Did the Provisional IRA lose its ‘Long War’? Why are dissident Republicans fighting now?
ESSAY / María Granados Machimbarrena
In 1998, the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement marked the development of the political relations between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Several writers, politicians and academics claimed the British had won the ‘Long War’.(1)
However, according to other scholars and politicians(2), the armed struggle has not left the region. The following paper delves into the question as to whether the war is over, and attempts to give an explanation to the ultimate quest of dissident Republicans.
On the one hand, Aaron Edwards, a scholar writing on the Operation Banner and counter- insurgency, states that Northern Ireland was a successful peace process, a transformation from terrorism to democratic politics. He remarks that despite the COIN being seen as a success, the disaster was barely evaded in the 1970s.(3) The concept of ‘fighting the last war’, meaning the repetition of the strategy or tactic that was used to win the previous war(4), portrays Edward’s critique on the Operation. The latter was based on trials and tests undertaken in the post-war period, but the IRA also studied past interventions from the British military. The insurgents’ focus on the development of a citizen defence force and the support of the community, added to the elusive Human Intelligence, turned the ‘one-size-fits-all’ British strategy into a failure. The British Army thought that the opponents’ defeat would bring peace, and it disregarded the people-centric approach such a war required. The ‘ability to become fish in a popular sea’, the need to regain, retain and build the loyalty and trust of the Irish population was the main focus since 1976, when the role of the police was upgraded and the Army became in charge of its support. The absence of a political framework to restore peace and stability, the lack of flexibility, and the rise of sectarianism, a grave socio-economic phenomenon that fuelled the overall discontent, could have ended on a huge disaster. Nonetheless, Edwards argues the peace process succeeded because of the contribution of the Army and the political constraints imposed to it.(5)
In 2014, writer and veteran journalist Peter Taylor claimed that the British had won the war in Northern Ireland. He supported his statement through two main arguments: the disappearance of the IRA and the absence of unity between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Former Minister Peter Robinson (DUP Party) firmly rejected the idea of such a union ever occurring: ‘It just isn't going to happen’. Ex-hunger striker Gerard Hodgins was utterly unyielding in attitude, crying: ‘We lost. (...) The IRA are too clever to tell the full truth of what was actually negotiated. And unionists are just too stupid to recognise the enormity of what they have achieved in bringing the IRA to a negotiated settlement which accepts the six-county state.’ They were all contested by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, a political fighter and defender of a united Ireland, and Hutchinson, who stated that the republicans were fighting a cultural battle to eradicate Britishness. He agreed that the war had changed in how it was being fought, “but it is still a war” he concluded.(6) Former IRA commander McIntyre disagrees, in his book he suggests that the PIRA(7) is on its death bed. So is the army council that plotted its campaign. ‘If the IRA ever re-emerges, it will be a new organisation with new people’.(8)
There is an important point that most of the above-mentioned leaders fail to address: the so- called cultural battle, which is indeed about the conquest of ‘hearts and minds’. Scholars(9) find there is a deep misunderstanding of the core of republicanism among politicians and disbelievers of the anti-GFA groups’ strength. In fact, there has been an increase on the number of attacks, as well as on the Provisional movement’s incompetence. Historical examples show that the inability to control the population, the opponent’s motivation, or the media leads to defeat. E.g.: C.W. Gwynn realised of the importance of intelligence and propaganda, and H. Simson coined the term ‘sub-war’, or the dual use of terror and propaganda to undermine the government.(10) T.E. Lawrence also wrote about psychological warfare. He cited Von der Goltz on one particular occasion, quoting ‘it was necessary not to annihilate the enemy, but to break his courage.’(11)
On the other hand, Radford follows the line of Frenett and Smith, demonstrating that the armed struggle has not left Northern Ireland. There are two main arguments that support their view: (1) Multiple groups decline the agreement and (2) Social networks strengthen a traditional-minded Irish Republican constituency, committed to pursue their goals.
In the aftermath of the GFA, the rejectionist group PIRA fragmented off and the RIRA was born. The contention of what is now called RIRA (Real IRA) is that such a body should always exist to challenge Great Britain militarily. Their aim is to subvert and to put an end to the Peace Process, whilst rejecting any other form of republicanism. Moreover, their dual strategy supported the creation of the political pressure group 32CSM.(12) Nonetheless, after the Omagh bombing in 1998, there was a decline in the military effectiveness of the RIRA. Several events left the successor strategically and politically aimless: A new terrorism law, an FBI penetration, and a series of arrests and arms finds.(13) In spite of what seemed to be a defeat, it was not the end of the group. In 2007, the RIRA rearmed itself, an on-going trend that tries to imitate PIRA’s war and prevents the weaponry from going obsolete. In addition, other factions re-emerged: The Continuity IRA (CIRA), weaker than the RIRA, was paralysed in 2010 after a successful penetration by the security forces. Notwithstanding, it is still one of the richest organisations in the world. Secondly, the Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) is politically aligned with the RSF and the RNU. They have not been very popular on the political arena, but they actively contest seats in the council.(14)
In 2009, the Independent Monitoring Commission acknowledged an increase in ‘freelance dissidents’, who are perceived as a growing threat, numbers ranging between 400-500. The reason behind it is the highly interconnected network of traditional republican families. Studies also show that 14% of nationalists can sympathetically justify the use of republican violence. Other factors worth mentioning include: A growing presence of older men and women with paramilitary experience; an increase of coordination and cooperation between the groups; an improvement in capability and technical knowledge, evidenced by recent activities.(15)
In 2014, a relatively focused and coherent IRA (‘New IRA’) emerged, with poor political support and a lack of funding, but reaching out to enough irredentists to cause a potential trouble in a not so distant future.
Von Bülow predicted: ‘[Our consequence of the foregoing Exposition, is, that] small States, in the future, will no more vanquish great ones, but on the contrary will finally become a Pray to them”.(16) One could argue that it is the case with Northern Ireland.
Although according to him, number and organisation are essential to an army,(17) the nature of the war makes it difficult to fight in a conventional way.(18) Most documents agree that the war against the (P)IRA must be fought with a counterinsurgency strategy, since, as O’Neill thoughtfully asserts, ‘to understand most terrorism, we must first understand insurgency.’ In the 1960s, such strategies began to stress the combination of political, military, social, psychological, and economic measures.(19) This holistic approach to the conflict would be guided by political action, as many scholars put forward in counterinsurgency manuals (e.g.: Galula citing Mao Zedong’s ‘[R]evolutionary war is 80 per cent political action and only 20 per cent military’.(20) Jackson suggests that the target of the security apparatus may not be the destruction of the insurgency, but the prevention of the organisation from configuring its scenario through violence. Therefore, after the security forces dismantle the PIRA, a larger and more heavy response should be undertaken on the political arena to render it irrelevant.(21)
One of the main dangers such an insurgency poses to the UK in the long term is the re-opening of the revolutionary war, according to the definition given by Shy and Collier.(22) Besides, the risks of progression through repression is its reliance on four fragile branches, i.e.: Intelligence, propaganda, the secret services and the police.(23) The latter’s coordination was one of the causes of the fall of the PIRA, as aforementioned, and continues to be essential: ‘(...) these disparate groups of Republicans must be kept in perspective and they are unlikely, in the short term at least, to wield the same military muscle as PIRA (...), and much of that is due to the efforts of the PSNI, M15 and the British Army’ maintains Radford. Thus, ‘Technical and physical intelligence gathering are vital to fighting terrorists, but it must be complemented by good policing’.
Hence, unless the population is locally united; traditional, violent republican ideas are rejected, and the enemy remains fragmented, the remnants of the ‘Long War’ are likely to persist and cause trouble to those who ignore the current trends. There is an urgent need to understand the strong ideology behind the struggle. As the old Chinese saying goes: ‘It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles’.(24)
1. Writer and veteran journalist Peter Taylor, Former Minister Peter Robinson (DUP Party), ex-IRA hunger striker Gerard Hodgins, and former IRA commander and Ph.D. Anthony McIntyre.
2. M. Radford, Ross Frenett and M.L.R. Smith, as well as PUP leader Billy Hutchinson and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.
3. Edwards, Aaron. “Lessons Learned? Operation Banner and British Counter-Insurgency Strategy” International Security and Military History, 116-118.
4. Greene, Robert, The 33 Strategies of War. Penguin Group, 2006.
5. Edwards, Aaron. l.c.
6. Who Won the War? [Documentary]. United Kingdom, BBC. First aired on Sep 2014.
7. Provisional IRA
8. McIntyre, Anthony. Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, 2008.
9. E.g.: R. Frenett, M. L. R. Smith.
10. Pratten, Garth. “Major General Sir Charles Gwynn: Soldier of the Empire, father of British counter- insurgency?” International Security and Military History, 114-115.
11. Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. New York: Anchor, 1991.
12. ‘The 32 County Sovereignty Movement’
13. For instance, Freddie Scappatticci, the IRA’s head of internal security, was exposed as a British military intelligence agent in 2003.
14. Radford, Mark. ‘The Dissident IRA: Their “War” Continues’ The British Army Review 169: Spring/ Summer 2017, 43-49 f.f.
15. ‘Terrorists continue to plot, attack and build often ingenious and quite deadly devices’ Ibidem.
16. Von Bülow, Dietrich Heinrich. ‘The Spirit of the Modern System of War’. Chapter I, P. 189. Cambridge University Press, Published October 2014.
17. Von Bülow, D.H., l.c. P. 193 Chapter II.
18. Indeed, some authors will define it as an ‘unconventional war’. E.g.: ‘revolutionary war aims at the liquidation of the existing power structure and at a transformation in the structure of society.’ Heymann, Hans H. and Whitson W. W., ‘Can and Should the United States Preserve A Military Capability for Revolutionary Conflict?’ Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, Ca., 1972, p. 5.p. 54.
19. O’Neill, Board E. Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005. Chapter 1: Insurgency in the Contemporary World.
20. Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. London: Praeger, 1964.
21. Jackson, B. A., 2007, ‘Counterinsurgency Intelligence in a “Long War”: The British Experience in Northern Ireland.’ January-February issue, Military Review, RAND Corporation.
22. ‘Revolutionary War refers to the seizure of political power by the use of armed force’. Shy, John and Thomas W. Collier. “Revolutionary War” in Peter Paret, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986.
23. Luttwak, Edward. (2002). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge, US: Belknap Press.
24. Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Attack By Stratagem 3.18.
Edwards, Aaron. Lessons Learned? Operation Banner and British Counter-Insurgency Strategy International Security and Military History, 116-118.
Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. London: Praeger, 1964.
Greene, Robert. The 33 Strategies of War. Penguin Group, 2006.
Heymann, Hans H. and Whitson W. W.. Can and Should the United States Preserve A Military Capability for Revolutionary Conflict? (Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, Ca., 1972), p. 5.p. 54.
International Monitoring Commission (IMC), Irish and British governments report on the IRA army council’s existence, 2008.
Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. New York: Anchor, 1991.
Luttwak, Edward. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge, US: Belknap Press, 2002.
McIntyre, Anthony. Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, 2008.
O’Neill, Board E.. Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005.
Pratten, Garth. Major General Sir Charles Gwynn: Soldier of the Empire, father of British counter-insurgency? International Security and Military History, 114-115.
Radford, Mark. The Dissident IRA: Their ‘War’ Continues The British Army Review 169: Spring/Summer 2017, 43-49.
Ross Frenett and M.L.R. Smith. IRA 2.0: Continuing the Long War—Analyzing the Factors Behind Anti-GFA Violence, Published online, June 2012.
Sepp, Kalev I.. Best Practices in Counterinsurgency. Military Review 85, 3 (May-Jun 2005), 8-12.
Sun Tzu, S. B. Griffith. The Art of War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964. Print.
Taylor, Peter. Who Won the War? [Documentary]. United Kingdom, BBC. First aired on Sep 2014.
Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency. St. Petersburg, FL: Hailer Publishing, 2005.
Von Bülow, Dietrich Heinrich. The Spirit of the Modern System of War. Cambridge University Press, Published October 2014.