The IRA in Adulthood: Do Political Movements Grow Up?

I’m a sucker for movies about politics. Reds, Julia, and All the President’s Men count among my favorites.

So it was with a great anticipation that I rented Steve McQueen’s movie Hunger this past weekend. The movie is about the Irish Republican Army’s hunger strike in a Belfast prison in 1981, famously led by Bobby Sands.

I was not disappointed. It’s a harrowing, visually compelling film that got me thinking (again) about The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

But the movie also got me thinking about the life cycle of political movements. In the movie’s most famous scene (and I spoil nothing here), Sands squares off against a priest over the best way to advance the Irish Republican cause. Sands claims that his suicide (he calls it murder) is warranted because he believes in his cause even more than he believes in his own life. The priest, in contrast, doesn’t see why you’d kill off vital young members of a political movement in order to secure the movement’s future. Rather, he argues, the future lies in negotiation.

Fast forward 28 years or so and the priest’s view seems to have won out. While there is still plenty to worry about in Northern Ireland (including sporadic killings), the IRA leadership has put down its guns and embraced a power-sharing agreement with its former Protestant enemies. (For a quick primer on the peace process, look here.)

It’s the same story (with a different political context) that Philip Gourevitch tells in last week’s New Yorker about Rwanda. Only 15 years ago, there was a full-scale genocide taking place in Rwanda. Today, former enemies live together relatively peacefully.

So I’ve been wondering whether political movements like the IRA undergo a life cycle which is very similar to our own. They begin with a violent infancy (assassinations, protests, hunger strikes etc.), move into the fits of adolescence (oscillating between cease fires and renewed violence), and then land, finally, in an adulthood marked by realism and negotiation.

I have no idea whether this is a fair assessment of violent political movements and will leave that to the sociologists and political scientists to sort out. But I’m always pleased when something forces me to think about adulthood in an entirely new way.


If, like me, you have a quiet obsession with The Troubles, I’d highly recommend a small but powerful film that flew a bit under the radar screen called Nothing Personal.

Image: Irish Republican Army by Sherber711 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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