To me there was one key difference in the War of Independence and the Troubles. The IRA in the Troubles had to contend with oppositional paramilitary forces in the shape of the UDA, UVF, UFF, LVF etc. In the War of Independence, because it happened largely in what became the 26 counties, Loyalist paramilitary forces of that nature were not really a major factor on the Unionist side, only state actors. It was pretty much the IRA versus the British state, and that was it.
Because Loyalists in the Troubles were so willing to murder Catholic civilians, it was a much more complex conflict, with effectively three sides rather than two (though Loyalists often had the de facto backing of the British state in the formm of collusion). Because of that more complex nature of conflict and because there was a Unionist majority in the six counties, it became apparent within a reasonably short period of time that the war was pretty much unwinnable, certainly in terms of achieving a united Ireland, and would merely descend into an endless tit for tat conflict.
As the Troubles progressed, the aim of a united Ireland faded from view, and the aim, though largely unsaid, was for the IRA to bomb its way to the negotiating table, and that's why in the early 90s they focussed to such a large extent on attacking England itself, and especially high profile economic and strategic targets, like the City of London, Canary Wharf, Heathrow Airport, Victoria Station, Manchester City Centre and Downing Street itself. In that, it can be argued they were largely successful, because back channels to the British were well and truly opened. But it was a very poor consolation prize.
In terms of comparing the actual violence itself, I don't think there's a moral difference, certainly in terms of attacks on the British state. The IRA in both the War of Independence and the Troubles ruthlessly killed policemen, soldiers and politicians. I don't think you can see a moral difference between Kilmichael and Warrenpoint. I don't think you can see a moral difference between the old IRA killing Henry Wilson, and the Provos killing Airey Neave or Ian Gow. Michael Collins was more than prepared to take the war to England and bomb economic targets and have civilians killed. The IRA in the War of Independence ruthlessly executed 196 people they suspected of being informers and there were sectarian atrocities and ethnic cleansing.
Is there a moral difference between Frank Aiken and Dan Breen and Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams or Dessie Ellis?
Aiken is rumoured to have taken part in the sectarian Altnaveigh massacre and was certainly one of the leading members of an IRA unit which was fully prepared to engage in sectarian murder. Aiken ended up being Minister for Finance, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Tanaiste.
Dan Breen was eulogised and is still eulogised as a hero. But Dan Breen was involved in the shooting and killing of two policemen in the back, against orders, in order to deliberately start a war. He was an unashamed supporter of the Nazis. So was Sean Russell later on. Breen was a Fianna Fail TD for decades. Incidentally there's an interesting tidbit in Fintan O'Toole's article on Mary Lou McDonald today about how one of McDonald's first public appearances as a member of Sinn Fein was a commemoration of the Nazi collaborator Russell in Fairview Park in 2003.
I think the main moral difference one could argue between the IRA in the War of Independence and the Troubles was the length of the conflict. In 1916, the rebels surrendered after five days. In the War of Independence a truce was agreed by July 1921. The Troubles lasted until 1994 at least, really until 1997, almost a full three decades, and even then it took a long time for the violence to fully peter out with some very troubling legacy crimes in the following decade.
You can argue that war can really only be justified if there's a genuine chance of winning, but in saying that, did the French resistance believe they had a genuine chance of winning, or did the Soviet Army at Stalingrad believe they had a genuine chance of winning? When is the right time to stop a war? Who am I to say that young people growing up in the North in the 70s and 80s didn't believe that their cause was justified? I didn't have to live there.
What I do think is that Sinn Fein really need to knock the Up the RA rhetoric on the head now, because I don't see how it benefits anybody, most of all themselves. But I also think that there are some troubling questions about today's Sinn Fein. Like, can you be a member of Sinn Fein now and believe that the peaceful methods espoused by the SDLP during the Troubles were right and the IRA was wrong, even if you believe in Sinn Fein's stance on bread and butter issues? I don't think you can. I still think that the central requirement to be a member of Sinn Fein now is that you believe that the IRA during the Troubles, right up to 1997, was justified, and that the Troubles itself, right up to 1997, was justified.
Last edited by sid waddell; 16-02-2020 at 00:16.