Belfast Telegraph

Why Colonel Gaddafi's Semtex is a warning from history

Libyan shipments coincided with IRA realisation that 'long war' was unwinnable, but stocks of explosives remain in dissident hands, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Colonel Gaddafi did not get the war he wanted in Ireland. He probably thought he was equipping a small army that was able and willing to launch something like a Vietnam-style Tet Offensive. And there were those in the IRA in the mid-1980s who enthused about the escalation that the imported arms enabled.

But that wasn't to follow. The IRA leadership was committed to keeping the organisation small. Gaddafi had given them enough Kalashnikovs for 1,000 fighters and perhaps had visions of companies of soldiers stomping across the bog to seize Derry or Enniskillen.

The IRA had no intention of fighting such a war, however much some of the volunteers relished the prospect. In fact, the big Libyan shipments arrived at precisely the time at which the IRA was shifting towards an enhanced political effort.

There would be moments when their operations would look like standard guerrilla warfare, as in the failed ambush on a police station at Loughgall in 1987, when eight men were gunned down by the SAS.

But the project in hand was not war, at least not war in the sense of pitting the strength and cunning of one army against the resources of another. It was what Gerry Adams called "armed propaganda".

The IRA had no hope of defeating Britain. Some of its leaders were realistic enough to see that and preferred to make an impact on the headlines through spectaculars - missiles fired at Downing Street, or breaking all the windows in a skyscraper.

As for military engagement on the ground, there was a preference for soft targets: buses carrying soldiers returning from leave, or workmen.

Today, former paramilitaries like to be referred to as former combatants, but it must have sickened Gaddafi, after his huge investment, to see that combat was the last thing this wee army had a taste for.

And there was sense in that approach, for an IRA that had sought to grab territory and fight pitched battles would have been quickly eradicated.

Some of Gaddafi's Kalashnikovs were used in a promotional video to attract funding from the US.

That video had to be remade with Armalites after American friends pointed out that "Commie guns" would not draw big donations.

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The Provos split in Long Kesh after the Loughgall fiasco. A breakaway group called itself the League of Communist Republicans (LCR) and argued that the military approach of favouring spectaculars over combat was squandering lives for no better purpose than to make headlines. The leader of the LCR was Tommy McKearney, a brother of one of those killed in Loughgall.

McKearney argued that the IRA should move away from the strategy of armed propaganda and fight a proper war, or admit that it could not fight such a war and end the armed struggle. Thirty men in Long Kesh were moved out of the Provo wings into their own area after endorsing this argument.

The so called 'Freedom Struggle' would continue to be a propaganda endeavour advanced through murder and sabotage, against the advice and urgings of McKearney and those who followed him.

McKearney was not a lightweight, ceasefire soldier. He had been a member of the 12-man IRA executive in the 1970s and had participated in the 1980 hunger strike. He was a top Provo from a family that had paid its dues in blood sacrifice. The fact that he could see clearly the flaws in the IRA campaign only entitled him to being ostracised.

Gaddafi, of course, was a fool if he thought the IRA was a guerrilla army. When he led his own coup, he did so as an army officer with the military resources of the Libyan state behind him. He had been fomenting revolution in other African countries, arming guerrilla outfits that had the manpower and the thrust to topple a government.

The IRA was not that kind of movement, organising and training in the countryside until it was big enough to take the capital. It did not aspire to forming a government of Ireland and ruling.

There had been a time when it had dreamed that it could expel the British Army, but the premise of that strategy was that the British hadn't the stomach for losing more than a few dozen soldiers.

The republican political analysis then assumed that the British had no real need to be here and that, when they pulled down the shutter, the unionists would wise up to their having been Irish all along.

I worked for a time in Libya as an English teacher, and an officer once asked me what kept Britain in Ireland. What were our natural resources? "Potatoes," I said.

"There must be something that keeps them there." I said I thought they would go in the morning if they could, but then there would be a civil war and they would have to come back to help sort it out.

The IRA had been through this reasoning themselves in Long Kesh, where they had trained for the battles that would follow British withdrawal. It sank in with some that they could only make things worse if they didn't manage the IRA campaign as one of slow attrition, effectively more protest than combat.

Tommy McKearney, during the blanket protest, led discussions on how the IRA might bring about the socialist revolution and confronted them with the reality that, once the Brits had gone, it would be for the Irish people themselves to decide how they wanted to run the country and they might not want socialism after all.

Gaddafi rearmed the IRA for a proper guerrilla war at the same time that Adams secured IRA support for Sinn Fein entering the Dail. The endorsement of the electoral strategy was accompanied by a promise of escalation that never really came.

For a while, the Provos indulged the fantasy that armed propaganda and electioneering could work side-by-side, augment each other. The were soon to find out that voters didn't like violence.

Decades later, much of that Libyan Semtex is still available to purist republicans who still haven't seen sense. Theirs is also just a propaganda war, the politics of gesture, indeed not even that.

They seek to keep the campaign just ticking over in the hopes of another generation finding the energy and wrath to drive an escalation into war.

That idea was tested to destruction in the early 1970s. The tragedy is that there is sometimes an idiot like Gaddafi, or some of those American funders, who think that an army of Irish rebels might still one day sweep out of the hills and across the bog to plant the Tricolour on Stormont.

Thinking republicans worked out a long time ago that there might yet be an easier way to do that.

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