Ireland Revisited: Part 6
The Provisional IRA adopted many tactics throughout its thirty year campaign in Northern Ireland, sometimes encompassing politics with bombings and high profile assassinations (the “ballot in one hand and armalite in the other” strategy) in order to achieve their ideological aim of a united Ireland, based on socialist principles. They believed that targeting mainland Britain with a consistent bombing campaign would help them achieve such aims. The idea was to put fear into the British government, who would, ultimately have the final say on Britain’s continued occupation of the six counties of Northern Ireland. The failure of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 gave paramilitaries a renewed vigor to achieve their goals through armed conflict, planting bombs on mainland Britain being a top priority of republican activists.
In June 1974 the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb at the Houses of Parliament in London, injuring 11 people. The following month, in July 1974, another Provisional IRA bomb exploded at the Tower of London killing one and leaving a further 41 people injured. The bombs appeared to tarnish their reputation and arguably had a detrimental affect on their goals and ambitions; instead of helping to secure total Irish independence they ended up giving the British government and public, as well as unionists, even more determination to maintain the Union. Many deemed the attacks as reckless and merely targeting civilians rather than ‘legitimate’ targets that the Provisional IRA had always claimed.
The Provisional IRA leadership argued that attacks at the heart of the British Empire would boost the morale of the rank and file Republicans as well as delivering a message to the British administration that their continued occupation in Northern Ireland would not be tolerated. The group claimed that “one bomb in London was worth ten bombs in Ireland” – a point which did seem to be backed up by the huge international media coverage which accompanied each bomb on English soil. The bombs shone the media spotlight on the Irish conflict and ensured that the British government would have to be on their best behaviour. The Provisional IRA, undeterred by public criticism, detonated further bombs in England in October 1974 killing six people and injuring over 70 others. The mainland Britain bombing campaign was by this stage in full swing, with the Woolwich pub bomb killing two more people in November 1974 and two bombs in Birmingham pubs killing 21 more people and injuring more than 180.
Under increasing pressure from unionism and the British public, the British Government responded to the bombing campaign with important shifts in British policy, now acknowledging that they were in for a long campaign against militant republicanism. At its core was Criminalization and Ulsterisation. Criminalisation involved trying to criminalize the Provisional IRA through the media outlets and withdraw them from the Catholic community by claiming they were merely ‘criminals’. Ulsterisation involved the British government hoping to gradually reduce the number of British troops on the front line in Northern Ireland, and instead letting the people of Northern Ireland fight the battles, with the RUC and Special Branch being at the fore.
Both policies were disastrous for the British and further alienated the nationalist community due to the simple fact that instead of trying to reform a clearly unworkable state, the British government instead emphasized the need to criminalize people, many of whom had genuine grievances with the state’s political institutions. In conjunction with the policy shift by the British administration, they also opened up channels of dialogue with the republican hierarchy, hoping to encourage the Provisional IRA to use exclusively democratic means to advance their political goals. However, the short ceasefire was met with mistrust and skepticism by many in the republican community, some claiming it was a British government tactic to disorganize, disorientate and ultimately destroy the movement. Such vocal opposition to the agreement came from two up and coming young IRA activists, both of whom would play vital roles in the escalation of the Troubles and its eventual closure…
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