Border Killings – Liberation Struggle or Ethnic Cleansing?
A University of Ulster academic has challenged the often-repeated view that Northern Ireland’s 30 years of conflict was a simple “war of liberation” struggle by republicans against colonial interests.
Henry Patterson, Professor of Irish Politics, said: “Unlike other struggles for national liberation in Africa and Latin America, it was the self designated ‘anti-imperialist’ force that killed far more victims of the Troubles than did the state forces”.
He told the Sixth International Conference of The Spanish Association for Irish Studies at the University of Valladolid in Spain, that the Provisional IRA was responsible for 48% of deaths while the RUC was responsible for 1.4% and the UDR 0.2%. Even if it was accepted that there was widespread collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries and 50% of those killed by loyalists was added to the security forces’ figure, it would still amount to only 17% of all deaths.
In his address – War of National Liberation or Ethnic Cleansing: IRA violence in Fermanagh during the Troubles – Professor Patterson examined in detail the IRA campaign in that county.
He noted that during previous campaigns the IRA leadership had decided that the part-time B-Specials would not be targets. But the UDR, which replaced the B-Specials, was targeted from the outset. In 1972 six members of the UDR in Fermanagh were killed, four of them on their border farms. Four farming families with UDR members had to sell their land and animals in the Garrison area to move to safer areas.
Professor Patterson emphasised different phases of the campaign against UDR part-timers in the area. In the seven years after 1972 only one UDR man was killed in the county. That, he believed, was partly as a result of revulsion at the killing of a UDR man and his wife on their farm and partly because the IRA leadership was dominated by southern based activists who had taken part in earlier border campaigns and who may have had qualms about attacking part-time UDR members.
The situation changed at the beginning of the 1980s when hardline northern activists took control of the Provisional IRA. They were determined that no deal would be struck between the SDLP and Unionists which would marginalise republicans. One Tyrone republican told respected journalist Ed Moloney that killing UDR men “stops the Unionists doing a deal with the SDLP”.
Political considerations also led to the Provisional IRA unit in Fermanagh being disbanded when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams began his attempt to build a pan-nationalist alliance with the SDLP and Fianna Fail in the late 1980s.
The IRA in Fermanagh had carried out a number of widely condemned killings including the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing in which 11 people died and the shooting of a 21-year-old Protestant girl sitting in a car with her fiancé. Professor Patterson said that the potential political costs to Sinn Fein of such activities led to the standing down of the local IRA unit.
In 1980 Unionist leaders branded the IRA campaign in Fermanagh as “genocide against the Protestant people”. At that stage around 50 Protestants – most of them members of the UDR or RUC Reserve – had been killed in the country from the start of the Troubles.
Professor Patterson said: “No doubt many Provisionals then and now would sincerely and forcefully deny that their campaign in Fermanagh was a form of ethnic cleansing. As we have seen, most of the Protestants killed were in the security forces and Fermanagh did not experience the wholesale evacuation of Protestants that occurred in West Cork during the War of Independence.
“Yet, that the killings struck at the Protestant community’s morale, sense of security and belonging in the area was undeniable.
“It was being made clear to them that they could continue to live in Fermanagh but on terms defined by the Provisional IRA”, he added.
Professor Patterson said the conflicting views of the conflict – was it a war of liberation or ethnic cleansing - has been one of the reasons for the widespread unease with the peace process among the Protestant/Unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“The war has, in part, been transferred into a clash of conflicting narratives of who was to blame for the Troubles and, in particular, for its thousands of victims.
“There remains a major research agenda for contemporary historians to try and provide a factual and more objective truth without which this dreadful period will largely remain the province of ethnic entrepreneurs ransacking it for their conflicting political projects”.