What was the IRA fighting for?

The Provisional IRA ended its campaign in the 1990s without uniting Ireland or ending British sovereignty in the North. Sinn Féin became part of a government at Stormont, sharing power with unionists within the UK. Republican critics asked how they could abandon their fundamental goals in this way. Anti-Republican critics asked how they could justify thirty years of violent conflict when they had signed up in the 1990s to a moderate compromise settlement of the kind that had been on offer at Sunningdale two decades earlier. Both sets of critics portrayed them as a failed movement hiding the reality of their surrender behind fine phrases. But what exactly was the Provisional IRA fighting for during the Troubles? What were its goals? On what basis were they prepared to end their campaign? That might seem obvious – a united Ireland surely? It never appeared on the list of IRA demands. The end of British sovereignty? That was never one of their formal demands either. As the IRA leadership geared up for their first direct negotiations with the British in early 1972 this was how they formulated their preconditions for ending the IRA campaign:

  1. The immediate withdrawal of British armed forces from the streets of Northern Ireland, coupled with a statement of intent as to the eventual evacuation of British forces and an acknowledgement of the right of the Irish people to determine their own future without interference from the British government
  2. The abolition of the Stormont parliament
  3. A total amnesty for all political prisoners in Ireland and Britain, both tried and untried, and for all those on the wanted list

An Phoblacht demandsMost important is what it leaves out. No direct demand for Irish reunification or the ending of British sovereignty and no date for withdrawal of troops (‘eventual evacuation’). Even more extraordinary is this (blurry) image from the front page of An Phoblacht on 24 December 1972. It sets out four demands at a time when the leadership was seeking to reengage in negotiations with the British government:

‘WE DEMAND
*Abolition of repressive Legislation
*British Troops be Withdrawn
*Release of All Political Prisoners
*Full Support for Civil Rights

Then – and only then – will we have a true and lasting peace in Ireland’

Once again there is no mention of Irish unity, sovereignty or the Irish republic. Not even self-determination is mentioned this time. It doesn’t mean they had abandoned those goals, nor that this was an exhaustive list of their negotiating aims. But it is striking evidence that they were formulating their position in such a way as to provide openings for negotiation and compromise.

Many analysts have characterised the 1970s leadership of David O’Connell and Ruairí O Brádaigh as dogmatic, rigid and uncompromising – idealists to their supporters, fantasists to their critics. They are contrasted  with their successors, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who are portrayed as less principled and more willing to concede – pragmatic, or opportunist (‘sell outs’) depending on your perspective.

But the negotiating positions adopted by the leadership in the early 1970s provide strong evidence that even at those early stages O’Connell and O Brádaigh were well aware that any settlement would require deep and difficult compromises. Rather than a rigid movement that finally abandoned its goals under opportunist leaders in the 1990s, we see instead a surprising continuity between the Republican leadership of the early 1970s and that of the 1990s. In both periods strong rhetoric was used to keep the movement united and ideologically coherent, sustain morale and support and strengthen its bargaining position with the British state. This uncompromising rhetoric coexisted with a strong awareness that the movement would make only limited gains in any settlement and would have to make difficult compromises.

I have provided more detailed evidence for this argument in two publications:

Ó Dochartaigh, Niall (2015) ‘The Longest Negotiation: British Policy, IRA Strategy and the Making of the Northern Ireland Peace Settlement’. Political Studies, 63 (1), 202-220. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12091

Ó Dochartaigh, Niall (2011) ‘IRA Ceasefire 1975: a missed opportunity for peace?’. Field Day Review 7. South Bend IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 50-77. Extract online: oconnellhouse.nd.edu/assets/54313/ira_ceasefire_1975.pdf

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About niallodoc

Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway
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