The recent release of the film 66 Days about the hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands in 1981 has attracted considerable publicity. One of the notable things about the commentary around the film is the received wisdom that the 1981 hunger strike set the IRA on the road to politicisation (or words to that effect). Yet repeatedly, in the period from 1922 to the 1960s, the IRA had participated in a variety of political projects. The 1980-81 hunger strike and the blanket protest that began with Kieran Nugent in 1976 started barely twelve years after Billy McMillen, then Belfast Battalion O/C, stood in West Belfast in the 1964 general election (the ‘Tricolour Riots’).
Political projects supported by the IRA didn’t usually extend to officially supporting candidates in elections to either local authorities or the northern parliament. Yet, paradoxically, the IRA usually stood candidates in elections to the Westminster parliament (which it explicitly wasn’t going to attend). After 1981, the IRA extended the range of elections in which it participated and ultimately loosened its abstentionist policy, however, the impetus was no different to previous initiatives where the concern within the IRA was that political gains would be made by others attempting to cash in on momentum achieved by what it saw as the sacrifices made by IRA volunteers.
In 1933, in the aftermath of the Outdoor Relief and rail strikes of 1932-33, the IRA had supported four candidates in the general election to the northern parliament. Again, in the aftermath of the violence of 1935, the IRA stood (among others) a Belfast Battalion staff officer, Charlie Leddy, in the Westminster election that November (while Leddy was imprisoned in Arbour Hill in Dublin). Leddy polled more than 20,000 votes in West Belfast but still lost to his unionist opponent. Leddy’s Director of Elections was the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, while in 1933 it had been the Belfast O/C Davy Matthews. Prior to 1933, while officially supporting IRA initiatives like Saor Éire and Comhairle na Poblachta, the IRA didn’t stand a candidate in Belfast after the 1924 election (when Hugh Corvin and Paddy Nash stood in Belfast).
The departure of serial political intriguers like Sean McBride from the Army Councill and GHQ in the late 1930s, coincided with both the expansion of the Belfast IRA and a disengagement from electoral politics. During this same period, in 1936 and the mid-1940s, the Belfast IRA absorbed key lessons in the interaction of publicity and prison protests such as hunger strike. These lessons were to be applied with increasing effectiveness from 1972 onwards, with 1940s prisoners like Billy McKee and Joe Cahill now in senior command positions within the IRA. Again, by the late 1940s, perceiving advances being made by various left and ‘republican’ candidates, the IRA co-operated with Sinn Féin in contesting (and outside Belfast), winning electoral contests. During this period, the Anti-Partition League (to some extent a McBride vehicle), the Nationalists (loosely aligned with Fianna Fáil) and a variety of left republicans created a series of dynamics that gave added imperative for the IRA to support candidates in elections. Senior IRA figures, like Jimmy Steele, Frank McGlade and Billy McMillen, continued to be put forward as candidates in Belfast.
Although candidates were stood in Westminster elections up to 1964, no real inroads were made in Belfast. Again, little has been made of the limited military capacity developed by the Belfast Battalion in this period particularly given it’s apparent indifference to the 1956-62 ‘Border’ campaign. Arguably, the Belfast IRA, through a focus on publicity and some limited electoral activity, was beginning to explore political alternatives in the 1950s and 1960s. Mostly, conventional histories view IRA strategy through the prism of its Dublin-based leadership. A recurring friction, though, is almost always evident in the relationship between the Belfast IRA and Dublin throughout this period. The failure of this dynamic was probably more important in 1969 than any dispute over politicisation, militarisation or a leftward trend in IRA strategy and policy. No candidate was put forward in 1966 or 1970, while Albert Price and John Brady (Republican Clubs) stood in 1974. While the Republican Clubs continued to run candidates, the IRA did not support candidates again in Belfast until the 1982 Assembly election.
By the late 1970s many influential voices within the IRA and wider republican community would have been keenly aware of lessons learnt about politicisation, publicity and prison protests in the previous decades. Subsequently the role this learning played in the development of strategy in 1981 seems to have been forgotten or overlooked.