Are Londoners nostalgic for the gentlemen of the IRA?

A new documentary suggests some people are misty-eyed for the ‘respectable terrorists’ of Northern Ireland over today’s tantrum-throwing jihadists.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Ever since 9/11, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has seemed rather passé, even tame. Indeed, I believe that there is a sense of longing in England for the days of the IRA; that they are seen, in retrospect, as decent, gentlemen terrorists.

‘At least they gave warnings’ is a phrase I’ve heard on more than one occasion; Islamists, by comparison, usually don’t. At least the IRA had a realistic agenda – a united Ireland – and could be dealt with. They didn’t harbour some fantasy about the destruction of the West and a world Caliphate or suicidal, adolescent delusions about finally getting a girlfriend in heaven.

Is IRA nostalgia misplaced, though? If you, like me, are of the generation that until recently knew nothing other than IRA terrorism, you might think it odd. If you grew up in England, and especially London, in the 1970s and 1980s, the threat of IRA terrorism was like football hooliganism: not perceived as an abnormality, but just part of the natural order of things. This didn’t make the threat any less terrifying. I heard both the Manchester bombing of 1996 and that on Hammersmith Bridge in London in April 2001, and there is something particularly chilling about the cold, dull thud of a bomb exploding.

In London, I still get jumpy when I hear a car backfiring or builders releasing rubble into a skip. Even the sound of more than two emergency vehicles with their sirens blazing can cause me alarm. Maybe I’m just a neurotic coward, but I suspect I’m not the only one. Ever since the bomb attacks on the Underground in July 2005, Londoners have become a cautious lot: the presence of armed police everywhere, and the constant exhortations on the Underground to watch out for suspicious packages, may purport to console us, but for me it gives the impression that we are living in a war zone.

By contrast, the worst effect the IRA had was to increase litter in the capital, as public bins were removed to stop bombs being put into them.

Perhaps the journalist and TV documentary director Peter Taylor is also missing the IRA. He has spent decades researching the ‘Troubles’, interviewing the main players in both Republican and Loyalist circles. His 1990s TV series, Provos and Loyalists, aroused much interest, not merely because of the characters he managed to get access to, or how the programmes exposed what turns people – some humane, some despicable – into terrorists, but also because they came out at the right time. It was almost as if Taylor was writing the obituary of the ‘Troubles’, which by then seemed to be coming to an end.

Ever since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the attacks of 9/11, peoples’ attentions have shifted, which has not been good business for those who write about Northern Ireland. For instance, I hear that Kevin Myers’ superb book, Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, was turned down by almost two dozen publishers in Britain. No one, it seems, is interested in Northern Ireland anymore, and you can’t blame them. It’s become a bit prosaic. While al-Qaeda smashes jets into skyscrapers like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, events in Northern Ireland today resemble something you would see on the local news. Arguing about bilingualism in the Assembly will not get anyone excited or scared.

Which is why Peter Taylor in recent years made a programme about al-Qaeda. But this week on BBC2, he returned to familiar territory with The Secret Peacemaker, a documentary about Brendan Duddy, or ‘The Link’, who for years acted as a contact between the IRA and the British security forces. He was, the documentary implied, one of the main people responsible for bringing peace to the Six Counties.

The Secret Peacemaker was as touching and as full of pathos as one would expect from Taylor. Duddy, a Catholic from Derry/Londonderry used to work in a fish-and-chip shop, where Martin McGuinness acted as a delivery boy. The chipper was a hive of left-wing activists, many of whom, like McGuinness, joined the Marxist Official IRA. Duddy had been sympathetic to the cause, too, but a turning point came one day when he was out hunting in the fields and he shot a rabbit. He recalled how suddenly he realised the inhumanity and pointlessness of violence. This, he said, prompted him to turn into a peacemaker.

Alongside Duddy, there was the more familiar fare: footage of paratroopers shooting into the crowd on Bloody Sunday in 1972, the emaciated hunger-striker Bobby Sands looking like a hippie, and the charming (it has to be said) Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who negotiated with the British in late 1974 about the possibility of withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

It was fairly good, competent stuff, and I’m glad Taylor reminded us as to the role played by John Major in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, as it is a bit sickening that Tony Blair always seeks to take the credit. But the programme was a bit blinkered. We had the standard account of Bloody Sunday: that Brits sent in the paras who insanely just went on a killing spree. True, the paras were never the ones to be at that demonstration, but I have read, and have been told by two people who were members of Official Sinn Fein at the time, that it was the IRA who fired the first shot that day.

The real problem, however, was the central premise of the programme: that Duddy was responsible for bringing about the peace. But there were greater forces at work. First of all, the British armed forces, and especially the Special Air Service (SAS), started selecting and killing IRA members with greater efficiency in the 1980s. For example, the SAS killed eight IRA members at Loughgall, County Armagh in 1987, and two more again in the same village three years later. The IRA realised that they just couldn’t beat the British.

Secondly, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Loyalists and Republicans became engaged in a series of murderous tit-for-tat attacks, in which atrocities by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) became especially savage and indiscriminate. Loyalists would simply gun down Catholics at random. A terrified Catholic community implored the IRA to call a ceasefire as a consequence. In previous Peter Taylor programmes, former UVF and UFF members have boasted that it was they who beat the IRA by killing people at random. I fear it is an awful truth.

But most of all, it was al-Qaeda who brought peace to Northern Ireland. For decades, the IRA was reliant on sympathy and cash from misty-eyed Americans. But after 9/11, folks in the USA realised that there was nothing romantic about bombing innocent civilians, and thus the money and the sympathy dried up. The Provos could never start placing bombs in bins anymore.

But it’s still weird how sometimes you get the feeling that Londoners wish we could have the IRA back.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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