Historical Investigation Essay
“Assess the impact of the period from 1969 – 1982 on the IRA/Sinn Fein and their development into a significant political force in Northern Ireland”
“Assess the impact of the period from 1969 – 1982 on the IRA/Sinn Fein and their development into a significant political force in Northern Ireland”
During the period from 1969-1982 both the IRA and Sinn Fein underwent significant change. Sinn Fein moved from a fringe role, in the nationalist movement of Northern Ireland, to a dominant political position. During a time of intense violence in the region an internal discussion was taking place, deliberating on the value of armed resistance versus political engagement. The ideals that rose out of this transformed the movement and laid the basis for the central role it would play in the eventual Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The re-emergence of the nationalist movement led to the rise and resurrection of groups such as the IRA. Naturally this caused much tension, and incidences of violence began to rise. Acts of exceptional protest showed the incomparable power of politics over violence and led to international recognition of the issue. Ultimately Sinn Fein developed into one of the most powerful political forces in Northern Ireland.
After years in the dark the nationalist movement began to rapidly gain momentum when the Belfast Troubles began in 1969. The IRA had been deeply divided since 1921 when Dail Eireann chose to ratify the Anglo- Irish treaty. The treaty established the autonomous Irish Free State whilst the province of Ulster remained under the direct control of the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that IRA member Michael Collins had played a role in writing the treaty there was still a major difference of opinion between members of the IRA.1 They were divided between those who were for the establishment of the Free State and those who believed it was illegitimate and illegal. The Split over the treaty led to the Irish Civil War from 1922-3. Many of the opposing leaders had been close friends and comrades during the Irish War of Independence. The civil war split the IRA and this rift would continue to haunt Irish politics for many years to come.
In the 1960’s the IRA was further marginalised as it came under the influence of left wing thinkers. This caused a split between the factions of the IRA based in Dublin and Belfast.2 In 1969 the wounds of old were once stirred again when Northern Ireland was rocked by bloody sectarian rioting. The bloodiest rioting was in Belfast where seven people were killed and hundreds injured.3 Violence escalated sharply after these events and new paramilitary groups came into existence on either side of the conflict. The Provisional IRA received an upsurge in membership. It was from here that ‘The Troubles,’ one of the most infamous periods in Irish history began.
The violence was characterised by armed campaigns of paramilitary groups. Conflict hit the streets and many innocent people were often attacked. Alongside the violence there was deadlock between the major political parties of Northern Ireland over how the province would be administered and governed. 1972 saw an explosion of political violence in Northern Ireland in which many people lost their lives. The nationalist community saw the Provisional IRA as their defenders, who began an armed campaign in reaction to loyalist provoked violence. During this period the party Sinn Fein had no interest in electoral politics.4 They voiced the need for military opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland. They gained control of the Republican movement and began to focus on flooding nationalist propaganda throughout Northern Ireland.
Membership began to skyrocket as anti-British sentiment ran rife. The Republican political party Sinn Fein built the foundations for a movement which in ten years would expand to have branches in every town in Ireland.
Atrocities by loyalists and British forces themselves were used to justify the IRA as a movement and inspired many to stand up and fight for the cause they all believed in. On 30 January 19725 in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland border, perhaps one of the largest single atrocities of the ‘Troubles’ period occurred. During a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in the bogside area of the city members of the 1st Battalion of the British Parachute regiment opened fire on many unarmed protestors. Twenty seven people are known to have been shot and fourteen of those were killed with at least five of the latter confirmed as being shot in the back.
6 Witnesses, including bystanders and British journalists, testify that all those shot appeared to be unarmed. Many individual atrocities occurred that day witnessed by hundreds of people. Eye witness Michael McCallion testified that “A fellow came out with a white flag, no sooner had he done this when the middle of three British soldiers pulled the trigger and shot him through the head….I have witnessed this as God is my judge and I say that it was cold blooded murder.”7 Testimonies such as this confirm the extreme acts of violence the British committed unnecessarily on that day. One paratrooper who gave evidence testified that they were told by an officer to expect a gunfight and “we want some kills.”8
The reason for the uproar over such killings was the British soldiers were essentially not an occupying force but a measure of peace between nationalist and loyalist paramilitary groups. As Catholic Bishop of Derry Edward Daly commented “What really made Bloody Sunday so obscene was the fact that afterwards at the highest level British justice justified it.”9 Acts such as this by official British forces reaffirmed the belief of many that the British Government was still the real enemy and behind the problems that continued in Northern Ireland. This justified the cause of the nationalist movement and subsequently the IRA and Sinn Fein as well. Both organisations had now developed a strong following throughout the Republic and Northern Ireland. Whilst such occurrences did cause much suffering and pain they proved useful to both the IRA and Sinn Fein in acquiring widespread support for the movement.
Sinn Fein and the IRA were not officially linked but both strived for the same goal. The Provisional Irish Republican Army was a paramilitary organisation that considered itself a direct continuation of the IRA that had fought in the Irish war of Independence.10 Its stated objective was to end British rule in Ireland and withdraw Northern Irelands status as part of the United Kingdom. The Provisionals advocated for armed defence of Catholic communities in the north and an offensive campaign to end British rule. As the violence in Northern Ireland steadily increased the IRA began to call for a more aggressive campaign against British loyalists. Sinn Fein was a political party of the Republican movement. It was formed in 1970 but has traces back to the original party founded in 1905.11 The party is believed to be directly associated with the IRA. Both Sinn Fein and the IRA played different but converging roles in the war for liberation.
Whilst the movements were not officially linked it was widely thought that they were different faces of the same movement. In 2005 the British Government stated “We had always said all the way through that we believed the IRA and Sinn Fein were inextricably linked and that had obvious implications at leadership level.”12 Throughout the early seventies there was much internal argument between factions of the IRA and Sinn Fein over whether their movement’s primary role should chiefly military or political, although both groups viewed Britain as a colonial occupier and therefore viewed the political process as illegal. Until 1973 Sinn Fein had little interest in politics as the party was still deemed illegal by the British Government.
Political activity began in 1973 when Sinn Fein opened the Republican press centre on Falls Road. In 1973 the first attempt at negotiations to resolve the situation led to the Sunningdale Agreement, which devised a power sharing system in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Although this did no include Sinn Fein and quickly collapsed under pressure from loyalist strikes.13 In May 1974 British secretary of State Merlyn Rees legalised Sinn Fein as a political party.14 This was perhaps the beginning of tacit recognition by the British Government that negotiations were only meaningful if they were directly with the IRA. Whilst local politicians such as John Hume, of the Nationalist Party, were respected they did not command enough power to have any effect.
Secret meetings between Provisional IRA leaders Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Billy McKee with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees resulted in a ceasefire which began in February 1975.15 The truce proved to be disastrous for the IRA; leading to infiltration by many British informers into their ranks. After a build up of tensions and a series of sectarian killings the ceasefire broke down in January 1976.16 It was clear that the original aims of the IRA leadership for a quick military victory were receding. It was acts of violence by British authorities that justified the military side of the movement and ensured tensions would continue for years to come.
As Sinn Fein began to move into the political process so did many former revolutionaries and IRA members. One such person was Gerry Adams; after being in prison for alleged IRA membership17 he turned himself in a new direction a moved towards the political process. In 1978 he was elected as the vice president of Sinn Fein. This most likely came as a result of the realisation by many senior figures that it was becoming more and more unlikely that a military victory could be achieved. Whilst significant events such as Bloody Sunday lead to anti-British sentiment to sky rocket many turned away from violence and embraced the political system.
Protests by a number of imprisoned IRA members in Long Kesh gaol showed the power of political tactics, leading to the dominance of Sinn Fein as a political force. The 1981 hunger strike was the climax of a five year protest by Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. The protest originally began in 197618 when the British Government removed its special category status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. This status had provided them with Prisoner of War privileges as specified in the Geneva Convention.19 Prisoners did not have to wear prison uniforms, do prison work and were allowed to be housed within their own paramilitary factions. They were also entitled to receive extra food parcels and have extra visits. When these rights were removed by the British Government, as recommended by the Gardiner Committee20, the prisoners began a protest to gain them back. It started with a blanket protest in which prisoners refused to wear uniforms but instead wrapped themselves in prison blankets; they stated that they were not criminals but political prisoners.
In 197821 the dispute escalated into a dirty protest in which prisoners refused to wash and covered their cell walls with excrement. In 1980 the first hunger strike took place but to no avail ending after 53 days.22 The second strike in 1981 is perhaps one of the best know instances of protest throughout the campaign. The strike was lead by former IRA Officer Commanding in the prison, Bobby Sands.23 At the beginning of the strike there was little progress and it didn’t receive much outside support. But after five days the strike received a much needed boost; the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died and a by-election was called to appoint his replacement. It was decided that Bobby Sands would stand against the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West.24 On 9 April 1981 Sands won a narrow victory and was elected to the British House of Commons.25 The victory attracted worldwide attention and thousands of media personnel descended on Belfast. On the sixty sixth day of the hunger strikes, May 5, Sands died causing riots across Northern Ireland.
One hundred thousand people lined the route of his funeral a few days later.26 In the weeks after Sands death three more hunger strikers died,27 and another by-election had to be held for the seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Due to the fact that the British Government had rushed through the Representation of the People Act,28 which meant prisoners serving more than one year could not run for parliament, so Sands’ election agent Owen Carron had to run instead. He claimed a similar victory gaining a larger percentage of the votes.
The success of hunger strike created a firm platform for Irish republicanism and paved the way for the formal entry of Sinn Fein into electoral politics the following year. It was also around this period that the British Government began reforming its policies in relation to the IRA and Sinn Fein. They now viewed Sinn Fein as a legitimate political movement who would be included in official negotiations. The achievements of the hunger strikers proved the power of political activism as opposed to violence; they also exposed the falseness of the British Governments claim that the Republican movement had no support.
The events of 1969-82 transformed the Republican movement from a violence orientated force to a significant political force. As Sinn Fein began to grow as a political force the IRA slowly, and with considerable internal difficulties, changed its ways. This eventually paved the way for an official ceasefire in 1994. Their agreement to decommission their weapons meant that Sinn Fein was allowed to come to the negotiation table and play a significant role in the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
That agreement resulted in a devolved power sharing structure of self government for Northern Ireland, whilst it still remained within the United Kingdom.29 In 2007 Martin McGuiness of Sinn Fein was appointed deputy first minister and held equal power alongside Ian Paisely of the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly Government.30 From the split in the nationalist movement in 1969 to its reemergence throughout the seventies, alongside the IRA, there was much change. Events such as Bloody Sunday increased the military overtone of the movement but ultimately peaceful political power prevailed. Acts such as the 1981 hunger strike proved the power of political protest as compared to violence. Ultimately Sinn Fein grew into a legitimate political party and as of 2009 they became the largest party in Northern Ireland following European Parliamentary elections.31
English, Richard (2003), Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Pan Books, Stuttgart, Germany
Geraghty, Tony (2000), The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict Between the IRA and British Intelligence, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland, USA
Hastings, Max (1970), Ulster 1969 – The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, Victor Gollancz LTD, London, United Kingdom
McEvoy, Kieran (2001), Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management, and Release, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom
Moloney, Ed (2002), A Secret History of the IRA, Penguin Books, New Jersey, USA
Mullan, Don (1997), Eyewitness Bloody Sunday – The Truth, Wolfhound Press, Dublin, Ireland
O’Brien, Brendan (1995), the Long War, the IRA and Sinn Fein, Syracuse University Press, New York, USA
BBC (2009), on this day – 9 Decmeber1973 (online), BBC, London, United Kingdom. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/9/newsid_2536000/2536767.stm (Accessed 26 July 2009)
BBC (2009), Profile: Martin McGuinness (online), BBC, London, United Kingdom. Available from
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/1303355.stm (Accessed 29 July 2009)
CAIN Web Service (2009), A chronology of the conflict (online), University of Ulster, Belfast, United Kingdom. Available from
http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch76.htm (Accessed 27 July 2009)
Lord Gardiner (1975), Report of a Committee to consider, in the context of civil liberties and human rights, measures to deal with terrorism in Northern Ireland – Extract (online), University of Ulster, Belfast, United Kingdom. Available from http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/hmso/gardiner.htm#1 (Accessed July 28 2009)
McClean, Raymond, The Road to Bloody Sunday – Extracts (online), University of Ulster, Belfast, United Kingdom. Available from http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/bsunday/mcclean.htm (Accessed 28 July 2009)
National Archives of Ireland (no date), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series: text of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (online), Irish Government, Dublin, Ireland, Available from http://www.nationalarchives.ie/topics/anglo_irish/dfaexhib2.html (Accessed 1 August 2009)
Prime Ministers Office (2005), Briefing from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman on: Anti Terror Law, President Bush/EU, Foreign Doctors in NHS, Hunting and Northern Ireland (online), British Government, London, United Kingdom, Available from http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page7148 (Accessed 29 July 20090
Sinn Fein Official Website (2009), History made – Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the six counties (online), Belfast, United Kingdom, Available from
http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/16580 (Accessed 29 July 2009)
University College Cork (2009), Multitext project in Irish History – Movements for Political and Social Reform, 1870 – 1914 (online), University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, Available from http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Ireland_politics__administration_1870-1914#12TheFirstSinnFeacuteinParty> (Accessed 25 July 2009)
1 National Archives of Ireland, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series: text of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, n.d, <http://www.nationalarchives.ie/topics/anglo_irish/dfaexhib2.html> (1 August 2009)
2 Moloney, Ed (2002), A Secret History of the IRA, Penguin Books. p. 246
3 English, Richard (2003), Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Pan Books. p. 136
4 O’Brien, Brendan, the Long War, the IRA and Sinn Fein (1995)
5 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA. p. 80
6 McClean, Raymond, The Road to Bloody Sunday – Extracts, 1997, < http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/bsunday/mcclean.htm> (28 July 2009)
7 Mullan, Don, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday – The Truth, Wolfhound Press
8 Geraghty, Tony, The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict Between the IRA and British Intelligence, unknown p. 65
9 Mullan, Don, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday – The Truth
10 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA. p. 432
11 University College Cork, Multitext project in Irish History – Movements for Political and Social Reform, 1870 – 1914, 2009, < http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Ireland_politics__administration_1870-1914#12TheFirstSinnFeacuteinParty> (25 July 2009)
12 Prime Ministers Office, Briefing from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman on: Anti Terror Law, President Bush/EU, Foreign Doctors in NHS, Hunting and Northern Ireland, 21 February 2005, < http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page7148>
13 BBC, On this day – 9 Decmeber1973, 2009, < http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/9/newsid_2536000/2536767.stm> (26 July 2009)
14 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA
15 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA
16 English, Richard, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, p. 136
17 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA p. 140.
18 McClean, Raymond, The Road to Bloody Sunday – Extracts
19 McEvoy, Kieran, Paramilitary Imprisonment in Northern Ireland: Resistance, Management, and Release, Oxford University Press
20 Lord Gardiner, Report of a Committee to consider, in the context of civil liberties and human rights, measures to deal with terrorism in Northern Ireland – Extract, 1975, < http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/hmso/gardiner.htm#1> (July 28 2009)
21 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict, 2009, < http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch76.htm> (27 July 2009)
22 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
23 English, Richard, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA p. 196
24 Moloney, Ed, A Secret History of the IRA p. 211
25 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
26 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
27 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
28 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
29 CAIN Web Service, A chronology of the conflict
30 BBC, Profile: Martin McGuinness, 2009,
< http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/1303355.stm> (29 July 2009)
31 Sinn Fein Online, History made – Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the six counties, 2009,
< http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/16580> (29 July 2009)
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 September 2017
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