Northern Ireland: Lessons of Northern Ireland

Why the IRA campaign failed to defeat the British state

After the recent report confirming that the IRA has ’decommissioned’ its arms, Niall Mulholland looks at the approach taken by socialists to the IRA’s campaign after the ’Troubles’ re-emerged in the late 1960s.

Lessons of Northern Ireland

The IRA leadership abandoned their disastrous ’border campaign’ in Ireland in the early 1960s, citing lack of support. Even then, the vast majority of Catholic youth considered them out of date.

The mass civil rights struggle, which exploded in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, was inspired by international events, including the US Black civil rights struggle, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the revolutionary May 1968 events in France.

However, the Northern civil rights movement didn’t develop into a mass struggle for fundamental change. The tops of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the trade unions were dominated by the right wing and failed to give workers an independent class lead.

At the same time, socialist currents in the civil rights movement were not strong enough to stop the drift towards sectarian conflict. Nationalist, right-wing leaders, like John Hume, were able to dominate the civil rights struggle, giving it a ’Green’ colour. Meanwhile, arch-bigots, like Ian Paisley, played on Protestant fears that Catholics would win rights at "their expense".

The situation deteriorated into serious sectarian conflict in Belfast and other areas. In August 1969, the Westminster Labour government put British troops on the streets as civil war threatened. Militant in Ireland and in Britain (forerunners of the Socialist Party in Ireland, and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, both part of the CWI), opposed the introduction of the troops.

We warned that they were deployed primarily to defend private property and capitalist interests, and that soldiers would soon be used against the Catholic minority fighting for democratic and social rights.

The IRA’s failure to defend Catholic areas in Belfast against sectarian pogroms led to a split in their small organisation at the end of 1969, between the Officials and the Provisionals (the ’Provos’), who were more nationalist and militaristic. The Southern Fianna Fail government backed the Provisionals against the "Marxist-influenced" Officials.

A trickle of new recruits joined the IRA, but vicious British army repression turned this into a torrent. Poverty, discrimination and state repression, including internment without trial, and Bloody Sunday, drove Catholic youth into the IRA.


During this time, there were widespread illusions in Catholic areas that the Provos could drive out British imperialism and unify the country. Many on the Left compounded this mistaken belief by acting as cheerleaders for the IRA’s campaign. But from the beginning, Militant/Socialist Party opposed the Provos’ armed struggle.

Although described as ’guerrillaism’, the IRA’s campaign, taking place in a developed and largely urban society, was individual terrorism – individual and isolated military actions carried out by small groups against the state.

This secret army or elite, acting "on behalf" of the oppressed, would never succeed in defeating the might of the British state, ending injustice and discrimination, and overthrowing capitalism. There is no example anywhere of individual terrorism succeeding.

The task of ending capitalism and transforming society falls to the working class, using mass struggle, including demonstrations, strikes, mass civil disobedience, general strikes and, ultimately, insurrection.

The IRA’s actions gave the British state the excuse to introduce repressive legislation and methods. This was seen in 1974, when the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain culminated in no-warning bombs in Birmingham, killing 21 people. The widespread anger that followed allowed the Labour government to rush through the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The IRA’s campaign was based on the Catholic minority and completely repelled Protestants. This divided and weakened the working class and so strengthened the ruling class.

The Republican movement had a fundamentally wrong analysis. Their main demand was for British withdrawal. Yet Britain’s ruling class have long wanted to leave Ireland but Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war blocked this path for the ruling class.


The initial upsurge in IRA activity in the early 1970s, when the leadership predicted imminent "Victory", gave way to "the long war". While the IRA could not defeat the might of British imperialism, the state could not totally defeat the IRA. Poverty, repression and injustice meant there were always new recruits to the Provos.

Sinn Fein’s rise as an electoral force, following the 1981 Hunger Strikes, created tensions within the Republican movement. The Adams leadership hoped Sinn Fein could make a breakthrough North and South. But the IRA’s campaign was a barrier to Sinn Fein’s growth, especially in the South.

By the late 1980s, Sinn Fein’s leadership looked for a way out. General war-weariness amongst Catholics and Protestants, the feeling that ’neither side’ could win outright victory, and working-class opposition to sectarian killings, formed the backdrop to the eventual ending of the Provos’ campaign in the 1990s.

Undoubtedly, the Republican leadership were also influenced by world events, including the shift to the right by other ’national liberation’ struggles, like the ANC, following the collapse of Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the supposed ’triumph’ of the market economy.

Talks between Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments, backed by the US administration, eventually led to the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, which saw the creation of a power-sharing Assembly.

Sinn Fein has since made big advances in elections across Ireland, presenting itself as a radical, anti-Establishment party that won gains for Catholics with its "equality agenda". Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness say their peace strategy is a ’stepping stone’ towards a united Ireland and they aim to share power in government, North and South.

In reality, the Republican leadership dropped their central aims, including the demand for British withdrawal and a united Ireland, which is further away than ever. Gone is any veneer of socialist rhetoric or policies from the leadership. Instead, Sinn Fein is a sectarian-based party, which carried out pro-market policies, including health cuts, when it held office in the last short-lived Assembly.

The IRA leadership holds its ceasefire and recently "put arms beyond use". There are some disgruntled activists but there is no prospect of a return to the IRA’s war against the British state. Catholic working-class areas oppose it. Also, following 9/11, and the Madrid and London bombings, the Republican leadership would come under intense international condemnation and become isolated, including from its friends in the US establishment, if it re-started an individual terror campaign.

The IRA continues to exist, operating in Catholic working-class areas and running a huge financial and business empire. But the organisation increasingly comes up against local opposition, including over the brutal killing of Robert McCartney by IRA members, earlier this year.

Polarised communities

Socialists want to see an end to all paramilitary organisations, which are an obstacle to the development of independent working-class politics. This includes the Loyalist groups, like the UDA and UVF, which operated for years as sectarian death squads and whose gangster activities are now a curse on many Protestant working-class communities.

Ongoing sectarian attacks have raised the issue of ’defence’ of working-class areas, but neither the paramilitaries, nor the repressive police and army, will stop attacks. In 1969, it was the initiative of trade union and working-class activists that mainly stopped sectarian strife spreading to shop floors and communities.

Many areas saw residents setting up ’peace committees’, uniting Catholics and Protestants. Throughout the Troubles, workers took strike action and protested against sectarianism. These types of initiatives must be built upon, uniting workers against sectarian attacks and against the underlying reasons for sectarianism – poverty, joblessness and exploitation – and for a socialist society.

Recent riots in Protestant working-class areas show that the situation in the North remains volatile. Nothing fundamental is resolved by the ’peace process’. Sectarian polarisation is greater than ever before.

The Troubles have not disappeared but developed into a drawn-out conflict over territory. Population changes have created many new sectarian flashpoints. Increasingly, Protestant working-class communities feel alienated and insecure. They see the rise of Sinn Fein, while, at the same time, most manufacturing jobs in Protestant areas have disappeared.

Catholics feel they have made gains after decades of institutionalised discrimination and oppression. But ongoing sectarian attacks, poverty and injustice, mean they will never accept the Northern state.

Symptomatic of this polarisation is the emergence of Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the two largest parties, the continued suspended of the Assembly, and the ongoing ’talks’ deadlock. Even if there are new negotiations and elections, and the Assembly is re-established, it will be against a background of a more polarised and divided society.

Workers do not want a return to the dark days of the Troubles and will resist the bigots. But unless a powerful socialist alternative is built, the situation can eventually slip into all-out sectarian conflict. This would be more like the inter-ethnic wars in the ex-Yugoslavia, in the 1990s, than the ’war’ between republicans and the State during the Troubles.

Sinn Fein’s hope that demographic changes and a general strengthening of nationalism will bring about a united Ireland is an illusion. Any serious attempt to force a capitalist united Ireland, which Protestants fear would make them a discriminated-against minority, would provoke huge opposition and civil war.

But there is an alternative – a class-based campaign uniting workers across sectarian divisions. The current campaign against New Labour’s planned water charges is an example of the way forward Struggles such as this can act as a springboard for a new political movement of the working class to provide a way out of the present sectarian impasse.

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October 2005