A history of the Provisional Republican Movement – part one of three

by Liam O Ruairc

The troubles returned to Northern Ireland in 1968. As a result there were 18 deaths in 1969, 28 in 1970, 180 in 1971 and 496 in 1972. Central to this escalation was the growing conflict between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the British Army. When the Troubles reignited, not only was the IRA an insignificant part of the political equation, but partition was not an even issue, Catholics were demanding to be equal British citizens. But soon, it grew into a conflict not just between Republicanism and the British state, but also between Republicanism and constitutional nationalism.

The Provisional Irish Republican Movement came into being in late 1969 and early 1970, when a minority walked out of the existing Republican Movement at a specially convened Army Convention held just before Christmas 1969 and at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on 11 January 1970. The Provisionals claimed to be not a minority splinter group but the same movement formed by Arthur Griffith and subsequently abandoned by Griffith himself, Eamon de Valera, Sean MacBride, Tomas Mac Giolla who all broke the organisation’s constitutions and rules. They claimed that they hadn’t split and formed a new organization -they had kept the old one intact. For Ruairi O Bradaigh, one of the leaders of the Provisionals, “no splits or splinters – long may it remain so provided we stick to basic principles”. But when it comes to rules and principles being ignored, “the minority is going to expel the majority” as he puts it (Robert W. White, Ruairi O Bradaigh: the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006, pp293 and 151.

Due to the fact that abstentionism – refusing to take seats in partitionist assemblies – had been abandoned by a simple majority and not a two thirds one, the constitutions of both the IRA and Sinn Fein had been breached and those who walked out formed on 18 December 1969 a Provisional Caretaker Executive upholding the existing Sinn Fein and IRA constitutions (White, Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp58-59). Due to this constitutional breach, “those who accepted it would forfeit the right to describe themselves as the Irish Republican Army.” Because a full-scale Army convention had yet to formalize the new structures, the organization called itself the ‘Provisional’ Republican Movement but the name stuck well after that. Its first statement, on 28 December 1969, declared “allegiance to the Thirty-Two County Irish Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dail Eireann in 1919, overthrown by force of arms in 1922, and suppressed to this day by the British-imposed Six County and Twenty-Six County partitionist states” (Sean MacStiofain, Memoirs of Revolutionary, Edinburgh: Gordon Cremonesi, 1975, p142).

At the time, the IRA and Sinn Fein were small organisations, politically marginal. The split had been irrelevant to the majority of nationalists in Ireland. In 1969 and for much of 1970, the Republican Movement played a very peripheral role in Irish politics. It was not among the main actors (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association etc) and didn’t influence political events. The border was not even an issue. The reasons for which a minority broke away from the old ‘Official’ leadership were: “(i) Recognition of Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House; (ii) Extreme socialism leading to dictatorship; (iii) Internal methods being used in the movement; (iv) Failure to give maximum possible defence in Belfast and other Northern areas in August 1969; (v) Campaigning to retain Stormont instead of seeking its abolition” (Provisional IRA, Freedom Struggle, 1973, pp10-11). What were the most significant factors? The main reason for the Provisionals’ split with the Officials had been the decision to lift the ban on taking seats in Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House. Non-recognition of and abstention from participation in the partitionist parliaments of Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster were central principles for the Provisionals: “The central tension in the Republican Movement since 1921 has been whether or not the ‘Republic’ can be achieved through parliamentary politics. The issue split the movement in 1922, 1926, 1946, 1969/1970 and 1986” and the Provisionals firmly believed “that involvement in constitutional politics will divert the Irish Republican Movement into reform, not revolution.” (White, 2006, p337).

The January-February 1971 issue of the Provisionals’ paper in the north, Republican News, noted that the Officials were worse than other parties on the question of abstentionism: “It is possible that there are at least some people in Fianna Fail and the Irish Labour Party who would be opposed to sit in Westminster and Stormont.” It is often said that the main reason the Provisionals were formed was because the IRA had been unable to defend the nationalist areas when they came under attack in August 1969. For many, IRA stood then for “I Ran Away” (Patrick Bishop and Eamon Mallie, The Provisional IRA, London: Corgi Books, 1988, p118). This confuses the formation of the Provisional IRA with the fact that on 22 September 1969 the Belfast Brigade had disaffiliated from the Army Council over its failure to provide defence in August. That group subsequently rallied to the Provisional Army Council, but it was not the reason for the organization being formed. The fact that a lot of people joined for the purpose of defence after the events of August 1969 (and thus became known as “Sixty-niners” – Bishop and Mallie, p151 and Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, London: Penguin, revised and updated edition, 2007, pp80-81), or that Defenderism was their main purpose in joining should not excuse the rewriting of history and detract from the main reason of the split being abstentionism. The formation of the Provisional IRA was not primarily to do with failure to defend northern nationalist areas, it would have happened anyway, even if August 1969 had not happened (Peter Taylor, The Provos: the IRA and Sinn Fein, London: Bloomsbury, 1998, p66). When the Provisional Republican Movement was formed, the initial caretaker executive had 20 members, 18 of whom were from south of the border, as well as five of the seven Army Council members (White, 1993, p133). The North was not predominant.

There is some truth in the saying that “Out of the ashes of August 1969 arose the Provisionals” (Danny Morrison, “Taylor Made Provos”, An Phoblacht/Republican News, 25 September 1997). Abstentionism was the main reason for the formation of the Provisional IRA, but August 1969 was the central reason for its growth. The events of that month had been traumatic for the nationalist population of Belfast. The death toll from Loyalist attacks on the night of 14-15 August was six, five of them Catholics; 150 homes had been burnt out in Belfast, including the whole of Bombay Street; and hundreds were forced to flee their homes in the days after. A report furnished to the Scarman Tribunal showed that 1,820 families fled their homes in Belfast in July, August, and September 1969; 1,505 or 82.7 percent were Catholic. The report calculated that 5.3 percent of all Catholic households in the city had been displaced, compared with 0.4 percent of Protestant families (Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland: The Orange State, London: Pluto Press, pp262-263). On 23 February 1974, the Commission for Community Relations announced that from 1969 to 1973, 60,000 people had been forced to move from their homes in the six counties – this constituted the largest population exodus in Europe since the Second World War (Roger Faligot, The Kitson Experiment: Britain’s Military Strategy in Ireland, London: Zed Press, 1983, p120). Nationalists were the most affected. A whole generation of young ‘sixty-niners’ filled the ranks of the Provisional IRA as a result of this. Empirically illustrating this is the fact that by 1975, up to 70 percent of republicans who had gone through the six-county court system were under 21 years old. Furthermore, 63 percent of those imprisoned were aged between 17 and 21 (Henry McDonald, Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein dressed up defeat as victory, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2008, p26).

One other major reason for the formation of the Provos was their rejection of the civil rights strategy and the Officials’ attempts to democratise the North. “We hold it impossible to create democracy within a basically undemocratic state,” they argued (“Socialism without National Liberation is a Farce”, Republican News, 13 October 1972). Today’s Provisionals are keen to stress continuity with the civil rights struggle whereas PIRA was founded in opposition to it. It certainly wasn’t because Catholics didn’t have civil rights and suffered discrimination that the Provos were set up, however that did allow them to build a basis. The Provisionals were from the beginning in favor of forcing the suspension of Stormont as a major step towards ending the Orange state, whereas the Officials were in favor of retaining and reforming it. (Contrast Deasun Breathnach, “Why Stormont must go”, An Phoblacht , September 1970 with Anthony Coughlan, “Stormont: to abolish or not to abolish?”, United Irishman, May 1970). The Officials argued that republicans “must welcome” Loyalist resistance to the demise of Stormont (United Irishman, August 1971); the Provo attitude towards the state, whether North or South, was revolutionary. Whereas the Officials concentrated on a reformist struggle for civil rights, the Provisionals were preparing to fight a revolutionary war of national liberation for self-determination. The Provisionals were right to characterize the Officials as “Redmondites of the far left” – John Redmond being a constitutional nationalist politician (“No Surrender”, Republican News, September 1970). The Officials’ gradualist attitude, even in face of the events in the North, drove many into the ranks of the Provisionals despite their apparent conservative social attitudes. Quite a few of those who joined the Provisionals actually had a history of involvement with the far left or the student movement and saw their involvement in the IRA in continuity with the politics of 1968 (Rogelio Alonso, The IRA and Armed Struggle, London: Routledge, 2006, 34-36). And it was in the working class nationalist areas of the North that the Provisionals found their strongest base, centred on their promise of arms and militant action. By doing most of the fighting, they proved to have the most radical anti-imperialist position (see David George, “These are the Provisionals”, New Statesman, 19 November 1971 and “Left or Right?”, An Phoblacht editorial 11 January 1974).

But one should not conclude from this that the split was about armed struggle versus politics. Armed struggle still played a central role in the Officials’ strategy. In July 1971 for example, Cathal Goulding declared “it is our duty to reply in the language that brings vultures to their senses most effectively, the language of the bomb and the bullet” (United Irishman, August 1971, p12). In early 1975, there were still had almost one hundred Officials in prison, arising from their armed campaign (United Irishman, January 1975). That said, in its first public statement, issued on 28 December 1969, the Provisional Army Council had stated that the split was “the logical outcome of an obsession in recent years with parliamentary politics, with the consequent undermining of the basic military role of the Irish Republican Army. The failure to provide the maximum defence possible of our people in Belfast and other parts of the Six Counties against the forces of British Imperialism last August is ample evidence of this neglect.” Greater emphasis on the traditional military role of the IRA definitely held weight in the split.

The Provisional IRA in its early days has often been portrayed as conservative and right wing. In 1970, the first Easter message from the Provisional Army Council stated that “Irish freedom will not be won by involvement with an international movement of extreme socialism” (Provisional IRA, 1973, p13). There were pragmatic and ideological reasons for this. “Certainly as revolutionaries we were automatically anti-capitalist. But we refused to have anything to do with any communist organisation in Ireland; on the basis of their ineffectiveness, their reactionary foot-dragging on the national question and their opposition to armed struggle. We opposed the extreme socialism. . . because we believed that its aim was a Marxist dictatorship which would be no more acceptable to us than British imperialism or Free State capitalism. . . . Ours should be the democratic socialism that was preached and practiced by the men of 1916” (MacStiofain, p135; see also White, 1993, p35). Their view was clearly based on crass and ignorant anti-communist prejudices (see in particular the hysterical article, “We oppose communist dictatorship in Ireland”, Republican News, 23 June 1972, p3). Their 1971-72 program, Eire Nua (until its revision in 1979) sought “a balance between Western individualistic capitalism, with its poor and hungry amid plenty, on the right, and Eastern soviet state capitalism (or any of its variations) with its denial of freedom and human rights, on the left” (Sinn Fein, Eire Nua, Dublin: 1972).

The Provisionals’ early anti-communism should be interpreted as “not a right-wing deviation, but an attempted return to mainstream Republicanism” (Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst & Company, 2005, p36 and Pat Walsh, Irish Republicanism and Socialism: The Politics of the Republican Movement 1905 to 1994, Belfast: Athol Books, 1994, p105). There has also been considerable debate about the role of Fianna Fail in financing the Provisionals and the extent to which the former was responsible for the development of the latter (Justin O Brien, The Arms Trial, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2001). This remains highly speculative and offers a conspiratorial as distinct from a structural rationale for the formation of the Provos. The IRA “would have come into being regardless of southern backing and the importance of such backing should not be exaggerated” (Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA, London: Macmillan, 2003, p119).

Murray and Tonge conclude: “Overall, however, help for the Provisionals from Fianna Fail was extremely limited. The Irish government did discuss intervention in the North, but ruled out such a prospect on practical grounds. . . . The other forms of help from elements of Fianna Fail were financial aid and arms supply. In both these cases the amounts were small and, despite Fianna Fail’s obvious preference for. . . Provisionals, some aid also reached the Officials. . .  Aid from the South appeared to be of marginal significance in the establishment of the Provisionals. That it arrived at all indicated residual sympathy for the aims of traditional Republicanism and the plight of Northern Catholics amongst some members of Fianna Fail. . . Such support as this was of very limited value to the Provisionals, who wished for greater practical assistance” (Murray and Tonge, pp32-33).

Some of the Northerners had a pragmatic attitude: “At the time we, to be quite honest, didn’t much care whether there were strings attached to the guns or not,” declared John Kelly (J Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA, Dublin: Poolbeg, revised third edition, 1997, p370). More generally, “the Provisionals were justifiably dismissive of their portrayals by the Officials as ‘men without politics’, the ‘rosary beads brigade’, ‘tools of Fianna Fail’ or even ‘fascists’. Indeed, much of the earlier literature offered by the Provisionals was devoted to attacks upon the institutions they were alleged to support. The Catholic hierarchy was regularly condemned; there were frequent denunciations of sectarianism; Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fail government and the twenty-six county state were the target of sustained abuse and the Provisional leadership, at some length, discussed politics. … To dismiss the Provisional leadership as unthinking militarists, or as mere Catholic defenders, is inaccurate” (Murray and Tonge, p30).

It is important to stress that the Provisionals were much more than a local Irish phenomenon, they were part of the global national liberation struggles which were then in the ascendant (Mark Ryan, War and Peace in Ireland: Britain and the IRA in the New World Order, London: Pluto Press, 1994, pp24-30). It is not surprising that the European left saw Ireland as “England’s Vietnam” (Roger Faligot, La Resistance Irlandaise 1916-1976, Paris: Francois Maspero, 1977, pp9-14). Sean MacStiofain insisted that their struggle was “part of the worldwide struggle against imperialism” (MacStiofain, pp52-53) “We ask of England that which America gave to Vietnam, France to Algeria and Britain herself to her former colonies of Palestine, Cyprus and Aden. Britain gained in prestige in withdrawing from those countries; she will win universal respect by withdrawing from her first and last colony,” declared Daithi O Conaill in Belfast at Easter 1973 (Provisional IRA, 1973).

The first priority of the Provisional Republican Movement was to prepare for war. The war aims of the Republican Movement were clear. It was to get the British government to acknowledge the right of the whole people of Ireland, acting as a unit, to decide their own future; declare a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces and announce a general amnesty. (Daithi O Conaill, “Three basic war aims”, Republican News, 5 August 1978, p8). In the light of subsequent developments it is important to stress those. As an article in the paper of Republican Sinn Fein, a 1986 split from the Provos, would later note, “The success of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s lay in the fact that there was no deviation from these demands which encapsulated the Irish national demand. It was only when the Provisionals turned their backs on the demand for British withdrawal and degenerated into administrating British rule in Stormont that the struggle for Irish freedom faltered” (“O Conaill rejected Hume approach in 1972”, Saoirse, January 2001 p9).

Early in 1970, the Army Council “agreed that the most urgent priority should be area defence. All our energies would be devoted to providing material, financial and training assistance for the Northern units. The objective was to ensure that if any area where such a unit existed came under attack, whether from Loyalist extremists or British forces, that unit would now be capable of adequate defensive action. As soon as it became feasible and practical, the IRA would move from a purely defensive position into a phase of combined defense and retaliation. Should British troops ill-treat or kill civilians, counter-operations would be undertaken when the Republican units had the capability. After a sufficient period of preparation, when the movement was considered strong enough and the circumstances ripe, it would go into the third phase, launching all-out offensive action against the British occupation system. It was also agreed that selective sabotage operations would be carried out, at the discretion of the national and local leadership, in the Northern areas concerned” (MacStiofain, pp145-146). That was a coherent strategy on how to respond to events. It was premised on the inevitability of confrontations. The Army Council knew that with the marching season, sectarian clashes would be inevitable. These would provide the opportunity to demonstrate the ‘defense’ skills of the Provos. It knew that with the ‘law and order’ imperative, the British army would sooner or later confront the Catholic population, with civilians being injured or killed. The troops had not been sent in to protect Catholics; but “in aid of the civil power”.

As Caroline Kennedy-Pipe has noted, “The troops went into Ireland in 1969 against an operational background of colonial counter-insurgency. Many officers had experience of rebellion in places such as Borneo, Malaya and Kenya. A strain ran through military thinking that Northern Ireland and its people were the equivalent of the restless natives encountered in far flung places of the British Empire –a view that was reflected in the range of military techniques used by the army on the streets during the period of 1970-1971: the curfew, searches and use of special legislation were resonant of previous British campaigns in the colonies” (Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, The Origins of the Present Troubles in Northern Ireland, London: Longman, 1997).

In the circumstances of increasing Catholic hostility to the British army, a full scale offensive would then be possible after an initial period of retaliations. “That the republican movement now turned to armed resistance had nothing to do with any ingrained militarism but had everything to do with the stark realities of the situation” (Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Dingle: Brandon, 1986, p34).

Events happened as the Provisionals had foreseen them. On 27 June 1970, during troubles in Ardoyne, the IRA shot dead three loyalists. On the same day, loyalists tried to attack the Short Strand. The IRA defended the area and killed three attackers. These incidents had established its credentials as defender of the Catholic community; IRA no longer stood for ‘I Ran Away’. After Unionist outcry over those incidents, the British Army imposed a curfew on the Falls Road between 3 and 5 July 1970 and carried out systematic house to house searches for arms which many Catholics felt were badly needed for defence. The searches were often brutal and British soldiers shot five civilians dead and wounded many more. Up until then, these weapons had not been used against the British Army. The organisation would later make propaganda out of the fact that before any British soldiers died at its hands the army had already claimed the lives of a number of civilians. Those kind of incidents meant that the British army rapidly went out of favour with the nationalist population. “The experience of CS gas, riot clubs and soldierly abuse was to make the Provisionals’ argument for them and act as an effective recruiting sergeant” (Bishop and Mallie, p151). Gerry Adams would later note that the Falls curfew “made popular opposition to the British Army absolute in Belfast. . . After that recruitment to the IRA was massive” (Adams, 1986, p55). According to British army sources, following the July 1970 curfew, PIRA in Belfast grew from 100 members in May-June to over 800 in December (Jack Holland, Hope Against History: The course of conflict in Northern Ireland, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, p59).

While the IRA certainly hoped for a rupture between the British army and nationalists there is little to suggest that the organisation provoked the initial clashes with the troops (M.L.R Smith, Fighting For Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement, London and New York: Routledge, second edition, 1997, p199). The organisation was not yet ready for conflict with the British army, it was not in a position to fight due to shortage of weapons. The Provisionals were busy organising, training and arming themselves and remained in the shadows for most of 1970. It was only on 29 September 1970 that the movement was ready to announce that it was fully reorganised (Provisional IRA, 1973, p20). The first serious confrontation between the nationalist population and the British army had been during riots in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in April 1970. With rioting between nationalist youths and British troops becoming increasingly frequent after that, the army threatened to shoot dead petrol bombers. The IRA warned that if this happened, it would take retaliatory action and shoot British soldiers (Provisional IRA, p15).

The IRA soon moved from defence to retaliation. At the start of 1971, the Army Council felt sufficiently confident to authorise attacks against British troops. On 6 February 1971, the IRA killed its first British soldier. Gunner Robert Curtis, who was shot dead by a sniper in North Belfast, was the first British soldier to die on duty in Ireland since 1921, and the first of 503 British soldiers to die in the Troubles. By the middle of July 1971, 10 British soldiers had been killed since the start of the year.

To restore security, internment was introduced on 9 August 1971. Hundreds of nationalists were interned without trail. Until it was phased out in 1975, a total of 2158 orders for internment were to be signed. Many internees were arrested without any cause whatsoever and several were badly ill-treated. In 1975 the British Home Secretary was forced to admit that compensation had been paid for false arrest and for assault and battery in the case of 473 people and the British government was found guilty by the European Court of Human Rights (Kevin Kelley, The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA, London: Zed Books, 1982, p155). Internment was a political disaster: if it had any political effect it merely served to radicalise the nationalist community and enhance support for the IRA.

Not only did internment fail to break the IRA, but the Provos’ military capacity was on the increase. In 1971, killings by the IRA climbed to 86, more than four times the number in the preceding two years, while those ascribed to the British Army rose by more than six-fold to 45. In 1971, 44 British soldiers were killed, more than two thirds of them after 9 August, while IRA casualties rose three-fold to 23, all but four of whom died after internment (Moloney, p103). After internment, the IRA went on full offensive, launching urban and guerrilla warfare against security forces, institutions and infrastructure of the six counties. Between 1971 and 1972 there averaged 17 shooting incidents and 4 bombings per day (Smith, p100). There were also widespread riots, a rent and rates strike and a campaign of civil disobedience. By December 1971, 23 190 households were involved in a rent and rate strike – one quarter of all Catholic households in the Six Counties. By December 1975, 3.9 percent of Catholic households were still refusing to make their payments (Kelley, p158).

On 30 January 1972, during an anti-internment civil rights demonstration in Derry, 14 were shot dead by the British Army. This incident which became known as Bloody Sunday gave the Provisional IRA “the biggest boost in its history” (English, pp148-154). Thousands queued to join up, and the IRA was able to escalate its operational capacity.

From 1970 to 1972, the Provisional Republican Movement grew from a tiny group to a mass insurrectionary movement. “In less than three years, the Provisional Irish Republican Army developed from the 26 men who elected an Army Council into a guerrilla army with 1500-2000 soldiers” (White, p63). In 1969, at the start of the troubles in Derry, the IRA only had about 20 activists. In Derry alone it has been estimated that up to 1,000 people were imprisoned for IRA activities, which in a town of only 50,000 Catholics was strikingly high. In 1969, the Belfast IRA could mobilize less than 50 members, by the end of 1971 it had over 1200 activists in the city (Moloney, p103 and p363). The number of republicans who have passed through the Northern Ireland prison system since the Troubles resumed provides an indication of the scale of the movement. Patrick Bishop and Eamon Mallie reported that the IRA told them that between eight and ten thousand of its personnel had been imprisoned before 1987 (Bishop and Mallie, p12). By 1995, an estimated 16,000 republicans had been in jail (Kevin Toolis, Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s soul, London: Picador, 1995, p151). One reliable recent estimation is that the conflict produced 18 000 republican ex-prisoners across Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US; and 5 000 of them live in West Belfast (Jim Gibney, “Ex-prisoners should enjoy same rights as others”, The Irish News, 1 May 2008). The evidence thus “suggests that an extraordinarily high proportion of Northern Irish working-class Catholic males who matured after 1969 have been through IRA ranks” (Brendan O’Leary, “Mission Accomplished?”, Field Day Review, Issue One, 2005, p234. The organisation was the cutting edge of a mass movement, not a group of ‘individual terrorists’. The IRA’s killing rate had climbed from 18 in 1970 to 86 in 1971 and peaked in 1972 at 234. Their escalation of insurgency shaped political developments of the period. “In 1972 the IRA had enjoyed an influence on politics unparalleled for fifty years and unthinkable only three years before” (Bishop and Mallie, , p231). They famously called it “the year of victory”.

The IRA was now a central part of the political equation. The end of British rule was now on the agenda, no longer civil rights.  As Smith has noted, “In no small measure PIRA’s strategy up to early 1972 had proven highly successful. PIRA had skilfully implanted itself within the Catholic community. From there it was able to launch a military campaign that turned what had originally been a quest for protection and redress of social and economic grievances into a far wider debate concerning not just the competence of the Stormont regime, but the legitimacy of the Northern state as a whole. This was a major victory for the Provisionals” (Smith, p102).

The Provos had developed as a response to the inability of Unionism to reform itself and the failures and excesses of the British government rather than from a deeply rooted Republicanism. It was incidents like loyalist violence, army brutality internment and Bloody Sunday which drove people into the IRA. As Gerry Adams recalls: “Thousands of people who had never been republicans now gave their active support to the IRA; others who had never had anytime for physical force now accepted it as a practical necessity” (Gerry Adams, Before the Dawn, Heineman, 1996, p.142). If August 1969 and loyalist attacks “are important in explaining why Provisional Republicanism became, in sharp contrast to the militant Republicanism of 1956-1962, a mass campaign”, it can be argued that “misguided operations by the British Army between 1970 and 1972 fuelled resentment and led to the growth of the Provisionals to a greater extent than the Loyalist attacks of 1969” (Murray and Tonge, p257).

A reliable study estimated that one in four Catholic men between the ages of 16 and 44 was arrested at least once between 1972 and 1977. On average every Catholic household in the North had been searched twice during that period, but some houses in certain districts would have been searched as many as ten or more times. “It has not been simply a matter of the widespread curtailment of basic rights through the widespread abuse of the powers of stop, arrest and search, but the constant and systematic harassment of thousands of people within clearly defined areas.” As a counterinsurgency theorist admitted, this “strongly alienated” the Nationalist population and generated support for the IRA (Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Palgrave, 2001, p119). From their interviews with significant Republican activists, Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes concluded that:

“With a coercive state, British soldiers on the streets, and the pervasive fear of Loyalist intimidation, the instrumental need for defence reinforced the clarity of the Provisional Republican analysis. Republicanism corresponded to the reality facing young working class people in the Nationalist areas. It was primarily this stratum which provided the human capital for the Provisional movement, and the strategic logic was derived from the reality of repression, not the myths and mists of a Republican past. In essence the Provos came to represent the common sense of the oppressed Nationalist community, and the ashes of Bombay street were much more significant in the growth of the Provisional IRA than the faintly glowing embers of the GPO and fading memories of 1916” (Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes, eds, Republican Voices, Monaghan: Seesyu Press, 2001, pp42-43).

After Bloody Sunday, the IRA escalated its activities. By the time the IRA called a unilateral truce in March, it had claimed over 1000 operations (Provisional IRA, 1973, p53). The Provisional IRA called a three-day ceasefire in March 1972 to demonstrate to the British government “that the IRA was under effective control and discipline” and that a truce was actually possible (MacStiofain, p238). Their first success was to bring down Stormont on 24 March 1972, something that even its enemies credited PIRA with (see White, p84). According to Smith, objectively “it can be said that PIRA’s campaign pushed Stormont over the edge by highlighting its inability to cope with the deteriorating security situation or to respond to the need for substantive political reforms” (Smith, p101).

The abolition of Stormont and the introduction of direct rule from Westminster on 24 March 1972 had rectified one of the major Catholic grievances. It created a fault line within the Nationalist community in the North which would increase with time. “The imposition of direct rule presented the Provisionals with problems. A substantial part of Catholic support for the IRA was based, not primarily on hostility to the British state as such, but on hostility to Stormont as the centre of Protestant power. … When direct rule was introduced and the ‘Protestant Parliament’ was suspended, the campaign had to be sustained purely on an anti-British basis. The Catholic community was in favour of negotiations rather than a continuation of the bombings. Pressure began to be exerted upon the Provisionals to call a truce. … Direct rule even caused a temporary disorganisation in Republican ranks. Some rank and file Provisionals in the North saw direct rule as watershed and favoured a truce. Dave O Connell had to publicly deny rumours of a split in the IRA over the question of suspension of operations. … The Provisionals were obviously in a dilemma. If they called off their campaign at this point, all it would have achieved was the destruction of the Protestant Parliament. If anything, under the circumstances of direct rule, Catholics were likely to become less nationalistic in the long run” (Walsh, pp124-126). There was considerable pressure, not just from the Catholic Church and the SDLP, but deep within the Nationalist community for PIRA to call a truce. Round that time, SDLP leader John Hume tried to convince the main IRA strategist, Daithi O Conaill, of the need to join together in a constitutional political movement: “In June 1972 John Hume said to O Conaill: ‘I think it is time you (the Republican movement) cashed your cheque and took what is on offer. You know the SDLP and the best of the Republican Movement together would make an irresistible force in Irish politics.’ O Conaill rejected the offer which was the same formula which Hume offered to Gerry Adams in 1993-94 and resulted in the end of the Provisionals’ active struggle and their acceptance of British rule in the Six Counties” (Saoirse, op.cit).

The radical opposition between constitutional nationalism and republicanism and the counter-revolutionary role of political forces like the SDLP was already clear at the time. Formed in August 1970, the SDLP was a constitutional nationalist party prepared to work within the framework of the Union for the reunification of Ireland with the consent of a majority in the North and by constitutional and electoral means only. At a private meeting with the London representative in Northern Ireland on 11 April 1972, members of the SDLP were endeavouring to impress upon a British official the extent to which they were engaged “in a struggle with the IRA” and insisting that the Westminster government “should help (them) in this struggle”. That would involve the British government assisting them in the competition for Nationalist support by depriving Republican insurgents of their support (PRO, CJ 3/98, Record of a Meeting between the SDLP and UK Representative in Northern Ireland, 11 April 1972, quoted by Richard Bourke, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas, London: Pimlico, 2003, p158).

In the spring of 1972, the introduction of the Armalite rifle and the car bomb, along with landmines in rural areas, enabled the IRA to significantly increase its military capacity (Moloney, pp114-116). In June, more death and injuries were inflicted on the troops than in any previous month in the campaign (Bishop and Mallie, p220). Then, from 26 June to 9 July 1972, it called a temporary cessation and an IRA delegation comprising Sean MacStiofain, Daithi O Conaill, Seamus Twomey, Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Martin McGuiness held talks in London with representatives of the British government and Home Secretary William Whitelaw. The significance was huge: for the first time since 1921, the British government was involved in direct talks with the IRA.

As recorded in the House of Commons: “They called on the British government to recognise publicly that it is the right of the people of Ireland acting as a unit to decide the future of Ireland. They called on the British government to declare its intention to withdraw all British forces from Irish soil, such withdrawal to be completed on or before the first day of January 1975. Pending such withdrawal the British forces must be withdrawn immediately from sensitive areas. They called for a general amnesty for all political prisoners in Irish and British jails, for all internees and detainees and for all persons on the wanted list” (MacStiofain, p282).

However, the British government had no intention to concede those demands. The British used the truce to evaluate the then IRA leadership (identify and strengthen the ‘moderates’ at the expense of the ‘hardliners’), to entrap the IRA in a prolonged truce and assess the probability of a ceasefire. One thing that emerges is that already central to the British state strategy at that time was to encourage the rise of a ‘moderate’ faction within the Republican Movement that it could make a deal with. On 20 June 1972, Gerry Adams and Daithi O Conaill met Frank Steele of the MI6 and Philip Woodfield of the Northern Ireland Office.

In his report to Edward Heath’s office, Woodfield noted, “There is no doubt whatever that these two at least genuinely want a ceasefire and a permanent end to violence” and that the appearance of Ó Conaill and Adams was “respectable and respectful”. “Their response to every argument was reasonable and moderate. . . . Their behaviour and attitude appeared to bear no relation to the indiscriminate campaigns of bombing and shooting in which they have both been prominent leaders” (PRO, PREM 15/2009, Note of a Meeting with Representatives of the Provisional IRA, 21 June 1972).

Also noteworthy is this message delivered from Whitehall to the British Ambassador in Dublin in the wake of the talks with the IRA in 1972: “You should urge that the Irish government use every effort to arrest those hardliners who can think only in terms of violence. . . e.g. Stephenson, Cahill, Twomey, Meehan…by our appreciation of the personalities involved, O Connell may still have reservations about violence, and be prepared to shift to peaceful action…the hawks must be removed if the doves are to exercise their influence.” (PRO, FCO 87/2, Sir John Crawford to Sir John Peck, 13 July 1972, quoted by Bourke, p375).

There is also evidence that in the mid-1970s the British state was able to manipulate the composition of the Belfast leadership to secure the position of the more ‘moderate’ elements (Moloney, pp138-141). The attempts by the British state to build up the ‘moderates’ in the North are reminiscent of its colonial policy elsewhere. Frank Furedi’s discussion of Malaya, Kenya and British Guiana in his Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism (London: IB Taurus, 1994), for example, bears comparison with British state policy towards Northern Ireland (Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Palgrave, 2001, pp130-131). The IRA leadership understood that the longer the truce lasted, the more difficult it would be to go back to war, and this is why they brought it to an end after little more than a fortnight. “There will not be another truce until our demands have been met,” declared MacStiofain on behalf of the Army Council. “Let it be placed on record that the Army Council is determined to continue the armed struggle until total victory” (“Sean MacStiofain reads message from the Provisional Government”, Republican News, 10 November 1972).

By the end of July 1972, 95 people had been killed, the highest monthly figure recorded in the conflict (Smith, p109). On 21 July, the IRA exploded twenty-two bombs in Belfast city centre in the space of one hour. Nine civilians were killed and over 130 injured in what became known as ‘Bloody Friday’. Bloody Friday gave the British the opportunity to launch Operation Motorman and on 31 July 1972 saturated the ‘No Go’ areas with thousands of troops and set about fortifying their positions. The operation laid the basis for a huge concentration of security installations and electronic surveillance equipment in nationalist areas. This enabled them to control space and implement a strategy of containment: city centers were sealed and ghettoes were monitored constantly. The British Army used its wide powers of search, arrest and detention, searching 146 470 homes in 1973-1974 alone. This curtailed the operational capacity of PIRA. A comparison of the three weeks before and after Motorman, will indicate that statistics show a decline from 180 to 73 explosions, 2595 to 380 shootings and the number of soldiers killed from 18 to 11 (Smith, p110).

PIRA’s influence had peaked in the summer of 1972. After Operation Motorman, in which the British army brought an end to the nationalists’ barricades and no-go areas for the authorities, PIRA went into operational decline in North. “By the late summer it was clear that the Provisionals’ military ascendancy was over” (Bishop and Mallie, p233). Statistics once again confirm this. “From 1973 onwards the IRA’s military fortunes entered a long and continuous decline. Since then the numbers of deaths, bombings and shootings fell steadily. In 1972 the IRA killed 103 soldiers, 17 RUC men and police reservists and 25 members of the UDR. In 1973 the number of soldiers killed fell to 58 with 13 RUC and 8 UDR men. By the end of 1974 only 28 soldiers had died, 15 RUC and 7 UDR men, and in 1975 only 14 soldiers and 16 RUC and UDR men were killed” (Bishop and Mallie, pp246-247).

The IRA was dealt a series of crippling blows by the British security forces. “In 1972, the worst year for violence, when there had been 10 682 shooting incidents, 1382 explosions, only 531 people were charged with terrorist offences. In 1973, when there were less than half as many shootings (5018) and 978 explosions, nearly three times as many people were charged -1414. Even allowing for overlaps between an offence being committed and the perpetrator being charged, the pattern of the following years show that, although the level of violence generally declined, the risks of being caught increased dramatically. In 1974 there were 6,186 violent incidents related to the troubles and 1,362 people were charged. In 1975 there were 3,887 shootings, bombings and so on and 1,197 people were charged” (Bishop and Mallie, p320). Many experienced activists such as Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell, XXXX Convery and Brendan Hughes were arrested in 1973-74. From late 1972, south of the border, the Special Criminal Courts were also putting the movement under pressure. From May 1972 to December 1975, 685 were convicted of arms, explosives and membership of proscribed organisations offences; among them were a significant number of the Provos’ leaders like Sean MacStiofain, Joe Cahill, Martin McGuiness and Ruairi O Bradaigh.

The organisation had problems getting hold of weapons. On 28 March 1973, Irish authorities seized the ship Claudia with arms from Libya. According to Cahill, the seizure of the Claudia was “a disaster” as “at the time the sources of weapons in Ireland had dried up” and it took the IRA “a long time to get over it” (Bishop and Mallie, p246). The IRA’s support was beginning to ebb. For example, the Provos called for a boycott of the June 1973 Assembly elections. “The boycott had almost no impact in the North…And even in the Provo heartland, more people voted on 28 June than stayed at home.” (Kelley, p198). Kelley, a writer sympathetic to the Provisionals, notes: “As the failure of the Provisionals’ boycott of the Assembly elections had demonstrated, mass support for the IRA within the minority community was now at its lowest ebb since the war began” (Kelley, p199). Leading IRA strategist Daithi O Conaill, in an August 1973, interview acknowledged that the Republican Movement’s popularity had slumped significantly. “Things were not going too well for the Provos in the autumn of 1973” (Kelley, p 206). The IRA was being “consigned to the sidelines” (Bishop and Mallie, p262).

The Republican Movement was being consigned to the sidelines because the British state developed its alternative to republicanism. The British government’s political strategy was devised in 1973/1974. Its alternative to republicanism consisted in a power sharing system in the North with cross border bodies and a Council of Ireland to recognize the ‘Irish dimension’; all of this premised upon the ‘principle of consent’. This materialized in the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement. These political parameters were similar to those of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The IRA emphatically rejected out of hand the various constitutional initiatives and the 1974 Agreement, viewing them as a British attempts to marginalize Republicanism and isolate their struggle. MacStiofain wrote the editorial of An Phoblacht totally rejecting the Green Paper and calling for a boycott of the Darlington conference (MacStiofain, pp329-330). The March 1973 White Paper was immediately rejected by the IRA (see Provisionals’ reply, An Phoblacht , 30 March 1973 and also Provisional IRA, 1973 pp89-90).

For Sinn Fein president Ruairi O Bradaigh, “the Green Paper solves nothing”, “it merely seeks to perpetuate Britain’s grip on Ireland”; the White Paper was devised “to stabilise the situation and perpetuate her own control over the area”, the Sunningdale Agreement “constitutes a step backwards rather than an advance” for the liberation struggle (Ruairi O Bradaigh, Our People Our Future, Dublin: Sinn Fein, 1973, pp31-32, 43, 50-52, 59-60). The Provisionals sought to bring down Sunningdale in the same way they had brought down Stormont. Republicanism had to neutralise Sunningdale before Sunningdale neutralised it, as the proposals satisfied many nationalists. “The Republican offensive was in decline in mid-1973. . . The Provisionals were having problems. There was a good deal of support within the two communities for an internal settlement based around a power-sharing executive. … Support for the Provisionals was at its lowest point since 1969 in the Catholic community. . .The Provisionals themselves criticised the lack of support from the ghettos and said that even relatives of internees were not campaigning for their release and were ‘listening to the SDLP’. . . In late 1973/early 1974 there was a drastic fall-off in IRA activity, particularly in Catholic areas” (Walsh, pp136-137). The reaction of the Republican Movement to those political developments was more complex than usually presented. Even though Sinn Fein had been a proscribed organization in the North until 1974, O Bradaigh and O Conaill for example wanted Republicans to take part in elections to challenge the SDLP’s monopoly of political representation of northern nationalists, but this was opposed by the Northern IRA (Moloney, pp198-200). “O’Connell clearly saw the need for political involvement earlier than his colleagues” (Walsh, p137).

The Provisionals opposed the Sunningdale Agreement and when it failed to secure necessary Unionist support and was brought down by the May 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike, this was praised by the Provisionals (cfr “Tone – the navigator”, An Phoblacht, 14 June 1974, p6 where one of the UWC’s leaders, Jim Smyth, is described as being is ‘in the Wolfe Tone tradition’). There were some bizarre calls for the UDA to join forces with the IRA (see “Invitation to the UDA”, Republican News, 16 February 1973, and English, p162). Constitutional nationalists who accepted the Sunningdale Agreement and saw it as a stepping stone to a united Ireland were denounced (English, pp165-166). Gerry Adams accused the SDLP, because it had endorsed the arrangement, of being the first Catholic partitionist party (Adams, 1986, p110). The irony of history of course is that 25 years later, in 1998, the Provisionals would finally settle for less than the SDLP got in 1973-1974. . .

On the military front, the Provos’ ability to carry out operations in the six counties was becoming increasingly constrained. Many of its operations became limited to certain areas of Belfast, Derry and some border areas (Holland, 1999, pp109-110). To regain the initiative, the movement extended its operations to England where it believed its attacks had much greater impact – “One bomb in London is worth a hundred in Belfast” (Notes for Revolutionaries, issued by Republican Publications, March 1983, p52; Moloney, p126, shows evidence of this in terms of media coverage and propaganda impact). It showed that the conflict could not be contained within the six counties (see Gary McGladdery, The Provisional IRA in England: The Bombing Campaign 1973-1997, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006 for this in general).

The first bombing took place on 8 March 1973, the day of the border poll in the six counties, with car bombs exploding outside the Old Bailey and Scotland Yard. The campaign intensified in 1974. On 9 February, nine soldiers and three civilians were killed when a bomb exploded on their coach while they were traveling along the M62. On 5 October, five soldiers and two civilians were killed in no-warning bombs in pubs frequented by off-duty soldiers in Guildford and Woolwich. Then, on 21 November 1974, bombs went off in two city centre pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people – all of them civilians. After this bloody carnage, Republicanism was vilified everywhere outside the pockets of IRA support in Belfast, South Armagh, Derry and Tyrone. Sympathetic observers point out that atrocities such as the Birmingham bombs were atypical and not the norm in the Provisionals’ campaign:

“By almost any reckoning in this century of war crimes and genocidal madness, the Provos have conducted a relatively ‘clean’ campaign. . . Had the Provisionals wanted to deliberately wipe out civilians, in Ireland and England, by employing terrorist tactics in the real sense of the term, the death toll would now be at least double its present level. Instead, IRA volunteers usually go to considerable lengths to ensure that third parties are not in the line of fire when an attack is launched . . . . Representatives from other national liberation movements have expressed wonderment at the precautions taken and the qualms felt by Irish republican guerrillas in the course of their actions” (Kelley, p351).

According to Patrick Magee: “Republicans in my experience, do not sink to the cynical calculation of collateral damage. The following statistics, awful as they are, might go some way to supply a contextual rebuttal or at least bring some sense of proportion to the scale of violence as perpetrated by the respective protagonists. David Miller reports that 37.4 per cent of IRA victims are civilians, while 54.4 percent of British Army victims are civilians. And the ratios do not include numbers of innocent nationalists killed or injured die to collusion between loyalists and British forces.” (Patrick Magee, “Gangsters or Guerrillas? Representations of Irish Republicans” in Troubles Fiction, Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 2001, p133).

On the other hand, sceptical commentators such as Richard English have argued that civilians constituted the largest category of IRA victims (English, pp379-380). English’s argument and calculations have been challenged (O’Leary, p235 and p239). Despite the availability of reliable statistical data covering PIRA killings that could settle the argument, such as Malcolm Sutton’s Index of conflict related deaths, the topic is likely to remain highly controversial. Like the dispute about the real death toll in Iraq today, “the issue has become a political football”: “Trying to cut one’s way through the statistical jungle quickly becomes a battle over methodology and sometimes motives” (Jonathan Steele and Suzanne Goldenberg, “What is the real death toll in Iraq”, The Guardian, 19 March 2008).

If the IRA kept fighting, that did not mean that they were militarist extremists. “By late 1973, several of the Provisional leaders and most notably David O Connell were looking for a way to end the campaign. They saw its limitations” (Taylor, p169). Conor Cruise O Brien himself noted that O Bradaigh seemed “more interested in preventing violence than on starting it” (White, p160). If they rejected Sunningdale that did not mean they were hostile to peace and incapable of either pragmatism or compromise. “We want a situation to come about where political advance can take the place of guerrilla warfare. . . what we see is an honourable accomodation with the British coupled with an honourable accomodation with the loyalists,” said Ruairi O Bradaigh in 1974 (Republican News, 5 April 1974). Indeed: “The Provisionals insisted that their plan was not to coerce unionists into a united Ireland; indeed the term ‘united Ireland’ was rarely used until the 1980s” (Jonathan Tonge, Northern Ireland, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006, p105).

Far from trying to bomb a million Protestants into a ‘united Ireland’, as early as 1972 O Bradaigh appealed to the Unionists: “Let us repeat once more; we do not wish to submerge the Unionists of the North East in an All-Ireland state. . . We would never ask you to join the 26-County State – we are trying to escape from it ourselves!” (White, 2006, p194). According to O Bradaigh, “Our attitude was the Unionists are a fact of life and let no one think otherwise” (Vincent Browne, “Adams was IRA CoS”. Village, 5-11 August 2005). Ruairi O Bradaigh declared in 1972, “The term United Ireland means nothing but the incorporation of the Six Counties in the 26 County system of over-centralised economic imperialism. Sinn Fein has long ceased to advocate merely a ‘United Ireland’ because of what it has come to mean in the public mind” (Republican News, 17 November 1972). In the Provo analysis, a unitary state and rule from Dublin were part of the problem, not part of the solution. The leadership, in the words of O Bradaigh, “don’t believe in a steamrolling unitary state” (Brian Feeney, Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin: The O Brien Press, 2002, p321).

In their political programme, Eire Nua, the Provisionals argued that Ireland suffers from a triple minority problem: the Irish-speaking minorities in the West of Ireland, the Nationalists in the North, and the Unionists in Ireland as a whole. The Republican Movement proposed a federal solution to this triple minority problem to guarantee minority rights and prevent regional disparities. They highly regarded the Swiss federal system for its ability to safeguard the rights of different national and linguistic groups. One of their most intriguing proposal was to replace the United Kingdom by a new federation of the British Isles called the Federation of Man! Sections of Unionism and Loyalism in the 1970s gave serious consideration to federal proposals. If the British state was to withdraw and rule from Dublin is unacceptable and an independent Northern Ireland unviable, a federal Ireland with a new capital in Athlone could provide the basis of an acceptable compromise. The federal policy was later denounced by the Adams leadership as a ‘sop to Loyalists’ (Danny Morrison in Martin Collins (ed) Ireland After Britain, London: Pluto Press, 1985, p.86) and withdrawn under pressure in 1982. (Federalism removed, APRN, 4 Nov 1982, p.6) “The irony must not be lost on the like of O Bradaigh today when he watches Martin McGuinness traipse behind Ian Paisley at every function the First and Deputy First Minister have to attend at Stormont. … In fact Eire Nua is even less of a ‘sop to loyalism’ than the present arrangement at Stormont.” (McDonald, pp83-84).

The then leadership was involved in peace negotiations from the early 1970s -‘ peace’ was not an innovation of the Adams leadership. They were ready to offer honourable compromises to Unionists on a number of occasions (White, pp179, 213-214, 260). By concentrating on the figure of Adams and the current peace process, analysts today tend to forget that there were significant political figures other than Adams – Daithi O Conaill in particular. Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s press secretary from 1969 to 1976, noted that O Conaill “demonstrated an intellectual quality greater than many politicians we had met in the North. … He is not a man to be underestimated” (Joe Haines, The Politics of Power, London: Jonathan Cape, 1977, p126).

In Jack Holland’s Too Long A Sacrifice: Life and Death in Northern Ireland Since 1969 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981), a book published around the time the hunger strikes, the index has one line for Gerry Adams with references to four pages (pp126, 133, 142 and 145), whereas O Conaill has three lines and more than double the references (pp142, 145; ceasefire, p126; Eire Nua, pp131-136; and Ulster nationalism, pp133, 150).

According to Holland: “the most public figure the movement had was David O Connell, its political guru. O Connell’s rather dapper and smooth approach made him good television material, and he used the media to present dramatic and effective interviews and press conferences at which he outlined the Provisionals’ programme for ‘the New Ireland’. . . .The New Ireland envisaged by O Connell was a federal state with parliaments in each of its four historic provinces. . . According to O Connell this would ensure a certain amount of independence for the Ulster Protestants. He hoped to convince them that in a federal Ireland they would not be swamped by Catholics and would be able to preserve their rituals and traditions without interference. His emphasis on the concept of a federal Ireland grew throughout the early 1970s. On the publication of the Eire Nua document in June 1972, O Connell stated, ‘We do not accept the term ‘United Ireland’ because this has connotations which are damaging.’ He offered instead the slogan ‘The need to build a Greater Ulster’ out of which he claimed the New Ireland would arise. It was in fact a form of Ulster nationalism with which he hoped to wean the loyalists away from espousing the British link. It became his theme, as did his other slogan ‘Peace with Justice’. The latter was aimed at the British, to whom O Connell wanted to indicate that the Provisionals were prepared to talk. . . . His efforts to placate the loyalists led him to support any move made by them that he regarded as compatible with his federal concept. When the right wing Unionist William Craig threatened the British with a unilateral declaration of independence (taking Rhodesia as his model) O Connell came out in favour of such a move. He called for ‘an end to the sterile discussion of a United Ireland versus Union with Great Britain. Let us have meaningful talks about a New Ulster creating a New Ireland.’ Later, at a ceremony to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rebellion, O Connell claimed: ‘The future of Ulster can only be determined by the people of Ulster.’ He welcomed any sign of Ulster nationalism, which was then growing among loyalists, who were disillusioned by the British government and wary of its intentions. In 1973 the British published proposals for a new government at Stormont. . . The UVF attacked the proposals and suggested the setting up of a Council of Ulster. O Connell welcomed the UVF statement with its rejection of the British initiatives. For him, anything done by the Protestants that showed they were edging away from their previous pro-British politics was to be encouraged. In 1974 he went farther than just ‘welcoming’ statements espousing forms of Ulster nationalism. He defended the loyalist overthrow of the power-sharing government. The joint action of the UDA and its Protestant trade union support group, the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) won his praise. He said their action had ‘a note of authority and a ring of authenticity which was appealing. The UWC showed tremendous power and acted in a responsible way.’ He later went on to describe the loyalist coup – for that, in effect, is what it amounted to – as being in the ‘Wolfe Tone tradition’. Ironically, just when O Connell was praising the UDA/UWC action, the editor of the Provisionals’ newspaper An Phoblacht was preparing an editorial condemning them. When O Connell found out, he was furious and forced the editor to resign” (Holland, 1981, pp131-133).

There were more political initiatives coming from the movement in these years than are usually acknowledged by commentators.

In December 1974, some Protestant clergymen approached the Republican Movement with a view to obtaining a ceasefire. They met members of the Army Council and, as a result of that meeting, on 10 February 1975 a bilateral truce was agreed between the Provisionals and the British government. Seven out of eight representatives of the ‘political and military leadership of the Republican Movement’ in the negotations came from the North, which refutes the later claim that it was a ‘Southern’ leadership that had negotiated the 1975 truce (White, 2006, pp222, 254-255). It should be noted that throughout most of the 1970s, the IRA leadership was not dominated from the south, but national in scope with representation from both sides of the border. It included people like Billy McKee, Leo Martin, Seamus Twomey, Joe Cahill, all from Belfast. Southern representatives such as Sean Mac Stiofain and Daithi O Conaill tried to tour and meet with northern units on a regular basis (White, pp203-205).

“The IRA was in difficulty when the truce was called at the start of 1975. British Army commanders in the North were particularly enraged at the NIO negotiations with the Provisionals and the announcement of the truce. This discontent spilled out in the open in a speech delivered at Nottingham on 12 April by Sir Frank King, General Officer Commanding in Ulster. King told his audience that he and his men could have beaten the IRA in a matter of months, were it not for political interference from Whitehall” (Walsh, p153).

The terms of the truce were based on British concessions on prisoners, ending internment, withdrawing troops to barracks, scaling down arrests and stop and search operations in exchange for an IRA cessation of operations. To monitor the truce, seven incidents centres managed by the Provisionals were set up with a direct line to the Northern Ireland Office. What was the Republican movement hoping to gain from the truce? One of the clergymen, William Arlow claimed that the IRA had been given an undertaking by British officials that they would withdraw from Ireland (New Statesman, 30 May 1975). The British were then talking about ‘structures of disengagement’ from Ireland (White, 2006, p235). “Beginning in January 1975, the British sent signals that they were considering a withdrawal – whether or not the British representatives were purposely or accidentally sending those signals, they were real” (White, p246).

The Provisionals were convinced that this was what their negotiations had achieved, failing which they would simply go back to war. However, Labour politicians and members of the NIO have been quite prepared to admit that the real purpose of the truce was to divide and weaken the Provisionals and to get rid of internment as prelude to treating Provisional actions as criminal (Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, The British State and the Ulster Crisis, London: Verso, 1985, p87). In the 1990s, the British government openly admitted that it had deliberately set out to “con the Republican Movement during the 1975 truce” (Holland, 1999, p240). Labour home secretary Merlyn Rees’ aim was “to create the conditions in which the Provisional IRA’s military organisation might be weakened. The longer the ceasefire lasted, the more difficult it would be for them to start a campaign again from scratch” (Merlyn Rees, Northern Ireland: a personal perspective, London: Methuen, 1985, p224; see also pp180-181).

It is in this context that the British government was deliberately ambiguous on whether it was going to withdraw. In order to keep the truce going and fragment the Republican Movement, all the British had to do was to promise ‘withdrawal’ and keep them talking. “Obfuscation was central to state policy” (Bew and Patterson, p87). The Republican leadership had accepted the truce because in late 1974 the movement had been under considerable pressure from the security forces and a shortage of weapons was apparent in Belfast; but also because it really believed that a British withdrawal was imminent (cfr. “Brit withdrawal now inevitable – O Bradaigh”, Republican News, 25 October 1975, p1).

Whether O Bradaigh and O Conaill’s handling of the 1975 truce had been ‘disastrous’ as it was later claimed is open to question. O Bradaigh does not remember people back in 1975 expressing concerns either about the handling of the truce or about a Southern leadership out of touch with Northern realities. It is only from 1986 that history was rewritten and that the then leadership’s handling of the 1975 truce was officially labelled ‘disastrous’ (White, p307).

What is far more of a myth is the idea that Adams rescued the IRA from defeat after the truce (Moloney, p142 and especially pp161-162 which cast the events in a different light). On 11 November 1975, Rees announced that the incident centres were to be closed down, thus unofficially bringing the truce to an end. With that, the IRA gradually returned to the offensive. From a British government perspective, the truce was a success, in that the atrophying effects of military inactivity on the IRA severely damaged the organisation.

The truce had been a highly elastic notion for much of the period it operated. More people were killed in 1975 than in 1974. Loyalists killed 121 in 1975, Republicans 120. During this period of truce with the state forces, the IRA became involved in a feud with the Officials which left eleven dead between 29 October and 12 November, while open sectarian warfare became commonplace, having a highly demoralising effect on the nationalist population. This allowed the British state to introduce its criminalisation, ulsterisation, normalisation strategy and encourage the ‘peace at any price’ camp. In 1972, there were 122 sectarian murders. They continued throughout 1973 and 1974. The years 1975 (150) and 1976 (175) saw the highest numbers of sectarian murders and were years in which IRA activity was low. Those two years are the only two years in the 1970s and 1980s in which the IRA killed more civilians than members of the security forces. During the truce, the IRA was involved in a number of sectarian incidents, killing more than 40 Protestant civilians in two months. The fact that the Provisionals acknowledged that one of their members killed by the British army in June 1975 as he planted a bomb outside a Protestant bar in Bessbrook was on active service “was nothing less than an open admission by the IRA that it was attacking Protestant civilian targets” (Kelley, p238).

The movement, especially at a local level, was under immense pressure from its base to do something (or at least appear to do something) about loyalist attacks. On 13 August 1975 a bomb and gun attack on the Bayardo Bar in the Shankill road killed six Protestants including a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). A few months earlier, on 5 April, a bomb thrown in the Mountainview Tavern had claimed similar casualties. The South Armagh Provos committed a number of sectarian attacks. On 1 September 1975, five were shot dead during a gun attack on Tullyvallen Orange Hall. The organisation’s most blatant sectarian attack happened on 4 January 1976, when 10 Protestant workmen were taken out of a minibus in Kingsmill and killed by machine gun fire, while their single Catholic workmate was spared. With respect to this incident, a Provo spokesperson was asked “Why?” The response was “Why not? It stopped the sectarian killings in the area, didn’it?” (Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, London: HarperCollins, fifth revised and updated edition, 2000, p443).

The day before the massacre, five Catholics had been murdered by loyalists. Even today there are some republicans who argue that “it stopped any more Catholics being killed” and that before the truce there hadn’t been any sectarian killings in the area (Toby Harnden, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000, p190). It is debatable whether those retaliatory attacks were sanctioned; the IRA used the cover name Republican Action Force to claim them. The extent to which the Provisional IRA’s campaign was sectarian has been subject to debate (Robert White, The Irish Republican Army: An Assessment of Sectarianism, Terrorism and Political Violence, volume 9 issue 1, 1997). Out of the 311 members of the Orange Order killed during the Troubles, over 200 were serving members of the security forces. The IRA occasionally carried out sectarian attacks, but no systematic campaign. Malcolm Sutton’s Index lists 134 deliberate killings of Protestant civilians, 91 of which occurred during the three years 1974-1976. The idea that republican killings and assassinations by loyalist death squads are on par and a matter of ‘tit-for-tat’ does not stand up. “About one third of all deaths in the last phase of the ‘Troubles’ – from…1966 to …1994 – were directly ‘sectarian’, in that people were killed simply because they were perceived to be either Protestant or Catholic. Some 750 loyalist killings (or around 80 per cent of all loyalist killings) and some 150 republican killings (or around 10 percent of all republican killings) were sectarian in this sense” (Robbie McVeigh, in P.Clancy et.al. (eds), Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1995, pp621-622). Such dissymmetry in terms of percentages indicates that the concept of a sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics is flawed.

The IRA used a nom de guerre – Republican Action Force – to claim responsibility for some of these killings during this period. In comparison, Loyalists were responsible for 713 deliberate killings of Catholic civilians, including 65 Protestant civilians and 7 not from Northern Ireland because they were mistaken for or associated with Catholic civilians. “Outright sectarian killings by the Provisional IRA, if defined as killings due to religion rather than the wearing of a police or army uniform, were not the norm and largely disappeared after 1976” (Murray and Tonge, p78). “For the Loyalist paramilitaries it was a brutal lesson that their people were equally vulnerable if tit-for-tat murder became an IRA policy. And tit-for-tat murders were definitely not policy – the Army Council wanted a military campaign not the massacre of the innocent. In fact various Provos at various times contemplated initiatives to the Loyalist paramilitaries” (Bowyer Bell, p425). If local units were involved in unofficial retaliatory actions against perceived loyalists, on a number of occasions, the leadership got involved in talks with loyalists to attempt to end sectarian murders. In 1974, O Conaill held a four hours secret meeting with UVF leader Billy Mitchell at Lough Sheelin, County Cavan. “We thought we could find a way to call an end to everything” recalled Mitchell later (Peter Taylor, Loyalists, London: Bloomsbury, 1999, 123-124).

In December 1976, Ruairi O Bradaigh and Joe Cahill met two representatives of the Ulster Loyalist Central Coordinating Committee. The purpose of the meeting was to bring sectarian killings to an end and find out whether Sinn Fein’s Eire Nua programme could be accommodated with the loyalists’ proposals for an independent Northern Ireland. They agreed that if this was possible, a joint Loyalist-Republican approach could then be made to request the British government to leave Ireland. Desmond Boal QC and Sean MacBride SC were requested and accepted to represent the loyalist and republican positions. For a number of months they held secret meetings in a number of places including Paris (Coogan, pp449-450). The initiative collapsed when the Dublin government learned of it and denounced it. “The abortive talks may have been one of the missed opportunities in the 1970s” (Sean Cronin, Irish Nationalism: A history of its roots and ideology, Dublin: The Academy Press, 1980, p234).

Part two and part three of this article are:




Posted on August 1, 2011, in Provos - then and now. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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