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Essay: The changing image of and support for the IRA

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  • Published: 17 September 2021*
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Directly after Bloody Sunday, the narrative of victimhood emerged in the nationalist movement, emphasizing the lives lost during the march and the bloodshed caused by the British army. That was one of the pivotal events that created a cycle of violence between the unionists and nationalists, especially with the resurgence of the IRA. However, despite trying to keep the façade of total discrimination and attacks from the unionist side, the IRA was quickly labeled by the media as “terrorists” and lost the support gained right after Bloody Sunday. It took until the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981 to change the IRA’s image from terrorists to freedom fighters, as the poor conditions and martyrdom of some nationalists humanized the entire organization and allowed the IRA to push forward into politics.
Years of discrimination and oppression had worn down the majority of the Catholic population. It was these feelings of collective victimhood and anti-colonization that equated to more tolerance of, or even receptiveness to, the violent actions committed by the IRA.
While understanding the methods used does not equal complete support (Lynch and Joyce 2018, 188), the obdurate IRA operated with relative ease, as few nationalists dared to oppose it. The increased violence by some militant nationalists led to, in turn, increased violence by some militant unionists, creating an unbreakable cycle that bounced back and forth between sides. While historically, the Catholics have been continually discriminated against (making them the victims in many stories), unionists had their fair share of troubles as well. It is untruthful to say that no harm befell the unionists during this conflict (as many of them were injured/killed by IRA attacks), but the narrative established by the nationalists during this time had longer roots, dating back to the struggles they had been faced when the English came into the country and colonized it.
During the 1960s, disadvantaging practices regarding housing, employment opportunities, the right to vote, and education were commonplace for Catholics across Northern Ireland (Beggan 2006, 63). With the IRA in “retirement,” nationalists took to the streets to protest and demonstrate. The state had two options: to repress the movement or politically open up to their demands (Beggan 2006, 63). Instead of using peaceful methods, the state pushed back violently, with actions such as republican-only internment without trial and opening fire on marches, leading to events like Bloody Sunday. These became the “consequences” for the civil rights movement, leading to this idea that fighting for equality could possibly get oneself killed. These circumstances were similar to many other movements across the globe, such as the black civil rights movement in America and the casualties that it wrought. The public, international view of the republican plight during this time was sympathetic, with many siding with the Catholics. There were comparisons of Bloody Sunday to the Sharpeville Massacre, and the prime minister of Ireland called it “an unwarranted attack on unarmed civilians” (Beggan 2006, 72; Fackles 1980, 28). There were photographs and televised accounts of the bloodshed, media with pictures of injured children and corpses being broadcasted around the globe. For a little while, the international support (in countries such as the United States with large Irish populations) of the insurgency was high, Many felt empathy for the nationalist marchers who were gunned down when protesting for their rights, and the injuries on the unionist side, while not as significant, were diminished in the face of the collective victimhood of the Catholics.
When the IRA returned in the late 1960s to combat discrimination with force and terrorism, the narrative did not immediately change. In a ten-year span, the grievances of the nationalist community had increased drastically. The rational solution morphed into fighting violence with violence, all under the logic that if the Catholics were given the same equal rights that the Protestants already had, the conflict would decrease or end completely. The unionists (police, government officials, even civilians) now became the victims, as they were targeted in the IRA’s attacks. On the other side, while many nonviolent nationalists were being unfairly interned, they were rarely killed. One IRA bombing in March 1972 killed two young women and injured seventy others. A senior doctor remembers how young the victims were, how they weren’t paratroopers or government officials. In a newspaper report, the horrors were described, noting how one of the girls “planned to marry” (McKittrick and McVea 2002, 78). The violence against the nationalist community on Bloody Sunday garnered support, but the violent attacks in response to the injustices from that event and many others made IRA seem more like terrorists. Freedom fighters wouldn’t be targeting and killing young women preparing to get married. To many, it seemed as if the IRA was killing without reason, as the conflict reported more civilian casualties than soldier. During these years, the IRA was in no way political. Their one goal was to make Northern Ireland ungovernable and illicit many casualties in hopes that Britain would give up and conclude that the province was no longer worth it (Neumann 2005,). In their minds, violence was more effective in letting their voices be heard; once that happened, politics would be a useful tool in negotiating withdrawal from the United Kingdom (Neumann 2005,). However, this line of thought was no longer working in the late 1970s. Instead of listening to the IRA’s “demands” (which were made through acts of violence), anti-terrorism measures were put into place. The collective victimhood of the republicans was not enough to erase the IRA’s terrorist image, even if some believed that their actions were “justified.” Margaret Thatcher, for example, stated that “the IRA are the core of the terrorist problem” (Matchett 2015, 11), and declared that these crimes were not political in nature. In order for there to be progress for the militant nationalists, methods would have to change.
The hunger strikes, however, were a turning point for the organization’s international image. The IRA, while not in support of at the beginning, actively used the hunger strikers collective victimhood to their advantage as a massive propaganda campaign for the cause. The death of ten prisoners sparked an jump in paramilitary recruitment and nationalist riots, enforcing the “victim of injustice” (Lynch and Joyce 2018, 188) narrative that was not as effective before the 1980s, and served to radicalize the community in a nonviolent way. The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, compared the conditions of the prisoners to those living in the slums of Calcutta and stated that “no one could look on them as criminals” (McKittrick and McVea 2002, 140). While no longer a solely religious struggle, the plight of the hunger strikers was being felt by Catholics across the globe, with reports from the Vatican talking about the “sacrifices” these brave men have made. Despite Unionist claims and general outrage, the cardinal’s visit was a win for the IRA. The images of the filth and poor lifestyles of the “freedom fighters” were displayed worldwide. Instead of hurting others with bombings and random attacks, the hunger strikes did not physically hurt anyone except for those who chose to starve. The change in tactics improved their image; just like on Bloody Sunday, nationalists were dying in protest of what they thought unfair, becoming true victims of injustice.
Specific strikers also were known worldwide. Bobby Sands became a public figure who eventually became a martyr for the cause. Since he had been jailed for weapon possession instead of murder, he had a friendly media image, looking “more like a drummer in a rock band than a ruthless terrorist” (McKittrick and McVea 2004, 143). Bobby Sands’s image being plastered on news stations across the world was effective propaganda, changing the IRA’s image to a more sympathetic, humanizing one. His election as an MP before his death furthered this, making a politician out of a supposed “terrorist.” Members weren’t just men with guns and balaclavas; instead, they were “rockstars” unfairly interned and killed just for possessing weapons. With this line of thought in mind, it’s easy to understand why the IRA had to resort to violence in the first place. They were just freedom fighters pushed to take drastic measures to regain the rights taken from them in earlier discriminatory laws and practices. Sands’s death strengthened the nationalist community, as martyrs “provide a rallying symbol that operates on an emotional level. . .rather than one of rational, calculated gain” (Dingley and Mollica 2007, 466). Before the strikes, the IRA had been seen as a calculated, cold terrorist organization. Even though the process of choosing those to participate in the strike was rational and thought-out, the results of the strikes were the opposite, changing the public view with influential symbols people could get behind.
Furthermore, the aftermath of the 1980s strikes allowed for Sinn Fein to become more political in 1982, a shift that would not be possible without a positive public image. A nonviolent strategy increased their political clout; in 1983, Sinn Fein won about 43% of the nationalist vote but dropped to 35% in 1987 due to IRA violence (Pruitt 2007, 1521). The hunger strikers, especially Bobby Sands, displayed a nonviolent, human version of the IRA that went over well with the international community and the nationalist population. This “peaceful” strategy also helped with electoral participation (Neumann 2005, 942). In order to keep the moderates voting for them, Sinn Fein and the IRA had to limit the violence that turned some nationalists away from them in the first place. While the installment of Sinn Fein as a political party was viewed as a decrease in IRA violence, that was not entirely the case. Giving a nonviolent party with ties to a paramilitary political access only legitimized what the IRA was doing by demonstrating a large amount electoral support. It was no secret that Sinn Fein and the IRA were linked, and in the 1980s, a significant amount of the nationalist population voted for them despite the small numbers of extremists that supported the IRA. With seats in Parliament, Sinn Fein could limit the amount of harsh policies targeting the paramilitary branch (Neumann 2005, 952). Based on the electoral statistics of Sinn Fein in the 1980s, the party did better politically when the IRA was viewed as nonviolent. In both elections (1982 and 1987), the violence and IRA attacks did not diminish based on how well Sinn Fein did in the polls. Sinn Fein’s popularity depended greatly on public image, and less of what was happening internally; this was boosted to a more positive light when Bobby Sands was elected, as he was already a popular figure worldwide.
Throughout the Troubles, support of the IRA increased when large-scale grievances were placed upon on the nationalists, such as the death toll on Bloody Sunday. The 1960s established a narrative of collective victimhood for the Catholic minority and many nationalists, which stood as a platform for the hunger strikers to build-up on and create a more positive image of the IRA and the “freedom fighters” that were apart of the organization. Because of this, Sinn Fein became a popular political party bolstered by a public image of non-violence despite what was happening and not reported on behind the scenes. When the IRA did not come across as a terrorist organization, they were better supported (in Ireland and internationally), as it was easier for both moderates and extremists to get behind this group as their violent acts were diminished in the narrative that honored and “glorified” those who died in the Bloody Sunday and the hunger strikes as freedom fighters and martyrs.

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