Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Oglaigh na hEireann: On The One Road

By reading this space, and moreso for those who know me, I have always been passionate about the cause of Irish freedom from British rule. In my younger years, I blindly supported the IRA and the violent struggle against the Brits by any means necessary. Then, after the Omagh bombings in 1998, I realized that my definitions and positions needed to change. Innocent people were dying and violence seemed to be bringing us no closer.

It was with considerable encouragement that I read of the IRA's renewed promise to disarm and participate in the process laid out by the 1997 Good Friday Agreement.

Also, check Sinn Fein's website for other reactions and documents.

For the other side, read the statement of Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Is this a sign that the IRA is ready to lay down the Armalite and embrace the political process for good? This is certainly not the first cease fire (there were others in 1976, 1994 and 1997). This one is more significant, in my opinion, because of the timing and the content of the statement. As the U.S. led "global war on terror" rolls on, the IRA realizes that terrorists or even the illusion of terrorist activity are the bete noire du jour on the international scene. This will continue the process that began in 2000 whereby the IRA decommissions their weapons and finally, hopefully trade the Armalite for the ballot box.

This development interestingly mirrors the process by which the IRA transformed their planning in the 1970's and 1980's. The current incarnation of the Irish Republican Army came into being in 1969 after civilians in Catholic neighborhoods, participating in civil rights demonstrations, were harassed by the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). There was a split in the Ahrd Fheis (Army Council) and the Provisional IRA split from the Original IRA. It was the PIRA, or Provos, that were on active service (their term) from then until now (1).

Their original strategy and plan of action more reflected a military campaign with very little in the way of a political component. There were bombings, sniper attacks and intimidation. The same took place by Protestants in the north of Ireland and Protestant paramilitaries meted out terrible retribution. These years of violence, mainly in the mid-1970's landed much of the "old guard" leadership in jail or hiding and unable to lead to organization (2). The PIRA was in for a change of plans and leadership, and it was in these years that the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness came to rise.

The change in focus was toward more of a political struggle, focused on the rights of Republican prisoners. This was the early 1980's, the days of the Hunger Strikers in Long Kesh, Bobby Sands, and those men and women who went "on the blanket" to protest their status as criminal prisoners and not political prisoners (3). It was this "long war" that saw the assassinations of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 and the attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and the attempt on John Major in 1992. It was also the era of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, the cease fire of 1994, the negotiations between President Clinton and Gerry Adams and finally the GFA in 1997.

This long process is now at a crossroads. All parties must believe in the process, fulfill their obligations and in some way begin to trust the motives of the others. It is the distrust of motives that in many ways led to the years of violence and stonewalling. The next move is with Sinn Fein leadership and the British government in the north of Ireland and in London. These next years could be historic ones for the process. All must be heard and all must participate until devolved government is brought to the north.

Personally, I am still a Republican who supports the right of the north to choose its fate, something it was denied in the partition of 1922 that created a divided Ireland. This is the only way to solve the conflict. Devolved government is a positive step. Would a united Ireland be good, necessarily. The Republic of Ireland is fastly becoming one of the richest nations in Europe and an active participant in pan-European politics. I am not sure that they would want to take the north with its aging industry and smoldering sectarian violence. On the other side, there are the Protestant majorities in the north that want to be British and could care less what the Catholic minorities think. It is against this sort of thinking and the blinkered ignorance of Paisley and his lot that the process must work. It has never been easy.

Perhaps the Sinn Fein motto can be a rallying cry to all involved:

"Building an Ireland of Equals."

I sure hope that they mean it.

We're on the one road,
Sharing the one load,
We're on the road to God knows where.
We're on the one road,
It may be the wrong road,
But we're together now, who cares?
North men, South men, comrades all,
Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal.
We're on the one road, singing along,
Singing a soldier's song.
  1. Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, revised edition (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 365.
  2. Ibid., 402.
  3. J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA, third edition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers, 1997), 511.

These are excellent starting places for in-depth study of the IRA. Coogan's account is a little more friendly to the beginner, but Bell's is by far the more robust and complete work of scholarship.

1 comment:

Emerson Dameron said...

There's a fantastic profile of Paisley in Jon Ronson's book _Them_. Intense cat, to say the least. Penchant for Nazi humor.