Mural in Londonderry depicting a scene from the 1969 "Battle of the Bogside" Photo: Spumador / Shutterstock.com

The civil resistance campaign in Northern Ireland

  • November 30, 2019

Imperialism & Insurgency

In early 1970s Northern Ireland, mass civil resistance played a crucial role in the fall of the Stormont assembly — despite the IRA laying sole claim to the victory.

Established narratives of the conflict in Northern Ireland usually overlook the role of civil resistance in challenging British rule during the early 1970s. Historians recognize that street protests demanding civil rights in 1968–69 played a vital role in destabilizing the Unionist power structure that was embodied in the local assembly at Stormont.

But conventional wisdom suggests that protest movements faded away after the eruption of violence in August 1969, which led to the deployment of British troops as the guerrilla warfare of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) came to the fore. In fact, there was a powerful resurgence of protest during a twelve-month period after Brian Faulkner’s Unionist government began arresting republican suspects without trial in August 1971.

The protest guru Gene Sharp later adopted the term “civil resistance” to describe his preference for Gandhian forms of agitation, but it was already commonly used by activists in Northern Ireland who prioritized mass action over armed struggle. Civil resistance in this sense need not be non-violent in a way that Gandhi or Sharp would have recognized, but it does not involve creating a specialized military force with its own weapons. There were three moments during the conflict when civil resistance reached a peak — 1968–69, 1971–72, 1980–81 — all of which proved to be of decisive importance.

The self-image of Irish republicans has often been profoundly elitist: they saw themselves as a courageous, self-sacrificing vanguard, winning freedom for the masses. In practice, it was only when republicans and others were able to mobilize those masses as a force in their own right that their efforts left a permanent mark on Irish history.

The IRA leadership never recognized the importance of civil resistance in precipitating the fall of Stormont in March 1972, wrongly believing that all the credit lay with their own efforts. The regression to narrow militarism in the period that followed led to a sharp decline in the tempo of civil resistance for the rest of the 1970s.

What follows is an excerpt from Daniel Finn’s One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (Verso Books, 2019).


Operation Demetrius began in the early hours of August 4, 1971. Throughout Northern Ireland, British soldiers fanned out to arrest suspects, kicking down doors and dragging their targets away. The authorities set up a camp to house the detainees at Long Kesh, where they were kept in prefabricated huts, surrounded by observation towers and barbed wire — a symbolic own goal for the British Army, as it reminded many people of the German POW camps from movies like The Great Escape.

The descriptions of brutal interrogation methods that began filtering out were much more damaging. Detainees reported abuse of various kinds, from beatings to sleep deprivation. Soldiers had thrown some blindfolded men from helicopters that were hovering a few feet above the ground, after telling them they were about to plunge to their deaths.

The most immediate result of internment was a dramatic upsurge in violence across the region. In the first seven months of 1971, there had been 34 deaths. Now, 17 people lost their lives within two days, with 140 to follow by the end of the year. The chaos transformed large parts of Belfast and Derry into battle-zones, with Provisional and Official IRAs temporarily forgetting their political differences to fight side by side. Recruitment to both groups skyrocketed.

A civil service briefing, drafted shortly after the arrests began, warned that the region now stood on the brink of disaster: “Economic collapse and social chaos are not remote contingencies but are looming realities within a period which is to be measured in weeks or months rather than years.”

An unprecedented campaign of mass civil disobedience added to the pressure on the Unionist leader Brian Faulkner. A rent-and-rates strike by council tenants won solid backing among working-class nationalists. By the end of September, there were 26,000 households on strike, representing one-fifth of the 135,000 local authority tenants. Faulkner’s government claimed that republicans had coerced tenants into withholding payments, but in private his civil servants recognized “the great mass of sincere and immediate support from the rank and file” that lay behind it: “The relative success of the campaign from the beginning is probably due less to any organization behind it, which can only have been minimal, than to the conviction of individual participants that their cause was just.”

In tandem with the strike, nationalist anger expressed itself in the form of “no-go areas” in Derry and Belfast where it was no longer safe for British troops to enter. Local people re-established the barricades that had been gradually dismantled after August 1969 and turned them into impressive fortifications. Republican guerrillas may have posed the greatest threat to British soldiers who tried to breach the no-go zones, but their efforts alone would not have been enough to deter a full-scale invasion by the Army. It was the opposition they faced from the nationalist population as a whole that kept the troops out.

A confidential briefing at the end of 1971 described the challenge facing the authorities in Derry: “At present neither the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary, armed police force recruited predominantly from the unionist population in Northern Ireland] nor the military have control of the Bogside and Creggan areas, law and order are not being effectively maintained and the Security Forces now face an entirely hostile Catholic community numbering 33,000 in these two areas alone.” For the Joint Intelligence Committee at Westminster, the civil resistance campaign was “perhaps the most threatening feature of the present situation in Northern Ireland.”

Bloody Sunday

The importance of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry should require no emphasis. The killing of 14 nationalist civilians by the British Army in January 1972 has received more attention than any other incident of the Troubles, and was the subject of a decade-spanning inquiry that cost several hundred million pounds. However, for all the ink spilt on the events of that day, the wider context in which Bloody Sunday was embedded has not been given the same attention. Without examining that context, it is impossible to make political sense of what happened in Derry.

In the final weeks of 1971, Brian Faulkner suddenly had to grapple with an upsurge of protest. On Christmas Day, the Northern Resistance Movement (NRM) — an umbrella group set up by the Provisional republicans and a small Marxist organization called People’s Democracy — led an anti-internment march that reached the gates of Long Kesh.

Then, on the first weekend of January 1972, Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) — chief organizer of the marches that destabilized the Unionist system in 1968–69 — organized a demonstration on the Falls Road in Belfast. Five thousand people heard Paddy Devlin and Austin Currie of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) — a non-violent nationalist party — pledge there would be no talks with the British government until it released all the internees.

These protests posed an immediate challenge to Stormont’s authority, as Faulkner had imposed a ban on all street processions to coincide with internment, which he extended in January 1972. But the forces behind the new wave of protest were determined to assert the legitimacy of such tactics, as Eamonn McCann later explained: “None of the other forms of protest provided a way for the mass of working-class people to become actively involved in the fight. The rent-and-rates strike had its attractions, but it was a passive sort of activity. The armed struggle could, of its nature, involve only a few, while rioting was appropriate mainly to the energetic young.”

NICRA raised the stakes higher still by organizing a march on January 22 to Magilligan, just north of Derry, where the authorities had recently opened another camp for internees. Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment prevented the marchers from reaching the camp by firing rubber bullets and striking freely with their batons. One soldier was heard remarking to his officer: “I thought we were here to stop them, not massacre them.” NICRA then announced its intention to defy the ban once more with a demonstration in Derry on January 30.

The local RUC commander, Frank Lagan, wanted to minimize the danger of a violent confrontation. According to Brendan Duddy, a local businessman who acted as an intermediary between Lagan and the two IRAs, he received assurances from both factions that their members would not bring weapons on the march or use it as an opportunity to attack the Army. But the Army commander Robert Ford ignored Lagan’s advice and decided to use the protest as the occasion for mass arrests, aiming to “scoop up as many hooligans as possible.”

Ford chose the Paras, known to be the most aggressive of all the regiments stationed in Northern Ireland, as the agent of his plan. By one reporter’s estimate, 20,000 people joined the demonstration as it made its way towards the city center. When the marchers reached the Army barricade, the Paras went into action, cheered on by Ford. By the time they were finished, the soldiers had shot 13 civilians dead; another victim later died of his wounds.

Journalists quickly established that every known fact and every available eyewitness contradicted the Army’s version of events. However, the British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling still used that account as the basis for his speech in the House of Commons, claiming that the soldiers had acted in self-defense after coming under sustained fire.

Bernadette Devlin, who had been present on the march, could not endure Maudling’s performance and threw a punch at him. A Conservative MP spoke about Devlin as if she was an exotic anthropological specimen: “It is only by listening to her words that one can plumb the depths of the bitterness and hatred that is rampant amongst the minority in Northern Ireland today.” But the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt gave Devlin his firm support. Facing a chorus of heckling from Tory backbenchers, Fitt lashed out at his fellow MPs: “I realize more and more as this debate progresses that I am an Irishman, and you are Englishmen. You have no understanding, no sympathy, and no conscience for the people who live in Londonderry.”

“A rather one-sided interpretation”

For supporters of the Provisional IRA, Bloody Sunday sounded the death knell for the tactic of unarmed protest: from now on, force would have to be met with force. That was certainly the view of the young men and women who flocked to join the Provos after the Derry massacre. But in fact the civil resistance campaign entered its most intense phase in the weeks that followed.

On February 6, a NICRA demonstration in Newry attracted more than 50,000 people, despite warnings that the violence in Derry might be repeated and threats of mass arrest broadcast to the marchers from a low-flying helicopter. Sympathy for northern nationalists in the South began to assume organized form for the first time, with protest committees springing up and trade unionists calling for a general strike, hastily rebranded as a day of national mourning by Jack Lynch’s government.

Meanwhile an angry crowd burnt the British Embassy in Dublin to the ground as police stood by helpless. The no-go areas were consolidated, the rent-and-rates strike strengthened. With the SDLP still boycotting Stormont and refusing to negotiate while internment continued, Faulkner and Heath now faced a nationalist population united in rejection of their authority.

Two months after Bloody Sunday, the British ambassador in Dublin passed on a copy of the report by Lord Widgery, who had been tasked by Edward Heath with investigating the events in Derry. The civil servant who received the ambassador drily observed that Widgery’s account appeared to be “a rather one-sided interpretation,” and wondered “how those in Derry, who were fully familiar with what had happened, would take the report.”

This proved to be a classic case of diplomatic understatement. The Widgery Report did almost as much to inflame nationalist fury as the massacre itself. Its author held the organizers of the march responsible for what had happened, expressed “strong suspicion” that some of the victims had been “firing weapons or handling bombs,” and found “no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Widgery’s conclusions are no longer considered defensible by the British authorities after the publication of Lord Saville’s 2010 report and the acceptance of its findings by the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron. However, Saville’s report did not resolve the dispute about political responsibility for the massacre. He placed the blame firmly on the soldiers and their immediate commanding officer, Derek Wilford. But his findings glossed over the role played by Wilford’s superior Robert Ford and his deputy Mike Jackson, who later became the Army’s chief of staff. If Saville had given Ford and Jackson their due share of attention, it would have been much harder for David Cameron to endorse his findings without discrediting the Army as an institution.

In any case, the question of responsibility cannot be limited to the decisions made before and during the march. Widgery’s report was as much a part of the story as the shots fired three months earlier. By carefully obscuring all the evidence that members of 1 Para were guilty of unlawful killings, Britain’s most eminent judge gave his stamp of approval to the battalion’s conduct in Derry, indicating to nationalists that participation in a banned march could now be punished by summary execution. The Heath government fully endorsed this verdict.

“Jesus, we have it!”

The turbulent aftermath of Bloody Sunday dealt the final blow to the Stormont administration and obliged Heath to change direction. When Faulkner refused to hand over security powers to Westminster, the British government imposed direct rule on March 24, ending half a century of Unionist Party rule. British civil servants began putting out feelers for a new political initiative that might bring the SDLP and the Irish government back onside and isolate the republican guerrillas.

As Faulkner addressed a rally of supporters outside the suspended parliament, those who had raised the slogan “Smash Stormont!” had to ask themselves: what now? Divisions within the nationalist community that had been papered over since internment — between radicals and conservatives, militarists and those who favored civil resistance — now reasserted themselves.

The Official IRA announced a ceasefire in May 1972, with a message that described “a growing awareness by the leadership of the Republican Movement that we had been drawn into a war that was not of our choosing.” A confidential briefing prepared for Edward Heath in the summer of 1972 gave a shrewd assessment of the OIRA ceasefire, noting that the movement had “always been more willing than the Provisionals to envisage the possibility of working through the institutions of Northern Ireland — as an intermediate measure — and to cooperate so far as they have been able with the Protestant working class.”

The Officials had felt obliged to match the violence of the Provos in order to keep their own members on board and maintain their position in the Catholic ghettos, but their desire to avoid sectarian conflict was perfectly genuine: “Secret sources have confirmed their feelings in this regard.”

The OIRA ceasefire made it easier for the Provisionals to call a truce of their own. An MI6 officer, Frank Steele, held preliminary discussions with two Provo commanders, Dáithí Ó Conaill and Gerry Adams, which paved the way for a ceasefire in June. As soon as the truce began, Heath’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, invited the Provisional leadership for secret talks on the region’s future.

The IRA’s chief of staff Seán Mac Stíofáin headed a delegation that included several younger militants such as Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ivor Bell, who had to be talked out of wearing his combat fatigues for the occasion. The Provos insisted that Britain should declare its intention to withdraw all troops by the end of 1974, and allow the island’s future to be determined by an all-Ireland poll.

British officials who took part in these abortive negotiations later accused the Provisional leaders of adopting a completely unrealistic attitude. According to one participant from the British side, Seán Mac Stíofáin conducted himself “like Montgomery at Lüneberg Heath telling the German generals what they should and shouldn’t do if they wanted peace.” This description of Mac Stíofáin’s outlook appears close to the truth, judging by his own recollections of Provo super-confidence after the fall of Stormont, as well as the account of the talks that Gerry Adams later supplied. According to Adams, when the Provisional delegation broke off to discuss what their British counterparts had said, Mac Stíofáin exclaimed, “Jesus, we have it!”

If so, the Provisional chief of staff had a greatly exaggerated sense of what the British government might have been willing to concede at the time. Having failed to achieve their maximum goals, the Provos had little alternative but to return to war, since the movement had no political wing that could advance their agenda in the absence of a military campaign.

No short-cuts

The Provisionals were now keen to make full use of a new weapon: the car bomb. As Mike Davis points out in his history of the “poor man’s air force,” the conflict in Northern Ireland became a grisly milestone: the first time that urban guerrillas combined homemade bombs with motor vehicles to ravage a modern city. The military potential of this innovation exhilarated Mac Stíofáin and his comrades, who geared up for a final push that would eject Britain from Irish soil once and for all.

However, they had not reflected on another aspect of the new weapon noted by Davis: “Like even the ‘smartest’ of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate: ‘collateral damage’ is virtually inevitable. If the logic of an attack is to slaughter civilians and sow panic in the widest circles, to operate a ‘strategy of tension’ or just demoralize a society, car bombs are ideal. But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support.”

On the afternoon of July 21, 1972, 21 bombs went off in Belfast’s city center, killing seven civilians and two soldiers and leaving more than 130 people wounded. Although the IRA had phoned in warnings, there were too many devices for the security forces to cope with at once. Gruesome scenes of human flesh and body parts being shoveled into plastic bags featured on the national news.

“Bloody Friday” was a propaganda disaster for the Provos, and provided William Whitelaw and the Army with the opportunity they had been waiting for. Ten days later, Operation Motorman swept aside the no-go areas in Belfast and Derry. The Army started to impose a new military architecture of barracks and observation towers on the Catholic ghettos, destined to overshadow the urban landscape for the next two decades.

The Derry Officials urged their republican rivals to end the dalliance with car bombs: “Bombing is an elitist tactic. It does not involve the people. This is true, of course, of all military activity, of the armed defense of the area or of offensive guerrilla activities such as we, as well as the Provisionals, engaged in until recently. But it is uniquely true of urban bombing which demands a tiny group, or perhaps a single person acting clandestinely.”

Such methods were no substitute for a political organization “confident of its own strength, conscious of its own involvement in real politics and clear about its objectives. You cannot bomb an organization like that into existence. You have to build it, and there are no short-cuts.”

But the exhortation fell on deaf ears. Car bombs had a long future ahead of them in Northern Ireland. The Provisionals went on to devise ever-more sophisticated versions and take their war to the heart of Britain’s elite, claiming hundreds of civilian lives along the way. They would also belatedly accept the need for a political struggle to be waged alongside their military campaign. But civil resistance never reached the heights it had known between Demetrius and Motorman again.


One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA by Daniel Finn is available now from Verso.

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Daniel Finn

Daniel Finn is the deputy editor of the New Left Review. He gained his PhD for a study of the IRA’s political history during the Troubles. He writes regularly for New Left Review, Jacobin and the London Review of Books. He lives in London.

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