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Mass politics in Northern Ireland. March 22, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.


Kacper Rekawek’s Irish Republican Terrorism and Politics: A Comparative Study of the Official and Provisional IRA  is quite a read if you can get hold of it. And some fascinating information in it. But this struck me as particularly interesting though it is marginal to the overall thrust of the study.

He writes:

However, the organisation (the OIRA) was unfit to wage a prolonged terrorist-cum-urban guerilla campaign against the British and Northern Irish security forces after August 1969. It grew, but just like the rival Provisionals, failed to attract a mass membership akin to that later enjoyed by the UDA which had tens of thousands of members drawn from the Protestant community.

That’s quite an useful insight into the nature of the UDA, and indeed the capacity of the UDA (in tandem with others, both nominally ‘constitutional’ and not) to mobilise in Northern Ireland. Of course the UDA was, as it were, going to some degree with rather than against the grain, though it’s societal weight can’t have hurt it. Yet it is genuinely intriguing in the way of such things, that a group that could form and function so publicly and at times so – from its perspective – fruitfully, was in purely political terms almost an hollow shell. It has left little or no political legacy. Was it a case that for those involved it was easier to sub-contract out (to put it one way) their political representation to the UUP and DUP, or was it a case of the opposite dynamic, where the UDA was sub-contracted to do the heavy lifting on the para political and para military side of the line?

Or perhaps, in a curious way, it was analogous to – say – anti-abortion sentiment in this state where there could be some mobilisations at specific points, such as during referendums, but where the issue faded from sight for much of the time in between. In that sense perhaps the UDA functioned almost as a token, not to be trusted with actual political power, but to be there as a reference point.

None of which is to ignore the genuinely appalling nature of many of its activities, but simply to parse out what it meant and represented.

It’s useful to contextualise Rekawek’s book with Hanley and Miller and indeed Swan. All point to the difficulties of Official Republicanism in carving out a political space in the context of the conflict – the contradictions and challenges for it coming from the particular socio-political tradition it started out within and so on. At times Rekawek seems to see the various manifestations of OSF/SFWP/WP as ‘fronts’ for the OIRA (by the by, shades of critiques aired this last year of another organisation from a parallel base there, no?) which I think is too simplistic. Not that there weren’t aspects of direction, but the party grew so large and consequently unwieldy that one has to think that attempting to control it was a fools errand, and one could argue so it proved eventually – not least given that it split in multiple directions in the early 1990s.

But another aspect that I think is often mapped onto SF as is, and which Rekawek recounts somewhat uncritically is the notion that somehow the discipline of the WP even in the late 1980s was a function or a manifestation of ‘army’ processes. But as one on the inside at that time, albeit just a simple foot soldier,  that just wasn’t the case. Or it wasn’t the only reason for coherence. People were broadly on the same page in relation to a range of issues, political, economic, social. And where there was divergence (I was for example more pro-EC, more republican too) the sense of an overall project subsumed concerns – where there was time to reflect upon them at all. I think there’s too much of an elision between the idea of secret ‘cores’ which may exist, and probably in many parties and groups even closer to state power than the WP or SF, and the reality of strong political parties with fairly straightforward approaches that generate some limited support.



1. An Sionnach Fionn - March 22, 2016

“…like the rival Provisionals, failed to attract a mass membership akin to that later enjoyed by the UDA which had tens of thousands of members drawn from the Protestant community.”

Yes, but the UDA was a de facto legal terrorist organisation for two decades, and deliberately so as part of the UK’s counter-insurgency campaign. It could freely organise, recruit, train, finance and publicise itself. Membership carried no immediate risk of arrest, imprisonment, injury or death. Membership carried no immediate risk to the families, friends, employers or work-colleagues of members. It was zero pain for relative gain until one stepped over into the UFF-proper.

Members of OIRA/PIRA were in a different category, anti-state insurgents engaged in an armed struggle as part of two illegal organisations where formal membership risked arrest, imprisonment, injury, death, etc.

In the 1970s the UDA at times enjoyed cordial and very public relations with the British Forces, before being subsumed into the more covert Dirty War. The same applied to its dealings with the UUP and DUP.

The UDA used its legal status to claim – and gain – respectability of a type until SF, Irish and US demands made UK intransigence over its nature impossible to sustain. We ban the UDA, you continue with the back-channels.

It still is a more or less in-the-open terrorist grouping.


WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2016

Those are very fair points – the para legal aspect is crucial. That said the Republic Clubs later WP provided somewhat beleaguered legal structures too, as did PSF ultimately, but they were both much less hollow than the UDA. But I think your point aligns with the fact UDA however hollow was going with the broader political grain whereas as you say PIRA and OIRA and associated organisations weren’t.


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