They shouldn’t go away you know: the necessity for a physical force element in Irish republicanism




 By Paul – UCD Frank Ryan Society



The history of Irish republicanism cannot be properly analysed without first addressing the role that physical force adherents have played within the ideology. Likewise the current and future trends within republicanism cannot be properly understood if the place that physical force inhabits within the movement is misconstrued or ignored. What I hope to achieve with this piece is to offer a brief analysis of the army’s roles, problems and future as I see them.


The roles of the army within the republican movement are often overlooked and simplified in the rush to box them into the “men of violence” category. At its most basic the army is merely the physical manifestation of an ideology. It actualises the struggle to achieve our goals in a dramatic fashion. Logically if Irish republicanism is at its core the wish to see the removal of the British presence in Ireland then it faces a physical restraint in the form of British institutions. The army is a physical solution to what amounts to a physical barrier. To shoot a member of the PSNI is to make a clear statement. The police are representatives of the state. If one opposes the state and wishes to destroy it then the police become a blindingly obvious target of aggression. Shooting a police officer not only depletes the states capacity to repress republicanism; it also reinforces the unyielding opposition to the British state in its most publicly visible and basic function – its ability to control the people it claims to rule over.


The army is also complimentary to the political movement. Both must protect, comfort and support the other despite their varied functions. The political must however take precedent. Chairman Mao is oft quoted as saying “political power comes from the barrel of a gun”. The second part of Mao’s statement is frequently ignored: “…. but the hand of the politician must control the gun”. The political spectrum must be the controlling influence for many reasons. The fact that most republicans agree that the British will never be militarily defeated is revealing.


Guerrilla warfare can be used extremely effectively to apply pressure on the British establishment as history has proved but it will not in itself bring victory. The Provisional IRA rocked the British establishment in 1972 with an unprecedented level of activity. Hundreds of bombs, riots and attacks on the police and the army took place. Despite this huge level of violent opposition the British stood firm if shaken. 1972 was the zenith of for the Provisionals in terms of activity levels. It is reasonable to assume that barring massive alterations in the current political and social spectrum that levels of activity will not exceed or match those reached during that year. So if it is evident that military means alone will not be successful then logically we must conclude that it will be a combination of political and military. And if it is a combination of two then one must supersede the other in terms of authority.


The argument for political supremacy stems from the nature of the army. The army is by its very purpose an aggressive organisation designed to wage war to the best of its capabilities. To be effective the army must be free of infighting and political bureaucracy. The army should not be hindered by the need to run both a political campaign as well as a military one. That is not to say that the army should not be free of overall restraint and direction from a political element. However it must be free to engage in its primary function. The other major flaw with a military junta style leadership is the necessity for the capacity to call a ceasefire should negotiations prove fruitful. A movement led by a hard line army council whilst being ideologically staunch and will perhaps be less inclined to stop doing what they do best and what defines them within the struggle.


Likewise however any political movement that did hold sway over overall decision making is carrying a huge moral requirement to act in the utmost good faith when requesting the army to cooperate within an overall strategy. They hold within their power an immense responsibility to ensure that the sacrifices, hopes and lives of volunteers are never wasted or even more despicably betrayed. To betray the trust of the volunteers who risk their lives is to besmirch the very concept of republicanism and comradeship. Likewise a self fulfilling campaign of tit for tat actions must not be allowed to take place with no direction for it serves no purpose other than to cause hardship and misery for those that fight in the name of republicanism.


I would also like to briefly examine the army’s social roots and functions within the nationalist community. The British and Irish media consistently and deliberately ignore the fact that the republican struggle sprang from and received support from nationalist communities. These communities sustained and supported the struggle not because they were intimidated by faceless “terrorists” but because they were represented and defended by the men and women of the IRA and the INLA.


These communities did not shelter unknown fanatics; they were giving succor to a revolution being fought by their brothers, fathers and mothers against an oppressive regime they did not feel any affection or loyalty to because they had never submitted to its rule or acknowledged the right of a foreign nation to usurp our nations right to determine its own destiny. These communities suffered for their refusal to submit to British rule. They suffered at the hands of the British army and their loyalist death squad proxies.


However, because the army had grown out of these communities, it altered the manner in which the British had to fight. They could not merely smash a guerrilla army because the army was kept alive by community endeavor and support. To truly defeat the IRA the RAF would have had to send out its bombers to flatten Crossmaglen and Strabane. I suspect there were many elements within the British establishment who would have been delighted to issue that order but they could never fight that type of war in the 6 counties.


The army therefore has an impenetrable and priceless defence that it cannot allow to be destroyed. The abuse of this trust by the provisional movement has been one of the more despicable elements of the provisional Sinn Fein sell-out. However with the support given by the republican communities, the army acquires some additional primary functions that must be engaged in to ensure survival.


The key primary function fulfilled by the Provisionals that earned them initial respect and support was their defence of their communities against loyalist and British incursions – for example, their defence of the Short Strand. Guns that kept loyalists at bay were far more likely to be hidden for an army than rifles kept silent when the community asked for aid. Likewise when the British army oppressed the nationalist people they were met with bullets and barricades. This was strategically important in ensuring that the nationalist community could view the IRA as their legitimate and capable defenders. It also created a functional vacuum with regards to maintaining order within these communities and combating anti-social elements. There was little other option but for the IRA to step into this role. The subsequent policing function carried out by the IRA has been widely lamented by the media and politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea. The punishment beatings we’re told have no place in a civilised society.


This is of course the utmost hypocrisy considering the brutal nature of the British army’s treatment of republican communities. That is not to say that by its nature IRA policing is not brutal. However the problem of policing is complex. Republicans cannot and will not accept British policing. Therefore they must accept republican policing. This will of course be of a fundamentally different nature than a traditional police force. It must be policing for the community not of the community.


It also raises problems in regards to crime and punishment. The IRA has no CSI department or jails. They must do the best job they can in the circumstances. However the notion that punishment beatings are randomly dispersed is laughable. For example, within the past 2 weeks a rapist was punished by the IRA. He had raped a 15 year old girl. He destroyed that girl’s life. The British courts declined to sentence him in 2000 and 9 years later he was still walking the streets. Under intense community pressure the IRA chose to act and kneecapped him. The media condemned this. I fail to see anything morally wrong with dispensing proper justice to this type of person. Never again will he create another victim. The community is safer now due to the actions of the IRA not the British courts or police force. The abandonment of republican communities by both wings of the provisional movement has left these people isolated and vulnerable. However they will instinctively look to those that will protect them.


The PSNI have not been accepted, just as the RUC were not accepted, and the black and tans before them. For should the day come when the PSNI are renamed the “Irish Republican Police Force” and wear Celtic jerseys they will not be any more acceptable to republicans because it will still be a British police force. So all the pleas in the world from Martin and Gerry to inform and tout on the republicans who continue to fight will fall on deaf ears in areas like Craigavon that have experienced first-hand the brutality of the police force that Provisional Sinn Fein were “to put manners on”.


I would like to deal briefly with what I view as the future of the military role within Irish republicanism. It is a topic worthy of a more capable analysis by a better mind than my own but I will attempt to offer my own view in as articulate a fashion as possible. Currently as I write I do not see an armed campaign being conducted in what could be fairly termed as a strategic fashion. The isolation and to an extent fragmentation of groups such as the “real” and “continuity” IRA have made it unlikely that a significant level of activity can be achieved or sustained in the near future.


Serious questions must be asked then with regards to long-term goals. The collapse of the partitionist and sectarian regime at Stormont would be welcomed and is a noble aim to be sure! However we must first build a strong and unified republican political alternative. Without this even the collapse of Stormont will only lead to stalemate. The republican alternative must be our primary aim and focus.


The climate is not in my opinion favorable for a prolonged campaign of attrition. However with each day they spend currying favour with Robinson and co. and betraying the republican cause, PSF wither away in the eyes of true republicans. We must set about unifying the varying strands that currently exist. There is no time for elitism or refusal to cooperate. We cannot be naïve enough to think that Sinn Fein will just go away even though their losing their political base rapidly. They have captured the middle class SDLP base who care little that they are supporting a sell-out party. They’re well used to doing so. So we must build our future with a strong republican political movement that is united by a single core demand: a declaration of intent to withdraw by the British government and a process of engagement with the unionists on the premise that a united Ireland is inevitable and on its way.


The role of the army is therefore essential. For if a strong unified political initiative is scuppered and hampered by the British there must be an alternative means of applying pressure on the British establishment. That alternative should be an armed campaign controlled by the political movement in overall coordination.


The obvious flaw with this plan is the question what can this achieve considering the failure of previous sustained armed campaigns. I believe it would be different and succeed for a number of reasons. The first is that there is a clear political alternative to engage with rather than a political wing as such. The second is the manner in which a renewed campaign should be fought. I believe its primary focus should not be targeting police and soldiers though of course they must be engaged.


However as we know the British care little about dead squaddies and even less about dead peelers. A conflict directed primarily against the army merely makes the war more containable in any case. The main aim should be widespread economic destruction on the British mainland. Bombing the mainland was one of the most effective tactics employed by the Provisionals. The logic is simple. The British don’t care about a bombed out Belfast but they do care about a London brought to its knees. It would not be an easy task to achieve but making the British count the cost in pounds sterling rather than bodies would be more effective.


The third reason why I consider a renewed campaign under those conditions would be more successful is the opposition. The British army is not the same force it once was. The destruction of the old regimental system and chronic under funding have ensured a weakened force. Unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also given the army serious headaches in terms of recruitment. Not to mention the huge cost of maintaining a large occupational force. It becomes clear that containing even a medium intensity prolonged campaign would create serious difficulties for the British army. How will they find 20 000 troops for Northern Ireland when they cannot muster 5000 for Iraq?


Therefore for a large number of reasons I believe that it is essential for republicans to maintain and enhance their capability to wage war. The protection of republican communities must continue, cooperation within the wider political movement by volunteers is also highly important given their considerable expertise and knowledge. Should the British fail once again to recognise our nations right to freedom, then they must face a serious opponent on both the political and military fronts.


I would like to stress that all of the above opinions expressed are my own. I do not speak for any organization, republican or otherwise. The future remains unwritten but certainly there will continue to be a place for the high caliber volunteers who have served Ireland so well. Easter greetings to all Republican POWs and best wishes to all Republicans at home and abroad




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