The IRA campaign: not left wing but sectarian struggle

There has been a significant amount written about whether or not Sinn Fein is or was a truly left wing political party. In general those within republicanism who have opposed the current policies of SF have accused them of moving away from the political left. The problem is that neither Sinn Fein nor the IRA nor its assorted “left wing” critics have ever espoused a left wing ideology in any coherent fashion. Their analysis has always either ignored or dismissed the existence of the British population in Northern Ireland. Interestingly Sinn Fein now seem to have fractionally more appreciation of the existence of the British majority here whereas those denouncing them for selling out left wing values continue either to ignore unionists or promote some bizarre class consciousness expecting / hoping that some unionists will be receptive.

A different aspect of the republican movement and its supposedly left wing credentials has also been the campaign of terrorism by the IRA. The recent IRA campaign was often held up especially by those on the left outside Northern Ireland as a left wing struggle against imperialist colonial oppressors and the like. Such nonsense was used to justify the murder of predominantly working class young men from GB who had joined the army. Recasting working class young men as imperialist oppressors has always been a favourite of the hard left: that or denouncing their leaders for supposedly duping them into joining the army and, hence helping in the supposed oppression / exploitation. As such, however, inaccurate and dishonest it is some on the left managed to explain away those IRA murders as part of some socialist revolution.

The economic destruction was also proclaimed as a “left wing” cause. Fortunately for the hard left outside Northern Ireland they were able to ignore the fact that most of the shops destroyed tended to be owned by Protestants. They also were able to ignore the fact that things like burning buses predominantly affected working class nationalists and instead forced them to use other forms of public transport which republicans were able to control and extort money from. In actual fact the working class of both sides probably suffered most from this supposedly left wing campaign.

It was in the countryside in parts of South Armagh, South and West Fermanagh and parts of Tyrone where the IRA campaign was most effective in murdering people but again there was absolutely no hint of “class struggle:” rather republicans murdered their neighbours; drove them from their farms and some made vast fortunes from smuggling and illegal activity. All these actions were much more typical of old fashioned ethnic conflict and banditry rather than any “class struggle.” It is worth remembering that the Kingsmills victims were easy targets since, being working class men they had to take a minibus to and from work, rather than private cars as richer people would have done. The INLA, supposedly even more left wing than the IRA, of course were so disinterested in sectarianism that they took to murdering people in churches. The IRA managed to improve on that by murdering people at a religious service to honour those who died fighting fascism: earning themselves in the process the contempt of the then Soviet Union.

When some criticise SF for losing their “left wing” credentials often one wonders if this is actually complaining that the republican movement failed to prosecute some of the more extreme terrorist plans of their most delusional members. In the IRA’s failure so to do one can see the folly of the left wing revolution concept of Irish republicanism and also its failure to acknowledge unionists.

When Jim Lynagh and the Loughgall “martyrs” had breakfast with the SAS this was part of the IRA campaign of attacking isolated rural police stations in order to create “liberated zones” where the IRA would have largely unrestricted freedom of movement and the Army very little such freedom. This was along the lines of the ideas of Mao and the Viet Cong. Unfortunately for Lynagh and his friends, even leaving aside what may well have been informers at various levels, was the fact that the idea was idiotic. Northern Ireland is simply not big enough to create such rural no go areas of any size. An even more serious problem and again one which speaks to the refusal of the IRA when in “left wing mode” to accept the existence of unionists was the RUC station targeted. The Moaist idea was “The people are like water and the army is like fish” which of course made absolutely no sense. IRA members attacking Loughgall would have had absolutely no support from the overwhelmingly unionist population of the village. In most of Northern Ireland Mao’s dictum worked exactly the other way round: the security forces, not the terrorists were able to move at will.

Even madder than the Maoist ideas was the, again supposedly left wing, notion of a “Tet Offensive” in the Clogher Valley. Again simple geography demonstrates that the Colgher Valley is small and enclosed. Had the IRA tried to “liberate” it they would have rapidly found themselves trapped within it. When terrorists try to fight conventional battles they almost always lose, especially against a well trained and disciplined army with good morale: the Army would have been able to respond with overwhelming force, organisation and equipment. The IRA’s Tet offensive would have become their Dien Bien Phu. Again, however, the security argument is not the main failing. Yet again it is the refusal to accept the existence of unionists. The IRA might have been able to bully most nationalists into staying in their homes; they might have been supported by a few. However, Augher is a mixed village and electoral ward, Clogher is predominantly nationalist but the ward is 40% Protestant. Fivemiletown, the largest village in the valley, is over 75% Protestant. As such attempts to “liberate” the Clogher Valley even had they been accepted by nationalists would have been actively opposed by about half the population.

The IRA campaign and the subsequent political campaigns by republicans are frequently proclaimed by them as left wing revolutionary struggles (outside Irish America of course). The reality is that they have always been better understood as sectarian struggles on behalf of the nationalist community: whether or not the nationalist community supported them. They certainly did not in large numbers prior to the end of the IRA’s murder campaign. The IRA campaign can also be understood as the attempts by a small group of murderous, bigoted often psychopathic criminals to gain power, money and prestige for themselves. The difference between the IRA and the likes of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang were a larger though still small amount of support due not to their politics but to sectarian differences in Northern Ireland. Those who try to claim the republican movement have sold out its left wing principles are either extraordinarily naïve or are trying to find a fig leaf to cover their own support of or involvement in a squalid campaign of violence and murder.