Oct 11th, 2021, 03:50 PM

The TikTok Resurgence of the Irish Republican Army

By Logan O'Rourke
Image credit: TikTok/@balaclavanator
More than twenty years after the end of the Troubles in Ireland, the IRA has become a meme for Gen Z TikTokers.

On the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s death, a TikTok appeared on my “for you” page. “Happy Maggie d3ath day,” the person recording the TikTok wrote, as she moved out of frame. She spelled “death” like “d3ath” to avoid being taken down by the TikTok algorithm, showing that users know how to subvert it to post their content.

Behind her, using the green screen effect, was a tweet from Harry Styles. "RIP Baronness Thatcher .x," the singer wrote. The top-rated reply to that tweet read: "Niall should petrol bomb you." The joke was that the only Irish member of the former UK boy-band One Direction, Niall Horan, should put a bomb in Harry Styles’ car for honoring former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher following her death in 2013.

Photo by TikTok /@babyphrog

The Irish — particularly the Northern, Catholic Irish — have reason for disdaining the Iron Lady. Under her rule, the Force Research Unit (FRU) was established within the British Army Intelligence Corps. This was a covert military intelligence operation that colluded with paramilitary operations in Northern Ireland. One of the agents in this group, loyalist Brian Nelson, negotiated a deal in South Africa that allowed other loyalist groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) to acquire AK-47s that resulted in the deaths of over two-hundred. Additionally, Thatcher's response to the hunger strikes of 1981 and the death of the IRA's elected-while-in-prison MP Bobby Sands further divided the country (even the United States government released a statement of “deep regret” over his death). 

As a veteran One Direction fan who remembered that tweet being posted, I liked the TikTok. After that, my algorithm was set. More and more TikToks using the audio clip from the Irish-rebel song “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” and #irishrepublicanarmy tags have appeared on my page. The song title refers to the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, a police unit established by Winston Churchill after the First World War to stop a growing republican movement in Ireland.

The mocking tone of the lyrics (“Oh, come out ye’ black and tans, come out and fight me like a man, show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders, tell her how the IRA made you run like hell away, from the green and lovely lanes of Killashandra”) has been used to the comedic advantage of many Gen Zers to express their feelings about not only British government officials, but about people around the world who they feel the Irish Republican cause resonates with. 

Photo by TikTok/@conoreiffe

One of TikToks on my page showed a news story that discussed how British travel would be banned to Ireland for 48 hours because of COVID-19. “Only took us 800 years,” the TikTok user @ah_cormac wrote, nodding along to The Wolfe Tones’ song. Another was a video of a user @balaclavanator in — surprise! — a balaclava, a ski-mask worn by not only the IRA but other paramilitaries worldwide, with the caption “how American Catholics see the devil,” then it cuts to a picture of Margaret Thatcher with the words “how Irish Catholics see the devil”. The video is tagged with #irishrepublicanarmy. 

While stalking the hashtag, I found many other TikToks posted by younger users before the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, some of them American. These American Gen Zers were born after the end of the Troubles, and have presumably never lived in a city like Belfast where neighborhoods are segregated between Catholics and Protestants. Regardless, the sentiment in these TikToks was that they were Republicans. Not MAGA Republicans, but Irish Republicans. 

Photo by TikTok/@allemand.kyle

Out of curiosity, I have searched the tags #ulsterdefenceassociation, #ulstervolunteerforce, and #redrighthand. The previous two have been used to categorize a few TikToks, but none of the ones I found used trends on the app to their advantage to get more views.

#Redrighthand is a reference to the Red Right Hand Commando (RHC), a paramilitary organization closely linked to the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. The hashtag has primarily been used by fans of the UK show Peaky Blinders, for which the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song of the same name is the theme. Loyalist TikTokers could be utilizing the hashtag or the song to promote their cause, but if they are, they are not nearly as popular or used as frequently as the “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” audio or other IRA hashtags, such as #irishrepublican or #eire (Irish for Ireland). 

President Biden, who himself is of Irish descent, was used in a few of the videos that I came across. In one of them, a reporter from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) asked him a question, to which Biden replied with a smile: “The BBC? I’m Irish.” The TikTok then cuts to the original poster, who asks, “We’re going to go back to war with England again, aren’t we?”

Photo by TikTok/@melissafairlady

On St. Patrick’s Day of this year, Biden held a virtual meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin, where he recommitted the United States to the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement is between the governments of Britain and Ireland, and it stated that should Northern Ireland hold a referendum to leave the United Kingdom and it passes with a majority, they may do so, and helped with trade between the two countries.

Before the Good Friday Agreement, there were border posts between the two countries where violence could occur more frequently. Since Brexit, however, tensions over the border between Ireland and the North have escalated. Biden’s pride in his Irish ancestry has made many think that he will not support British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Brexit, which so far appears to be what is happening

TikTokers using the “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” audio to post videos about current issues and criticize public figures has not only been directed at the UK. Some of the videos were used with the hashtag #MitchMcConnell, who at the time of the video’s posting, was the Senate Majority Leader. McConnell is a Republican who often sided with President Donald Trump during his tenure; the TikTok’s caption is “yeah I’m talking to you [M]itch McConnell”, with a screen-recording of their Amazon cart filled with an Irish flag and a balaclava. The video is referencing his blocking of $2,000 stimulus checks to American citizens because of the coronavirus pandemic at the end of December 2020. 

Another video posted by an American Gen Zer utilizing IRA TikTok staples is one about billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The video also uses The Wolfe Tones’ popular song and has the creator dancing along with the words above him: “Jeff Bezos’s birthday is in a week! We should all thank him by pitching in to buy him a brand new car!”. This is another car bomb TikTok, and is captioned with #ireland, among other political tags.

Left photo by Tiktok/@space0ddities; Right photo by TikTok/@thecommunard 

Political and socioeconomic troubles building over the past few years have led to a resurgence of these videos, and more and more users have posted in solidarity with the Irish Republican Army and other causes they feel for, such as those in Palestine

American TikTokers appear to have taken advantage of IRA symbols and songs to express their discontent with the political system in the United States. Events in the past year have left 64% of young Americans more fearful than hopeful of the future of their democracy; a new form of protest is that of the TikTok, and by making funny videos using established rebellion tactics that the IRA used, young Americans are letting how they feel toward political and corporate elites known without blowing up cars.