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28 July 2005 Edition

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Armed struggle and the republican peace strategy

BY Mícheál MacDonncha

IRA patrol in West Belfast in the 1980s

IRA patrol in West Belfast in the 1980s

Since 1994 the central focus of the Irish Republican Army has been to advance the republican peace strategy, to enhance the Peace Process and by these means to move towards the objective of Irish unity and independence. The relatively brief resumption of armed struggle in 1996/'97 was like previous phases of armed struggle in microcosm. It came about after a period during which intense efforts by Irish republicans to advance by peaceful means were thwarted by unionism and by the British Government with the object of isolating and defeating republicans. These attempts to defeat republicanism failed then as they failed throughout the conflict since 1969.

It was a measure of the courage of republicans and their ability to take calculated risks that the IRA cessation was resumed and that in the succeeding years the IRA took further initiatives to advance the peace process. Did that change the objectives of our opponents? Certainly not. They sought and still seek to lower expectations, to sow demoralisation and to disorganise Irish republicanism which has never been better organised or better supported than it is today. And our objectives have not changed either. We are more determined than ever — because nearer now than ever to our goal — to achieve the re-unification of Ireland, the end of the Union with Britain and the establishment of the Republic.

The unprecedented strength of Sinn Féin has been achieved largely in the past decade of the Peace Process. That process represents the implementation of a republican strategy to reclaim from the real warmongers in Ireland — the British Government and its allies — the concept of peace and to fight the political battle for Irish national self-determination on a wider field. It was republicans who had to force the British Government to end its futile military campaign in Ireland.

Every phase of armed struggle, arguably since the United Irish Movement of the 1790s, has had the same basic objective — separation from Britain and the establishment of an Irish Republic. Every phase has also come after a period when the Irish people sought by peaceful means to establish their national rights in the face of a violent imperial power. The United Irishmen began as a constitutional movement but were met with vicious repression. Young Ireland asserted the right to resist in arms after four decades of O'Connellite politics had left the Irish people disarmed, demoralised and unable to physically prevent the export of food while hundreds of thousands of people starved during the Great Hunger.

The Fenians were a response to that Holocaust and to the futility of appeals to the Imperial Parliament.

After three and a half decades of Irish Parliamentarianism at Westminster the concept of Home Rule was whittled down to the weakest form of devolution, then snatched away from the majority of Irish people by a Tory/Unionist alliance that conspired to partition Ireland by violent means. This brought together the forces that made the 1916 Rising and founded the Irish Republican Army. Britain had an opportunity to join a peace process in 1919 when the Irish people elected the First Dáil Éireann and declared their independence. But the British Government's response was to ban the Dáil and Sinn Féin and to make an escalation of war inevitable.

The biggest losers in the 1921 'settlement' were of course nationalists in the Six Counties. They bore the brunt of what James Connolly predicted would happen if Ireland was partitioned — a carnival of reaction North and South. Yet the IRA was at its weakest in the North and, while a faithful few maintained heroic resistance, it was not until the 1960s that nationalists began to emerge from the shadows and demand their civil and national rights in a concerted and effective manner.

This phase of peaceful agitation in the 1960s was met with the violent response from the Orange state and the British Government, the response that began the armed conflict which continued intensely from 1969 to 1994. Britain created the conditions for republican armed struggle in the Six Counties. A generation of nationalist youth had seen the modest demands of the Civil Rights Movement denied and peaceful demonstrators met with armed force. That generation saw pogroms, British Army occupation, internment without trial and Bloody Sunday.

It is often forgotten that Sinn Féin was banned outright in the Six Counties between 1956 and 1974. Armed resistance was the only path that most republicans saw open to them after the Civil Rights Movement was shot off the streets. That resistance was fuelled by repression from a British state that first of all believed that it could militarily defeat the IRA and later hoped that it could totally isolate and criminalise it while institutionalising repression and keeping the Six Counties as a permanent training ground for the British Army. These British strategies failed but they ensured that the long war continued.

Republicans recognised that they could not militarily defeat the British Army. But they believed that the armed struggle would be a key component — and for many the key component — in the political effort to force the British to disengage.

The abject failure of successive Dublin Governments to represent Irish national interests also contributed to the political conditions in which armed struggle was waged. The Dublin Government had imposed broadcasting censorship of the political expression of republicanism. While it did not ban Sinn Féin outright, it attempted to close down the organisation and harassed its members continuously. Meanwhile its relationship with the repressive British Government grew ever closer. In such a situation appeals by Dublin Government Ministers to northern nationalists to adopt 'peaceful, constitutional methods' were laughable.

Such appeals made no impact on republicans. Conditions on the ground in the North did, as did internal debate and strategic thinking about the way forward. Thinking 'outside the box' was required. A key to this was recognition of the fact that armed struggle was not a principle but a tactic to be used strategically.

The challenge was to create a bridge between almost total dependence on armed struggle and a political struggle with broad support organised in a political party that had the potential to grow on an All-Ireland basis. And all of this was in the context of a prolonged conflict, with no end in sight and with a moral obligation to explore all means to bring about a peaceful resolution. The British could be in no doubt about the IRA's ability to carry on its armed struggle indefinitely. The world had been shown that it could not be defeated. But a military and political stalemate still meant that the status quo remained. Therefore it was those who wanted change most — Irish republicans — who had to revisit their strategy and open up a new front in the fight for Irish freedom.

That new front was the republican peace strategy. Britain's bluff, and that of the Dublin Government, was called. If the British and the Unionists really wanted peace let them talk to Sinn Féin. If the Dublin Government really wanted to pursue Irish unity by peaceful means let them do so. Both governments were found wanting. But republicans had opened up a new political front and had broken the political logjam.

The 1994 IRA cessation was an essential requirement of that strategy. It allowed swathes of new public support to come to Irish republicanism while confronting the British and Dublin Governments with the contradictions of their own policies.

This week's historic statement from the IRA is the next logical step in the republican peace strategy. This step has been taken from a position of strength. Irish republicanism is strong and confident. The Union with Britain has never been weaker. Sinn Féin is leading nationalism in the Six Counties by a mile, has never had such support in the 26 Counties, has never been so well organised on an All-Ireland basis and has never been so focussed on its short, medium and long-term objectives and on how to achieve them.

The IRA's armed struggle has fulfiled its historic task. Across the bridgehead it created, republicans will march to freedom.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

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