Interesting strategic and political critique of the Border Campaign and its influence on events of the 60's.
See also here: http://laochrauladh.blogspot.com/2014/02/after-62-preparing-for-next-one.html
"The 1956-1962 Campaign...Can We Learn a Lesson From What Went Wrong?"
From An Eochair, 1977*
The republican movement, as it reached the initial stages of the present troubles, had in a decade of political development removed itself light years from half a century of stagnation which cost so much but achieved so little.
Only those who can identify revolutionary struggle understand the great progress made inside our Movement; of course there have been those who do not understand and have consequently fallen by the wayside. One may ask what prompted this new development inside our movement. To help answer this question, the period prior to. It must be examined; this period is popularly known as the '56 IRA campaign, which ended discouragingly in 1961.
When the IRA struck at targets in the Six counties on the night of 12th December 1956,the attack caught the security forces by surprise. At that time, these forces comprised the British Army, RUC, B. Specials; later a terror type force known as the Police Commandos were organized for special anti-guerrilla operations. But at the beginning of the campaign, the IRA was so underground and secretive that little of its plans were known to its enemies.
However the stance of the IRA in relation of the people left it at a grave disadvantage; even though it had the advantage initially of being strong security wise. While some of the population knew that IRA men existed among them, and some of them gave sympathy, nobody knew anything else of the IRA except that it proposed to unite Ireland by force. It was in isolation from the masses, its role causing it to appear as a sinister, dark, and secretive force that made people shy away from it because it did not seem part of the people and its objectives did not relate to everyday life; freeing Ireland was seen just as a dream, a sort of fantasy, pursued by a lunatic fringe.
The famous quotation that a guerrilla should move among its people like a fish in the water was a revolutionary sense of the freedom fighter's role; but unfortunately the IRA of the 50's was not a real revolutionary movement for it had no real base among the people outside of fringe emotional support. The IRA guerrilla was often then more akin to a fish in a desert. Generally strategy was hopeless and political policy almost non. It was not a people's struggle.
The campaign was more a premature adventure than anything else, discounting the idealism involved. Premature because of a competitive republican organization named Saor Uladh which had a political wing, Fianna Uladh. Organized in the early fifties and with strongholds established in Mid-Tyrone and in a few other areas, Fianna Uladh won two seats in a Storemont parliamentary election. Sinn Fein would not contest such elections because candidates were requested to sign an undertaking that, if elected, they would take their seats. Since it was not the question of an oath, the candidates of the slightly more radical Fianna Uladh signed the undertaking to enable them to contest, but still did not take their seats in Storemont because of the oath to the queen. Fianna Uladh was pushing a more progressive political policy establishing co-opts. And advocating other self-help projects such as Credit Unions. A bitter argument developed between the two republican organizations. The more politically sterile Sinn Fein/ IRA movement resorted to militant adventure to prove its superiority.
Encouraged by its support from among the people, Saor Uladh began armed action, burning and blowing up border Custom huts, futiley attacking Roslea police barracks, where they lost a volunteer, and made other attempts for arms. Its main supply of arms and funds came from the Irish exiles in the USA.
But in this period, the early 50's, the IRA did prove they were militarily superiopr. Their daring raids on Armagh, Omagh, Arbourfield, and other military establishments hit the headlines of the world news media. It takes success, even if it is based on a false premise, to bring support. As the Sinn Fein/ IRA was in the ascendant, the Fianna Uladh/ Saor Uladh star was on the wane. In the middle fifties, this situation intensified the competition between the two groups.
To sustain and improve its support, Saor Uladh began escalating its military activity hoping this would, with increasing support, become a fulll blown resistance campaign that would end British military presence in Ireland and unite it. The IRA, riding high on the crest of the wave, and enjoying an influx of young volunteers; increasing its support and funds with a considerrable quantity of arms at its disposal, though pathetically short of ammunition, brought forward the date of its intended campaign because of the increased Saor Uladh activity.
Prior to the '56 Campaign, Sinn Fein had two imprisoned IRA men elected as M.P.s in the Westminster elections, being returned in the constituencies of Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and Tyrone. Stong supporting votes were cast in other constituencies. After the start of the IRA campaign, Fianna Uladh/saor Uladh faded away.
The type of IRA guerilla campaign conducted in the '56 campaign was derived from romantic, idealistic, but mistaken concepts. 12-15 and 20 man flying columns were supposedly to find bases and increase support for their struggle. The flying column idea was a nostalgia for the successful Tom Barry Flying Column days in West Cork. In the later fifties these numbers of men, often marching across country, armed with light infantry weapons, moving mainly through darkness and storm, and ill fed and sometimes ill clothed, found their task discouragingly, especially when the greater part of the population Unionist Supporting, was hostile and the Nationalist population largely indifferent and unresponsive. Police informers found it easy to carry out their dirty work without repercussions.
The flying Columns operatinf deep inside the Six Counties were to a large degree neutralized in the early stages of the campaign. Enemy pressures restricted the column's intended role, and the capture of men and arms belong to the columns was debilitating. There were no proper bases established, first because they were not pre-planned and secondly because the people did not relate the fight to their interests. A little local sympathy here and there gave some lease of life to the IRA activity.
The campaign fared better in the border areas. Flying Columns based in Southern Ireland received to a certain extent from the authorities a blind eye, at the early stages of the campaign. A weak coalition government ruled then. In 1958 elections in the south caused a change of government, the anti-republican Fianna Fail party achieving power. Sinn Fein had 4 deputies elected. But the new government severely cracked down on the IR based along the border, redicing the border attacks on Brtish installations and ambushes. Several hundred internees were now incarcerated in the Curragh camp and there were many sentenced republican activists in Southern jails
In the North, internment was introduced by the Storemont regime after the IRA campaign began. Many republicans came before the courts and received lengthy sentences. These political prisoners, and internees also, included a few Fianna Uladh members, whose organization was now in demise but (which) still had a more progressve political outlook. Also their members could recognize courts and sign a document to obtain their release from internment. These freedoms meant the enemy. Was not able to use mere technicalities to keep people imprisoned for years. Sinn Fein/ IRA was still bogged dowwn by what they called republican principles. Such things as abstentiionist policies, non-recognition of courts, no signing out of prisoners (were) merely tactics devised at certain stages of out historical freedom struggle and had nothing whatsoever to do with principles.
Political activity by Republican membership had been mostly confined to selling the movement's paper, The United Irishman, and some electoral work. The movement, sterile of progressive and radical policies, was doomed to another failure...It was straitjacketed in tradition without wisdom. The dying martyr or the folk hero gunman ideas had no relation to the realities of our age; yet the realities existed without being recognized for there was no concept of our people's historic role, the social inequalities, the true nature of oppression and freedom, these the lessons of history could only point the way forward.
The '56 IRA campaign frittered out and died a natural death. All over the north, as soon as a few local activists or leades were arrested, military style action died out. Activity lingered a little longer in the border areas, while this was sporadic and futile, and of such small value, it did serve to prolong internment and the incarceration of prisoners.
Eventually the IRA leadership issued an order suspending hostilities. The release of internees began; they were all released by the end of 1969. In 1964 the last of the sentenced men were all released. Many of these sentenced men were not compelled to end their sentences.
As the men released from prison drifted disconsolately back into a society little changed since they left it, certainhome truths stuck them; local organization had collapsed; the sympathetic fringe in the people were demoralized and frustrated, although no more so than the returning prisoners. Unionism and its institutions were never stronger, especially in its armed wings the B specials and the RUC, and so in turn British imperialism was never better consolidated; sectarianism was always its main prop. The bazeless threat of the '56 campaign helped this consolidation. Never again will such an episode occur, determined the faithful few who assessed what had taken place; they turned their minds toward the future. Most certainly new thinking was needed.
And so the true terms of revolution were examined and consequently political education was established. Reorganized cadre had difficulty grasping the correct revolutionary line; they still thought in "traditional" terms and did not realize an alternative was open to them. However, there were those who did understand and through their work a new awareness developed.
As political education increased the new awareness among the Movement members, in turn, created new directions of activity; the role of the gun was seen in a different context, it was no longer the tool of nationalist reaction but seen as the means of protecting the working class and what belonged to them. At least it was seen that the economic factor determined all politics and the people's very existence. Political organizations like the Republican Clubs and social justice rights organizations like the Civil Rights movement sprang up. The struggle for democracy, which embraces true freedom, was on, and our movement today forges ahead on the correct path.
But the important thing to remember is that this progress was determined by the lessons of history along which the '56 campaign has a worthwhile place.
*- An Eochair ("The key") was a newspaper published by the Official Republican Movement for a few years in the mid 70's and focused on their POWs. Content (usually written by the prisoners) included poems and satirical stories about prison life, appeals for books, parcel guidelines, ads for POW crafts, messages to families and friends, tributes, and articles on political theory and the movement's positions on events on the outside in Ireland and abroad. (The editor, Tommy "Janty" Johnson, died in February 2015.) It ended around 1979-1980, though the name is now used as the title of the OIRA ex-pows group.