Could Dublin have done more to defeat IRA campaign?
A sense that republicans have been more effective in rewriting the history is at the heart of unionist disquiet
The IRA was also a major threat to the Irish State. Although it prohibited attacks on members of the Irish security forces, its activities in the Republic, from bank robberies and kidnappings, to prison breaks and assassinations, demanded tough action from the State and led to a state of day-to-day antagonism between Garda and IRA members.
However, there were major political obstacles to being seen to help the security forces in the North. They were spelt out by Paddy Donegan, the minister for defence in the coalition government, in conversation with the British ambassador in 1973.
Donegan was a bitter opponent of the IRA and favourably disposed to doing as much as he could to improve co-operation, but emphasised the need “for absolute secrecy and discretion” which stemmed from “the age-old instinctive feeling on the part of most Irishmen that it was a bad thing for Irishmen to co-operate with the British in clobbering fellow Irishmen, however rascally the latter might be”.
Successive governments faced a dilemma. By co-operating with the RUC and British army against republicans, there was a risk of reigniting latent republican sentiment in a State with a nationalist ethos at its core.
At the same time the IRA had the expressed aim of overthrowing the Irish State and its activities were an ongoing threat to the authority and legitimacy of Government and the Dáil.
The dilemma was often resolved by a highly politicised approach to cross-Border co-operation. Areas such as extradition and direct contact between the Irish security forces and the British army in areas such as South Armagh, both of which could have contributed significantly to curbing the IRA, were effectively no-go areas throughout the Troubles .
Co-operation on the ground in Border areas was often good but was often reliant on the personalities of individual policemen and what was perceived to be the attitude of Minister of Justice and government of the day.
The role of the Irish State during the Troubles is more than an idée fixe of unionists, it is a question of major historical importance with a central bearing on any process of dealing with the past. While the Saville Tribunal’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday cannot act as a template for any broader mechanism for dealing with the past, it did demonstrate the immense value of a state making the vast majority of its records open for scrutiny.
To build on Eamon Gilmore’s speech, the Irish Government should consider opening the State archives on these contentious issues in as comprehensive a manner as Saville. This would not end the battle over history in Northern Ireland but it would at least cut down on the amount of permissible lies about the past.
Prof Henry Patterson is a professor of politics in the University of Ulster and recently published Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles.
( Palgrave-Macmillan 2013)