14 December 2006 Edition
Border campaign - '50s republicans deserve recognition and gratitude
BY Mícheál MacDonncha
Operation Harvest — 50 years on
Fifty years ago this week the IRA began its Border Campaign which was to last from December 1956 to February 1962. Here, MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA writes on the background to the campaign and its first year.
“This is the age old struggle of the Irish people versus British aggression. This is the same cause for which generations of our people have suffered and died. In this grave hour, all Irish men and women, at home and abroad, must sink their differences, political or religious, and rally behind the banner of national liberation.”
With these words the Irish Republican Army announced the start of its Resistance Campaign on 12 December 1956. Armed attacks were carried out across the Six Counties. It was the beginning of a renewed IRA effort to challenge British crown forces and it was to be sustained for five years, but never with the intensity of that first year.
The origins of the campaign are to be found in the reorganisation of the IRA after the Second World War. Almost extinct after mass internment and prison executions of Volunteers, North and South, the IRA was reorganised in the late 1940s. It adopted a policy of non-confrontation towards the Garda Síochána and 26-County Army, such conflict having cost it dearly during the war years. All efforts were now focussed on preparing for an armed campaign in the Six Counties.
Throughout the early 1950s preparations were made to arm and train Volunteers for the campaign ahead. The IRA emerged from obscurity to a startled public in June 1951 when they raided Ebrington Barracks in Derry and captured a cache of arms and ammunition. The raid coincided with a visit to the Six Counties by members of the English royal family. Republicans in Belfast were raided and arrested for organising protests against the visit.
In July 1953 a three-man IRA unit raided an officer training corps depot in Felsted, Essex in the south of England and got away with another cache of arms. Detected by local police they were arrested and jailed, among them two future Chiefs of the Staff of the IRA – Cathal Goulding of Dublin and Seán Mac Stiofáin of London who, with Manus Canning of Derry, received long prison sentences.
The raid on Gough Barracks in Armagh in June 1954 was more successful and a large consignment of weapons was captured. The Movement’s monthly paper, The United Irishman, said that what gave rise to “feelings of delight” about the Gough raid was “not the capture of some guns, though that is important, not to make the British Army look foolish, not merely a spectacular operation, but to emphasise the fact that the British Army of Occupation is still in Ireland, that it holds Irish territory by force of arms and that it must be cleared out.”
That message had reached a section of Irish youth during the ‘50s who had grown used to the empty anti-Partition rhetoric of politicians in the 26 Counties but who were themselves sincere in their belief in Irish unity and freedom. When an IRA arms raid on Omagh Barracks in County Tyrone in November 1954 went wrong, eight Volunteers were arrested and it emerged that five of them were from Dublin and three from Cork.
The following May 1955 Sinn Féin fielded 12 candidates in the Westminster election and two of the Omagh prisoners were elected – Dubliners Tom Mitchell in Mid-Ulster and Phil Clarke in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The British Parliament unseated Mitchell because he was a convicted prisoner. A by-election was held in August and Mitchell won again. The farce continued when an Election Petition Court unseated the republican yet again. The intervention of a second nationalist candidate in the subsequent by-election allowed the Unionist to win.
A background of daring arms raids, election victories and British travesties of democracy seemed favourable for the promised beginning of the IRA’s campaign. But the situation was complicated by the activities of the group Saor Uladh, which carried out its own operations. It attracted some defectors from the IRA itself and made more difficult the work of planning for the opening of the campaign. Nonetheless members of Saor Uladh were recognised for their bravery, including Connie Green, who was killed in an attack on Roslea barracks in County Fermanagh in November 1955.
The strategy of the IRA was based on plans drawn up by Kerry republican Seán Cronin and known as Operation Harvest “a general directive for a Guerrilla Campaign”. The document outlined plans for units in the Six Counties, supported by flying columns, whose mission would be to cut communications, destroy enemy vehicles, hit enemy strategic strong points and “strike at their supplies and their administration”. It listed a range of targets and spoke of its aim to liberate areas within the Six Counties and link them up. This document was captured after the arrest of two republicans in County Cavan in January 1957 and was read out in court at their trial. While the IRA subsequently described the document as “an earlier outline on which a general plan of campaign was to be based” the name became forever associated with the IRA ‘56-62 campaign.
The guerrilla tactics were very much inspired by the IRA flying columns of the Black and Tan war period, as described by Tom Barry, the most successful of those flying column commanders. Barry himself had advocated an IRA campaign in the North during the 1930s but did not win sufficient support for it within the organisation. Now in the ‘50s Barry actually trained Volunteers in Cork on request from the IRA and encouraged their renewed efforts.
And so in the early hours of 12 December 1956 the IRA opened its first concerted armed attacks on the British military occupation in the Six Counties since the 1920s. Around 20 targets were hit, including British air and radar installations, military posts, government buildings, roads, bridges and customs posts. The IRA’s proclamation appeared throughout the Six Counties and declared:
“Spearheaded by Ireland’s freedom fighters, our people in the Six Counties have carried the fight to the enemy. They are the direct victims of British Imperialism and they are also the backbone of the national revolutionary resurgence...The whole of Ireland – its resources, wealth, culture, history and tradition – is the common inheritance of all our people regardless of religious belief. The division of this country by Britain, and its subjection to British political control in the North, and to British economic domination in the South, must now be ended forever. It is up to this generation of Irish men and women to resolve for all time our unity, independence and freedom from foreign domination. The alternative, if the present situation continues, is our extinction as a nation...”
The proclamation warned that the British would try to foster division “by fanning the flames of bigotry and sectarianism - twin enemies of Irish republicanism”.
On 16 December Sinn Féin issued a call that was read at public meetings around the country and that urged people to “assist in every way they can the Resistance Movement in the Six Counties”. They said that “constitutional methods alone against armed occupation, civil injustice and victimisation could not possibly be made effective” and urged support for Sinn Féin policy - “the establishment of an All-Ireland Parliament, unfettered by any outside power”.
The political background and motivation of the campaign was clear to all. Across the political spectrum politicians had been denouncing Partition for three decades, but little had been done to end it. There was an initial outpouring of support for the campaign and public respect for the first republicans to lose their lives.
The attack in which those lives were lost took place on New Year’s Day 1957 when the North Fermanagh Resistance Column, also known as the Pearse Column, attacked the RUC barracks at Brookeborough, County Fermanagh. Using an open truck on which a machine-gun was mounted, the IRA column entered the town. Their mines failed to explode and they were raked with fire from the barracks. Seán Sabhat of Limerick, who was manning the machine-gun, and Fergal O’Hanlon of Monaghan, were mortally wounded. Also on the raid were the late Daithi Ó Conaill and Seán Garland, both of whom would become prominent republicans in later years.
The deaths of Sabhat and O’Hanlon were the first IRA casualties of the campaign. Massive crowds participated in their funerals. Seán Sabhat’s funeral passed through Dublin where thousands gathered to pay their respects and an estimated 50,000 attended in Limerick. While public sympathy was being manifested in this way the Unionist government at Stormont, the British government at Westminster and the 26-County government in Dublin were already active in seeking to suppress the IRA campaign.
Stormont imposed internment without trial in December 1956 within days of the start of the IRA campaign. There were extensive raids and arrests with the RUC and B-Specials taking a leading role. In January 1957 the Unionist government imposed a ban on Sinn Féin. This ban was not lifted until 1974.
Pressure from London was brought to bear on the Fine Gael/Labour Government led by John A. Costello. A few days after the campaign began the British Ambassador had handed a note of protest to the Irish government. Clann na Poblachta TD Jack McQuillan urged Costello to stop “using military and Gardaí as instruments of British policy”. The British Prime Minister Anthony Eden urged stiffer measures by Dublin.
As the campaign proceeded these measures would be forthcoming. After the Brookeborough attack 13 members of the IRA column were arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment in Mountjoy. There were further arrests in the 26 Counties during January 1957. However, the more severe repression was yet to come as Costello felt somewhat restrained by the level of public sympathy for the IRA.
In the meantime Sinn Féin decided it would contest the 26-County General Election of March 1957, maintaining its abstentionist position of refusing to take seats in Leinster House. Four TDs were elected – Eanachán O hAnluain, brother of Fergal, in Monaghan, prisoner candidates John Joe McGirl in Sligo-Leitrim and Ruairi Ó Brádaigh in Longford-Westmeath and veteran republican John Joe Rice in South Kerry. The Sinn Féin manifesto set out the state of Ireland that republicans were trying to transform:
“England’s stranglehold on the industrial North-East is unbroken; the Gaeltacht is dwindling year after year; a quarter of a million of our youth and bloom lost in emigration over the last five years alone; 95,000 unemployed in the 26 Counties and 40,000 in the Six Counties. Ireland literally lies ‘broken and bleeding’ while we are burdened with taxation to maintain two states and three Governments.”
The General Election saw the return to power of Fianna Fáil with Eamon de Valera becoming Taoiseach for his final term. He did not delay long in using his majority to crack down on the Resistance Campaign. In July the Fianna Fáil government invoked the powers of the Offences Against the State Act to impose internment without trial. Among the first interned were almost all the members of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle who were arrested at Ard Oifig, then in Wicklow Street, Dublin.
By the end of 1957 there were 125 internees in the Curragh Camp in County Kildare and more than 250 in Crumlin Road Prison, Belfast, as well as sentenced prisoners in Mountjoy, Crumlin Road and English prisons. Welfare of prisoners and their families again became a major concern for republicans.
Despite repression, IRA attacks continued throughout 1957. The year ended with the tragedy at Edentubber on the Louth/Armagh border when five Republicans were killed in a premature explosion on 11 November 1957. They were Oliver Craven (Down), George Keegan (Wexford), Paddy Parle (Wexford), Paul Smith (Armagh) and Michael Watters (Louth).
In assessing the IRA campaign that began in December 1956 it should be put in both an international and a national context.
The international context was important. The start of the IRA campaign coincided with the 1956 insurgency in Hungary against Russian domination. Irish Republicans were quick to point out the hypocrisy of those who praised the armed revolt of the Hungarians but condemned the Irish resistance fighters. During the ‘50s the British were ruthlessly suppressing anti-colonial revolts in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus. Their colonial empire was crumbling but their conceit that they were still a supreme military power remained. Suez burst that bubble. Operation Harvest occurred in the wake of the British humiliation in Egypt. In collusion with the governments of France and Israel the British invaded Egypt in order to seize the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by Egyptian President Nasser. Fierce resistance from the Egyptians and disapproval from the US government led to a climb-down by the British. Their days as a world power were over.
But their Irish colony remained and the IRA campaign did not come anywhere near attaining its military objective of forcing British withdrawal. But it placed the issue of Partition and the nature of the repressive sectarian Six-County state back on the political agenda. In a world of struggles for national self-determination it showed that the Irish struggle remained unfinished business. The lull which followed the end of the campaign in 1962 proved illusory and six years later the nationalists and republicans of the Six Counties rose up, never to retreat again.
Operation Harvest which began 50 years ago this week has been neglected by historians. Much writing on the period has treated the campaign as a precursor to the split in the IRA and Sinn Féin in 1969 and 1970. But it deserves closer attention than that. The campaign occurred in an Ireland stunted by conservatism North and South and blighted with economic stagnation and gross inequality leading to massive unemployment and emigration. It showed that in spite of – or perhaps because of – the state to which Ireland had been reduced there were still young Irish men and women willing to risk their lives to achieve a truly free nation. The men and women of that Republican generation deserve recognition and gratitude.