The 1970s witnessed a rise of insurgent groups ranging from anarchists to reformists to preservationists. The insurgencies waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA, including the Provisionals) and the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) emerged as parallel struggles alike in their secessionist, ethno-national, anti-imperial armed struggles. So it is imperative to ask why – from two insurgencies so similar in context – one reached a renowned peace process with substantial political gains while the other faded into submission. Inability to maintain popular support stymied the FLNC insurgency and precipitated its failure to achieve its long-term goals; through comparison the IRA, it becomes clear that the FLNC eroded public support through mishandling of propaganda and overreliance on terrorism.
Members of both the IRA and the FLNC participated in prison hunger strikes during 1981 in order to gain “political prisoner” status that would further legitimize their struggle for independence. While the IRA realized relative and objective success, the FLNC mangled a crucial opportunity to gain public support for their cause. After two months of starvation, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, the charismatic leader of the IRA hunger strike died in prison. Throughout his and his inmates’ suffering, the IRA and its political counterpart, Sinn Féin, capitalized on the opportunity to bolster support. They directed massive media campaigns to appeal to Irish sympathizers, those believing in nonviolence, and international audiences. When Bobby Sands was elected MP from behind bars, Sinn Féin realized it had gained the legitimate power of the vote. Most importantly, the IRA and Sinn Féin harnessed the feelings of the masses – rage and powerlessness, especially regarding the deaths of young IRA volunteers – and transformed passive supporters into active ones: after Bobby’s death, the IRA experienced a momentous surge in recruitment. The propaganda campaign tied to the hunger strike provided the Irish public with a sense of personal self-determination and agency, thereby reinforcing the ideology of the struggle for independence within a critical mass of people.
In contrast with the IRA’s tactical propaganda for public support, FLNC members disaffected the Corsican people by executing a weak hunger strike followed by domestic terrorist attacks. In November 1980, after only a few weeks, FLNC members ended their hunger strike prematurely and thus forfeited their ability to negotiate terms of “political prisoner” status. Even though the strike had been briefly accompanied by a poster campaign and fundraising attempts, the decision to end the hunger strike damaged the FLNC’s credibility and undermined faith in their political endurance. Perhaps this slump in public support prompted the FLNC to overcompensate with large-scale acts of terrorism against police forces to try to regain public confidence in their ability to lead an insurgency. Unfortunately for them, the insecurity generated from their attacks alienated passive supporters who may have been swayed by a more successful, nonviolent hunger strike.
Though terrorism often provides a powerful tool to gain public support for insurgency, its overuse by the FLNC revealed deviation from the ideology of self-determination that once fueled public support for the movement (O’Neill 2005, 103). Over the course of its nearly 40-year armed struggle, the FLCN executed 10,000 violent attacks including bombings, assassinations, and mass shootings. At first, the attacks demonstrated capability to defeat France’s colonial influence; but over time, the connection between local bombings and independence failed to resonate with the people. Much of the public’s grievances were economic, so the bombings of community commercial properties and those “totally unconnected to political consideration” aggravated tensions between FLCN members and the public (Ramsay 1983, 173). Moreover, leaders of the FLCN “did not elaborate on their earlier policy of demanding self-determination and independence” while carrying out these attacks. In summary, the FLCN undervalued public opinion and demonstrated their diminishing commitment to the ideology of independence and therefore to the people. These mistakes cost them a critical mass of support and jeopardized the movement itself.
Unlike the FLNC, the IRA emphasized fierce commitment to their ideology of self-determination for the Irish people in connection with their acts of terrorism. The IRA ‘Green Book,’ emphasizes that each operation “enhances rather alienates [IRA] supporters,” and that “for all our actions… [IRA volunteers] must explain by whatever means… why [they] bomb.” This portrayal of accountability to the people proved an effective method of reinforcing public support. In addition to building solidarity with the people, the IRA paired their terrorism with defensive propaganda designed to preemptively justify the deaths of anyone against the cause (Gross 2015, 221). Through the pairing of ideology and terrorist acts, the IRA insulated their campaign from loss of public support.
Sinn Féin and the IRA succeeded by prioritizing public support and exercising mastery of propaganda. In contrast, the FLNC lost the war of ideology as it lost the critical support of the Corsican people. When the Irish people demanded peace after years of terror, Sinn Féin responded with nonviolent peace talks. While divergent from their original long-term goal of a unified Ireland, Sinn Féin and the IRA achieved political representation in the North: perhaps their most notable achievement was to recognize that self-determination in a globalized world cannot and will not resemble traditional nation-state politics. In contrast, when the Corsican people demanded peace, the FLNC clung to its counterproductive strategy of terrorism at the expense of public support: their struggle faded in the hearts and minds of the people and concluded with a voluntary surrender, a failure to achieve independence.