New light shed on IRA's Border Campaign

by David Granville

A LEADING authority on the United Irish movement and the Irish rebellions against British rule of 1798 and 1803, the radical Irish historian Ruan O'Donnell has been turning his attention to more recent times - in particular the IRA's Border Campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A foretaste of O'Donnell's forthcoming book on the subject will be on offer at the Hammersmith Irish Centre on 14 November (7pm) when O'Donnell will speak at a public meeting at the Hammersmith Irish Centre organised by the Four Provinces Bookshop.

Launched in December 1956, when three IRA flying columns crossed the Irish border to attack British army depots and administration centres, the consensus among political and historical commentators, at least those outside of republican ranks, has been that the IRA's Border Campaign was doomed to failure from the start and represented little more than the desperate actions of a small handful of romantic die-hard physical-force republicans.

Indeed, lack of public support and repressive measures against republicans carried out by the authorities on both sides of the Irish border, which included internment without trial, eventually forced to the IRA to abandon its campaign, somewhat ignominiously, in early 1962.

However, extensive research conducted on both sides of the Atlantic by O'Donnell, including in-depth interviews with many leading republicans of the era and access to key US documents, sheds new light on the campaign itself and on the international political context in which it took place.

O'Donnell concludes that Cold War politics was central to why successive 32-county governments remained silent throughout the 1950s about the injustices perpetrated by the Stormont government against their fellow countrymen and women north of the border.

In short, successive governments were afraid to say or do anything in case it attracted the support of the Soviet Union and of undermined Dublin's relations with America.

This inaction and failure of constitutional politicians in the 32-county state, along with a major re-organisation within the IRA between 1946 and the late 1950s, opened the way for physical force republicans to take the initiative on the border issue once again.

While IRA optimism at the onset of the Border Campaign was widely misplaced, O'Donnell has been able to show that it was not undertaken on some romantic whim, as some critics have suggested. O'Donnell's research also adds an important new dimension to our understanding of what happened and why - one which has direct relevance to events which were to follow and eventually lead to three decades of bloody conflict from which Ireland, in recent years, has finally begun to emerge.

Writing in the web edition of the Irish Democrat ( about a recent talk given by O'Donnell in Dublin, John Murphy reminds us that while the Border Campaign was undoubtedly a failure, the republican prisoner amnesty movement which followed, in which the British-based Connolly Association and its paper the Irish Democrat played a key part, effectively set the stage for a new constitutional-political phase - the northern civil rights movement of the 1960s. Cold War considerations were again to play a major role in conditioning Dublin's response to the civil rights initiative.

As Murphy suggests:

"Dublin's silent indifference during the 1950s prefigured in turn how the Jack Lynch government in Dublin was caught totally off guard when the north exploded in 1969. The Irish government found itself unable to give any real political support to the civil rights movement - which in turn contributed to the Provisional IRA's launching its 'armed struggle'."

After three-and-a-half decades of bloody conflict, the struggle for Irish freedom is again treading a constitutional path. Given England's, and later Britain's, role and responsibility over many centuries, our support for the current political process remains crucial, while important research carried out by those like Dr O'Donnell can only expand our knowledge of how we got to where we are today.

14 November (Wednesday): From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber - Wexford's IRA and Border Campaign, 7pm, Irish Centre, Hammersmith, London. Speaker: Ruan O'Donnell; chair: Peter Berresford Ellis. Further details tel. 00 44 (0)207 8333022

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-11-13 13:44:32.
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