‘Proud Irishman, Friend And Patriot’

‘Proud Irishman, Friend And Patriot’ – John Crawley Reflects On The Life And Death Of Volunteer Liam Ryan 25 Years On From His Murder. The piece earlier featured in the website of the 1916 Societies.

Lough Shore Martyrs

At the recent 25th anniversary commemoration to Volunteer Liam Ryan in Ardboe, his friend and comrade John Crawley spoke to those gathered, paying tribute to Liam’s sacrifice and the cause for which he died.
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It seems barely a heartbeat ago that myself and Liam Ryan were sharing a coffee and having a laugh at the corner restaurant near his apartment in the Bronx. It’s hard to believe 30 years have slipped by and Liam has been dead for 25 of them.

I remember, around that time, being in Liam’s kitchen with a number of Tyrone men. One of them was Lawrence McNally, who would later be killed in action along with Liam’s cousin Pete Ryan and Tony Dorris at Coagh. Five ordinary men in an extraordinary time. Within a few short years every man in that room was dead or in prison – killed by Crown forces or incarcerated in various prisons throughout Britain and Ireland.

I often think of that moment when I think of Liam. Little did he or those other men know what awaited them – and yet I don’t believe had they known they would have altered their course. When it came to Irish freedom they clearly had what a British government official during the 1798 rebellion called, ‘an enthusiasm defying punishment’.

I liked Liam a lot. He was funny and down to earth and immensley generous and helpful.

He was proud to be an Irishman, proud to be a Tyrone man and prouder still an East Tyrone man. He had tremendous respect and admiration for the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and a special place in his heart for the courageous fight put up by the men and women of his home area. His cousin Pete Ryan was a particular hero to him. And rightly so.

Liam was acutely aware that County Tyrone had been at the centre of Irish resistance to English rule for hundreds of years. It was Tyrone man Hugh O’Neill who inflicted the heaviest defeat on an English army in Irish history when he crushed Sir Henry Bagenal’s force at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, killing up to 2,000 English soldiers including Sir Bagenal himself.

It was precisely because of the intense resistance put up by Tyrone that it was one of the areas chosen by England to be planted by loyalist settlers, in an act of ethnic cleansing that formed a major part of Elizabethan counter-insurgency strategy.

Liam Ryan took great pride in the knowledge that patriots from Tyrone were prominent throughout the struggle for Irish freedom. A strong Tyrone contingent had been assembled in Coalisland to take part in the 1916 Rising although, through no fault of their own, they were forced to stand down again, due to Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order. One of the principal driving forces of the rebellion, Tom Clarke, had been reared in Dungannon from an early age.

During the most recent phase in Ireland’s long struggle for freedom County Tyrone continued to play a key role. East Tyrone in particular paid a heavy price for its resistance to British rule and for its loyalty to the aims and ideals of Irish republicanism.

The Tyrone Brigades of the IRA lost 53 Volunteers, killed in action during this past phase of armed struggle. Of these, 34 were killed between 1983 and 1992. This was the heaviest casualty rate of any Brigade area in the IRA. In addition, Loyalist death squads, armed and directed by the British state, murdered 42 people in Tyrone. 22 of these killings were between 1987 and 1994 in a campaign designed to drive a wedge between the IRA and its support base.

Tyrone at 36 percent had the highest rate of Crown force ambushing activity in the North during the whole of the Troubles. It is clear the Brits pursued a killing strategy as opposed to an arresting strategy in County Tyrone. The overriding strategic consideration of Crown attacks on Tyrone republicans was to destroy any potential opposition to an internal settlement on British terms. Liam Ryan was murdered by the British state as part of their campaign to achieve that objective.

British strategic objectives were outlined at the Darlington Conference in 1972, when the British government published what it called some ‘unalterable facts’ about the situation, and ‘some fundamental conditions… which any settlement must meet’. These included acknowledgment of the Unionist Veto, nationalist buy-in to the Northern state via a cross-community executive, support for the British security forces and Dublin government endorsement of the settlement leading to increased security collaboration.

Running through every piece of British legislation since has been the fundamental principal of British sovereignty and the primacy of British law. At the core is the assertion that Britain will define the parameters of Irish democracy and set the boundaries within which Irish opposition to British rule must operate.

The rule of law is central to British strategy. That law must be British law. As such the issue of policing has been the cornerstone of their counter-insurgency strategy – a strategy designed to legitimise the British state in Ireland.

According to the British Army’s Field Manual on Countering Insurgency, ‘legitimacy is a population’s acceptance of its government’s right to govern or of a group or agency to enforce decisions. Without legitimacy, a political settlement will not endure… Legitimacy comes from the idea that authority is genuine and effective, and is used fairly and legally.’

The manual goes on to say, ‘the narrative is central to the counterinsurgency effort. The narrative must be a carefully crafted message which aims to strengthen the legitimacy and build the authority of the indigenous government in the eyes of the population. It has to resonate with the local population, use their words and imagery in a way that taps into deep cultural undercurrents. The narrative aims to convince the people that the indigenous government, supported by international forces and organisations, can deliver a better future in terms of security, justice and material wealth. Commanders must strive to operate within the context of the campaign narrative.’

From a British perspective the need to nurture a Provisional leadership fit for purpose was crucial. A leadership whose strategy would converge with the Brit narrative and shift the debate from a struggle for national rights to one of civil rights. A campaign for national rights attacks British sovereignty and threatens the political and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. A campaign for equality, on the other hand, can be managed within existing state institutions.

Where national rights are flagged up it became necessary to ring-fence British constitutional constraints by legitimising the Unionist Veto and the concept behind the border poll. The Crown constabularly is endorsed as lawful authority and the fantasy that British legislation will pave the way to Irish freedom is internalised as a ‘republican’ strategy. In fairness to the British government they don’t mind you opposing them. They will even pay you a generous salary and expenses to oppose them – provided you oppose them according to terms and conditions determined by their strategists.

Liam Ryan could not have foreseen the way that things would pan out. None of us could. Back then our greatest ambition was to remove the British gunman from Irish politics, not to build a training college for him in County Tyrone.

I can only remember that great man as he was. We certainly had some laughs together. One of the first letters I got when I entered Portlaoise prison was from Liam, written on an empty McDonalds hamburger wrapper. I can picture the mischeivious grin on him while writing it. He visited myself and Pete Ryan in prison when he travelled home from New York. Liam Ryan was one man I very much looked forward to seeing again upon my release but it was not to be.

We remember you with pride and fondness on this day Liam. We will never forget you. Codladh sámh a chara, proud Irishman, friend and patriot.

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