George Jackson, that great Black revolutionary, once said, “What would help us is to allow as many right-wing elements as possible to assume political power.”8

And, of course, the British government tended to oblige. One of the most striking aspects of the interviews with British officials in Taylor’s book is how many of them cheerily admit to utter ignorance of Northern Ireland before they were sent to govern it. Frank Steele, the most important British intelligence official in the province in the 1970s, confessed the limits of his knowledge before his posting there and was told, “That means you’ve got an untrammeled mind. You’ll be unbiased, so you’re just the man for the job.” Things were often no better with British politicians. James (now Lord) Callaghan, the British Home Secretary who took the decision to send the army into the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969, told Taylor:

I never do believe frankly that anybody from this side of the water understands Ireland and I’ve never flattered myself that I understand the situation fully. I think very few people do. Certainly we didn’t have enough understanding of it at the time.

  1. 5

    Republican News (Belfast), May 8, 1976. Adams’s column appears under the pseudonym “Brownie.”

  2. 6

    The Observer, September 22, 1996.

  3. 7

    Brian Rowen, Behind the Lines: The Story of the IRA and Loyalist Ceasefires (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1995), pp. 222-223.

  4. 8

    Republican News (Belfast), March 27, 1976.

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