Conflict in Ireland Part 3: Analysis and Lessons Learned
The number one reason behind the conflict and violence in Ireland was England’s inability to reconcile the desires and strength of the Irish people, with their own preconceived notions and political ambitions. Ireland has been a source of conflict for as long as people have lived there, and for as long as England has had control of Ireland, the people have rebelled. England continued to view the Irish people as weak and temperamental despite their growing frustration and strength. Instead of viewing the Irish people as citizens who had a legitimate claim to civil rights (or at least to peaceful protest) within the United Kingdom, England lashed out at the nationalist and sparked a wave of fury that resulted in dozens of nationalist paramilitary organizations: organizations that were led by the IRA.
The IRA is one of the first recognized domestic terrorist organizations, if not the first domestic terrorist organization, and its formation came from a group of political and military leaders that were tired of the burden and inequality the British government placed on them. The IRA could best be described as a Hydra, a mythical creature from ancient Greece that would grow two heads for every head that was chopped off; no matter how hard the British tried to squash the nationalist paramilitary organization, it persevered and often grew as a result in size and support. Whenever the English would “give a little” and concede to a small number of nationalist demands, part of the group would be satisfied and part of the group would be insulted, resulting in the formation of a whole new faction of the IRA and the organization of other, minor, nationalist paramilitary groups. It could be argued that until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement the British government took no serious steps to alleviate the anger and distrust of the Irish nationalists, instead they merely put a Band-Aid on the immediate problems to further their own political and parliamentary goals.
One of the biggest differences in the Good Friday Agreement, that made it successful where other agreements had failed, was the involvement of both Ireland and Northern Ireland’s governments in the talks, as well as the IRA. After Ireland became its own country and Northern Ireland became a province of England, the British government treated the people as two separate people. The reality was half of Northern Ireland still felt a great allegiance to the Republic of Ireland and vice-versa. By including the Irish government in their negotiations, they legitimized the decisions that they came to in the eyes of the Catholic minority and most members of the IRA.
The Good Friday Agreement also hit at the heart of the complaints of the nationalists, mainly that the Protestant majority maintained governmental control of Northern Ireland and, subsequently, passed policies and laws that discriminated against the Catholic minority. The Good Friday Agreement devolved the government in Northern Ireland and allowed the Catholic minority to have a voice in their own government. Many of the newly-elected members of the Northern Ireland parliament were former (or, more-likely, current) leaders of the IRA and now had strong ties to the members of the British government. Their authority and involvement in the politics of Northern Ireland helped to diffuse the tensions and violence previously experienced as members of the IRA didn’t need to resort to violence to have their voices heard.
Lessons learned from the British Army and government with regards to countering the IRA can be applied to other domestic terrorist organizations that have sprung up since 2010. The biggest lesson that can be acquired from studying the conflict in Ireland and the IRA, is the persistence of paramilitary groups when there is a definite ideology and a set enemy. Once England was able to understand and acknowledge the desires of the IRA, they were able to properly negotiate with them, and convey to the people that they were not the enemy. In order to fully break up these groups it is important to understand why they exist, and how they have remained popular. Only after we understand their ideology and their ‘why’, can we work to break down their system of beliefs and delegitimize their cause, lowering public support and preventing further recruitment and violence. In some rare cases of domestic terrorists (such as the YPG in Turkey) discussions and compromises can lead to an increase in peace and decrease in tensions between a political and demographic majority, and an out-spoken minority. In most cases, delegitimizing the cause of these domestic terror organizations lowers the public’s support for them, which in turn lowers the number of individuals they are able to recruit. If their support can be driven low enough, their numbers will dwindle and the organization will be able to be disbanded, captured or overthrown.
Additionally, government support for these organizations should not be tolerated. Officials who support terrorism and violence should be removed from their positions, as it legitimizes domestic terrorism. Organizations that are perceived to have the government’s support, even if there are only a few officials who are sympathetic, become ‘untouchable’ and public support for them will not only increase, but their ideology will be strengthened and result in more extreme measures and greater acts of violence. The IRA was able to stay prominent and destructive for a century because the local government supported them, and they were viewed as the ‘militant wing’ of that government. Once the British government was able to redirect that support they were able to have a cease-fire with the Irish nationalists and obtain peace.
Ultimately, dismantling a domestic terrorist organization comes down to support. Support from government officials, support from the general public and support of its own members. Breaking down their philosophy and fracturing their support systems will limit the power and effectiveness of these organizations and lead to their dismemberment.
References (for the entire “Conflict in Ireland” series):
1 T. Lambert, “A Brief History of Ireland,” LocalHistories.org, retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/irehist.html
2 “State of Ireland during the Eighteenth Century,” Library Ireland, retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Eighteenth-Century-Ireland/Irish-Penal-Laws.php
3 J. Dorney, “The Eleven Years War 1641-52 – A Brief Overview,” The Irish Story, retrieved from http://www.theirishstory.com/2014/01/10/the-eleven-years-war-a-brief-overview/#.XSOxfpNKhTY
4 R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The IRA: 1919 to 1968”, Alpha History, accessed 10 July 2019, https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/ira-1919-1968/
5 P. Arthur and K. Cowell-Meyers, “Irish Republican Army”, Britannica, retrieved from, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Irish-Republican-Army
6 “We Shall Overcome: The History of the Struggles for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968-1978”, NICRA, Belfast, Northern Ireland, retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/crights/nicra/nicra78.htm#contents
7 “History”, Your Irish, retrieved from https://www.yourirish.com/history
8 “Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland”, CAIN Web Service, Ulster University, retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/index.html
9 Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland, retrieved from https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/
10 J. Wallenfeldt, “The Troubles”, Britannica, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/The-Troubles-Northern-Ireland-history
11 C. Sullivan, “Real Irish Republican Army”, Britannia, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Real-Irish-Republican-Army