Extracts from 'The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA'
|1||Ireland Is Different||1|
|2||Free State/Protestant State (Easter 1916-1962)||33|
|3||Reforms Are Revolutionary (March 1963-August 1969)||78|
|4||The People's Army (August 1969-March 1972)||120|
|5||Orange Reaction (March 1972-May 1974)||168|
|6||The Search for a Method (May 1974-June 1977)
Truce, Sort Of
Still the Slaughter
The Truce Ends, The Convention Collapses
|7||The IRA Undefeated (June 1977-August 1979)||266|
|8||'They Hunger for Justice' (August 1979-April 1982)||307|
|9||A Protracted Conflict (April 1982-June 1987)||349|
At the same time that the I.R.S.P. was announcing its birth in Dublin, leaders of the Provisional IRA were putting out peace feelers through a small group of Protestant church figures. A few top Provos had gathered at Smyth’s Village Hotel in Feakle, County Clare in the South on 10 December 1974, to talk over the war situation with Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist ministers. The IRA’s representatives were all on the run in the 26 Counties as well as in the North, so the discussions were cut short when word was received by the Provos that the Gardai were on their way to the hotel. The Provisionals disappeared, but promising progress had been made in the talks before they left.
The IRA leadership was interested in sounding out British attitudes toward a possible truce in the aftermath of Birmingham, while the Protestant clergymen were willing to act as go-betweens in this process. Contacts were made immediately after the Feakle meeting with the Northern Ireland Office. On 19 December, the Wilson administration signalled its willingness to proceed with truce talks by announcing a compensation award to the relatives of Derry’s Bloody Sunday victims ‘in a spirit of conciliation and good will.’ The Provos quickly picked up the cue, declaring their intention to observe a unilateral Christmas cease-fire from 22 December to 2 January. On New Year’s Day 1975, the IRA announced that it would extend the cease-fire for another two weeks. Provo leaders became disillusioned, however, when Britain failed to make any dramatic reciprocal gesture, so the cease-fire was allowed to expire on 16 January. There was a strongly negative reaction from the nationalist grass-roots to the resumption of the campaign, with peace marches being held on both sides of the border on 26 January. Contacts were then re-established between the Provos and the Wilson administration, and on 11 February 1975, the IRA began an indefinite cease-fire.
The Provos did not use that nomenclature, however. They preferred to describe the suspension of hostilities as a ‘truce’, thereby signifying action of an equal, bilateral nature. Britain, conversely, could not accept the term ‘truce’ because it would indicate that a war had been going on, rather than an ‘outbreak of terrorism’. Despite British denials, a ‘truce’ had in fact been concluded. The IRA halted its attacks on the British army, R.U.C. and U.D.R. only after Whitehall promised to change army tactics and make certain political concessions. It was a quid pro quo arrangement, not a one-sided initiative.
Foremost among the British offerings to the IRA was the establishment of ‘incident centres’ in nationalist areas in the North. Ostensibly, these offices were to be staffed by Provisional Sinn Fein members for the sole purpose of detecting and defusing any local confrontation before it could endanger the truce. The Provos had reminded Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees of what happened at the Lenadoon estate, in July 1972, when a fairly minor affray got out of hand and resulted in the collapse of that cease-fire.
The Provos were left to find their own premises, and some of the incident centres were sited in existing Sinn Fein offices. Telephone links were set up between the centres and an office in central Belfast, staffed by Northern Ireland Office officials, so that truce violations could be reported immediately.
In practice, the incident centres functioned as a combination of Provisional Sinn Fein political offices and IRA police stations. The Provos used these British sanctioned facilities to heighten their profile in the nationalist ghettoes and to themselves up as the undisputed guardians of law and order in the communities. If Catholics had a complaint about British arms or RUC harassment, or if they wanted to report a car theft hell or a break-in, they could now to their local incident centre. Here a Provo would take down the details, offer advice and sympathy, perhaps explain some of the policies of the Provisional movement and pass on the problem, either to the British authorities or the IRA The seven incident centres operating in the North by the spring of 1975 was giving the Provos a cachet they had not previously enjoyed.
It should not be imagined that Rees had been duped into allowing the Provos to play these roles, or that the British Government was dismayed by the lRA's policing activities. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that Whitehall and Stormont Castle wanted to encourage exactly these kinds of developments For the British, the most important of all short-term aims in the North was to an end to the fighting. This had now been accomplished, at least temporarilm. a at the relatively modest cost of opening a few incident centres. A cessation attacks on soldiers, police and militiamen was also the primary goal of the second leg in Britain’s Iong-term strategy - ‘normalization’.
This objective, an accompaniment to ‘criminalization’, had been initially cited by Rees in his speech to the Commons in April 1974. In it, the North Ireland Secretary had spoken of the Labour government’s desire to reinstitute ‘normal policing’ in the Six Counties. The British army would soon play a secondary, hack-up role to the R.U.C. , Rees explained. in order to promote more of a ‘law-and-order’ and less of a ‘war time’ atmosphere in the province ‘Normalization’ in this sense thus dovetailed nicely with ‘criminalization’. 0ne prong of the strategy depicted the IRA as a criminal conspiracy, while another sought to convince onlookers that this ‘cops and robbers’ problem was gradual being rectified by the legitimate civil authorities in the province. This whole package was tied neatly together by a third complement in Britain’s master plan for winning the war ‘Ulsterization’, a process that will be discussed later.
The February 1975 truce was a boost for ‘normalization’ as far as the Labour Government was concerned. If an R.U.C. officer could now walk the streets central Belfast or Derry without a powerful and well-grounded fear of being shot then that was surely a long stride toward ‘normal policing’. In addition, the IRA had shown that while it could not be defeated militarily, perhaps it could wooed into curtailing its violence. The incident centres were not too great a price to pay if they eventually led the Provos to become more ‘political’ and less ‘military’. Similarly, allowing the IRA to act as a ghetto police force did n necessarily contradict British plans, and might conceivably prove to be a positive development. It would be particularly beneficial, for example, should the Provos methods of enforcing their version of the law cause frictions in their communities or should some volunteers decide to ‘go straight’ as a result of their new duties Indeed, the Officials taunted the Provos in this regard by referring to the throughout the truce as the ‘R.U.P.’ the Royal Ulster Provos.
The British Government had also agreed to the truce because it was pressing ahead at this time with its Constitutional Convention initiative. Wilson and Rees thought that the loyalist U.U.U.C. politicians might behave somewhat more reasonably in their talks with the S.D.L.P. and Alliance Party without bombs going off in the background. For a more negative reason, Britain entered into a bilateral cease-fire with the IRA out of a desire to squelch ‘troops out’ agitation in the Labour Party rank and file and among a few MPs. It would be much easier to keep the army in the North as long as soldiers were not being shot or blown up, just as it would be to Wilson’s political advantage to prevent further bombings in Britain itself. Finally, and not unimportantly from the British perspective, far more army and police resources could be directed toward intelligence-gathering while the war was in remission. Raids and searches were largely discontinued in response to IRA demands, but surveillance and surreptitious operations were expanded now that the ghettoes were less of a no-go zone. So successful was the British intelligence offensive during the truce that the Provos would later admit they came very close to defeat as a result of police and army penetration of the IRA network.
Why then, did the Provos agree to put the gun on the shelf for the time being? A major motivation was undoubtedly the continued decline in active support from the communities, as exemplified by the 30-strong march in Derry on 5 October 1974. War-weariness was more acute than ever that autumn. Quite a few sometime sympathizers of the IRA also did not believe the Provos denial of responsibility for Birmingham, and were thoroughly disgusted by what had happened there. Almost everyone on the anti-unionist side was ready for a breather at the start of 1975. An effective truce could give the Provisionals time to regroup, and perhaps allow them to develop their political persona a bit.
The halt in the fighting in fact coincided with the submission of a discussion document to the IRA from a group of internees at Long Kesh. The men in the camp were calling for creation of ‘people’s councils’ as a way of rebuilding mass participation in the republican movement. They also wanted a limited implementation, here and now, of the Eire Nua programme. The co-operatives and political bodies envisioned in the New Ireland plan, could and should, begin to operate before the end of the war, argued the internees. It was vital, they said, that all Provisionals understand that the New Ireland would not come into being solely as a result of elections or as a by-product of the reunification of the country. A radical transformation of Irish society could only be accomplished with the full co-operation and participation of the masses, and it did no good to postpone that kind of social and political awakening until such time as the war was won. ‘We can’t take from the people all the time,’ is how one IRA volunteer described this position. ‘We have to give something back to them too.’
A few Provo-organized co-ops were in fact started around this time. A people’s taxi service had already begun to operate in the Falls under indirect Provo supervision, and some local food and clothing outlets were being expanded. Along with the scores of IRA-connected drinking clubs, these small-scale co-operative ventures provided the movement with a limited but steady source of funding. More importantly, they rooted the underground guerrilla organization firmly in the community by enabling civilians to have tangible, everyday, helpful contact with the proponents of a New Ireland.
The incident centres also provided a vehicle for putting Eire Nua into practice, at least in an experimental and localized way. This consideration was certainly central to the overall IRA decision to seek a pause in the war. Most compelling of all the factors, however, was a hint or maybe even a hedged promise, from the British that they would withdraw the army from the North lithe Constitutional Convention failed to produce a political settlement. The Provos say they were told exactly this during their discussions with British officials, but of course they cannot prove it. The Wilson administration denied ever having made such a statement, even indirectly. There are, however, strong indications that something very much like that offer was put on the table by Rees’s representatives during secret talks with the Provos. As William Arlow, one of the go-betweens in IRA-British Government contacts following the Feakle meeting. said in May 1975: 'I have reason to believe that the British government has given a firm commitment to the IRA that they will withdraw the army from Northern Ireland.’
Along with the potential advantages to be gained from the truce by both the IRA and the British, there came liabilities and dangers for each side. The Provos had the problem of acting as a police agency that might be viewed by the community as no improvement over the RU.C. The IRA leadership also had to persuade volunteers that they should limit their actions to this one assigned task. By its very nature as a clandestine band of armed rebels, the IRA had found it difficult - in almost all its incarnations over the years - to enforce strict operational discipline on its cadres. The ever-present tendency of some IRA members to go off on ‘free-lance’ missions could only be enhanced during a period in which the leadership had decided that all volunteers must refrain from offensive operations. After five years of a most irregular type of warfare, some Provos could not be convinced that they must pass up attacks on comparatively easy - because unsuspecting targets. These ‘hard men’ had known only shooting and bombing for a long time now, and they had not joined Oglaigh na hEireann to serve as republican police constables.
Some Provisionals clearly wanted no part of the truce. In Newry, a town near the border, the local incident centre was closed shortly after its opening because of a lack at interest among Provos there in this sort of political/policing work. Under orders not to engage in battle with the occupation forces, some volunteers in Belfast, and in border areas, concentrated on stopping loyalist assassinations by doing away with the people they thought were responsible for them. The IRA still did not officially sanction or claim retaliations for sectarian murders except in unusual circumstances, but this did not mean that its volunteers never engaged in such attacks. A few Provos, whether with or without permission from higher up, did play the tit-for-tat killing game with loyalists throughout the truce. And, in Belfast, some bored Provisionals took advantage of the OIRA-I.R.S.P. feud in February and March to keep their trigger fingers from getting out of shape.
For Britain, the truce brought strong dissent from army commanders who resented being told to stop their Provo-hunts just when - they claimed - they had the IRA on the run. This discontent spilled out into the open in a speech delivered in Nottingham on 12 April by Sir Frank King, the General Officer - Commanding in Northern Ireland. King told his audience that he and his men would have beaten the Provos in a matter of months were it not for political interference from Whitehall. The G.O.C. also complained that Rees was making things needlessly difficult for the army by continuing to release internees as part of the 'political hostage’ device for encouraging good behaviour by the IRA. Many of the people let out of Long Kesh were known terrorists, King claimed, though he could offer no proof for this allegation.
Britain’s use of the incident centres as a way of getting the Provos to ‘go political’ was confounded to some degree by the S.D.L.P.’s anger at this move. The social democrats were furious with Rees for having allowed the Provisionals to jeopardize the S.D.L.P.’s political standing in Catholic communities. They argued that the incident centres provided the supporters of armed outlaws with more local headquarters in the North than were available to a moderate party that had always looked for a settlement within a British context. The U.U.U.C. was likewise upset by what it regarded as Rees’s capitulation to the IRA. Whitehall seemed to many unionists to be treating the Fenians with excessive deference an opinion shared by British officers such as King. In an effort to embarrass Rees, someone at Lisburn army headquarters leaked to the press a Northern Ireland Office memo, which gave instructions that the army was not to pick up Belfast Brigade commander Seamus Twomey unless he was directly involved in a criminal act.
It was not a very stable truce, but only a few violations were reported by either side during its initial phase. Just one British soldier was killed during the first six months of 1975. And even when the agreement began to come undone, the IRA’s attacks never reached their pre-truce level for the ten months or so during which the bilateral cease-fire was at least technically in effect. Through September 1975, the Provos is killed eight members of the British army, R.U.C. or U.D.R. as compared to the 22 fatalities sustained by those forces during the same period in 1974. For Catholic civilians, however the truce was not much of a respite. Statistics showed that sectarian violence actually increased during the IRA-British truce, with 196 civilians murdered in the first nine months of 1975 37 more than in the January-September 1974 period.
Some of the most vicious sectarian attacks of the entire war took place during the truce. As usual, the majority were committed by loyalist death squads. sometimes in collusion with the Ulster Defence Regiment and perhaps with the help of the British army and R.U.C. as well. A signilicant number of the civilian killings were, however, direct retaliatory actions by the IRA, although the Provos admitted their involvement in only a couple of instances. Other murders may well have been carried out by current or former members of the Official IRA - a possibility cited by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in her reference to ‘those ex-Officials and other isolated individuals’ who purportedly used the I.R.S.P. as ‘a cover for sectarian attacks against loyalists.’
On 5 April 1975. two months into the truce, seven people were killed and more than 70 hurt in two Belfast pub bombings. The tit-for-tat pattern was evident in these and subsequent incidents. The slaughter began with an attack that killed two Catholics, early in the evening at a bar in the New Lodge area of the city. A few hours later, a bomb went off at the Mountainview Tavern on the Shankill Road, killing five Protestants. A loyalist paramilitary group called the Red Hand Commandos, probably a cover for, or an offshoot of the U.V.F, murdered six Catholics the following week in a pub bombing in the Short Strand.
The sectarian battlefront then shifted to the area alongside the border, particularly in County Armagh. Three Protestants were shot dead at Killeen in south Armagh on 4 June. And the next day, Francis Jordan, an IRA volunteer, was killed by the British army as he attempted to plant a bomb oustide a Protestant bar at Bessbrook, also in the south of the county. The Provos’ acknowledgement that Jordan was on ‘active service’ at the time of his death was nothing less than an open admission by the IRA that it was attacking Protestant civilian targets.
The loyalists of course hit back. Seven men wearing the uniforms of the Ulster Defence Regiment- the Six County militia that replaced the B-Specials- flagged down a minibus on a main road in the North on the night of 21 July. The van was taking the Miami Showband, a popular Irish rock group, back to Dublin after an engagement in the North. The men in the U.D.R. outfits set off a bomb that killed three members of the Miami group and blew up two of the loyalists in the process. The attackers belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force, Gusty Spence’s old murder gang, but one of the U.V.F. members later charged with the killings also turned out to be a sergeant in the UDR.
This was not the first or the last instance of collaboration between U.D.R soldiers and loyalist assassins. Around the same time as the Miami ambush, the London Sunday Times reported that files on visitors to republican prisoners at Long Kesh had been leaked to Protestant paramilitary groups by sympathetic members of the U.D.R and R.U.C. The Northern Ireland militia had been given anew name and placed under the direct control of the British army following the Hunt Report in 1969. Like the B-Specials, however, the U.D.R. consisted almost entirely of Protestants, many of whom were in fact former B-men. And also, like the Specials, the majority of UD.R. members were part-timers -5,000 out of 7,000 in 1975 -who would be able to engage in some unofficial patrolling and surveillance during off-hours. In addition, recruits to the Ulster Defence Association, the Red Hand Commandos and the U.V.F. were often told to enlist in the U.D.R for a time in order to acquire expert training in marksmanship and counter-insurgency techniques. U.D.A. commander, Andy Tyrie, openly urged his subordinates to sign on with the U.D.R. while Regiment officials said they had no objection to a U.D.A. man joining up, because Tyrie’s organization was not one of the proscribed groups in the North.
James McIlwaine, a member of the U.D.R.’s Belfast city battalion from 1974 to 1977, was another militiaman who did not confine his anti-nationalist activities to his Regimental work. McIlwaine received an eight-year prison term in 1979 for his involvement with a loyalist group known as the ‘Shankill butchers’. Eight of these crazed sectarian killers got a total of42 life sentences for macabre torture slayings between November 1975 and February 1977. They were said to have killed at least 19 Catholics. often in the most hideous manner such as battering people to death or slowly strangling them in a specially-equipped torture chamber. Victims were usually finished off with meat cleaver or axes thus earning the group its title.
Collusion between the state’s counter-insurgency forces and loyalist death squads was also strongly implied in a pamphlet released by the U.D.A. and U.V.F. in 1979. This document said that of 142 ‘loyalist’ prisoners then serving terms in the special category status compound at Long Kesh, 73 were at one time or another members of the 'security forces’. These 73 convicted ‘loyalists’ were veterans, in other words, of the British army, RU.C., U.D.R. or Ulster Special Constabulary. It is possible that only a few of them were apprehended while still serving with one of these branches, but even if this is true, the U.D.A. and U.V.F. statistics still highlight the propensity of official agents of the state to engage in unofficial (and illegal) actions, which demonstrably further the loyalist cause.
The triple murder of the three young Miami musicians shocked Ireland, North and South. The sectarian death-dance was whirling crazily now, and no one felt safe in any part of the Six Counties. The Provos could not passively accept the attack on the Show band. They retaliated on 13 August by blowing up the Bayardo Bar on the Shankill Road, killing five people. Provo volunteer Brendan McFarlane was convicted of involvement in this bombing and was given a 25 year sentence. McFarlane subsequently served as IRA officer -commanding in the H-Block prison at Long Kesh, having replaced Bobby Sands as Provo officer -commanding in the prison after Sands’s death on hunger strike in May 1981.
Two days after the Bayardo bombing, five more Protestants were killed in separate incidents throughout the North. A week later, a bomb was thrown into a Catholic pub in Armagh town, killing two patrons. Two more Catholics died on 24 August in a loyalist ambush near Newhamilton in County Armagh. On 1 September, a group of masked men ran into an Orange Order meeting hall in Newhamilton and sprayed the premises with machine-gun fire. Four men were killed and 12 wounded in this attack. Two more Protestants and another Catholic were shot dead in three separate incidents on the same day. Eleven more people died on 2 October in a bloody wave of sectarian shootings bombings. Four of the dead were U.V.F. members who scored an ‘own goal’ when their car exploded outside Limavady in County Derry. All the other attacks 2 October, including a shooting at a Belfast bottling plant that killed three Catholic workers, were likewise claimed by the U.V.F. Merlyn Rees then decided he ought to reinstitute the ban on this organization.
Morale was low and slumping further in the nationalist ghettoes at this time. The IRA-British cease-fire was falling apart as Provo retaliations for alleged truce violations became more and more frequent. The war was obviously about to me again and the assassination campaign was at one of its most terrifying On top of all this, a feud broke out in late October 1975 between the sionals and the vestiges of the Official IRA.
The Provos started it by systematically attacking known Officials on 29 October, killing one of them and wounding 14 others. The Provisionals’ Belfast Brigade explained that it was taking action against ‘a hoodlum element’ which it was masquerading as the Official republican movement. As the communique implied, the Provos were determined to establish themselves once or all as the unchallenged policing agency in nationalist areas of the city. OIRA volunteers had occasionally attempted to play a similar role in the ghettoes, but the Provos were no longer willing to brook any competition in this regard. They had the incident centres as proof of their authoritative position. No semi-defunct group of Red reformists was going to be allowed to hone in on the Provos’ turf, now defined as including every Catholic neighbourhood in the city. In addition, there had now been several years for the simmering animosity between the two branches of the IRA to reach boiling point. The I.R.S.P.-OIRA feud earlier in 1975, when some Provos came to the defence of the new party. had broken the rules of the uneasy co-existence between the rival groups. A few Provos had been anxious for a long time to eliminate the ‘republican pretenders' while some Officials still bore grudges against the 'fascist’ Provisionals for having split the movement in 1969-70. Scores also remained to be settled from a brief outburst of PIRA-OIRA killings a few months after that initial rupture five years ago.
What was it, though, that led the two organizations to fight it out on their own territory at a time when such cowboy behaviour would only further demoralize their supporters? For one thing, the Official IRA and Sinn Fein sometimes exhibited a Stalinist mentality in the worst sense. As was demonstrated during the fighting with the ‘lrps’, the Officials did not always confine their ideological disputes to a political plane, and instead, treated them as heretical deviations from the one true line that deserved to be punished by military means. The Provos, for their part, could be equally intolerant of any opposition claiming to be republican. The Provisional branch of Oglaigh na hEireann considered itself a veritable government-in-exile, the torch of Second Dail legitimacy having been handed down to the Army Council and not to the Sinn Fein executive. From that perspective, any armed movement in the nationalist community not under direct Provo control could be seen as treasonous and thus punishable by death.
Apart from these absolutist self-perceptions, there exists in the North, and especially in Belfast, a strong sense of clannishness. The Provos and Officials are looked upon in some neighbourhoods not so much as secret guerrilla armies but as extended family networks. An attack on any member of one clan by another clan can touch off a gory feud, not completely unlike the shooting matches that break out periodically between loose family groupings such as the Hatfields and the McCoys in Appalachia in the U.S. south. While this clan factor is not the major element behind internal warfare in the nationalist ghettoes, an outsider who spends some time in Belfast will recognise that it does play a part in defining group allegiance and political identity.
This particular round of hostilities was marked by an unrestrained arrogance on the part of the Provos. On 30 October, for example, a couple of Provisionals came to the home of a man who was said to be a Republican Clubs sympathizer, not even a member of OIRA or its political wing. When told the man was not in, the Provo ‘police’ burst through the door, guns blazing, and killed a six-year-old girl. The next day. Seamus McCusker, a prominent Provo activist who ran one of the incident centres, was shot dead. It was all getting to be too much for many inhabitants of nationalist Belfast. About 100 brave women staged a peace march in the Short Strand on 1 November to demand an end to this internal blood-letting. The women said they were supporters of both the Officials and Provisionals and didn’t really care who had started the feud or why. They just wanted it stopped. The demonstration failed to make much of an impression on the Provos, for two days later they shot and killed another Official.
Ruari O’Bradaigh came to Belfast for a press conference on 4 November to defend the actions of the lads. O’Bradaigh was forced to admit at one point that the Provos’ Belfast Brigade seemed to be employing some ‘pretty drastic measures’ in policing the ghettoes killing a six-year-old girl, for example. But the Provisional Sinn Fein president went on to offer an explanation that must stand as one of the most asinine statements made by anyone during the course of the war. ‘It became a question of ultimate objectives,’ said O’Bradaigh by way of background to the current OIRA-PIRA showdown. ‘We want a democratic socialist republic. Others believe in a Marxist socialist republic. We believe that would mean totalitarianism.’ Not that the Provos were behaving in a rather high-handed fashion, of course. O’Bradaigh then probed right to the heart of the dispute, declaring with no visible trace of irony, ‘Like Communists all over the world, the Official IRA has tried to gain control of the streets.’
By mid-November, ten people had been killed in this war-within-a-war, at least seven of them by the Provos. The attacks finally came to a halt on 13 November, the day after the chairman of the Falls Taxi Association was shot dead. Although popularly associated with the Provos, the F.T.A. was not a political organization in the strictest sense of the term. Its primary purpose was to provide cheap, reliable and co-operatively-run public transport in nationalist west Belfast, the city bus service being both irregular and a part of the unionist state apparatus. Killing ‘black taxi’ drivers or administrators was a gross violation of the common law, such as it was, in the Catholic ghettoes. The black taxis of the F.T.A. formed a cavalcade that blocked off the Falls Road after the death of the association’s chairman, with the drivers and nearly all residents of the area demanding that the feud be stopped immediately. Not even the Provo ‘police force’ could ignore this display of total disgust and alienation. They announced a cease-fire with the Officials, and one of the most self-destructive episodes in the republican campaign came to an end.
‘We really overstepped the bounds then,’ admits a Provo activist six years later. ‘The people were turning against us as they had never done before and we finally realized that other methods had to be found for dealing with criminals and for working out political differences.’ The IRA also concedes now, that the feud coincided perfectly with British efforts to depict the fighting in the North as a gangland murder spree. The criminalization strategy was advanced significantly as British propagandists pointed to the killings of young children and described the violence as a vendetta between two ‘crime families’.
Merlyn Rees decided, in the midst of the feud, that the truce farce had gone on long enough. The British Government was not particularly concerned about what the Provos and Officials were doing to one another. The fact that few arrests were made in the course of gun-battles on the streets of west Belfast, sometimes in the middle of the day, indicated that the British army and R.U.C. had adopted a hands-off attitude towards the republican self-immolation. The Provo-Official killings were not why Rees announced, on 12 November, that the incident centres were to be closed down. In calling a de facto end of the nine-month truce, Rees was simply certifying the obvious and implying that Britain had got all it was going to get from this exercise.
In addition to stepping up its attacks on the occupation forces in September and October 1975, the IRA began another campaign in England. Bombings and shootings started in London in late August, primarily because the Provos had concluded that the British Government was welching on its purported promise to withdraw the troops if the Constitutional Convention produced no agreement. The Convention had not yet officially collapsed at that stage, but it was clearly going nowhere and Prime Minister Wilson gave no indication that he
was contemplating an army pull-out. One of Britain’s main objectives in agreeing to the truce had been to take the pressure off English cities in the aftermath of Birmingham, but by the autumn of 1975 however, the IRA was conducting full-scale campaign in London.
Two people had been killed in an IRA bombing of the London Hilton Hotel on 6 September, but it was not until October that the active service unit in the British capital really went into top gear. A man was killed on 10 October when a bomb exploded, apparently prematurely, outside the Green Park tube station. Two weeks later, a device intended to kill Tory MP Hugh Fraser, went off under his car instead and took the life of a medical professor. Late in the month, the Provos started to attack restaurants in wealthy London neighbourhoods. A no-warning bomb at an Italian restaurant in Mayfair killed one diner and wounded I7 others on 29 October. Three more people were murdered in similar blasts in Chelsea and Mayfair in mid-November. Seamus Twomey, commander of the Belfast Brigade, explained in 1977: ‘By hitting Mayfair restaurants, we were hitting the type of person that could bring pressure to bear on the British government’. Twomey was straining to construct a rationale for a series of actions that did a great deal to bolster British contentions that the IRA was nothing more than a ‘criminal terrorist’ outfit.
The Provos then shifted their targets again. On 25 November, the IRA shot and killed Ross McWhirter, co-author of the Guinness Book of Records, at his home in Middlesex. McWhirter was an outspoken right-wing crusader who had offered a £50,000 reward for information that would enable police to ‘beat the bombers’. He also demanded restoration of the death penalty and urged the Government to require all Irish people in Britain to carry identity cards. This round of attacks in and around London ended in December after a wild chases and a protracted siege of a house on Balcombe Street near Madame Tussaud's wax museum. Four Provos were captured and later charged with ten counts of murder. This active service unit, in 1976 would take responsibility for the 1974 bombings of two soldiers’ pubs in Guildford and Woolwich. Despite this admission by three members of the Balcombe Street Unit and a fourth IRA prisoner, the four other people who had already been tried and convicted for those attacks lost an appeal and remain imprisoned for killings they swear they did not carry out. Among the four is Carole Richardson, then a 17-year-old-girl-friend of an Irish republican. Along with Judith Ward, another Englishwoman convicted of the Yorkshire motorway coach bombing, Richardson is said by the IRA to be among more than a dozen people sentenced to long terms in England for crimes they did not commit.
Although Rees had announced the ‘closure’ of the incident centres, in practice all that happened was that the telephone lines to government officials were cut off. The offices stayed open as Sinn Fein advice centres and, apart from losing their truce monitoring function, continued to operate as normal. The high profile of the incident centres during the truce had given the IRA a kind of prestige which was valuable in their communities, and which they now retained. Similarly the truce had provided a badly needed period of organizational regrouping and political reflection, although there were few concrete advances that Provisional Sinn Fein could readily point to after nine months of high-profile activity in the ghettoes.
For Oglaigh na hEireann itself, the truce was more of a step backward than a leap forward. The Republican Army had been able to train new recruits and lay in stores of weapons during this hiatus, but the fall-off regular operations caused serious problems of internal discipline. It is unlikely, for example, that the Provisionals would have gotten involved in such a crazy and senseless feud with the Officials had the war against the British been raging at full clip in the fall of 1975. It is also debatable whether Provo volunteers would have engaged in tit-for-tat sectarian killings to the same extent had there been daily ambushes of the occupation forces to be mounted.
Perhaps most disappointing to a developing socialist strain within the Provisional movement, the truce had not been availed of as a singular opportunity for rebuilding a vigorous mass movement. The IRA was still acting over the heads of the anti-unionist communities, deciding for them what should and should People's Democracy offered a trenchant criticism in its epitaph on the truce:
They (the Provos) never explained its terms to the anti-imperialist masses, didn’t publicize the promises which the British made (and broke) and didn’t even explain that the ceasefire had ended. The confusion that this elitist attitude caused did as much to fragment and disorganize the anti-unionist population as any British act of aggression. (N24: March 1976).
For its part, Britain had no reason to prolong the nominal truce as a background conducive to the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. More or less full-scale IRA attacks on the British army, R.U.C. and U.D.R. had resumed and the Convention was hopelessly deadlocked anyway. Delegates were unable and unwilling to reach agreement on a political structure for the Six Counties for all the usual reasons, most of them centring on loyalists' refusal accept anything other than the resurrection of the original Stormont.
Elections for the Convention had been held on 1 May 1975, with unsurprising results. Provisional Sinn Fein called for a boycott even though it was now a legal party, Merlyn Rees having made good on his April l974 promise to lift the ban on the organization. In calling on their supporters to stay away from the polls, the Provos argued that no workable solution to the problem of British imperialism could possibly emerge from a loyalist-dominated forum. Some Catholics agreed with this analysis but most did not - not to the point where they would boycott the polls anyway. There was a 64% overall turnout, not far below the average for the province. The United Ulster Unionist Council won 54% of the total vote and 46 of the 78 Convention seats. The Official Unionist Party held plurality of the U.U.U.C.'s seats (20), while Craig’s Vanguard occupied 14 of the coalition’s places and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party had 12. The weakening of Official Unionist representation, in comparison with the two Westminster elections in 1974, reflected more the continuing march to the far right by Protestants than any rift within unionism which may have been caused by Faulkner’s departure from the fold in January 1974. The former Prime Minister’s, new group, the ‘Unionist Party of Northern Ireland’, failed to win a single Convention seat. Centrist cajolery echoed emptily in the laager the mid- 1970s.
The S.D.L.P. meanwhile won 17 Convention seats and the Alliance Party captured eight. The Republican Clubs, the Northern branch of Official Sinn Fein, received 2.8% of the total vote and did not elect any delegates to the Convention. Though the Officials were still speaking at this stage in terms of all-Ireland political institutions, it was clear from their manifesto and their underlying ideological revisions that they were prepared to bargain with the British, the Unionists and the loyalists over the future of the province. MacGiolla’s party was moving now to a tacit acceptance of partition. A couple of years later, this drift away from republicanism would become a head-long rush toward total devotion to parliamentarism and acceptance of the ‘loyalist veto’. Then as now, Officials would find themselves in a political limbo in the North. Their increasingly pro-Union outlook won them few followers in the national community, while their efforts to appeal to loyalist workers were met with indifference, or outright mistrust, due to their anti-unionist past. The Republic Clubs were managing to get the worst of both worlds.
A bid to break the Convention stalemate between the U.U.U.C. and S.D.L.P. was made in August 1975 by a most unlikely mediator. William Craig, the Home Affairs Minister sacked by O’Neill, and founder of the neo-fascist Vanguard, suggested that a new Northern Ireland constitution include provision requiring formation of a coalition government in the Six Counties at times of ‘emergency’. Despite his denials, Craig’s plan was clearly a variation the theme of power-sharing with the chief minority party, the S.D.L.P. As such it was anathema to the great majority of his V.U.U.C. colleagues. In producing this formula, Craig had run the risk of loyalist retribution in exchange for the slim possibility that it might prove feasible. If the scheme had been accepted and put into operation, Craig’s Vanguard would probably have then emerged as the leading electoral force in the North. Instead, the Official Unionists, Paisley’s D.U.P. and about half the Vanguard delegates, angrily turned on Craig and expelled him from the U.U.U.C. ranks at the Convention.
The loyalist coalition, still holding a comfortable majority, then rammed through its own plan demanding a return to an unadulterated Stormont. There was to be no power-sharing in any guise. The S.D.L.P. and the Alliance Party could not possibly accept such a hard-line proposal, nor could the Wilson administration. Whitehall rejected the U.U.U.C. recommendation, while Rees told
the Convention it would be given one more chance to come up with something palatable to the British government. ‘Not an inch,’ chanted the loyalists, and the Convention finally went out of business in early 1976.
The entire eight month exercise had accomplished nothing whatsoever. Britain was back to square-one -indefinite direct rule -and there were no other initiatives in sight. The Protestant community had, if anything, grown more intransigent over the past year and more convinced of its right to unfettered rule. The Convention was not without its instructive aspects, however. Craig’s ostracism had shown once again that any unionist politician who moves away from the principle of unmediated Protestant supremacy, no matter how slightly, will quickly be devoured by loyalists. It had happened to 0’Neill in the late 1960s. It happened to Chichester-Clark in 1971. And it happened again, to Brian Faulkner, in 1973. In the squinting view of Northern Ireland unionism, to suggest compromise with the Catholic minority is tantamount to betraying the Protestant heritage and defiling the memory of King Billy and the Apprentice Boys. Anyone guilty of such treachery is a Lundy who deserves to be driven out from the Iaager. It was an iron-fisted but eminently logical position. Total political domination can only be maintained if all efforts to weaken its institutional expression are punished swiftly and severely. The Protestant slogans of 'No Surrender!’ and ‘Remember 1690!’ mean exactly what they say. There is no real middle-ground in unionism and there is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting. Shades of political belief are sometimes detectable, but these almost always reflect differences over how best to keep the Croppies down, not whether they ought to be flattened in the first place.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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