Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

25 September 1997 Edition

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Taylor-made `Provos'

Danny Morrison finds food for thought in the flawed but fascinating Provos, the new book and television series by journalist Peter Taylor

Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein
by Peter Taylor
Published by Bloomsbury
Price £16.99 (hardback)

When republicans walked out of the IRA Convention in late 1969, supposedly over the dropping of abstentionism, they organised their own Convention which elected a new `provisional' Army Executive which in turn elected a new `provisional' Army Council.

However, the split wasn't just over recognition of Stormont and Leinster House - historical turnarounds though these were. The split involved many issues: ideological orientation, dictatorial yet poor leadership, personality differences, and major, major differences about the political realities of the North, especially the violent reaction of unionism to the demand for civil rights. The real crime, however, was that the IRA had been deliberately run down so that when August 1969 came there was little or no defence. There was much burning of homes but it was the burning sense of humiliation felt by nationalists that provided the exponential growth in support for those republicans who declared, `Never Again!'

Name changes are nothing new in Irish republican history, otherwise out of consistency the Young Irelanders should have called themselves the United Irishmen, or the Fenians the Young Irelanders, or the IRA the IRB. Even though the `Provisional' Army Council organised an IRA Convention in September 1970 and regularised its constitution and organisation, dropping the word `Provisional', it was too late. Republicans on the ground, especially young people, increasingly wanted to distinguish and distance themselves from the failures of the previous leadership, `the Officials'. In 1970 slogans appeared on walls: ``Out of the Ashes of August `69 Arose the Provisionals,'' and ``Out of the Ashes of Bombay Street Arose the Provisional IRA''.

  The book and television series show what I for one know to be true. No organisation is going to be able to wage again a guerrilla war with the tempo of that fought so tenaciously by IRA Volunteers for almost three decades  
At Easter 1970 (or 1971) there were two types of Easter Lilies on sale. The `Officials' sold gum-backed (sticky-backed) Lilies and the `Provisionals' gave out Lilies with pins. And though the nickname `Sticky-back' (then `Stickies', then `the Sticks') stuck - if you'll pardon the expression - to the `Officials', attempts by them to christen their opponents, `Pinheads', failed.

In the vernacular the IRA and IRA supporters were called `Provisionals', but mostly `Provies'. British army officers, British MPs and fleeting English journalists, unable to pronounce Provies, invented the word `Provos'.

If it took that much time and space just to explain the derivation of the name, how much more would be required to tell the history of the IRA over the past 28 years? It is an impossible task. The IRA, still a secret organisation despite the scrutiny of a thousand periodicals and books and that contradiction known as British Intelligence, is like an iceberg, three-quarters of which lies hidden.

Yet, veteran television broadcaster Peter Taylor has distilled from what is known and what he has observed in over 25 years of covering the North a comprehensive picture of the Republican Movement's men, women and supporters, and why they proved invincible during the longest guerrilla war fought this century.

The book accompanies the television series of the same name which began on BBC1 last Tuesday night. And whilst the series is more accessible the book is reader-friendly, though it cannot be relied upon for punctilious historical record. Some dates and locations are wrong and he refers to Stormont (which opened as the northern parliament around 1932) as being extant in 1922.

About a month after the IRA split, Sinn Féin also split at the ard fheis of January 1970 along the same ideological, personal and emotional lines. Banned in the North until 1975 (and censored in the 26-counties) it was always in the shadow of the IRA. Sinn Féin never became the concerted object of the delightfully-entertaining British and unionist hysteria on a par with the IRA, until the late `seventies. Republican publicity was on its way to being professionalised, identifiable spokespersons were emerging (usually from the prisons) to argue the republican case on the national question and social and economic issues, and the complacent SDLP was being challenged, its monopoly threatened.

Much has subsequently been made of the relationship between Sinn Féin and the IRA, and material published in this book - none of it new or revealing - was actually used by poor David Trimble last Tuesday to try and have Sinn Féin excluded from the talks.

However, most of Taylor's book, to be fair, concentrates on the development of the IRA from a defensive organisation at the time of the loyalist attack on St Matthew's and the Falls Curfew in 1970, right through the raging `seventies, reprising internment, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Narrow Water, and the incredible struggle in the prisons which culminated in the H-Block hunger strikes. He quotes from escapees, former blanket men, active service Volunteers and Sinn Féin activists (but not Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly who declined to be interviewed).

Though it has been done better (by David McKittrick and Eamonn Mallie in `The Fight for Peace') his detailing of the machinations and secrecy behind the snail's-pace peace process is still fascinating, and his interviews with senior British army and RUC officers, many of whom have retired, are candid - and infuriating - because they more or less now admit that this conflict was built on a lie, the lie that republicans, and behind them the nationalists, had no justification for resorting to physical force.

Taylor is too English to see the deliberateness or carelessness behind government decisions which led to the pogroms, the curfew, internment, RUC brutality, etc., as anything other than mistakes or individual excesses. Thus, the British army ``were at times driven by a mixture of ignorance, lack of discipline and imprudent political and military direction.'' Bloody Sunday was ``a dreadful mistake'' and there was ``no master plan'' behind criminalisation, he quotes Merlyn Rees as saying.

Taylor balances his recounting and analysis of the IRA's armed struggle, the selflessness and courage of Volunteers, with the enormous human cost in death and suffering of those who died or were injured at the hands of the IRA and the continuing grief of the relatives. It is something we should never forget, or omit from consideration when calculating the achievable, which unfortunately is always an amended form of what is one's entitlement. He also poses the great question which republicans face and has yet to be resolved: despite the injustices inflicted by unionism, how do republicans propose to win over major sections of the unionist people, given the bloody past and given that the full realisation of republican objectives is also seriously circumscribed by, among other imperatives of realpolitik, constitutional nationalists North and South?

In my opinion, a peace process - if not the present peace process - is the only way forward. There are those who disagree, believing, mistakenly, that you can merely re-run the film from December 1969 and you end up with a happier ending. You actually come around to this ending.

Taylor's book and television series show what I for one know to be true. No organisation is going to be able to wage again a guerrilla war with the tempo of that fought so tenaciously by IRA Volunteers for almost three decades. And the cost of dignity and self-esteem has been paid at a very high price. One of the photographs in this book is a poor-quality snapshot of six young men standing around hunger-striker Martin Hurson's memorial in County Tyrone in 1986. Five of them, Declan Arthurs, Seamus Donnelly, Tony Gormley, Eugene Kelly and Martin McCaughey, would be killed on active service, and the sixth, Dermot Quinn, the only one to survive, would be sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. It sums up the poignancy, the tragedy and the sorrow of war. About her son, Taylor quotes Mrs Amelia Arthurs simply saying: ``Declan died for his country and I'm very proud of him. He was caught up in a war and he died.''

After internment a British army colonel declared that he had ``the IRA on the run''. Now, another officer, Colonel Derek Wilford, the Para responsible for Bloody Sunday, says: ``I hear people saying, `Troops out of Ireland'. It's like `Troops out of Aden'. There we did make a positive decision and I think we need to make a positive decision now about ending the war in Northern Ireland.''

We started out downtrodden and the irony is that the real impoverished souls in the North are the second-class intellectuals picketing the Catholic Church at Harryville.

Never again will there be a brainless Secretary of State like Roy Mason, who actually believed that the SDLP were `Provos', and who boasted he was squeezing the IRA ``like a tube of toothpaste''. Never again will there be a Thatcher - here or in Britain. Never again will there be an August 1969. Never again will the nationalist people be left undefended. Throughout the North nationalists have a drive and a confidence which is palpable. It is a tide which can raise many ships - and it is a tide which should be used to sink none.

An Phoblacht
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