The Border Campaign: Fifty Years On

In today’s Belfast Telegraph, Eamonn McCann draws some parallels between the five IRA volunteers whose death fifty years ago at Edentubber was commemorated last weekend, and the recent spate of activity by dissident republicans.

The men were George Keegan (29),
  from Wexford, Paul Smith (19), from Bessbrook, Michael Watters (54), from
  Edentubber, Oliver Craven (19), from Newry, and Paddy Parle (27), from

They were dissidents in the sense that those who shot and
  wounded off-duty members of the PSNI in Derry last Thursday and in Dungannon
  on Monday are dissidents. That is to say, they had rejected the view of the
  majority on the island who defined themselves as republicans, and had
  instead maintained a commitment to armed struggle. They enjoyed no electoral
  mandate nor any substantial public support and didn’t believe they needed to
  justify continuation of armed action. (Belfast Telegraph)

When I went to Ruan O’Donnell’s talk on the 1956-62 border campaign on Wednesday, it was with a related thought in mind, namely that the campaign had demonstrated the futility of applying an old-style military approach to the northern situation.

However, O’Donnell presented a much more complex reality, and one which challenges the argument that McCann presents here:

Many who disagree with the Sinn Fein leader on other matters might find common ground with him when he says of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, as he did at Edentubber, that, "These groups have no strategy, no programmes, no popular support and no real capacity –
  militarily or otherwise. They have chosen random acts of intimidation and isolated acts of individual violence which are politically ineffective and result only in pain and suffering for the individuals targeted and their families. The overall effect is retrograde at every level and in every sense."

But could the same not have been said – indeed, wasn’t it said, by the Nationalist Party leader at the time, Eddie McAteer – of the campaign in which the men at whose monument Mr Adams was speaking lost their lives?

In fact, according to O’Donnell, the border campaign was a serious undertaking with a considered strategy, significant popular support and a real military capability.

The mid-1950s was a period of relative electoral success for Sinn Fein, which in any case was not the only party with IRA connections. According to O’Donnell, the leader of Clann na Poblachta, Seán MacBride, remained much closer to the IRA than historians have acknowledged up to now.

O’Donnell also suggested that the volunteers of the border campaign were the best-trained of any period, thanks to years of preparation and instruction from veterans of both the British and Irish armies.

The strategy was to escalate the situation to the point where it would become an international incident, drawing world attention to the plight of nationalists in the North. This cost the IRA some support in the border areas, because the local population realised ithis would not be decisive in the short term. and would expose them to a backlash from the Stormont authorities.

This strategy was one reason for the relatively low number of deaths by later standards. The IRA was mainly engaged in a campaign of sabotage and sought to minimise casualties.  The other reason was that the British Army chose to stay in barracks and avoid escalation, a decision which O’Donnell views as a masterstroke. (Perhaps this fits Martin Van Creveld’s thesis about Northern Ireland rather better than later events.) It was probably this, along with the draconian use of internment on both sides of the border, that rendered the campaign ineffective.

Ironically, the Republican Movement’s subsequent turn towards politics in the 1960s did far more to destabilise the North, in company with people like Eamonn McCann, through the civil rights movement. The significance of this lesson was perhaps lost for a long time when the subsequent unionist backlash brought the situation full-circle with the birth of the Provisional IRA.

The parallels with today’s dissident republicans are weaker they appear at first sight, notably for the reasons pointed out in this post from the Cedar Lounge Revolution:

There is something strange about these acts if one places them
within the context of Irish Republicanism. This must be the very first
time in that history during the last 80 odd years where acts are
carried out by groups with no political representation at all (and I’m
deliberately discounting the micro-groups that were carried along on
the tail of the Troubles  – or indeed during the Border campaign –
since there was a broader political context)  and are carried out
anonymously. While that may seem to fit a template of the Troubles it
actually doesn’t as regards mainstream Republicanism.






2 responses to “The Border Campaign: Fifty Years On”

  1. mickhall avatar

    Very interesting post, a number of people have highly recommended Ruan O’Donnell talk on the border campaign.

  2. WorldbyStorm avatar

    Fascinating post with a heap of useful links. I think – and I guess it’s obvious why – that you’re right. Interestingly Jim Lynagh promoted something similar in the 1980s, but by then such a tactic was utterly pointless, the BA had with considerable efficiency increased surveillance, intelligence and closed down the space for it to operate. I guess it’s also fair to say that without a political side, and at least a significant segment of the population willing to give tacit support such activities are futile. I’d be astounded if in ten years they are still extant. I certainly hope they’re not.

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