Since the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998, the veterans of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have become a central feature of the republican political and associative networks. A particular generation of activists leans on the prestige of its previous commitments to continue the struggle through conventional organizations integrated into the democratic process. Today, these veterans are facing a dilemma: to continue the struggle, bearing its cost, or abandon it to younger generations, thus accepting to be relegated as mere figures of the past. This article analyzes the central position of these veterans, as well as the role they play in the (non) return to violence, in the context of Brexit.
The Northern Irish conflict began in 1969 after the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association campaign claimed civil rights for Catholics, and ended in 1998 with the signature of the Good Friday Agreements. Since the end of the conflict, which concluded with a death toll of approximately 3,500 civilians and military,[note]According to the North Irish Archives on the Northern Ireland reviewed on July 23, 2018.[/note] the restructuring of the Northern Irish Police in 2001, and the departure of the British Army in 2007, State repression has been reduced. Similarly, the dissolution of paramilitary organizations has considerably reduced the level of armed violence which is now only claimed by republican “dissidents” who reject the peace agreements.
In this more peaceful context, the majority of the republican camp has been integrated into the democratic process through Sinn Féin[note]“Ourselves” in Irish Gaelic.[/note], a republican party close to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) since it dissolved in 2005. On February 10th 2018, Gerry Adams, an iconic figure both in the Northern Irish conflict and in the negotiations which ended the armed struggle, left Sinn Féin’s presidency to pass the position on to Mary Lou McDonald. With this handover, the party intends to reaffirm its commitment to peaceful methods and the generational renewal of its members by which it seeks to improve its political position. Indeed, Sinn Féin is the second elected political force in Northern Ireland where it served in the government until March 2017.[note]Since the early legislative elections of March 2, 2017, Northern Ireland is without a government because of a deep disagreement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). DUP leader Arlene Foster is charged with corruption in the awarding of a public contract. Sinn Féin refuses to take part in the government as long as she is a member of it.[/note]The party is seeking an equivalent status in Southern Ireland where it represents the third largest political force.
Nevertheless, the presence of IRA veterans in republican networks, and moreover in political parties and Northern Irish society, shows that the bond with the IRA is not broken. This invites us to focus on the transformations of veterans’ militancy and their conversion within a Northern Irish society characterized by the remaining identity tensions between unionists and nationalists. One should recall that unionists, on the one hand, were in favor of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom considering themselves to be British, and are mostly Protestant. On the other hand, the Nationalists consider themselves Irish, they are mostly Catholic and “republican,” meaning they pledge for a reunified Irish Republic without British presence
In this context, the term “veteran” encompasses a broad category of actors which differ according to their territorial anchorage, politicization process, commitment period, experience of violence, of clandestinity, time spent in prison as well as the paths of reintegration into civilian life. Yet, among the multiple generations which have joined the IRA, those born in the 1950s have taken center stage since the beginning of the conflict.[note]This generation, disappointed by the failure of the civil rights movement, experienced repression and took part in the armed struggle in the early 1970s, contributing to the re-emergence of the IRA. After experiencing internment without trial, it has engaged itself heavily in the struggle to obtain the status of “political prisoner.”[/note]At the end of the conflict, this generation used the symbolic capital acquired during the armed struggle and prison experience to seek political positions, invest or create associations, working for peace and restorative justice.
Central to the republican networks, this generation is divided between the desire to continue the struggle for independence, or to pass it on to activists from the post-conflict generations who are now between 15 and 25 years old. These former IRA activists attempt to extend their activism through partisan institutions while being torn between the Northern Irish identity issue, which is a legacy of the war, and reintegration into civilian life. This article aims to document the tension and this process by showing firstly how these veterans seek to ensure the continuity of their action on a territorial level, with the risk of becoming “prisoners” of the conflict, and secondly we will see that the organizations, which are centered around veteran figures, allow them to ensure a transmission of the nationalist struggle.
Conventional republican networks structured by veterans
Since the end of the conflict, the majority of the IRA veterans who wish to pursue the struggle are converting their revolutionary efforts by implicating themselves in organizations which are part of the democratic process. Following their release between 1998 and 2000, in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, they have founded or become members of political parties or various associations whether organized by neighborhoods, cultural organizations, veterans, aid to rehabilitation, victims of the conflict, etc. Within these various groups, veterans occupy all hierarchical levels, from grassroots activists to managerial positions.
Belonging to a similar and vast informal network (conventional or dissident), these various organizations cooperate with each other. This cooperation is reinforced by the fact that these associations revolve around political parties, and also, because some veterans belong to several groups and use networks they have established in prison. They are thus very visible on the political scene, which reinforces their self-perception, as shown by an IRA veteran: “the former prisoners are everywhere.” They provide a very tight network of republican territory, not only from a political and economic point of view, but also from a social and cultural one.
These new organizations enable veterans to continue to campaign while positioning themselves inside the republican political field, especially via Sinn Féin, where many former IRA activists gathered, as well as through the election of some members to political positions. This party claims to monopolize republican representation to continue with the peace process as well as the IRA’s legacy and the fight for independence. Other radical activists, like those of Saoradh[note]“Freedom” in Irish Gaelic.[/note], a far-left party that implicitly supports the continuation of the armed struggle[note]This support translates into assistance for current “dissident” republican prisoners, labeled as terrorists by the central State and by the threatening speeches with regard to the police.[/note], claim to be representatives of a “true” republicanism. They criticize the compromises made with the British government by veterans who joined Sinn Féin at the end of the conflict.
This specific status within activist networks concerns almost exclusively older veterans, meaning the generation which joined the IRA in the 1970s. At the end of the conflict, they are the ones who acquired prestigious status as well as strong symbolic capital because of their engagement in the key moments of Irish republican history. On the contrary, younger veterans from generations who were engaged in the 1980s or 1990s have not yet transformed their conflict and/or prison experiences into political resources. Unlike their elders they cannot take advantage of their participation in a milestone event to enhance their prestige. By integrating the parties or associations, the 1970s activists ensure they are able to perpetuate their situation or at least minimize the costs caused by the transition. For the activists of the following generations, this process is harder to implement.
The heavy weight of the past: stepping out of former prisoner status
By seeking to remain within Northern Ireland’s political and identity process, veterans find themselves caught within a paradoxical personal process: while trying to get out of the former status as prisoners, which is considered a burden, the memory of the conflict is constantly reactivated by anecdotes and highlights of their commitments and/or imprisonments. This situation generates personal difficulties in making a transition from conflict to trivial topics:
“At Seamus’s wedding there were only former prisoners at the table. They all talked about the past, the war. At one point, I got tired of it and I cried out, “But damn it guys, can anyone talk about something else? Life is cool, love is great, sex is fun! Can we change the subject?”[note]Interview with Padraig, IRA veteran in a rural area, conducted at his home on April 23, 2018.[/note]
Unwilling to talk about their own suffering, former activists prefer to loosely mention the problems that some of their comrades encounter. Out of 60 interviewees, only two declared they suffered from the transition and had post-traumatic stress. Yet, when expressed, this suffering reveals the brutality of the situation: “When I returned home after being in jail, I felt like a stranger in my own community.”[note]Interview with Dan, Belfast IRA veteran, conducted in Belfast on April 23, 2018.[/note]
Activists conceal the cost of the transition, but former detainees’ wives or associations provide access to this post-conflictual dimension. For example, Sean’s wife, whose husband is a veteran turned photojournalist for a republican newspaper, reveals he secretly cries on a daily basis. Aodhan’s wife, a veteran elected MP, describes him as always imprisoned “in his mind.” Indeed, during the 1970s, these incarcerated activists, who claimed the status of political prisoner, led this fight through various means which have left their mark up until today. Their main action was to live naked, in blankets, to refuse to wash, to shave, to cut their hair and to cover the walls of their cells with their excrement.
Several years after their release, some activists have contracted certain diseases, such as bronchial pathologies, which were brought about because of conditions while in detention. The associations supporting former prisoners identify the psychological and physical difficulties to which they are particularly exposed: alcoholism, drug addiction, depression and health problems caused by imprisonment. These painful ghosts of the past create a gap between these activists and the rest of the nationalist population: they are the respected heroes of a past that we wish to leave behind.[note]Interview with Maureen, activist in a former prisoners’ support association, conducted in Belfast on November 30, 2015.[/note]
Moreover, the State contributes to the veterans’ isolation with their status through a legal and institutional discriminatory system. Indeed, having a political prisoner’s background is a legal criterion to deny a person a job, an insurance contract or the adoption of a child. As a result, most former prisoners occupy low-skilled positions, for example as collective taxi drivers. Some veterans consider themselves as the major losers of the conflict: despite having been the ones to take the arms and the risks, they do not enjoy the civil and political rights granted to republican civilians. Facing this fact, some associations campaign for the rights, the end of discriminations or constitute discussion groups between former convicts. However, in both cases, these organizations are involved in the assignment of these activists to former prisoner status.
Coaching young activists
The continuity of their activism allows IRA veterans to shape their image as actors working for the interest of the nationalist community. Its members all share a common imaginary of the struggle, they know the heroes’ military exploits, anecdotes about ordinary activists, and question veterans on particular aspects of the conflict such as their potential ties to Bobby Sands.[note]Iconic martyr of the republican cause, Bobby Sands was the leader of the 10 republican prisoners who died during a hunger strike in 1981 in order to obtain political prisoner status.[/note]Most often appearing in normal conversations, these stories can nevertheless be told in public in a methodical and/or theatrical fashion. For example, the republican brass band, Spirit of Freedom in Derry rehearses in Sinn Féin’s premises, facing the portraits of 48 dead local IRA activists hanging on the walls.[note]Participant observation with the Spirit of Freedom Flute Band in Derry on April 24, 2018.[/note]Pubs also host conflict-focused events and parties where activists are invited to talk about their personal trajectories and stories about their comrades. During these events, their testimonies are illustrated with photo projections (plan of the prison to describe the pathways used to escape etc.) and musical interludes comprised of republican songs.[note]Participant observation at the Andersonstown Social Club in Belfast on August 13, 2016.[/note]
Among young Northern Irish nationalists, there is a fantasized imaginary of the political struggle through the glorification of the armed struggle. This imaginary is perceptible in certain events, such as nationalist concerts where the public chants “IRA.” Considering this context where most veterans are reluctant to talk about this part of their lives, including to their children, and where the conflict is not yet part of the school programs, political parties offer young activists the keys to analyzing the conflict.
Political parties handle their education by putting them in contact with former activists and providing them with classes which include visiting historical places. Integrating a republican network allows young activists to deepen their knowledge of the history of republicanism and to enhance their political awareness. In return, former activists who testify, receive two rewards from the party: firstly, the party officially credits them with the prestigious figure of former prisoner, thus providing them access to a certain social position, secondly, they receive some form of collective protection and solidarity during legal lawsuits or when public criticism eventually occurs.
Apart from the history of the struggle, veterans seek to transmit political awareness within their various networks. For example, the manager of the Jim O’Neill and Robert Allsopp brass band, who is close to Sinn Féin, states that he uses activism centered around the commemoration offered by brass bands to divert young citizens from the dissident organizations’ attraction. Through a political use of music, he attempts to orient other activists towards integration of the legal, political process. On the contrary, Eoin, a veteran of the Irish National Liberation Army, now an Irish Republican Socialist Party activist, encourages young party militants to cultivate a type of political marginality by resorting to illegal actions. This transmission can also take different forms, orienting young activists on their career choices, lining up with the strategic goals of the movement. For example, Paddy, a young man from Sinn Féin, wishes to pursue law school to become a lawyer ever since a charismatic leader told him that the nationalist community lacked them.[note]Interview with Paddy, member of Ógra Shinn Féin, conducted in Belfast on April 25, 2018.[/note]
A generational division of activist work.
Along with this transmission, veterans use republican networks to transmit practices and carry out joint actions with the younger ones: activist brass bands, leaflet distribution, demonstrations or installation of placards. Transmission is also achieved through a generational renewal of elected officials since many elected Sinn Féin veterans gradually give up their political mandates to hand them over to younger activists. This renewal mainly concerns high profile mandates such as those of Sinn Féin’s leaders in Northern Ireland or Northern Irish MPs.
There is a certain generational gap in activist work since some tasks are informally attributed to a certain age group. The veterans pursue a militancy focused on the conflict and carry out symbolic actions such as urban vigilant tactics on certain precise milestone dates marked by a renewal of identity tensions, as for instance on July 11th when unionists make giant bonfires. Similarly, a majority of veterans are present during the commemorations of events or for martyrs of the conflict.
As for young activists, they are more responsible for new campaigns such as the invalidation of water taxation in Southern Ireland, or listing Irish as co-official language in Northern Ireland. They also take charge of the neighborhood’s defense against any police incursions through rioting practices. In this case, the veteran is a spectator of the clash between the neighborhood youth and the police. This phenomenon is an opportunity for veterans who are members of conventional organizations to condemn this form of violent engagement, despite the fact they practiced it at the same age, while veterans who sympathize with dissidents support and encourage the youngest to resort to violence and criticize the hypocrisy of their counterparts who are members of less radical networks.
In Ireland, veterans try to find their place between a past that defines them, a present that they invest in with quiet suffering, and a future that does not seem to concern them. It seems obvious to carry out the struggle that they were involved in since adolescence, and, at the same time, they express the need to withdraw in order to give way to a new generation of activists. This paradox generates an ever greater confinement in their former prisoner status from which they draw much of their legitimacy and social position, although it also goes along with many stigmas in today’s Irish society. In their eyes, coaching young activists seems like the only way to ensure the continuation of the struggle. However, the uncertainties related to Brexit spread doubt among these old republicans on the prospect of the Island’s reunification, and they fear a return of the armed struggle by the young militants with whom they stand alongside.
Hadrien Holstein is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University Paris-Nanterre. He holds two Master degrees in Political science and Philosophy from the Panthéon-Sorbonne University. His previous research focused on the Irish republicans during the conflict in Northern Ireland.