The IRA as the most British thing in Ireland

Editorial: the IRA and the Hypocrisy of British Democracy

The spate of killings in Northern Ireland in late October [1993] was regrettable and deplorable; but the most shocking thing about them was that they were not shocking. British public opinion went through the motions of being shocked because it was felt to be the proper thing to do, but it was simulated shock. And it would be strange indeed if genuine shock were felt at what the mode of British government in Northern Ireland has made into an ordinary occurrence.

The BBC many years ago adopted this curious manner of reporting killings in Northern Ireland: “The IRA (or the UFF[A]) today admitted that it murdered so-and-so”. It is quite certain that the IRA has never said ”we murdered so-and-so”, and it is improbable that the UFF or the UVF did.[B] It is not clear what effect it was thought this misuse of language would have. Its actual effect has been to debase language and make “murder” and “killing” equivalent concepts.

The IRA is at war and it kills people. When an action goes wrong and people whom it considers innocent civilians are killed it says so, but it does not consider that to be murder any more than British saboteurs in France did. And of course in the bombing of Germany towards the end of the last war, civilian targets were sometimes deliberately chosen and whole towns were incinerated without the idea of murder ever being entertained.

The IRA is in certain respects the most British thing in Ireland.  Its military etiquette is modelled on the British example. But above all it learned from Britain that morality and success are closely allied, that if you keep on fighting regardless of how slight the prospects of victory may be at any particular moment you will probably win, and that when you win all that was done to achieve victory becomes unquestionably moral.

The lesson of the British Empire is that might is right so long as it succeeds, and that to give up half way because of moral scruples is to brand yourself a scoundrel.

That is why it is futile to play the game of pseudo-morality against the Provos. They have learned that game from the master and they have surpassed him at it. In addition to which they have rather better grounds for waging war than Britain has had in the great majority of its many wars.

The position of the large Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has been such that they could only have settled down peacefully in it if they had the mentality of slaves. They had for a generation been the leading element in the Irish nationalist movement when they were cut off politically from the new Irish state and required to live in a new “constitutional entity” which seemed to have been invented for the sole purpose of humiliating them – of adding insult to injury.

Perhaps the injury of partition was unavoidable, but the insult of “Northern Ireland” was not. It was the establishment – the concoction – of Northern Ireland that ensured that the social condition of Northern Ireland would remain one of communal antagonism.

It was not necessary that the Partition of Ireland should take the form in the North of the Protestant community conducting a sub-government which consisted essentially of policing the Catholic community. But Parliament in its wisdom chose that it should be so. And the Ulster Unionists, although their leaders at first pointed out that this was a recipe for disaster, became attached to this catastrophic mode of government, and to this day they cannot see that the Catholic community has any reasonable ground for refusing to tolerate it.

Northern Ireland was established in 1921. Its electorate has since then been able to play no direct part in determining who governs the state, and only very occasionally has it played an indirect part. The intense party-political conflict, which moderated or modified many oilier forms of conflict, (religious, racial and regional), in Britain, has shunned Northern Ireland.

Those who have been absorbed in the party-political conflict in Britain, and see it as being of the utmost importance, cannot see why people in Northern Ireland cannot get on quite well, and be “ordinary decent citizens”, without any party-political connection with government. They depict the communal conflict in Northern Ireland as resulting from gratuitous evil.

They discuss it in hackneyed phrases (“the men of violence”, etc.) which imply, in defiance of the experience of Britain itself, that life can be lived without politics, and that the requirements of democracy are met because Northern Ireland is ruled by a Government democratically elected in Britain even though the people of Northern Ireland had no part in its election or in the continuous party-political life within which elections occur.

There may be peoples whose gift it is to live quiet lives as individuals – as “ordinary decent citizens” – to live private and profitable lives in whatever political framework they find themselves, concerning themselves not at all with affairs of state provided the state lets them be. But such are not the English, Scots or Welsh. And yet the English, Scots and Welsh – or the politicians they elect – think it reasonable to require the Catholics of Northern Ireland to be such.

The Catholic Irish have been an intensely political people ever since the early 19th century, and yet British democracy has found it reasonable to require the large Catholic minority that was compelled to remain in the United Kingdom to live peaceably while excluded from the political dimension of the state and subjected to the political caricature of “Northern Ireland”. They have been expected to settle down not merely in a political vacuum, but under a political irritant.

That unreasonable requirement is the cause – and the justification insofar as cause is justification – of the IRA. Of course the IRA is not demanding that Northern Ireland should be included within the political dimension of the UK state – quite the contrary. But the fact that Northern Ireland has been excluded from the political dimension of the UK state for close on three-quarters of a century has had consequences which enable the IRA to sustain a war for the purpose of getting the province transferred to the Irish Republic.

And the longer British democracy keeps Northern Ireland excluded from its political dimension, the stronger is the momentum that builds up for a united Ireland. It may well turn out that the point of no return was passed this year.

John Hume set out on his political career about thirty years ago. He was in the first instance the politician of ordinary decent citizenship. He rejected the politics of the Nationalist Party and urged Catholics to settle down within the UK – even within the caricature of the UK called the Government of Northern Ireland.

He set an example by himself becoming an ordinary decent businessman in Derry. And now here he is putting his reputation as a “constitutional nationalist” on the line by negotiating with Gerry Adams. It is an entirely reasonable course of development produced by the irrational constitutional entity called Northern Ireland. “Ordinary decent citizenship” for the bulk of the people has political preconditions, and these preconditions have never been met in Northern Ireland.

Hume has been hounded by a pack of Dublin journalists this Autumn. Conor Cruise O’Brien is the leader of the pack. Hume has been denounced as a virtual Provo for talking to Adams. And Dick Spring, Labour Foreign Minister, has been bracketed as a fellow-traveller for talking to Hume after Hume had talked to Adams.

The attack was launched from the viewpoint of the Peace Train People and New Consensus. It took no account at all of the predicament of the Northern Catholics. The basic responsibility of Britain – of British democracy, if we are to take democracy in earnest – for the shambles of Northern Ireland was rejected without even a mention. The turmoil in the North was attributed to the evils of Republicanism both in the form of the IRA and of articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s Constitution.

The Ulster Unionists, who governed the Province for half a century without giving a second thought to the impossible position in which its political arrangements placed the large and growing Catholic minority and whose aim remains to take up where they left off in 1972, were treated as victims. And the proposed solution – as often expounded by O’Brien and not contradicted by his associates – was internment. A political settlement was discounted as Utopian, and military pacification was thought to be a policy of hardheaded realpolitik.

Although the Peace Train People never represented more than a small fraction of Irish public opinion – a section of the fashionable middle class and the Workers Party/Democratic Left – they have a high media profile, and it seemed for a moment earlier this year as if the London and Dublin Governments were thinking of adopting their policy. There were hints that the Republicans were to be interned, the SDLP by-passed, and a settlement acceptable to Ille Unionists imposed along with some empty gestures towards a United Ireland.

That was the point at which John Hume began to negotiate with Gerry Adams. Their negotiations may or may not lead to something positive in Ille long run, but in Ille short run they had the useful negative effect of blighting the Dublin 4 scheme in Ille bud by showing all concerned that Ille Catholics were going to conduct themselves as a community, treating party differences as secondary, and that they would respond as a united community if it was attempted to put that scheme into effect. The game of playing off the SDLP against Sinn Fein was not going to happen.

A great effort was then made to split the SDLP. Jesuitical John Hume was singled out as a hate figure, and Seamus Mallon was declared to be an honest constitutional nationalist and was plied with flattery. But to no avail. At the moment of greatest pressure. immediately after the Shankill Road bombing, Hume left it to Mallon to defend Ille Adams talks in Parliament, and Mallon did it well.

Only Dr. Joe Hendron showed any eagerness to condemn Hume. Hendron won the West Belfast seat from Adams last year by inducing some Loyalists in the Shankill to engage in tactical voting in support of him, and also by breaking election law. (He was taken to Court on the latter issue. The Court found that Ille law had been broken in his election campaign but it made the political decision not to unseat him.)

If the SDLP was locked in deadly conflict with Sinn Fein, Hendron’s strategic position would be strong within the Party. But it isn’t, so his position is weak. And many Catholics who are far from being Provos felt it was not the best thing when Hendron took West Belfast with Loyalist support.

The Hume/Adams negotiations were met with cries of “Pan-nationalism” by C.C. O’Brien and the Dublin 4 elements, and by Unionists (including Ille Democracy Now contingent). It was an absurd cry – a tautology. Pan-nationalism means no more than nationalism. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are both nationalist parties of Ille same nation. If Ille SDLP had allowed itself to be played against Sinn Fein so as to neutralise the will of the Catholic community as· a whole and permit a settlement in Ille Unionist interest, it would simply have ceased to be nationalist to any practical purpose. By acting as it did it merely confirmed that it was nationalist.

The term “Pan-nationalist” with its awful overtones, is just a piece of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Northern Ireland remains, as ever, inhabited by Nationalists and Unionists and people who wish to be something else but have been denied Ille opportunity by British Democracy.


This article appeared in November 1993, in Issue 38 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and

[A] ‘Ulster Freedom Fighters’ – widely believed to have been a front for the UDA.  See

[B] UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant Paramilitary force formed in 1966.  Separate from and sometimes hostile to the UDA.