The Zombie IRA

The attacks in Northern Ireland are not a rerun of the past but rather an Irish variant of the inchoate terrorism of the twenty-first century.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Following the killing of two British soldiers by the Real IRA on Saturday night, and the shooting dead of a Northern Irish policeman by the Continuity IRA yesterday, there is much talk of ‘The Troubles’ returning to Northern Ireland. ‘Return of the IRA assassins’, scream the newspaper headlines, or ‘Terror returns to Ulster’.

Yet what we have witnessed over the past few days is not a re-run of the past, or evidence that the ‘chaos and anarchy’ of the 25-year war between the Provisional IRA and the British state, which ended in 1994, are still ‘lurking just under the surface [of Northern Irish society]’ (1). Rather, we’ve seen the emergence of a Zombie IRA, the ghostly apparition of a dead movement, issuing a fossilised invitation to conflict and executing purposeless attacks that have more in common with contemporary al-Qaeda-style nihilism than with the actions or outlook of the Provisional IRA of the past.

In the UK, there has long been a disdainful view of Irish republicanism, not as a political movement with political goals, but as a kind of virus infecting Irish history. During the 1969-1994 conflict, what was in truth a national war between the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the British state – a conflict over territory, sovereignty, democracy – was frequently presented as a ‘peacekeeping’ exercise by disinterested British squaddies against criminal and mad republicans. Irish republicans, we were told, were not motivated by contemporary grievances or future-oriented ambitions, but by the ‘voices of history’. They were historical automatons, the unwitting victims of a ‘poisonous legacy’ who were in thrall to the ‘power of arms, blood sacrifice and dead children to bring a united Ireland into being’ (2).

Such a warped understanding of Irish republicanism, which overlooked the grounding of an organisation like the Provisional IRA in mass, contemporary demands for equality and national self-determination, is so entrenched that, now, some fear the actions of tiny groups like the RIRA and the CIRA will plummet Northern Ireland back into the past. The ‘virus’ of violence might return, diseasing people once more.

Commentators say they can smell the ‘odours of the abyss’ (that’s the abyss on whose edge Northern Ireland apparently teeters). They argue that ‘episodes of non-violence’ in Ireland are always shortlived – a product merely of the fact that a certain ‘generation of warring leaders has aged’ – while ‘violence, chaos and anarchy’ always live under the surface, ‘volatile in the here and now’ (3). One terrorism expert says it is dangerous to write off the Real IRA, which split from the Provisional IRA in 1997, as an insignificant group, since the ‘history of Irish republicanism has been built on splits and divisions’. ‘The Provisional IRA were dismissed as nothing more than a splinter group when they walked out of the Official IRA in 1969’, he says, ‘but in the following years the Provisionals became the most lethal terrorist group in the world’ (4). And so might the Real IRA, he hints darkly.

From these perspectives, based on snooty fears of atavistic Irishmen smelling some British blood and becoming killing machines once more, Northern Ireland is only one or two acts of terrorism away from all-out war. The conflicts and events of the past, such as the emergence of the Provisional IRA in response to Unionist and British aggression and at a time of international upheaval and radicalisation in the late 1960s, are denuded of their contexts and their political influences and transformed instead into one long depressing expression of pseudo-political bloodlust.

The ahistoricism and anti-republican outlook of some commentators, their adherence to the simple-minded blood-sacrifice view of Irish history, means they are blind to what is new about the violence of the RIRA and CIRA, and to the extent to which Ireland has changed in the past 15 years.

The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are zombie movements. Their violence is better seen, not as the latest manifestation of physical-force Irish republicanism, but as an Irish variant of contemporary nihilism, of the rising trend, in Europe, Asia and beyond, for executing violent acts in order to express anger, alienation, bitterness, frustration. That the RIRA or CIRA might present their campaigns as part of the post-1916 struggle for Irish self-determination, against what they describe as the ‘legitimate targets’ of British occupation, including ‘complicit’ pizza delivery boys, makes little difference to the underlying fact: that theirs is an Irish version of the twenty-first-century inchoate violence of ‘fuck you’. After all, small Islamist groups that stab film directors or plant bombs on trains often claim to be acting on behalf of the historic wrongs of Andalusia or the contemporary grievances of Palestinians they have never met; and like them, dissident republicans, although they actually come from the place in which they execute violent acts, seem keen to add a touch of historic gloss and seeming political legitimacy to what is in fact an armed lashing-out.

The fundamental difference between the Provisional IRA of 1969 to 1994 and the Zombie IRA of today is that where the PIRA used violence as a means to an end (the forceful removal of British troops from Ireland and the ending of Partition), for the RIRA and CIRA violence is the end. The PIRA carried out violent acts – some of which killed British security forces, some of which killed civilians, some of which were well-targeted, some of which were not – as part of its anti-imperialist struggle against Partition and the British domination of Ireland. For today’s Zombie IRA, violent acts are not an expression of a political struggle or an attempt to achieve political aims, but rather a substitute for such things. Lacking a coherent outlook and mass mandate, the RIRA and CIRA now resort to violence in an attempt to etch an identity for themselves, hoping – forlornly – that the use of physical force will create some momentum, or make something happen, or communicate a ‘message’ about who they are and what they want. Violence is a crutch for politics, rather than a physical manifestation of a political programme.

Ironically, some government officials and journalists have been forced to admit to the glaring differences between the Provisional IRA and today’s splinter IRA groups. Even the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, has pointed out the PIRA had very high levels of support in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, while today’s violent groups are isolated and unrepresentative (he still, however, warns against a ‘return to the Troubles’) (5). Others have said that, yes, the PIRA had some legitimate political goals, but the RIRA and CIRA do not. The kind of officials and hacks who spent the years from 1969 to 1994 depicting the Provisional IRA as a tiny criminal group with no real support, except that which it won through the threat of kneecapping, are forced now to revise their earlier propaganda in order to contrast the PIRA – rational, political, widely backed – with the RIRA and the CIRA. Indeed, these splinter groups are in many ways the perfect enemies for British officials, corresponding neatly and accurately to their warped depiction of the PIRA in the past.

The PIRA was a political movement with a groundswell of support amongst working-class Catholics: meaningful, political, logistical support. If the RIRA and the CIRA win ‘support’ from some sections of the republican community in the coming weeks, it will be of an entirely different order. It is likely to be similar to the ‘support’ that some British Muslims express for al-Qaeda: a backing based, not on shared ambitions for future liberty and equality, but on feelings of alienation and bitterness, a desire to say ‘fuck the police’ or ‘fuck the authorities’ rather than to transform society.

Ironically, both the commentators who myopically warn of a ‘return to the past’ and the RIRA itself share something in common: a flagrant failure to see what has changed in Ireland. There is no prospect of a ‘return of the Troubles’ or of people being agitated into taking anti-British action by a couple of random shootings. That is because the national question in Ireland has been suspended. The clash over who should rule Ireland – the Irish people or the British state – has over the past 20 years become exhausted. Sinn Fein and the IRA, for all of Gerry Adams’ posturing yesterday about the ‘huge mistake’ of British secret services spying on suspected republican dissidents, have been politically defeated and have abandoned their goal of a united republican Ireland. This exhaustion of the national question has been successfully copperfastened by the new institutions of the peace process, which have elevated the ‘celebration of cultural diversity’, or what in the past were known as ‘sectarian divisions’, over what are now seen as the grubby, old-fashioned concerns of nationalism and sovereignty. Those who believe the past is ‘lurking under the surface’ in Northern Ireland, or that it can be magicked into re-existence by shooting a couple of soldiers, are clearly deluded about the present, and utterly devoid of any vision for a new politics in the future.

If the recent attacks confirm (once again) the death of Irish republicanism, and its replacement by physical-force disgruntlement, then the reaction to the attacks expose a powerful, existential sense of insecurity amongst the British elite. The fear that the peace process might be shattered by relatively minor acts of violence, and that Northern Ireland could be plunged into the past, speaks to official uncertainty and political fragility. More broadly it reveals an instinctive recognition amongst the powers-that-be that the institutions of the peace process – the Good Friday Agreement, the permanently crisis-ridden Northern Ireland Assembly, the replacement of dead political movements by the unconvincing pieties of respect and diversity – are flimsy and lacking in enthusiastic public support. It is not the strength of the tiny RIRA or CIRA that makes sections of the elite fret about a new era of ‘chaos and anarchy’, but rather their own crisis of legitimacy and the institutional weakness of the post-1994 set-up in Northern Ireland.

For those of us who, between 1969 and 1994, supported the demand for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and self-determination for the Irish people, the violence of the IRA was not something glamorous or sexy. The killing of British soldiers was not something to cheer or get excited about. Rather, some of us recognised that Irish republican communities saw little choice but to use force as part of their political struggle, in the face of the denial of their civil rights, the introduction of internment without trial, the Bloody Sunday massacre, the presence of 30,000 British soldiers and paramilitary police, and so on. What we supported was, not the tactics, but the democratic content of their anti-imperialist struggle for a united Ireland. Today there is no political struggle, no national movement, just splinter groups that shoot soldiers and pizza delivery boys. It is purposeless terrorism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

(1) Anarchy lurked just below the surface, Guardian, 9 March 2009

(2) The IRA will never decommission its myths, The Times, 5 March 2003

(3) Anarchy lurked just below the surface, Guardian, 9 March 2009

(4) The Real IRA and an atrocity just waiting to happen, Daily Mail, 10 March 2009

(5) Murder police examine base CCTV, BBC News, 9 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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