Book Review: The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland 1968-1979, A Boiling Volcano?

By Brian Hanley

Published by Manchester University Press, 2018

Reviewer: John Dorney

All of us who grew up in the south of Ireland in the 1970s or 1980s were aware of the shadow of the ‘Troubles’ as we called the conflict in Northern Ireland. Even though it rarely touched our daily lives, it subtly affected almost every part of our society.

The Troubles also caused something of an identity crisis in the south. At one level, the Irish Republican Army of the War of Independence were still widely held to be heroic founders of the state. On the other hand, we were studiously instructed that those days were past, that the modern organisation calling itself the IRA had nothing to do with them, that their violence, being sectarian and targeted against civilians, was entirely illegitimate and that their armed campaign was the main source of the, apparently inexplicable, long running violence in the North.

The Troubles provoked something of an identity crisis in the south.

The prevailing sense on hearing of the latest IRA bomb or assassination was shame. And yet there was always an unspoken sense that if the Provos would only fight an honourable war against the British Army as their forbears had supposedly done in the ‘Tan War’ that would be somehow legitimate.

The Troubles period also saw the rise of what is, usually pejoratively, named ‘revisionism’, in which Irish nationalist history was critiqued, having led, so it was argued, to a backward, insular Catholic state and to an irrational veneration for political violence and antipathy towards Britain. British rule was conceived as mostly enlightened and nationalist resistance to it either quixotic or sectarian. So would argue the more famous ‘revisionists’ such as Roy Foster, Ruth Dudley Edwards or Conor Cruise O’Brien.

The Troubles undoubtedly influenced how Irish history was written in recent decades. The celebratory accounts of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence that had characterised popular history in the 1950s and 60s largely disappeared from public discourse from the 1970s to the 1990s.

As for the Civil War, in which an illegal IRA had fought against an Irish government in 1922-23, that went almost entirely unexplored by Irish historians during the three decades of the Troubles. The first scholarly history of that conflict was written by an outsider, Michael Hopkinson, in 1987. What works there were tended to present the anti-Treaty IRA, as a strand of anti-democratic militarism that could be traced into the present to the Provisional IRA.

Southern attitudes to the conflict

In this book, Brian Hanley sets himself the difficult and wide ranging task of bring together all of the disparate security, social and intellectual stands of how the Northern conflict impacted on the south in the most intense decade of the Troubles, from 1968 to 1979.

This is a lot of content to cram into a relatively short book – about 250 pages minus bibliography – and there are no ‘slow’ chapters. Each one is packed full of information, quotations and examples.

Brian Hanley tries to bring together all of the disparate security, social and intellectual stands of how the Northern conflict impacted on the south from 1968 to 1979.

Hanley is driven, one feels, not so much to make grand arguments, as to bring before the public some of the realities of Ireland in the 1970s that are either rapidly being forgotten, or else cast by the protagonists of those days into narratives that suit them better today.

He is not afraid to acknowledge that deep contradictions existed in southern society that probably cannot be resolved, writing of popular attitudes that, ‘most people have no problem holding contradictory opinions’. They could thus, for instance, in 1972, express genuine outrage at both Bloody Sunday, in which the British parachute regiment killed 13 unarmed protesters in Derry, and at the retaliatory Official IRA bombing at the Parachute regiment’s base in Aldershot, in which five cleaning women were killed.

One of Hanley’s strengths is that he writes with great empathy and humanity about how mixed up many ordinary people felt about the Northern conflict. In broad terms however, The Impact of the Troubles does offer a general interpretation of how southern attitudes evolved in the early years of the conflict.

Anti-partition rhetoric was quite commonplace south of the border in the late 1960s and there was widespread sympathy for Northern nationalists in 1968-70 when they were perceived as the victims of a loyalist backlash to a peaceful campaign for Civil Rights.

Hanley shows even in the very early days of the Troubles, in October 1968 when a Civil Rights march in Derry was baton-charged, there was a surprisingly high level of violence in Dublin against the British embassy during which ‘missiles including petrol bombs rained down’.

There was a surprisingly widespread militancy towards the north in the south in the very early years of the Troubles.

There was across-the-board condemnation of RUC actions at the subsequent Burntollet march including some quite radical rhetoric by mayor of Dublin who declared that the ‘days of north’s abandonment are at an end’.

During the rioting of August 1969, we learn, crowds marched to Collins Barracks in Dublin chanting ‘give us guns’. On O’Connell Street, Paddy Devlin told a crowd, ‘we need guns to defend ourselves’. There were strikes by ITGWU workers and calls for Irish Army to make an incursion into Northern Ireland to provoke UN intervention.

Even Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrave bemoaned the deployment of the ‘largest force of British Army in Ireland since they surrendered Dublin Castle to Michael Collins in 1922’. And Conor Cruise O’Brien praised Bogside barricades in Derry.

Such enthusiasm waxed and waned, coinciding with moments of tension in the north but indisputably reached a peak after Bloody Sunday in 1972. Hanley records widespread strikes across  a country in mourning, shutting down towns such as  Sligo and Tralee.  ‘Foxrock housewives’ (from the upper middle class Dublin suburb) picketed British ambassador’s residence and there were petrol bomb attacks on British owned businesses in Dublin.

During a national day of mourning large crowds turned out all all over the country, and two days later, a crowd of 50,000 gathered outside the British Embassy on Merrion Square and elements of the crowd burned it down. Incidentally, Hanley does not agree that the Gardai on this occasion ‘stood idly by’ as has often been alleged. Several were injured and the British ambassador thought they ‘fought on as long as they could’.

Some 15,000 marchers  from the south travelled north to demonstrate in Newry in what Hanley describes as the ‘last great demonstration of civil rights era’.

But contradictory attitudes always existed. The Irish state was never in a strong enough position militarily, economically or in virtually an other way to play a direct role in the conflict. Even in 1969, we learn, Margaret Tynan, Fine Gael mayor of Kilkenny was already asking, ‘do we want the north? Can we afford British subsidies?’ an attitude still very prevalent in the south today.

While some thought initially that leftist agitation in the north might have a revolutionary echo in the south, at the time (as now) with a housing crisis in its capital and various other social campaigns afoot, Hanley argues cogently that in the end the 26 county population by and large identified with the state as theirs and that there was no real possibility of its overthrow.

A second civil war?

Meanwhile, some on the right feared that the Northern conflict might precipitate a ‘slide dowhill into civil war’, citing for instance a riot between Gardai and republicans in Ballyshannon, County Donegal in which troops were called in from Finner Camp in December 1971, or another confrontation in Courtbane County Louth in 1972 in which the Army was again deployed, using teargas to disperse republicans.

Politicians and clerics south of the border worried about a possible civil war in the south but Hanley argues that their fears were inflated.

In 1972 a Fianna Fail government passed legislation in which the burden of proof, in trials under the Offences Against the State Act, was passed on to the defendant. And in particular during the years of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government (1973-77), when Liam Cosgrave was Taoiseach and Conor Cruise O’Brien – who became the nemesis of republicans – was minister for Posts and Telegraphs, both the government and the IRA spoke in term redolent of the 1922-23 Civil War.

But the deep social and communal fault lines that defined the conflict in the north did not apply south of the border. As Hanley argues, though there were many dramatic confrontations between the Irish state forces and the republican paramilitaries; riots, prison protests and the occasional shootout, violence never remotely reached the level of civil war. Around 40 people were killed by republicans in the Republic during the 1970s, including Fine Gael Senator Billy Fox, British Ambassador Ewart Biggs and five Gardai, but this was a small death toll compared to over 700 killed by republicans in the same period in the North.

Republicans argued that the 26 county state was merely a British puppet and that the public was brainwashed by censorship in the media and by Section 31, which banned them from the airwaves. But Hanley argues that the southern public had little to no tolerance for armed actions against the state’s forces and that emergency legislation that targeted republicans south of the border was, by and large, accepted as legitimate.

Even regarding the Provisional IRA campaign in the North, Hanley writes that while censorship and Section 31 did play a role in the diminishing support for the ‘armed struggle’, the tactics of the paramilitaries themselves – in particular the use of car bombs on civilian targets as well  bank robberies and ‘mafia like methods’ – also contributed to the decline in their support.

By the late 1970s, although some polls showed that as many as 20% of respondents in the south had some sympathy with or understanding for the Provisionals, only about 2-3% were prepared to say they supported their armed campaign outright. Hanley writes, ‘southern sympathy declined in tandem with IRA car bombing campaign’.

Loyalists and disengagement

Republicans, Hanley writes, later rued not capitalising on the widespread sympathy for them in the early 1970s in the south.

By the mid 1970s, most public opinion had backed away from direct engagement with the Northern conflict. Oddly, this was hastened, not reversed, by a series of loyalist attacks south of the border –the worst being the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974, in which 29 people were killed. In total around 50 people died south of the border in loyalist attacks in that decade.

By the late 1970s most southerners had disengaged from the northern conflict and loyalist atrocities in the south hastened rather than reversed this trend.

A sectarian backlash might have been expected, but in fact the public response was muted. Hanley writes that loyalist attacks on the south generally ‘provoked disengagement rather than a desire for revenge’. Rather, popular opinion blamed the IRA ‘for starting it all’ and the British Ambassador, reported there was, ‘No general anti-Protestant reaction’. The bombings, Hanley writes, ‘vanished quickly from public discussion’. There was no national day of mourning as there had been for Bloody Sunday.

Conversely, to the intense vexation of republicans, particularly in the north, there was also a very strong public response in opposition to IRA bombs in Britain, such as those on Birmingham pubs in 1974, where many southerners had relatives living and working. Hanley describes as ‘perplexing’ southern indifference to loyalist atrocities, but anguished response to bombs targeting civilians in Britain. He argues that ‘ the IRA was held to a higher standard than loyalists, for whom almost no one had any illusions or affection’.

But whether or not, as has been suggested, loyalist bombings in the south were aided by British or Northern Irish security services, we might ruefully reflect that they were among the most effective terrorist acts of the period, very effectively terrorising the southern public away from engagement with the north.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, in this era much the junior partner to the IRA in the Republican movement, failed to make any electoral headway in the south. There is a quote from Martin McGuinness that is telling about about the frustration many northern republicans felt with southerners, whom McGuinness described as ‘cowards and traitors with some honourable exceptions’.

It was to be some years before the Provisonal Republican movement figured out that such elitist attitudes towards their putative constituency in the south were a political dead end.

Still, at the end of the 1970s, I was surprised to learn, Sinn Fein had  26 councillors in 14 councils and 5,000 votes in Dublin, though no seats there. They began to notice a distinct working class element to their support in the late 1970s, whose ‘instinct remains uncorrupted’. Hanley remarks perceptively that they in fact tapped into ‘an instinct for rebellion’ among the urban disenfranchised.

Refugees and southern Protestants

The chronicling of the conflict, as it affected the south, in the early chapters of the book is extremely interesting and leaves much new information to chew over. But it can at times  – due to the intense volume of information – feel a little cramped.

The strongest chapters are those slow the pace down a little. Perhaps the best of these is that on the Northern Catholic refugees who fled south to escape the violence in Northern Ireland.

Northern refugees in the south were often victims of declining sympathy for militant nationalism.

There are quite affecting descriptions of frightened women and children, who had been burned out of their homes in Belfast, arriving at the Irish Army camp at Gormanston in 1969. Some of the women told the soldiers to ‘get up and help our lads up there’.

But while about 5,000 refugees were given shelter in the south in 1969-70 and were shown as great deal of sympathy, this, in common with southern sympathy with Northern nationalists generally, did not last. Hanley describes southern wariness about the supposed ‘fanaticism’ of northerners and  class prejudice against the largely working class refugees.

The tipping point came when over 10,000 refugees came south in July of 1972. These people, Hanley writes, were not welcomed as oppressed brethren but rather largely seen as uncouth and opportunistic, a widespread belief being that most were availing of a free holiday rather escaping violence.

Hanley notes however, that July 1972 was an extremely violent time in Belfast, where most of the refugees were from, with over 100 people killed there in that month alone, which calls into question the idea of the refugees as mere tourists.

Outside of the refugee influxes of the early 1970s, which mostly proved to be temporary, many northerners, exiled by the violence in one way or another, made their homes in the Republic.  ‘Little Belfasts’ sprung up from Dundalk to as far south as Shannon. These were often assumed to be nests of militancy, but in fact had views as diverse as any of the community. Some had even fled the North to escape the IRA.

There is also an interesting chapter on southern Protestants, who made up about 5% of the Republic’s population. Their reaction to the Troubles, was, like their mostly Catholic compatriots, generally to try to disengage from the conflict. No easy assumptions should be made about their politics either. Hanley notes that among the crowds protesting outside the British Embassy on Bloody Sunday were schoolboys from the Protestant High School in Dublin. Fine Gael TD and later senator Billy Fox, a Protestant, who was shot and killed by the IRA, was actually an outspoken nationalist and strident critic of the British Army.

But in times of tension, southern Protestants could feel a backlash and Hanley chronicles a series of low level graffiti, vandalism and occasionally physical (though not lethal) attacks on Protestants at various times, as well as a ferocious riot in the Donegal town of St Johnston over an Orange march there in 1972.

Revisionism

The term ‘revisonism’ in Irish discourse has a very specific meaning, as outlined above; basically meaning to reinterpret the past to undermine the narrative of Irish nationalist history.

Historians such as John Regan and others now argue that the need for the southern state to avoid a confrontation with Britain over the Northern conflict significantly impacted on the writing of Irish history since the 1970s.

While Hanley does not necessarily refute this, he argues here that ‘revisionism’ should be seen not only as a top down movement but also to an extent as a popular reaction, part and parcel of the disengagement of the south from the North and militant nationalism generally throughout the 1970s.

Hanley argues that revisionism was a popular as well as elitist phenomenon.

He cites for instance the Anglo Celt newspaper after the Billy Fox killing: ‘Glorification of force and violence and unfortunately their historic success, has fostered [in republican supporters] a  fearful arrogance’ and Irish education had ‘glorified the gun and gunmen’.

Journalist Con Houlihan, writing in the The Kerryman argued that Catholic nationalist history distorted a true class analysis of Ireland, that ‘armed struggle’ was driving Ireland apart and that the North was superior to the south in terms of social services, housing and education. He bitterly criticised IRA violence and while in the early 1970s he wrote that some republicans were ‘sincere and courageous’, by late 70s, he wrote that the ‘Provos’ were  ‘ignorant youths’ and ‘gangsters’ with ‘cynical leaders’.

John Healy, writing for the local press in Mayo, blamed IRA violence on ‘bad teaching and faulty and indeed perverted history’ taught in schools. He blamed the IRA for loyalist bombs in the south; ‘Death in Dublin isn’t any worse than… over 1,000 deaths in the north’ he argued, almost blaming the victims for having supported the IRA.

On the far left a group named the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) argued the the south should recognise ‘separate national rights of Northern Ireland Protestants’ and ‘the democratic validity of the present Northern Ireland state’ and condemned the ‘terrorist campaign’ against it. The group, Hanley writes, though tiny, influenced  figures as diverse as Garret Fitzgerald, Official Sinn Fein/The Workers Party and Limerick Labour TD Jim Kemmy. Kemmy wrote that ‘unity can only be won through bloodshed and violence’ and ‘would bring no material benefit to the majority in the south’.

Even Desmond Fennell, an unorthodox nationalist who wrote for the Provisionals’ An Phoblacht thought Northern Ireland Protestants were ‘another nation’ who would have to be accommodated in a federal united Ireland. Fennell, who seems like an interesting if eccentric thinker, also argued in An Phoblacht against liberalism, contraception and divorce.

Oddly enough members of BICO today form part of the ultra nationalist Aubane Historical Society, who now excoriate ‘revisionism’.

This is an important and necessary book, bringing back to public attention the complexity of southern society’s interaction with the Troubles

Hanley has uncovered a fascinating range of views in southern discourse in the 1970s. But if I had to criticise this part of the book a little, I would say that Hanley could have devoted a little more time to Irish academic history writing as well as popular history and journalism. And another possible criticism would be that he could have given more attention to the trajectory of the Official Republican movement who, as the Workers Party, became the arch proponents of ‘revisionism’, in this time period. Though Hanley could of course counter that that was the subject of his previous book The Lost Revolution.

This is an important and necessary book, bringing back to public attention the complexity of southern society’s engagement (and lack of engagement) with the Troubles. As Hanley remarks in closing; ‘Labels do not do justice to the complexities of Irish life’.

It deserves a wide readership, but readers may be discouraged by the very high price demanded by the publishers, £75 sterling or over 80 euro.

Nevertheless, it will be necessary reading for students both of the Troubles and of Irish society in the 1970s in the years to come.

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