The IRA as criminals or warriors?

The IRA – criminals or warriors?

Jack Lane considers the impact of Mrs Thatcher suddenly describing IRA activities as warfare.

Thatcher’s remark on 19th September about the IRA fighting a guerrilla war has, at a stroke, destroyed a nonsense on which Westminster has based its policy towards Northern Ireland for nearly 15 years.

If words could kill, the IRA would have been defeated years ago. Every adjective of abuse that the English language contains has been used to denounce them. To what avail? In the mid-1970s Merlyn Rees got rid of internment and decided to criminalise the IRA. To the chattering classes this looked like a wonderful idea. It provided a great opportunity for their endless verbiage. Journalists and politicians competed with each other in proclaiming more and more exotic condemnations. People like Kinnock could luxuriate in this atmosphere.

Now it has all been shattered by an off-hand remark by Thatcher. She has obviously experienced enough at a personal level from the IRA that she could no longer keep mouthing the official gobbledygook that tried to portray the IRA as some latter-day Kray twins.

Hattersley described the IRA as criminal lunatics on the same day. If they were as he described them they are only fit for lunatic asylums. At least Brezhnev – remember him? – was consistent when he sent the people he considered lunatics to such places. The solution lies with the psychiatrists not the police if it is lunatics we are dealing with.

It is argued that admitting there is a war is handing the IRA a propaganda coup. That is undoubtedly true. But the longer the official nonsense is maintained the bigger the coup. It is never easy to admit that one has made a complete fool of oneself, but that is what the British political establishment has done, and the sooner it is admitted the better.

Internment treats internees as prisoners of war. When a war is settled prisoners of war are released. It is a very honourable arrangement compared with treating your enemy army as consisting of criminals, lunatics, psychopaths etc etc.

Southern Ireland has used internment on a number of occasions. It was part of a war that went on for several decades between the Southern state and the IRA who· did not accept the legitimacy of the state. And the political issue was always crystal clear. The state won a complete victory, as evidenced by the IRA rules of engagement which now forbid any actions against the Southern state.

The British establishment finds it very difficult to admit that there is a war on because it means having to make a major reassessment of the Irish Question’. Britain believed itself to have finished with Ireland with the Treaty settlement of 1922. That satisfied the majority in Ireland and as Northern Ireland would fall or be pushed into an all-Ireland state shortly afterwards the nightmare of Ireland was at an end. Matters did not work out as planned. The divide in Ireland has got wider and deeper, to the extent that it is now unlikely that there will ever be a single national development in the island. Britain has not adjusted to this reality.

British politicians are switched off from Northern Ireland. For 50 years Westminster ordered itself not even to discuss it. The first thing that needs to be done to get switched on is to set up the necessary antennae – the political parties. Otherwise there will be no reception and no signals getting through. Those that do get through are all scrambled by the local sectarian parties and it is an impossible task to expect politicians in Britain to unscramble them without their own direct line.

The result is that the IRA is the political element with the clearest political objective and the clearest idea as to how it should be achieved. By contrast Westminster does not know what it wants for Northern Ireland, and it insists on parading its incompetence at regular intervals when it attempts to set up some form of devolved government.

What greater encouragement and validity could be given to the IRA than the actions of governments that have to regularly admit that they cannot achieve what they consider the proper form of government for the Province? If the word lunatic has to be bandied about it applies much more accurately to the cabinets that have chased the will-of-the-wisp of devolved government for the last 20 years.


This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at