20th Anniversary of the Republican Army’s Ceasefire

Twenty years ago, on 31st August 1994, the Republican Army announced a complete cessation of military operations.

That remarkable development of the Northern Catholics – the new Republican Army – was a product of the working out of the departure in Catholic politics that had been originally prompted from the South, from the office of the Taoiseach Sean Lemass, when he introduced an activism into the political system in the North that the political concoction called ‘Northern Ireland’ could not cope with.

The Taoiseach encouraged the leader of the Northern Nationalists to get his party to take up the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition at Stormont – a thing that Eddie McAteer himself had a few years earlier described as tantamount to “taking the soup.” But the Nationalists went up to Stormont on the Taoiseach’s bidding and supped with the devil.

The new Republican Army came about after the Catholic community challenged the pretensions of the ‘Northern state’ (of being a state) and it was inevitably found wanting.

It was specifically formed under the impact of the Unionist military assault of August 1969 on West Belfast. That produced a Catholic – rather than a Republican – insurrection. But when nothing was done in London to take the momentum out of that insurrection by altering the thing that caused it the momentum developed into a war.

The organisers of it were people who had been expelled from the Republican movement, or marginalised within it, during the ‘modernisation’ of the ‘progressives’ in the 1960s. These ‘progressives’ having rendered their army dysfunctional and been confronted with the consequences of their actions fell away to political irrelevance or became amadáin at the trauma of what they had done.

There was a small Republican core which had existed from the meltdown of the Northern IRA in 1922 – when it had fell apart after being used by Michael Collins as an instrument of his zig-zagging policy in relation to the Treaty he signed the previous year. This bare core was the only survival of what was left when Churchill did for Collins in 1922.

Up until 1969 this Republican core engaged in periodic escapades that enlivened the life of the nationalist community. But it had been politically inconsequential. And the bulk of the membership of the new Republican Army after August 1969 were people who had taken no part in Republican affairs before the Unionist assault on nationalist West Belfast and Derry in August 1969. They had simply experienced life in ‘Northern Ireland’ and the events of the previous year in particular.

Within the new Republican Army the Northern Catholics began to assert themselves in independent substance for the first time. Thrown back on their own resources they were confident enough to no longer take orders from Dublin, as they had done in the past. What other choice had they after Jack Lynch’s volte face in 1970? They constructed a power centre among themselves and maintained it for nearly three decades until it had to be taken account of by Whitehall. And having proved imperious to pressure for 28 years they began to direct their momentum southward, much to the alarm of the establishment there.

The ultimate objective of this new Republican Army produced by the events of August 1969 was a full British declaration of intent of withdrawal from Ireland. That ultimate objective was utopian and it proved militarily unachievable – although it was given its best shot in a year between 1971 and 1972.

A War came to be fought with the nominal object of abolishing Partition. This happened because British politics was seen to be closed to the populace of the Six Counties, and because there were old Republicans who took the community in hand and ensured that life in ‘Northern Ireland’ would never be the same again.

It was not the effects of Partition as such that ensured the rapid growth of the new Republican Army. It was the conditions of life in the Six Counties and the effects of the devolved regime of communal Unionism, which the Westminster Government interposed between itself and the populace of the Six Counties that gave the War its momentum and edge.

The 1969 pogrom produced an upheaval that led a great many people to believe anything was possible and the Republican War was an extraordinary event out of this interregnum that required a belief in all possibilities being realisable.

But wars also need realisable purposes. The War of 1969 was given a false purpose by the circumstance in which it began, a purpose which did not relate to its effective cause. But then it was given a realisable purpose, related to its cause, which enabled it to be ended through a disciplined retreat into politics rather than in military disarray.

One of the hardest things to accomplish in war is an organised retreat. Accomplishing an organised retreat is often the difference between complete defeat and the ability to fight another day or to continue to be able to advance the strategic objectives of a campaign in a different form.

The Republican Army completed its withdrawal from the battlefield in such a competent manner that it actually enhanced the overall position of the community it stood for and itself. It preserved itself intact for a new campaign of a very different type. And there was a wide realisation within the community that the most important thing was its preservation intact rather than its going down in glorious defeat.

There was to be no more 1922s.

So out of the War, and the effective retreat from the War, came something that was not an explicit objective but was always implicit in its cause and character – a great transformation of the Catholic community. A profound social and political evolution occurred in the nationalist community in conjunction with the War and through that process things were made tolerable and there developed a degree of self-confidence within the community that had not existed since the catastrophe of 1921.

Mass support for the War the Republican Army waged was primarily based on the conditions of life that the British Government imposed upon the Catholic community as a result of the perverse system it established in 1921. As a result there was a substantial and meaningful secondary objective implicit in the character of the Provos (who were momentarily and superficially Anti-Treatyite in their leadership in the formative stage) which constituted a practical possibility on the way to the ultimate objective.

The new Northern Republican leadership from around the mid-1970s began to increasingly pursue this secondary objective, though careful to maintain their wider and ultimate demand as part of the Republican bargaining position in maintaining the War. This was discernable to the Southern Anti-Treaty element which had associated themselves with the new Republican force that had emerged in the North in the aftermath of the events of August 1969 and they disassociated themselves from it as a result in 1987.

The War was fought to a position of stalemate. Stalemate was not a position conducive to a breakout of ‘Northern Ireland’. So the problem was to end the War on favourable terms from a position within which political advancement for the community was possible.

It has been suggested by some republicans critical of the ceasefire that what was on offer in 1994 had been on offer in 1974. And that has become a familiar hand me down idea parroted by Unionism. (A kind of symbiotic relationship grew up between dissident republicanism and Unionism after the ceasefire in which the disgruntled ex-Provos supplied ideas for those who had none and Unionism, well, remained Unionism.)

Mitchell McLaughlin said that the Provos learnt lessons from the 1970s that made them much more politically-savvy in 1994:

“It could be argued that the IRA was at the height of its powers in the mid-1970s, and much more active than it was when it eventually declared a Ceasefire in 1994.  But that is a mistaken analysis both from a military, and more important, from a political point of view.  In 1974 the IRA was in military decline.  It retained a vigorous capacity, but had lost the military ascendancy to the British. In late 1974 British Army commanders believed that they were close to defeating the IRA – more so than they ever were subsequently. So, while the 1975 truce was called from what the British saw as a position of disadvantage by an IRA in fast decline, by 1992 there were no such illusions as to the substance of what was being dealt with.”

Politically, Republicanism had not proved its powers of lasting endurance in the middle of the 1970s. Endurance in war is the quality that Britain respects most since endurance is what it itself is all about. It has always played the long game in war due to its island position and the strength of its Navy and presumed that the more stylish continentals would produce short flurries of brilliance before they bowed to the inevitable British attrition that just won’t go away.

Certainly, the IRA had put up an intense effort over 2 or 3 years in the early 1970s. But every year it had claimed ‘Blian an Bhua’ (Victory Year), as if one more last push was all that was needed, and by the same token, all that was left in it. A year is a mere blink of an eye in British warfare so the proclamations of ‘Victory Year,’ year after year, indicated to the British that the IRA was reaching the end of its tether.

It wasn’t unreasonable for the British Government to suppose in the mid-1970s that a short war was all that the IRA had in it. After all they were Irish rather than British and so they would have their frenzy of excitement and then burn themselves out while Britannia would still be there, playing the long game. And when the Irish had exhausted themselves, things would settle down again.

In 1994 the IRA called a Ceasefire with more well-placed confidence in a favourable political outcome than in 1974/5.  It had taken everything the British State could throw at it and was still standing. And its battle-hardened political expression made it confident enough to believe it could see a political process through to fruition over an extended period of time.

It was said by republican opponents of the ceasefire and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement that Sinn Fein was stabilising ‘Northern Ireland’ by entering government within it. But an inherently unstable political entity like ‘Northern Ireland’ is not easily stabilised. And it has entered one of its periodic crises again – what’s new?

One thing that Sinn Fein has accomplished since the ceasefire is the narrowing down of alternatives for ‘Northern Ireland’. Unionism has become increasingly dissatisfied with having the share of power with Sinn Fein as a prerequisite of being allowed to govern their wee Ulster. Sammy Wilson recently said, when challenged on the Nolan Show about why he was up in government with those he condemned as terrorists, said it was only because the system forced him to be. This was the system established as a consequence of the ceasefire.

But the only way out for Unionists is Direct Rule – and that is something Britain dearly wants to avoid.

Sinn Fein’s intention seems to be the management away of ‘Northern Ireland’ in the most orderly fashion possible, with the minimum bloodshed. It remains to be seen if that can be accomplished. However, there is no better alternative. And no else offers one, least of all, London and Dublin.

Martin McGuinness recently noted: “We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.”  When the Republican ceasefire of 1994 was declared the then leader of the Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, took people by surprise by proclaiming it as a disaster for Unionism. He said it was “the most ‘destabilising event to happen to Northern Ireland in 70 years’’ (Sunday Business Post, 30.4.06). This was an echo of Faulkner’s view over 30 years previous that a Catholic reform movement would be much more dangerous to Unionism than the standard Nationalist approaches – ‘constitutional’ or the straightforward unconstitutional.

The Unionists seemed uncomfortable in the unfrozen politics and what they wanted then was an unconditional surrender of an undefeated army.

Unionism has been trying for twenty years to extricate itself from that disaster, without success. Nationalists have been trying to extricate themselves from ‘Northern Ireland’ for three generations or more.

Equality, it seems, has finally been achieved in ‘Northern Ireland’.

This article was originally published in The Irish Political Review of September 2014