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'Progress will not occur if we continually adopt positions of principle': Irish republican prisoners and strategic reorientation, c.1976-1998

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Jack Hepworth



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Examining the writings of more than 150 IRA prisoners, this article explains why a majority of jailed republicans supported the movement’s strategic reorientation between the anti-criminalisation protests of the late 1970s and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. First, it argues, experiences of prison protests, culminating in the hunger strike of 1981, inclined prisoners to endorse electoral interventions to counter their isolation. Sinn Féin’s subsequent successes impelled prisoners to back electoralism more constructively, envisioning an all-Ireland ‘pan-nationalist’ front. By the end of the 1980s, many republican prisoners regarded tactical eclecticism as vital for their campaign’s advance.Second, the article contends, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, prisoners pragmatically approved new methods as open-ended experiments. Electoralism, pan-nationalism, and, in the 1990s, peace talks were supposed to aggregate and strengthen the struggle. Tactics were dispensable, and worthwhile only insofar as they enhanced the perceived prospects of victory. By the Good Friday Agreement, prisoners espousing a transitional, constitutional route to Irish unification regarded even the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ as suspensible. Woven through prisoners’ voluminous acclaim for tactical adaptability, traditions of intra-movement discipline and unity cohered the bulk of the IRA’s prison population.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hepworth J

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Irish Political Studies

Year: 2023

Volume: 38

Issue: 2

Pages: 161-188

Print publication date: 12/05/2023

Online publication date: 12/05/2023

Acceptance date: 12/05/2023

Date deposited: 15/03/2024

ISSN (print): 0790-7184

ISSN (electronic): 1743-9078

Publisher: Taylor & Francis


DOI: 10.1080/07907184.2022.2074978

ePrints DOI: 10.57711/v8sk-vm04


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