The burning of the British embassy – 40 years on
by Philip Ferguson
Last Thursday, February 2, marked the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the British embassy in Merrion Square, Dublin, following the Bloody Sunday massacre of civil rights protesters by the Parachute Regiment on January 30, 1972. Donnacha O Beachain records, “There appears to be little doubt that the massacre was premeditated. Indeed, even two decades later, the abiding memory of one of the most senior British officers was his surprise on hearing the number of deaths: he had been expecting at least fifty” (Donnacha O Beachain, Destiny of the Soldiers: Fianna Fail, Irish republicanism and the IRA, 1926-1973, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2010, p330).
The Irish Times reported on February 1 and 3, 1972 on the size of protests in the south – 100,000 in Dublin (this was before the march which burnt down the British embassy) and tens of thousands in Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway and dozens of other towns. The British embassy was under siege, coming under attacks from stones, projectiles and petrol bombs, as people displayed their anger at the massacre in Derry and their solidarity with the oppressed nationalist population in the six counties.
On February 2, funerals took place for eleven of the 14 people shot dead. In the south, a day of mourning was declared. Factories, offices and schools closed, along with public transport. On this day tens of thousands marched on the embassy and it was set alight and destroyed. After the burning of their embassy, the British government even contemplated evacuating all their embassy staff from Dublin.
The British had requested that the Dublin government call out the Free State Army to help gardaí protect the embassy. It was a mark of how much pressure the southern government was under that they turned down the request. (They did, however, pay compensation to the British.)
The week after Bloody Sunday a mass march organised for Newry drew 25,000 (Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, Dublin, Penguin, 2009, p218).
British ambassador Peck would later note in his autobiography that juries in the south before Bloody Sunday frequently would not convict people on IRA-related charges but after the massacre it was “impossible” to get convictions (Peck cited in O Beachain, p347). Peck also noted Bloody Sunday “unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation the like of which I had never encountered in my life, in Egypt, or Cyprus, or anywhere else” (Peck cited in Brian Feeney, The Troubles, Dublin, 2005, O’Brien, pp35-6).
In Leinster House an emergency debate was held. During it Lynch declared that the people who had burnt down the British embassy were dangerous enough to pose a serious threat to the southern state.
Nine years later, on July 18, 1981, the Dublin regime organised the beating off the streets of a mass march in support of the hunger strikers. The repression was directed at stopping the march reaching the new British Embassy in Ballsbridge and, more generally, intimidating campaigners in support of the five demands.
In 1972, only 200 gardaí stood by the British Embassy and made little attempt to stop it being burned down. In 1981, over 1,500 gardaí in full riot gear barricaded the way to the Brit Embassy, while the Dublin government also discussed whether to call out Free State troops with live ammo.
The shift between 1972 and 1981 was an indication of something deeper and more significant, however. The southern establishment was caught off-guard by the emergence of a mass civil rights movement in the north in the late 1960s and the resurgence of resistance there, including the growth of radical republicanism. The conflict in the north impacted the south, as there was widespread sympathy in the twenty-six counties for the northern resistance movement. Moreover, the mass upsurge in the south in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday represented, as Eamonn McCann has noted, “the highpoint of 32 county nationalism in the history of the southern state” (War and Peace in Northern Ireland, Dublin, 1998, p206).
The southern establishment saw a big threat to its own state and its own stability.
Lynch was certainly fearful of what could happen to the established order in the south following Bloody Sunday, telling Heath the night of the massacre, “from reactions received from around the country at the moment it looks as if a very serious point has now been reached, and the situation could escalate. . . my role is becoming more and more difficult, and I am very, very fearful of what is likely to happen. I just want to tell you how gravely apprehensive I am.” (Lynch cited in O Beachain, p331; Lynch apologised to Heath for ringing him so late. O Beachain notes that the apology “set the tone for the conversation, with Lynch timidly trying to express his apprehensions while an irritated Heath blamed the marchers for the deaths and Lynch for not doing more to combat republicans.” The extracts from the phone conversation take over a page of the book and are fascinating, Lynch’s timidity basically expressing the stance of the southern bourgeoisie when dealing with British imperialism; almost the same extracts appeared earlier in Tim Pat Coogan’s Ireland in the Twentieth Century, London, Arrow, 2004, pp560-61.)
Although there was a certain amount of bluster from the Fianna Fail government and from the president of the southern state, Hillery, about internationalising the issue of partition and British repression in the north in the wake of Bloody Sunday, little was done. As O Beachain notes, the American government weren’t interested in supporting the Dublin regime against Britain and the Free Staters never made any serious attempt to utilise what few possibilities there might have been to make their case at the United Nations (O Beachain, p336).
Barely three weeks after Bloody Sunday, Fianna Fail met for its annual ard fheis. Cumainn motions on Bloody Sunday and the north were not discussed and the party secretaries’ report avoided even mentioning the north! So much for ‘the republican party’. The furthest Lynch’s speech went was to suggest the British Army be less aggressive in primarily Catholic/nationalist areas in the north, while justice minister Des O’Malley spoke of the need to “deal effectively with the IRA” and floated the idea of special courts to facilitate this (O Beachain, p340).
The opportunities for serious forward movement slipped away very quickly. For instance, just three weeks after Bloody Sunday the British ambassador could report that the Irish (he meant the population of the south) were in “a chastened and conciliatory mood” (O Beachain, p341). At the start of March, Free State cops arrested eight northern Provisional activists in Monaghan, along with capturing a significant amount of arms, much to the pleasure of Peck. Leading figures in the Officials were arrested in the aftermath of Aldershot and key Provisionals, including Ruairi O Bradaigh and Joe Cahill, were lifted at the end of May. For the 26-county regime “the evolving priority. . . was to contain and control republican sentiment, and ensure it did not unsettle politics in the South, or put more crudely, to maintain a partitionist mindset” (Diarmaid Ferriter, The transformation of Ireland, New York, Overlook/Peter Mayer, 2007, p628).
The Dublin regime also successfully diverted public attention away from the partition element of the national question and towards EEC membership, with the referendum on membership quickly coming to dominate the political agenda and 83% voting in favour.
More repressive legislation was activated. The Prisons Bill, which allowed the minister for justice to transfer prisoners into military custody was passed through all its stages in a mere 24 hours (May 23-4) and took immediate effect; on May 26 the section of the 1939 Offences Against the State Act that allowed for a juryless special criminal court was reactivated, without even going before Leinster House for debate. By late 1972 there were about forty republicans in the Curragh (Robert W. White, Ruairi O Bradaigh: the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2006, p201).
The potential revolutionary moment had passed.
As time went on, the British and the southern state managed to isolate one set of republicans around the armed struggle (the Provos), while the other set (the Officials) moved away from republicanism and towards the reformist politics of the CPI and the East European state monstrosities. The Officials soon abandoned armed struggle against the Brits and adopted a pro-imperialist and anti-republican position. When much of the left broke with the Officials and established the IRSP/INLA, the new socialist-republican movement came under fierce attack by the Officials, who went so far as assassinating the IRSP/INLA leader Seamus Costello and other activists; the British state; and the southern state.
Part of what saved the southern establishment was the self-limiting strategy of both the Provisionals and the Officials. Both were mesmerised by the events in the north and failed to appreciate that, however serious the situation was in the six counties, the key to Irish freedom actually lay in an all-Ireland political perspective and that, in that context, the south was more important than the north. At the time the southern establishment were in some disarray and this was reflected to some extent among the gardai but, much more so (and much more importantly) in the southern state’s army and the reserves (the FCA). There was substantial sympathy in particular in the latter two groups for the republican cause.
The parochialism of the Provisional leadership in the north, however, was readily apparent. Just before Bloody Sunday, their Belfast-based paper, Republican News, declared 1972 would be “The Year of Victory” and in March they suggested “the War is being won” because they had mastered the art of car bombs in city centres. At the same time they were happy enough to declare a ceasefire and enter negotiations with the British, the ceasefire breaking down only because the British continued harassing nationalist areas and shooting dead five civilians in Ballymurphy.
One recent short history of the IRA notes that the Provos’ military objective “was to create a fortress-like atmosphere where the north could be governed only by military means. This, in turn, would bring the collapse of Northern Ireland as a viable entity, forcing the British government into making radical political changes” and that the Provisionals’ “(m)orale was sky high” (Brendan O’Brien, The IRA, Dublin, O’Brien, 2005, pp82-3). He also notes, however, “1972 was the peak. The Provos would never again reach it for mass effect” (O’Brien, p82).
On July 21, 1972 the Provisionals’ own self-declared mastery of bombing techniques led to the atrocity of Bloody Friday. They let off 21 closely-timed bombs in Belfast; while two British soldiers were killed, so were seven civilians and 130 were injured. Moloney notes that, although it wasn’t seen this way at the time, “History may judge it to be the day the IRA began to lose the war” (Ed Moloney, Voices from the Grave: two men’s war in Ireland, London, 2010, Faber and Faber, p303). While they may have been justified in claiming that the authorities failed to respond to warning calls in time, it’s also the case that it would have been very difficult to carry out evacuations given the timing of the bombs. Moreover, however naive could the Belfast Provisional leadership have been to believe that the authorities would do everything they could to prevent civilian deaths? According to one commentator, “The Provos’ problem was that their talents lay almost solely in destruction” (J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: politics and society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p441). (Years later Brendan Hughes, one of the key figures in the planning and ordering of the operation would note that, while the intention had not been to kill anyone, he felt “a great deal of regret” about the operation and that “if I could do it over again I wouldn’t do it” – see Hughes in Moloney, Voices,p105. At the time, O Bradaigh had commented that he could not see how bombings which put civilians at risk, including Protestant workers, could contribute to Irish freedom – see White, O Bradaigh, p181. Gerry Adams, one of the other key figures in command of the operation, has never expressed any regret for his responsibility for Bloody Friday, continuing to deny he was even ever a member of the IRA.)
Perhaps the main political effect of Bloody Friday was that it made it easier for the British to carry out Operation Motorman just ten days later, their biggest military operation since Suez in 1956. The republican-controlled no-go areas in Belfast and Derry were dismantled; far from 1972 being “The Year of Victory” it was a year of hundreds of civilian deaths and the beginning of two and a half decades of attrition in which the Provisionals were slowly but surely worn down militarily, politically and morally, eventually collapsing into mere bourgeois nationalism and the kind of six-county internal settlement that they had so bitterly attacked throughout the 1970s.
For their part, the Officials stepped up attacks on British forces in the north but their retaliatory bombing of the Parachute Regiment at the Aldershot barracks in England on February 22 went horribly wrong and killed five female cleaners, a gardener and a Catholic padre (the latter was at least attached to the regiment). One republican (Derry Kelleher, an ex-Official) would comment nearly 30 years later that this disastrous bombing left people in the south “completely de-politicised” (Kelleher cited in Sean Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, no city, Lulu, 2008, p349). On May 29, the Officials declared a ceasefire. Although they still engaged in some defense of areas in Belfast, increasingly their weapons would be used increasingly against socialist republicans and those from whom the Sticks were trying to extort money.
The Officials did suggest the need to develop a “popular struggle in the South to complement the struggle in the North so that there can be a fusion of the people of both areas” (see, for instance, United Irishman, June 1972, cited in Swan, p357). However, their abandonment of armed struggle altogether, coupled with their motion away from republicanism and the national question, ensured their idea of “popular struggle” in the south was increasingly reformist.
I’m not suggesting either IRA should have attempted a coup in the south – but I am suggesting an offensive political course there was urgently needed and both Officials and Provisionals totally failed to offer it. Mellows’ insight that the southern state was the barrier state to Irish freedom and would have to be overthrown for freedom to be achieved had been completely lost sight of.
As a result of the February 1973 elections, Fine Gael and Labour came to power in the south and the hostility of the southern bourgeoisie to a united Ireland through the expulsion of the British state became even more pronounced. As Robert White has noted, Garret Fitzgerald’s autobiography records that he (minister of justice from 1973-5 in the southern government) and SDLP leader John Hume were both worried at the time that the British were contemplating withdrawal. This is backed by information obtained about that government through the Freedom of Information Act (see Robert H. White, “The 1975 British-Provisional IRA Truce in Perspective”, Eire-Ireland, 45 (3&4), Fall-Winter 2010, p222).
By the time the hunger strikes began, the southern state had fully recovered the initiative it had lost when the shit hit the fan in the six counties a decade earlier.
While they were partly backfooted by the substantial support among people in the south for the hunger strikers and their demands, and no doubt somewhat unsettled when two hunger strikers won seats in the Dublin parliament, the southern establishment were much more in control throughout 1981.
While the Officials soon after Bloody Sunday essentially made peace with imperialism and the southern state, what about the role of the Provos in the 1970s? As a supporter of theirs back then and a very active member of the political wing in the south from 1986-1994, I think it’s important to look back on Provo history critically in order to understand how the chance to go on a political offensive in the south was lost in the period between the burning of the British embassy and the hunger strikes and never recovered; one of the results of this was the sell-out of the ‘peace process’ and the eventual abandonment by the Provisionals’ core leadership not only of socialism but also of republicanism.
While the takeover of the Irish Republican Army and, subsequently, Sinn Fein, by the ‘northern radicals’ around Adams in the period mid-1970s was presented by Adams and his supporters as a move left, was this really so? For instance, this current wrote the speech that they made veteran IRA figure Jimmy Drumm deliver at Bodenstown in 1977, mid-way in the period I’m looking at here (1972-81). The speech warned of the isolation of socialist-republicans (in this case the Provos) around the armed struggle in the north. But, really, who was responsible for that isolation?
Looking back from now, I’d say it wasn’t the people who were being blamed, like Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O Conaill and the so-called ‘southern traditionalists’. They weren’t, for instance, directing the war. The ‘northern radicals’ were. It was the ‘northern radicals’ who were responsible for some of the worst military actions imaginable, actions which pointed away from mass struggle rather than providing an additional cutting edge to mass struggle (which is what well-directed armed actions, with politics in charge of the weaponry, do). Moreover, leaders like O Conaill and O Bradaigh, against whom the Adams’ cabal plotted, had for years argued the need for a socio-economic strategy. Indeed, at the 1972 ard fheis – almost five years before the ‘turning point’ Bodenstown address – O Bradaigh had spoken in his presidential address of the danger of Sinn Fein becoming merely “a support group for the struggle in the North” and the need to get more involved in economic struggles “so that Irish workers may experience at first hand our concern for their interests” (O Bradaigh cited in White, O Bradaigh, p194).
Moreover, the ‘northern radicals’, for all their talk about socio-economic issues and socialism, were never engaged in such struggles. Of particular importance is the fact that the ‘northern radicals’ had little to no understanding of the southern state. And I’m talking here specifically of the state in the south, not southern society more generally. For several decades, Mellows’ insight about the southern state permeated southern republicanism, which was far more politically advanced than its northern counterpart for a long time – for instance veteran socialist-republican Peadar O’Donnell had memorably described the Belfast IRA as “armed Catholics” – especially as the focus of republican struggle in the 1920s and 1930s was against the southern state, not the Orange state in the north-east. (More recent writers, including IRA veteran Anthony McIntyre, have also pointed to the Catholic Deferendism present in the northern Provisionals.)
Mellows’ insight was lost during the period following the departure and driving out of much of the radical element in the IRA in the early-mid 1930s and the assumption to leadership of Sean Russell, who we now know from German records was a Nazi collaborator and who along with his cohorts imposed a mindless militarism on what remained of the Movement, virtually ensuring its destruction. When the IRA was reorganised in the late 1940s reactionary Catholic views were strong within it and it adopted the position of ending conflict with the southern state, which was essentially what Army Order 8 was about. Mellows, not to mention Connolly, was out; Catholic nationalism was in and the Free State was to be hissed about but not challenged in any way.
It wasn’t until the end of the Border Campaign, ie the years after 1962, that militarism, which had reigned supreme for nearly 30 years, began to be cast aside, in no small part thanks to the efforts of people like Daithi O Conaill who would later go on to establish the Provos. (As Sean Swann’s work on Official Republicanism shows, you couldn’t predict who would line up which way in 1969/70 by looking at minutes of leadership meetings even a year or two before the split, because so-called ‘conservatives’ and ‘traditionalists’ like O Bradaigh and O Conaill were very much in favour of socio-economic agitation in the south.)
To my mind, and again looking back with the advantage of hindsight, I would say that the Provisional alliance that emerged out of exasperation with the drift of the dominant leadership element in the IRA towards a three-stage theory of revolution, which of course was no revolution at all, is a bit more complex than is often discussed. For instance, the early Provos are often presented as an alliance of radicalising working class elements from the nationalist ghettos in Derry and Belfast and southern traditionalists/conservatives, whose point of agreement was that the northern state, and its loyalist shock troops, would resort to armed violence against the civil rights movement and the ghettos and that, therefore, there had to be sufficient weaponry on hand to defend the ghettos, and then try to go on the offensive.
However, I think the southern part of the Provisonal alliance, while a chunk of it was socially rather conservative (like a chunk of northern Sinn Fein), contained a whole body of people who were not so, including key figures like O Conaill and O Bradaigh. I still recall Ruairi, for instance, advocating the need for republicans to launch a campaign for the right to divorce in the south back around 1980 or 1981, much to the horror (and opposition) of the ‘northern radicals’. Also, one of the bag of dirty tricks used by the ‘northern radicals’ to oust Ruairi as uachtaráin of Sinn Fein was the O’Hare divorce case. It was Ruairi who held the progressive view on that and the ‘northern radicals’ who had a totally reactionary position.
Which brings us back to what happened in the period between 1972 and 1981. An important change was within the Provos. The elements with a better and more oppositional view of the southern state had been largely pushed aside in the intervening period and ‘northern radicals’ who had a soft line on, and all kinds of illusions in, the southern state had effectively taken over the Movement, although Ruairi managed to hold on as SF uachtaráin until 1983.
The assumption to power by the ‘northern radicals’ had a negative impact on the building of the Movement in the south because of a combination of their lack of understanding about southern society, their reformist view of the southern state and their lack of understanding that for Irish liberation to be achieved the south is actually more important than the north. For instance, you can’t build a mass socialist-republican movement in Ireland without most of it being in the south and only such a movement has any chance of breaking any significant number of Protestant workers away from support for the ‘United Kingdom’. No significant number of Protestant workers can be won over in a purely six-county context. Within a six-county context there is simply not much reason for Unionist workers to question their adherence to Britain.
The ‘northern radicals’ proved no more adept at foreseeing the reaction of the southern state to the mass movement around the hunger strikes than what became the Sticks had been at foreseeing what the reaction of the northern state and loyalists would be to the mass movement around civil rights. Indeed, the ‘northern radicals’ recoiled from the anger and militancy displayed by a section of Dublin and other working class youth on July 18, 1981. They did just what they, rightly, had attacked the Sticks and CPI for doing ten-twelve years earlier in relation to the six counties.
The woeful understanding of southern realities and the southern state by the ‘northern radicals’ left the H Blocks campaign in the south severely handicapped politically. The southern state saw off the hunger strike campaign and emerged at the end of the 1972-81 period a lot wiser and more stable. By 1981, the possibilities for building a mass socialist-republican political movement, possibilities that could be seen at the time of the 1972 upsurge in the south and exemplified in the burning down of the British Embassy in Dublin, had probably already passed. Thanks not to ‘southern traditionalists’ like O Bradaigh, but to ‘northern radicals’ such as Adams. The upsurge in the south around the hunger strikes provided a hiccup for the southern establishment and their grubby little neo-colonial state, but by 1982 they were over it. Even in the midst of high levels of poverty, unemployment and forced emigration in the rest of the 1980s, the southern state remained remarkably stable and never came under any threat.
Like the Brits, the southern state have much to thank the Adams’ ‘northern radicals’ for. Even way back in the 1972-1981 period, although few of us (certainly not me) saw it at the time, the writing was already on the wall – a fatal flaw of the ‘northern radicals’ was their attitude to the southern state.
Where does this leave us? What’s the importance of this to today?
Well, I’d suggest that the professional anti-republicans who inhabit academe and Dublin 4 are not the only historical revisionists. There has been a good deal of rewriting of history by the Adamsites. This needs to be untangled. What is valuable in the record of the Provisionals needs to be preserved and continued but what was crap needs to be clearly and clinically identified and rejected. We need a new synthesis, taking in the best of all the elements that were around in the late ’60s – early ’70s: Provos, Officials (esp Costello), PD and, after 1974, Irps (again, especially Costello).
See also: The New IRA and socialist-republicanism in the twenty-first century Behind the betrayal of the Irish freedom struggle Anyone for Tennis? Socialist-republicanism versus pan-nationalism: a brief survey of the twentieth century
Posted on February 7, 2012, in 1981 hunger strike, éirígí, Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Irish politics today, IRSP, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Republicanism 1960s, Seamus Costello, twenty-six counties, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.