The Long Road of Violent Change in Ireland

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Ireland is a country with a beloved reputation and long, rich history.  Irish icons are noted throughout the world and it has enjoyed considerable acclaim in pop culture for generations.  It is not entirely idyllic, however.  Like most places, Ireland has its fair share of difficulties.  One of the most severe threats to peace in Ireland is the Irish Republican Army. The IRA is over a century old and, though it has undergone many changes, some of them so dramatic as to make it nearly unrecognizable from the organization it once was, it remains a threat to the peace and safety of the Irish people.  In a land as ancient and enduring as Ireland, it is difficult to imagine any dramatic changes, but the shifting and morphing of the IRA has had a direct effect on the government, society, and national identity of Ireland over its many decades of activity.

Almost 100 years ago, the long and bloody tale of IRA began and, with it, began a chronicle of political, religious, and cultural dispute in Ireland that has resulted in few moments of rest.  Northern Ireland has been in near-constant turmoil since the Easter Rising of 1916 when an Irish insurrection against British rule resulted in one violent night and the execution of many Irish rebels (English 4).  Cultural stereotypes like to poke fun at the stubbornness and independence of the Irish, but those stereotypes are more than just ethnic assumptions.  The Easter Rising was only the beginning of a long culture of stubbornness and independence that caused constant internal clashes in the Protestant counties of Northern Ireland. After the abrupt rebellion was put down in 1916, another rose up, longer lived and better organized.  This was the first Irish Republican Army, the IRA that from 1916 to 1923 fought for independence from British authority in all of Ireland (English 4).  This rebellion was considerably more effective.

This first incarnation of the IRA was brutal and merciless, as the others since have also been.  They were driven by a dangerous cocktail of nationalism and religious fervor.  The British responded with similar ferocity against both civilians and the IRA, hoping to turn the population against the rebels.  Their tactic had the opposite effect, however, and hardened the civilian population against the British as well as bolstering the ranks of the IRA (English 17).  This rebellion turned out to be too powerful and too organized to be contained.  When Britain finally conceded to the demands of the IRA, it resulted in one of the largest shifts in Irish government since the island was first conquered by the British.  Of the thirty-two counties that compose Ireland, twenty-six gained their freedom; the remaining six voluntarily remained under British rule in keeping with their Protestant faith, unlike the rest of Ireland which was staunchly Catholic (Moloney 37).  For many years this political shift resulted in peace for Ireland.

That peace was not perfect, of course.  Small rebellions broke out here and there, Catholics outraged at the Protestant control of Irish lands and the Irish outraged at British control of Irish lands.  A sporadic chain of violence and outrage wore away at the population, making them forget the British rule and focus on the fear created by random outbreaks of violence by their countrymen.  Though most of these insurrections were not connected to the IRA, that did not stop the government from invoking the name of the dreaded rebel army.  Especially during the Depression in the ‘30s, crying IRA proved an effective way to frighten people into toeing the line (Moloney 40).  Such usage is easily recognized by Americans who are familiar with McCarthyism and its effects on the population.  Not only were random acts of rebellion keeping the civilians on edge, but the government was frightening them into acting like they weren’t on edge.  Even when it was not particularly active, the IRA caused a decay of peace and comfort simply by existing.

The situation in Northern Ireland continued to change for the worse as tensions built, the government knuckled down on anything that even resembled dissension, and the people felt the need to act out more than ever.  Tension between Catholics and Protestants, Irish loyalists and the IRA, came to a head with The Troubles in 1969 (Byman 129).  Mobs from each side were roaming the streets of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, attacking each other and inciting more organization and more acts of violence which quickly built into an insurgency style civil war.  Northern Ireland received aid from Britain while the IRA received aid from the United States, particularly the Irish-American diaspora as well as any sympathetic Americans the immigrants could convince to contribute (Byman 129).  The effect this had on Ireland was an even greater schism between its Protestant and Catholic residents.  The streets became increasingly dangerous, the government increasingly paranoid, and civilians became fewer and farther between as more and more people were forced to take up arms in self-defense.

Hostility between the Irish and the British built as neither side made any moves toward peace.  January 30, 1972 is the famed Bloody Sunday when British soldiers executed 14 protesting Irish Catholics, inciting more support for the IRA and more acts of retaliation against Britain and against Northern Ireland (Byman 129).  Much of the fear came about because the IRA, in its Provisional IRA incarnation at this point in time as the result of philosophical and strategic changes, was becoming less discriminate about its targets.  In 1979 Richard Sykes, the British Ambassador to the Hague, was assassinated by the IRA, indicating that their only interest was in doing harm to Britain however possible (English 222-223).  The spread of IRA violence outside its borders prompted changes in foreign policy toward the IRA as well as causing a further crackdown on security within Northern Ireland.

For much of its life up to the 1980s, the IRA had been largely funded and supplied via the United States.  That ended when President Reagan made a special effort to limit the legal privileges of arms procurement in the United States (Byman 131).  For a time, this caused some positive changes in Ireland as the munitions available to the IRA were significantly reduced.  There were several years of reduced violence and the people of Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, were able to breathe easier for a time with less fear of a random bomb or bullet shattering their lives.  As is the case with fanatics, however, they found a way.  Connections with Libya restored the weapons supply to the IRA and the violence resumed, though attacks did shift toward bombings as a result of the diminished weapon supply and continually depleted volunteers (Byman 131).  After generations, the Irish on both sides of the border were becoming weary of the conflict and the prevailing sense of nationalism was replaced with a desire for peace.

The IRA continues to operate in Ireland to this day under at least two different organizational names.  Since 9/11 it has become increasingly difficult for them to act as they were designated a terrorist organization long before 2001.  The Omagh bombing of 1998 marked them as one of the most dangerous organizations in the world and was just one more example of how far they have come from being a revolutionary force with any concern for its own people (Dingley 451).  The continually depleted sense of security and nationalism that has resulted from the activity of the IRA is evidence that prolonged violence is rarely a catalyst for any kind of positive change.  There was a time when the IRA’s rebellion won a better Ireland for Irish Catholics and if they had left it there it may have turned out differently.  But what was once the great hope for the Irish has long since become an international blemish and a very real boogey man in their own backyard.

Works Cited

Byman, Daniel. "Passive Sponsors of Terrorism." Survival 47.4 (2005): 117-144. Georgetown. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. 

Dingley, James. "The Bombings of Omagh, 15 August, 1998: The Bombers, Their Tactics, Strategy, and Purpose Behind the Incident." Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 24 (2001): 451-465. University of Ulster. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. 

English, Richard. Armed struggle: the history of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print. 

Moloney, Ed. A secret history of the IRA. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.