Dean Godson claims that historical ignorance has undermined British policies in Northern Ireland over the last half-century. But a more convincing answer can be found in the history of the IRA itself.by Sean Swan / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
In Prospect’s November issue, Dean Godson claimed that he has “yet to meet a single politician, mandarin, policeman, soldier or spook who has examined in any depth why internment failed once on the island of Ireland in the 20th century, in 1971” having succeeded in the 1956-62 IRA campaign. This is perhaps because the answer lies in the realm not of security but of politics. The IRA’s 1956 to 1962 campaign (“Operation Harvest”) was an exotic import into Northern Ireland originating from a small group of idealists in the south. The extent to which it was a southern venture is demonstrated by the fact that even the Torr Head incident in north Antrim—in which an IRA party was ambushed during an attempt to destroy the radar station at Torr Head—was carried out by southern units of the IRA; a fact confirmed to me by Tomas MacGiolla and Mick Ryan, both senior members of the IRA at that time. Ryan himself took part in the Torr Head affair and told me that, “We didn’t know where we were and we could hardly understand the locals because of their accent.”
The IRA Standing Orders for Harvest included the stipulations that (1) there were to be no attacks in Belfast for fear of provoking loyalist attacks on nationalist areas, and (2) the part-time (and 100 per cent Protestant) “B” Specials were not to be fired on. This refusal to engage the “B” Specials during Harvest gave the campaign a quixotic quality, as the “B” specials were the front-line in the state’s defences against the IRA. A military campaign to bring down the Stormont state—an obvious implication of the IRA’s attempt to create a united Ireland by force—which refused to engage the state’s main defenders was as idealistic as it was impractical. By 1971, in contrast, the attacks on nationalist areas had already happened and violence by the UVF and other loyalist paramilitaries had already begun, giving the IRA a role as community defenders that had been absent in Harvest.
As the IRA itself quickly became aware during Harvest, the border campaign had little relevance or root among the social realities of Northern Irish nationalists. The clearest illustration of this point is the republican vote in Mid-Ulster in 1959, which saw the republican candidate, Tom Mitchell, defeated by a margin of two to one, having won his seat in both the previous election in…