The article noted that “Anthony McIntyre rejected the claim: 'quoting him: it could have gone on forever as a tradition but not as an effective fighting force …': the IRA was:
diminishing due to an inability for its political wing to reach beyond a certain ceiling; penetration and surveillance; war weariness; dwindling enthusiasm within the community for the never ending conflict and threat from loyalism.
Reg Empy and former RUC Special Branch officer William Matchet supported this analysis, with Matchet saying that:
They were rapidly running out of their most precious resource - volunteers. Even the last properly functional ‘brigade’ in South Armagh was, with the sniper team, caught red handed by the SAS in an intelligence-led operation. And this ‘brigade’ was crucial to planting bombs in London.
He further claimed that the IRA “could not have gone on another 18-months never mind forever.”
The arguments central to rejecting Adams' claim that the IRA couldn’t have continued coalesce about Anthony McIntyre's analysis: capped political clout; war weariness; loss of nationalist support; and loyalist violence.
It is true that Sinn Fein supported stalled at one MP and around 10% of the vote, with one former Secretary of State deriding Adams as the “10% man.” But it is also true that at the height of the IRA’s campaign, in the 1970s, there was no MP, and no 10% of the vote. Sinn Fein did not do electoral politics until the 1980s.
There are a number of questions to consider.
- If the IRA was active in any way, would Sinn Fein’s electoral support be capped?
- If the IRA had the capacity to fight a war that could be described as “clean” or “cleaner” within nationalist Ireland (limited civilian casualties, hard focus on prestige British targets), could Sinn Fein have increased their share of the vote?
- Did the IRA need political support to continue?
I think the answers to these questions are:
- Yes, it would be capped. Contrary to many unionist’s beliefs, the nationalist electorate did not give Sinn Fein votes when the IRA was active.
- Perhaps, but not to any significant degree. See above for reasons.
- No, it needed logistical support, and had an embedded support network that I think could have continued indefinitely.
War weariness/loss of nationalist support
This is an interesting one. Security force and loyalist excesses created an inbuilt amount of support within nationalism for the IRA. By the 1990s, “normalisation” had had some success, the army was on the streets less and less, and, whilst the RUC was still hated by many within nationalism, there were significant reforms. The UDR remained unreformed, however, and its continuing targeting by the IRA probably increased its support base within nationalism.
An RUC man described the post-1994 IRA as prosecuting a “pathetic, grubby little war” and I think he was right. War weariness arguably came about in part because of the deteriorating quality of the IRA’s operations.
The security forces inarguably had the upper-hand in the 1990s. But they also did at points in the 1980s, and the IRA regrouped and seized the initiative. I’ll talk more about the IRA’s resurgence in targeting loyalists, but I think it’s also important to note that far from being a moribund organisation, the IRA was still carrying out multiple operations a day on many occasions, and had manged to bomb the centre of an economically rejuvenated Belfast repeatedly and severely. This probably led to weariness in many nationalist quarters, but not all. And the killing of loyalists such as Joe Bratty were applauded across nationalism.
I think that at any time in Ireland, support for armed republicanism is simply one security force and/or loyalist atrocity away.
Few nationalists would have opposed targeting the UVF, UDA, or the Parachute Regiment. Significant support could still be found for attacks on the RUC and UDR. The Provisional IRA, I think, if they dedicated themselves totally to an offensive could have continued, and perhaps it would have created a momentum of harsh security force reactions, and a spiral of violence would have occurred.
There was also the ugly spectre of sectarian extremists staging a coup within the IRA or INLA and having started up indiscriminate and deliberate murder of Protestants. I think that we came closer to this in the early 1990s than many would like to acknowledge.
Whilst there may have been an undeniable nationalist thirst for peace, there would have remained a strong desire for vengeance and offensive action. Infamously, this could be seen at the rally where in response to a nationalist shouting “bring back the IRA” Gerry Adams replied “they haven’t gone away, you know.”
Penetration and surveillance
As I noted above, the security forces had seized the initiative. A sniper team had been captured in South Armagh, for example. But the expertise and weaponry remained in South Armagh, and, had they wanted to, I think they could created more. Whilst researching another article, I found an newspaper report stating that:
Crack SAS troops have been sent from Ulster to brief army officers at Sandhurst on a former American Marine turned IRA assassin they have nicknamed '"Goldfinger'.
The SAS had apparently analysed the tactics employed by the sniper teams, lecturing army officers on:
how the sniper picks his targets and positions the 'shoots' and revealed tell-tale signs of where and how he was trained. In every murder so far, the killer has fired with the sun at his back with the victim walking straight towards him” (Sunday Life, 22.08.93).
A welcome addition to TPQ, Bleakly, analyses the IRA of the 1990s here, and far better than I could.
In Johnny Adair’s autobiography, he noted that his units operated in an extremely hostile environment. He had to contend with aggressive security force surveillance and operations, pressure from rival loyalists, and, not least, determined republican attempts to kill him.
The IRA operated with numerous competing restraints: totally dedicated, professional, hugely resourced and motivated security force entities, a support base which was conditional on the outcome of IRA operations (ie would diminish with civilian casualties), and as noted in the article, the loyalist threat.
Bleakly noted that “A lot of IRA attacks failed or were aborted in the 1990s, but a lot succeeded also.”
Gerry Bradley noted that whilst the RUC and army had excellent equipment, so too did the IRA. I read a commentator once say that drones would have rendered the IRA ineffective in Tyrone and South Armagh. I think it’s equally plausible that the IRA could have adapted drones to deliver drogue bombs against military targets. Perhaps the undoubted intelligence and ingenuity of the IRA’s engineering department would have moved away from IEDs and into cyber warfare.
Does this seem farfetched? So does a small group of men with limited resources repeatedly laying waste to the City of London financial district.
It’s interesting that people talk of the penetration of the IRA, but not the UDA and UVF. Steve Bruce reported that statistically more loyalists than republicans went to jail for murder. At the risk of incensing some commentators, the RUC were achieving success after success against loyalists. Recent studies have revealed a range of “collusive behaviours” which benefited loyalist paramilitaries, and it’s obvious that republicans were the security forces main target.
But why does nobody consider the hundreds of UVF men swooped in the 1990s, and the fact that Adair and his C Company were off the streets and into jail prior to the IRA ceasefire?
Republicans were killing more loyalists than loyalists were killing republicans in the run-up to the 1994 ceasefire. They had seized the initiative. I haven’t read a single analysis which suggested loyalism was close to defeat.
If a simple sectarian murder tally was sufficient to deliver a knockout blow to the opposing community’s paramilitaries, then surely that would have happened in the 1970s? And, if this was the case, wouldn’t a republican group have embarked on a sectarian killing spree? I think there was probably a reservoir of support for this, at least as much as there was a desire for capitulation.
Did sectarian murder intimidate the nationalist population? Of course. Did it create pressure on the IRA to stop? I don’t think there’s any evidence for this, and in fact evidence to suggest the opposite.
Had the IRA not killed a large number of loyalists in the 1990s, perhaps that might have been different, but they did.
Had the IRA not called a ceasefire in 1994, their campaign would have ebbed and flowed, suffered setbacks, regrouped and hit back. I think sectarian war, particularly in Belfast, might well have happened. Who knows what tactics the IRA might have devised in more modern circumstances.
But, having said all that, there was undeniably an historical moment when the drive for an end to violence happened.
I am glad the PIRA stopped. But they stopped rather than were stopped.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.