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The Irish Republican Army

There has always been a tradition of armed resistance to the British military and political occupation of Ireland. This tradition generally only found effective expression when after a period of non-armed agitation, large sections of the Irish people, faced with the British government's denial of the legitimate demand for Irish independence, exercised the right to use armed struggle. This was the case with the organisation from which modern Irish republicans trace their origins - the United Irishmen of the 1790s. Inspired by the example of the American War of Independence and by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, the United Irishmen sought to unite the people of Ireland in a common effort to achieve equality and freedom. Choosing initially non-violent means to win their aims, the United Irishmen quickly met with a repressive response from the British government. It was only then that they exercised their right as Irish people to defend their liberty by the use of arms. It was a pattern that was to be repeated several times in the next century and a half. Armed uprisings against British rule took place in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867. The 45 years between 1803 and 1848 saw the Irish population mobilised in one of the first mass movements for political reform in the history of Europe. The demand for legislative independence for Ireland, though democratically expressed by the overwhelming majority of the people, was denied by the British government. The Great Hunger of 1845-1852 saw a million people starve and a million more emigrate yet this catastrophe befell an unarmed people and there was only sporadic resistance. The ill-fated uprising of 1848 was localised and abortive. The lessons of this period were not lost on succeeding generations of Irish patriots and the Fenian Movement of the late 1850s and 1860s won widespread support in Ireland and America for its programme of armed struggle to achieve an Irish Republic. The uprising of 1867 was crushed and another 49 years were to pass before Irish nationalists attempted an armed resistance. Those 49 years witnessed the most intense period of Irish 'constitutional' agitation for independence. Waged through electoral politics and campaigns for land reform in Ireland, and by the Irish Party in the debating chamber in the British House of Commons, this struggle saw the overwhelming majority of the Irish people again express their desire for independence from Britain. But legislation for Home Rule - limited self-government within the British Empire - was defeated in the British parliament in 1886 and 1893. Nevertheless another long period of parliamentarian agitation ensued which culminated in the support of the British Liberal government for Home Rule in 1911. Once again the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people were to be denied. The Conservative Party Opposition in the British Parliament joined with the anti-Home Rule forces in Ireland - the Unionists - to defeat the Liberal government's plans for Ireland. (To this day the Tory Party is officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party.) While at this time there was little organised support for armed insurrection by nationalists, the Unionists and Conservative organised the importation of arms illegally and pledged to resist Home Rule by force. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was established in 1913. To their dismay nationalists saw leading members the Conservative Party and the British aristocracy openly threatening armed rebellion against what was supposedly their own democratically elected British government. This was being done to prevent even the limited legislative independence for which nationalists had been campaigning for several decades. This was the background to the establishment of the organisation which was to become the Irish Republican Army. The Irish Volunteers - Oglaigh na hEireann in the Irish language - were established in November 1913 to ''secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland''. In 1914 the UVF was allowed to import arms unhindered by British crown forces; when the Liberal government made plans to use the British army, if necessary, against the UVF, senior officers mutinied and the Liberal government backed down. On the other hand when the Irish Volunteers imported a much smaller quantity of arms they were attacked by the crown forces who shot dead civilians on the streets of Dublin. When the European War broke out later that year the leader of the Home Rule Party pledged the Irish Volunteers to fight on England's side. This split the Irish Volunteers, one section joining the British army and the other remaining independent and going on to plan an armed uprising during the war. The Easter Rising of 1916 was the defining event in the history of Irish republicanism. Many would regard the Proclamation of the Republic issued then as the founding document of the IRA. It declared an independent Republic and pledged republicans to ''equal rights and equal opportunities'' for all the Irish people. The Easter Rising was crushed after a week. Sixteen of its leaders were executed by the British government. By now the faith of nationalists in the Home Rule party had been completely undermined. They had seen years of parliamentary agitation thwarted by the threat of force; they had seen the Home Rule leaders acquiesce in British government plans to partition Ireland; they had seen thousands of young Irish nationalists killed in the trenches of France on the promise that their sacrifice would win Home Rule, while unionists who joined the British army were promised the opposite; they had seen the execution of the 1916 leaders. In 1918 they saw the threat of conscription being imposed in Ireland. By an overwhelming majority in the General Election of that year the Irish people voted for the Sinn Féin party which sought to establish an Irish Republic. Reorganised in 1917 the Irish Volunteers had wide popular support. But it was not until well into 1919 that a widespread and effective guerrilla campaign began. Once again this occurred after the British government had spurned an opportunity to recognise the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people. In January 1919 Sinn Féin had established an independent Irish parliament - Dáil Eireann - and declared the sovereignty of Ireland as a Republic. They formed independent institutions including a functioning central government, ministerial departments and republican courts of law. The Irish Volunteers became the Army of the Republic, under the Ministry of Defence and pledging its allegiance to Dáil Eireann. The response from the British government was to ban all these institutions and declare war on the new Irish democracy. This period saw international revulsion at the campaign waged by British crown forces in Ireland. Three mayors of Irish cities, all members of the IRA, were killed by the British; martial law was declared through nearly half of the country; streets, shops and factories in many towns were burnt to the ground; there were executions in prisons and torture in internment camps. In response the IRA waged an increasingly effective guerrilla campaign against the crack troops of the British - the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. The guerrilla tactics used at this time - notably those of Tom Barry's Flying Column in Cork - later became textbook examples of this type of warfare. The popular Irish struggle, both in its civil and military side, inspired future anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. On the basis of agreement by the British government to negotiate with Irish leaders - and with no question of a surrender of arms - the IRA called a Truce in July 1921. Subsequent negotiations produced a Treaty which split nationalist Ireland. The IRA split in 1922 - as did Dáil Eireann. In the Civil War which followed the Irish Republican Army held out for the complete independence of Ireland from Britain and for a United Ireland. Their former comrades who formed the army of the new Free State (26 Counties) opposed them in a savage campaign which witnessed all the tragedy common to every civil war. In May 1923 the Civil War ended with the IRA order to its Volunteers to dump arms. Throughout the 1920s the IRA reorganised and once again attracted a wide following. The organisation played a key role in the election of the first government of the Fianna Fáil party - which had emerged from the IRA - under Eamon de Valera in 1932. Throughout the 1930s the IRA sought a successful political and military strategy but this evaded the organisation as left/right divides in the ranks manifested themselves in splits and dissension. The short-lived Republican Congress of 1934 sought to give left-wing political expression to republican ideals. Among the Chiefs of Staff of the IRA in the 1930s was Sean MacBride, later a distinguished international human rights lawyer and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes. In 1939 the IRA began a bombing campaign in English cities. This was effectively over by 1941, with relatively few attacks having occurred. With internment without trial introduced in both states in Ireland the IRA was at a low ebb during this period. In 1949 in response to the British government's Ireland Act which reinforced partition all parties in the Irish parliament declared their unanimous opposition to partition. The same year the IRA issued an Order which forbade military action against the forces of the 26-County state. The early 1950s saw an anti-partition campaign conducted by Irish governments and supported by all parties in parliament. Its ineffectiveness in the face of the British government's indifference contributed to the renewal of the IRA. In the early to mid 50s raids for arms were carried out by the IRA on British installations in the Six Counties and Britain. This was in preparation for an armed campaign which was conducted between 1956 and 1962. Mainly confined to border areas the campaign saw attacks on border posts and other British military installations. After the border campaign ended the leadership of the IRA decided that support should be given to campaigns to highlight the status of second-class citizenship for nationalists in the Six Counties. The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s was to transform the political situation. Their demand for basic rights - to jobs, housing, voting - threw the Six-County state into a crisis. The peaceful demand for civil rights was met with violence from the forces of the sectarian state. In Belfast and Derry in 1969 nationalist districts were attacked by the state police, the RUC, and by unionist mobs. The demand for defence made by nationalist communities could not be met initially by the IRA because, through the 1960s, the leadership had abandoned planning and preparation for a future armed campaign. As a military organisation the IRA had been run down. The events of 1969 precipitated a split in the IRA. Once more the peaceful pursuit of change in the form of the Civil Rights Movement had been met with violence from the British state and so it was that the armed struggle gained predominance again as the republican strategy. Through 1970 and 1971 the IRA gained increasing support in nationalist districts in the Six Counties and among nationalists throughout Ireland. This accelerated with the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. IRA Volunteers carried out a campaign of urban guerrilla warfare against the British army and economic bombings in Northern cities and towns. In July 1972 republican leaders were flown to London for talks with British government ministers during a Truce between the IRA and the British army. It quickly became clear that the British government was simply using the Truce as a tactical device in its military campaign and the Truce broke down. The conflict in the Six Counties intensified. In England the IRA caried out a bombing campaign. Another truce was called in 1974/'75 but once more there was no political will on the British part to reach a just political settlement. In fact the most determined and consistent policy of successive British governments in the 1970s was counter-insurgency. Techniques perfected in other colonial wars were used in Ireland, including the deployment of 'counter-gangs', state-sponsored deaths squads. The entire state apparatus in the North of Ireland - the British army, the RUC, the legal system, the prisons, became, in the words of Brigadier Frank Kitson "weapons in the government's arsenal". (Kitson Low Intensity Operations.) Despite the British military saturation of urban areas and widespread deployment in the countryside the IRA, with wide support in nationalist communities, continued to wage an effective campaign, making some parts of the country inaccessible by road to British forces. In August 1979 the IRA inflicted its greatest number of casualties on the British Army in a single incident since the 1919-21 period when it ambushed and killed 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint, County Down. In the 1980s Britain's counter-insurgency war manifested itself in attempts to break the IRA through the political prisoners. Having effectively recognised IRA members as prisoners of war up to 1976 the British introduced a criminalisation policy in that year. Torture in interrogations centres was the first stage on a 'conveyor belt' which passed through one-judge, no-jury courts, to long sentences and brutality within the prisons. But the refusal of IRA Volunteers to succumb to this strategy - culminating in the deaths of ten republicans on hunger-strike in 1981 - led to its failure and to a resurgance of support for republicanism. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s confidential contacts were maintained between British government representatives and the IRA. These channels proved unproductive of an understanding on the British part of how to resolve the conflict. Both the IRA and the British Army publicly admitted that military victory for either side was not possible. The \cessation of military operations announced in August 1994 by the IRA was a result, not of any understanding with its enemy, but of the Irish Peace Initiative which was initiated by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume and supported by the Irish government. Once more an opportunity was created for the British government to recognise the democratic wishes of the Irish people.