On Halloween night 1992 the Provisional IRA launched a city-wide purge of the leadership of the breakaway Irish People’s Liberation Organization and it had huge implications for the peace process.
The Night of the Long Knives is a phrase most commonly associated with the Nazis’ infamous purge in June and July 1934, an event that saw Nazi associates kill numerous rivals across Germany and marked Adolf Hitler’s final consolidation of authoritarian power.
In Belfast, a lesser-known event (but one with outsized importance) received the same name: On Halloween Night 1992, the Provisional IRA launched a city-wide purge of the leadership of the breakaway Irish People’s Liberation Organization (IPLO). The event passed with little attention in contemporary media, but it had huge implications for the burgeoning peace process that followed.
By the early 1990s, Sinn Fein had established itself as a legitimate political actor. It regularly secured between 10 and 15 percent of the popular vote in elections, and the leadership was devoting a growing portion of funds to contesting parliamentary seats. The balance of power within the movement was steadily shifting from paramilitary violence to constitutional politics.
As this occurred, Sinn Fein leaders were conducting high-level meetings with senior officials in both the Irish and British governments in the hopes of reaching a political settlement. It appeared that the republican leadership was serious about ending the conflict, but by 1992 progress on negotiation had mostly stalled.
On the paramilitary side, the Provisional IRA had long established itself as the predominant armed republican group in Northern Ireland. The rival Official IRA had been on ceasefire for almost two decades, and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)—the only other group with any significant paramilitary capabilities—had largely ground its campaign down.
The only threat to its power was the Irish People’s Liberation Organization (IPLO).
The IPLO was formed in 1987 after a small group of activists led by Jimmy Brown defected from the INLA. Like its parent organization, the IPLO adopted a revolutionary socialist outlook on the national question, and its primary political objective was to establish an independent socialist republic in Ireland.
The IPLO was mostly active in the urban centers of Belfast, and for the first few years of its existence, it was engaged in vicious fratricidal feuding with the INLA.
As the peace process lurched forward, Sinn Fein’s strategy was increasingly marked by passive restraint. The IRA’s activity had been contained so as not to threaten the progress of negotiations, and public relations became a key part of the decision over whether or not to sanction violence. A botched bombing or a random killing might needlessly inflame tensions and anger rivals, scuppering talks and setting the process back.
The leadership did sanction violence, of course, but the type of mass killings and sectarian murders that characterized much of the 1970s and 1980s were strictly off-limits.
The IPLO operated under no such restrictions, and it freely conducted sectarian killings across Northern Ireland. This included the Donegall Arms shooting, in which a small IPLO unit stormed inside a Protestant pub in Belfast in December 1991 and opened fire on the patrons inside, killing 2 civilians and wounding several others.
These types of attacks provided regular reminders of the ruthlessness of militant republicanism, giving unionists the justification they needed to refuse to talk to Sinn Fein. Worse, they also raised questions about Gerry Adams’ control over the republican movement (and therefore his ability to end the violence). If he proved incapable of doing so, then negotiating with him was not worthwhile.
It was within this context that the IRA struck. It tracked down and shot the IPLO’s new leader Sammy Ward before hunting down his associates across the city. IPLO men were located in pubs and social clubs, removed outside and kneecapped, while others were dragged from their homes and forced to leave the country. Ward's successor surrendered to the IRA 2 days later.
The operation so thoroughly eliminated the IPLO that British intelligence itself found it hard to believe the IRA was capable of such a coordinated attack.
One should be cautious about ascribing deliberate calculation to this event. The IRA Army Council never cited the peace process as a justification for the attack, and Adams has always denied ever having been a member of the IRA (nevermind authorizing any of its actions).
But regardless of whether the political implications of the attack were considered, it perfectly served Sinn Fein’s broader peace strategy. The Provisional IRA had completely wiped out a rogue sectarian killer, ridding Sinn Fein of one substantial threat capable of bringing the peace process down.
As it happened, 1992 also marked the reopening of negotiations between the Irish government and Sinn Fein, and in its dual role as negotiator and interlocutor, Dublin shuttled Sinn Fein's position papers on to London while the latter still engaged Sinn Fein with a hands-off approach. The gears of dialogue churned back to life, slowly moving the ideological poles together.
It was these talks that eventually produced the Downing Street Declaration just over a year later, in December 1993. It was the first framework document that meaningfully addressed the grievances of all sides. The Downing Street Declaration’s fundamental themes led to the IRA’s ceasefire in 1994 and formed the basis of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The Night of the Long Knives is a harrowing—if little known—event in the history of the Troubles, but it served as an important link in the torturously slow process of transitioning from conflict to peace. Sinn Fein consolidated its authority over the republican movement at the critical moment, moving the peace process closer to a "point of no return" by making it significantly more difficult for rogue gunmen to act in defiance.
Of course, setbacks still occurred and the Sinn Fein leadership still had to contend with uncompromising militants in the IRA. But by this stage, the political leadership had the leverage to outmaneuver its rivals and eventually conclude a settlement that brought a more definitive resolution to the conflict.
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