'The Birth of the Provisionals - A Clash between Politics and Tradition' by Patrick Ryan (1999)
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The following article has been contributed by Patrick Ryan, an English and History graduate of Limerick University, who at the time of writing was completing a Masters degree on the subject of modern republicanism. The text is based on his thesis entitled, 'With a Ballot Paper in Both Hands: The Gradual Politicisation of the Provisionals'. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
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Even in the comparatively brief but traumatic history of the Northern Ireland state, shrouded as it is in dark clouds of cyclic violence, the year 1969 conjures up painful memories of a particularly turbulent period for its beleaguered citizens. As the counterculture spawned by sixties idealism played out its sad denouement world-wide before an increasingly unreceptive society whose appetite for change had gradually eroded, in the United States the inauguration of Richard Nixon ushered in a new era of conservatism and the capitalist world toasted the first man on the moon. Meanwhile, Harold Wilson’s Britain was still plagued by the legacy of her imperial past as Rhodesia opted to declare itself a republic and racial tension led to Enoch Powell’s infamous call for the repatriation of black immigrants. However, it was in what was later to become Powell’s adopted home of Northern Ireland and in particular Stormont, previously the impregnable citadel of unionist rule, that Britain’s most pressing political dilemma was beginning to emerge. For generations a farcically complex and anachronistic voting method, which disregarded the accepted western democratic principle of ‘one person - one vote’, had restricted the franchise at local government level to rate payers and their spouses and made allowances for the introduction of ‘corporate voting’. This disenfranchisement combined with a crude system of gerrymandering had ensured unionist control of almost every significant institution throughout the north and in so doing had facilitated the perpetuation of an artificial hegemony which in no way reflected the true demographic nature of the north’s six counties. The clearest illustration of this phenomenon could be found in Derry where, through the creation of artificial boundaries, a unionist dominated council was consistently returned despite the fact that more than two thirds of the city’s inhabitants were Catholic nationalists. This political alienation of the six counties’ significant Catholic minority had fuelled the consistent resentment which characterised its attitude towards the state and in particular towards Stormont which was viewed as being the embodiment of sectarianism and social stratification.
Despite this widespread nationalist dissatisfaction, Stormont rule remained intact and unchallenged save for a few significant vociferous individual protests and the constant perceived, but in reality largely nonexistent, threat posed by militant republicanism. The most notable of these individual protests was Austin Currie’s 1968 attempt to focus attention on the widespread sectarian discrimination which had characterised methods of housing allocation in Northern Ireland since the foundation of the state in 1920. Currie at the time enjoyed a high profile as the youngest ever Stormont M.P. and utilised his position to cause maximum embarrassment for Terence O’Neill’s government by occupying a house in the little Tyrone village of Caledon which had been subject to a particularly glaring example of misallocation. Although Currie’s protest did yield a limited amount of success, his actions were the exception rather than the rule during this period as Catholic acquiescence contributed in no small way to maintaining the Protestant dominated status quo. However, Currie’s protest and the publicity which it generated provided a voice for previously latent Catholic grievances and acted as a catalyst for the emergence to prominence of a large organised and articulate group of civil rights activists who collectively assumed the acronymic title NICRA.
Initially formed in January of 1967 and predominantly though not exclusively Catholic, a legacy of the immeasurably significant Labour imposed Education Act of 1947, these campaigners were inspired largely by the doctrine of peaceful protest so charismatically exemplified by Martin Luther King in the United States. On a more local level the organisation was following in the recent footsteps of The Campaign for Social Justice, formed three years previously in Dungannon under the auspices of Dr. Con McCluskey. Crucially NICRA was to be led by the then largely anonymous figures who would ultimately spearhead the north’s burgeoning nationalist labour movement into providing a refreshingly less ‘bourgeois’ alternative to the existing Nationalist Party whose policies stood manifestly indicted by the very existence of such an organisation as NICRA. Imbued with a youthful vigour and zealous indignation long dormant in northern nationalist politics, the protesters marched to right what they perceived to be the rife injustice which had resulted from successive generations of Stormont misrule. As gradual success began to be achieved the marches became more frequent as did the inevitable and frequently violent loyalist counter demonstrations. To those British observers with a genuine interest in Irish affairs a new pattern of protest was suddenly discernible. Accustomed to dealing with violent republicanism Westminster was temporarily caught off-guard by this form of peaceful protest aimed at achieving what, to the neutral observer, seemed perfectly reasonable reforms. Meanwhile, the Stormont government was equally unprepared for the turmoil which lay ahead. Led by Capt. Terence O’Neill, whose rapprochement with the Republic and apparent willingness to yield limited reforms had earned him the media sobriquet ‘the cautious crusader’, the ruling body at Stormont opted largely for a disastrous ostrich-like ‘ignore it and it will go away’ policy. Indeed within the Ulster Unionist Party and the unionist community in general there was a definite feeling that this new civil rights movement was merely an elaborate cover or trojan horse being used by the protesters to lobby for the old republican agenda of a united Ireland. Consequently, O’Neill, who regarded himself as embodying the ‘steady ground swell of moderation’ was always preoccupied with rearguard action against the ‘raucous sound of extremism’ as personified by the rapacious but increasingly influential Protestant fundamentalist and leader of the Protestant Unionist Party, Ian Paisley. With what was to become a trademark perspicacity for voicing the most visceral fears of his community, Paisley accurately encapsulated Unionist concerns when declaring that,
‘The whole Civil Rights Association is a front movement for the destruction of the constitution of Northern Ireland’
Faced with the onerous task of trying to reconcile a genuine desire to appease the nationalist population of the north, if only to improve the image of Ulster which had been greatly sullied by international media coverage of institutionalised sectarianism, with a need to placate the traditionalist almost Paisleyite views of many sections of his own party, O’Neill, perhaps inevitably, fell between two stools. Consequently, for all his apparent good intentions O’Neill’s liberalism and frugal benevolence merely served to intensify his alienation from both sides of a society so radically imbalanced and inherently sectarian that the ‘groundswell of moderation’ he claimed to represent, simply did not exist. For the more radical nationalist protesters the tardy pace and what they, understandably, in the context of the controversies surrounding the findings of the Lockwood Committee and the location and christening of the new town of Craigavon, perceived to be the cosmetic nature of change, illustrated that in reality very little had changed.
Therefore, when O’Neill announced during his famous declaration of December 7 1968 that Ulster was ‘at a crossroads’, the full implication of his sense of foreboding was clearly not appreciated by the majority. Initially however, his emotional and heartfelt appeal to the people of Ulster and a concerted public relations exercise by his ever dwindling faction of supporters within the U.U.P. did strike a chord with the majority of the north’s citizens and succeeded in granting O’Neill some temporary respite. NICRA responded favourably with a self-imposed moratorium on protest marches and the dismissal of the extremist Home Affairs minister William Craig briefly signalled a fleeting reversal in fortune for the beleaguered O’Neill whose future tenure still looked ominously fated as the province braced itself for the tempestuous year ahead. In fact, it was immediately clear that not all disgruntled nationalists were wholly convinced of the sincerity of O’Neill’s speech or indeed of his willingness to grant meaningful change. For Derry socialist and civil rights activist Eamonn McCann, O’Neill’s speech was worthless in that it did not contain even a conciliatory gesture on the key issue of universal franchise and was curtly dismissed as representing little more than, ‘ten minutes of emotional cliches.’
McCann’s view was by no means an isolated one particularly within the ranks of the P.D. whose subsequent New Year’s Day march and its ensuing repercussions did much to precipitate O’Neill’s eventual demise. In fact the prime-minister’s reign only lasted a further four months as the following April, under severe pressure from disillusioned nationalists, Westminster and particularly from Unionist hardliners within his own party and the growing band of increasingly rabid Paisleyites without, the hapless O’Neill chose to resign leaving as his legacy a province in turmoil. However, the marches, protests and counter-protests continued apace as the civil rights movement in the north and the subsequent unrest which ensued from its actions become a staple of media coverage worldwide. The most significant of these protests like those in Derry and Belfast during the turbulent Summer of 1969, organised and led by NICRA in conjunction with newly formed groups like the more radical People’s Democracy and Derry Citizen’s Action Committee in direct response to the traditionally provocative Orange marching season, were to have an enormous impact on every spectrum of life in Northern Ireland. The Catholic communities of the Clonard area of Belfast and the Bogside in Derry were subjected to ruthless and devastating pogroms carried out by their Protestant neighbours as relations between the communities reached a calamitous nadir which infamously resulted in Europe’s largest enforced movement of population since the cessation of the second world war and the almost total razing Belfast’s Bombay Street. The lingering repercussions of the so called ‘Battle of the Bogside’ and the Belfast riots can still be felt in northern politics today as republicans ever mindful of their previous impotence in the face of loyalist attacks maintain a recalcitrant reluctance to decommission. However, the most immediate consequence of this widespread disorder was the reawakening of the long since dormant republican movement. If Ulster was, as O’Neill had intimated, ‘at a crossroads’ during this period, then the republican movement in its various guises seemed to be confined to a particularly inauspicious looking cul-de-sac from which it showed no signs of returning.
The late fifties and early sixties had been a bleak period for the republican movement as it finally confronted the harsh reality that its aspirations and methods of achieving same, were no longer representative of those of the Irish people as a whole. Indeed it was becoming apparent that the movement no longer enjoyed the support of the majority of even northern nationalists and republicans, the very people their struggle was designed to liberate. Consequently it had come as no surprise when the announcement by the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau of the cessation of military activity on 26 February 1962 which marked the end of ‘Operation Harvest’, the movement’s failed border campaign, cited this lack of support as the principal reason for the decision taken. In time honoured republican tradition arms were dumped until a future date when the minds of the Irish people would no longer be,
‘deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people - the unity and freedom of Ireland’,
as the movement’s statement reluctantly acknowledged they had now become. This forthright acknowledgement by the movement illustrated its realisation that armed struggle could not succeed without a defined support group or political foundation.
Therefore, the aftermath of the disastrous border campaign saw the republican movement disillusioned and clearly divided over its potential capacity to remain an exclusively militant catalyst for change. There were many within the movement who felt that a change of direction was required and with the appointment of Cathal Goulding as IRA Chief of Staff later that year, the republican movement began a period of radical and painful restructuring. Goulding, who having been imprisoned for the early years of the border campaign was regarded as being unaccountable for its dismal failure, possessed a reputation as a solid republican and was thus the obvious choice for a post which in truth was becoming increasingly unappealing. Although realising that he had inherited something of a poisoned chalice, Goulding to his credit brought an unprecedentedly enterprising approach to the leadership of the movement. Conscious of a vacuum in leftist politics, particularly in the south, he began to encourage, initially through the newly formed Wolfe Tone Societies, a comprehensive reorganisation of political republicanism. Sinn Fein was to play a more important role in future agitation and under new president Tomas MacGiolla was to be revitalised as part of what the new leadership envisaged would be a gradual embracement of the established political system in the south, a prospect which had long been anathema to hardline republicans on both sides of the border.
The precise nature of the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein had been outlined earlier in the year when a confrontation between previous Sinn Fein president Patrick McLogan and the IRA army council over the termination of the movement’s armed campaign had brought matters to a head. It was now to be formally acknowledged that,
‘... the army council was the supreme government of the Republic and the supreme authority in the republican movement’ 
and furthermore that Sinn Fein although an ‘autonomous and independent organisation’ paradoxically had to ensure that its policy coincided at all times with that of the Army Council if it wished to remain a viable part of the republican movement. This definition of the subservient role to be played by Sinn Fein, although it led to some prominent resignations, was largely representative of the general belief in the republican movement that politics was an alien concept useful at times but to be generally regarded with suspicion. In spite of this widespread mistrust of politics in the ranks of the republicanism the new leadership at the movement’s headquarters in Gardiner Place were determined to drag republicanism, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a new era.
Goulding and MacGiolla, becoming increasingly influenced by figures like Anthony Coughlan and Roy Johnston, both Trinity academics with somewhat Marxist ideals and a background in the James Connolly Society, sought to reduce the movement’s emphasis on militancy and to introduce a new left-wing political agenda designed to eliminate sectarianism and unite the north’s proletariat behind a common cause. This ‘Stages Theory’ as it became known became official policy for the republican movement during the mid-sixties, however, the new leadership becoming increasingly Marxist in its outlook also began to restrict its focus largely to matters outside of the northern dilemma. Issues like inadequate inner-city housing, resisting the stranglehold of foreign capitalists on Irish assets and campaigning for fishing rights had little to do with the traditional struggle and served only to alienate grassroots republicans particularly in the north where a straight ‘Brits Out’ ethos remained ingrained in the psyche. Johnson in particular, with his middle class Protestant background and radical Marxism which displayed scant respect for the doctrine of pious Catholicism and the importance of its traditional role in the history of Irish republicanism, was a source of constant suspicion and concern to what remained of the movement’s rank and file. This was particularly true in the north where the general feeling at the time was succinctly summarised by ‘Spearhead - Voice of Republican North’, a local newssheet launched by young republicans including Gerry Adams which adopted as its maxim, ‘We serve neither crown nor Kremlin but Ireland’. Despite this growing disillusionment with the leadership’s new direction, Johnson’s rather utopian vision of class unity and an end to sectarianism continued to be shared by those in positions of authority at Gardiner Place . Consequently few were startled when, at the annual Bodenstown commemoration in 1967, Goulding crystallised the movement’s new ideology when publicly denouncing the traditional republican reliance on ‘physical force’ and voicing the need for a radical new socialist agenda. Meanwhile, to those activists confronted everyday with the harsh realities of life in the north in the mid-sixties, the very idea of working class solidarity leading to the elimination of sectarianism was at best wildly optimistic. In reality, relations between the two communities were steadily deteriorating as was made manifest by the reformation of the U.V.F. in 1966 in response to the sudden appearance of Republican Clubs throughout the North which sparked fears in the Protestant community that an IRA backlash might be imminent to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. In reality these fears were completely unfounded, however, as the most defiant gesture which militant republicanism could muster to mark the occasion was the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in the centre of Dublin. Even this ‘operation’ was carried out by a maverick group working without the sanction of the leadership whose attention was now focussed on issues like whether or not the saying of the rosary at commerations was a defunct sectarian gesture which had no role to play in the future cross community republican movement. This notion had first been suggested by Roy Johnson in an open letter to the United Irishman, the republican newspaper first brought out in 1947, and drew vehement criticism from traditionalists like Sean MacStiofain who was briefly suspended from the movement for his open dissent. However, MacStiofain’s defiance was merely symptomatic of the growing disrespect for the Goulding/MacGiolla leadership, a contempt which was ultimately to lead to revolt.
The emergence of the civil rights movement in the north and the, albeit limited, success which it initially enjoyed was afforded a guarded welcome by the Gardiner Place leadership who viewed this development as further affirmation that politics could indeed bring about change. However, support for the predominantly Catholic civil rights protesters was tempered by a reluctance to become overly involved in a situation which was destined to antagonise the Protestant community which Johnson’s ‘Stages Theory’ sought to embrace and a marked determination to remain aloof from anything which had the potential to draw the movement back into a conflict for which it was woefully ill-equipped . Therefore, when the Catholic enclaves of Derry and Belfast came under siege in August 1969 and the clarion call went out to the traditional Catholic defenders of the IRA, it was in effect a call which the new politicised and almost completely demilitarised movement was completely incapable of answering. In fact Liam McMillen, head of what remained of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and loyal to the Dublin leadership, although acutely aware of the dissension which the movement’s inactivity would engender amongst its grassroots support, also felt than any ill-prepared action by his men might serve only to exacerbate rather than improve the predicament of those under siege.
‘... use of the meagre armaments... at our disposal would only serve to justify the use of greater force against the people by the forces of the establishment and increase the danger of sectarian pogroms’
Therefore, although newly formed and largely republican inspired movements like the Central Citizens Defence Committee did provide some temporary relief for the beleaguered, frequently with covert and highly controversial monetary assistance from Fianna Fail government sources south of the border who hoped to divert attention away from political socialism in the Republic, the overriding impression amongst the north’s Catholic population was that it had been left largely defenceless and highly vulnerable. Indeed the harsh reality of the situation was brought home to northern republicans by the appearance of a wall in nationalist Belfast newly emblazoned with the now famous ‘I Ran Away’ graffiti which symbolized the contempt in which the organisation was now held. Shattering though this development undoubtedly was to veteran republican activists like Joe Cahill and Jimmy Steele, suspended from the movement the previous month for publicly voicing his disillusionment with its growing communist influence at a commemoration in Mullingar, it was nothing compared to the sight of a British Army being warmly welcomed on to the streets of Belfast by a grateful Catholic population who no longer viewed them as the enemy but as heroic liberators. As Steele’s acerbic commemoration speech had clearly illustrated, northerners were in no doubt about who was to blame for the sorry situation in which the republican movement found itself,
‘The ultimate aim of the Irish nation will never emerge from the political or constitutional platform. Indeed one is now expected to be more conversant with the teaching of Chairman Mao than those of our dead patriots’,
and they were scarcely reassured by Goulding’s contention that the British army’s arrival would ultimately lead to the reform or overthrow of the old Stormont regime and could therefore be seen as a useful catalyst for the eventual fulfilment of the ‘Stages Theory’. However, in a pattern which was to repeat itself frequently over the next thirty years, it was the issue of abstentionism which finally brought matters to a head and ensured that previously latent grievances and recriminations as previously outlined by Jimmy Steele surfaced in a manner which made a split in the republican movement inevitable.
With the benefit of hindsight the decision of those at Gardiner Place to actively continue to push the political agenda forward throughout 1969, a period of great sensitivity and disillusionment within republicanism, now seems misguided in the extreme. To northern republicans in the eye of a formidable storm it seemed that events in Belfast or Derry were constantly far removed from the thoughts of Goulding and the rest of the largely southern leadership. However, headquarters, whilst not unsympathetic to the northerners concerns were also coming under increasing pressure from those within the movement who had fully embraced the new agenda to implement the necessary changes which would allow Sinn Fein to become a viable political entity. For many of these politically minded activists the major concern was the lack of electoral recognition for the party’s work on issues like inadequate inner city housing. A seminal article in the November 1968 issue of the United Irishman entitled ‘The Dilemma of Sinn Fein’ had first highlighted the fact that the Irish Labour Party, working to a similar agenda, had reaped the benefits of their policies whilst Sinn Fein, without a defined electoral base within the urban working class, through its continued policy of abstentionism had singularly failed to do so. Therefore, a nine point proposal was drawn up by Sean Garland, a veteran of the Border Campaign who now embodied the movement’s shift in emphasis, which put forward the case for the party taking seats in Dail Eireann. Controversially this would mean a movement away from what had previously been regarded as the almost inviolable policy of abstentionism which had been enshrined in Irish republican doctrine since day one. This new proposal of Garland’s was to be put before the meetings of the Army Council and Sinn Fein due to be held in December of 1969. Due to radical restructuring of the IRA army council the previous year designed to bolster support for HQ, few doubted that the new proposals would gather the majority support required for their implementation. This was seen as the final insult by northern hardliners and on 22 September during a scheduled meeting of Liam McMillen’s Belfast Brigade these militant dissidents finally took matters into their own hands. Armed with what meagre resources they could muster sixteen men led by Billy McKee, Jimmy Steele and the Kelly brothers effectively seized control of the Belfast IRA. Left with little option McMillen was compelled to accept a compromise which was designed to ensure that the traditionalists of the Belfast Brigade would play no part in the Dublin leadership’s attempts to draw the movement ever deeper into the mire of futile and divisive politics which they maintained had become an impediment to rather than a catalyst for the ultimate goal of British disengagement from Ireland.
Despite this obvious and mushrooming dissension within the ranks the leadership opted to press ahead with their plans for change. In mid-December Garland’s proposals, which legislated for the establishment of a National Liberation Front to consist of Sinn Fein and several other small and largely insignificant left wing groups like the Irish Communist Party, were put before the IRA Army Council, minus the new official Belfast delegation who now regarded themselves as totally separate from the continued follies of the Dublin leadership. Despite a spirited but ultimately futile attempt by widely respected figures like Sean MacStiofain to have the proposals rejected, the meeting ratified the establishment of the N.L.F. and most controversially of all in a move which made a split inevitable voted to abolish the policy of abstentionism and to formally recognise the governments of Dublin, Stormont and Westminster which republicans had hitherto dismissed as puppet parliaments. The full bearing of the IRA’s decision to afford legitimacy to these governments was not lost on the dissidents who believed that the movement was corralling itself into embarking on the well worn and tainted path previously travelled by the reviled Fianna Fail and Clann na Pobhlachta parties. History had shown successive generations of republicans that this was a point of no return, once these parliaments had been formally acknowledged henceforth any moral justification which the republican movement had claimed for its previous military actions would now become defunct. No longer could the IRA claim that it was acting in conjunction with the will of the Irish people as a whole as expressed in the historic general election of 1919. This had long been the source from which republicans drew moral authority for their actions as was later clearly outlined in the Provisionals’ standing orders or Green Book.
‘The moral position of the Irish Republican Army, its right to engage in warfare is based on ...... (c) the direct lineal succession with the Provisional Government of 1916, the first Dail of 1919 and the second Dail of 1921....[which] declared that if enemy action reduced its ranks to a minimum, the remaining Deputies should hand over executive powers of government to the Army of the Republic which would constitute itself as a provisional government.’
For Goulding et al this was no longer an issue, they believed that militancy had proved ineffective and was no longer a viable option, meanwhile, abstentionism was merely seen as cumbersome historical baggage which was hindering progress towards the establishment of an effective socialist movement. The meeting ended abruptly with a walkout by a small group of those opposed to the movement’s new direction led by Sean MacStiofain who emotionally informed those remaining that they were no longer a part of the legitimate IRA. Inevitably a similar scene followed at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin on 11 January 1970, where despite the best efforts of MacStiofain and Ruairi O’Bradaigh, who eventually led the subsequent walkout, the changes were eventually approved by the party membership but not, however, by the normally required two thirds majority. However, when the largely cosmetic exercise of a vote of confidence in the leadership of the movement was subsequently initiated those who had voted against the motion finally withdrew from the conference hall and emerged to inform the expectant media scrum that the movement had irrevocably split and that they would be ‘setting up our own’.
Consequently the split was now not only irreversible but public too as the gathered media captured the dramatic events unfolding at the Intercontinental Hotel. Those who had left with the intention of ‘setting up their own’ movement realised the importance of utilising tradition in order to justify their actions and also as an adhesive to band together the various disparate elements who now found themselves united by a rather tenuous premise, namely, a mistrust of the policies pursued by the Goulding leadership. In order to re-emphasise precisely how they believed the leadership of the movement to have betrayed the cause of Irish republicanism, one of the first actions of the dissidents was to travel to Mayo for a meeting with the veteran republican Tom McGuire. As the last surviving dissident member of the second independent Dail of 1922 which had fractured over the signing of the treaty, McGuire was seen as the custodian of the flame of true republicanism and as symbolically providing the only direct lineage to the signatories of the 1916 declaration of the republic. The decision of the aged McGuire to give his backing to the dissidents meant that the Provisional Army Council, as they would style themselves, could now claim to represent the legitimate government of Ireland and the cause of true Irish republicanism.
So as the turbulent sixties ended the new decade ushered in a period of dramatic change in the structure, nature and nomenclature of the republican movement. The momentous events of 1969 and the epic clash between politics and tradition which they engendered within the republican movement gave birth to the Provisionals. From the ashes of Bombay Street a new breed of republican had emerged to be guided by a more atavistic leadership which was uncompromisingly militant and unashamedly anti-political in its outlook. Irish republicanism and indeed life in Northern Ireland would never be the same again.
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