The IRA Campaign of Violence

There is a perception that the IRA and other paramilitaries have used mindless violence. That is very far from the truth. The violence has always been used for a purpose.

And, simply put, violence is used as a communicative dimension. It is saying to the state or to government, "We are here. You have to talk to us. If we have to bomb our way to a negotiating table, we will." So, very rarely do you get examples of mindless violence in the Northern Ireland context.

And when you look at the type of violence, over time it has changed. Because the violence was a classic example of armed propaganda. Sometimes car bombs would be used, which would be simply about causing as much economic destruction as possible, as making Northern Ireland so expensive for the British exchequer that there would be a demand for the British to withdraw. Or they would target British soldiers. There always was the belief that the death of one British soldier was worth at least, in propaganda terms, ten policemen from Northern Ireland, because in Britain itself, the British mainland, the demand to get out would grow.

So, targets were very carefully specified. What the IRA tried to do for the most part and what they believed they were doing was that they were not trying to harm the local community. Now, that was part of their mythology. If they killed a Protestant, they would argue that it wasn't a Protestant they were killing, but it was a member of the security forces who happened to be a Protestant.

And in their role as purported defenders of the Catholic community, they've actually succeeded in killing more Catholics than have their opponents. And so, when they carry out campaigns of violence against property or against people, in many, many instances what they were doing was they were damaging their own people more than they were furthering their cause. Now, that is very important, because the IRA, unlike other terrorist groups around the world, realized, to use the Maoist dictum, that "it needed water for the fish to swim in." The water it needed was the support of the local community.

If it lost that support, its campaign is going to run into the sands. So, it was always very, very conscious that it had to be careful how it used its violence.

It is worth pointing out that Belfast, for example, never became Beirut. There was a control to most of the violence. Before the violence occurred, there were usually plenty of warnings. Very rarely could you put your finger and say that innocent people were targeted deliberately.

They were very conscious in their propaganda of how they sold their violence. They were always conscious they had to bring their people with them.

When we speak of soft targets we're talking about people or property which are very easy to target, very easy to pick off. And, obviously, the easier they are, the more successful you're going to be. So, they could pick, for example, an isolated Protestant farmer on the border of Northern Ireland, who was a member of the local security force on a part-time basis. Or, in one instance, the IRA killed a woman who was taking a census collection. She was simply finding out, for the government, how people felt in Northern Ireland. She was shot dead because she worked for the government.

There were literally hundreds of examples of soft targets. But they all added grist to the mill. They all were to demonstrate that Northern Ireland was ungovernable.

Bloody Friday (July 21 1972)

Bloody Friday was important in demonizing the IRA. Bloody Friday happens within four months of the imposition of direct rule, when Unionists had lost out, when there were people saying, "Let's call it a day. We've had enough violence." The IRA response to Bloody Friday was that it wasn't they who got it wrong, that they gave the warnings. It was the authorities who got it wrong, that they did not mean to kill those innocent civilians. Whatever way you look at it, it was a very important event, because what it did was that it distanced those in the Unionist community who might have been prepared to give some thought to doing deals with people in the Catholic community ... they said, "All bets are off."

It reinforced the position of the Protestant paramilitaries, and made them a real force in the political game in Northern Ireland. It reinforced the fanatical voice of Protestant militism, some of those who claim that they were not, or didn't approve of violence, but used violent language. What it did was that it polarized the situation very, very badly.

It persuaded the British government that you cannot do business with the Republican movement. So, for all of those reasons, Bloody Friday had very serious consequences.

The Murder of Lord Mountbatten August, 1979

In August of 1979 the IRA pulled off two of their huge spectaculars with the murder of Mountbatten, part of the British royal family. But they also killed two young boys in the same boat that he was in. So, there were mixed feelings about it. There was great glee in the Republican movement. The British authorities were able to make much propaganda out of the death of the two young boys. On the same day, the IRA pulled off probably their most spectacular military operation when they blew to pieces 18 British soldiers--[at Warrenpoint] and they happened to be British paratroopers, the people who were responsible for Bloody Sunday. So, among their followers, this was a huge, huge victory.

But the downside of that was that the soldiers had been killed on the Irish border. So, the British were able to mount a propaganda campaign, arguing very strongly that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republican of Ireland needed to be sealed, that the Irish government wasn't doing enough, that the American administration was too soft on the Irish government, and it needed to take a much [non active] ... (inaudible) role, that you can't go around killing young boys simply because you wanted to kill an old man of 79.

It was both a win and a loss, but it became a win later on ... at that time, immediately after the tenth hunger striker had gone to his death, the Sunday Times did a poll of the world's newspapers, and what they discovered was a huge switch in opinion from sympathy with the British government, which had lost Lord Mountbatten, which had seen an attempt to blow up its whole Cabinet at Brighton, and what they saw was an insensitive, unthinking government.

So, the death of Mountbatten and all the rest of it actually turned out to be a propaganda coup for the IRA rather than a loss for them.

The 1987 Enniskillen Bombing

When the IRA exploded the bomb in Enniskillen in November of 1987, they did their cause irreparable harm from the military perspective. Because they blew up 11 innocent Protestant civilians in probably the most sacred day of their year commemorating their war dead. So, what it demonstrated to begin with was a total insensitivity of Protestant peoples.

Secondly, they tried to claim that this was something which actually had been created by the British. That backfired very badly and they lost out very badly in that respect. Thirdly, they lost out electorally insofar as four of their eight elected representatives were not selected again the next election in that area. Fourthly, it led them in the direction of going into dialogue with the SDLP. And that was one of the big turning points.

The Brighton Bombings

The Brighton bombings were very simple and very complex. Simple, they wanted to destroy Margaret Thatcher. They hated her with a passion. And, if they could destroy the British government with her, even more so. Nowhere else could it happen that a complete government was being wiped out with one bomb. It demonstrated the vulnerability of the British security system. It was a huge propaganda victory for the Republican movement, which they played up very strongly.

The London Bombing Campaign

The London bombing campaign was simply to bring the war to the British mainland. It was surprising because previous campaigns in Britain had failed because they didn't have the logistics, they didn't have the local support. And in going to London, they were saying to the British political establishment, "We are moving into the heart of your country." But it wasn't successful, it wasn't effective. It's only much later on in the campaign, when they return to Britain, that it does become effective, with some spectacular failures.

In particular, there was a bomb in a British town called Warrenpoint in March of 1992, when two young boys were blown to pieces. That was one which went very badly wrong. The images of those two boys shows how an organization which operates through symbolic capital can have that turned on its head, so that the propaganda that came out of Warrenpoint was, "This is an organization that takes the lives of innocent young children." And that impacted very strongly among their own supporters. I think that was one of the telling points in actually going for a cease-fire.

The second attempt to blow up the British Cabinet occurred in 1991 when the Cabinet was meeting, dealing with the affair in Kuwait. It was a war cabinet. The IRA launched a bomb, a mortar bomb, in the heart of London on Downing Street. One security expert said it was five to ten degrees off. If they got it right, it would have been their greatest spectacular.

What they demonstrated was just how vulnerable London was. And brought home to politicians in London that at some stage you're going to have to deal with us. That's all we're telling you; deal with us.

The bombing in London and in Britain throughout the '90s, I think demonstrates that the IRA were showing that they had the skill to continue. But, in some ways, it was the last throw of the dice, they had to go for the spectaculars.

But, they also realized that if they were going into negotiation, they went into negotiation from a position of military strength. And these bombs were occurring ... when there were secret negotiations going on between Martin McGuinness and the British ... and this was a classic example of the IRA saying look, if you think you're going to hoodwink us, just you realize how military powerful we are.


home .  the conflict .  inside the ira .  readings .  poems & songs .  special reports .  chronology .  map .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline PBS Online