Was the Provisional IRA’s Campaign Sectarian?

By Martin McCleery

For over 20 years there has been an on-going scholarly debate over the nature of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s [PIRA] campaign during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, largely conducted in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. This discourse emerged in 1997 with an engagement between Robert White and Steve Bruce. White argued that although ‘the IRA killed more than 340 Protestant civilians in this period, this examination suggests that the IRA, in general, was not a sectarian organisation’. [i] Bruce rejected White’s analysis, asserting that ‘Republicans and Loyalists are equally sectarian’. [ii] James Dingley, in his reply to White, contended that killing members of the security forces was sectarian, therefore the PIRA’s campaign was sectarian also.[iii] In 2010 Henry Patterson concluded that the PIRA’s ‘campaign was unavoidably sectarian’ but at the same time rejected accusations that it amounted to ethnic cleansing.[iv] Rachel Kowalski made her intervention in the debate by concluding that the PIRA acted ‘in a fashion that was, for the most part, blind to religious diversity’.[v] In 2017 Matthew Lewis and Shaun McDaid defined sectarian violence as ‘violence directed against a person or group of persons because of their religious background’. [vi] Consequently, they found it necessary to redefine republican violence as ‘functionally sectarian’ because it was ‘politically motivated violence which may have been overwhelmingly experienced by a group sharing a particular religious background, but not systematically applied or ideologically motivated by a desire to target or remove the group because of their religion.’ [vii] Lewis and McDaid are to be applauded for their engagement with the meaning of sectarianism. That said, the actual need for creating a new category of sectarianism, when considering republican violence, can certainly be called into question.

In general, the debate over this issue suffers from a lack of engagement with, or in some cases a misunderstanding of, the meaning of sectarianism, which undermines the respective arguments made. In deciding whether the PIRA’s campaign was sectarian or not we must firstly define what sectarianism in Northern Ireland actually means and then apply this definition to the actions of the group.

In the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey the question was asked: ‘Is sectarianism in Northern Ireland a form of racism?’ 65% of respondents agreed that this was the case, with only 13% of respondents disagreeing.[viii] These results are clearly reflective of how most people in Northern Ireland interpret sectarianism; seeing it not purely as religious discrimination, but something which has a broader meaning. The work of Chris Gilligan emphasises this point: he considers sectarianism to be a form of racism.[ix] Taking the wider meaning into account, sectarianism can be defined as ‘any action or environment that harms a civilian or group of civilians based on their membership of a social, political, ethnic or religious group’.[x] Indeed, this is the prism through which I am going to analyse PIRA violence during the early years of the ‘Troubles’.

During the conflict the PIRA used several justifications for killing individuals who were not serving members of the security forces, which attempted to show, in part, that their actions were not sectarian. In this analysis, I am going to accept these justifications, not because I believe them, but to help conclude that certain attacks can be considered as nothing other than sectarian, even by militant republicans. These rationales include some bombings where individuals were not directly targeted; the killing of individuals with loyalist paramilitary links [the enemy]; accidently shot [human error]; ex-security force members [poor intelligence/guilty by association]; carrying out work for the security forces [collaborators]; mistaken identity [poor intelligence/ human error]; attacks carried out by rouge elements.

Accepting all these rationales, can it still be argued that the PIRA campaign was sectarian? A detailed examination of ‘Troubles’ deaths listed in Lost Lives reveals that up to September 1975 approximately 150 Protestant civilians were killed by nationalists/ republicans, and that 1971 saw the first undeniably sectarian murders in Belfast by PIRA. On the 29 September the PIRA bombed the Four Step Inn on the Shankill Road killing two men. The bomb went off at 10:20 pm, without warning, in the hallway of the pub which was packed full of Linfield football supporters.[xi] The fact that the PIRA did not claim the bombing can be taken as an indication that, even by their rationale, they could not discount the attack as anything other than sectarian.

The first undeniably sectarian murder outside of Belfast did not come until the 1 September 1975, almost four years later. At 10pm two masked men entered the Tullyvallen Orange Hall in County Armagh spraying the hall with gunfire, two other gunmen fired from outside as well. The attackers also left behind a small metal box containing 2lb of explosive. In 1977 a 22-year-old man from South Armagh was convicted of involvement in the murders and two other killings in 1976, as well as PIRA membership, clearly discounting any claim that this was a rogue operation.[xii]

What could help explain the four-year gap in sectarian murders between Belfast and other areas? In Belfast the divisions between Catholic and Protestant areas could occur within the width of a single street, and there had been a long tradition of communal violence along these interfaces. However, the nature of most confrontations outside of Belfast was, for the most part, different. Violent encounters were mainly between the nationalist community and the security forces. As a result of the long history of inter-communal conflict in Belfast, perhaps the resort to sectarian murders was made more readily by the PIRA in the city. Outside of Belfast, because much of the violence was between the security forces and the nationalist community, the turn to sectarianism was much slower. When sectarian attacks did start outside of Belfast, they did so obviously as part of a cycle of tit-for-tat killings. Such attacks were also possibly affected by security force successes which forced the PIRA to widen its spectrum of ‘legitimate targets’. Whatever the case, what cannot be denied is that, even allowing for their own justifications for murder, attacks on civilians because they represented a particular group were part of the Provisional’s campaign, and therefore, the PIRA was sectarian.

[i] Robert W. White,’ The Irish republican army: An assessment of sectarianism’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 9:1 [1997], pp. 20-55.

[ii] Steve Bruce, ‘Victim selection in ethnic conflict: Motives and attitudes in Irish republicanism’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 9:1 [1997], pp. 56-71.

[iii] James Dingley, ‘A reply to White’s Non-sectarian thesis of PIRA targeting’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 10:2 [1998], pp. 106-117.

[iv] Henry Patterson, ‘Sectarianism revisited: The Provisional IRA campaign in a border region of Northern Ireland’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:3 [2010], pp. 337-356.

[v] Rachel Caroline Kowalski, ‘The role of sectarianism in the Provisional IRA campaign, 1969-1997’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 30: 4 [2018], pp. 658-683.

[vi] Matthew Lewis & Shaun McDaid, ‘Bosnia on the border? Republican violence in Northern Ireland during the 1920s and 1970s’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 29:4 [2017], pp. 635-655.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2016 available at https://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2016/Community_Relations/SECTRACE.html .

[ix]  Chris Gilligan, Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-Racism: Rethinking Racism and Sectarianism (Manchester, 2017). Gilligan’s work is also useful for a broader understanding of the various meanings attached to sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

[x] Martin McCleery, ‘Sectarianism and PIRA’, Conference Paper, PSA Annual Conference 2018, Cardiff University.

[xi] David McKittrick, S. Kelters, B. Feeney, C. Thornton & D McVea, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Edinburgh, 2010), pp. 102-3.

[xii] Ibid., p. 572.

(Image: AlmazUK Flickr)

Martin McCleery is the author of Operation Demetrius and its Aftermath: A New History of the Use of Internment Without Trial in Northern Ireland 1971-75 (Manchester, 2015). He has also written widely on the Northern Ireland Conflict and political violence more generally. He is currently teaching Modern Irish History at ASE.

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