Irish Studies

‘The Age-Old Struggle’: Irish republicanism from the Battle of the Bogside to the Belfast Agreement, 1969-1998

Jack Hepworth provides an introduction for his new publication, ‘The Age-Old Struggle’. Analysing the internal dynamics of Irish Republicanism between the outbreak of ‘the Troubles’ in 1969 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ‘The Age-Old Struggle’ draws upon the words and writings of more than 250 Irish republicans.

For three decades from 1969, Irish republicans waged guerrilla warfare alongside a political campaign to end British rule on the island of Ireland. Constituted primarily in the Provisional IRA, republicans killed in excess of 2,000 people in a conflict which claimed more than 3,500 lives. By the time the Provisionals finally ended their campaign in July 2005, thousands of militants had participated in republican ‘armed struggle’, with the support of thousands more. As Jonathan Tonge noted on the eve of the final IRA ceasefire, republicans comprised a diverse political tradition, spanning ‘militant nationalists, unreconstructed militarists, romantic Fenians, Gaelic Republicans, Catholic sectarians, Northern defenders, international Marxists, socialists, libertarians and liberal Protestants’.

The policy document from which ‘The Age-Old Struggle’ takes its title captures in microcosm the book’s central theme: Irish republicanism’s ideological and compositional heterogeneity. Irish republicanism’s complex internal dynamics and evolving, multi-layered politics. When the republican political party Sinn Féin published Mining and energy in 1974, few of the Provisional IRA’s militants had either the opportunity or inclination to study their political leadership’s detailed analysis of the island’s resources and pipelines. As the movement’s propagandists at Dublin headquarters were expounding energy policy for an independent Ireland, IRA volunteers on the ground were preoccupied with conducting guerrilla attacks and evading capture. Republican activism took many forms. While some activists were raising funds for prisoners’ families, others were organising demonstrations; while some were campaigning for improved council housing, others were planting bombs. Unifying this heterogeneous movement was an overarching, shared objective: according to the small print of Mining and energy, nothing less than ‘victory in the age-old struggle for national liberation’.

Image from Sinn Fein, courtesy of the Irish Left Archive

Examining how Irish republicanism evolved throughout the Northern Ireland conflict, ‘The Age-Old Struggle’ scrutinises the ideas and motivations which propelled republicans’ enduring campaign. To this end, the book draws upon more than 500 political periodicals and ephemera, and the words and writings of over 250 republican activists. Sources consulted here, including many hitherto unused by historians, generate snapshots and amplify voices throughout the strata of several republican organisations. The 20 oral history interviews conducted for ‘The Age-Old Struggle’ include activists with experience of several republican organisations, including some who have broken with erstwhile comrades.

Across five thematic chapters, ‘The Age-Old Struggle’ assesses how republicans engaged with the global politics of 1968, socialism, feminism, and Catholicism, and how the movement navigated its own tactical and strategic evolution. In sum, the book directs attention to how class, place, and networks within republicanism simultaneously sustained and complicated the movement’s politics. For some activists, republicanism was concerned solely with terminating British rule. For one republican veteran, the movement’s objective was singular and straightforward: ‘to get them [the British government] out and sort the country out after that’. By contrast, for leftists, republicanism represented an essentially working-class politics which sought both to effect national liberation and transform class relations. When a group of Provisional IRA prisoners resigned from the movement in the late 1980s, they proposed a revolutionary alternative for a ‘workers’ and small farmers’ republic’.

Similarly, republicans differed widely in how they spatialised their campaign. Local dynamics were particularly paramount for activists in embattled urban communities, for example. After Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British paratroopers killed thirteen civilians in Derry, a packed public meeting in the city’s Bogside district summarily invited the Provisional IRA to be the guardians of ‘Free Derry’. Conversely, some republicans positioned themselves more explicitly as internationalists and anti-imperialists. As a leading member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party put it during a tour of Europe in 1975, radical republicans identified with the ‘essential unity of the world wide anti-imperialist struggle’.

Finally, at moments of crisis and transformation in their campaign, republicans mobilised in opposing networks which either advocated or repudiated what historian Kevin Bean called ‘new departures’. When Sinn Féin leaders, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, entered talks with British government representatives in the mid-1990s, IRA prisoners in Long Kesh endorsed negotiations as a worthwhile experiment: ‘There is a general feeling that pragmatism has served us well’, the prisoners’ discussion forum concluded. For more orthodox republicans, principle and precedent were paramount, and tactical or strategic innovation connoted dangerous compromise. For instance, when Sinn Féin’s annual conference of 1986 controversially dropped its traditional abstentionism in the ‘26 Counties’, a County Antrim republican councillor who resigned from the party in protest reasserted his ‘allegiance to the 32-County Irish Republic as proclaimed in 1916’. Tradition was immutable, the argument ran, and tactical change represented an unconscionable deviation from republican ‘principles’. These competing milieux within republican ranks mediated power dynamics and individual pathways within the movement.

More than two decades have now passed since the momentous Good Friday Agreement of 1998 asserted that only constitutional methods could alter Northern Ireland’s status. Sinn Féin’s continual support for the Agreement, and for the wider peace process, remains a cornerstone of intra-republican disagreement to this day. The party’s supporters endorse an exclusively constitutional campaign while asserting the legitimacy of the Provisional IRA’s past. Simultaneously, a wide range of activists charge Sinn Féin with sacrificing republicans’ historic struggle on the high altar of reformism and diplomacy. Amid this fragmentation, this book’s attention to contemporary republican discourse and oral history testimonies illuminates present-day contestation over the movement’s legacies. Continually renegotiating contemporary politics, retrospectives today reassess the meaning of historical militancy.

‘The Age-Old Struggle’ assesses the major contradictory forces in republicanism over the past five decades: on the one hand, the imperative of building a unified movement, and on the other, the residual dissonances and dilemmas which pervade the ranks of republican organisations, especially during strategic review. Only by considering both the galvanising and fissiparous tendencies within Irish republicanism, it is argued, can we understand the movement’s historical trajectory, and its complex characteristics to this day.

For more information on ‘The Age-Old Struggle’, please visit our website.


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