Victims or Villains: An examination of the paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland, 1967 to 1998

The conflict experienced by Ireland, both internal and external, is universally recognised for its longevity and impact upon the local and national community. Within recent decades, such conflict has been focused on, particularly by the international media, as one of religious disunity and contention between the Protestant and Catholic communities, however, the protracted and convoluted history of the conflict within Ireland implies a far more multifarious nature than the popular media portrayal would suggest.

While religion is the most tangible and conspicuous aspect of Ireland’s conflict, the political factors resulting in animosity between the British mainland and Ireland during, and subsequent to, the twelfth century, in many ways initiated the situation, exacerbating tensions and resulting in the evolution of disparate political and sectarian factions still in evidence during the twenty-first century. The Irish question once occupied an undisputed place at the centre of British political life. For much of the period between 1880 and 1921 it provided the raison d’être for British party conflict. The two major British parties pursued profoundly opposed Irish partners, themselves locked in deep and seemingly insoluble dispute as to the future of their country. Few features of the British political scene seemed to posses anything like the permanence of the Irish question, and very few also had its bitterness and violence.

The majority of United Kingdom citizens born since the 1960s are familiar with, at least, the major political and paramilitary groups claiming varying degrees of power in Ireland, having grown up to a backdrop of seemingly endless media reports of violence, conflict, and the bloody aftermath of terrorist activity within Ireland and the British mainland. However, political violence, particularly aimed at British rule, is not a phenomenon exclusive to the twentieth century. The crisis over the question of Irish Home Rule and the compromising Kilmainham Treaty in the 1880s, viewed as a betrayal by the Irish extremist wing, led to the death of the new Irish Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary T. H. Burke, in an incident known as the Phoenix Park Murders. Though Irish Nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell denounced the actions of the ‘Invincibles’ who claimed responsibility for the murders, the incident was a turning point in organised political violence in protest for Irish independence from Britain (O’Day, 1977).

The violent conflict within Ireland and Britain, particularly resulting from paramilitary activities are often portrayed in media in ‘terrorist’ terminology; an unwavering attitude of revulsion against what is frequently represented as a simplistic history of aggression, brutality and terror conducted between religiously disparate fanatics vying for control of their country.  However, the axiom of ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ could not be more accurate than when assessing the paramilitary forces of Ireland.

Introduction - An overview

The previous centuries have seen Ireland misrepresented and misunderstood; a former colony of mainland Britain tenuously established and enthusiastically controlled by the English parliament. The oppressive regulations imposed on the country evolved into an anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain: a political parti pris, resulting in the abolition of Catholic entitlement to the ownership of land, the traditional Irish language, and an embargo placed on the participation in customary Celtic sports and games (Boyce, 1982). The political motivations behind the unrelenting and vehement control of the Irish population nine centuries ago are particularly relevant to the current conflict within Northern Ireland, specifically the settlement of the English within the country and the ensuing partisan laws in favour of the new colonists thereby alienating the native Catholic population. Settlement from England was again witnessed in the seventeenth century, with the arrival and distribution of the army and supporting population of Oliver Cromwell: a second colonial machination of the British Government resulting from a political agenda. Cromwell’s settlers were overwhelmingly Protestant, and the political scheme encouraged the gradual, but definite, subjugation and dispossession of the resident Catholic population (Moody and Martin, 1995). It was during the seventeenth century colonialism that British history first witnessed specific and organised antagonism between the two religious factions of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; prior to this, twelfth century dissension was disjointed and sporadic, but the seventeenth century onwards witnessed strong, persuasive convictions of animosity, contempt and hostility between the two religions, frequently resulting in incidents of militancy. 

The struggle by the Irish to rid themselves of the political and economic control of the British mainland culminated during the First World War. At the outbreak of the conflict, Home Rule had been on the verge of passing into law. The Liberal government in Britain decided to pass Home Rule, but suspended its operation for the duration. As a result, the Irish Nationalist Party was left vulnerable to attack by critics on the nationalist side, many of whom were strongly placed in the nationalist military movement (Feuchtwanger, 1989). At Easter, 1916, a small faction seized the centre of Dublin and held it for a week: a somewhat poetic insurgency. They had little hope of military victory, but intended to make a gesture that would radicalise nationalist opinion and create pressure for an independent Irish Republic, a gesture which proved successful. The ensuing arbitration between Britain and Ireland, however, resulted in the loss of six northern counties for the Republic of Ireland: though the soon-to-be partitioned Northern Ireland remained the single region in the country which possessed a relatively equal quantity of Protestant and Catholic citizens, genuine control was held indisputably by the Protestant faction, resulting in inequitable, inferior rights for the Catholic population (Foster, 1989). At the general election of 1918, the Irish Nationalist Party suffered virtual annihilation and the radical movement’s MPs under the umbrella of Sinn Fein seceded from Westminster and formed the first Dail in Dublin (Moody and Martin, 1995). Between 1919 and 1921 the final scenes were played out. British rule in the south and west gradually disintegrated as the Dail’s military wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), mounted an increasingly successful guerrilla campaign. The Dail itself successfully usurped many of the functions of the British state, establishing its own courts and raising revenue. British countermeasures grew ever more drastic and further alienated nationalist opinion (Moody and Martin, 1995). Partition appeared in 1920, but was not secure until the Irish Treaty of December 1921 that ended the war in the south. The Lloyd George government skilfully negotiated with Sinn Fein to secure a settlement very favourable from the British angle: Ireland was to have Dominion status, with provision for British military bases to be retained at strategic ports. The nationalist demand for an end to Partition was met by the proposal to establish a boundary commission to adjudicate on the north-south border, with the hint that its findings might render a separate Northern Ireland unviable: a fig leaf for the nationalists, which unsurprisingly came to nothing (Feuchtwanger, 1989). The settlement of 1921 neatly removed the Irish question from the British political agenda for almost fifty years. The forces that shaped settlement and brought about partition remain controversial because the present dispute in Ireland turns upon opposing theories on those questions.

Fortified and mobilised bellicosity abated following the 1921 Irish Treaty, however, inequalities in civil rights between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland remained in evidence in the 1960s, an unremarkable and somewhat anticipated consequence of the Protestant majority in Ireland’s Parliament (Foster, 1989). While relative harmony existed in the countryside, violence and antagonism occurring between the two religious factions increased exponentially within the larger cities, particularly evident in Londonderry (Derry) and Belfast, with bloody and ferocious rioting in 1968 and ‘69. During the 1960s, the activities of the Irish Republican Army, particularly those of violence, aggression and retaliation, burgeoned to levels previously unseen in Ireland’s history. Many larger cities developed a culture of assaults and retroaction, specifically between Irish and British paramilitary units, with retribution enforced for seemingly minor infractions between civilians: ‘punishments’ for personal relationships and reprisals for withstanding pressure to join and support the various and numerous paramilitary forces within the country (Asher, 2003). The political and civilian climate within Northern Ireland evolved into one of extreme animosity, retaliation and suspicion, a climate which continued unrelentingly for decades thereafter. Though the British Government attempted to control the increasingly concerning paramilitary hostilities in the country by reinforcing Northern Ireland with British army troops, bombings and campaigns of violence intensified between Protestant paramilitary organisations and the Irish Republican Army: a conflict which endured into the 1990s and became euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’ (Mulholland, 2003).

In 1985, the twentieth century witnessed the first proactive effort to effectuate and realise a peaceful conclusion to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, recognising the right of the Republic of Ireland to undertake an advisory capacity in the politics of Northern Ireland, was the creation of Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish PM Garrett Fitzgerald. However, hopes were short-lived, with Protestant politicians outspokenly repelling the Agreement, thereby obstructing and preventing its execution (Dawson and Walsh, 2004). Discourse to resolve ‘the Troubles’ was predominantly quadripartite, involving the opposing and frequent adversarial Protestant and Catholic officials, and the Irish and British mainland governments; euphemistically and colloquially referred to as ‘talks’, these negotiations intensified during the early 1990s, only achieving a promising status in 1994 with the announcements of an official ceasefire by the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army. Previously barred from peace negotiations on the grounds of associative terrorist activity, the ceasefire allowed the participation of the political branch of the IRA, Sinn Fein, in the talks (Taylor, 1997). Though initially auspicious, Sinn Fein’s involvement in the peace talks was continually inhibited by its association with the IRA: the republican stance for the removal of British agents from Ireland resulted in counterstrokes from Britain demanding that the Irish Republican Army disarm before equally-weighted negotiations could occur, particularly evident during the first authoritatively sanctioned arbitration between the British and Sinn Fein in 1994. The relationship between official political bodies and the relatively illegal paramilitary organisations in Ireland imply a greater complexity to ‘the Troubles’ than merely a period of terrorist activity. Concern over the reluctance of the IRA to undertake disarmament progressed for the duration of the peace negotiations of the 1990s. Cross-party discourse continued into 1995, with the proposal to establish a form of self-government for Northern Ireland, with legislation regarding tourism, education, health and agriculture determined by interior politics. In effect, this was a latter-day version of the nineteenth century proposition of Home Rule. The stalemate between the Irish Republican Army and the political factions, specifically a result of their refusal of disarmament, was diffused by the introduction of mediation in the form of US senator George Mitchell. Issuing a report in January, 1996, Mitchell advocated disarmament of the IRA; an event which was theoretically supposed to occur during the course of peace negotiations and on a gradual basis (Coogan, 2002). February 1996, however, witnessed the collapse of the ceasefire announced by the IRA, resulting in the reiteration of the prohibition of Sinn Fein from the negotiations. From political pressure, both domestic and external, the Irish Republican Army resumed its official ceasefire a year later, thereby allowing the manifestation of comprehensive and totalitarian peace talks in 1997. Though the extremist Democratic Unionist Party refused to participate in the negotiations, the majority of Northern Ireland’s dissident political groups were in attendance, with particular significance placed on the involvement of the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein (The Economist, 1997).

Genuine and realistic optimism for the success of the peace process was realised in April 1998 with the milestone Good Friday Agreement, the culmination of historic and unprecedented negotiations in the United Kingdom (Bardon, 2005). The Agreement determined the requirement for the establishment of a sanctioned and elected congress consisting of multiple political parties possessing devolved, relegated control of Ireland. It was through the Good Friday Agreement that the Catholic population finally achieved authentic and irrefutable political power in Northern Ireland, and the Republic attained a measure of control over the affairs of Ireland, under the caveat that Ireland would remain partitioned until the Protestant population of the north officially decided upon unity in a recognised referendum. The decades between the rioting in the 1960s and the eventual realistic promise of peace in the 1990s witnessed a deliberate and relatively emphatic venture in resolving the Irish conflict, however, British armed forces remained in definite presence in Ireland until the early 1990s. Estimations of the total number of deaths as a result of ‘the Troubles’ suggest a figure in the region of 3,000 victims (McKittrick, 2004).

Pre-1968 History of ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland
For centuries Ireland had experienced emasculating and undermining foreign rule, however, in 1921 a newly demoralising predicament: partition. The division in Ireland eventually resulted in an intensification of the violence and animosity between the relatively affluent Protestants in the north and the Catholic majority in the remainder of Ireland. The nineteenth century witnessed a disparity in civil rights between the Catholic and Protestant communities, with the Catholics enduring limited constitutional entitlements in comparison with other British citizens. Consequentially, conflict and unrest materialised, despite fervent, if ineffectual, assurances of recompense by parliamentary officials. The lacklustre performance of politicians to reform the discriminatory situation of the Catholic population resulted in the emergence of a Catholic campaign for Irish self-rule. Generically opposed on principle initially by both the British Government and the Irish Protestants, conflict, tension and violence resulted in multifaction discourse and the agreement of Partition for the newly-formed Eire and Northern Ireland, with the loss of six northern counties to the United Kingdom (Bardon, 2005). Partition, however, was not the objective of the Catholic majority, and the decades subsequent to 1921 witnessed violent campaigning for the reunification of Northern Ireland and Eire, with an estrangement from British government, and equally tempestuous rioting from the Protestant faction.

Despite appearances of peace and relative amicability within Ireland during the 1960s, predominantly due to continuing promises for reform on the part of the British parliament, Catholic unrest reached an apex in 1968. Organisations and movements had been established in an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies in Protestant and Catholic civil rights, primarily revolving around demonstrations and relatively passive marches through Northern Ireland, however, the extreme Protestant Free Presbyterian Church, led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, refuted any dispensations to the Catholic population and encouraged rioting in Belfast (Boulton, 1973). The tension that followed, particularly with regard to accusations of discrimination by the predominantly Protestant local council over housing, employment and social welfare, climaxed in 1968 with the unexpected eruption of violence, and subsequent rioting, during a Catholic Londonderry march (Bruce, 1992a). Consequentially, the British armed forces intervened in 1969 in an attempt to maintain peace in Northern Ireland, and remained in situ for the following three decades.

Despite the violence emanating from the religious conflict and formation of embryonic paramilitary organisations, ‘the Troubles’ in Ireland were more complex than a mere resort to terrorism. The 1960s was a period of global history which experienced some of the most emphatic and vehement protestations of civil rights, and many historians have subsequently attested that this was the primary impetus behind the Catholic and Protestant rioting in Ireland: Catholics witnessed the civil rights conflicts in other countries and felt compelled and justified in taking their own stance against perceived religious, social and political injustices (Drake, 1996). Conversely, the instigation of ‘the Troubles’ has been laid firmly at the feet of various official organisations, such as the police, the British army, and illegal paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (Taylor, 1999). In actuality, the realistic causation for the ebullition of civil and political unrest between Protestant and Catholic factions is an amalgamation of the proposed theories, with historic Catholic frustration and dispossession as the nucleus.

The warring factions within Ireland have a history that spans nine hundred years. Ireland was colonised in the 1160s by the invading and conquering Normans, and for approximately nine centuries the country was subjected to the politically motivated partial control of the British parliament; maintained as a pseudo province of the British Isles, Ireland finally fell under the complete domination of Britain in 1603 with the defeat of the Irish at Ulster. While Britain held tenuous supremacy over Ulster, the province was potentially a threat to the sovereignty of the British government in Ireland: as a countermeasure, Ulster was consigned to imported Scottish farmers to certify the region would not be sold to the indigenous Irish. Retrospectively, this strategy proved highly successful and, many historians claim, developed the initial, fundamental problems within Ireland experienced in the twentieth century (Foster, 1989). The conflict within and external to Northern Ireland is not a modern manifestation of religious or social tensions, therefore, and has a firm, grounded provenance within the extensive history of the British Isles. While the majority of the conflict occurs visibly between antagonistic and violent paramilitary forces, the environment which spawned such a conflict is decidedly intertwined with the political climate of the country and the associated interventions by an alien ruling class (Davis, 1994).

The seventeenth century witnessed the British subjugation of the Irish population, with the successful quelling of numerous native rebellions, particularly those by the Cromwellian army, and the vanquishing of the Catholic Jacobite army by the Protestant William III at the Battle of the Boyne. The English Civil War had decimated the coffer of Oliver Cromwell and, in attempt to secure the finances to pay his army, the puritan invaded and sequestered approximately eighty per cent of Irish land. As compensation, the impoverished and destitute native landowners were granted inferior land in Connaught (Foster, 1989). The successful Scottish and English Protestants subsequently colonised the north of Ireland, with numerous settlers establishing residence in, and transforming the nature of, Ulster (Bardon, 2005). Settlement within the region individualised the character of Ulster and delineated it in comparison with the remainder of the predominantly Catholic country.

Disparities between the north and the south of Ireland expanded during the nineteenth century, particularly with regard to economic discrepancies. Industry and manufacturing burgeoned within the north of the country, and, consequentially, the quality of housing, wages, employment and resources improved dramatically. Conversely, the majority of the land in the south was owned, at least, by Protestant gentry and, subsequently, Catholic inhabitants in the south of Ireland faced a comparatively inferior standard of living (Foster, 1989). The nineteenth century generated a general unrest within the entire country, with efforts increasingly placed into striving for political reform. The Catholic Association, founded in 1823, maintained an objective for the equalitarianism of the Catholic population, an endeavour which was brutally truncated by the decimation of the Irish population as a result of the Potato Famine, and associated emigration, between 1845 and 1848. Irish citizens, particularly the Catholic population, believed such widespread annihilation, paucity of resources and destitution would have been prevented on the British mainland propagating further political and social unrest in Ireland Though Liberal Prime Minister William Ewert Gladstone promised to pacify Ireland in 1868, Irish legislation spectacularly backfired, the Liberals losing some fifty seats to a new Home Rule party in the subsequent 1874 general election (Feughtwanger, 1989). Martyrdom for Irish rebels was realised for the first time publicly in 1916 following the mismanagement and negligence by the British government of a small disturbance, the Easter Rising, whereby the leaders were executed by firing squad. This martyrdom, though originating in a relatively diminutive rebellion, resulted in Sinn Fein winning seventy-three of the one hundred and six Irish seats in Westminster (Boyce, 1982). The following years witnessed extremist guerrilla activities, with violence and casualties on both sides, culminating in a peace treaty for Partition in 1921. The British public at this time would be forgiven for believing the ‘Irish problem’ was, to all intents and purposes, resolved, however, events in the latter half of the twentieth century evidenced the protraction of the conflict between the tense and frustrated religious groups. Geography and religion play two essential roles in the continuation of such antagonism, with the Protestants in the north of Ireland insisting on their majority entitlement to arbitration over their inclusion in the United Kingdom, and conversely, the Catholics in the north demanding on inclusion in a unified, amalgamated Ireland (Taylor, 2000), both willing to employ violent, aggressive tactics to achieve their objective: the result was the conception and establishment of paramilitary forces who consider themselves above and not restricted by legalities.

Overview of Paramilitary Forces

The purposes for the formulation of paramilitary forces are diverse and multifaceted. Occasionally, a national government will determine the necessity for paramilitary police, such as the Gendarmerie in France as a form of domestic politically approved security force extraneous to the armed forces. In contrast, many paramilitary groups form as a result of political unrest and in opposition to the government, with such organisations frequently resorting to a methodology of guerrilla warfare, often referred to in the media as terrorism (Boyne, 1997). Falling between these two extremes are private militias and State implemented commando units purposed to undertake military missions extrinsic to the official armed forces (Bruce, 1992b). Finally, many paramilitary forces imitate military structure and discipline without appropriating the sanctioned nature of the endorsed military.

Conflict in Ireland is predominantly the responsibility of vying, opposing paramilitary groups. While the public is generally aware of the blatant, external differences between the groups - Protestant versus Catholic; Loyalist versus Republican - paramilitary organisations within Ireland also fall into two fundamentally distinct ideological groups. The first are forms of security forces, constitutionally organised in theory but neither military armed forces nor sanctioned police. These specific forces are both illegal and generally considered problematic to the very solution they are allegedly striving for. The superficial and public explanation for the existence of this type of paramilitary organisation frequently consists of the security of a country in prevention of rebellion, however, de facto these groups generally endeavour to prevent change, and are managed and manipulated by a political party (Bruce, 1992b). These paramilitary forces are customarily financed by private benefactors, such as local interest groups and foreign supporters. Dependent on the dogma the paramilitary group subscribes to, these forces traditionally operate external from the recognised law and antithetical to the official military and civilian authorities (Taylor, 1999b). While these types of paramilitary organisations vary from culture to culture and nation to nation, conventionally these groups enjoy a certain degree of official tolerance. Regulated by their level of financial autonomy, governmental institutions and the independent paramilitary organisations frequently conduct a relationship of alliance, though occasionally this can extend to illegal cooperation and unlawful objectives and tactics (Silke, 1998a). This association, while frequently unofficial and publicly denied, may result in contraventions of national and international law, with many paramilitary forces operating to their own assemblage of political and economic parti pris, and accused of numerous global atrocities (Relatives for Justice, 1995). Within Ireland, this form of paramilitary force are in evidence in the Loyalist factions, with particular reference to the Ulster Freedom Fighters/Ulster Defence Association, the largest loyalist paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Volunteer Force, an association originally created in opposition to Home Rule pre-World War I.

Comparatively, the Irish Republican Army forms an entirely disparate paramilitary force in Northern Ireland. In direct and opposing conflict with the ruling government within a given nation, revolutionary paramilitary organisations frequently assemble, customarily conducting hostile action against occupying troops with the objective of insurgency resulting in the dissolution of the opposition (Coogan, 2002). The notoriety of and approval for these groups is predominantly dependent upon the reputation and actions of the paramilitary force’s opposition, and varies appurtenant to the viewpoint and aspirations of the observer. Frequently referred to as ‘partisans’ and ‘freedom’ or ‘resistance fighters‘ by enthusiasts, critics and detractors often view the same activities as terrorism and insurgency (Fay et al., 1999). Traditionally, these groups vary considerably from pseudo-legal security forces in their strength. These groups conventionally oppose a much stronger, longer established, and more populous enemy; a practice known as ‘asymmetric warfare’ (Taylor, 1997). Typically, nations which endure security-style paramilitary forces often develop rebellious organisations, and thereby, revolutionary paramilitary groups frequently embark upon hostilities against divergent paramilitaries in addition to conflict with the recognised government (Coogan, 2002). The IRA is a prime example of such a paramilitary group.

Ireland is comprised of a number of disparate, continually evolving political entities. The primary political parties consist of the Unionists and the Nationalists, with the former being the parliamentary descendents of the nineteenth century factions who opposed Home Rule. Between 1921 and 1972, all parliaments held the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) as the official government, however, more recently the UUP was joined by the newly established Democratic Unionist Party; subscribing to a more extreme form of unionism, the DUP possesses limited popular support in comparison with the UUP (Bruce, 1992b). The generic tenet of the unionist parties is comprised of an opposition towards Irish unity, preferring Northern Ireland to remain divorced from Republican interference in the affairs of the country. Comparatively, the nationalist parties share the principle of unification of Ireland. Political control is weighted towards the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), routinely denouncing the equally nationalist Sinn Fein and its ability to vote, predominantly due to Sinn Fein’s association with the Irish Republican Army (Taylor, 1997). These two nationalist groups are in total contrast with regard to their objective and recommended tactics, with the SDLP content to anticipate the approval of the Northern Irish majority before proceeding with any proactive unification endeavours, instead promoting a campaign for social, economical and religious reform. Sinn Fein, in contrast, openly controverts any involvement with the British parliament and disputes any authority the government in London possesses, claiming its directive in Northern Ireland is outdated and anachronous.  Despite pressure from the British government and various prominent political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly with reference to the prolonged peace negotiations, for many years Sinn Fein refused to castigate and publicly denounced armament of the IRA (Coogan, 2002).

The relationships between the official political parties and the paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland are habitually intertwined, and, in some instances, predominantly co-dependent. Both Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, for example, propose the necessity of the forceful removal of British political power in Northern Ireland. Although initially created ostensibly as a response to the perceived threat towards the Catholic minority in the north of Ireland, attempting to defend the marginalised and frustrated communities, the IRA’s militia activities rapidly dispersed from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain, and eventually into Europe. Correspondingly, the loyalist parties harbour their own paramilitary factions, however, the chronology of violence is much in dispute. It is generally unclear whether loyalist activities form a reactive type of retribution, responding only when republican violence has occurred, however, republican movements historically preceded those of the loyalist paramilitaries (Taylor, 1999a). Despite this pattern, between 1990 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 Northern Ireland experienced a diametrical shift in the chronology of paramilitary activities: a seemingly unprecedented excess of loyalist murders in comparison to those committed by republican forces (Silke, 1999).

By far the most conspicuous paramilitary organisation, specifically with regard to media coverage and notoriety within mainland Britain, is the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Officially entitled the Provisional Irish Republican Army in an attempt to differentiate itself from the other republican paramilitaries, the (P)IRA is also known as Provos. Arguably the largest and potentially the most prolific paramilitary unit in Northern Ireland, the IRA exists as the military branch of Sinn Fein. Numerous other republican paramilitaries allege to serve the civil liberties and entitlements of the Catholic minorities in the six counties representing Northern Ireland, specifically the Real Irish Republican Army, the Official Republican Army, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Continuity Irish Republican Army. The latter, known as the CIRA or Irish Continuity Army Council was founded in 1996 in a public and emphatic display of contempt for the Good Friday Agreement. Similarly, the Real Irish Republican Army, or Real IRA, developed from a schismatic from the (P)IRA over the Good Friday Agreement. Consequently, the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the planting and detonation of the explosion at Omagh, an incident in 1998 which claimed the lives of twenty-nine people (Coogan, 2002). The Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA), though allegedly undertaking a prolonged ceasefire since 1972, represents the fundamentalist faction originally attached to the IRA. In 1970, however, the (P)IRA splintered away from the OIRA, citing ideological and tactical differences. Similarly, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a fundamentalist faction belonging to the Irish Socialist Republican Movement, dissented and fractured from the OIRA, in 1975. The INLA, however, are believed to cooperate and work in conjunction with the (P)IRA on various military assignments.

The loyalist representative organisations undertaking paramilitary operations in Northern Ireland are comprised of primarily three groups: the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF); the Ulster Volunteer Force; and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. The UDA had, allegedly, members in excess of forty thousand strong during its pinnacle in popularity in the 1970s (Cusack and Taylor, 1993), and was arguably the largest loyalist faction active in Northern Ireland. Until the 1992 proclamation by the Secretary of State, Patrick Mayhew, the UDA was widely considered to be a legal operation, however, its activity was prohibited following the discovery that the UDA was undertaking religio-political assassinations and murders under the pseudonym of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UDA was formed in 1971 as an all-inclusive alliance to represent the emerging resistant loyalist units prevalent in Northern Ireland. Despite fashioning itself on a typical military structure, and regardless of their pronouncement in favour of the 1994 peace talks and associated ceasefire, the UDA, again under the guise of the UFF, demolished the peace process with the 1998 retributive murders following the killing of Billy Wright, prominent loyalist leader, in Maze Prison (Cusack and Taylor, 1993).

In contrast, the Ulster Volunteer Force has a history, in name at least, dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century and a Protestant organisation in response to the proposition of Home Rule. The reconciliation between unionist liberals and the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland during the 1960s, in addition to the threat of a promising movement towards the recognition of Catholic civil liberties, resulted in the revival of the decades-old name, allegedly representing an amalgamation of opposing loyalists (Dunn and Morgan, 1994). Despite the relatively innocuous name for the paramilitary organisation, its primary objective was the annihilation, via murder, of the IRA. A rather persuasive argument has been proposed by numerous historians for the responsibility of the UVF for the emergence of the modern era of politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland (Cusack and McDonald, 1997), specifically a result of these retribution killings conducted in 1966. The UVF has had a particularly violent recent history, with repeated and unsuccessful prohibitions interpolated between periods of extreme violence and separatist murders, regardless of allegedly numbering only several hundred members and therefore diminutive in comparison to the UDA. Despite futile attempts by leading parliamentary officials to encourage the UVF to channel its efforts into peacefully political movements, and despite its members numbering far less that those of the UDA, the UVF has proven to be one of the most violent and politically detrimental paramilitary units in Northern Ireland (Bruce, 1992a).

The Loyalist Volunteer Force, though incomparable in both size and responsibly for sectarian activities to other prominent paramilitary groups, is believed to be responsible for conflict conducted by the Orange Volunteers (Bruce, 1992b). Formed in 1996 as a result of dissatisfaction with the UDA and UVF, the LVF is allegedly responsible for the shooting of both Catholics and Protestants, particularly in scenarios in which the Protestant victim is believed to be colluding with Catholics or betraying the loyalist cause. Of particular note are the killings of an eighteen year old woman sleeping with her Protestant boyfriend, in 1997, and the double murders of Protestant and Catholic friends Philip Allen and Damien Trainor drinking in a bar together in 1998 (Fay et al., 1999). Following the latter murders, the LVF issued a policy document detailing threatening action towards a range of official and unofficial organisations in Northern Ireland, specifically the Church, the government and other paramilitary organisations on the accusation of collusion in the peace process: negotiations were, it claimed, a ‘peace surrender process designed to break the Union and establish the dynamic for Irish unity, within an all-Ireland Roman Catholic, Gaelic Celtic state’ (Silke, 1999). Despite multiple announcements of ceasefires from the LVF, antagonism between the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the UVF enduring into the twenty-first century, with the LVF continuing to conduct sectarian killings under the pseudonym of the Red Hand Defenders (Bardon, 2005). 

The politics behind the paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland, as has been illustrated in this section, are integral to the comprehensive understanding of the reasons for such a prolonged and bloody period of British and Irish history. The British government recognises Northern Ireland as an important constituent of the United Kingdom. Restorations of a devolved parliament in Northern Ireland have been fundamental to the peace negotiations undertaken during the 1990s, with an emphasis on political control distributed between both nationalist and unionist parties. Theoretically, political machinations in Ireland have been hypothetically ratified, with the involvement of the Republic in the political and economic affairs of Northern Ireland, and the acceptance of the necessary support of the Protestant majority before unity occurs; policies which are predominantly the result of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. However, without continued and upheld ceasefires by all paramilitary organisations within the region, stability in Northern Ireland will remain unrealised. The relationship between politics and sectarian, paramilitary violence is such that one seemingly cannot exist without the other (Bruce, 1995).

Paramilitary organisations - Victims or villains?

The British media, and to a lesser degree the British government, has long represented the paramilitary organisations active in Northern Ireland as brutal terrorists responsible for reprehensible crimes against innocent civilians. Yet many apparently law-abiding citizens continue to financially and morally support such paramilitary activities, regardless of their somewhat incongruous and ironic contradictions to their own faith while conduction an ostensibly religiously motivated conflict. These paramilitary organisations are frequently perceived as justifiable ‘resistance movements’; a perception which is entirely and undoubtedly determined by the observer’s subjectivity and parochial socio-political climate. One man’s terrorist is, indeed, another man’s freedom fighter: not until the terrorist activities on American soil on September 11th, 2001 did NORAID, an American organisation financially supportive of the IRA, become unpopular, eventually receding into relative obscurity (Mulholland, 2003). The primary reason behind these disparities in perception is predominantly definition-orientated, with the definition of terrorism remaining, in the twenty-first century, under debate by the United Nations (Dawson and Walsh, 2004). Secondary to this problem of clarification of terminology is the background to each individual resistance. In potentially dire political and socio-economic circumstances, for example, a particular organisation may believe that passive and non-violent methodologies to resolve conflict and tension has been expended, with the final resort of physical, military hostilities the only remaining recourse (Asher, 2003). The correlation between retaliative strikes and counterattacks and peaceful, proactive political discourse indicates an inversely proportional relationship: a chicken-and-egg theory. For example, the refusal of the British parliament to engage in negotiations with Sinn Fein due to their close association with the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, heralded as terrorists from the British perspective, potentially resulted in a continuation of the violence and rioting from the nationalist factions in Northern Ireland (Coogan, 2002). Once Sinn Fein had been admitted into the peace talks, however, and productive dialogue between the nationalist party and the British government ensued, violent punitive measures previously conducted by the IRA diminished considerably. While it may be argued that the violent, arguably reprehensible activities of the IRA was originally the prime motivation for Sinn Fein’s exclusion from the peace process, the resulting reduction in killings and reprisals in Northern Ireland may be considered a direct consequence of officially conducted and nationally recognised negotiations between all relevant parties (Coogan, 2002).

Despite an avoidance of politically sensitive terminology on the part of the British media, with a institution-wide prevention of the use of the phrases ‘freedom fighter’, ‘terrorist’, ‘guerrilla’, ‘militant’ or ‘assassin’, there was a conspicuous discrepancy between references to loyalists and references to republican paramilitary forces: regardless of the similarities in criminal activities conducted by each paramilitary force, while the British media agencies displayed a propensity to refer to the unionist, predominantly Protestant factions such as the UDA and the UVF as ‘paramilitaries’, the British Broadcasting Corporation demonstrated a predilection for branding the primarily Catholic (P)IRA as ‘terrorists’ (Taylor, 1997). The debate over terminology has been applied to many nations throughout recent decades, with vehement disagreements ensuing over the labelling of ‘terrorists’ in Palestine and the Viet Cong in Vietnam (Bruce 1997). The conflict and rioting witnessed during the 1960s is generally accepted to be an unfortunate, avoidable result of the civil liberties movement on behalf of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland: a campaign for socio-political and religious recognition commensurate to that experienced and enjoyed by the Protestant communities. In the divisions with unionism and the rioting that followed, the British army was deployed to reinstate order and stability to the region, and this was initially viewed by the Catholic population as protection from and defence against the authoritarian Protestant body politic (Taylor, 1999a). However, the establishment of British armed forces in Northern Ireland merely symbolised, for many, the historic oppression of republican communities by the controlling alien parliament. The previously overwhelming crusade for socio-political reform with Ireland was superseded by the Republican campaign for the withdrawal of British troops from Irish soil and the subsequent theoretical reunification of Ireland (Boulton, 1973). Following the settlement of British forces in Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority became gradually more politicised and sectarian, culminating in the development of the Provisional Irish Republican Army from the increasingly belligerent, confrontational and assertive Republican movement, thereby stimulating the violent reactionary responses from predominantly Protestant loyalist factions.

Regardless of the origins and agencies behind the formation of paramilitary units, the resultant conflict and political unrest which intimidating the communities of Northern Ireland proved to be primarily futile. The acknowledgement of these organisations as ‘victims’ in a larger, more convoluted socio-political climate does not negate the impact of the paramilitary murders and assaults conducted in the name of religion and civil liberty. While the Royal Ulster Constabulary attempted to investigate criminal activity and suppress any conflict between the civilian populace and the paramilitary groups, both Protestant and Catholic communities were notoriously taciturn and suspicious, particularly in light of violent reprisals which occurred following any perceived betrayal against ‘the cause’ (Bruce, 1997). An atmosphere of reticence pervaded Northern Ireland, and, consequentially, negligible legal action was taken against the criminal paramilitary fraternity. Naturally, this general turn of events increased the confidence within the warring factions, lending a sense of invincibility to the hostilities and, subsequently, resulting in brutal retaliations and punitive measures conducted over even trivial and imperceptible transgressions, some of which were as tenuous as personal relationships between religions. Partition of Ireland became partition of Northern Ireland, with substantial barriers erected between the religious communities, a predominantly unsuccessful attempt at curtailing the regular, daily violent confrontations (Boyne, 1997): the walls served to repress frustrations and anger and the following retaliation between the religions, though no longer an automatically circadian occurrence, continued unbridled (Bardon, 2005).

While the acronym ‘IRA’ is synonymous in the United Kingdom with violence, bloodshed, and religiously and politically motivated hostilities, loyalist paramilitary organisations allegedly targeted more civilians that the Irish Republican Army. During the three decades spanning between 1968 and 1998, an estimated 865 predominantly Catholic civilians were killed by the activities of loyalist paramilitary groups (Fay et al., 1999); a slight increase on the number of primarily Protestant civilian deaths attributed to the Irish Republican Army, the estimate of which currently resides at 730 (Fay et al., 1999). The IRA traditionally preferred to concentrate on army personal and security officers of the British armed forces, in an endeavour to necessitate the withdrawal of the British presence in Ireland under violent duress: the Irish Republican Army is officially held responsible for the deaths numerous military personal, the figure currently in excess of one thousand officers. Loyalist paramilitaries are held accountable for approximately thirty per cent of political and religious killings during the conflict and tension in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding this, activities of the loyalist Protestant paramilitary organisations have attracted comparably limited media attention than the activities of the Catholic Irish Republican Army (Bardon, 2005). Prominent loyalist attacks have continued from 1966 until 2001, a span of history in excess of that experienced by the paramilitary IRA, and, indeed, the loyalist faction of the UVF was responsible for the first significant deliberately conducted partisan offensive, the partially fatal shooting of four Catholic citizens in Belfast, since the introduction of Partition (Cusack and McDonald, 1997). Furthermore, ‘the Troubles’ were intensified following the 1969 bombing of a Belfast power station by the UVF; an attack that was initially attributed to the IRA (Cusack and McDonald, 1997). The 1970s witnessed a new exacerbation of the hostilities on the part of the loyalist paramilitaries, with the UVF bombing a pub, killing fifteen people, in 1971, and conducting a double assault in Dublin and Monaghan, 1974, fatally injuring thirty-three civilians (Bruce, 1992b): the 1974 attack was a milestone in the violence of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants (Davis, 1994). Despite the promising climax of the peace process in 1998, the Loyalist Volunteer Force increased the potential for political retribution with the murder of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adam’s nephew that year, and regardless of the agreed multiparty ceasefire, the hostilities continued in the twenty-first century with the concentration on Catholic schoolgirls in a vehement offensive by loyalist paramilitaries (Bardon, 2005). Perceived provocation by the Protestant Orange Order during the Drumcree March through Catholic communities customarily resulted in a seasonal intensification of religious and political violence (The Economist, 2000), not least because the march is undertaken regardless of the wishes of the Catholic minority, but also as it historically commemorates the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James II (VII) at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 (Foster, 1989).

The perception of the conflict in Northern Ireland as either terrorism or justifiable resistance is a subjective debate unlikely to be resolved. While it is imperative that ‘the Troubles’ be understood as more than mere religious tension and ensuing hostilities - an issue which encompasses convoluted and multifaceted concerns and which present a plethora of possible causes - it is equally essential to recognise the intimidation and suffering of the predominantly innocent civilians of Northern Ireland at the hands of relatively ruthless and brutal paramilitary forces. Debatably victims in their own right, these loyalist and republican units inflicted a protracted period of conflict of devastating proportions on both Irish citizens and the British public. The colloquial euphemism of ‘the Troubles’ does nothing to reflect the continually changing, dynamic pattern of violence which encompassed three decades of British and Irish history. The dominating theme of hostilities during the 1960s was one of inter-community and inter-religious violence and rioting between two feuding factions; a pattern which progressed in later decades towards the inclusion of the British government in ‘the Troubles’. Those observers relying on the British media for an accurate portrayal of the Northern Ireland conflict would, perhaps, struggle to realise the impact and accountability the British state had regarding the intensity and duration of the tensions (Davis, 1994). While it is undeniable that the republican and loyalist paramilitaries were directly responsible for the majority of the atrocities conducted in the name of religion and political freedom, the British state, symbolised by the presence of armed forces and an equally-equipped regimental police force, was also accountable as a somewhat lesser protagonist of the violent conflict. Perhaps understandably, the British forces undertook a serious campaign against the paramilitary violence, particularly reasonable when the death toll by the mid-1990s is represented as 0.22% of the total population of Northern Ireland (Fay et al., 1999), however, many of the British responses to Irish violence have subsequently been deemed to have been in contravention of human rights (Asher, 2003). Despite the implementation of incarceration for criminal paramilitary activity in 1971, the IRA pursued a relentless campaign of bloody onslaught against the British army in Northern Ireland; having seemingly exhausted all available alternatives, Ireland introduced prison detention to enforce control of the conflict, however, by 1972 it was apparent that internal measures were failing. Consequentially, Parliament in London invoked the Government of Ireland Act, thereby dissolving the Irish government and re-imposing control of Northern Ireland’s affairs by Britain (Dawson and Walsh, 2004).

Less readily quantifiable are the indirect consequences of the Northern Ireland conflict. The already strained relationships between religious communities during the first half of the twentieth century were incontrovertible damaged by the hostilities, with the conflict acting as an effective, perpetual reminder of traditionally perceived injustices and, naturally, the propagation of fresh resentments. In addition, the Irish economy, already fatigued by the reorganisation of the economy in mainland Britain, was further incapacitated by the apparently ceaseless climate of political and religious violence and conflict in Northern Ireland. The most significant victims, it can be argued, were the thousands of families affected by ‘the Troubles’, the numerous communities the violence impacted upon. Religious, geographical or political, the tensions and punitive attacks in the region is better defined as a humanitarian crisis.
The usage of euphemisms and colloquialisms is frequently in evidence during any discussion of the religious and political violence experienced by Northern Ireland between 1966 and 1998. The terms ‘conflict’, ‘tension’, ‘the Troubles’ and the ‘Irish Problem’ or ‘Question’ are ostensibly innocuous and refrain from portraying an authentic account of the campaigns of violence and intimidation conducted by both the loyalist and republican paramilitaries. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland did not constitute a single ‘problem’, one which may be resolved with a single solution, but was a compounded, multifarious labyrinth of interwoven concerns and issues, the majority of which have some sort of historical provenance. Recognition of the capacious context of ‘the Troubles’ in Ireland, governmental reform in response has, in fact, proven remarkably effective. The principle complaint, in 1969, of discrepancies in accommodation allocation has been extirpated, Irish language schools have been sanctioned and segregation within education is vehemently discouraged (Asher, 2003). Within local government, forty-two per cent of councils petitioned in 1993 admitted to administration via power-sharing (Bruce, 1995). Despite these achievements, however, troubling issues persist. Paramilitary violence, regardless of agreed ceasefires, has not been completely eradicated, particularly with regard to aggression conducted by loyalist factions, and it is onerous to envisage the achievement of a stable, successful and ultimately peaceful Northern Ireland against a backdrop of continuing paramilitary hostility. Within a similarly violent climate, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, a total of six attempts have been made at realising political and religious agreement and unity, and all six have catastrophically failed (Silke, 1998a).

However, the deficit in peace and the failure to resolve the prolonged conflict in Northern Ireland is not solely the result of paramilitary activity. Between 1973 and 1974, Northern Ireland implemented a power-sharing administration, a coalition of both Catholic and Protestant political officials. The experience constitutes the singular attempt of its kind, however, the Executive was rigorously opposed by the DUP and the majority of the Ulster Unionists and, subsequently, it endured for only three months (Boyce, 1982). The following year, 1975, the Constitutional Convention assembled: British intervention in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had been problematic, and, therefore, the Convention was an attempt to establish a proposed solution from representatives of the region. The unionist parties were in majority and, as anticipated, proposed insignificant reform for the Catholic community; a suggestion which was refuted by both the minority SDLP and the token British representatives (Dawson and Walsh, 2004). Two decades later, significant, achievable resolution has still not been realised, and, appreciably, a remarkable survey undertaken in 1990 indicated that, from the Protestant perspective, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 is considered the primary impediment to the peace process (Dawson and Walsh, 2004). Critically for the peace process, 1993 witnessed the opportunity for Sinn Fein to participate in negotiations, with the proviso of a temporary ceasefire on the part of the Irish Republican Army for a minimum duration of three months. Though not readily accepted with enthusiasm by either the unionist parties or Sinn Fein, this Declaration was revolutionary in that it encouraged the discourse of both statutory concerns and the relatively problematic issues of security, particularly with regard to the paramilitary forces and their propensity for extreme violence, in combined negotiations as part of a package for accord (Bruce, 1995).

The conflict within Northern Ireland is a tangible manifestation of a plethora of concerns. Debates over the fundamental political milieu within the region, and the necessity for the remediation over socio-economic discrepancies, particularly relating to employment opportunities, for Catholics and Protestants continue to be discussed (Bardon, 2005). In addition, the general population of Northern Ireland has emphatically impetrated the ruling government for a reformation of the current education system with regard to the accommodation of cultural differences in expression. Previously, segregation within Catholic and Protestant communities has permeated the school system (Dawson and Walsh, 2004), reinforcing religious stereotyping and general dissention between feuding factions, thereby negating the possibility of a peace process at one of the most significant and fundamental levels of the populace. The nationalist communities and organisations, in particular, have expressed the desire for the re-introduction of the Irish language, with an emphasis on the regeneration of distinct cultural identity. These aspects, essentially unchanged for more than a century, established the separatist attitude towards religion in Northern Ireland; the provision for an effective if severely detrimental period of extreme conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the region. Though this paper has attempted to address the discursive paramilitary facet of ‘the Troubles’, an explanation and analysis of the history of Ireland is critical to the comprehensive understanding of the religious and political conflict in the country and the associated contributions and activities of the paramilitary organisations (Davis, 1994).

The causes behind the conflict, though by no means superficial, are of differing but subjective importance. During the twentieth century, the population of Ireland is relatively equal in numbers, with approximately forty-five per cent of the citizens describing themselves as Catholic. The religious differences between the two communities directly relate to the perspective taken when observing and commentating on the Northern Ireland conflict. The Protestant community, for example, has a propensity to view the conflict in terms of national security and constitutional reform. Furthermore, they are more inclined to proactively attempt to preserve the customary relationship with mainland Britain, thereby denouncing the possibility of a unified Ireland divorced from the United Kingdom government. The Catholic communities, however, recognise the conflict on the basis of two divergent approaches. The first understands the issue to be one of Romantic embattlement with Britain: a prolonged and emphatic nationalist resistance against the sequestering and manipulative British, the tragedy of partition, and the ‘golden days’ of a unified, peaceful, pre-British Ireland. The second, in contrast, places blame for political, economic and religious unrest at the door of the traditional Unionist governments, first implemented in the 1920s and retaining power for a subsequent five decades (Moody and Martin, 1995). From a similarly Romantic, somewhat naïvely poetic perspective, this second category of Catholics appear to believe that upon the dissolution of the Unionists, both the Catholics and Protestants could coexist in relative harmony. While these groups are dynamic and not insular, they indicate the predominant perspectives of the Irish population, all three suggesting a relatively understanding citizenship despite the turbulent and dangerous political climate (Bruce, 1995).

In conclusion, therefore, the conflict in Northern Ireland is extremely intricate and recondite. The paramilitary organisations in the region, while incontrovertibly responsible for the practical execution of the political and religious violence, may be perceived and understood in the duel role of victim and villain. The very use of the terminology relating to terrorism, frequently used in popular media, remains under debate by the United Nations, and, it may be argued, consists of an ulterior agenda removing the necessity of the burden of proof before the government can detain an individual (Bardon, 2005). The paramilitary forces in Ireland between 1967 and 1998 were not discrete entities devoid of any relationship with any other organisation, faction or community. Nor were their origins a type of spontaneous creation. Each had evolved as a direct result of the socio-political and economic climate within Northern Ireland at any given time, with several the direct result of both perceived and genuine oppression by various political ruling classes. The British government, historically and contemporaneously, also determined the emergence of such paramilitary factions, and is, allegedly, responsible for a percentage of the animosity felt towards the mainland as a result of inhuman yet officially sanctioned punitory responses to sectarian violence. Therefore, it irresponsible to brand the paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland as either villainous malefactor, solely responsible for the violence in the region, or as innocent, unwilling participants in a hostility not of their making.

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