The Fenian Way ✒ continues his exchange with Anthony McIntyre on the inferences to be drawn from John Crawley's book which detailed systemic shortcomings within the IRA.

AM: We concluded our last discussion alluding to the operational record of the IRA. For many it was quite impressive. Derryard and Downing Street, mentioned by you – and there are more - showed both a capability and a potential. I discussed these, the Glenanne bombing and other operations with Alex Murphy in the jail. He was formerly the Belfast Brigade Operations Officer and had a sense of what was doable. His view was that the IRA would never be able to sustain this type of thing. Perhaps, he had seen too many poor operations along with compromised ones to think the organisation was fit for purpose to prosecute the type of war that was evident in Derryard and Downing Street. What should we actually read into the overall operational record?

TFW: The operational record of the IRA is the clearest indicator of its leadership’s abilities to not only prosecute an effective armed campaign, but also to maximise that bargaining chip at whatever negotiations table was opened to it. That record, and what was settled for, are in the public domain and open to anyone to draw an informed conclusion for themselves.

AM: Yet the dominant discourse and certainly the Sinn Fein narrative is that the IRA reached a form of compromise, that its campaign was in no small part successful. Against that, it had absolutely zero success on the reasons it gave for fighting the campaign – the constitutional question. It accepted the same terms that were on offer from 1973 and in effect settled for an internal solution. But here’s the thing, the leadership entered the negotiations knowing that the only issue on the table was an internal solution. It was often claimed by those favouring the negotiations that they were a new arena of struggle. Shills were commenting in newspapers about the courage of the negotiators looking across the table and into the whites of the enemy eyes without mentioning that, according to Jonathan Powell, the first thing to be negotiated was often the dinner menu. I observed to Gerry Adams at an internal party meeting in Conway Mill in and around the Good Friday Agreement that he had developed a knack for describing strategic failures as new phases of struggle. He dismissed the point without providing a plausible answer, merely saying that all discussion should be conducted internally and not in the media. That was just him being critical of the position I had opted to take because I didn’t see much in the way of genuine debate taking place - everything was tutored, controlled, managed, censored.

TFW: The only issue for the negotiations table, if the IRA leadership was true to its remit, was the issue of sovereignty. Now given that the entry fee into the negotiations was to abandon the demand for national sovereignty you have to look at the effectiveness of the armed campaign from the British perspective, as opposed to the republican standpoint, which allowed the British to stipulate that entry fee in the first place and for the republican leadership to acquiesce in it.

AM: That is a useful way to flip the looking glass. It seems to suggest that the British for some reason calculated that the leadership would settle for very little against the operational record which you feel illustrates the IRA had the capacity to get much more. The British had to know what level of impact the IRA was having, whatever it was, and the potential flowing from that. So, the issue would seem to be one of a deficiency in the political will – even ultimate objectives - of the leadership rather than a frailty in the capacity of the IRA.

TFW: When you look at what the British consented to in the Good Friday Agreement, set against republican objectives, an impartial observer may very well wonder was there an armed campaign at all. And again, it must be said that the question of why so much in return for so little needs to be satisfactorily answered if that abject capitulation is to be ever understood.

AM: “Abject capitulation” is an unambiguous term which conveys anything but a negotiated settlement. In 1998 I wrote that it was a strategic capitulation while Tommy Gorman wittingly referred to it as premature capitulation. It seems amazing that a body publicly dedicated to achieving a British declaration of intent to withdraw would agree to a British declaration of intent to stay until such times as a majority in the north choose otherwise. The outcome was the very thing the IRA waged its campaign against, giving rise to wondering why it was ever fought. Yet, here we are.

TFW: In reviewing The Yank for your site one of the comments referenced an address given by a senior republican in South Armagh, I think it was, where he said that the IRA did its best. Notwithstanding some other bizarre comments he made publicly, this particular one merits interest.

AM: Gavin Casey made that comment on TPQ. He, like John, served in the US military and has the ability to assess claims and counterclaims pertaining to miliary matters. People with that sort of experience can slice through the guff and offer a more grounded take. They would understand that the IRA had acquired quite an arsenal.

TFW: From the outset, after the Libyan shipments, the IRA was never better armed in its entire history. John makes the salient point that the destruction of the arsenal, as opposed to its operational use, was the card the IRA leadership used in negotiations with the British which goes a long way to understanding their political and military illiteracy.

AM: In the H Blocks a prisoner from Tyrone – a wily old fox – was talking with me about the shipments after the news of them broke through. I had said the IRA would be able to up their game considerably. He said the weapons would not be used to escalate the war but as leverage in negotiations. The evidence thus far would suggest he was right. But even here, the negotiating skills were seriously underwhelming. Jonathan Powell more or less says as much.

TFW: And Powell is right! It’s also worth noting that it is doubtful those arms, or at least the amount of them, would have been acquired if it wasn’t for the sacrifices of the hunger strikers. Our struggle was elevated onto the international stage in an unprecedent way following that protest. This is why I mentioned earlier that when you take those two events combined the IRA was at the height of its political and military potential.

Now if the leader of a foreign country was influenced by that sacrifice (and other factors) so as to gift the IRA this immense arsenal surely an IRA leadership could be equally influenced to ensure its effective use? It didn’t happen. The IRA didn’t do its best and the responsibility for that lies squarely at the feet of that leadership which oversaw its destruction. And that includes the speaker in South Armagh.

AM: The speaker in South Armagh was Brian Keenan. I read many of his letters to fellow prisoners in the H Blocks, written by him while he was jailed in England. He waxed Marxist and uncompromising in his stance. I later met him on a couple of occasions where he was waxing as strident and militant as ever. But at the heel of the hunt, he ended up doing everything he swore never to do. I was told back in the day that the late Lucas Quigley asked him to leave his home one evening after Brian told him that decommissioning had not actually happened. I think he saw his task as keeping a lot of people on board who might otherwise have abandoned the ship before it went down. I was at an event in 1994/1995 discussing the politics of the ceasefire with Martin Meehan who was either just released or out on a parole from prison. He had said to me that if Keenan was onboard it had to be worth considering, that Brian was no ceasefire cheerleader. A lot of people were swayed by Keenan.

TFW: A lot of people were swayed by Keenan but he became a cheerleader of a different kind once those he swayed had nowhere else to go. We can all dismiss opinions and in turn have our own dismissed, but John’s opinion was a professional opinion based on training and experience in the US Marines. And there were other professional opinions on this matter from unusual sources.

When the Eksund was captured a French Security Agent stated to one of the Volunteers involved that these weapons were in fact very bad for the IRA because they were weapons of insurrection which would invite a massive clampdown from the British authorities. Does the operational record come anywhere close to being an armed insurrection as the weapons potential was recognised by that French agent?

AM: Not remotely close to anything that could have been described as an armed insurrection. If the French could tell what capacity these weapons had, it has to be presumed that even in the IRA leadership - where a tenuous strategic-military grasp appears not to have been a barrier to the club - there must have been an awareness, perhaps even a fear of that capacity. People planning their political careers are not of the same mindset as those intent on insurrection. They would easily anticipate what a British crackdown could mean not only for their careers but also for their lives. They get old, worry about their own children if not themselves. And if they get the notion into their heads that they are irreplaceable that has to act as a dead hand on insurrectionary initiative. The upshot is that the conversion rate from weapons in the arsenal to weapons in the field amounted to a very low yield.

TFW: Low to the point of an almost complete non-use. John makes two basic points in relation to this: first, there was a complete lack of understanding regarding the military use of the AK, the most basic component of the arsenal. Being able to fire a gun and to understand its proper military use is not one and the same thing. Secondly, it was not enough for leadership simply to supply weaponry and leave it up to the volunteers on the ground to figure out how to effectively use it. Not only was the proper level of training not given, but the opportunity to do so was refused.

Added to this mix was the absence of any overarching military strategy. Do what you can when you can is hardly a recipe for a guerrilla army to do its best. Let that sink in, the IRA leadership did not have a military strategy at a time when its military resources were at its height!

AM: This describes a serious incongruity. It suggests there was a leadership working against its own capacity. We don’t need to think in malign terms to discern this. I think the term John used, and which you concurred with, was “military illiterate” in reference to Martin McGuinness. But that level of ineptitude resulting in military capacity not being realised had to have been more widespread than one man. McGuinness alone cannot have been the sole illiterate.

TFW: Absolutely not. There was corporate responsibility on behalf of the leadership and personal responsibility on those who wouldn’t move aside knowing their role and contribution were now stagnant. When you look at the specifics of the IRA’s operational record the common thread is the predominant use of homemade weaponry. Clearly there was real ingenuity at play here and at times there was great ingenuity when they were used. From the shipments, the supplies of Semtex, detonating cord and detonators were extremely welcome for the production of those weapons. But those weapons were meant to be a compliment to the new arsenal and not the mainstay of the campaign. That that was allowed to happen was a strategic disaster.

AM: I recall referring to the leadership strategy pre-GFA as destined to end up a strategic disaster. The late Jock Davison commented to me at the time that it was an understatement. I had said it during a television interview for a programme Gerry Adams was also on. Gerry Kelly later rapped my knuckles saying I could not be on television contradicting the party leader who was saying the exact opposite on the same show. I felt at the time that Adams knew exactly where things were going but perhaps not Kelly so much. That possible lack of discernment amongst key leadership figures made me pause for thought. Keenan later described Kelly to me as the new kid on the block, seeming to think he was out of his depth. I wondered at the time if Keenan was resentful as Kelly was more familiar with matters than Keenan was. He had been out of jail about 4 years ahead of Keenan and had a lot of respect from the volunteers on the ground. Nevertheless, it all got me wondering about people on their release after long spells of imprisonment assuming senior positions within the structure if their usefulness to the perpetual leadership lay in their dependability rather than in their strategic acumen. Had a culture of deference to leadership taken hold?

TFW: There were people who were released from lengthy prison sentences who were parachuted into leadership roles extremely prematurely. In any rational sense they should have been allowed a year or two to reacclimatise or at least take on a more minor role and see where it goes from there.

The culture of deference to the leadership and the irreplaceable mindset went hand in glove because they were each dependent on the other. Without question, loyalty trumped ability and the armed struggle was all the weaker for it.

To go back to the point referenced in the review concerning the reliance on homemade weaponry, if a campaign, of any sort, becomes dependent on a singular source it doesn’t take a security genius to figure out how you could curtail that campaign. And there were other factors to consider outside of the production of such weapons, despite only a fraction of what was produced being actually used. The ‘throw away’ operational mindset is what John, myself and others recognised as a seriously limiting factor on operational parameters. That seemed to go over the heads of those parachuted into leadership roles.

AM: There also seems to have been a reliance on weapons that did not come in with the big arms shipments. A journalist who read our last exchange said they frequently wonder why an operation like the strike against RUC leaders Breen and Buchanan was actually carried out with old weapons, the type of which had been around since the early 1970s. You would imagine a prestigious operation like that would have been the ideal stage on which to showcase the new potential and, in doing so, send a message to the opposition. My instinct tells me that with the more modern weaponry volunteers would have felt more confident.

TFW: There should have been a greater confidence in the use of the new weapons if the leadership was so inclined to instill it. Confidence in homemade weapons was always below par precisely because it was homemade. It’s impossible to quantify the actual impact that had on operational capacity, but it certainly was an important strategy on behalf of the British to undermine the effectiveness of these weapons to maximise the impact of that doubt.

On top of that there was also the reality that homemade weapons could not compare to the effectiveness of military grade ordinance in terms of armour penetration, distance and height of target and sheer explosive capability. For example, the recoilless grenade launcher could never be as effective as an RPG-7 which gave the upper hand to the British Army concerning counter measures etc.

But again, when you look at it from the British perspective, this type of campaign was easily contained because it was primarily a one-dimensional campaign. And the lack of diversity in the operational record is demonstrable proof of this.

AM: The results from the use of materials manufactured by the IRA technicians were not entirely negligible. There were successful operations, but you feel they were constrained by a collective leadership mindset which was one dimensional in its thinking. When you say one dimension, is it possible to broaden out on what that dimension was, and what were the missing dimensions that might have made a difference?

TFW: The IRA was a guerrilla army which means the vast majority of its operations were ambushes. Now if security wasn’t compromised, it always possessed the element of surprise. But what it also possessed was control over the confusion caused by the initial attack. And it is this dimension of any operation that the shipments should have allowed the army to exploit because the weapons to do so were there.

With proper training and military guidance, operations could easily have moved on from a single strike hit and run to a multi weapon engagement and secure withdrawal. Myself, John and others certainly saw the potential and the necessity to evolve to this level but this was met with resistance for all the reasons mentioned earlier. This is how Tom Barry operated and he had to ration the .303 rounds to his Volunteers. It was the inevitable consequence of the de-skilling of volunteers’ operational abilities.

So when you add all this up, the refusal to properly train, the leadership’s inability to fully utilise the potential of the Libyan shipments, the almost complete dependence on homemade throw away weaponry, the de-skilling of volunteers, the complete absence of a military strategy, the irreplaceable mindset which left in place operational directors and OC’s who were bankrupt of military ideas and a political direction which increasingly viewed armed struggle as the greatest hindrance to electoral gain, why wouldn’t the British give so little in return for so much? And that is the proper context in which that salient question needs to be addressed.

AM: I think that is ground that we can cover in our next exchange as it implies the absence of strategy. 

⏩ The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British. 

⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

In Quillversation 🎯 IRA Operational Record

The Fenian Way ✒ continues his exchange with Anthony McIntyre on the inferences to be drawn from John Crawley's book which detailed systemic shortcomings within the IRA.

AM: We concluded our last discussion alluding to the operational record of the IRA. For many it was quite impressive. Derryard and Downing Street, mentioned by you – and there are more - showed both a capability and a potential. I discussed these, the Glenanne bombing and other operations with Alex Murphy in the jail. He was formerly the Belfast Brigade Operations Officer and had a sense of what was doable. His view was that the IRA would never be able to sustain this type of thing. Perhaps, he had seen too many poor operations along with compromised ones to think the organisation was fit for purpose to prosecute the type of war that was evident in Derryard and Downing Street. What should we actually read into the overall operational record?

TFW: The operational record of the IRA is the clearest indicator of its leadership’s abilities to not only prosecute an effective armed campaign, but also to maximise that bargaining chip at whatever negotiations table was opened to it. That record, and what was settled for, are in the public domain and open to anyone to draw an informed conclusion for themselves.

AM: Yet the dominant discourse and certainly the Sinn Fein narrative is that the IRA reached a form of compromise, that its campaign was in no small part successful. Against that, it had absolutely zero success on the reasons it gave for fighting the campaign – the constitutional question. It accepted the same terms that were on offer from 1973 and in effect settled for an internal solution. But here’s the thing, the leadership entered the negotiations knowing that the only issue on the table was an internal solution. It was often claimed by those favouring the negotiations that they were a new arena of struggle. Shills were commenting in newspapers about the courage of the negotiators looking across the table and into the whites of the enemy eyes without mentioning that, according to Jonathan Powell, the first thing to be negotiated was often the dinner menu. I observed to Gerry Adams at an internal party meeting in Conway Mill in and around the Good Friday Agreement that he had developed a knack for describing strategic failures as new phases of struggle. He dismissed the point without providing a plausible answer, merely saying that all discussion should be conducted internally and not in the media. That was just him being critical of the position I had opted to take because I didn’t see much in the way of genuine debate taking place - everything was tutored, controlled, managed, censored.

TFW: The only issue for the negotiations table, if the IRA leadership was true to its remit, was the issue of sovereignty. Now given that the entry fee into the negotiations was to abandon the demand for national sovereignty you have to look at the effectiveness of the armed campaign from the British perspective, as opposed to the republican standpoint, which allowed the British to stipulate that entry fee in the first place and for the republican leadership to acquiesce in it.

AM: That is a useful way to flip the looking glass. It seems to suggest that the British for some reason calculated that the leadership would settle for very little against the operational record which you feel illustrates the IRA had the capacity to get much more. The British had to know what level of impact the IRA was having, whatever it was, and the potential flowing from that. So, the issue would seem to be one of a deficiency in the political will – even ultimate objectives - of the leadership rather than a frailty in the capacity of the IRA.

TFW: When you look at what the British consented to in the Good Friday Agreement, set against republican objectives, an impartial observer may very well wonder was there an armed campaign at all. And again, it must be said that the question of why so much in return for so little needs to be satisfactorily answered if that abject capitulation is to be ever understood.

AM: “Abject capitulation” is an unambiguous term which conveys anything but a negotiated settlement. In 1998 I wrote that it was a strategic capitulation while Tommy Gorman wittingly referred to it as premature capitulation. It seems amazing that a body publicly dedicated to achieving a British declaration of intent to withdraw would agree to a British declaration of intent to stay until such times as a majority in the north choose otherwise. The outcome was the very thing the IRA waged its campaign against, giving rise to wondering why it was ever fought. Yet, here we are.

TFW: In reviewing The Yank for your site one of the comments referenced an address given by a senior republican in South Armagh, I think it was, where he said that the IRA did its best. Notwithstanding some other bizarre comments he made publicly, this particular one merits interest.

AM: Gavin Casey made that comment on TPQ. He, like John, served in the US military and has the ability to assess claims and counterclaims pertaining to miliary matters. People with that sort of experience can slice through the guff and offer a more grounded take. They would understand that the IRA had acquired quite an arsenal.

TFW: From the outset, after the Libyan shipments, the IRA was never better armed in its entire history. John makes the salient point that the destruction of the arsenal, as opposed to its operational use, was the card the IRA leadership used in negotiations with the British which goes a long way to understanding their political and military illiteracy.

AM: In the H Blocks a prisoner from Tyrone – a wily old fox – was talking with me about the shipments after the news of them broke through. I had said the IRA would be able to up their game considerably. He said the weapons would not be used to escalate the war but as leverage in negotiations. The evidence thus far would suggest he was right. But even here, the negotiating skills were seriously underwhelming. Jonathan Powell more or less says as much.

TFW: And Powell is right! It’s also worth noting that it is doubtful those arms, or at least the amount of them, would have been acquired if it wasn’t for the sacrifices of the hunger strikers. Our struggle was elevated onto the international stage in an unprecedent way following that protest. This is why I mentioned earlier that when you take those two events combined the IRA was at the height of its political and military potential.

Now if the leader of a foreign country was influenced by that sacrifice (and other factors) so as to gift the IRA this immense arsenal surely an IRA leadership could be equally influenced to ensure its effective use? It didn’t happen. The IRA didn’t do its best and the responsibility for that lies squarely at the feet of that leadership which oversaw its destruction. And that includes the speaker in South Armagh.

AM: The speaker in South Armagh was Brian Keenan. I read many of his letters to fellow prisoners in the H Blocks, written by him while he was jailed in England. He waxed Marxist and uncompromising in his stance. I later met him on a couple of occasions where he was waxing as strident and militant as ever. But at the heel of the hunt, he ended up doing everything he swore never to do. I was told back in the day that the late Lucas Quigley asked him to leave his home one evening after Brian told him that decommissioning had not actually happened. I think he saw his task as keeping a lot of people on board who might otherwise have abandoned the ship before it went down. I was at an event in 1994/1995 discussing the politics of the ceasefire with Martin Meehan who was either just released or out on a parole from prison. He had said to me that if Keenan was onboard it had to be worth considering, that Brian was no ceasefire cheerleader. A lot of people were swayed by Keenan.

TFW: A lot of people were swayed by Keenan but he became a cheerleader of a different kind once those he swayed had nowhere else to go. We can all dismiss opinions and in turn have our own dismissed, but John’s opinion was a professional opinion based on training and experience in the US Marines. And there were other professional opinions on this matter from unusual sources.

When the Eksund was captured a French Security Agent stated to one of the Volunteers involved that these weapons were in fact very bad for the IRA because they were weapons of insurrection which would invite a massive clampdown from the British authorities. Does the operational record come anywhere close to being an armed insurrection as the weapons potential was recognised by that French agent?

AM: Not remotely close to anything that could have been described as an armed insurrection. If the French could tell what capacity these weapons had, it has to be presumed that even in the IRA leadership - where a tenuous strategic-military grasp appears not to have been a barrier to the club - there must have been an awareness, perhaps even a fear of that capacity. People planning their political careers are not of the same mindset as those intent on insurrection. They would easily anticipate what a British crackdown could mean not only for their careers but also for their lives. They get old, worry about their own children if not themselves. And if they get the notion into their heads that they are irreplaceable that has to act as a dead hand on insurrectionary initiative. The upshot is that the conversion rate from weapons in the arsenal to weapons in the field amounted to a very low yield.

TFW: Low to the point of an almost complete non-use. John makes two basic points in relation to this: first, there was a complete lack of understanding regarding the military use of the AK, the most basic component of the arsenal. Being able to fire a gun and to understand its proper military use is not one and the same thing. Secondly, it was not enough for leadership simply to supply weaponry and leave it up to the volunteers on the ground to figure out how to effectively use it. Not only was the proper level of training not given, but the opportunity to do so was refused.

Added to this mix was the absence of any overarching military strategy. Do what you can when you can is hardly a recipe for a guerrilla army to do its best. Let that sink in, the IRA leadership did not have a military strategy at a time when its military resources were at its height!

AM: This describes a serious incongruity. It suggests there was a leadership working against its own capacity. We don’t need to think in malign terms to discern this. I think the term John used, and which you concurred with, was “military illiterate” in reference to Martin McGuinness. But that level of ineptitude resulting in military capacity not being realised had to have been more widespread than one man. McGuinness alone cannot have been the sole illiterate.

TFW: Absolutely not. There was corporate responsibility on behalf of the leadership and personal responsibility on those who wouldn’t move aside knowing their role and contribution were now stagnant. When you look at the specifics of the IRA’s operational record the common thread is the predominant use of homemade weaponry. Clearly there was real ingenuity at play here and at times there was great ingenuity when they were used. From the shipments, the supplies of Semtex, detonating cord and detonators were extremely welcome for the production of those weapons. But those weapons were meant to be a compliment to the new arsenal and not the mainstay of the campaign. That that was allowed to happen was a strategic disaster.

AM: I recall referring to the leadership strategy pre-GFA as destined to end up a strategic disaster. The late Jock Davison commented to me at the time that it was an understatement. I had said it during a television interview for a programme Gerry Adams was also on. Gerry Kelly later rapped my knuckles saying I could not be on television contradicting the party leader who was saying the exact opposite on the same show. I felt at the time that Adams knew exactly where things were going but perhaps not Kelly so much. That possible lack of discernment amongst key leadership figures made me pause for thought. Keenan later described Kelly to me as the new kid on the block, seeming to think he was out of his depth. I wondered at the time if Keenan was resentful as Kelly was more familiar with matters than Keenan was. He had been out of jail about 4 years ahead of Keenan and had a lot of respect from the volunteers on the ground. Nevertheless, it all got me wondering about people on their release after long spells of imprisonment assuming senior positions within the structure if their usefulness to the perpetual leadership lay in their dependability rather than in their strategic acumen. Had a culture of deference to leadership taken hold?

TFW: There were people who were released from lengthy prison sentences who were parachuted into leadership roles extremely prematurely. In any rational sense they should have been allowed a year or two to reacclimatise or at least take on a more minor role and see where it goes from there.

The culture of deference to the leadership and the irreplaceable mindset went hand in glove because they were each dependent on the other. Without question, loyalty trumped ability and the armed struggle was all the weaker for it.

To go back to the point referenced in the review concerning the reliance on homemade weaponry, if a campaign, of any sort, becomes dependent on a singular source it doesn’t take a security genius to figure out how you could curtail that campaign. And there were other factors to consider outside of the production of such weapons, despite only a fraction of what was produced being actually used. The ‘throw away’ operational mindset is what John, myself and others recognised as a seriously limiting factor on operational parameters. That seemed to go over the heads of those parachuted into leadership roles.

AM: There also seems to have been a reliance on weapons that did not come in with the big arms shipments. A journalist who read our last exchange said they frequently wonder why an operation like the strike against RUC leaders Breen and Buchanan was actually carried out with old weapons, the type of which had been around since the early 1970s. You would imagine a prestigious operation like that would have been the ideal stage on which to showcase the new potential and, in doing so, send a message to the opposition. My instinct tells me that with the more modern weaponry volunteers would have felt more confident.

TFW: There should have been a greater confidence in the use of the new weapons if the leadership was so inclined to instill it. Confidence in homemade weapons was always below par precisely because it was homemade. It’s impossible to quantify the actual impact that had on operational capacity, but it certainly was an important strategy on behalf of the British to undermine the effectiveness of these weapons to maximise the impact of that doubt.

On top of that there was also the reality that homemade weapons could not compare to the effectiveness of military grade ordinance in terms of armour penetration, distance and height of target and sheer explosive capability. For example, the recoilless grenade launcher could never be as effective as an RPG-7 which gave the upper hand to the British Army concerning counter measures etc.

But again, when you look at it from the British perspective, this type of campaign was easily contained because it was primarily a one-dimensional campaign. And the lack of diversity in the operational record is demonstrable proof of this.

AM: The results from the use of materials manufactured by the IRA technicians were not entirely negligible. There were successful operations, but you feel they were constrained by a collective leadership mindset which was one dimensional in its thinking. When you say one dimension, is it possible to broaden out on what that dimension was, and what were the missing dimensions that might have made a difference?

TFW: The IRA was a guerrilla army which means the vast majority of its operations were ambushes. Now if security wasn’t compromised, it always possessed the element of surprise. But what it also possessed was control over the confusion caused by the initial attack. And it is this dimension of any operation that the shipments should have allowed the army to exploit because the weapons to do so were there.

With proper training and military guidance, operations could easily have moved on from a single strike hit and run to a multi weapon engagement and secure withdrawal. Myself, John and others certainly saw the potential and the necessity to evolve to this level but this was met with resistance for all the reasons mentioned earlier. This is how Tom Barry operated and he had to ration the .303 rounds to his Volunteers. It was the inevitable consequence of the de-skilling of volunteers’ operational abilities.

So when you add all this up, the refusal to properly train, the leadership’s inability to fully utilise the potential of the Libyan shipments, the almost complete dependence on homemade throw away weaponry, the de-skilling of volunteers, the complete absence of a military strategy, the irreplaceable mindset which left in place operational directors and OC’s who were bankrupt of military ideas and a political direction which increasingly viewed armed struggle as the greatest hindrance to electoral gain, why wouldn’t the British give so little in return for so much? And that is the proper context in which that salient question needs to be addressed.

AM: I think that is ground that we can cover in our next exchange as it implies the absence of strategy. 

⏩ The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British. 

⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

21 comments:

  1.  "operations could easily have moved on from a single strike hit and run to a multi weapon engagement"

    I was once told that the Leadership did not want any bravado like that. This person told me that they had a couple of really good ops lined up but weren't allowed.... for example, a drogue bomb attack at top of Fallswater Street/Daly's Garage... where it was predicted the injured convoy would race back to Springfield Road along Beachmount Avenue... the guy said that they all saw it as easy an op as could be, but would have really unnerved the DMSU convoys. Not being military minded but even I could see the logic of it. Others were disgusted the ceasefire was called when it was --in their view -- they were just perfecting the big bombs thought suitable for London --in all cases it was utilising home made weaponry-- So I dont really agree with the view about the distinction between new weaponary and homemade --I think home made could have caused the Brits more stomach ulsers that commercial stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another interesting conversation.

    On the last article, I commented that the motivations of most volunteers almost certainly were not a deeply held attachment to a unitary state: it was to strike back at the British and/or Orange states for one or more outrages or injustices. TFW said that:

    "When you look at what the British consented to in the Good Friday Agreement, set against republican objectives, an impartial observer may very well wonder was there an armed campaign at all."

    With that in mind, and paraphrasing a Tory minister from one of Peter Taylor's documentaries, there existed in the North a mild form of tyranny, administered via Stormont. Stormont falling can be directly linked to the IRA's campaign.

    UKG were content to leave the North well alone. The IRA removed this as being an option.

    Regarding AM's point that:

    "the issue would seem to be one of a deficiency in the political will – even ultimate objectives - of the leadership rather than a frailty in the capacity of the IRA."

    At some stage, probably in the 1970s, leadership figures must have recognised that
    UKG simply could not allow themselves to leave Ireland due to military losses. Whilst it's hard to imagine at the moment due to the omnishambles in Downing Street, Britain was once perceived to be an exceptionally powerful nation.

    The IRA arguably peaked militarily in 1972 when it killed over 120 British soldiers. What political capital that earned them is debatable, and Bloody Friday almost certainly reduced it. The 1973 bombs in London probably concerned cynical politicians more than scores of dead soldiers.

    Perhaps the Troubles should be looked at as a prolonged negotiating period. Eamon Collins wrote that each armed group (IRA, security forces, loyalists) fought with one hand tied behind their back, and I think that there is truth in that.

    Thinking in the broadest possible terms, how many British soldiers would have had to die annually to ensure a British withdrawal? And what would that have cost republicans, and the nationalist community?

    If a straightforward military victory was not possible, then what was the alternative? This is the space that this debate visits, I think. The IRA could have called a ceasefire in 1972, and probably got terms much like the GFA. But then what? How would loyalism have reacted? And would the IRA have split?

    Going back to AM’s point – if a mass movement organically erupts in resistance against state repression, and that repression is significantly reduced (and avenged), that hasn’t an objective been achieved? That the organ for that resistance is wedded to unachieved sovereignty does not make the resistance a failure.
    These are somewhat muddled thoughts – it’s a very interesting discussion.

    It makes me think of a story, which has never struck me as having a ring of truth to it, in a biography of Martin McGuinness. Some Derry volunteers apparently guaranteed McGuinness a “dead Brit” by the end of the day, to which he replied “what’s the point?”

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    1. “The IRA arguably peaked militarily in 1972…”

      Don’t agree with that at all. Mountbatten, Narrow’s Water, Richard Sykes, Brighton, Newry, Downing Street and the Night of the Long Knives were all examples of how effective the IRA could be 20 odd years later. I would agree that they peaked in terms of momentum in 1972.

      “Thinking in the broadest possible terms, how many British soldiers would have had to die annually to ensure a British withdrawal?”

      As the Brits were not conscripting people, the answer would be (at least) 1,000 a year. One of the reasons the US public turned against the Vietnam War was because of conscription.

      “If a straightforward military victory was not possible, then what was the alternative? This is the space that this debate visits, I think. The IRA could have called a ceasefire in 1972, and probably got terms much like the GFA. But then what? How would loyalism have reacted? And would the IRA have split?”

      If they did, not only would there have been another split but loyalists would have considered it to be the ‘doomsday’ scenario come to life and would have upped the ante in terms of savagery.

      “Going back to AM’s point – if a mass movement organically erupts in resistance against state repression, and that repression is significantly reduced (and avenged), that hasn’t an objective been achieved? That the organ for that resistance is wedded to unachieved sovereignty does not make the resistance a failure.”

      Maybe not with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. However, in the moment, where the mix of social injustice and historical grievance are shaping your perspective, anything less than a British withdrawal would have been seen as a failure by republicans. Ultimately, I think the likes of McKee, Kelly and Twomey saw Stormont as a manifestation of British imperialism and that removing the British would have solved most of the trouble (undoubtedly informed by the ‘Prods are misguided Irishmen/loyal to the pound rather than the crown’ school of thought).

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  3. This is a serious question which I would be interested to see how it is answered by Republicans. The Luftwaffe bombed every major city in England, not to mention the attacks on Belfast, over an 8 month period resulting in deaths of 40,000 people. In one period the bombed London for almost 60 consecutive nights. And yet they still won the Battle of Britain and ultimately the war. Do people really believe a few guys from South Armagh with mixes of sugar and fertiliser (I am jesting but you know what I mean) would somehow have any impact on the British establishment?

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    1. Context is key.

      The Second World War was an all-encompassing battle that could have ended with the Germans invading Britain. Hence the need for the Dunkirk spirit.

      By contrast, the IRA campaign was (purportedly) to get the British to withdraw from Ireland which, if they did, would stop the bombing. Add in the British public's general apathy about the North being part of the UK, and you can see why some thought it possible.

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    2. Terry, You are wrong to equate British resolve against an unprovoked aggressor blitzing London in WW2 and their resolve when they are the aggressors in a country where they do not belong.

      Re the arguements in the interview between new weaponary v homemade-- I dont think even the new weaponary gave the IRA the capability to mount a Veitnamese style Tet Offensive with new weapons as I have heard suggest years ago. I think the IRA's strengths were their ability to pull of 'Spectaculars', particullarly on the Brits home turf, pfor example Downing Street and Brighton Tory Conference attacks -or massive bomb attacks that cost them 100s of millions in damage and destroyed major infrastructure like bridges --the Brit government and ordinary people would have seriously rethought the value for money occupying another country was costing them personally.

      I dont think any amount of new weaponary like AKs would have made much of a difference -the point of guerilla warfare is to strike at high prestige and economic targets and not the defences they put up around those targets -like soldiers or cops. I think IRA mindset was aspiring to replicate the Veitnamese approach of sending bodybags back to the US. I think a better approach from an IRA perspective would have been to bring their war directly to the British elite and never let them feel safe.

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    3. Terry - that is not really comparing like with like. The IRA was never going to march into London as the Nazis wanted to do. The IRA drew on Aden not Germany. Even if it too failed to compare like with like, it felt the Brits could be coerced out and the Norh coerced into a unitary state. In my view it was an impossibilist objective. There are some researchers who having looked through British state papers from the 74/75 period came to the view that there was certainly an impulse within areas of the British state that favoured a withdrawal.
      Ultimately, your point is right that the IRA campaign did not hasten Irish unity by one second. In fact it might be floated that in the absence of that campaign, the visceral opposition within the unionist community might have frayed.

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    4. The idea that the Nazis bombed Britain in order to invade Britain is nothing but propaganda. The Nazis didn't as much as throw the kitchen sink at Britain and somehow plucky old England repelled them with derring do. On the contrary, Britain provoked Germany to attack Britain despite it being obvious Germany was more interested in the big prize....Russia. And taking into account that some historians are estimating over 50% of civilian casualties in British cities were caused by falling British artillery(pointlessly shooting into the skies) it could be argued that the Brit establishment was engineering hearts and minds of the Brit public in to a war footing I.e whipping up hatred of Germany. Especially when the operators of the Brit artillery knew their falling artillery shells were likely to drop in the working class areas of Brit cities.....prime canon fodder.

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  4. @ Christopher Owens

    The IRA killed around 150 members of the security forces in 1972, a total which had halved in 1973, and declined steadily. I prefaced my statement with arguably because the metric I used was deliberately crude - simply dead security force members, though I think taking and holding areas in Belfast and Derry was also significant.

    I think you're right, and that the British electorate would not have been overly concerned about military fatalities, unless they grew to staggering numbers.

    I just did a quick check - the British army (a lot) lost more soldiers in the North from 1971 - 1991 than in Afghanistan from 2001 - 2021.

    To return to the discussion about operational capacity, would it have been advantageous for republicanism to have started killing scores of British soldiers having received the Libyan shipment? I don't know.

    Various iterations of the IRA seemed especially potent - 1979 being a good example. I'm not sure republicans at the time understood the width and breadth of the impact on the British establishment killing Louis Mountbatten (and Airey Neave) had.

    The Downing Street mortar attack, coupled with the massive bombs in London in the 1990s, were spectacular successes. From what I understand, the hinterland of these operations was South Armagh, an area in which the British army rarely patrolled by vehicle. A BBC documentary suggested that a British army/RUC incursion into South Armagh looking for clues and evidence related to the Docklands bomb was the motivation for the IRA bombing Manchester. If the IRA had lost the initiative in South Armagh, the England bombing campaign might have suffered.

    Every IRA action was met with a security force reaction. If the IRA significantly upped the military ante, they could lose support and logistic advantage (Bloody Friday and the loss of the No-Go areas for example).

    This is a long-winded way of essentially saying it seems like a complex, messy, deadly stew of competing and conflicting priorities, and it's difficult to ascertain what a military advantage is versus a political advantage.

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    1. “To return to the discussion about operational capacity, would it have been advantageous for republicanism to have started killing scores of British soldiers having received the Libyan shipment? I don't know.”

      If there had been a sustained campaign, coupled with at least one ‘spectacular’ (Brighton, London, Holland) a month, then yes. However, with the points brought up in Crawley’s book, as well as the mass infiltration by the intelligence services, this was never going to happen. If the Libyan shipments had arrived in 1970, I think history would be very different.

      “If the IRA had lost the initiative in South Armagh, the England bombing campaign might have suffered.”

      It’s also a measure of how successfully the IRA had been boxed in by the 90’s that South Armagh was the sole bright spot in the campaign. Even then, that shine was taken off by the 94 ceasefire.

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    2. Ian Phoenix was said to be advocating gunships to be flown over South Armagh in the advent of the new gear being used as a new offensive, along with troop saturation of the border areas. He was of the mindset that the border wouldn't exist when chasing a terrorist team intent on hit and run. (Crawley probably unknowingly stopped this when he didn't use the M60 on the Gazelle).
      I'm sure word of this also reached the PAC. In this light I wonder if the PAC realised it was now unwinnable if the ante was raised that much? They had a choice between a low level war of attrition which did nothing for them, a large scale new offensive which would have given the British Hawks a card blanche or winding the Armed campaign up in favour of politics. I'm not sorry that cooler heads prevailed.

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  5. Christopher Owens

    “Don’t agree with that at all. Mountbatten, Narrow’s Water, Richard Sykes, Brighton, Newry, Downing Street and the Night of the Long Knives were all examples of how effective the IRA could be 20 odd years later”

    Effective in what way? Other than boast morale among Republicans they had very little ,if any, direct impact in terms of strategic gains and certainly didn’t have any detrimental effect on the British establishment. In fact it was quite the opposite. The majority of those IRA attacks occurred during Thatcher’s term as British Prime Minster, and at each turn she greatly expanded both the power of her spooks and increased the number of boots on ground.

    While there is no denying the apathy of the British public to politics of the north and bombs in England have done nothing to alter this apart from see temporary increases in anti-Irish bigotry.

    In years to come the IRA’s campaign will have had little to do with the shaping of any future arrangement on this island. That will be down to changing demographics and Unionism’s ability to kick it’s own arse at every opportunity.

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    1. Terry

      I think part of the theme of the article questions the Republican Leaderships motives for not properly utilising new weaponary. It implies that the Leadership was more interested in the appearance factor of the weapons and not utilise its effective potential. I know several Armagh men who thought the new ability to successfully detonate 1ton homemade bombs had the potential of causing massive damage to the UK economy - a lorry bombs in London might be the IRA's Luftwaffe -but the physcological impact on the Brits morale would not have been the same as when they were defending agianst being invaded by Germany, whereas, in this case the IRA were the defenders from Brit occupation.

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  6. AM summarises his experiences of an internal debate in Conway Mill:
    " - everything was tutored, controlled, managed, censored."

    And that was the way it was for almost the previous two decades. That was the way even when John Crawley joined the movement in 1980. Adams, McGuinness and their near circle were already well on their way to gaining an iron clad grip on the movement; implementing a culture change and introducing an unnecessarily tight hierarchical control system. A hierarchical system which conferred status and power. A heady mix which would be vigorously defended,

    To my mind, the operational capacity of the IRA wasn't really the lacking issue. For a peoples army made up of butcher's boys, bookie's runners, brick-layers, labourers, small farmers and sometimes even school children they did more than OK. Sure the IRA could have done with more specialist snipers who understood their craft, a dozen or so highly skilled marksmen available to come into operational areas and do longshots based on well researched reconnaissance would have put a further shine on things, as would the acquisition and effective use of SAM's by fully trained personnel.

    While top down command & control may be fine for a regular army that culture is less than useful for a 'peoples army'. Rigid control stifles creativity & innovation outside of existing channels. The power matrix, as John Crawley discovered, doesn't encourage new ideas that emerge from below. It's a recognised fact in management literature that tight hierarchies make it difficult for underlings to voice opinions.
    Such cultures end up populated almost exclusively with 'yes' followers. The leadership style was the essential weakness of the movement, much more so than one of operational capacity.

    Like dodgy directors they asset striped the company, feathered their own nests and left investors wondering WTF!

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    1. that was my experience in general HJ, not specifically Conway Mill

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    2. Henry Joy - some penetrating comments lately.

      Biting closing comment but impossible to find fault with.

      Operationally, the IRA did OK as you say but did it do its best? This is what TFW disputes. Was it capable of much more and in the course of doing so strengthen its bargaining position? Its leadership in the end certainly negotiated very little.

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    3. In any competitive domain, every competitor bar the outright winner, or outright winning team, will rightfully have questions asked of them; indeed mature competitors will have questions for themselves about their individual and collective performance.

      Viewed in the round, most Volunteers gave of their best. The problem was not with the Volunteers, not with the full-time operatives and not with the part-time ones either. Nor was it with the legions of trusted supporters who often contributed to operational successes.

      The responsibility for the lack of vision and for the lack of military ambition, that TFW points to, falls primarily on the leaderships shoulders and upon the organisational culture they were allowed to create and allowed to maintain.

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  7. Mick O "On the contrary, Britain provoked Germany to attack Britain despite it being obvious Germany was more interested in the big prize....Russia." Perhaps you could elucidate on this claim. For throughout the 1930s, it was an imperative of the British Establishment to avoid war with Hitler and the Axis powers with Abyssinia, Spain, Austria and Czechoslovakia being thrown under the bus as consequences.

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  8. my mind, the operational capacity of the IRA wasn't really the lacking issue. For a peoples army made up of butcher's boys, bookie's runners, brick-layers, labourers, small farmers and sometimes even school children they did more than OK

    HJ, thats very hard to argue against.

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  9. Alex comments

    Just read the second instalment your interview with TFW and found it interesting.

    One obvious downside is that the reader has no way of assessing his credentials as he is not identified. For example, he says that he shared Crawley's criticisms of the leadership for its failure to develop an overall strategic plan, either before or after the arrival of the Libyan shipments.

    It goes without saying that an offensive required more than the procurement of new weaponry from a friendly source, albeit the shipments represented a major propaganda coup for the IRA.

    At the time, volunteers were cognizant of the need for training in the proper use of the new weapons. Indeed, some in middle leadership positions questioned the extent to which the tempo of the war could be realistically increased without a complete overhaul of the structures. From what I picked up on the grapevine, what training was offered fell far short of what Crawley argued for in his dealings with senior leaders. Therefore, it would necessarily be hands-on learning in the heat of battle. A daunting prospect.

    A much bigger question being contemplated by some knowledgeable operators related to the sustainability of any offensive once the enemy got on top of the situation. Even more worrisome was the anticipated rate of attrition measured in volunteers either captured or killed.

    Fundamentally, I believe the leadership feared the real possibility of a defeat for the IRA on the battlefield. Such an outcome would have left them bankrupted going into a future negotiation. Up the creek without a paddle as the old saying goes. When exactly the leadership shifted its position cannot be gauged with mathematical certainty. Perhaps it took possession of the Libyan shipments as political collateral to be deployed in future horse trading rather than ever intending to use them for the purpose of escalating the war. Who knows?

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  10. Like John Crawley, TFW puts forward a cogent critique of the PIRA leadership. In particular, it is very hard to disagree with the arguments that the leadership both neglected volunteer training and failed to put proper use to the weaponry acquired from Libya. Moreover, the leadership even failed to leverage the Libyan arsenal in negotiations with the British.

    However, one does wonder if things would really have been much different had the leadership been more competent. The British cannot have been expected to have remained tactically or strategically static in the face of a more efficient and effective IRA campaign. Indeed, it is questionable whether the IRA and its support base could have sustained a full-blown counterinsurgency. Indeed, even in an ideal scenario, would the only difference have been a longer, bloodier campaign with the same outcome or could anything more than even joint sovereignty have been extracted from the British government? And would that in itself have been worth its weight in bodies and in
    blood?

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