The primary finding from my research is that, among Irish Republicans, there is a group of people who, no matter what, will not stop their involvement in political violence until they achieve the political goal they seek. That is, until, in their minds, they have achieved a declaration of intent from the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.
Most of the people who live in Ireland view themselves as “Irish” people. Traditionally, they tend to be Catholic. A significant number of people who live in Ireland, however, view themselves as British in origin. These are the descendants of settlers who “planted” Ireland in the seventeenth century, and they tend to be Protestant in their religion. The conflict in Ireland is not about religion, but rather ethnic identity. From the beginning of the English conquest of Ireland, in the twelfth century, there has been conflict between “natives” and “invaders.” When Ireland was partitioned in 1920, the partition was implemented such that a majority of those living in the Irish Free State (now the Republic) were Catholic and a majority of those living in Northern Ireland were Protestant. This compounded the perspective that the conflict is over religion. Successive British governments have supported this interpretation, which also supports their interpretation that the British Army in Northern Ireland is a neutral peacekeeping force.
The primary finding from my research is that, among Irish Republicans, there is a group of people who, no matter what, will not stop their involvement in political violence until they achieve the political goal they seek.
From the 1920s, when the Irish Republican Army forced the British to withdraw from that area of Ireland where most people viewed themselves as Irish, there has been either open or soon-to-be open conflict between those who seek a full British withdrawal from Ireland and those who do not. This includes IRA campaigns from 1939 to 1945, 1956 to 1962, the Provisional IRA campaign from 1969 to 1994 and 1996 to 1997, and the current paramilitary campaign by the Continuity IRA (there have also been splinter groups that engaged in Irish Republican political violence, e.g., the Irish National Liberation Army). The primary target of these campaigns has been the security forces in Northern Ireland, including the British Army and local police forces. A large number of civilians have also been killed, by Republican paramilitaries, Protestant paramilitaries, and the security forces.
A key feature of all these Irish Republican organizations is that among their founders, especially with respect to the Provisional IRA and the Continuity IRA (which were founded by the same people), are individuals who are the children of a previous generation of IRA fighters. How these people were raised, who these people are, greatly influences their perspective. Many of them have suffered significant personal costs, either through their parents, themselves, or their children, in pursuit of the “Irish Republic.” To ask them to quit, to accept that the British will always remain in Ireland, is to ask them to not be who they are, their raison d’être. Further, the socialization that produced these people also provided them with an interpretation of Irish history that offers a wealth of evidence that their perspective—that the British will not leave Ireland unless they are forced to so do—is correct. The people described are politically sophisticated; they are not alienated, lost souls or people driven by spite or hatred. This makes them that much more difficult to deal with, from the perspective of a government.
Further, it would appear that people who, no matter what, will not give up the gun until their objective is achieved are present in many politically violent social movements, including the PLO, the ANC, and ETA. Such people keep the “dream” alive across generations.
Stryker, S., Owens, T. J., & White, R. W. (2000). Self, Identity, and Social Movements. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.