Car bombs, hitmen, and hunger strikes. How "The Troubles" tore Northern Ireland apart.
Car bombs, hitmen, and hunger strikes. How "The Troubles" tore Northern Ireland apart.
Toolis, Kevin. Rebel Hearts. 1995
McKittrick, David. Making Sense of the Troubles. 2000
Coogan, Tim Pat. The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal and the Search for Peace. 1995.
Edwards, Aaron. The Northern Ireland Troubles. 2014.
O'Doherty, Malachi. The Trouble With Guns. 1998.
Collins, Eamon. Killing Rage. 1997.
Bingham, John. "Margaret Thatcher: Seconds from death at the hands of IRA bomber." April 2013.
Moriarty, Gerry. "Internment Explained: when it was introduced and why". August 2019.
Simonson, Robert. "The Irish Car Bomb". March 2018
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Today’s story begins in 1979, at a bar in Norwich, Connecticut. USA.
It was St Patty’s Day, and the bartender slinging drinks that night at Wilson’s Saloon – a guy named Charlie Oat – had an idea.
Bailey’s Irish Cream had just started distributing to the States, and he needed a way to get customers to try it.
His clientele, his regulars – big tough Scotch-Irish guys – were not exactly lining up to try the sugary, milky liqueur. So Charlie’s idea was to mix it with a shot of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. He called it the “Grandfather”, a salute to the Irish ancestors who’d immigrated to America. It quickly caught on. And people started ordering the shot with a pint Guinness on the side.
It’s not exactly clear when or how the next part happened, but according to the man himself, Charlie Oat, at some point he decided to drop the shot into the pint of Guinness and chug it in one go. Before he dropped the shot in, Charlie theatrically said, ““bombs away”. The chemical reaction between the shot and the beer made the drink foam up like an explosion.
He called his creation “The Irish Car Bomb”.
Most of us have had an Irish Car Bomb. Usually on St Patrick’s day, usually while wearing some obnoxious shade of green. We know it’s a reference to something about violence in Northern Ireland. Terrorists and explosions and masked men carrying automatic rifles come to mind, but whatever it’s about, it’s confusing and far away. Far from the ice-cold pint of beer and the shot glass we’re about to drop into it.
And ironically, the very last place In the world you should order an Irish Car Bomb, is Ireland.
Because within that tongue-in-cheek name coined by an American bartender, lies a generational legacy of national trauma, religious hatred, and unspeakable violence.
To quote a British publisher named Simon Difford:
“It would be a brave and stupid person who ordered such a drink in the UK. For many of us older Londoners, the ‘Irish Troubles’ were our equivalent to 9/11.”
Now, I’m not proud of this…but I have made this mistake. Years ago, my wife and I were vacationing in Dublin, and after a night on the town, we decided to wrap things up with an Irish Car Bomb. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being a big dumb ignorant American. The bartender politely made it for us and if he had any ill will about it, he kept it to himself.
Thankfully, the 30-year period of terrorism and sectarian murder that’s been euphemistically called “The Troubles” is largely considered to be over. But the memory of it is branded onto the psyche of Ireland and the UK.
There are people who are still serving prison sentences – as we speak - for what they did during Troubles. Kids who were forced to grow up without their parents. Parents who lost children suddenly and without warning. Entire families on both sides of the divide that have been completely and irrevocably destroyed.
In his book Rebel Hearts, Kevin Toolis says of the conflict:
“So much blood has flowed under the bridge for so long that almost everyone has forgotten where the stream of blood began and for what reasons.”
So to fully understand the dynamics of the conflict, who was killing who, and why – we need to turn back the clock..
But before we do that, I want to acknowledge the listeners that are from Ireland and the UK, because I know there are more than just a few. I’m going to try and tell this story as respectfully and even-handedly as possible. If you’ve listened to the show before, you know I’ve made the same sort of preamble in previous episodes about things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the One-Child Policy. And hopefully it doesn’t get old every time I say it.
But I just want fans of the show, wherever they may be in the world, to know that I fully understand the treacherous nature of the waters we tend to sail into on this show. It’s raw, emotional stuff. And I’m sure there will be things – accounts, descriptions, characterizations – throughout this episode that people may take issue with. And if you disagree with the way I’ve approached the events, I would love to hear from you.
I mean, again, I do this to myself. Stumbling head-first into historical controversy has its perils. That’s the inherent drawback of talking about things from recent history. It’s one thing to do a show on something that happened 500, 1000 years ago. It’s quite another to talk about issues that are vivid and fresh in people’s minds, and in some cases people are still fighting and killing over. They are more…real, in that way.
Anyway, as I was saying, to really understand why the Troubles happened at all, we need to go back. WAY back.
About 2,000 years or so.
For the majority of its history, Ireland has been a wild place.
When Roman legionaries peered across the narrow channel separating Britain from its smaller island neighbor, Ireland, they decided to leave. it. alone. For those adventurous Italians, who’d conquered and subjugated every square inch of the Mediterranean and huge tracts of Europe, Ireland was a bridge too far. It was basically the edge of the world. But Christian missionaries from the Roman Empire eventually did make it over to that wild, green land. The teachings of the famous St Patrick took root and soon Christianity was thriving all over the island, becoming intertwined with native Gaelic paganism.
And while the Roman legions wouldn’t step foot in Ireland, the Vikings were not so timid.
Centuries later, after the Roman Empire had fallen, the Scandinavian sea raiders saw the potential of Ireland as a trading hub and settled its coastlines. One of the first ports they founded was a place they called “The Black Pool” or “Dubh Linn” in Gaelic. Which of course, is now Dublin.
The Vikings mated, married, and mingled with the original Gaelic inhabitants of Ireland, and a couple hundred years later, around 1100 AD, the island got another cultural infusion in the form of the Normans, who were a bunch of big scary warriors from France. The Normans conquered the British Isles in the 11th century, and shortly after seized control of Ireland.
The reason I mention all of this, is to make a point about population. Ireland has been experiencing wave after wave of new visitors to its shores for most of its history. And each of these groups has introduced a new thread to the tapestry of Irish identity. Christian missionaries. Viking raiders. Norman lords. And eventually, English Kings.
For England, Ireland has always represented somewhat of a national security threat. Those two islands, Ireland and Great Britain, are geographically very very close. So what happens in Ireland affects Britain - and vice versa. For that reason, medieval English rulers wanted to keep a tight political grip on their wild neighbor, to prevent it from becoming a rival or safe haven for enemies of the Crown. From very early on, the Kings of England were also technically the Kings of Ireland.
Then in the 1600s, something big happens. Something we can identify as a clear point of origin for all the anger, resentment and political strife that would eventually lead to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
It’s something called the Plantation of Northern Ireland.
If England wanted to have full, uncontested control of Ireland, they needed to slowly, artificially transform the island’s demographic makeup into something that would be more pliant and sympathetic to British interests. Basically they needed Ireland to become less Irish.
So thousands upon thousands of English and Scottish colonists, under the protection of the King of England, come over from Britain and take control of the land in Northern Ireland. And they kick all of the native Irish off that land. The British settlers establish wealthy estates, ranches, and townships in these essentially stolen areas, and tell the Irish they can “go to Hell or to Connaught”. (Connaught is an area in Western Ireland that’s notoriously inhospitable and agriculturally barren). So basically, “you’re home belongs to us now, and if you don’t like it, you can either leave or we’ll kill you.”
It’s no secret that the British are well-known for their colonial transgressions.
Over the course of its history, the British Empire settled and subjugated exotic places like India, South Africa, the Caribbean, and Africa. But the most contentious colonial possession, the original sin that continues to haunt them long after those other places have achieved autonomy and independence, is very close to home: Northern Ireland.
As Kevin Toolis puts it:
A great historic injustice was perpetrated in Ireland in the seventeenth century – the blueprint for all future campaigns of conquest, dispossession and colonization by the Crown. Ireland was the first English colony and it will be the last.”
The Irish did not just roll out the red carpet for these British colonists, though. They fought back with a vicious and often bloodthirsty anger. Alot of these British colonists are massacred by Irish rebels in retaliation for settling on land the latter believed had been straight-up stolen from them. But the English armies swiftly responded, making little distinction between rebels and civilians as they butchered, burned, and raped their way through Irish communities.
So already – almost instantly after the Plantation – you start to see this tit-for-tat style of violence emerging. You kill us, we kill you back. And this goes on and on, at various levels for the next several centuries. The Irish never really fully accept the idea of British rule over their island, and that anger bubbles up in a cyclical pattern of violent uprisings. But these rebellions can never really gain any steam, and the British just stomp them into the dust every single time.
But there was another dimension to this conflict that just throws gasoline over the entire situation. One that makes it all that much more spiteful, hateful, and intractable:
Ever since a certain Romano-Christian missionary named Patrick had introduced the teachings of Jesus Christ to the island, Ireland had been a deeply Catholic place. As mentioned earlier, the native Gaels had a rich pagan tradition that they didn’t cast aside so much as just integrate into the Christian faith. The result was a uniquely “Irish” form of Catholicism that evolved beyond a simple religious affiliation and into more of a fundamental cultural identity.
The Brits on the other hand, had been on a religious rollercoaster. They were Roman-Catholics for a while….but then the Reformation happened – which of course was the great schism within Christianity that bisected Europe into Catholic and Protestant factions. Then there’s Henry the 8th and his wives, and the Pope and the Church of England… All of that is a massive story unto itself, one we do not have time for.
But for the purposes of this episode, all you need to know is that the British colonizers of Northern Ireland were Protestants, forcibly setting up shop in a predominantly Catholic Ireland. And this was happening at a time when the dynamic between those two religious groups was nothing short of complete and abject loathing. They saw one another as ungodly, blasphemous heretics.
And spoiler alert, relations did not improve.
There was nothing particularly benevolent about British rule in Ireland. It was always about what the Crown could squeeze from the land and its people. You could argue, and supporters of the Crown did argue, that British rule brought with it certain advantages like military protection, expanded trade opportunities, infrastructure, and “culture” – whatever that means.
But that’s more or less the same argument colonial powers have been making since the dawn of history. The fact was, people in Ireland wanted the right to self-determination. To have an independent country that could ascertain its own place in the world and chart its individual destiny without big brother Britain hovering ominously over its shoulder.
There were many in Ireland who didn’t believe the British cared much about them at all. This suspicion was tragically confirmed by something most of you have probably heard of, The Great Famine – more commonly known outside of Ireland as the Potato Famine.
It's difficult to overstate just how horrific this was for the Irish. In 1846, potato crops failed all over the island. The culprit was a fungal infection known as “the blight” and it left potatoes withered and black in the soil. Totally inedible. The potato crops continued to fail the year after that. And the year after that. And the year after that.
The Irish quickly began to realize this was not a temporary crop failure, it was an ecological disaster that had permanently damaged their ability to grow their most vital crop. At the time, 1/3 of Ireland was totally dependent on the potato for food. And almost overnight, 60% of its food supply was gone.
The result was human suffering on a level that’s hard to even wrap the mind around.
We don’t need to belabor that misery too much here, because frankly we need to pace ourselves for all the horrible stuff lying ahead during the Troubles, but the Great Famine is an important pitstop on the road to that conflict.
After the potato crops failed, mass starvation led to widespread disease and death. Parents abandoned their children. Husbands abandoned their wives. There were reports of cannibalism. Starvation is the kind of physical suffering that can literally alter your brain chemistry. Things that are important to you when you’re warm and fed and comfortable can quickly lose importance when you have an aching hole in your belly. When you can’t even remember the sensation of not feeling exhausted, hungry, and foggy.
The British Crown made a halfhearted effort at providing assistance to their Irish subjects, but at the end of the day, British high society did not deem the Irish worthy of a full-fledged relief effort. Some even claimed that the famine itself was an act of divine judgement to whip the “lazy Irishman” into shape. The starving mothers in Connaught burying two, three, and four children at a time might have had something to say to that.
In the end, over a million people died. About 1 in every 5 people in Ireland. Millions more immigrated out of desperation to prosperous countries like the United States. My ancestors were Irish, so for better or worse, the Great Famine is the reason I’m here speaking to you right now.
But the prevailing attitude among the Irish at the time was that Britain had completely failed them, abdicating its responsibility to protect them through a toxic mix of ethnic superiority, greed, and callousness. When push came to shove, Britain was totally willing to incorporate Ireland into its Empire, but not willing to help it in the hour of its greatest need. In the end, they had reneged on their obligation to the people they had always demanded absolute loyalty from.
To give you an idea of just how bad they messed up: In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair actually issued a formal apology to Ireland for Britain’s mismanagement of the Great Famine.
But at the time, the psychological wound inflicted on the Irish by Britain’s indifference during the famine just intensified the anger and resentment they felt towards the government. The memory of all that misery breathed renewed energy into an independence movement. One that was hellbent on prying Ireland’s destiny out of British hands - no matter how bloody their own hands had to become.
The memory of the Great Famine was fresh when World War I erupted in 1914.
And with the British army distracted fighting the Germans on mainland Europe, Irish separatists saw their opportunity. On Easter Sunday in 1916, an armed revolution raged in the streets of Dublin. In the short-term, this uprising failed. But the Irish kept the pressure up, and a few years later they won their independence from Britain. All good, right? Happy ending?
Well there was one, little, teensy problem: They only won independence for MOST of Ireland. Because the peace settlement with Great Britain involved a partition. A split.
Ireland was split into two parts. The majority of the island – the southern part - became an independent country called the Republic of Ireland. But the Northeastern corner of the island, which was majority Protestant and descended from all those English and Scottish planters who’d come over in the 1600s - that became “Northern Ireland” and remained a part of the British Empire.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart of the entire issue.
The men and women who died for Irish independence over the centuries were not fighting for freedom for *some* of Ireland. They were fighting for ALL of Ireland. So the fact that Britain still had such a considerable stronghold in the North was nothing less than a slap in the face. A painful piece of unfinished business.
The resentment towards this intolerable new status quo was felt especially by an armed revolutionary group that had aided the 1916 independence movement. They specialized in guerrilla warfare, grassroots recruiting and a unique brand of ruthless violence. The Gaelic name for this organization was Óglaigh na hÉireann. (O-glee Na hare-in)
More commonly known as the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA.
Now, we are going to be talking a lot about the IRA today. They were arguably the driving force behind the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland. It’s an organization that has existed in one form or another dating back to the early 1900s, but the incarnation that emerges during the late 60s is the one you’ve likely heard of before.
In popular culture, the IRA are virtually synonymous with the Troubles. And over the course of this episode, we’re going to get a deep look into that organization, both on an technical level and a human level. We’re going to try and peel back the mythic exterior and really understand who these people were, what they believed, and why they were willing to not only cause tremendous suffering in the name of that belief, but to endure suffering as well.
Shortly after the initial Easter rising in 1916, the ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up and shot by the British authorities. Almost every day for a week, men were line against walls, filled with lead, and carted off to be thrown into shallow graves. In death, they became martyrs. And their cruel executions served as the main catalyst that swung public opinion against the British and lead to the eventual creation of the Irish Republic.
These martyrs taught a brutal, enduring lesson to generations of young Irishmen and Irishwomen who yearned to be completely free from British rule.
The lesson was that violence works. Killing works.
To paraphrase one historian, “The events of the 1916 uprising enshrined the idea that the act of dying for Ireland could be more productive than living for Ireland.”
As a straight white guy/dude, living in the United States, it’s pretty much impossible for me to ever really, fullycomprehend the feeling of being discriminated against.
I’ve never experienced the kind of systemic oppression or ingrained prejudice that would stop me from – say - getting the job I wanted. Or dating the person I wanted. Or going to the parts of town I wanted.
I’ve never been sneered at because my last name belonged to a certain ethnic heritage. I’ve never been denied an opportunity based purely on my genetic identity. I’ve never lived in fear that my neighbors might hurt me or my family because I believe in a different political ideology than them. I’ve never been harassed, profiled, or abused by Police officers.
But if I had been born into a Catholic family in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, I would’ve discovered very quickly what some of those things felt like. The dynamics of discrimination. The silent hostility that hangs like a cloud over everything you do when you are branded as an “other”.
In America, the terrible legacy of slavery and institutional racism is the prism through which we usually understand discrimination and oppression. It’s woven into the fabric of our history, and every day we are struggling to overcome that awful past.
But in Northern Ireland, religion was the key factor that elevated one group and pushed down the other.
In his book, The Trouble With Guns, journalist Malachi O’Doherty talks about growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland. He talks about how is Mom would worry constantly about offending the Protestant neighbors. Not because she was a super considerate lady, but because she was terrified of what those Protestants could do to her own family. How her sons might be denied educational opportunities or the prospect of a good job. How the family might be ostracized by neighbors or treated poorly by local businesses. Or how they might be harassed on the street by Protestant police officers.
All because they were Catholic.
Now to be fair…to the American mind, the idea of two denominations of Christianity viciously clashing and subjugating one another in the 20th century seems a little outlandish. Silly, even. To most of us here in the States, Catholic and Protestant are just two different flavors of the same fundamental belief system.
But in Northern Ireland there’s hundreds of years of baggage between those two groups. It’s not even really about religion. The Troubles didn’t erupt because the IRA wanted everyone to take Communion. Or because the Protestant government t took issue with the Pope’s fancy hat.
Religious minutiae and dogmatic traditions were not the real factors stoking conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It was ultimately about two groups, who’d been taught to hate, fear, or at least mistrust one another for longer than they could trace their family trees back, coming to blows over political ideology and social change. The religious affiliations were just superficial labels.
The story of the Northern Irish Troubles is, fundamentally, a story about hatred.
Because what these two groups of people proceed to do to each other, what they’re capable of doing to each other – a reasonable person can only ascribe it to blinding hatred. To a rage so old and so deep that it’s hard to fathom.
Kevin Toolis has a beautiful passage in his book about how in Ireland, history is less about learning from the past, and more about justifying the crimes of the present:
Ireland already suffers from too much history; in that country history is a disease, a canker from the past that poisons the present. History is a weapon, a poker you keep in your pocket to beat the present senseless and so reorder its alignment to the past and justify present murder.
Now, Northern Ireland prior to the late 1960s was a relatively peaceful place. There were no car bombings, masked men, or armored vehicles in the street. Yet.
But Northern Ireland was a terribly unjust place.
After the Irish Republic in the South had won its independence and broken away from the British Empire, Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom.
The Protestant population there saw themselves not as Irish, but as British. They were proud to be a part of the United Kingdom, proud of its rich history and immense political power. So when the majority of Ireland broke away from the UK, the Protestant minority in the North became very nervous. What if the Catholics in Northern Ireland rose up just like they had done in the South? What if the British were kicked out of Ireland for good, and suddenly the Protestant families, who went back generations, were living in a country they no longer recognized? One that would potentially be hostile to them? We are surrounded, they thought.
The answer to this anxiety was to close ranks, to succumb to a siege mentality. Protestant politicians consolidated power to exclude Catholics from positions of influence in the government. They made sure that Catholic votes were devalued through the application of gerrymandering. They made sure Catholics stayed poor and devoid of economic clout by giving all the good jobs to loyal Protestants. That meant Catholics were confined to underdeveloped housing projects, slums and segregated schools.
To be born Catholic in Northern Ireland was to be born a second-class citizen.
Living in the midst of all this crushing oppression, was a young man named Martin McGuinness. He was a soft-spoken baby-faced guy with a shock of curly blond hair and an intense devotion to Catholicism. He would go on to become a hugely important figure in the Irish Republican movement.
Here’s how we described one of his encounters with this kind of anti-Catholic discrimination:
‘I had left school and there was a local garage advertising for a mechanic. I went for the interview and the first question was, what school did I go to? When I answered “Christian Brothers” [a local Catholic school] the interview immediately ended. I walked almost shell-shocked from the building.
The Irish journalist Malachi O’Doherty remembers his mother coming home in tears after a day at work. See, she worked as a nurse in the local hospital, and a Protestant patient she’d been treating wouldn’t let her touch him once he found out she was Catholic. He complained that she: “had the mark of the beast on her”.
Another account of anti-Catholic sentiment comes from the Finucane brothers, several of which would end up in the IRA years later:
‘We were playing sticks and a ball in the street and these big boys came along and the next minute they started to kick the shit out of us. We were just kids, Dermot was eight and I was ten, Seamus was eleven. And then when they were going away they shouted down to us “Fuck the Pope”. We looked at one another and said, “Who is the Pope and what has he got to do with it?”’.
The more you read about the Catholic experience in Northern Ireland, the more you can start to see similarities between it and the experience of Black Americans immediately prior to the Civil Rights movement.
Obviously, there are huge differences. I’m not trying to make an absolute equivalency, because in many ways it’s Apples-and-Oranges. But the reason I make that comparison, is because the Irish Catholics themselves made that comparison, and many activists were actually inspired by the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America.
Catholic activists looked across the Atlantic and saw the tremendous wave of peaceful protests, civil disobedience, and rioting. They saw the eloquent leaders like Martin Luther King, and the fiery militants like Malcom X. They saw a reflection of their own plight, their own historic oppression. But above all, they saw the potential to follow that American example, to rise up, and to make a change in their own lives after decades of living in a system that defined them as second-class citizens.
And ironically, the segregation of schools in Northern Ireland ended up backfiring on the Protestants in power significantly. Because left to their own educational devices, Catholic schools could teach a curriculum that heavily emphasized the struggle for Irish independence in the south. These teachers taught kids to revere the martyrs of 1916 as practically saints.
And this ideological “waking up” moment, inspired by the American Civil Rights movement, happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The seminal revolutionary event that eventually led to the creation of a Free Irish Republic. So beginning in the 60s, there is this huge wave of political activism in Northern Ireland.
Now things are about to start heating up and moving very quickly, so I want to hit the pause button and take a brief moment to clearly define some of the political terminology that we’re going to be using for the big players in the Troubles.
A term you’ll hear a lot is “Irish Republican”. Now, in the States, “Republican” is a obviously synonymous with the Republican Party. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. An Irish Republican is, according to a very notorious Irish Republican, Martin McGuinness, quote:
‘a person who wants the freedom of Ireland, a person who wants to see the end of British Government rule in Ireland’.
The Irish Republican movement quite literally wants all of Ireland to be a unified country, a single Republic, independent from British rule. Hence, Republican.
On the other side of this divide is the Unionist movement. Or the Loyalist movement. We’ll use the two terms interchangeably, but they both essentially refer to people in Northern Ireland who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. To remain loyal to Great Britain.
It’s all a little technical, but to sum it up:
That’s the simplistic definition, but for our purposes, it’ll do.
Now, so far in this episode, we’ve been defining the polarized nature of Northern Ireland in terms of “Catholic” and “Protestant”. But to keep doing that becomes a bit disingenuous, because not ALL Catholics were Irish Republicans and not ALL Protestants were British Loyalists. But the vast majority of those two groups did adhere to the assumed political ideology.
Okay, we’ve got all the boring poli-sci stuff out of the way. Let’s get back to the story.
In the 1960s, tensions begin rising in Northern Ireland.
Catholics are pissed off at being discriminated against and mistreated by the Protestant government. And it begins to get really ugly, really fast. Protests escalate into marches. Marches escalate into riots. And the riots prompt clashes between Irish Republican mobs, Loyalist counter protests, and British police.
This kind of street-fighting became a basic fact of life for many young Catholics.
The young man who we talked about a bit ago, Martin McGuinness, the one who’d been denied the job at the garage, was one of these disaffected youths.
He describes how he spent his time in those turbulent days:
I threw stones, petrol bombs , whatever else I could lay my hands on. I would be rioting in my lunch hour, going home, changing my clothes and walking back through the same policemen in full battle-rig, some of whom were lying exhausted on the floor because of what the likes of me and other people were doing in their spare time. After work I would go home, get my dinner, and go back down and throw stones and whatever else was to hand until twelve o’clock at night. It was unreal.
Young Catholics in the North, bereft of all hope and economic mobility, begin to lash out against their perceived oppressors. In the absence of opportunity, they found an outlet for their anger in protesting against British rule. When everyone in your neighborhood was throwing rocks at the British police, it was hard to resist the urge to join in.
A parish priest from Belfast remembered the immense peer pressure these young radicals would put on each other to participate in the riots:
“Are you coming down to the riot?” they would ask. If you refused you would be taunted: “You are nothing but a coward,”’
“Peer pressure can be a terrible influence on a young lad who has nothing to look forward to in life, no job, no prospect of a job, who maybe has no self-esteem and feels the community does not esteem him because there is nothing for him except the prospect of standing around at the corner of a bookie shop or pub or heading off to England for work. If suddenly someone then whispers in your ear – ‘We want you’ – then it is obvious the prospect can appear very attractive.”
In August 1969, the tensions in Northern Ireland come to a head.
In the capital of Belfast, Protestant marchers descend into Catholic neighborhoods and start burning houses and looting businesses.
One of the houses in this area belonged to the Finucane family. They were the boys from earlier who’d been baffled by the “Fuck the pope” comment. Well now the brothers and their parents found themselves in the besieged by this Protestant riot.
Seamus Finucane was just 12-years old at the time, and what he experienced that night had such an impact on him, that it ended up driving him into the arms of the IRA later in life. He remembered:
I was just a kid watching the adults talk about life and death saying: ‘The Loyalists have broken into such-and-such an area and they are burning everyone’s homes out.’ And you would be sitting there terrified, not making a sound; you were like a mouse, just listening. I had these visions that the Loyalists were going to overcome the barricades and I knew from the way that the adults were talking that we did not have enough to defend ourselves.
My mother and father watched everything from their bedroom window and we sat on the stairs with hammers, hatchets and pokers, waiting on them coming in.
His younger brother Martin remembered:
They tried to smash the front door down to get in but my father’s barricade prevented them. When that failed the windows were smashed and they tried to get in through them but the boards held.
Their youngest brother, Dermot, was only 9-years-old at the time. And the memory of that night and its aftermath stuck with him for the rest of his life:
Our whole street was engulfed in flames. In the morning I remember going out and seeing that the bottom half of Percy Street and all of neighboring Divis Street was gutted, the houses burnt to shells. It looked as if two armies had been fighting each other.
My mother and father told me that they tried to burn us out that night and some Protestant man was shouting: ‘Don’t burn it, it’s too good a house. We’ll keep it for one of our own.’ The next morning we were out at four or five and all the houses were smouldering in the street, and shops were burnt out, and these women came over to us and said: ‘Youse are next ya Fenian bastards. Get out tonight or else youse are next.’ And we just went in, packed suitcases, and left, leaving furniture and everything else.”
In the end, 9 people were dead. Dozens wounded. Over 1000 Catholics had lost their homes and had to flee Belfast like refugees. Its worth nothing that a number of Protestant homes were burned as well in the confusion and anger of the night. But the suffering and loss fell almost exclusively on Catholic families.
The Catholic narrative around the violence of August 1969 will often use the word “pogrom”. Which of course brings to mind the racially-motivated massacres of Eastern Europe. That may seem like an extreme comparison to make, but it reveals the sense of persecution and intense fear Catholics were feeling at the time.
After 1969, many young Republican radicals became convinced that throwing sticks and stones at policemen in riot gear would not be enough to convince the British to relinquish their grip on Northern Ireland.
According to Martin McGuinness:
“I knew that after fifty years, we were more of an occupied country than we ever were. It seemed to me as plain as daylight that there was an army in our town, in our country, and that they weren’t there to give out flowers. Armies should be fought by armies.”
Well, an army was mobilizing.
“Oglaigh Na Eherrein”, The Irish Republican Army, after years of being dismissed as an obsolete relic of a forgotten era, got a second wind in the wake of all this political turmoil. But its leadership were of two minds on how to proceed, how to combat what they saw as forces of oppression in Northern Ireland.
One side preferred peaceful but robust activism. They believed political pressure and savvy public relations could eventually accomplish lasting reform to make life better for Catholics in Northern Ireland.
But the other side, believed that only violence, specifically violence against anyone and everyone who helped prop up the British administration in Northern Ireland, would be effective. These militants believed with all their hearts and souls that they were soldiers in a war. And in war, soldiers kill. In war, people die.
So the IRA splits in two.
The violent faction came to be known as The Provisional IRA, or “the Provos”. Although we’re just going to refer to them as simply “the IRA” from this point on, because they are the faction that will quickly become infamous. The faction that the world would soon brand a full-fledged terrorist organization.
While this ragtag splinter group of the IRA tries to train and organize itself into something resembling an army, a real army was descending on the troubled streets of Northern Ireland.
The full might of the British military machine had been called in to contain the political violence. It wasn’t measure taken lightly either. As the British Home Secretary said at the time:
“I can get the Army in but it’s going to be a devil of a job to get it out.’
Initially, Irish Catholics were overwhelmed with relief. Finally, they thought, someone who will protect us from these Protestant mobs burning down our houses and beating us in the street.
As a consequence, the initial reaction to the arrival of British troops is extremely warm. There are even anecdotes about Catholic housewives actually fighting over which of them got the privilege of bringing tea to the British soldiers while they were out patrolling the streets.
But almost right from the jump, that goodwill starts to evaporate. Harassment, profiling, and aggressive tactics became commonplace. One Catholic woman named Breige Voyle remembered:
“The Army just seemed to turn. One minute they were our friends, the next minute they weren’t. They just saw everyone as the enemy. They thought every Catholic was an IRA person.”
But to be fair, one thing working against the British soldiers was the fact that they had very little understanding of the nuanced relationship between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. They were just men with guns, sent over to keep the peace. They weren’t diplomats or social workers; And as a result, they were ill-equipped to mediate the complex, centuries old-tensions that existed between the two groups.
As one soldier summed up:
‘It was their home. We were just visitors.’
The Catholic communities quickly realize that the British Army was not there to be their friends. The soldiers seemed hostile, and paranoid. They saw threats from everywhere and everyone.
But the truth was, they were right to be jumpy. Because the IRA, Oglaigh na Eherrein was coming into its own, fast developing into a well-organized, sophisticated paramilitary organization that nurtured an utter disregard for human life - one that would soon capture the horrified attention of the entire world.
In the West, we have a deep, abiding love for underdogs. We love revolutionaries and rebels. Which makes sense, given our history.
There’s something inspiring and romantic about a scrappy force of rebels taking on a titanic, juggernaut-like enemy. Fighting the forces of tyranny and oppression against overwhelming odds.
It’s a classic feature of storytelling. If you want to get an audience on the side of your heroes, you make sure they’re hopelessly outmatched. You can trace this dynamic from the biblical story of David & Goliath all the way to, like, Star Wars.
You’ve got the tiny, ill-equipped Rebel Alliance taking on the massive power of the Galactic Empire. On paper, there’s no way they can win. But through resourcefulness, bravery, and tenacity, they come out on top and accomplish their goal.
As human beings, we love those kinds of stories.
But what happens when the Rebel Alliance bombs a crowded marketplace full of innocent people? Or murders an off-duty stormtrooper in front of his wife and kids while they’re having dinner? What if Luke Skywalker used his lightsaber to butcher an unarmed contractor whose only crime was installing light fixtures on the Death Star?
We’d feel a little bit differently about the righteousness of their cause, wouldn’t we? How would we reconcile our sympathy for their struggle, when the way that they wage war is so morally bankrupt?
In 1971, the Irish Republican Army has been reborn as a well-equipped, well-organized and zealously dedicated paramilitary organization. They’ve even taken the phoenix as one of their primary symbols to try and reinforce this idea of rebirth. “New year, new me” kinda thing.
Ideologically, they have one goal:
To make Britain’s “occupation” of Northern Ireland so painful, so costly, so intolerably demoralizing, that the United Kingdom would have no choice but to loosen its grip. To allow the North to join the Republic of Ireland in the South and, in so doing, form a single united Ireland.
When you joined the IRA, they didn’t fill your head with visions of glorious battles or glamorous victories. No one got medals or honors or statues. When you joined the IRA, they told you to expect one of two outcomes from your membership. You’d either end up dead, or in jail.
The IRA, if nothing else, was honest about the nature of the struggle they were fighting. At least honest with themselves. They knew this would be a long, ugly war of attrition. And just like the martyrs of 1916, who’d been lined up against the wall and shot by British firing squads, the young men who joined the Irish Republican Army understood that they would likely not live to see the fruits of their labor.
I want to read a passage from the IRA recruitment manual, called The Green Book, so you can hear it from the horse’s mouth:
“Before any potential volunteer decides to join the Irish Republican Army he should understand fully and clearly the issues involved. He should not join the Army because of emotionalism, sensationalism or adventurism. He should examine fully his own motives, knowing the dangers involved, and knowing that he will find no romance within the Movement. Again he should examine his political motives bearing in mind that the Army are intent on creating a socialist republic.
Volunteers are expected to wage a military war of liberation against a numerically superior force. This involves the use of arms and explosives. Firstly the use of arms. When volunteers are trained in the use of arms, they must fully understand that guns are dangerous, and their main purpose is to take human life, in other words to kill people and volunteers are trained to kill people. It is not an easy thing to take up a gun and go out to kill some person without strong convictions or justification… convictions which are strong enough to give him [the volunteer] the confidence to kill someone without hesitation and without regret.
The same can be said about a bombing campaign. Again all people wishing to join the Army must fully realize that when life is being taken, that very well could mean their own. If you go out to shoot soldiers or police you must fully realize that they can shoot you. Life in an underground army is extremely harsh and hard, cruel and disillusioning at times. So before any person decides to join the Army he should think seriously about the whole thing.”
So we’ve set the stage for a lot of the violence the IRA is about to deal out in Northern Ireland. And now we can finally get into some specifics. The IRA waged their war of attrition by identifying what they called “legitimate targets”. Meaning, targets that they believed they were morally justified in hitting. People to kill. Buildings to bomb. Businesses to destroy.
However, the definition of “legitimate target” was very broad. And one thing you’ll notice after reading a lot about the Troubles, is that the parameters of what is considered a “legitimate target” get bigger and bigger as time goes on. The logic was that anyone or anything that propped up Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland could be targeted.
The British government discovers very quickly what kind of war they’re going to be fighting against the IRA.
On March 10th, 1971, three off-duty British soldiers were having drinks at a pub in Belfast. They were young guys, only kids, really. They were aged 17, 18, and 23. They’d been given a pass by their commanding officer to go out on the town and enjoy themselves.
So they’re at this pub, in their street clothes, having pints, shots, whatever…and they meet these girls. Pretty girls. They start talking, flirting. Eventually the girls say they want to take them back to their place. They’ve got a car. Just hop in and we can go back to the house and have some fun. The three soldiers are pretty tanked at this point, but they’re game. So they hop in the car and drive off.
Eventually the car pulls over. Kind of in the middle of nowhere. On the outskirts of the city. To their shock and horror, the three boys find themselves hauled out the car by men with guns. Then they’re lined up against a brick wall and shot in the backs of their heads, one after another. Boom. Boom. Boom.
This ‘honey trap’ technique would be used quite a few times over the years.
Their commander remembered years later the last words he’d said to them before they left the barracks:
"I said to them good luck and have a good time. I said to them see if you can pick up a girl - And they did”
But it wasn’t just soldiers who fell into the crosshairs of the IRA. That was the obvious enemy. Anyone and everyone who “aided the enemy war machine” could be conceivably flagged as a legitimate target.
High Court Judge William Doyle was shot in the face while getting into his car after Sunday church service. Even as his blood was drying on the dashboard, the reason for his assassination by the IRA was clear as day. As author Kevin Toolis curtly summarizes:
“Doyle was a servant and officer of the British Crown. He sat in judgement on IRA suspects. He had power and wielded authority. He was a living symbol of the Crown and therefore an enemy of the rebels, the IRA, and they killed him for it.”
Even contractors weren’t safe from the IRA bullets. Harry Henry was watching TV at home with his family when IRA gunmen came for him. He owned a construction company that helped repair government buildings destroyed by IRA bombs. So he was considered a “collaborator”. The IRA came to his home and dragged him out of his front door. He asked if he could at least grab his slippers.
“You won’t need them where you’re going,” they said, before putting four bullets in his head.
The Troubles are full of stories like this. Literally, hundreds. And the more you read, the more numb you get. It’s just murder after murder after murder. Now, the three specific incidents I just talked about took place years, even decades, apart, but they are emblematic of the unique brand of ruthless, intimate violence the IRA were capable of. And the broad definition of “Legitimate Targets.”
And unfortunately, these killings often had tragic collateral damage. As one historian recounts:
“The incident began when a member of the IRA was shot dead by troops at the wheel of a car during a car chase in west Belfast. The vehicle careered out of control and mounted the pavement at a school where a Catholic woman, Anne Maguire, was walking with her three children. The car crushed them all against railings. The crash killed eight-year-old Joanne Maguire and her brothers John, aged two, and Andrew who, only six weeks old, was being pushed in a stroller. Anne Maguire was unconscious for two weeks before awakening to discover that three of her four children were dead.”
Naturally, the British Army does not take kindly to all this mayhem on the streets they’re supposed to bring order to. They don’t like to see soldiers being ambushed and murdered. And their attitude towards the local population, already paranoid and prickly, gets even more hostile.
The rules of engagement start to loosen. For example, one internal Army memo stated the following:
"Any soldier seeing any person with a weapon or acting suspiciously may, depending on the circumstances, fire to warn or with effect without waiting for orders."
Harassment from the military on the local Catholic population gets worse and worse. An English sociologist working in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles had this to say on the issue:
Reports came in hourly about the latest beating, intimidation or act of destruction. A discotheque was interrupted by a foot-patrol who attacked the teenage dancers, putting one boy back into the hospital from which he had just been released. He had the stitches from a routine operation on his stomach reopened by the troops.
A baker’s hand was broken by the soldiers as he went about his delivery round. A store of furniture, belonging to homeless, intimidated families, was wrecked during a search. Local mill workers were kicked in the genitals as they were searched, twice daily, as they went to and from their workplace.
I was hit in the ribs with a rifle as two paratroopers asked me if I was in the IRA. I said I was not and they replied, ‘Well, fucking join so that we can shoot you.’
Some Loyalist politicians saw the Army’s conduct as completely counter-productive to their mission of retaining control over Northern Ireland. One said::
“ I was downright angry at the mindless harassment, degrading obstruction and casual brutality the soldiers meted out to all who came in their path. I spent hours boiling over in anger and frustration, incoherent with rage, complaining to arrogant, overbearing British officers who failed to see the damage they were doing, the way they were walking into the trap the ruthless Provos [Provos, referring to the provisional IRA] had laid for them and how they were only acting as recruiting sergeants for the Provos.”
They failed to understand that many families shared common surnames, but were not related in any way… they arrested fathers when they wanted the sons and the sons when they were after the fathers. Innocent teenage boys and old men thus found themselves held at the point of a British rifle, and many people I dealt with then were so alienated by the experience that they joined the Provos and later became notorious terrorists.
One of the things you’ll notice as you learn more and more about the Troubles is how these acts of violence between the different sides start feeding off one another.
It’s like what we talked about earlier from the 1600s, the old days. That tit for tat style of violence. Hit us we hit you back. The way these groups, the IRA, the military, the police, the government, respond to each other, usually only succeeds in ratcheting up the tension and fueling the violence.
For example. In the wake of the murders perpetrated by the IRA, the British authorities decide drastic times call for drastic measures. As one official said at the time:
‘There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that something different had to be done… you had to do something a bit more dramatic in order to… lance the boil.’
So the local authorities, in cooperation with the British army, institute an extremely controversial policy called “Internment”.
Internment gave the police and the army the power to pick up anyone off the street, at any time, for any reason, and hold them without trial for as long as they deemed necessary. And once you were in custody, you were in for a very bad time.
In their fervor to ensnare and root out members of the IRA, the British authorities subject some of these detainees to daily, prolonged torture. They used something call the “five techniques”. To quote historian Tim Pat Coogan:
“The five techniques consisted of hooding, sleep deprivation, white noise, a starvation diet, and standing for hours spread-eagled against a wall, ‘…leaning on their fingertips like the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle. The only sound that filled the room was a high-pitched throb, which the detainees liken to an air compressor. The noise literally drove them out of their minds. These techniques were accompanied by continual harassment, blows, insults, questioning. This treatment usually went on for six or seven days. It produced acute anxiety states, personality changes, depression and, sometimes, an early death.”
One detainee, a man named Patrick Shivers, who was awarded 15,000 lbs in damages after the courts found he’d been interned without cause, remembered hearing the men in other cells breaking under this kind of torture:
‘I heard other men crying out for death and I still hear those men crying today.
Another detainee who ended up receiving compensation and damages described his experience:
“After they arrested me, I was thrown into a lorry where I got a kicking. Then I was taken to another barracks where I got another kicking. They took me up in a helicopter and told me they were going to throw me out. I thought we were hundreds of feet up, but were only up a few feet. They set dogs on me. My thigh was all torn, and they made me run in bare feet over broken glass.”
You read this stuff, and it instantly brings to mind the “enhanced interrogation techniques “used by United States intelligence services in the years following the September 11th attacks. The waterboarding, the sleep deprivation, playing death metal on full volume for hours at a time.
And I can’t help but wonder if this kind of disregard for human rights, this vicious dehumanization, isn’t just the default response governments have to the trauma of terrorism. When someone comes in and breaks all the rules of decency and morality, it seems to embolden governments to break the rules in turn. To fight fire with fire. I’m not saying it’s right, in fact I don’t think it’s right at all, but you can’t help but notice the similarities.
Anyway - as you can imagine, the British government’s policy of internment was deeply, extremely unpopular. And it leads to large scale protests and non-violent marches within Catholic communities.
But the event that absolutely, irrevocably shatters the relationship between the British Army and the Catholic population in Northern Ireland happens on Sunday, January 30th, 1972.
15,000 people gathered on the streets of Derry in Northern Ireland for one of these anti-internment protest marches. It’s a huge turnout. But it’s meant to be a peaceful, non-violent march.
Martin McGuinness remembered the day vividly. Remember him? Well by this time, the Catholic man who’d been denied the job at the garage was a powerful leader in the IRA. Still baby-faced and blond haired, he was locally known as “the boy general” or “the boy who rules free Derry”.
Here’s what he had to say:
“The decision was taken that Republicans would attend the march and that there would be no aggro (meaning violence or armed resistance) whatsoever. It was more important to have thousands of people marching in the streets against internment as opposed to us trying to take advantage.”
(“us” being the IRA)
Still, the British Army is called in to make sure nothing gets out of hand. The mere presence of the British forces cranks the tension up to 11. The sight of barbed wire and barricades and armored vehicles enrages the crowd.
Just an hour after the march begins, the British Army brings in the water cannons to break up the crowd. The protesters respond by throwing stones, bricks, and bottles. The Army responds by firing gas cannisters and rubber bullets. Then they move in to start making arrests.
Now what happens next has been contested and argued about for the better part of a half-century. At some point, the British commanders lose control of their spooked soldiers. And the soldiers start firing live rounds into the crowd. People are shot in the back running away. Some are shot while crawling on the ground.
Gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing this afternoon in 1972. Countless books. Multiple government inquiries. So I won’t do a blow-by-blow. But in the end, 13 unarmed protesters are shot dead by the British military on the streets of Derry. About the same number are wounded.
The IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, remembered the day vividly:
“I saw people being killed all around me but there was nothing I could do. I was absolutely raging.”
At one point, a Catholic priest named Edward Daly sees a young man get shot while running away from the soldiers, quote:
‘The next thing he suddenly gasped and threw his hands up in the air and fell on his face. He asked me: “Am I going to die?” and I said no, but I administered the last rites. I can remember him holding my hand and squeezing it. We all wept. We got him to the top of the street. I knelt beside him and told him, “Look son, we’ve got to get you out”, but he was dead. He was very youthful looking, just in his seventeenth year but he only looked about twelve.’
This incident became known as Bloody Sunday.
Outside of Ireland, the familiarity most people have with Bloody Sunday usually begins and ends with the famous U2 song. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, right?
I’m admittedly not a huge U2 fan, but there’s a nice line from the song that I think offers some insight. Referring to the divisions within the community, the line is: “The trench is dug within our hearts”. It’s a beautiful line. And it gets to the core of the deep emotion this conflict provokes in the people who have a stake in it.
The importance of Bloody Sunday is hard to overstate. That priest who’d held the dying boy in his arms, reflected on the event years later:
"People who were there on that day and who saw what happened were absolutely enraged by it and just wanted to seek some kind of revenge for it. In later years many young people I visited in prison told me quite explicitly that they would never have become involved in the IRA but for what they witnessed, and heard of happening, on Bloody Sunday.’
Even the British Ambassador at the time, Sir John Peck, couldn’t deny the magnitude of the Pandora’s Box that had just been opened:
Bloody Sunday unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation the like of which I had never encountered in my life, in Egypt or Cyprus or anywhere else. Hatred of the British was intense. Someone had summed it up:
‘We are all IRA now.’
On the afternoon of July 21st 1972, about six months after the carnage of Bloody Sunday, the citizens of Belfast were going about their day. It was a Friday. People were shopping, finishing up work, making plans for the weekend.
And at 2:10pm, a car parked next to the Smithfield bus station explodes. The blast sends shards of metal and plastic and glass into the air, black plumes of oily smoke.
Six minutes later, at the Brookvale Hotel, a suitcase packed with 50 pounds of explosives detonates, ripping through the building.
14 minutes later, another car bomb explodes at the Ulster bank. The blast sends a young woman, who was returning home after a day of shopping, flying backwards into a metal railing. She would end up losing both of her legs.
A few minutes after that, another bomb explodes. And then another. Then another. Then another. Within 80 minutes, twenty two bombs had exploded at locations all across the city of Belfast. Journalist Ed Maloney noted it resembled:
“a city under artillery fire; clouds of suffocating smoke enveloped buildings as one explosion followed another, almost drowning out the hysterical screams of panicked shoppers".
About an hour before the bombs started going off, IRA representatives had made phone calls to local police stations, telling them the locations of all the bombs. According to them, this was to be a rhetorical exercise, and ideally, no civilians would be hurt. Well the police were either stretched too thin or just not savvy enough to find all of these bombs in time.
And although the Irish Republican Army had planted their explosives strategically, the car bombs made no distinction between Catholics and Protestants.
Nine people were killed. A 65 year old woman and an 14 year old boy among them. 130 were severely injured, many of them suffered terrible, disfiguring injuries - losing arms, legs, and eyes.
On Irish TV that night, horrified viewers saw footage of a young policemen scraping the remains of a person caught in one of these blasts into a plastic bag.
“Bloody Friday”, as it came to be known, was not the first time the IRA had detonated bombs in population centers, and it wouldn’t be the last, but the effect it had on psyche of the people of Belfast, and the world, was profound.
The conflict had entered a new stage, and things would be different from here on out. The IRA leadership put out a statement apologizing for any unnecessary casualties, and even accused the local authorities of deliberately annoying their warnings and allowing the bombs to explode to paint their cause in a bad light.
Whatever the case, that day it became painfully clear that the most pernicious weapon of the IRA, the one that could cause the most pain and terror, was not the bullet – but the bomb. In response, twelve thousand British troops move into Northern Ireland in what was called Operation Motorman. The struggle had unquestionably entered a new, bitter, and bloody era.
From this point on, bombs really became the signature weapon of the IRA.
Again, they’d been doing it before Bloody Friday. Being able to detonate 22 coordinated bombs in the span of an hour and a half suggests a certain degree of practice-makes-perfect. But throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they get really good at it.
A successful bombing was a source of pride for the IRA Volunteers. One said this about the thrill of bomb-making and planting:
"How many bombs can you get inside their net? Every bomb we got inside was looked upon as a victory for us. It was not so much the physical damage you were doing as the sheer number of attacks. But it was still nice to get a car bomb and then ‘boom’, a whole row of shops would be gone.’
And the results were often horrific. To live through one of these bombings was like suddenly being dropped into a war zone. As the Belfast Telegraph reported after a car bombing in the mid 70s.
“Donegall Street looked like a battlefield. When the smoke and dust from the blast cleared, injured people were seen lying in pools of blood on the roadway. Some of the casualties lay in agony with glass splinters embedded in their wounds. A body was blown to pieces by the force of the explosion, which rocked the entire city centre. An old man was comforted on the footpath. As he lay barely conscious, he was unaware that half his leg had been blown off in the explosion.
If you were lucky enough to survive one of these bombings, it was the type of experience you’d carry for the rest of your life. One survivor from a bombing in 1992 remembered:
I looked and all I could see was fire. I was yelling, I was screeching and it was an experience I had never come through before. A flash came through my mind that overhead lines had fallen – the big overhead power lines. I thought we had been electrocuted because of the pain. I have experienced getting an electric shock, but fire was coming out of my eyes. I just squealed for breath and I seemed to be heading away. I seemed to be literally going to float away. I felt I was going backwards. I was lying on the broad of my back and I couldn’t see down to see my legs and I couldn’t feel them. I was trying to get up. I said to a man: “Are my legs on?” and he said, “You’re all right” and he shook my legs but I couldn’t feel them. I said: “Get me up”, and part of my kneecap came off but I knew my leg was there and I thanked God that I was living.'
Many of these bombings were so grisly that they provoked intense outrage, on both sides. Historian David McKittrick recounts one really nasty incident in his book, Making Sense of the Troubles:
There was the bombing of La Mon House, a small hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast. IRA members attached a bomb to a grille on a window, as they had done at several other business premises, and made off. But unlike other occasions the warning given was inadequate and the premises had not been evacuated when the device went off. The result was devastating. The device produced an effect similar to napalm, sending a fireball rushing through the window and through a room containing dozens of people attending the annual dinner-dance of the Irish Collie Club.
A waitress said later: ‘People were on fire, actually burning alive. I watched men pulling long curtains off the rails and wrapping people up in them to try to put out the flames. I could smell the burning flesh. I didn’t realise at the time what I was smelling but I realised later what that dreadful stench was.’ The explosion killed twelve people, seven of them women, and injured more than thirty others. Those who died included three married couples; all the victims were Protestants. A local paper reported: ‘For those who were there to see this holocaust it was sickening. Sickening to see pieces of a human body, limbs and other parts of the body being lifted. Many of them were just pure red flesh so indistinguishable that even forensic science experts found difficulty in sifting out their identification.’
The IRA bombed anything and everything they considered a legitimate target. That included government buildings, military checkpoints, Army convoys, Protestant neighborhoods, cultural landmarks, pubs, shopping centers.
As you read more and more about it, you get the sense that the IRA didn’t really care all THAT much about civilian casualties. They were unfortunate, sure, but only when the casualties were politically inconvenient did IRA leadership seem to exhibit anything resembling honest contrition.
And IRA sympathizers were ambivalent as well. One said:
The fact is I would not like to see civilians dying. But having said that, I recognize that the IRA had a right to wage war for freedom, for self-determination. This is not meant to sound callous but there may well be casualties. I do not condone casualties but they are a fact of war. The bottom line for me would be that there would be no war and no IRA if the British were not in Ireland.
Now, it’s tempting to think of the violence as being waged exclusively between the IRA and the British Army. The rebels and the empire, right?
But as it turns out, the IRA was not the only paramilitary organization in town. The loyalists felt they needed their own version of the IRA to protect their Protestant communities against the terror of the IRA. To take the fight to the Republicans in a away the British army could not.
Eye for an eye. Bullet for a bullet.
There are several Loyalist organizations that start attracting angry new recruits during the Troubles. People who see something like Bloody Friday and say, okay, something has to be done. I can’t join the Army, but I can fire a gun.
So volunteer defense organizations are formed. The Ulster Defense Regiment, or the UDR. The Ulster Defense Association or UDA. The Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF.
(Now, a quick note on the names of those organizations. ‘Ulster’ is a word I’ve been avoiding up until now, because it’s just a needless complication, but Ulster is basically a synonym for Northern Ireland that was often used by Protestants and Loyalists. It just refers to a geographic area. In case you were wondering.)
As we know, the IRA had committed horrible atrocities in the name of its political ideology. But these radical loyalists, armed with both automatic weapons and the white-hot zeal of revenge, were equally capable of shocking violence.
There’s a quote from a UDA newsletter that gives you a window into the sheer hated they felt for the IRA:
‘Why have we not started to hit back in the only way these Nationalist bastards understand? That is, ruthless, indiscriminate killing… if I had a flamethrower I would roast the slimy excreta that pass for human beings.’
Well, these groups do start to hit back – as they say. But here’s the problem, the IRA was a movement embedded in the Catholic community. To strike at the IRA, these Loyalist paramilitaries had to strike directly at that community.
According to records, 80% of the deaths caused by these loyalist paramilitaries during the entire 30-year period of the Troubles, were civilians.
And when you read some of these stories, you get a sense of the sheer amount of hatred and anger these guys were feeling. There’s one anecdote about a young Catholic couple who is stopped on the street by men from these Loyalist paramilitary groups. They force the woman to sing for them, before shooting both her and her boyfriend dead.
Another one involves an attempted hit on a suspected IRA member. A UVF hit squad arrives at his house and is disappointed to discover he’s not at home. But his wife is. So they proceed to carve the initials of their organization U-V-F into her chest.
It’s just horrific stuff.
So you’ve got the IRA and the UDA and the UVF and the British Army all killing each other, and civilians are getting caught in the middle of it all.
The body count was rising in Northern Ireland. Hundreds and hundreds of people. Again, most of them civilians, by the way. But in 1979, at the close of the first decade of the Troubles, the IRA claimed their most high-profile trophy yet.
On August 27th, 1979, an old man is fishing for lobsters off the coast of Northern Ireland. He was on vacation… “on holiday”, as the Brits might say. He had his 15-year-old grandsons with him on this fishing trip, as well as some close friends. Sounds like a nice time. Well, that morning, as they’re pulling up their lobster traps, the boat explodes.
The IRA had planted a bomb on the vessel the night before. Some witnesses who saw the blast say the boat was literally lifted out of the water by the force of the explosion. Among the dead are a 15-year old crewmember, a 14-year old boy, and his 79-year old grandfather. The old man wasn’t just an old man, though.
He was Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet, former Viceroy of India, Uncle to Prince Charles, and second-cousin to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.
The IRA had just assassinated a member of the Royal Family.
On the exact same day, just hours later, 18 British soldiers are ambushed and killed in a surprise attack near the Northern Irish border. The largest body count of any attack on the Army to date.
This one-two punch leaves Britain, and the world, reeling.
The IRA and their supporters in Republican circles are, ecstatic. Shortly after, apparently, some graffiti appeared in Belfast or Derry or wherever that said, “13 gone and not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten.” 13 of course being a reference to the number of protesters killed on Bloody Sunday.
Do you see what I mean about the escalation of the violence and how the tit-for tat stuff feeds off each other? In the space of a decade, we’ve gone from throwing bottles and bricks at police, to pulling off hits on members of the British Royal family. It’s insane when you step back and think of the scale.
Lord Mountbatten wasn’t a particularly great guy, there are actually some seedy allegations about his personal life we won’t get into, but nonetheless this is an outrage to the British people. To them, it wasn’t just an assault on one man, it was an assault on an institution. A cornerstone of their culture. You do not touch the Royal Family. Period.
So, it’s around this time that the British authorities start to use one of their greatest weapons against the IRA:
These were people from within the IRA itself that were willing to cooperate with the British Army and Special Forces to hamper operations and provide information that would lead to capture and killing of IRA members.
But rather than rattle off a list of loosely related anecdotes, I want to look at the informer phenomenon through the lens of one man.
His name is Paddy Flood.
Paddy Flood was one of the young kids that lived through the first years of the British Army’s occupation. He threw stones, bricks, bottles, participated in riots.
His father didn’t approve of his association with Republican rebels. He remembered:
‘I told Paddy: “If you are going down there you are going to be arrested by the police and it’s not going to do you any good. The people there, egging you on, are only using you for their own ends.” But Paddy did not listen.’
But there weren’t a lot of prospects for a young man like Paddy at the time. Unemployment in the area where he lived was above 50%. And he found a home in the ranks of the IRA. He found meaning, purpose, and a sense of community with his fellow volunteers.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Paddy. He even met a girl. Shortly after he joined the IRA, Paddy fell in love with a young woman named Elizabeth. He called her Liz.
Accoording to journalist Kevin Toolis:
Until he met Elizabeth, Paddy had always been awkward with women but together they blossomed into a loving couple. ‘There was something about the two of them that just fitted. Paddy idolized her,’ a close friend commented.
But while Paddy’s love life was blossoming, so was his technical expertise. Within the ranks of the IRA, Paddy became a prolific bomb maker. At one point, he was making 80% of the bombs for the IRA cells in his area. He was also storing weapons for the IRA – ammunition, machine guns, pistols, grenade launchers.
Well one day, the police come to Paddy’s door. And they arrest both he and his wife and drive them down to police HQ. They take them into separate interrogation rooms.
In one room, the detectives inform Paddy that they had found this weapons cache. He was looking at serious charges. Years in prison.
In the other room, his wife Elizabeth falls apart emotionally under police interrogation. According to sources, she was not a particularly mentally strong person, and derived a lot of her confidence from Paddy. So being hauled into a police station and grilled over links to a terrorist organization, just cracks her.
In the other room, the detectives tell Paddy that they intend to throw the book at not just him, but Elizabeth. Storing weapons for the IRA, that’s years, even decades in prison. And they’db e sure to get every scrap of information they could from Elizabeth. They promised they would “break her like a fucking plate.”
Unless, Paddy was willing to do something to save her. As Paddy would say several years later:
‘Liz really wasn’t very well at the time. She had had a nervous breakdown and she suffered from anorexia. We planned to get married within the next year or so. I was worried sick about her. I knew she could not hack prison. She’d die there … I agreed to work for them if they agreed to release her.’
So Paddy Flood becomes a secret informant for these detectives, feeding them information about IRA personnel and operations. But as the months went on, these handlers want more and more and more. And he couldn’t stop cooperating with the authorities once they had him. They could easily expose him to his fellow IRA members. So Paddy was trapped. According to him:
‘The cops were always on about my wife. We had a wee child). They said what would she do if I was shot by the IRA or put away for a long, long time because of the statements I had signed. They kept on reminding me about that at different times, about how deep I was in.’
So Paddy lives like this for three years.
And as the IRA operations Paddy was involved failed or suffered setbacks time and time again, his comrades began to suspect something was up with their favorite bombmaker.
One key clue to Paddy’s split allegiance was an instance where he “forgot” to put batteries in a bomb he’d built. Experienced bombmakers do not forget to put batteries in their bombs.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when an IRA operation went south, and all those involved were caught and arrested. Except Paddy. He had somehow, miraculously, escaped. After that, the IRA leadership were convinced he was an informer.
About a week later, Paddy goes out to buy his little daughter shoes, and doesn’t come back. As his precious wife Liz remembered:
I was afraid when he did not come home that night. Paddy had never been away from me for the whole night long,”
All of the quotes from Paddy Flood himself, his own words that I’ve been reading to you, came from a taped confession. But not a confession to the British authorities. A confession to his fellow IRA members.
That night, when he’d gone to buy shoes for his daughter, Paddy had been picked up by IRA men. And they’d interrogated him for several days. Cross-referencing his actions and whereabouts over the last few years, trying to determine his guilt or innocence. Eventually, Paddy tells them everything. He admits to his brothers in arms that he’d been feeding information to the police.
There’s only one person in the world, outside of the IRA, that has heard that tape. An Irish journalist Kevin Toolis, through a miraculous set of incognito correspondences with former IRA members, was able to listen to this tape before it was destroyed. Here’s how he felt listening to it:
“Halfway through the tape a feeling of obscenity akin to physical nausea gripped me; I felt as if I had been stained by something unclean. By listening to the tape of this man, so close to dying, I felt as if I was participating in his murder. The tape was dramatic but did not end with a director’s shout of ‘Cut’. It ended with a bullet being fired into the back of Paddy’s brain at nine hundred miles an hour, blowing his nose and two front teeth out. It was revolting to listen to this, to be alive when the speaker was dead.”
Paddy’s body was unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road.
In the years afterward, his wife Elizabeth outright refused to believe Paddy could’ve betrayed the Republican cause, completely unaware that he had indeed informed on the IRA, but only for her sake. She insisted:
‘Those people really believe Paddy was an informer. But they are wrong. They do not want to admit they are wrong. They are covering up.
Paddy hated rats.’
In the same year that the IRA assassinated a member of the Royal family, Lord Mountbatten, the UK got a brand new Prime Minister.
Her name was Margaret Thatcher. The famous ‘Iron Lady’.
That name may mean something to you. It may mean nothing to you. But if you fall into the latter category, let me tell ya, Margaret Thatcher is a big effing deal. She’s very very polarizing, but nonetheless a colossal figure in 20th century global politics.
And almost immediately after she took office, she went head to head with the IRA in one of the most contentious, controversial public relations campaigns in modern history.
Whenever there’s any kind of terrorist threat in a movie or a TV show, there’s always someone in the room who says “we do not negotiate with terrorists”. Well, Margaret Thatcher was the ultimate, “we do not negotiate with terrorists” type.
The central issue of the next stage in our story involved the status of imprisoned members of the IRA.
Since the beginning of the Troubles, IRA members who’d been sentenced for crimes and imprisoned enjoyed something called “Special Category Status”.
They were treated not like common criminals, but prisoners of war. They were allowed to wear their own, civilian clothes in the facility. They were allowed freedom of movement and the privilege of associating with one another. They did not have to do any mandatory prison work. No one’s stamping plates or picking up highway trash here. And they were allowed to retain their own command structures within prison, with their own designated “officers” enforcing order and discipline among their subordinates. Just like in a POW camp.
Well in the late 70s this “Special Category Status” is revoked. And all of a sudden, the IRA prisoners are not so special anymore. They have to wear prison uniforms, they’re confined to their cells, and they cannot associate with each other - the whole nine yards. And to top it all off, the prison guards start beating them and roughing them up on a regular basis.
Initially, the IRA responds the way you would expect them to. Tracking down and murdering off-duty prison guards in retaliation.
As Tim Pat Coogan describes in his book, The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal and the Search for Peace:
Prison Officer Cassidy was one of the warders subsequently shot. He was attending a wedding at the time. As he emerged from the church with his three-year-old daughter he was shot in the body. He fell to the ground, squirming, his screaming child standing over him. Another gunman pushed through the crowd and shot him in the head.
But the British government is unmoved by these targeted murders.
So the IRA prisoners themselves decide they need to do something to get that status back. And they need to put political pressure on Margaret Thatcher’s government to do it. The way they fight back against having the revocation of their special status…can only be described as both deeply creative, utterly bizarre, and super gross.
First, they refuse to wear their prison uniforms. As one prisoner reportedly said to a guard. “If you want me to wear that uniform, you’ll have to nail it to my back.”
A poem from the time period put it a tad more eloquently:
I’ll wear no convict’s uniform, Nor meekly serve my time, That England might Brand Ireland’s fight Eight hundred years of crime.
Because they refused to wear clothes, they are completely naked 24/7, except for the thin blankets included with their bunks. Newspapers started calling them “The Blanket Men.” Then they smash all the furniture in their cells. The idea was to categorically reject any amenity of a prison system that they felt did not properly categorize them.
And those amenities included the prison bathrooms.
The prisoners refuse to leave their cells to use the bathroom. So the guards put buckets in their cells for them to use. But the prisoners won’t use those either. This is when what came to be known as the “Dirty Protests” begin. And they’re called that for good reason.
In protest of their revoked status, the prisoners start smearing their excrement on the walls, and throwing buckets of their urine out the windows. And something like 300 prisoners were doing this. Which just pulverizes any semblance of sanitation in these prisons. A catholic Cardinal visited one of these facilities gave the following account:
Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison I was shocked by the inhuman conditions prevailing in H Blocks 3, 4 and 5 where over 300 prisoners are incarcerated. One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls, was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting.
There are tons of eyewitness accounts of what life was like in these prisons, most of which I’ll spare you from become the details are just absolutely stomach-churning. There’s maggots everywhere, rotten food in the corners of the cells, people are getting sick all the time. It’s disgusting. It boggles the mind to think that human beings were able to endure all of this in the name of a protest, of a set of political goals.
A prisoner named Freddie Toals remembered his experience decades later:
'For a long time, I had no real idea what I looked like,' The only time I ever saw my face was this one time when the screws were sweeping piss into our cells. The sun suddenly shone through the window and, for a few seconds, I saw my reflection in a pool of piss. It sounds funny but it took me a while to register it was me. I looked like a wild man.'
And these guys lived like this for years at a time. The same prisoner admitted:
For years afterwards I had nightmares about it. I'd wake up drenched in sweat, thinking I was back there.'
The British government was hardly sympathetic:
These criminals are totally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. It is they who have been smearing excreta on the walls and pouring urine through cell doors. It is they who by their actions are denying themselves the excellent modem facilities of the prison… Each and every prisoner has been tried under the judicial system established in Northern Ireland by parliament. Those found guilty, of the due process of law, if they are sent to prison by the courts, serve their sentence for what they are – convicted criminals. They are not political prisoners. More than 80 have been convicted of murder or attempted murder and more than 80 of explosives offences.
The prisoners demand to have their special status restored, but the government doesn’t budge. So things, again, escalate. In 1981, a handful of the prisoners decide to go on hunger strike, refusing to eat until their demands are granted.
“We are prepared to die for the right to retain political status.”
This is where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comes in. The Iron Lady looked at these hunger strikes and saw little more than a publicity stunt. She saw no distinction between IRA members and common criminals:
There is no such thing as political killing, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal killing, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.’
One of these hunger strikers is a 27-year-old man named Bobby Sands.
In many ways, Bobby Sands and Margaret Thatcher were reflections of one another. Controversial. Inspiring. Unshakeable. And utterly committed to the convictions of their beliefs.
Bobby Sands was not an important member of the IRA before he was imprisoned. In 1977, he was picked up for possession of a handgun in connection with a bombing and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
But in March 1981, he decides to starve himself to death in the effort to pressure the British government to restore Special Category Status to IRA prisoners.
Hunger strikes are a very unique form of protest. The historian Tim Pat Coogan talks in his book about how old the practice is:
“It is a practice which has its roots deep in Irish history and is found also in Hindu tradition. Both the earlier Celts and the Hindus used self-immolation by starvation as a means of discrediting someone who had done them wrong. An unpaid poet or tradesman would starve himself to death, if necessary, outside the home of an uncaring patron.”
These IRA men refuse to eat anything for 5 days. Then 10 days. Then 20 days. And as the hunger strikes drag on, they have at least part of their intended effect, shining a bright spotlight on the conflict in Northern Ireland and garnering a lot of international sympathy for the IRA and these prisoners.
No less a figure than Bernie Sanders, a current US presidential candidate as of this recording in January 2020, wrote to Thatcher personally during the Hunger Strikes in 1981:
“We are deeply disturbed by your government’s unwillingness to stop the abuse, humiliation and degrading treatment of Irish prisoners now on hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. We ask you to end your intransigent policy towards the prisoners before the reputation of the English people for fair play and simple decency is further damaged in the eyes of the people of Vermont and the United States."
But in spite of international pressure, renewed rioting, protests, and IRA violence, Thatcher doesn’t budge.
‘I want this to be utterly clear – the government will never concede political status to the hunger strikers or to any others convicted of criminal offences.’
Watching this at the time, you had to be wondering who would break first. Would Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers give up in the face of the immense physical pain and misery of starvation? Or would the Prime Minister bow to political pressure?
Bobby Sands strike goes on for 30 days. 40 days. And the political situation remains static.
An associate of Sands, Owen Carron, visited him in prison and saw firsthand the havoc starvation was wreaking on his 27-year-old body.. According to historian Tim Pat Coogan:
“He found Sands in no shape to talk. He was lying on the bed, his left eye was black and closed, the right eye nearly closed and his mouth twisted as if he had suffered a stroke. He had no feelings in his legs and could only whisper. Every now and then he started dry retching. He managed to ask Carron if there was any change. His friend said no, there was no change. Sands said: ‘Well, that’s it.’ He told Carron: ‘Keep my Ma in mind.’ Carron bent over the bed, hugged him and kissed him.”
After 66 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands dies of starvation.
It’s hard to overemphasize just how powerful of an event this was in the Irish psyche. In a movement already packed to the gills with Catholic martyr imagery, Bobby Sands ascends in death to almost mythic status within the IRA, the republican movement, and Irish culture in general.
And if the world expected any tenderness or sympathy from the Iron Lady, they were sorely disappointed. After Bobby Sands’ death, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had this to say:
‘If Mr. Sands persisted in his wish to commit suicide, that was his choice. He was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life.
It was a choice his organization did not allow to many of its victims.”
These two figures had gone head to head, unstoppable force meets immovable object. And in the end, Thatcher’s will had stayed strong, while Sands’ body withered into nothing.
Bobby Sands wasn’t the only hunger striker to die. Nine more men died in prison as a result of self-imposed starvation. The last one, a member of an Irish Republican splinter group called the INLA was named Michael Devine. His final hours were witnessed by a priest:
Father Pat Buckley took Mass in the hospital and went in to see Michael, who had been too ill to make it. There was an awful smell – almost cancerous of the eating away of flesh mainly from his mouth, but so pervasive that his whole body seemed to be breathing it. Michael confessed that he was scared, afraid to die. Buckley asked him why he was afraid – he was a free agent; if he was not happy he did not have to do it. Michael said he felt it was the right thing to do but he was still scared. His eyes were wet and Buckley, taking out a handkerchief to mop his cheeks, could feel the tears in his own eyes. Michael asked if he could take his confession. Buckley put an arm around him and listened. Michael found comfort in the ancient faith.’
The reason we have spent so much time focusing on the blanket men, the dirty protests, and the hunger strikes, is because I think they tell a revealing story about the IRA’s depth of belief.
They were murderers. They were terrorists. They waged the kind of war that modern civilization has every reason to revile. But the fact that Bobby Sands and nine other men were able to watch their bodies literally decay, feel their organs shut down, and their minds atrophy, for a political ideology… tells you everything you need to know about the IRA, and just how *intense* they were.
Terrorist organizations are never short on young members willing to die for their beliefs. That has always been true. And the example that immediately pops into most people’s heads when you say that, is a suicide bomber, right? They strap on the vest, walk into a crowded area, and blow themselves up. But in that situation, these guys are hopped up on adrenaline, maybe even something chemical to steady their nerves, and when they push the button it’s over – at least for them – in less than a second. There’s no pain. They’ve killed themselves before their brain can even register what happened.
But when you starve yourself to death, it takes…weeks. It’s agony. And your mind is wasting away too. Your capacity for rational thought and clear-minded decision making. And apparently the guards were putting plates of piping hot food by Sands’ bedside every day in an effort to break his willpower. And look, when your body is literally falling apart, and it’s not being imposed on you, you have the power to end it in a second. Just say the word, and we’ll give you some food. Say the word, and the pain can be over. The basic, primal instinct of self preservation is screaming through every synapse in your brain. And you choose to keep going?
It's such an incomprehensible feat of sheer willpower. The vast majority of people are not mentally equipped to handle that kind of ordeal. 99.999% of us would crack. But these guys didn’t. I’m not trying to heaping praise on them, I just personally can’t imagine the willpower.
The actions of the hunger strikers are just astounding to me. Look - I don’t condone the IRA’s politics, methods, or ideological positions – AT ALL. Cards on the table, I personally think they abdicated any moral legitimacy the second they started ambushing, murdering, and bombing innocent people. But good god, can you imagine starving yourself to death for an ideal?
The morale-draining effect of these hunger strikes on the IRA and the republican movement at large is devastating. The famous Gerry Adams, a very controversial Irish politician who we don’t have time to really dive into but I could write another 20 pages about…had this to say: The hunger strikes were:
‘An Everest amongst the mountains of traumatic events which the Irish people have experienced. ‘I cannot yet think with any intensity of the death of Bobby Sands and the circumstances of his passing without crying.’
Physically, emotionally and spiritually, the hungerstrike was intensely draining; yet we derived immense new energy, commitment and direction from the extraordinary period during which our ten comrades slowly and painfully sacrificed their lives.’
It’s also worth noting that the Iron Lady did not emerge from this ordeal unscathed either.
Three years after the Hunger Strikes ended, the IRA managed to detonate a bomb in the hotel the Prime Minister was staying in at the time. It killed five people, and Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet barely escaped with their lives.
Like the killing of Lord Mountbatten, the second cousin of the Queen, it really drives home the sheer reach of the organization. If the Royal family and the Prime Minister of the UK weren’t safe, then no one was.
After the hotel bombing which failed to kill Margaret Thatcher, the IRA put out a statement and it’s just absolutely chilling:
“Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky, for the rest of your life. Give Ireland peace, and there will be no war.”
Earlier in the episode, I talked a little bit about how when you read about all of this violence, all of this cyclical misery, you start to get a little numb to it. There’s only so much murder and suffering you can read about before that initial shock and horror starts to fade and you just feel nothing
By now, you can probably understand what I’m talking about.
Just as you are probably exhausted by story after story of bombings, shootings, and death…the world was tired of it too. After 30 years of this stuff, 3,637 people were dead. And the vast majority of them weren’t armed belligerents like the IRA or UDA or British Army, but civilians.
And after all that time, the IRA, and Nationalist Republicans in general, realized, they were no closer to getting the British out of Northern Ireland than they had been on Bloody Sunday.
Both sides had had enough. One absolutely amazing factoid that I found involves the British Intelligence agency Mi5
So throughout the 1990s, a peace process begins to take shape.
The Republican movement begins shifting away from what they would call “armed struggle”, or what a rational person would call sectarian terrorism. Instead, they put their hopes in the hand of Northern Ireland’s minority Republican political party, called Sinn Fein. (spell it)
Now Sinn Fein and the IRA had always been very cozy. The IRA was the fist, and Sinn Fein was front. One illegal, one legitimate. There was a ton of crossover in terms of membership, though. There were Sinn Fein members who’d hand out partisan flyers by day and plan assassinations by night.
But after all this time and pointless killing, the efficacy of the IRA’s methods is coming into question. And the legitimate political face of the movement, Sinn Fein, steps up to the plate. Republican political theory shifts away from the “long war” strategy of attrition, and towards actual, honest-to-god political discourse.
And so in the 90s, with a ton of help from the international community, including American President Bill Clinton, a truce is negotiated. It starts with a series of ceasefires and lots of heated back-and-forth, but eventually culminates in something called the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement, notably, does not accomplish the IRA’s goal of pushing the British out of Northern Ireland.
But it did do two really important things. For one, it brought the majority of the violence to an end. All parties involved agreed to stop killing each other. So that’s good. But it also included a deal where Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans would share power within the government, so no side could dominate or oppress the other. But most importantly, if the population of Northern Ireland ever voted to leave the UK and join the South, they could do that.
That was 22 years ago.
Northern Ireland remains in a state of fragile peace. But those bitter divisions didn’t just go away, they went into hibernation. All you have to do is take a quick drive through the capitol of Belfast to see potent, lingering reminders of the civil strife that dominated the region for three decades.
For example, all over the city, there are these huge brick barricades called “peace walls”. They stretch for hundreds and hundreds of feet. And what the “peace walls” do is separate Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic neighborhoods. They’re a relic from the height of the Troubles, but despite the Good Friday agreement, they’ve stayed in place. Not because of any legal mandate, but because the two communities wantto remain segregated. These physical barriers make them feel safer.
There are still about 100 of these peace walls in Belfast. It begs the question, how “at peace” can Northern Ireland be if it takes a 30ft wall to keep these communities from tearing each other apart?
Now a lot of these walls have gates that allow passage from one side to another, and a few have even been demolished in symbolic gestures of unity, but Protestant and Catholics are still deeply segregated, not only physically, but politically and emotionally. One mind-blowing recent study says that 93% of children in Northern Ireland attend schools segregated along Catholic/Protestant lines. If that doesn’t say everything you need to know about the state of affairs, I don’t know what does.
The polarization and division is so ingrained, that apparently the joke in Belfast is if Catholics put up a McDonalds flag, Protestants would put up a KFC flag.
Aside from the peace walls, another thing you’ll see everywhere are huge murals, painted on the sides of buildings. Depending on where you are in town, these murals will champion either the Republican or Loyalist cause. They often depict masked men with automatic weapons, Irish tri-colors or Union Jacks. Some even depict the likenesses of martyrs like Bobby Sands and the other dead hunger strikers. They’re essentially well-preserved pieces of propaganda. The events these murals depict happened decades ago, but the feelings they evoke are still extremely fresh.
Now as we wrap things up, I know this episode has been a long one. Much longer than usual. So if you’re still here with me, I appreciate your stamina.
But despite the length, despite all the ground we’ve covered, today’s deep dive into the Troubles is far from comprehensive. There’s an ocean of nuance and complexity under the tiny little iceberg tip we’ve been able to look at today.
It is a struggle so old, so complicated, and so brimming with anger, fear, mistrust and grief, that to truly understand it would take a lifetime. And those tensions are always in danger of reigniting, especially as the UK attempts untangle the rat’s nest that is Brexit.
Finding one’s perspective on the Troubles seems at once both a simple and impossible task.
The shocking violence and zealotry perpetrated by the paramilitary groups, Republican and Loyalist alike are obviously inexcusable. But what about their causes? Their political beliefs? Is it inexcusable to want a united Ireland free from British influence? Not necessarily, no. But at the same time, is Northern Ireland even really Ireland from cultural perspective anymore? Or is it a melting pot shaped by the tides of history that is only just now learning to reconcile the desires and interests of the different groups within it?
If it’s the latter, we can certainly understand that dynamic here in the United States. Diverse societies can often experience shocking violence as the groups within them struggle to understand and respect one another. But when it works, it is a heart wrenchingly beautiful testament to the what we can achieve.
As of this recording, we’re just days away from the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. A couple years away from the 50th anniversary. Now, if you’ll recall, the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising was a big factor in inflaming the tensions that the violence of the Troubles.
It's hard not to be reminded of the ominously prophetic words that were uttered just months before the 1916 Easter Rising, by one of its most important leaders, Padraig Pearse:
‘The fools, the fools, they think that they have pacified Ireland. But they have left us our Fenian dead. And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
Let’s hope from here on out, cooler heads and compassionate hearts continue to reign in Northern Ireland.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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