Terrorists or guerrillas? Until their 1994 cease-fire, was the IRA fighting against British colonial forces to unite Ireland? Or were they waging a sectarian battle against a Protestant majority on behalf of a Catholic minority?
None of these characterizations satisfies Richard English, a professor of politics at Queen's University, Belfast. In his new book, "Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA," he writes, "I am in the end not really persuaded by the IRA's argument that their violence was necessary or beneficial. But neither am I satisfied with a depiction of the IRA which casually or myopically condemns them."
During the course of "Armed Struggle," English asks a series of questions that go to the heart of the IRA's ideology - and attempts to answer them as rationally and scientifically as possible.
Central among those questions is whether the IRA campaign worked against a united Ireland by alienating pro-British Protestants into intensifying their commitment to continued union with London. English concludes that it probably did.
As the sharpest minds in the US struggle to understand their enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, this book contains essential lessons for anyone concerned with responding to politically motivated violence.
One inescapable lesson from this forensic analysis of a battle which killed over 3,000 people is that the British government made appalling errors in its response to the burgeoning tragedy in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. English, while he preserves a strict neutrality on many other issues, is clear about this. Time and time again, British state action intended to deal with subversion backfired, he writes. By refusing to compromise with a group of 1981 hunger strikers, 10 of whom starved to death, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "helped unwittingly to inject life into the Irish republican struggle."
It rebounded on the British government, "providing a larger reservoir of [IRA] recruits than would have been the case but for probably ill-advised and avoidable choices."
Along the way, he never loses sight of the IRA's victims, whose personal tragedies and agonies punctuate the narrative. He points out that the IRA killed nearly half (48.5 percent) of those lost over 30 years of "troubles."
The first section of the book deals with the IRA's history: from the Easter Rising of 1916, through the War of Independence, to the treaty that partitioned Ireland into two parts, and the civil war that followed.
The next three sections bring that history up to date with an analysis of how the present violence began, the creation of the modern IRA, the 1981 hunger strikes that led to increasing focus on political agitation, and finally the peace process.
For anyone eager to grasp how this seemingly intractable conflict developed, all of this is essential information, and leads on to the book's lengthy conclusion in which English analyzes with admirable precision the IRA's own justification for violence. He concludes, on the whole, that its arguments fail.
Throughout the book, despite the studied neutrality of his language and his horror at the violence, it becomes clear that English developed a respect for the many IRA members he interviewed.
He wouldn't be the first or last. Even the organization's most committed opponents in the British government have developed a grudging admiration for some of them. A British Army officer described Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness, once the IRA's "chief of staff," as "excellent officer material." Former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam regularly called him "Babe" in private.
Unlike many lesser books on the IRA, English rarely resorts to citing anonymous sources. The named IRA men he interviews are all key players, and his notes and references are voluminous and concise.
He is particularly illuminating about how the modern-day IRA was created from the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, and how political direction developed inside the top- security Maze jail.
One can quibble: There's not enough about pro-British loyalist paramilitaries, their alleged collusion with state forces, and whether their increasing body count in the early '90s pushed the IRA towards its cease-fire.
There's little about the campaigns by Catholic residents' groups against contentious Orange (Protestant) marches in Belfast and Portadown.
There could have been more about the peace process and the IRA's internal schisms as the rank and file "volunteers" realized their Holy Grail was further away than they thought.
And finally, few Catholics in Northern Ireland would agree with the claim English quotes, uncritically, that the old police service, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (97 percent of whom were drawn from the Protestant community), "saw themselves in a depoliticized way," just doing their daily job.
But one doesn't want to carp. This is, without doubt, a book that combines a readable, comprehensive, and neutral history of the IRA with a muscular and unflinching analysis of its actions and its attempts at self- justification.
• Anne Cadwallader is a journalist in Belfast.