The Influence of the IRA and the Northern Irish Conflict (1970s to Present) on the Writing of Irish History
- Khalil Jetha
It has been said that history is not an assortment of facts, but rather a recollection of instances taken in a certain context. Unlike pure fact, history is heavily reliant on the documenting party. The writing of Irish history has changed dramatically since the 1970s, altering the rhetoric in which the struggle has been presented. The crippling hold of the British Imperial machine has widely been recalled as an international symbol of oppression. However, recent developments in the Irish conflict have tempered something of a defeatist attitude among Ireland’s historians, earning the circumstance enmity and even garnering sympathy for the British government. Countries that won their independence from Britain such as the United States, India, and others share the common factor of clear-cut sides; in each case, the parties at odds were Great Britain and the colonial land in question. The Irish struggle, however, has evolved into broad acquiescence to subjugation and dominance, with a markedly diminished sense of outrage. What started out as a universal Irish struggle plunged into disarray, with splintering factions breaking away from a common struggle and eventually accepting the creation of two Irelands: a Catholic, Irish free southern state and a Protestant, British protectorate in the north. There are three events in the last thirty years that changed the face of the Irish struggle’s historiography, all three testaments to the waning sense of urgency shared in the Northern Irish conflict. First is the radicalization of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), second is the division of Catholics manifested in Colin Cruise O’Brien’s writing and push for leadership, and third is the evolution of Irish rebellion from 1970 from that of armed struggle to non-violent protest. The IRA has long been the strongest symbol of Irish nationalism, hotly contested by some as a partisan organization dedicated to little more than a consolidation of Catholic control. Some contend that prior to the 1916 establishment of the Irish Free State there was no Irish nation, and that the national identity was in its infancy at the onset of the British occupation. However, to the Irish people “the Republic was, for a few tense years, a living reality which dominated every aspect of their lives” (Macardle 29). The tumultuous 1970s are an accurate representation of how events in the Northern Irish conflict affected the writing of Irish history. The escalation of violence on British soil in the name of Irish nationalism, followed by growing Irish resentment of the IRA, and finally the disarmament of the IRA all reflect how events changed the conflict’s historiography.
Though the IRA had existed in different forms since the early 19th century, the 1970s saw “violence against British rule increased, carried out in the name of the ‘Irish Republican Army’” (Kee 613). What originally began as carefully planned attacks against British armed establishments inside Ireland proper changed into “guerrilla warfare in which the majority of the Irish people, though originally opposed to violence, supported the IRA” (Kee 613). British brutality spawned Irish violent resistance, and support for such measures was widely supported as the Irish people perceived the British occupation as a series of events that could be universally and categorically condemned. As a result, history was written heavily in the favour of the Irish cause. Up until the escalation of IRA violence on British territory, “no one who knew the meaning of nationality found it difficult to understand that the Irish had, in past centuries, resisted conquest and absorption by another race; what caused astonishment, whether hostile or sympathetic, was the passion and tenacity with which the resistance had been maintained” (Macardle 30). Historians sympathized with the Irish plight, especially given that extent of the British occupation following the establishment of the Irish Free State. The world was already aware of British Imperialism and the extent of Irish civilian losses. Irish violence in the name of the IRA saw everything shy of complete support in the international stage, and history focused on “the weighty British Administration” that “continued to operate uncertainly and with violence, while, in its midst, there functioned another government, which commanded the allegiance of the people and whose decrees produced immediate results” (Macardle 29).
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The early 1970s saw unparalleled international sympathy with the IRA’s cause, especially following the exodus of Irish violence from Ulster and its manifestation on British soil. Though violence was not necessarily condoned, it was not wholeheartedly condemned. Northern Ireland evolved from a sectarian conflict to one that spanned national borders, a situation history saw repeated in every part of the world. British aggression in Derry soon became a rallying cry for IRA recruitment. What took place on January 30, 1972 became known as Bloody Sunday, the pinnacle of IRA domestic and international sympathy. In the “six months prior to that day, the [British] Army had increasingly brutalized the Catholic populace, but it had done so largely on a case-by-case, individual-by-individual basis”; “on that day, the Army launched a premeditated campaign of murder against unarmed demonstrators—a campaign whose ostensible purpose was to induce the IRA to stand and fight, force the demonstrators to flee, and enable the Army to kill or capture the bulk of Derry’s IRA gunmen” (Hull 48). Historiography could have taken one of two paths. Bloody Sunday could have been perceived as a hallmark of British imperialism, or it could have been shown in a sympathetic light to the British dilemma of protecting its previously sponsored Protestant ruling class. From Dublin’s standpoint, the “world undoubtedly would have concluded that British Army actions in Derry on January 30, 1972 violated international law”; however, popular support for the Irish victims was lost “in lieu of an objective investigation,” with “more British whitewash” spread over the whole affair (Hull 183). London saw the elicitation tactics of Bloody Sunday as a utilitarian decision to spare the most civilian lives. That so many civilians perished under British gunfire was a penultimate factor in the stabilization of the region. The ends justified the means in the British “peace”; the British-sponsored probe investigating Bloody Sunday dampened the immediate public outcry, and history’s favour weaned on the Irish side. This marked the end of the image of the British aggressor.
The Close of Irish Violence in London and the Loss of Popular IRA Support
The gruesome bombing IRA bombing campaigns led to two significant paradigm shifts in Dublin and abroad. On one hand, history began perceiving the Irish separatist cause as one that targeted all Britons, not just those occupying Ireland. Images of Britons of all racial and religious backgrounds swept across newspapers worldwide, and the Irish cause became less about foreign occupation and more about the stasis of British national security. Moreover, Irish domestic support waned among Catholic clergy as well as the Irish layman. People throughout the island were at odds with each other; prominent scholars such as Connor Cruise O’Brien not only opposed the IRA, but also began taking part in British politics, siding with political machination as opposed to armed insurgency. Historians took the side of O’Brien, depleting the IRA’s support, morphing their public image from that of popular resistance to one of horrific aggression. As a corollary, the Irish cause was marked as one not between the Irish and British or Catholic and Protestant. The conflict in Northern Ireland hence became one of armed struggle versus civilized politics. O’Brien’s writings against the IRA may have cost him leadership of the Irish Republic, but their influence dwindled what used to be unified armed struggle. The IRA attempted to counter this trend, calling in bomb threats hours ahead of schedule, causing panic and not violence. However, the writing of Irish history had already shifted, and the Irish people grew weary of the fighting. The new style of bloodless bombing campaigns was ironically reflective of the end of Irish political fervour; rebellion became one of tired horror, one that was less separatist and more about divisions few recognized on the international stage. Today’s Irish conflict is one of forgotten causes; in light of the British successes in quelling the whirr of public relations following Bloody Sunday, the IRA bombing campaigns inevitably led to their condemnation by Irish politicians and scholars such as O’Brien. By the early 1980s, the entire cause had lost the passion that fuelled its patrons for the previous two centuries. Today, the IRA has been reduced to a fading memory in the collective international conscience. What remains is defeatist acquiescence; the Irish conflict’s major events did not successfully portray the Irish as victims. Instead, history has viewed the Irish conflict in the same way many Irish have perceived it themselves: a hopeless political and military quagmire against a seemingly indefatigable foe.
Hull, Roger H. (1976) The Irish Triangle: Conflict in Northern Ireland. Princeton:Princeton U P.
Macardle, Dorothy. (1965) The Irish Republic. New York: Farrar, Straus, andGiroux.
Kee, Robert. (1993) The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnelland Irish Nationalism. Middlesex: Penguin Group.
Leon O Broin and Cian O H’Eigeartaigh (ed). (1996) In Great Haste: The Lettersof Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan. Dublin: St. Martin’s Press.
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