The History of Irish Republicanism: Prelude to the Provos

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 24 September, 2004 - 12:00

Thomas Carolan continues his series about the history of Irish Republicanism

We have seen that there was more than a little in the IRA attacks on Northern Ireland in the 1950s of Catholic zealots putting themselves against a corrupt Protestant civilisation — or against the British-spawned Irish part of what Yeats, in the grip of his own romantic obsessions, had stigmatised as “the filthy modern tide”.

They were young men from a still heavily agrarian and very right-wing society which, with “Home Rule”, had achieved “Rome Rule”, priest-rule; young men who conceived of their own identity in ethnic-sectarian terms and who saw what they did in the perspective of a many-centuried struggle against predatory heretics and the descendants of those who had been planted in Ireland by them, or whom they had corrupted and led astray.

The “Republicanism” to which they subscribed held in theory to the pledge of the 1916

Declaration of the Republic that “all the children of the nation” should be treated equally. In practice that was entirely subverted by their ethnic-sectarian outlook and by their attitude to the other Irish.

Some of them were, as we saw, more or less fascists, supporters of the anti-semitic and clerical-fascist organisation Maria Duce.

Such a one was Sean South of Limerick. He died on a raid from the South on a police barracks in Northern Ireland, on New Year’s Day 1957.

Fergal O’Hanlon (see last Solidarity) also died in the raid, and David O’Connell, who would be one of the founders and leaders of the Provisional IRA in 1969/1970, was grievously wounded and left for dead. A song written by the Stalinist-Republican Dominic Behan, celebrating the fascist-Republican martyr, “Sean South of Garryowen”, became the most popular song in Catholic Ireland in 1957 and for long afterwards. Its slant was the opposite of Behan’s thoughtful and profound Patriot Game, about O’Hanlon.

The following statement, made in a Southern court by Sean Geraghty, a leader of a splinter group from the IRA, was also true to the mind and spirit of many of the mid-1950s Republican activists.

“On behalf of my comrades and myself I wish to state that any arms and ammunition found on us were to be used against the British forces of occupation to bring about the reunification of our country and no Irish man or woman of any political persuasion has anything to fear from us. We hold that it is legal to possess arms and also believe that it is the duty of every Irishman to bear arms in defence of his country”.

Geraghty would become a leftist in London by the late 1950s or early 60s.

And what of the “other Ireland”, the one the IRA targeted, the Ireland described by one of its prime ministers as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”?

James Connolly predicted in 1914 when partition was first raised as a practical possibility that it would lead to “a carnival of reaction, North and South”. That is much quoted. Less well known is his conclusion that it would be better than Home Rule with such a partition to have no Home Rule at all.

The partition of Ireland into Six and 26 County entities was a brutal piece of British-imposed political botching. The stated motive for partition was to give self-determination to the Irish minority, the Protestants of north-east Ulster. The

Protestants would have been between one in four and one in five of the population of a united Ireland. Catholics held against their will in the Six County “Protestant state for a Protestant people” numbered one in three.

That was not an unavoidable result of the degree of intermingling of the two communities. They were closely intermingled in Belfast, but much of the Catholic population in the Six Counties lived in areas where they were the majority, bordering on the Catholic Irish state, and totalling about half the whole territory of the Six County state.

This partition was not the result of a democratic agreement of the two sorts of Irish to separate. Nor was it a brutally-done but benignly-intended and fair division made by a wise British overlord-state.

The population of the Catholic-majority areas was kept in the Six County state by force and sectarian terror, inflicted by the British army and by Orange militia-men enrolled as “special constables” in the local police, the RUC. The “B-Specials” became a permanent feature of the Six County state — an armed sectarian force that could be and was mobilised against the Catholics in the border areas.

Three possible schemes for a Northern Ireland state had been discussed in 1914 — an area consisting of the nine counties of modern Ulster, in which Protestant-Unionists would be only a slight and insecure majority; a four-counties areas where the Protestants would have been a heavy majority; and a six-counties entity with the maximum territory compatible with a stable Protestant-Unionist majority. The Six Counties option was chosen and imposed on the Catholic Irish, including Six Counties Catholics along the partition border.

The British Tory-Unionists and the Orange leaders were motivated by the desire to make the territory of Northern Ireland as large as possible. But from every point of view it was the worst of the options.

It led to a political sub-state into which was built a chronic antagonism between Catholic and Protestant. The whole 400-year history of Catholic-Protestant antagonism, and the 700-year history of English-Irish antagonism, in the whole island, were writ small and reproduced within the Six Counties. With a twist. The Catholic “Irish-Irelanders”, the majority on the island, were the minority in the new state.
It was an unviable “solution” into which were built chronic instability and bitter ethnic-sectarian conflict.

The “Protestant state for a Protestant people” created a second, artificial Irish “minority”, the Catholics within the Northern Ireland state — who were proportionately a bigger segment of the population than all the Protestants would have been in an all-Ireland state.

The Protestant majority was large enough to ensure indefinite partition, but the Catholic minority (the majority in the second city, Derry, and in such county towns as Tyrone and Armagh) was far too large for Protestant security. And Catholics were known to breed more prolifically.

So the Catholics were treated as second-class citizens, deprived of jobs and public housing. (Under the Northern Ireland system, a house brought with it a local government vote.) The election boundaries were rigged (in Derry City, for example) so that even where Catholics were a big local majority their votes did not ensure that they had majority representation.

Protestant Home Rule in the Six Counties put one of the antagonistic communities in power over the other. Under a facade of bourgeois democracy, it was one-party rule for half a century, by the Unionist Party, whose backbone was the sectarian Orange Order.

One measure of what Northern Ireland Catholics faced, and how they saw themselves: in the late 1960s, when the Catholics were mobilising to demand “civil rights” and equality — they said “British standards” — they compared themselves to black people in the US South, who were then waging a tremendous fight for their civil rights. The American civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome”, was one of the songs the Catholics sang on their demonstrations.

And yet, the Six County Catholics were part of the British state. “Internal” Northern Ireland affairs were by convention not discussed at Westminster — where Northern Ireland had 12 MPs — and were confined to the Stormont parliament outside Belfast. But Northern Ireland had the same broad framework of institutions as the rest of the UK — and it was, most of it, like the UK, a modern industrial society. Most of the modern industry in Ireland was concentrated in north-east Ulster.

Various sorts of Protestant priests played a big part in Six Counties politics, but there was nothing there like the centralised power of the Catholic Church in the South.
Northern Ireland was never a confessional state as the South was.

There was a powerful labour movement in Northern Ireland. Protestant and Catholic workers were able to unite within trade unions (which preserved their unity, and were rendered politically sterile, by tacitly agreeing not to discuss such political questions as “the constitutional question”, Partition).

The social legislation of the British state and the social gains of the British labour movement came to all the citizens of Northern Ireland, including the Catholics. Where the UK parliament controlled public services, there was not discrimination against Catholic-nationalists but strict equality.

And thus it came about that the “unfree” Six County Catholics were in many ways far better off than the average Catholic citizen of the “Republic” of Ireland.

The 1944 Education Act allowed layers of working-class and poor Catholics to get to university. After 1964 they could also get full maintenance grants. They had the benefits of the National Health Service, which when it was set up was the best of its sort in the world.

Catholics in Northern Ireland suffered from job discrimination and disproportionate unemployment, but even the unemployed were far better off than the unemployed in the South. Until the end of the 1960s it was the going wisdom of commentators that the Six County Catholics had been reconciled to partition by the post-war UK welfare state.

We have seen (last Solidarity) that in the early 1950s, the priests in the South denounced Britain — and by implication the Six Counties — as socialist, that is, in their view, as a corrupted society.

While the Irish bishops stopped Noel Browne bringing in limited free health care for mothers and children in the South, they did not dare object to the welfare state in Northern Ireland. They did, however, keep education segregated there, insisting on maintaining their own Catholic schools.

It is one of the paradoxes of 20th-century Irish politics that the old Home Rule party — which before World War 1 was run by the Ancient Order of Hibernians — was not wiped out in the Six Counties when the rise of Sinn Fein wiped it out in the rest of Ireland. In 1914 it had pushed acceptance of partition through an Ulster Home Rule party convention.

The Nationalist (Home Rule) party’s ethnic-sectarian outlook dominated in the Catholic part of the North. The centuries of persecution of Catholics were, Northern Ireland Catholics felt, recapitulated in their daily experience.

Such was the “other Ireland” which the IRA in the mid 1950s set out to conquer by a few raids from the South on borderland police and military barracks.

Could they find support in the Northern Catholic minority? Before the launching of the formal campaign in December 1956, the IRA decided not to do anything that might foment Catholic-Protestant sectarian conflict. Politically rousing up the Six County Catholics was the last thing on the IRA’s mind. The military elite would win their freedom for them. The IRA had support and sympathy, but it was passive support. Thus it would do nothing in Belfast.

In one way that summed up how little confidence the IRA had in its own success. It also expressed the underlying fantasy — the same fantasy that had guided those who declared war on England at the beginning of 1939 — that a moderate amount of IRA-inflicted mayhem would persuade England to work the miracle of persuading or coercing the Six County Protestants into a united Ireland.

The Provisional IRA, whose founders were all participants in the mid-1950s campaign, would take a different approach.

In December 1956 the IRA launched its campaign with raids on the border. What was the difference between the campaign and the raids they had been mounting for a number of years already? Now they would attack to inflict damage and casualties, and not necessarily to collect guns and ammunition. And there would be a big increase in the number of attacks.

That was the theory of it. In fact there would be only a few clusters of attacks. There would never be enough attacks to really deserve the description of “campaign”. But it was enough to bring a serious increase in state repression against the IRA.
What did they think they were doing? This is how a training handbook for a splinter group summed it up.

“The resistance movement is the armed vanguard of the Irish people fighting for the freedom of Ireland. The strength of the movement consists in the popular patriotic character of the movement. The basic missions of local resistance units are the destruction of enemy installations and establishments, that is, Territorial Army halls, special [B-Special police] huts, British Army recruiting offices, border huts, depots, etc…

Attacks against enemy aerodromes, and the destruction of aircraft hangars, depots of bombs and fuel, the killing of key flying personnel and mechanics, the killing or capture of high-ranking enemy officers, and high officials of the enemy’s colonial Government and traitors to our country in their pay, that is, British officers, police agents, touts, high members of the Quisling [Unionist] Party, etc.”

This pixillated militarist elitism dealt with an imaginary Northern Ireland, ignoring most of the people who actually lived there. The splinter group were wild men, but the IRA itself would not have told the story differently.

In a curious parallel with the unexpected political success which the hunger strikes of 1981 in Northern Ireland would bring to the Provisional IRA, the main effect of the IRA border campaign was, arguably, political. But its political impact was far greater in the South than in the North.

The latent nationalism in the South was stirred into life. The romanticised history taught in the Christian Brothers and National schools now seemed to rise up alive before Catholic Ireland, in the deeds of the heroes striking at the “Crown forces” in “British-occupied Ireland”.

Four Sinn Fein TDs were elected to Dail Eireann on the strength of the feeling stirred up by the border campaign. The TDs were pledged not to take their seats in the “partition parliament”, and that cancelled out the possible political use to which the advance could have been put. The experience, however, would help prepare the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein leaders to make better use of the political surge of support that would come to them from the hunger strikes.

Dublin was again ruled by a coalition government. The Taoiseach, John Costello, explained the attitude to the 26 County state to those young men who want out on a freelance “unofficial” military campaign to try to make good the claims of De Valera’s 1937 Constitution to rule over the whole island:

“Young men, some of them hardly more than boys, have been led by a small minority group of older men — experienced and ruthless men — who believe that they can end partition by destroying the lives of others and endangering their own lives and liberty, in violent forays into the Six County area…

[If this were allowed to continue] there would be further bloodshed. There would be all the bitterness and hatred that bloodshed causes. There would be a hardening of resolve among Irishmen in the north east to remain divided from us, to rely upon support from another country and to give to that other country the loyalty that is Ireland’s due…

Peace and order would vanish. Our democratic institutions would be undermined and the hope of a united Ireland would be defeated — perhaps for ever.”

In the North the B-Special Protestant militia was mobilised to guard the border. Republicans were jailed and interned. In the South the coalition was, though repressive, hesitant and indecisive. Not so De Valera, the leader of constitutional Republicanism and chief author of the constitution which made the claims to the Six Counties which the IRA tried to realise.

The coalition government fell on a motion of no confidence from the sole remaining Clann na Poblachta TD, Sean MacBride, the one-time IRA chief of staff, who objected to government action against the IRA. The consequence of this empty gesture of solidarity with the IRA by MacBride, who never got anything right in a long political life, was more severe and more effective repression.

When Fianna Fail came back to power in mid 1957, one of De Valera’s first acts was to reintroduce internment. Republicans could be arrested on the say-so of senior policemen and held indefinitely without charge or trial. A special internment camp was opened on the plains of Kildare.

All over the South, police trawled for Republicans. When there was a mass breakout from the internment camp, Irish state aircraft dropped napalm on the moors where they might have taken refuge.

The return to power of “Fianna Fail, the Republican Party” dealt a death blow to the “border campaign”. De Valera had done this before, and he did it now ruthlessly.

The raids became few and far between — not much different from the occasional raids in the years preceding the “campaign”.

The propaganda campaigns against the RUC’s ill-treatment of IRA prisoners organised by the British Communist Party — which, for its own political reasons, had taken up the themes of the Dublin-led anti-partition campaign of the late 1940s — made far more impact in Britain than the IRA’s military activities. The effect was mainly felt within the British labour movement, much of which came to accept the CPGB version of the Irish middle-class account of Irish history, and of the Fianna Fail/IRA understanding of partition.

The “campaign”, long dead, was formally called off in March 1962. The IRA announced that it was “dumping its guns” — that is, putting them in safe places. The implication was, “for now”.

Towards the very end, the leaders of the IRA concluded that they had made a mistake in not daring to stir up Catholic-Protestant conflict, in Belfast especially. But by then they were not strong enough to do anything about it. The campaign was more or less defunct.

Before the 1960s were out, others would rouse up the Six County Catholics, as they had never before been roused in the 50-year history of the Six County state, in a campaign for civil rights. The violent Orange backlash against civil rights would give the IRA militarists of the 1950s another chance. Some of them would take it, while others would, in response to the rise of the Provisional IRA, accelerate their progress to constitutional politics along the path already beaten in the 1920s and 30s by Fianna Fail and in the 1940s and 50s by Clann na Poblachta.

In the next Solidarity we will discuss left-wing populist Republicanism.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/10/2004 - 17:27

Did James Connolly have a brother who was a member of the Christian Brothers ???

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.