Background to the quest for political status

In the late 1960s events in Northern Ireland effectively bolstered the strength and appeal of the Irish Republican movement, especially the IRA. Attacks on Catholics in Northern Ireland and the arrival of British troops gave the IRA battles to fight in its "war" against the British government. The IRA organization believed it comprised a legitimate army protecting the Catholic and Nationalist communities, performing the same types of actions and taking on the same symbolic role as the original IRA which had fought the British in the Anglo-Irish War. The IRA needed British acknowledgement of the political status of prisoners in order to legitimize the Republican struggle outside the prisons, but paradoxically the IRA also used its support amongst Catholics to demonstrate its legitimacy to the British and to bolster its demand for political status.

The IRA in the late 1960s was almost non-existent. In August 1969 there were approximately sixty Republicans in Belfast, and all were active. There was only a handful of guns available to them. (1) As Irish journalist Tim Pat Coogan put it, from 1969-71 the IRA's efforts consisted simply of "home-made devices such as nail bombs, or suitcases full of gelignite, often more lethal to the bombers than their targets." (2) Furthermore, the IRA that did exist faced internal conflicts. In December 1969 disputes arose among IRA leaders over strategies and the use of violence. Cathal Goulding was leaning heavily towards Marxism and non-violent approaches to the pro-British Protestant domination of Northern Ireland. In retaliation for what several of the IRA men saw as a betrayal of the original purpose of the IRA, in Belfast Sean MacStiofain engineered the creation of a Provisional Army Council and Executive, and he was elected the first Chief of Staff for the newly- formed Provisional IRA. (3)

MacStiofain believed that it was necessary to continue the IRA's fight for a united Ireland and for a complete British withdrawal, and his followers continued to see the IRA as a legitimate army which had the obligation to use any means at its disposal to fight the "foreign" domination of Britain. In the annual Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (convention) in January 1970, the existence of the splinter faction led to a formal split in the IRA structure, between Goulding's "Official" IRA (also described as the Gardiner Street IRA due to the location of its offices) and the new "Provisional" IRA (also known as the Kevin Street IRA).(4)

The reason why "Provisional" was chosen as the term to distinguish the breakaway faction from the "Officials" was because of the word's symbolic ties to the 1916 "Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic." This was in line with the Provisional IRA's announced goal of being true to its "roots" in the 1916 Easter Rebellion and the Anglo-Irish War. In fact, in the Provisional Council's first public statement, the leaders made the following declaration:

We declare our 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. (5)

Only the Provisional branch of the IRA would continue the armed fight from this point on, with the Official IRA eventually declaring a cease-fire and reorganizing its followers under a new identity -- the Workers' Party. (6) By the end of January 1970 the organization and membership within the Provisional IRA had solidified, and the leaders had divided its ranks into three Belfast battalions, with Billy McKee at the head of the army.

At first the Provisional IRA's sole strategy was to play the role of defenders of Catholics against what the leaders of the IRA perceived to be a growing Protestant threat. Riots between Protestant and Catholic youths had been breaking out constantly, and although the Protestants could rely on the local police forces (which were almost totally Protestant in composition), Catholics found the police to be unresponsive at best and abusive at worst. The arrival of the British Army in August 1969 initially was hailed by Catholics as a positive step to end the violence. Soon, however, many in the IRA and the Catholic communities in general began to distrust the Army's intentions. The nationalists quickly realized that the Army was to be an army of occupation, and the IRA re-examined its own role, coming to the conclusion that a declaration of war on the British troops was necessary. (7)

One of the first events which served to mobilize the Provisional IRA against the British Army and set the "war" in motion was the establishment of a curfew on the Catholic Falls Road on July 3-5, 1970. Late-June violence in Belfast, including the shootings of several Loyalists by IRA snipers in retaliation for fires set to Catholic homes, had convinced the British that the IRA needed to be dealt with. The British Army decided to confine the Catholic population of the Falls Road neighborhood in one place so the Army could find suspected IRA members and any weapons. Three thousand troops surrounded the area, and conducted their searches street by street, going into every house. Unknown people in the area fired upon the troops, and the troops retaliated with violent and abusive searches of homes and individuals. The Provisional IRA, however, officially stayed out of the battle. As Danny Morrison, a leader in Sinn Fein, explained,

There was no way at that time that the IRA could have shot Brits or policemen....They couldn't have sold it [to the people]. The reaction of people would have been "God Almighty, did we produce people who are capable of doing that?" (8)

Although its effects were unpopular, the curfew itself was meant as a strategic effort to curtail the IRA before it could present a serious threat to the British government. However, because the curfew was applied only to a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, most people in the community interpreted its existence as an overt form of British oppression. Many Catholics began looking for a way to fight back, and some of these people joined the Republican movement soon afterwards.

The British employed a second strategy in order to deal with what they perceived to be an increasingly serious threat from the IRA. On 9 August 1971 the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, introduced internment with the permission of British Prime Minister Edward Heath. The purpose of internment was to get the IRA "terrorists" off the streets and weaken the movement, and as such consisted of surprise arrests at people's homes early in the morning followed by imprisonment without trial. As a result of the sweeps on August 9th, hundreds of men and women with even vague nationalist or Republican sympathies were arrested, imprisoned and in some cases, tortured because of their assumed involvement in the IRA. (9)

For two major reasons, internment never really achieved what Faulkner had anticipated, which was to put the IRA out of commission. First, because the IRA leadership had expected such a move by the Stormont government, most of the major IRA figures were living away from their homes. The majority of internment's victims therefore were not current IRA members at all, but people such as civil rights activists, trade unionists, family members of IRA volunteers, and older inactive IRA veterans. (10) Second, internment bolstered the nationalist population's belief that the British wanted to protect the Protestant Loyalist population at the expense of the Catholics. In the face of internment, many moderate nationalists turned for the first time to the IRA for protection and guidance. MacStiofain explained that "the result of the internment round-up and the interrogation excesses was that the British succeeded in bringing into combat not a diminished, but a vastly reinforced Republican guerrilla army."(11)

In June 1971 Reginald Maudling, the Conservative British Home Secretary, had announced that the British government was now "at war with the IRA." (12) Republicans therefore interpreted the introduction of internment, and the subsequent passage of the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order of 1972 as British efforts to make good on their declaration of war by instituting political measures to deal with what could be termed "enemy forces." According to Michael Morgan, a political analyst writing on the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of British troops in Northern Ireland,

Internment...was never simply a narrowly defined military or security operation. It was part of a wider policy aimed at imposing a military solution and this policy -- regardless of its professed military or security objectives -- was essentially political in design. It had originated as an attempt to signal British determination to re-assert unionist authority and to overcome further nationalist resistance to that policy. (13)

Morgan argued that in the long run, the British government "transformed the conflict from a low- key anti-unionist struggle, fought within the context of Northern Ireland, into a wider nationalist struggle between the British government and the Irish people." (14)

Finally, the event which cemented the nationalists' animosity towards Britain, and which gave the Republican movement sufficient motivation and justification for its violence against British soldiers, came early in 1972. The introduction of internment had inspired many protests in Northern Ireland, but the most famous one occurred on 30 January 1972. On this day, known internationally as "Bloody Sunday," British paratroopers shot and killed 13 unarmed and non-threatening protesters in Derry City. The IRA used the incident as propaganda demonstrating the desperation and ruthlessness of Britain, and played on the idea that the protesters had been murdered in cold blood by British soldiers because the protesters got in the way of Britain's colonial war with Ireland.

Because of the continuing escalation of violence and the ineffectiveness of internment, on 24 March 1972 Prime Minister Heath announced that Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament and seat of government, would be prorogued for a year, and that the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act would set up Direct Rule. Westminster took over the day-to-day control of Northern Ireland politics, and Heath appointed William Whitelaw as the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to administer Northern Ireland's affairs (15).

Because of sustained IRA violence against the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland parliament, Gerry Adams, then a leading member of Sinn Fein, believed the IRA could take the credit for the end of Stormont: March 1972 the IRA had not only created a defensive force of unprecedented effectiveness, they had also carried out a massive offensive which had succeeded in its aim of bringing down the Stormont government. (16)

Many Republicans shared Adams' view, which has some merit. After all, Northern Ireland's executives had not been able to end the violence for which in many ways the IRA was responsible.

Others, however, were reluctant to give the IRA credit for Stormont's downfall, for to do so would have meant that accepting the power that the IRA and its campaign of violence had over Britain and its politicians. The British, for example, claimed that the Stormont government was ineffectual because the Northern Ireland prime ministers up through Faulkner had not been able to defeat the IRA through measures like internment, and consequently had not been able to restore peace. Because the lives of English soldiers were constantly at stake, it made sense for Westminster to take the reins. (17)

1 Bishop and Mallie, 90.

2 Tim Pat Coogan, Disillusioned Decades: Ireland 1966-87 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1987), 208, 216.

3 Ruairi O Bradaigh became the president of the Provisional Sinn Fein.

4 In June 1972, the Official IRA proclaimed its intention to permanently abandon the use of violence, leaving the "Provos" to carry on the armed struggle alone.

5 Sean MacStiofain, Revolutionary in Ireland (Edinburgh: Gordon Cremonesi, 1975), 142.

6 Although a large working class population exists in Northern Ireland, Marxism, in such forms as the Workers' Party and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, has never managed to become very popular. There are many reasons for this, including the suspicious nature of some of the party leaders, the fact that the doctrinaire approach of Northern Ireland Marxism alienates some people, the fact that the IRA retains many "romantic" elements, and the overall sectarian nature of the conflict which makes Protestant-Catholic alliances very difficult to achieve. Of course, Marxist theoreticians argue that such alliances across religious lines will undermine British "colonial" interests and eventually lead to a British withdrawal and the creation of an independent socialist Irish Republic.

7 Bishop and Mallie, 139, 144 and 150. It didn't help Army-IRA relations when the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, Sir Ian Freeland, announced that the British Army would shoot to kill anyone found with a petrol bomb (Bishop and Mallie, 150).

8 Danny Morrison, personal interview with authors Bishop and Mallie, 1984-7, page 173.

9 McGuffin, 85. The arrests took place early in the morning to avoid rioting and to "maximize disorientation." (Gerard Hogan and Clive Walker, Political Violence and the Law in Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 56).

10 Michael Morgan, "How the British Created the Provos," Fortnight July/August 1989, 13; McGuffin, 86-7.

11 MacStiofain, 203.

12 MacStiofain, 173.

13 Morgan, 13.

14 Morgan, 13.

15 MacStiofain, 240; Paddy Hillyard, "Law and Order," in Northern Ireland: The Background to the Conflict, ed. John Darby (Belfast: The Appletree Press, Ltd, 1983), 36.

16 Adams, 53.

17 McGuffin, 113.

The above account is copywritten (C) 1991 by Jacqueline Dana