The good guys beat the IRA once the state got its act together

Dr William Matchett at the News Letter Belfast office with his  book Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA.
Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Dr William Matchett at the News Letter Belfast office with his book Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

A sizeable section of Northern Ireland’s society does not want it to work.

The recent election showed this.

It also illustrated that the past has been badly dealt with. They are interwoven issues that form the main obstacle to Northern Ireland progressing.

To make this clearer and give ideas on how it can be overcome, the lessons learned from the last civil emergency – where votes started to give way to violence in the ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy in 1981 – could help.

In the Troubles, the opposing sides were not orange and green but right and wrong. The police led the right side – the rule of law.

Terrorists led the wrong side – legitimising murder. The largest terrorist organisation was the IRA.

The terrorists were expert killers and propagandists. Anyone on the right side was a target. They portrayed terrorism as freedom fighting and the police as brutish bigots. Murder was politicised.

Blame, deny and deceive was the ploy. They recruited sympathetic and unwitting elements in the media and elsewhere to get their message out. The wrong side desperately wanted to be seen as the right side.

For police officers it was demoralising.

How could people be so easily hoodwinked by outrageous terrorist lies? Who on earth fell for hollow words of equality and respect from people that peddled death and destruction? How could decent citizens support a terrorist organisation’s political wing? Surely people knew that not supporting the police was supporting terrorism?

The right side was relentlessly attacked from multiple directions. The IRA was increasingly innovative, loyalist violence increasingly unpredictable and the media increasingly hostile.

For a long time, at least to the early 1980s, the situation looked hopeless. For the security forces the adversity concentrated minds. It forced change, bred togetherness and instilled a strong sense of purpose. The first decade of the Troubles is characterised by a confused response by the state. There was a limited understanding of the wrong side and its constituent parts. This benefited the terrorists.

But once the state got its act together, a new strategy emerged that turned the tide. The IRA was prolonging the conflict.

Get republican terrorists to give up and loyalist terrorists will follow. Defeating the IRA was the aim.

The rule of law was weaponised in a way that loudly exposed the abhorrence of terrorists legitimising murder. In other words, activities the IRA tried to pass off as political acts, such as killing, were treated as crimes.

The IRA could not cope. The law is what they feared most as it contradicted the ‘armed struggle’ ideology.

‘Volunteers’ were prosecuted as criminals, removing any semblance of them being a soldier in a bona fide army.

This did not suit the IRA and is why it put so much effort into undermining the police, because the police enforced the rule of law.

Terrorism is allergic to the facts. The IRA was forced to abandon the ‘armed struggle.’ Most of its activists were in prison or OTR, and some had been killed. The Troubles ended. The good guys had won and the bad guys did not like it.

The men that ruthlessly ran the IRA run Sinn Fein. Everything has changed but nothing has changed. Justifying murder continues. Not only does this mindset inhibit Northern Ireland’s development, it is dangerous in a world where terrorism devastates lives and stifles political systems. It is an immorality that needs contested if it is to be eradicated. This has not happened because the past has not been dealt with. But it is possible. It can be done.

How? Quite simply, as a start, all political parties that condemn murder need to force those who do not to accept this position.

• Dr William Matchett is a senior researcher at the Edward M Kennedy Institute, and author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA