Re-assessing the 50s Border Campaign

by John Murphy

IRISH HISTORIAN Ruan O'Donnell, who has written books on the 1798 rebellion and on Robert Emmet and is one of the country's most popular lecturers, is now researching contemporary history and events that have shaped Irish politics since the 1940s.

In a recent public lecture at the home of Patrick and Willie Pearse in Dublin he outlined the subject of his current research: the 1950s IRA Border Campaign. The packed audience included Ruairi O Bradaigh, Tomas MacGiolla, Charlie Murphy, Tony Hayde, Noel Kavanagh, Tony Meade, Roy Johnston and many others. Republicans who were often divided by past events united in praise of how O'Donnell presented the 1950s campaign in a new historical context.

The Border Campaign has usually been dismissed as a romantic reversion to physical force by hardline republicans during Ireland's bleak 1950s, without political justification or prospect of success.

However, Ireland's unsolved national problem, the issue of the unity and independence, and attempts to solve it, has always followed a pattern of phases of constitutional and political action followed by physical force, followed by a return to constitutional action, and so on.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when De Valera's Fianna Fail had lost office after sixteen years, the anti-partition campaign was launched with the support of all the parties in Dail Eireann. In mass meetings throughout Ireland, Britain and America the constitutional politicians sought to highlight the injustices of partition and the discrimination which northern nationalists had to endure under the Stormont unionist regime.

But when De Valera and Fianna Fail returned to power in 1951, they fell totally silent on the northern injustices they had previously been so vocal on, and Britain's responsibility for their continuance. The Fine Gael-led coalition which also held office in the 1950s said nothing about them either. The reason was the Cold War. If Ireland had sought to raise the misdeeds of the northern unionist regime at the United Nations or in other international forums at the time, the Russians would have supported it. America and Ireland's vocal Cold Warriors would in turn have been furious.

O'Donnell's researches in the US archives have shown that even though Ireland was nominally a neutral state, it was fear of annoying the Americans and being supported by the Russians during those early Cold War years which led successive Irish governments to say nothing about the injustices and discrimnation their fellow-countrymen had to put up with north of the border.

With the constitutional politicians failing in their duty to expose the abuses of partition, the way was open for a return to physical force by republicans who felt they had to "do something". The 1950s IRA campaign could thus be regarded as a kind of punishment for the sins of omission of Ireland's constitutional politicians.

The Border Campaign failed in turn, but the release-the-prisoners movement which followed, in which the Connolly Association and the Irish Democrat played a key part, set the stage for the next constitutional-political phase, which was the 1960s northern civil rights movement.

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".

O'Donnell's research on the Border Campaign should lead in time to a lengthy book with a thousand footnotes. It is already eagerly awaited and promises to revolutionise our views on the 1950s when it appears. That decade in turn calls for a follow-on for the 1960s and 1970s.

Having already made a major contribution to our underestanding of the 1798-1803 period in Ireland, this remarkable young historian looks like becoming a worthy interpreter of our own times.

O'Donnell to give Border Campaign talk in London

From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber: Wexford's IRA and Border Campaign, Wednesday 14 November, Irish Centre, Hammersmith, London; speaker: Ruan O'Donnell; chair: Peter Berresford Ellis. Further details tel. 0207 8333022

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-10-24 16:04:11.
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