Fifty Years After the Birth of the modern Irish Republican Army

In August 1969 British Army arrived in Northern Ireland and despite being called ‘peacekeepers’, soon began to police the nationalist community.

In Arundhati Roy’s 2011 Walking with the Comrades there is a moment where she recaps the stories of Ajitha and Laxmi, Maoist guerrillas in eastern India. They became fighters after the Salwa Judum, a state-supported militia, attacked their villages.

The Judum came to Korseel, her village, and killed three people by drowning them in a stream. Ajitha … watched them rape six women and shoot a man in this throat.

         Comrade Laxmi, who has a long, thick plait, tells me she watched the Judum burn thirty houses in her village, Jojor. “We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could do nothing but watch.”

         Arundhati Roy is not an advocate of a guerrilla strategy and therefore was torn when she heard about an execution of a leading member of a district council carried out by the Maoists:

         I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions. But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy­—who find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative”—should be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here. Now.

Conor Kostick sat beside Arundhati Roy.
Conor Kostick and Arundhati Roy at the Kerela Literature Festival 2019.

         I was reminded of this passage when reading the August 2019 edition of An Phoblacht and its coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the upsurge of loyalist attacks on catholics in Belfast and the subsequent appearance of the Provisional IRA. Between 14 and 18 August 1969, eight people were shot dead and around 2,000 families, mostly catholic, turned into refugees. An Phoblacht carries the experiences of some of these who suffered the loss of loved ones, not only from the loyalist mobs but also the involvement of the RUC and B Specials in the attacks. Nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, for example, was shot in his bed when armoured cars fired indiscriminately into Divis flats.

         Ann McLarnon talks about hearing an RUC officer call out to loyalist arsonists to, ‘leave the fenian bastards to us,’ shortly before her husband Sammy was shot dead looking out from his window, having just returned from trying to put out a fire in a neighbour’s house.

         Richard McAuley, a former political prisoner, recalled:

Those organising aid for the increasing numbers of refugees in St Teresa’s needed cars and volunteers to go down to the Clonard and lower Falls to help evacuate streets. It was believed more attacks would occur. I couldn’t drive but I had willing hands. I joined up with Joe Savage who had a mini and we went to Waterville Street at the back of Clonard Monastery to take away belongings and children and elderly folks. An hour or so later, a few yards just around the corner in Bombay Street, Fifteen-year-old Gerard McAuley was shot and killed by loyalists. Bombay Street was totally destroyed in a firestorm of petrol bombs.

The defining moment in the birth of the modern IRA was ‘the Battle of St Matthews’ which took place after dark on 27 June 1970 and lasted until about 3am. Although loyalist paramilitaries, without any restraint from the British Army, began an assault on the Short Strand from several directions, they were held up by republican fighters who earned the admiration of many of the residents. And reading about these events of fifty years ago, I was brought back to the similarity of the account in Walking with the Comrades.

Imagine the warm summer night, made hotter by the flames of burning houses. Imagine the sectarian mob at the end of your street, determined to get you out because of the community you belong to, and imagine too the real danger that someone you love is about to be killed. What course of action should you take? Go to court? Sit in protest at the doors of Westminster, London? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds just as ridiculous as when Arundhati Roy posed these alternatives to herself. A different policy is needed in the here and now.

Hopefully, I won’t ever face such a situation, but they have happened often enough in modern history to make it likely they will recur again. An answer has to be given to the question of what should be done. And my answer is that yes, under such circumstances the besieged community should throw up barricades and defend themselves in arms if necessary. Unlike the majority of political parties competing for power in Ireland and in India today, who howl with outrage at any expression of support for the CPI (Maoist) and the IRA, I therefore have sympathy for and a sense of solidarity with, those who took up guns against mobs that had been organised (in both cases) to intimidate and crush those wanting equality and civil rights.

Does that mean I support violence as a political strategy? In short, no. There is an enormous difference between recognising that in a particular moment, for a few hours, a community might find it necessary to battle for survival and advocating that armed struggle is a way forward for that community in the longer term. It clearly isn’t. In the case of Ireland (which I’m more familiar with, but I think the same arguments apply to India and, indeed, elsewhere), although the Battle of St Matthews led to a rapid increase in recruits for the IRA, those who joined that organisation on the basis that it was the right way to bring about change in northern Ireland were making a mistake. Several mistakes in fact.

Firstly, it wasn’t ever going to win. Or even bring about modest reform. The famous German revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxembourg, once made the point to her more conservative labour colleagues that by choosing the path of reform rather than revolution, they were in fact, turning away even from winning reforms. Why? Because concentrating on parliamentary activity comes at the cost of belittling the types of activity that does get results, namely mass popular protest: strikes, occupations, boycotts, etc. With the advantage of hindsight it is clear that the same argument applies to politics in Northern Ireland. Tremendous energy and sacrifice by nationalists was poured into waging a campaign of armed struggle, yet the local state could not be toppled that way and insofar as concessions to the demands of the civil rights movement were made, they came in response to the broader expressions of popular discontent. There are parallels with the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921), where even in that much more favourable situation for an armed campaign against the British Empire, it was popular militancy that undermined Britain’s ability to rule Ireland.

Secondly, and this is related, there is an elitism in the practice of organising armed resistance to a major state that eventually introduces authoritarianism and heirarchy into the relationship between the movement and its base. The pattern of admired fighters for freedom and liberation becoming a new set of rulers is not limited to examples from Ireland. It’s a world-wide pattern and it stems from the necessity of having a tight chain of command in a military organisation as well as from having a political goal that is not explicitly socialist and egalitarian. If someone is going to run the new state after it falls to a successful armed rebellion, then who will the new politicians and officials be? Those who see themselves as having carried the struggle forward on behalf of (rather than in step with) the people hardly ever then give up the power they have obtained.

Thirdly, it was — and still is — a mistake not to have a strategy for change that involves protestant workers. Throughout the existence of the Northern Irish state there have always been protestant workers opposed to loyalism. Often trade unionists, the ability of these workers to stand up to the sectarian thugs in the community around them has ebbed and flowed over time. Often the pattern is shaped by events in the south. The more catholic and conservative the southern state, the more it provides a warning to protestants not to demand any changes that might lead to Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

Right now, there are some favourable circumstances that make it a little easier for non-sectarian protestant workers to push back against loyalism (e.g. the fact that abortion is available in Ireland as is same-sex marriage. Brexit, too, is an opportunity to hammer home the anti-working class agenda of the DUP, making it a shame that People Before Profit can’t make the most of this, because they put themselves in the pro-Brexit camp). But even throughout the worst of the troubles, that anti-sectarian protestant constituency was present. And it was a constituency that was completely neglected by the IRA. Worse, the more that the military campaign veered off from defending communities under threat to bombing campaigns, the more working class opposition from within unionism was silenced.

With a generation having grown up after the cease fire in the north, it’s a lot easier today to appreciate these points than it would have been in 1970. Even so, when I read about the events of fifty years ago and ask myself the same questions that Arundahti Roy asks about the Indian Maoists, I think the answer is clear. Yes, there can be urgent situations where working class communities have to battle with arms in hand to save themselves but no, that can not be then generalised to being a strategy for socialism or even for more limited changes.

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