Anatomy of the IRA

Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement
March 22, 1996

So much has been written about the Northern Ireland conflict that it is difficult to imagine anything new to say and even works with novel content will struggle to come off well in the inevitable comparisons. This book has sufficient novelty and quality to be a breath of fresh air.

First, if one can forgive such occasional clunkers as "complete conflict scenario", it is well written. Second, it has a pleasantly neutral tone: there is none of the usual bitching about other commentators and a posture of value neutrality is maintained. Irish republicanism is judged in terms of its own values by someone who teaches in a military academy and thus might be expected to treat the IRA as an enemy.

I mention M. L. R. Smith's background because it is the unusual perspective that justifies the book. Most people have written about the IRA as a political movement that just happens to kill people. From a background in strategic theory, Smith takes the military strategy of the IRA as central and dissects the relationship between the use of violence, the attitude to the use of violence, and the pursuit of political goals in Irish Republicanism. This allows him to get away from being impressed with the length of the "long struggle" to consider how close the IRA is to achieving its goals and to what extent the ideological symbolic commitment to arms has prevented the IRA taking advantage of the gains it has made militarily.

Put in this light the IRA is not as impressive an organization as its longevity would suggest. Smith begins: "If one recognises the unique coercive qualities of violence in its proper strategic sense as a rational policy instrument, then presumably one's adversary is also likely to see the functional benefits of violence. This poses a problem if the adversary happens to be more powerful than oneself." In a low intensity war, the theory goes, the weaker side does as much damage as it can and then cashes in its irritant value by negotiating the best political deal it can. When the IRA reached that position and met Secretary of State William Whitelaw for talks in June 1972 it simply demanded British withdrawal and showed no interest in haggling. Nor did it seem to have given much thought to what would happen when its demands were rejected. The IRA went back to killing; the British army entered the "no-go" areas of Derry and Belfast that had been key bases for the IRA; the IRA dispersed into small cells; and everyone settled down to the campaign that has run for the past 24 years and which has left the IRA arguably no nearer its goal than it was in 1972. The damage inflicted on the British army and on Britain has been effectively trivial.

In his discussion of republican attitudes to unionists, Smith identifies a major weakness in republican ideology. High rhetoric sometimes transcends sectarian divisions, but generally republicans have ignored unionists, supposing them to be merely an adjunct to the British colonial presence. With the departure of the Brits, unionists will discover their true Irishness. And even if they do not, they are a minority in Ireland, so sod 'em - the argument goes. As one Belfast Volunteer put it: "Maybe you can't bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland but you could have good fun trying." But despite being the primary target of that fun, the RUC still gets 11 applicants for every vacancy. Including reserves, the RUC has about 12,000 officers. The Royal Irish Regiment has 6,300 members. One can only conclude that the Ulster Protestants rival the Gurkhas as one of the most militarised peoples in the world. The IRA campaign has made them more, not less unionist .

Smith ends with an acute analysis of the contradictory signs in the events which surrounded the 1994 ceasefire. He concludes - wisely, in view of recent events - that after 25 years, the IRA's thinking still pulls in opposite directions. On the one hand, "republicans interpret events as representing a slow process of British disengagement", yet they also "see British actions as a series of correctives to accommodate nationalist opinion with the aim of strengthening Britain's hold over the province". In the end, Smith argues, the IRA's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It believes that despite setbacks, republicanism will win because that is the way history is going.

Steve Bruce is professor of sociology, University of Aberdeen.

Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement

Author - M. L. R. Smith
ISBN - 0 415 09161 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 265

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