Returning to a theme that continues to be a source of confusion and contention.
The British version is of a turning point during the early 1980s when the Republican leadership accepts that a military victory was no longer possible, and peace talks could begin.
Subsequent elaboration is that the republican movement was defeat militarily from within by the use of informers and politically by British political manipulation to force the peace process.
Let’s break it down to three components, and set aside interesting consideration of state collusion activities and intercollegiate security conflicts which remain out of the public realm, and look at some inconvenient truths to factor into this scenario:
- the back channel
- military defeat
Early on in “The Troubles discreet channels were kept intact: the British state, far from ‘never negotiating with terrorists’, was privately talking with the Irish insurgent forces from at least 1972. [i] While publicly claiming to be on the perpetual cusp of a victory over the insurgency, a policy option of negotiated peace was privately pursued by successive governments in London from the 1970s onwards.
Now clearly known, such “back-channel” communications were activate throughout the long war as talks punctuated the on-going military campaign, coming to the fore again in 1974-76 and 1980-83 and the British sought a new round of secret discussions in the summer of 1990.
The communications between the Republican Movement and the authorities in Britain, both in person and via third-parties, continued throughout the 1990s, including the return to war in February 1996 and the final ceasefire in July 1997 (still negotiating the actual cessation terms until a formal announcement by the Irish Republican Army in September 2005).
After the initial military engagement, the failure of colonial-tested repression to extinguish the insurgency, the sustained armed resistance was a fact of life, contained within the abnormal Direct Rule from London backed by an army of occupation. In transmitting the idea it was a ‘law and order’ issue the political causes were side-lined. There were few public admissions along the way: in December of 1989 by the then secretary of state for “Northern Ireland”, Peter Brooke, in which he accepted that it was “…difficult to envision a military defeat” of the IRA. More often was the posturing associated with Roy Mason (1924-2015) the Labour Party’s secretary of state for Defence and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the 1970s.In 1979 he confidently predicted in the media that the IRA was “weeks away from defeat”.
The struggle in the Six Countries as an insurgency reflected the domestic social conditions, and shaped by a patriotic element, as the guerrilla struggle was attuned to the issues specific characteristics where the existence of the state was at question.
Significant as that was, the character of the armed struggle did not take on those of a protracted people’s war and the stalemate attained in decades of struggle probably the limit of what the guerrilla mode of struggle could achieve. In the absence of the prospect of military victory (by either side of the conflict) an alternative approach and more nuanced strategy did emerge.
It was predicted on many occasions between 1969 and 1997 that the Irish Republican Army was on the precipice of defeat, only to be proven wrong: despite all evidence to the contrary, a British narrative emerged that the Long War (1966 – 2005) came to an end with the “defeat” of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
However the failure of the British state to impose a military solution only left the way for a negotiated resolution. This option became a possibility as prominent elements in the Republican leadership had come to a conclusion that Gerry Adams voiced in the autumn of 1984:
“Basically, I think there is a stalemate situation” [ii]
There is strong evidence that the peace process was emerging well before the early 1990s. This suggests that the negotiations grew from a situation of stalemate rather than defeat. It is likely that Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, was crafting a “dual track” refinement of the armed struggle from the early to mid-1980s. The republican choreograph peace strategy occurred in real time, and open diplomacy through Sinn Fein publication and interviews: early on, Adams signal that
“We will have to come to an arrangement which won’t necessarily fulfil the republican objectives” meaning the end of partition.[iii]
Supporters of the Republican struggle observed at the time of the first ceasefire:
“Since the 1988 discussion document “A Scenario for Peace”, the architect of the peace process has been the Republican movement. The British government has embarked upon a process which they will be unable to control. The ceasefire represents the beginning of another phase of struggle, and not the end of “The Troubles”. It is clear that the impetus for peace will not stumble because of Republican action. The responsibility to fail to grasp the opportunity created by the republican movement will lay squarely with either Dublin or London. Dublin’s role may be undermined by the fragility of its own ruling coalition. London can reject the process and retreat to the failed practices of the past that could not extinguish the most sustained insurgency in the industrialised world.” [iv]
Throughout British governments pursuing behind-the-scenes talks with the insurgency or its representatives. Key political and military leaders in Britain had privately concluded that the Irish insurgency was too deeply embedded to be overcome by the United Kingdom’s counterinsurgency policies. The occasion admission did surface to signal the thinking that was shaping policy options:
”In no way, can or will the Provisional Irish Republican Army ever be defeated militarily.”
This judgement from Sir James M. Glover, the former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, to TV journalist Peter Taylor in a documentary first shown on February the 21st 1988, repeated a secret assessment that he had made ten years earlier for the Defence Intelligence Staff called Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends.
Far from being on the cusp of defeat in the Nineties, the IRA was operating on a sustainable level as widely understood by General Sir John Wilsey, the General Officer Commanding the UK Forces in the Six Counties, in a “depressingly realistic assessment” of the Irish Republican Army:
“…defeat of the IRA is not on the horizon while current security policies are maintained.
[it is] …better equipped, better resourced, better led, bolder and more secure against our penetration than at any time before. They are an absolutely formidable enemy. The essential attributes of their leaders are better than ever before. Some of their operations are brilliant. If we don’t intern its a long haul.
The government knows it is up against not a bunch of evil, psychopathic criminals, as its propaganda has tried to suggest, but a highly disciplined and political, motivated guerrilla army.” [v]
And indeed the Irish Republican Army, despite dissident splits, emerge largely undefeated from decades of conflict with the British. The signing of the multi-stranded Belfast Agreement of 1998 by a Labour administration twenty years later gave lie to those knowingly false claim.
The armistice broke down on the 9th of February 1996 as the IRA launched a new military offensive in the occupied north-east of Ireland and in Britain. Despite the seventeen month duration of the truce the insurgents proved themselves to be more than capable of returning to war.
There were strikes against major economic targets in the UK , the achilles ’ heel of the British state, in April 1992 with a devastating attack on the City of London’s financial district (the Baltic Exchange bombing). Behind-the-scenes negotiations, accelerated by a new Labour Party government in Britain under Tony Blair, quickly resulted in a deal which led to the final IRA ceasefire of July 20th 1997, as the insurgency displayed its ability to turn on and off their operations at will.
The outcome of the peace process was the multiparty and inter-governmental Belfast or Good Friday Agreement reached on the 10th of April 1998.
Accounts from inside from George Mitchell, Jonathan Powell and Mary Daly, the numerous academic and journalist commentators are all testimony to the negotiation of a hard won agreement that set the framework for the establishment of “normal” bourgeois contested politics.
While neither of the main parties to the conflict achieved their primary aims, proponents of the defeat thesis try to defend their claim by arguing that a ”draw” or ”stalemate” in the conflict between the British state and the Irish Republican Army represents the ”effective defeat” of the insurgents because they did not achieve their objective: a 32 County Republic within a reunited Ireland. Arguably, all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement were ”defeated” because none of them achieved their stated or long-term objectives (for example unionists or the British hardly wanted ”terrorists in government”,). The defeat thesis tends to be advocated by those who believe that the only choice was between defeat and victory and, therefore, encourage the escalation of violence to achieve the latter.
In reality the British military in 1969-1970 had the intention of crushing the Republican Movement. From the mid-1970s, the British state wanted to contain IRA activity and Sinn Féin support to such an extent that republicans would be unable to significantly impact normal political and socio-economic life. The British sought an “acceptable level of violence”, whereby the IRA would either give up or join a peace settlement over which they had little influence. Yet it emerged thirty-six years later with its formerly dismissed enemy acting on an equal footing with the government in London.
As argued by Niall Ó Dochartaigh, the persistence of the IRA’s campaign alongside Sinn Féin’s sizeable minority of the Northern nationalist electoral mandate meant that the British and Irish governments, unionists and the SDLP had to involve republicans in the peace process if they wanted political stability. The IRA and Sinn Féin leadership agreed to a peace settlement because whilst the IRA could continue causing a persistent and disruptive level of armed activity, they lacked the political support necessary to achieve all their objectives by 1998. [vi]
The armed struggle in reaching a stalemate had stalled. In a pattern familiar in Irish history physical force had reached an impasse in that its resilience could not be extended from its level of defensive resistance and move on to offensive to achieve its aims. The limited political victories could now be consolidated and built upon. The time was to talk.
Looking at it the security forces certainly played their role in containing the Republican threat but it was the important role played by politicians and others involved in complex and morally difficult political negotiations and diplomacy that more convincingly explains the success of the peace process.
The post-justification that political ends could not be obtained by violent means was true of both sides; recognition of that led both sides to the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement. This is why the peace process did not represent the IRA’s surrender but involved tortuous negotiations, morally difficult compromises and a high degree of uncertainty as to the intentions of the Republican leadership and its ability to deliver their movement.
Achievement ~ Yet the British are still there.
The dismantling of the original Orange northern state, for those republicans whose background and history was militaristic, was an insufficient reason to agree to the Good Friday Agreement and suspend, and eventually end, the armed struggle. Tactically, for strategic reasons, it had long been the position that armed struggle had no part in the republican struggle in the 26 counties, so its absence in the Six counties was also a political judgement.
Adams had stated the bottom line that there was “one simple demand of the British and that is that they should withdraw. Once the British have indicated that they are going to withdraw, representatives of the Irish people should get together, free of Britain to work out constitutional and financial arrangements…..This is going to be a long struggle.” [vii]
A decade later, the 1994 GFA marked the start of a new phase of the process towards the completion of the national democratic stage achieving the basic demands of the Civil Rights movement that sparked “the Troubles”, the demand for one person one vote, the demand for the ending of the Special Powers Act and the effective dismantling of the sectarian Orange state. That achieved reset the political agenda that twenty-five years on seems a stalled process.
“Ending the orange state was a significant achievement but something that fell short of a socialist republic” [viii]
The unfinished business thesis is essentially correct: the so-called “Peace-settlement” left the Six Counties and partition of the isle of Ireland intact. The Republican goal of a United Ireland still to be achieved.
Politically, it is hard to argue that Republicans achieved much except an end to military conflict and the means by which, sometime in the future, a unitary state could be peacefully achieved. Except, the Orange terror state has been totally and utterly destroyed.
The Northern Ireland insurgency originated in the anger of a disadvantaged people living in a discriminatory ”Orange State”. The political positions of “Brits Out” and “A democratic socialist republic” were in some strands of Republican thinking and demands that came to dominate the insurgency propaganda. The multiparty settlement of 1998 grew out of a military stalemate between the Irish Republican Army and the British state forces – military and Police.
The “Peace-settlement” zero-sum game settlement that everyone on both sides could live with. It has avoided returning to the bloodshed, it did bring some political reforms, a political space in which the Unionists were forced to behave with some basic decency, and shared power. But it was not a permanent solution. It was a staging post as built into the agreement was the option of the Treaty signatories to call a referendum on re-unification. Whereas a slow transition to reunification is probably not what the struggle was about for many, it did split asunder the Unionist veto that Partition was irreversible – and permanent. As a republican blogger argues:
A stalemate by a small non-conventional force 500 strong against a conventional force 20,000 strong after twenty years of fighting is a victory of sorts. Yes, you make some good discussion points. A unitary 32 Co. Socialist Republic was not achieved. (P)RM compromised considerably on this. But so did the UK. If reunification takes place in the next decade or so then I suspect a 100 years hence popular culture will be talking in the same terms about the Long War as the War of Independence. Making the British triple losers in terms of the 1966-2005 conflict.[ix]
Where was the military victory over Irish republicanism?
The self-serving British Army assessment seen in the document, Operation Banner, An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland, an overview of the counterinsurgency war in Ireland, was intended for internal distribution among the military and government, but, after a request under the Freedom of Information Act made public in July 2007. It argued that the British Forces had defeated the IRA’s “insurgency” between 1971 and 1972 while accepting that it had failed to defeat the IRA’s “terrorism” between 1972 and 1997.The media soundbite was: Army concedes it did not win the battle against the IRA.
The BBC report was heading: Army paper says IRA not defeated [x]
An internal British army document examining 37 years of deployment in Northern Ireland concedes it did not win the battle against the IRA.
It describes the IRA as “a professional, dedicated, highly skilled and resilient force”, while loyalist paramilitaries and other republican groups are described as “little more than a collection of gangsters”.
It concedes for the first time that it did not win the battle against the IRA – but claims to have “shown the IRA that it could not achieve its ends through violence”.
This recalibration of the mission had moved from defeat to containment as if, to use General Glover’s words
“The Army’s role has been now for some time… to help create the conditions whereby a full democratic, peaceful, political solution can be achieved”
- In the mid-2000s the leadership of the British Army attempted to excuse its failure to defeat the IRA in the 1970s and ’80s by retroactively claiming that its actual strategy was to “create the conditions where politics would replace terrorism“. Really? What was the imposition of explicit censorship against Sinn Féin and representatives of the Irish Republican Army in the British media through the television and radio broadcasting ban of 1988 (lifted in 1994) supposed to create the conditions for dialogue?
What is missing from this suggested push ‘for politics replacing the gun’ argument is how the publically acknowledged co-option of pro-British terrorist gangs as part its counterinsurgency campaign, or indeed the use of death squads, torture-centres, interment, expulsion orders, media censorship and the whole paraphernalia of the “Dirty War”, chimes with the official military view of its political role in the Troubles in Ireland.
An alternative tack was employed to salvage the myth of the IRA’s Military Defeat as assertions emerged that the IRA was ”defeated” by the British Intelligence and Security Forces emerged in the early Nineties and that the peace process was a matter of negotiating their surrender.[xi]
According to this view, the IRA surrendered because of the effectiveness of the British ”dirty war” against them. The dirty war consisted of a ”shoot to kill” policy against the IRA, collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the targeting of Republicans.
Far from the official narrative that the state/police etc were neutral, standing aloft protecting all from civil war , the British state was actively helping unionist terror groups target Catholics and republicans while condemning unionist terrorism .
At the same time as they were assisting unionist terror gangs, they claimed to have their own agents within republican groups. And inevitably these agents were often involved in ‘acts of terror’ by their own hand. In Derry city, self-confessed agent Raymond Gilmour set up weapons seizures and failed operations. He also gave evidence against over 30 people arrested by the mid-1980s during a supergrass trial, evidence which was later found by the judge to be unreliable.
The body of evidence both anecdotal and official disclosure is that various British military/ policing and intelligence agencies were actively assisting unionist terrorism (the extent of that assistance we may never know).
One example, UVF commander Trevor Wilson alias John Black’s story – confirms both Republican claims that the British ran Loyalist Death Squads, as well as Loyalist claims that their activities were fully supported by the British state.[xii]
As observed by Cheryl Lawther, lecturer in Criminology, Queen’s University Belfast:
“While the depth and extent of such collusion is unknown, the available evidence makes for uncomfortable reading. In 2003 Sir John Stevens reported that “informants and agents were allowed to operate without effective control and to participate in terrorist crimes”. Former Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, found that collusion between state security forces and informers was “systemic” and that due process was undermined to protect informers suspected of murder.”[xiii]
The claim that the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was eventually defeated through the combined efforts of Britain’s military, paramilitary and intelligence services, suing for peace in the early 1990s relies on massaging the historical record, and over stressing the effectiveness of counter-insurgency to conclude that the IRA were crushed thanks to the Supergrass informer programme and the penetration of the IRA by informers at the highest levels. The frenzy around media speculation of two senior republicans as informers for British intelligence in 2005 led to a popular perception that the IRA had ‘lost’ the intelligence war and was pressurised into peace.
Reinforcement of this impression came from the Republican side, as there are also republican dissidents opposed to the peace process. These have attacked the Sinn Fein leadership for betraying the IRA volunteers who were killed during the conflict and the cause of Irish unity, accusing them deception and compromises with the British and Irish governments. Dissidents claim that the British so effectively penetrated the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership that the Republican movement effectively became controlled by the British state. Persistent high-profile IRA operations in England by the 1990s[xiv] , alongside the landing of most Libyan weapons shipments in the late 1980s, suggests the IRA leadership was not infiltrated to any significant extent. Although if so, what is the explanation for IRA operations such as attacks upon Downing St (1991), IRA bombings targeted Belfast city centre once again between 1991 to 1993, with attacks damaging the Europa Hotel, Crown Bar and Grand Opera House. There were high profile attacks on the Baltic Exchange (1992),Shankill Road (1993), Bishopsgate (1993), Heathrow (1994), the 1996 Manchester bombing and Canary Wharf (1996). Were the supposed legions of british agents inactive around these events?
The mischievous myth of a “defeated IRA” sought to replace the more accurate view of the peace process that the British government and the IRA fought each other to a stalemate and that a power sharing government resulted from negotiations with what was for decades were portrayed as the political wing of the ”terrorists”.
Professor Paul Dixon (Kingston University) explored the supposed “defeat” of the Irish Republican Army in a 2012 article, Did the British Intelligence and Security services defeat the IRA?. He argued
- The integrity of the Republican Movement had been threatened by informers and spies since the earliest days of the war but it had successfully adopted countermeasures against this vulnerability in the 1970s and ’80s.More realistically the majority of the intelligence gathered by the UK Forces on the Irish Republican Army since the 1980s had come through electronic surveillance and not spies or informers. Agents and informers may have disrupt day-to-day IRA operations in certain areas at certain times, however alleged Belfast informers had little access to rural IRA units. Rural units were semi-autonomous and somewhat immune from outside interference. The risk of traitors had done little to curtail the insurgency from running highly effective operations right up to its final ceasefire in 1997. Indeed the IRA had marked up several remarkable intelligence successes of their own, including busting open the covert operations of the Security Service or MI5 in Europe. In the words of the 2012 report by Sir Desmond da Silva in 1989, the IRA was able to maintain a “…number of sources working for the security forces in some capacity” throughout the conflict.
- The 1978 secret army report accepted the effectiveness of the IRA and was doubtful that it could be overcome. There was acceptance that the substantial rearmament programme undertaken by the Irish Republican Army in 1985-86, with several tonnes of imported munitions secreted in purpose-built arms dumps and bunkers across Ireland, was enough to sustain the “campaign of terrorism” for another two decades.
Thomas Leahy re-evaluates whether British intelligence force the IRA into peace in his study, The Intelligence War against the IRA. Expanding upon Dr Thomas Leahy’s earlier thesis (click to read), he challenges the myth of a British intelligence victory and finds it wanting. In fact a host of other factors, primarily in Ireland and primarily political, along with a confluence of changes in London and Washington, outweighed any notions of British super-spies changing the course of the conflict. Despite the revelations of many IRA informers, evidence suggests political factors played a greater role in producing the peace process.
- By the 1990s the resilience of the IRA was a crucial factor encouraging the British government to include Provisional Republicans in a political settlement. The cumulative economic, commercial and security costs of the attacks in England in the 1990s was certainly in the billions of pounds sterling, threatening London’s powerful position as a world financial centre. The counter-thesis would be that the propaganda losses were even higher giving the Republican movement leverage in subsequent talks. Irish republican leaders sought to combine armed and political pressure to bring the British government and other conflict participants back to the negotiating table. Thereafter, republicans would try to maximise concessions towards their objectives.
- Leahy’s research provides three main considerations. First, the IRA’s small cell-structure in Belfast and Derry city provided additional security after 1975. Second, most rural IRA units remained elusive and difficult to infiltrate. Finally, the IRA leadership, like most General Staff was not hands-on operational and remained isolated from the rest of the movement, limiting infiltration opportunities.
In the murky world of intelligence, claim and counter claim are battered out in public in newspapers, books and even court. But not all of it supports the conspiracy claims:
“I attach no weight to the evidence given by Ian Hurst to this Tribunal…. I simply did not find Mr Hurst to be a credible witness.” [xv]
The English-born soldier, Ian Hurst served as a lance corporal with the Intelligence Corps from late 1981 to 1983, working primarily as a clerical officer, then as a data “collator” for the Force Research Unit (FRU) providing him with limited access to information gathered by the UK forces in the territory, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s controversial Special Branch squad.
A second deployment to the Six Counties in 1987, serving as a sergeant in County Fermanagh. During his final years in Ireland he was seconded to a regional wing of the FRU, allegedly working as a “handler” for undercover agents. In 1991 he was assigned with a section of the Ministry of Defence in London, before applying for early retirement in the same year.
By 1999, writing under the pseudonym byline of “Martin Ingram” sensationalist press stories appeared, however it was not until 2006 that, contrary to his earlier stories, double-agents and informers in the ranks of the Irish insurgency were highlighted as crucial weapon in the British arsenal all along. Along with journalist Greg Harkin, he published Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland, although it equally covers the notorious FRU. Regarded by some as less a whistleblowing exercise than an act of distraction and disruption. Like much of this ‘confessional literature’ reliant on the judgement of the truthfulness of Hurst’s accounts. Critical commentators conclude that Hurst/Ingram had exaggerated the importance his role and his level of knowledge and access to intelligence.
His account had a shifting degree of supposed collusion with ludicrous claims that one in every four for lower ranks and one in every two senior activists working as British spies. Another revision in 2012 led to the claim that “half” of the IRA’s seven-strong ruling Army Council in the ’90s was made up of double-agents. This at a time when British estimated the IRA had 200-250 volunteers engaged in attacks in the Six Counties and overseas. And an equal number involved in auxiliary and support tasks. The IRA outnumbered and out gunned by British army deployment. How would you prosecute a war with those numbers, the membership riddled with spies and informers, every operation compromised? Hurst’s allegations still form the basis of much speculation, not least about the motive behind his profitable account, and what part may be accurate and what fanciful if not deceptive.
[i] The ‘White Fox’ blog , AN SIONNACH FIONN , an independent media website featuring Irish republican commentary compiled an impressive summary of such contacts and largely shapes the analysis herein.
[ii] Irish Press September 20th 1984
[iii] Irish Times November 14th 1991
[v] The Times January 11th 1992
[vii] Irish Press September 20 1984
[viii] Tommy Mc Kearney, The Provisional IRA from Insurrection to Parliament. Pluto Press p256
[xi] see John Bew, Martin Frampton and Inigo Gurruchaga’s book Talking to Terrorists [Hurst & Co Publishers 2009]
[xii] See John Black, Killing for Britain Frontline Noir (2008); the CAINS ‘Collusion – Details of Source Material’; individual research such as https://www.papertrail.pro/where-was-mrf-when-mcgurks-bar-was-bombed/ and other disclosures far too numerous to list.
[xiii] How much did British intelligence know about the IRA during the troubles? https://theconversation.com/how-much-did-british-intelligence-know-about-the-ira-during-the-troubles-54197 February 5, 2016
[xiv] See Chronology of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions (1990–99) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Provisional_Irish_Republican_Army_actions_(1990%E2%80%9399)
[xv] From the report of the Smithwick Tribunal, a judicial inquiry led by Judge Peter Smithwick (June 2011 – December 2013).