Workers' Liberty #68


The war in South Armagh

Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, by Toby Harnden, Hodder and Stoughton. Reviewed by Patrick Murphy.

In the 1970s and '80s the conflict in Northern Ireland was misrepresented as 'England's Vietnam'. It was in many ways a well-meaning misrepresentation, attempting to build a wider base for solidarity with the Catholic victims of discrimination and repression by relating to anti-imperialist tradition. What it blurred, however, was the kernel of the question, the communal conflict between the Catholic/nationalist majority and the sizeable Protestant/unionist minority in the island, which has been the dominant factor in urban working-class areas.

The Vietnam analogy made most sense in South Armagh. Overwhelmingly nationalist and rural, it has a centuries-old reputation for rebellion and lawlessness. The inclusion of the area in the Six County state in 1922 was the most ludicrous result of partition. Even the Unionist authorities advised that it should not be part of the new Northern state on the grounds that they could not police such a hostile population. Merlyn Rees, the Labour minister who first coined the term 'bandit country', admits here that he considered transferring South Armagh to the Republic.

The last 30 years in South Armagh have certainly seen sectarian killings, but the Protestant membership of the security forces is so high here that the line between sectarian and military conflict is almost impossible to draw. Near the border and in particular around Crossmaglen, it has been a war of a local popular army, aided and abetted in every possible way by the population, against a hated occupying force.

As a result the British Army has, for long periods, been unable to claim any effective control. They have had to enter and leave Crossmaglen barracks by air, dropping and picking up patrols by helicopter, and suffered larger casualties than in any other part of Northern Ireland, with a negligible conviction rate. All this despite a sophisticated and expensive surveillance operation. If all of Northern Ireland were South Armagh, 'Troops Out Now' would make perfect sense.

It is hard to imagine that Harnden, former Irish correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, has much sympathy with the aims or methods of the Provos, but he gives an honest and realistic appraisal.

It is hard to get any clear picture of the politics of the South Armagh IRA. What we get here is familiar. They are hard-line, sceptical of the 'peace process', prepared to go on fighting, but were firmly behind the Belfast leadership at the time of the cease-fires and the Good Friday Agreement.

When the Major government failed to deliver any talks after a prolonged IRA truce from 1994, it was the Crossmaglen unit who were asked to deliver a huge bomb to the City of London. By that stage they were in command of the mainland bombing campaign as well as their own territorial war with the army. If the present process breaks down, or indeed if any section of the nationalist community turns against the power-sharing government in the future, expect South Armagh to be at the centre of the renewed rebellion.

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