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'The Birth of the Provisionals - A Clash between Politics and Tradition' by Patrick Ryan (2001)

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The following article (written 1999, revised 2001) has been contributed by Patrick Ryan, an English and History graduate of Limerick University, who completed a Ph.D. on the subject of modern republicanism. The text below is based on his thesis entitled: 'A Ballot Paper in Both Hands - The Gradual Politicisation of the Provisional Republican Movement'. 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.

This article is copyright (© 2001) of Patrick Ryan and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The Birth of the Provisionals
- A Clash Between Politics and Tradition

Patrick Ryan

Institutionalised Sectarian Discrimination

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 worldwide 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 violent disturbances in Rhodesia and Anguilla resulted in both colonies declaring republics and racial tension led to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ diatribe calling 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. Of course 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. Malpractice by government departments, particularly in the areas of housing and education were also widespread. This institutionalised sectarian discrimination was a carefully calculated policy initiative which had been used since the foundation of the state to ensure Protestant ascendancy. Indeed it was a practice which had earned unconstrained public endorsement from those who would later graduate to the highest echelons of ministerial power at Stormont: ‘I recommend those people who are Loyalists not to employ Roman Catholics, 99 per cent of whom are disloyal; ... in regard to the employment of people who are disloyal. ... You are disenfranchising yourselves in that way. ... You people who are employers have the ball at your feet. If you don't act properly now ... we shall find ourselves in the minority instead of the majority.1 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. Much of this meek acceptance of their lot by northern Catholics had resulted from decades of discrimination so blatant and ingrained that it became a ritual few even bothered to question or as Cathal Goulding explained: ‘As a result of the unionist ‘super race’ complex and its attendant bigotries, the Catholics had a kind of sub race spirit ... due to something within their own minds they were a beaten people’. 2 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 Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

Initially formed on 29 January 1967 the NICRA emerged from an 8 November 1966 meeting of republican and labour activists addressed by Kadar Asmal, the president of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and Ciarán Mac an Áilí, a Dublin solicitor and president of the Irish Pacifist Association. Predominantly, though not exclusively Catholic, it was a legacy of the immeasurably significant Labour imposed Education Act of 1947 and was 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. In partnership with his wife Patricia amongst others, McCluskey produced a series of significant pamphlets highlighting sectarian discrimination in the North. Crucially, NICRA was to be led by 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. With an ageing and increasingly conservative membership the Nationalist Party’s record whilst in ‘official opposition’ 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 usually violent ‘One Taig No Vote’ loyalist counterdemonstrations. 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.

The Differing Responses of Moderate and Extreme Unionism

Led by Capt. Terence O’Neill, whose rapprochement with the Republic 3 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. This contention was later categorically dismissed by the Cameron Commission Report, published on 12 September 1969 which clearly stated that although members of the IRA did act as stewards for the march, ‘There is no sign that they are in any sense dominant or in a position to control or direct the policy of the Civil Rights Association’. Similarly, the Scarman Tribunal Report, published on 6 April 1972, concluded that the IRA ‘did not start the riots, or plan them: indeed, the evidence is that the IRA was taken by surprise and did less than many of their supporters thought they should have done.’ However, the perception lingered and consequently, O’Neill, who regarded himself as embodying the ‘steady ground swell of moderation’ was always preoccupied with rearguard action in the battle for the soul of Unionism against the ‘raucous sound of extremism’, as personified by the rapacious but increasingly influential Protestant fundamentalist and founder 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 encapsulated Unionist concerns when declaring that, ’the whole Civil Rights Association is a front movement for the destruction of the constitution of Northern Ireland’ 4

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 the so called ‘Portadown Parliament’ within his own party, O’Neill, perhaps inevitably, fell between two stools. Consequently, for all his apparent good intentions O’Neill’s liberalism, moderate ecumenism 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 perceived tardy pace and cosmetic nature of change, as evidenced by the controversies surrounding the findings of the Lockwood Committee 5 and the location and christening of the new town of Craigavon, illustrated that in reality very little had changed. Therefore, when O’Neill announced during his famous declaration of 7 December 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 UUP 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 whilst support from the groundswell of moderate unionism manifested itself in the form of a hugely successful Belfast Telegraph ‘I’m backing O’Neill’ campaign which appeared to signal that despite Paisleyite scaremongering the greater unionist community was prepared to countenance qualified change. Determined to capitalise on this fleeting reversal of fortune, O’Neill subsequently oversaw the dismissal of the extremist Home Affairs minister William Craig who had been closely aligned with Ian Paisley and epitomised everything progressive unionism wished to purge from its image.

Consequently, encouraged by the relative decline in street disturbances following O’Neill’s appeal, many moderates in both communities hoped that riding out the storm might yet prove possible for the beleaguered O’Neill whose future tenure, however, 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 tersely dismissed as representing little more than, ‘ten minutes of emotional cliches.’ 6

McCann’s view was by no means an isolated one particularly within the ranks of the radical student led People’s Democracy (PD) whose subsequent New Year’s Day march and its ensuing repercussions at Burntollet on 4 January did much to precipitate O’Neill’s eventual demise and also to crystallize the civil rights movement’s alienation from the Protestant community.

    There was the makings of a coming together in the early NICRA, with the common ground being the property franchise in local government. The early NICRA had significant Protestant TU and liberal support. This was all wrecked by the Peoples Democracy people who thought the socialist revolution was round the corner and they ran that coat-trailing march up through those little Protestant Antrim towns, leading inevitably to Burntollet. The effect of this was subsequently to restrict Civil Rights support to the Catholic ghettoes7
However, such concerns were far from the minds of these more iconoclastic protesters who were motivated by a sense of irreconcilable alienation from their prime-minister who, with his unstinting penchant for hubris and patronising aura of the landed gentry, was characterised as promising much but delivering little of real substance. Michael Farrell, Bernadette Devlin and other key figures within the PD stressed the need for continued pressure on the administration contending that reliance on unionist goodwill was simply not an option particularly as O’Neill, despite the dismissal of Craig, was unlikely to survive any attempt to browbeat hardliners within his own government into delivering meaningful change. This scenario became all too evident when, following the resignation of his deputy Brian Faulkner, O’Neill called an election the following February. The subsequent decision by the electorate to return eleven anti-O’Neill unionists fatally undermined the authority of the party leader. In fact O’Neill’s period in office only lasted a further two months as that April, under severe pressure from disillusioned nationalists, Westminster and particularly from Unionist hardliners both within his own party and the increasingly rabid Paisleyites without, the hapless O’Neill chose to resign leaving as his legacy a province in turmoil.

Ironically, the final nail in O’Neill’s political coffin had been inadvertently installed by the then militarily obsolete IRA, as a series of bombings of economic targets, later discovered to be the work of members of Ian Paisley-linked Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), was attributed to the Republican movement. Naturally, these bombings had simply compounded Unionist discontentment with O’Neill particularly as he now appeared to be appeasing terrorists by continuing to introduce reforms, the most notable of these being the controversial announcement of the long awaited introduction of universal suffrage. This announcement, combined with the appointment of the Cameron Commission to investigate the civil rights movement’s activities and to examine the legitimacy of many of its grievances, did much to assuage the original NICRA demands. However, by mid-1969 the stakes had been raised considerably and therefore, despite these developments and the British government enforced relatively liberal policies of O’Neill’s successor Major James Chichester-Clark, the marches, protests and counter-protests continued apace. Furthermore, the civil rights movement in the North and the subsequent unrest which ensued from its actions had now 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 Bogside in Derry and particularly the Clonard area of Belfast were subjected to ruthless and devastating pogroms carried out by their Protestant neighbours, frequently with the tacit assistance of the RUC and 'B Specials'. As a result relations between the communities reached a calamitous nadir which, when the smoke had eventually cleared, had induced Europe’s largest enforced movement of population since the cessation of the Second World War and, most infamously, seen the almost total razing of 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 and profound 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 cul-de-sac from which it showed no signs of returning.

Rebuilding the Republican Movement

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. The Republic’s general election held on 4 October 1961 illustrated clearly this public disillusionment as Sinn Féin polled less than three percent of the national vote. Furthermore, 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 the movement’s failed border campaign, cited this lack of support as the principal reason for the decision taken. In time honoured republican tradition whilst renewing its ‘pledge of eternal hostility to the British forces of occupation in Ireland’, the leadership decreed that arms be 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’, 8 as the movement’s statement reluctantly acknowledged they had now become. This forthright acknowledgement by the movement illustrated an awareness of its limitations and a 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 republicanism 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. Many of these new ideas came from within the prisons which traditionally had been the breeding ground for new ideas and progressive thinking in the republican movement. 9 Goulding, who having been imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for the early years of the border campaign was regarded as being unaccountable for its dismal failure and was better placed than most to consider the movement’s shortcomings from a position of detachment. With an impeccable republican background including a Fenian grandfather, a father who was a veteran of the Easter Rising and a personal lifelong involvement with the movement which stretched back to membership of Na Fianna Eireann as a teenager in the late thirties, Goulding was the obvious choice for the post, recently vacated by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. A position 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 Republic, he began to encourage, initially through the newly formed Wolfe Tone Societies, a comprehensive reorganisation of political republicanism. Sinn Féin was to play a more important role in future agitation. Under its new president Tomás MacGiolla, the party was to be revitalised as part of what the new leadership saw as a gradual process towards recognizing the legitimacy 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 Féin had been outlined during an IRA / Sinn Féin summit on 13 May 1962 when a confrontation between erstwhile Sinn Féin president Paddy 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’ 10 and furthermore that Sinn Féin 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. 11 This definition of the subservient role to be played by Sinn Féin, although it led to some prominent resignations, McLogan and Tony Magan included, 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, the new leadership at the movement’s headquarters in Dublin’s Gardiner Place was determined to drag republicanism, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a new era.

At this time Goulding and MacGiolla were becoming increasingly influenced by figures like Anthony Coughlan and Roy Johnston, both academics with Marxist ideals and a background in the British Connolly Association. 12 Throughout the 1960s the Connolly Association was urging a three-pronged strategy as a means of peacefully achieving Irish independence. Initially it was envisaged that a cross-community pressure group be formed to highlight and protest against social inequity in the Six Counties. The second stage of the theory was to exert sufficient pressure on the government in the south to be more forceful on the issue of ending partition. Finally in Britain, the Association hoped to generate sufficient support for the idea of Irish independence amongst the British labour classes to exert an influence on Westminster. Incorporating these ideals into the republican movement, Goulding 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. A key element of this strategy was to lobby for the introduction of a bill of rights which would legalise and legitimize republican political activity. Once this had been accomplished, it was envisaged that republicans could unite Protestant and Catholic working class, farmers and small businessmen in acceptance of a socialist united Ireland. This long-term strategy was adopted as official policy for the republican movement during the mid-1960s as Gardiner Place began to seek a more imaginative approach to the national question. Although the republican movement did play a minor role in the stewarding of civil rights marches, the new leadership, becoming increasingly Marxist in its outlook, began to broaden its scope and to consider matters other than the northern dilemma which was increasingly recognised as being a source of constant tension and division. As interest was rekindled in the 1930s socialist writings of Peadar O’Donnell, issues like inadequate inner-city housing, resisting the stranglehold of foreign capitalists on Irish assets and campaigning for fishing rights began to be addressed. However, not all were convinced by the leadership’s preoccupation with what were largely perceived as trivial issues which 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 deeply ingrained in the psyche. Johnston 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 news-sheet launched by young republicans including Gerry Adams, which adopted as its maxim, ‘We serve neither crown nor Kremlin but Ireland.’ 13

An emerging North-South divide

Despite this growing disillusionment with the leadership’s new direction, Johnston and Coughlan’s rather utopian vision of class unity, a phenomenon not witnessed in the North since the frequently cited occasion in 1933 when workers on the Falls and the Shankill rioted together over the issue of ‘outdoor relief’, 14 generating an end to sectarianism continued to be shared by those in positions of authority at Gardiner Place. Consequently, there were few prominent dissenting voices when, at the annual Bodenstown commemoration in 1967, Goulding crystallised the movement’s new ideology by publicly denouncing the traditional republican reliance on ‘physical force’ and voicing the need for a radical new socialist agenda to unite the island’s proletariat. However, to those activists confronted every day with the harsh realities of life in the North in the mid-1960s, the very idea of working class solidarity leading to the elimination of sectarianism seemed at best wildly optimistic. As a politically aware young Northerner Danny Morrison recalls at the time concluding that,

‘It simply wasn’t realistic at that time in areas like the Falls which had already been politicised by incidences like Paisley threatening to march through the area to remove a tricolour. It was a hybrid situation. People would have been following the Viet Nam war and the struggle for civil rights by blacks in America so all of this informed your attitude and helped develop your politics. So although I would have had progressive leftist politics internationally when it came to the domestic situation I sympathised with those people who were willing to defend the area.' 15

In reality, relations between the two communities were steadily deteriorating as had been made manifest the previous year by the reorganisation of the U.V.F. who were soon to make their presence felt with a dual sectarian murder in Belfast’s Malvern Street which was to act as a catalyst for much of the violence to come. This re-establishment, although links to Carson’s original volunteers were a little tenuous, was in response to the sudden appearance of Republican Clubs throughout the North which had sparked fears in the Protestant community that an IRA backlash might be imminent to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. In truth these fears were completely unfounded, however, as the most defiant gesture which militant republicanism could muster to mark the occasion was the symbolic destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in the centre of Dublin. Even this ‘operation’ was performed by a renegade group working without the sanction of the official leadership who now regarded manoeuvres such as bank raids, carried out by maverick republicans like Richard Behal and the Saor Eire Action Group, as being something of an embarrassment. In fact, within Gardiner Place attention was now focussed on theoretical issues like whether or not the saying of the rosary at commemorations 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 Johnston in an open letter to the United Irishman, the republican newspaper first brought out in 1947, and drew vehement criticism from traditionalists like Seán MacStiofáin who was briefly suspended from the movement for his open dissent. Indeed MacStiofáin, London born and raised with a background as a former Royal Air Force conscript was rapidly becoming the most vociferous opponent of any attempt by the Dublin leadership to deviate from traditional republican ideals. Consequently Goulding, formerly a close comrade who had been imprisoned with MacStiofáin following an abortive 1951 raid on the armoury of Felsted Public School in Essex, became increasingly hostile to his former colleague dismissing his criticism as further evidence that, ‘he was continually trying to prove that he is as much an Irishman as anyone else.’ 16 However, McStiofáin’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.

‘Certainly for republicans who were involved, civil rights were never seen as an end in themselves. They were seen as remedying real abuses which oppressed people, while simultaneously opening up a way to shatter Ulster unionism, which had been a monolith for 50 years, and advancing the possibility for the triumph of democracy for the whole of Ireland’. 17

However, support for the predominantly Catholic civil rights protesters was tempered by a reluctance to become embroiled in a situation which was destined to antagonise the Protestant community which the new republican strategy 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, who had remained loyal to the Goulding leadership and Commanding Officer of what remained of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, although acutely aware of the dissension which the movement’s inactivity would engender amongst its grassroots support, also felt that 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’. 18

Therefore, although newly formed and largely republican inspired movements like the Central Citizens Defence Committee, under the guidance of McMillen’s deputy Jim Sullivan, did provide some temporary relief for the beleaguered, the overriding impression amongst the North’s Catholic population was that it had been left largely defenceless and highly vulnerable. These emergency committees were frequently funded by covert monetary assistance from Fianna Fáil government sources south of the border. The response of the Dublin government to development in the North had initially been quite dramatic with Taoiseach Lynch, pressurised into action by the Neil Blaney/Kevin Boland/Charles Haughey faction within his party, declaring on national television that Stormont misrule was responsible for the disturbances and that his government ‘could not stand by’ whilst events accelerated out of control. Nevertheless, despite this initial bravado, Lynch, aside from the installation of military field hospitals at the border, was reluctant to become involved and preferred to let the situation gradually defuse itself. However, the hawks in his cabinet were not so easily placated and ultimately their independent actions led to the high profile dismissal of two government ministers and Haughey’s subsequent prosecution in what became known as the ‘Arms Trial’. Meanwhile, Goulding maintained that the provision of such assistance from the south was merely an attempt to distract attention away from the development of socialist politics in the Republic, perhaps even precipitating a split in the movement. However, in the North such political concerns were no longer relevant as the harsh reality of the movement’s loss of credibility was brought home by the hastily altered appearance of a prominent wall in nationalist Belfast newly emblazoned with the now famous ‘I Ran Away’ graffiti symbolizing the contempt in which the organisation was now held. This development was undoubtedly shattering for 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. However, 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.19 Consequently, they were scarcely reassured by Goulding’s sanguine contention that the British army’s arrival would ultimately lead to the reform of the old Stormont regime and could therefore be seen as a useful catalyst for the eventual fulfilment of the new republican strategy. 20 By the end of the summer of 1969 any rhetoric from the southern leadership concerning the issue of uniting both sides of the north’s polarised community was being greeted with open disdain by northern republicans who claimed with some justification that Gardiner Place had lost touch with reality. This impression was further enforced when on 9 September Prime Minister Chichester-Clark, at the behest of an increasingly disillusioned British government, announced the impending construction in Belfast of what were to be euphemistically termed ‘peace lines’. These concrete barriers between the Catholic and Protestant communities were to prove an enduring symbol of division and are still firmly in place more than thirty years after their construction. Yet for northern republicans the peace lines proved to be a unifying edifice which reenforced an urgent need to displace a leadership which had sacrificed its community in the pursuit of a series of chimerical ideals adopted merely to provide a smokescreen masking the harsh reality that it had no longer had the stomach for the real fight against British imperialism.

A Split in the Movement

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 formerly 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 not just northern but nationwide republicanism, now seems misguided in the extreme: ‘... Failure to provide adequate defence combined with the mishandling of an unprecedented opportunity to move the entire situation on was bad enough. But when circumstances dictated and cried out for a leadership capable of unifying progressives, anti-imperialists, republicans, socialists and nationalists, the republican leadership dithered’. 21 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 was 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 Féin 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 Féin’ had first highlighted the fact that the Irish Labour Party, working to a similar agenda, had reaped the benefits of their policies whilst Sinn Féin, without a defined electoral base within the urban working class, due to its continued policy of abstentionism had singularly failed to do so. Therefore, a nine point proposal was drawn up by Seán Garland, a committed Dublin republican and veteran of the border campaign who now embodied the movement’s shift in emphasis, which discussed methods of encouraging ‘social agitation’ and put forward the case for the party taking seats in Dáil 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 Féin due to be held in December of 1969. Given the radical restructuring of the IRA army council which had taken place the previous year in an attempt 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 and staged what effectively amounted to a coup d’état. Armed with what meagre resources they could muster sixteen men led by Billy McKee, Jimmy Steele and the Kelly brothers seized control of the Belfast IRA citing the recent lack of leadership provided by McMillen and his deputy Jim Sullivan as justification for their action. Left with little option McMillen was compelled to accept a compromise which meant the withdrawal of the Belfast Brigade’s cooperation with the Dublin leadership and the expenditure of all available funds on arms for the protection of northern Catholics. This action 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. In Dublin, the news of this development was regarded as a setback but not one which was wholly unexpected. Relations between Goulding and the Belfast republicans, including McMillen, were frequently uneasy and, in any case, latent tension had been simmering within the Belfast Brigade since the 1963 dispute which had culminated in the deposition of Billy McKee as Officer Commanding (OC). 22

Therefore, despite this obvious and mushrooming dissension within the ranks the leadership opted to press ahead with their plans for change. In mid-December 1969, Garland’s proposals, which catered for the establishment of a National Liberation Front to consist of Sinn Féin 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 Seán MacStiofáin 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 almost inevitable, voted to abolish the policy of abstentionism and to formally recognize the governments of Dublin, Stormont and Westminster which republicans had hitherto dismissed as puppet parliaments.

The full significance of the IRA’s decision to afford legitimacy to these governments was not lost on the dissidents who believed that the movement was embarking on the well worn and tainted path previously travelled by the reviled Fianna Fáil 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 Dáil of 1919 and the second Dáil 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.’ 23

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 Seán MacStiofáin who emotionally informed those remaining that they were no longer a part of the legitimate IRA Inevitably, a similar scene followed at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held in Dublin on 11 January 1970, where despite the best efforts of MacStiofáin and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who eventually led the subsequent walkout, the changes were finally approved by the party membership but not, however, by the two thirds majority required for an alteration of the party’s constitution. However, when the largely cosmetic exercise of a vote of confidence in the leadership of the movement was subsequently initiated so that the new amendments could be ratified by a simple majority, 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’.

The Beginnings of a New Movement

Consequently the split was now not only irreversible, ‘We are unanimous in that there can be no question of rapprochement or of meetings with those who are opposed to us ... We believe that what divides us is fundamental and runs very deep’, 24 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 regrouped at the pre-booked Kevin Barry Hall on Dublin’s Parnell Street and duly set up a ‘caretaker’ Sinn Féin Executive to liaise with the previously elected Army Council. As evident from the choice of venue, the principle figures who had orchestrated the breakaway 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 had 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 Maguire. As the last surviving member of the second Dáil of 1921 which had ceded nominal authority for the governance of Ireland to the IRA Army Council in 1938, Maguire 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 Maguire to give his tacit support, later made public in September 1970, to the dissidents meant that the Provisional Army Council, as they would style themselves in a further symbolic linkage to the men of 1916, could now claim to represent the legitimate government of Ireland and the cause of true Irish republicanism. ‘We pledge our allegiance to the 32 county Irish Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, overthrown by force of arms in 1922 and suppressed to this day by the existing British imposed Six County and Twenty-Six County partition states’. 25

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 Irish republicanism 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.


1. Brooke, Sir Basil. Londonderry Sentinel 20 March 1934
2. Goulding, Cathal. New Left Review November-December 1970
3. In January 1965, O’Neill had created history and aroused the considerable ire of extreme Protestantism by inviting the Irish Taoiseach Seán Lemass to a meeting at Stormont. In response to the meeting the Nationalist Party chose to enter Stormont as the official opposition for the first time.
4. Paisley, Ian. Belfast Telegraph 19 November 1968
5. The Lockwood Committee had been established in February 1965 to ‘review the facilities for university and higher technical education in Northern Ireland ... .’ This review was of vital importance to the city of Derry which hoped to become the site of a proposed new university. Despite the obvious advantages which pointed towards Derry as the probable location, in a decision which was hard to view as anything but sectarian, the Lockwood Committee recommended that the new institution be located in the Protestant stronghold of Coleraine.
6. McCann, Eamonn. War and an Irish Town Pluto, 1993 p.49
7. Johnston, Roy. Interview with author, April 2001
8. Statement by The Irish Republican Publicity Bureau 26 February 1962
9. An early example of the new political ideas being considered came from a secret Crumlin Road prison magazine Saoirse which in 1957 contained an article Quo Vadis Hibernia? in which Derry republican Eamonn Timoney encouraged the movement to play a greater role in local politics and to regenerate the lapsed republican socialism of the 1930s.
10. O’Brien, Brendan. A Brief History of the IRA The O’Brien Press Ltd., 1997, p.67
11. A 1966 Garda intelligence document entitled ‘Review of Unlawful and Allied Organisations’ released in 1998 outlines instructions from IRA headquarters for volunteers to become active in Sinn Féin and even details which candidates volunteers were required to support for nomination to the Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle.
12. Founded in London in 1938, the Connolly Association, originally called the Connolly Club, was set up as a lobby group to put the case for Irish unity and independence as well as protecting the interests of the Irish in Britain. Still in existence the group’s objective remains to educate the British people, particularly the working classes, about the desirability of Irish independence.
13. Sharrock, David & Devenport, Mark. Man of War - Man of Peace? The Unauthorised Biography of Gerry Adams MacMillan, 1997, p.48
14. Following the Wall Street crash the textiles and shipbuilding industries in the North were hit particularly hard and unemployment became a serious problem for the Stormont government. Emigration had stalled due to the lack of work in places like the U.S. and Canada which had begun encouraging the repatriation of immigrant who had not become citizens. In dealing with the crisis, the Stormont government persisted with the ‘poor laws’ which had been scrapped in the rest of Britain in 1928. Consequently, many of the new unemployed were receiving no compensation whatsoever for loss of income. ‘Outdoor relief’ schemes which offered work to unemployed married men were unable to cope with the numbers wishing to be accommodated. As a result the unemployed began to organise into pressure groups to force the Stormont government to address their grievances.
15. Morrison, Danny. Interview with the author 17 October 2000
16. Bishop, Patrick & Mallie, Eamonn. The Provisional IRA Heinemann, 1987 p.86
17. Coughlan, Anthony. Iris November 1988
18. McMillen, Liam. The Role of the IRA 1962-67 Dublin, 1976 p.11
19. Taylor, Peter. Provos The IRA and Sinn Féin Bloomsbury, 1997, p.46
20. Gardiner’s Place’s precise policy on this issue was never made completely manifest. Later one of the issues which the new Provisional leadership chose to highlight in Where Sinn Féin Stands, their first statement in the immediate aftermath of the split, was the Dublin leadership’s preference for the retention of the Stormont parliament. This was a reference to the growing determination amongst the Official’s leadership that matters must be viewed on an all-Ireland basis and that the introduction of direct rule might not be beneficial to the Irish nation as a whole.
21. Adams, Gerry. Before the Dawn Heinemann, 1996, p.121
22. A dispute over the flying of the tricolour during a march to commemorate Daniel O’Connell’s ‘Repeal of the Union’ protests led to McKee’s removal. Police warnings that the march would be stopped if a tricolour was flown were heeded by McKee who chose to overrule those in favour of risking arrest in order to fly the flag. Eventually the dispute was brought before the Dublin HQ and despite Gardiner’s Place’s continued support for his leadership, McKee later resigned as OC.
23. Green Book The IRA Training Manual
24. Where Sinn Féin Stands Official Statement from Sinn Féin Caretaker Executive 25 January 1970
25. IRA Statement Irish Times 29 December 1969

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