I am a proud young Irishman. In Ulster's hills my life began. A happy boy through green fields ran, I kept God's and Man's laws. But when my age was barely ten, my country's wrongs were told again by tens of thousands marching men and my heart stirred to the cause. I’ll wear no convict’s uniform, nor meekly serve my time that England might brand Ireland’s fight eight hundred years of crime.
So wrote Francie Brolly in 1976, a pivotal year for the conflict. One where the Labour government of the day set about to vilify and sap the morale from the republican movement by the process of Ulsterisation. Ostensibly about allowing security to be driven by the RUC and UDR, the period saw an increase in “inhuman and degrading” treatment in various interrogation centres, the brutal treatment of prisoners in Long Kesh and the insistence by the state that “crime is crime is crime”.
Pop culture has also helped spread this myth: think of the amount of bad IRA films/books/comics involving shady criminal dealings, unreconstructed psychopaths and the implication that members are members for life, akin to the Mafia. To this day, I know people who believe that Harry’s Game is an accurate depiction of the conflict! And the less said about IRA: King of Nothing (with Street Fighter’s Ken playing a ‘Ra man) the better.
For some, it’s an attempt to delegitimise Irish republicanism, in the same vein as Punch magazine various anti-Irish cartoons. However, there is no doubt that republican paramilitaries have engaged in activities that, in any other circumstances, would be seen as criminal by most of the population. Ultimately, most people understand that it comes down to motivation. But the optics are not good.
Even so called ‘republicans’ can struggle with this contradiction: ‘Black’ Bob McKeown (who made millions for the Official IRA in the 1980’s due to the fraudulent tax exemption scheme) was at pains to point out that (as far as he was concerned) there was a difference between Officials illegitimately obtaining money for a political cause and the Provisionals doing the same thing to wage war.
As Stewart Stafford once wrote, “Beware the self-righteous man, for he will destroy the world many times over before he sees his folly.”
The reason I bring all of this up is because it carries on today.
Discussing the well-received RTE series Love/Hate, author Brian Hanley notes the depiction of several Continuity IRA men as being in the traditional gang boss methods: rampant drug use, rapes and murder for territorial control while using traditional republican rhetoric as a cloak for such activities. However, as Hanley points out, there were little to no objections about this caricature. Although, as the episode coincided with the murder of Alan Ryan (which has been linked with various sordid affairs), perhaps it cut a little too close to home for some.
Such depictions obscure the fact that, as Hanley writes in the introduction:
…republicans have often assumed the status of upholders of the law, most obviously during the War of Independence…but also during and after the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
Running to 112 pages, this is a succinct and engrossing read that is not afraid to acknowledge some of the more contradictory aspects of republican policing, while also maintaining that the likes of the Provisionals cannot simply be explained away as a mere criminal organisation. It also acts as a handy catalogue of events which show the continuity between the various incarnations of the IRA and how tradition was, seemingly, enough to keep most people from indulging in profits (an angle that is rarely mentioned by most media outlets).
Beginning with the War of Independence, Hanley demonstrates how republicans have always been aware of the need to maintain law and order during a war, not just for the sake of legitimacy, but also out of practicality (criminals are often willing informers) and that areas of the country were very open to this approach.
Certainly, the culture and history of West Belfast would suit this: a tight, close-knit neighbourhood which has its own version of ‘mainstream’ society due to legacy issues (such as alienation from the state of Northern Ireland, high unemployment and a tradition of resistance) where everyone knows someone who can get something for you that fell off the back of a van. It may not be a model most wish to follow, but it has a sense of community and history lacking in most mainstream societies. As a result, whenever law and order break down, the locals take it among themselves to sort things out. Of course, this system is wide open to corruption or (in the case of Mairia Cahill) unable to handle certain types of crime.
However, paramilitary organisations must arm themselves. And people who sell such items on the black market aren’t always ideologically pure in their approach to making money. As a result, dealing with groups and individuals who operate in areas not approved of by republicans will always be risky due to it being ripe for propaganda if the link is discovered. Look at the allegations surrounding the FARC shenanigans in 2001, or the links with Whitey Bulger.
These, of course, are tenuous connections. Indeed, anyone familiar with Andre Lyder’s book documenting the anti-drugs movement in Dublin will know that the Provisionals’ presence was a welcome one but, ultimately, a major bluff: although some people were shot and some had their property attacked, these were not officially sanctioned operations and there was little chance of the GHQ approving a war on drug dealers, especially with the likes of the Workers’ Party comparing CPAD to the Klu Klux Klan and unfavourable media coverage of the anti-drugs movement in general.
Regardless, there was a genuine attempt to help their own community.
In relation to the Northern Bank robbery, there is a quote from a republican source who alleges that the robbery “…sent a message to the British govt. that the IRA is still intact, that there are no moles in the key units…and that it would just have been as easy to blow the fuck out of London…”
I wonder if said person believes Gerry Adams’ denials of IRA membership?
Once again, Hanley hits it out of the park.
Brian Hanley, 2022, Republicanism, Crime and Paramilitary Policing in Ireland 1916-2020. Cork University Press, ISBN-13: 978- 1782055471
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.