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What had driven intelligent young men like Gerry McGeough, who in any normal society would have become doctors, lawyers and teachers, to take up arms and be prepared to kill for the "Provos"? There is no simple answer. Young men and women are driven by a variety of forces, from the history that set the framework of the state in which they lived, to the circumstances that conditioned the way they felt, thought and acted. These powerful forces exploded in a conflict that has lasted almost thirty years, claimed 3,255 lives up to the IRA ceasefire of July 1997 and taxed the political skills of successive British, Irish and, more recently, American governments.
For Gerry McGeough it began on his grandmother's farm in 1966 when he was eight years old. It was a historic year for Ireland, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, an event commemorated by the Irish television network, RTE, with a powerful drama series, "Insurrection." It was emotional stuff, showing noble Irish patriots defying the might of the British Empire by seizing the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin, proclaiming the Irish Republic free from British rule, and being executed by the British for their treason. Watching the film in his grandmother's border farmhouse, the young Gerry McGeough was mesmerized.
From the age of eight, Gerry McGeough's ambition was to join the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. The events of the next decade made him even more determined to do so, as they did countless others who had no need of the influence of "Insurrection." The events themselves were powerful enough.
Whether we are British or Irish, nationalist or unionist, we are all prisoners of the history of our two islands. History teaches us lessons about what is and is not possible as well as having an uncanny habit of repeating itself. The past holds the key to our understanding of the present and illuminates what is realistic in any settlement and what is not. Difficult though it may be to believe given the endless spilling of blood, events of the past decade have slowly been moving towards a resolution of the conflict. This book is an endeavor to explain how and why that has happened and, critically, what the role of the "Provos" has been in it.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference in narrating past and present. The body of this book consists of interviews with primary sources, those who have driven the Republican Movement, the term I use for convenience as the umbrella name for the IRA and Sinn Fein, through the past thirty turbulent years and those who have fought it on both the military and political fronts. But there is a point at which prime sources run out. A few IRA veterans are still alive who fought through the forties, fifties and sixties and who went on to found the Provisional IRA at the end of 1969. But beyond them we have to rely on the writings, speeches and actions of their predecessors whose names and deeds are the lifeblood of republican history on which the "Provos" still feed.
Where to begin? History has to start somewhere, in particular when there are still hopes--fueled by the election of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to Westminster, a Labor Government under Tony Blair with a huge parliamentary majority and a renewed IRA ceasefire--that the conflict may be approaching its end. Does it begin in 1970 when the old IRA split and the "Provos" were born? Or in 1969 when British troops marched into Belfast and Derry to prevent the slaughter of nationalists by loyalist mobs? Or in 1968 when civil-rights marches first shook the state of Northern Ireland? Or with the Treaty in 1921 that partitioned Ireland? Or with Patrick Pearse's heroic stand at the GPO in Dublin in 1916? Or with the plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century when Protestants first settled in the northeast corner of Ireland? Or, if you really want to go back to square one, in the twelfth century when King Henry II first set foot in Ireland and began the process of England's conquest and subjugation? Generally, the media has little time for background and context. Violence and confrontation are what it feeds off. Sound bites are easier to digest than analysis peering behind the masks explaining why and how things happen. Peace only gets a look in when it breaks out or breaks up. Yet it is history that makes sense of it all. To understand the "Provos," you have to look at where they came from and why.
I decided to start with 1916. British rule extended over all thirty-two counties of Ireland as it had done since the Act of Union of 1801. World War I was at its height and the slaughter of the Somme was only months away. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a handful of rebels seized the GPO in Dublin and proclaimed themselves to be the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. They were led by Patrick Pearse, a nationalist schoolteacher, writer and poet, romantically obsessed by the notion of "bloodshed as a sacrificing and cleansing thing" and James Connolly, a socialist revolutionary who had formed a "Citizens' Army."
Dubliners that Easter must have been bemused to see a man in military uniform, whom they had never seen or heard of before, proclaim the "Irish Republic" in front of the Post Office in O'Connell Street with the declaration that "a sovereign, independent, Irish State [was] now in the course of being established by Irishmen in arms." Above the Post Office flew the green and gold flag of the Irish Republic. The small band that Pearse led was known as the "Irish Volunteers," but their political philosophy was that of "Sinn Fein" ("We Ourselves"), a separatist organization committed to Irish political and economic independence, founded in 1905 by the Dublin journalist, Arthur Griffith. By 1916 Sinn Fein was seen as an organization that had had its day, being practically confined to one branch in Dublin. Newspapers of the time disparagingly referred to the Easter Rising as the "Sinn Fein Revolt." Historically, Sinn Fein preceded the IRA and initially did not support the use of force--"armed struggle" in contemporary jargon--to compel political change. But that was long ago.
Initially, the rebels were spat upon by Dubliners as they watched British troops reduce the Post Office and their city center to rubble. Their reaction was not surprising since many of their sons had joined the British army to fight the Kaiser. The planned countrywide insurrection never materialized. The leaders of the "Sinn Fein Revolt" were arrested and stood trial before three judges of a British army court-martial. Their fate was never in any doubt. The rebels were believed to have had the active support of Germany, encouraged by the ancient adage that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity." Their action was treason.
In his speech from the dock, Pearse echoed the declarations of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, Irish revolutionaries who had faced execution following their failed rebellions at the turn of the previous century. "If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight," Pearse declared. "You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the passion for Irish freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed." Pearse's words were as prophetic as those of Tone and Emmet. Pearse, Connolly and thirteen of their colleagues were sentenced to death. Seven had been signatories to Pearse's Proclamation. That evening, at dinner, the President of the court-martial, General Blackadder, told his hostess, "I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death of one the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a Rebel." Pearse, Connolly and most of the ringleaders of the Rising faced a firing squad in the yard of Kilmainham Jail. The executions, carried out over a period of two weeks, bestowed martyrdom upon the rebels and inspired Yeats' poem, "Easter 1916," in which he famously declared that the Rising gave birth to "a terrible beauty." Seizing the Post Office had been a dramatic gesture that Pearse hoped would rekindle the spirit of Irish nationalism which had lain dormant for so long. He believed that the "blood sacrifice" of a few would regenerate the national consciousness and lead, by force of Irish arms, to the eventual withdrawal of Britain from Ireland. Three years before the Rising, Pearse had written about "The Coming Revolution":
The British Government, confronted by what it saw as a treacherous stab in the back in the midst of the titanic struggle against Germany, had no alternative other than to act as it did. But that action, as Pearse had willed and predicted, transformed Sinn Fein's fortunes and with them those of the embryo IRA. When world war broke out in 1914, Sinn Fein was hardly a name on anyone's lips. The Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders changed all that. In the British general election of December 1918, a month after the end of the war, Sinn Fein swept to a stunning victory across Ireland. Of the 105 Irish seats that constituted the country's political representation at Westminster, Sinn Fein won seventy-three, legitimizing its claim that it now represented the majority of people on the island of Ireland. Unionists won twenty-six seats, all of them, bar three, in the northern, nine-county province of Ulster. The seeds of partition were sown. The newly elected Sinn Fein MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, a "foreign" parliament they did not recognize, and gathered in the Mansion House in Dublin. Here they declared themselves to be the "Assembly of Ireland"--"Dail Eireann"--and swore allegiance to the Irish Republic proclaimed at the GPO by Patrick Pearse barely two years before. Eamon de Valera, one of the leaders of the Rising who, along with Michael Collins, had survived, was elected President of what was now claimed to be the legitimate government of Ireland and its only lawful authority.
In 1919, the Irish Volunteers were officially constituted as the Irish Republican Army--the IRA. British forces in Ireland were now seen as an occupying army against whom the IRA was to wage war. Michael Collins, the IRA's Adjutant General, became its effective commander with the title of Director of Organization and Intelligence. Because Collins was Minister of Finance in Dail Eireann, he was also the IRA's paymaster.
The first shots in what became known as the Anglo-Irish War were fired on January 21, 1919, the day Dail Eireann first met and officially declared an independent Irish Republic. Only twenty-six of the newly elected members were present. The rest were in British jails, on the run or deported. That day, an IRA unit shot dead two constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who were escorting a cart of explosives near a quarry at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. The RIC was the British-controlled police force who kept order throughout Ireland. The attack provided the model for the IRA's "flying columns," which under legendary commanders like Tom Barry from West Cork harassed the RIC and the "Auxiliaries," a band of former British soldiers recruited in England and sent over to Ireland to help.
For almost two years, from 1919 to 1921, Collins and the IRA waged a bloody guerrilla war against what were now regarded as the British forces of occupation. The British government of the day did not regard the conflict as a "war" but as a criminal conspiracy to be countered by the police--in many ways reflecting what for years was the official attitude towards the current period of conflict. In the face of increasing IRA attacks and plummeting morale, many police officers left the RIC, leaving it depleted and vulnerable. In response, the government of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, recruited a force that became known as the "Black and Tans" to assist the beleaguered RIC whose stations in the south and west came under sustained IRA attack--a tactic replicated by the modern IRA in the North in the mid-1980s. The "Tans," as they became notoriously known, were unemployed veterans of World War I who took their name from their police/army uniforms of dark green, black and khaki. The force was raised in such a hurry that there was not time to provide them with proper uniforms. In March 1920 Lloyd George sent the "Tans" to Ireland to make it "a hell for rebels to live in." This succeeded as they proceeded to "terrorize the terrorists." On one occasion, a party of "Tans" captured a handful of the enemy at Kerry Pike near Cork, cut off the tongue of one, the nose of another, cut out the heart of a third and smashed the skull of a fourth. To intimidate local populations who gave support to the IRA, they set fire to villages and torched Cork city center in reprisal for an ambush in which seventeen Auxiliaries had been killed. But far from denying the IRA their popular base and isolating them from the population, the excesses of the "Tans" only increased support for the IRA. Some security force actions in the current conflict have had the same effect. The atrocities the "Tans" committed also shocked British public opinion and caused grave political embarrassment to Lloyd George's government. The emotional tide, which had already begun to flow the insurgents' way, turned into a flood when Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who had been arrested at an IRA conference, died in Brixton jail on October 24, 1920, after a hunger strike lasting seventy-three days. MacSwiney took his place in history not just because of his sacrifice but because of his portentous words. "It is not those who can inflict the most," he warned, "but those who can suffer the most who will conquer." His words became the epigram of the 1981 hunger strike. Lloyd George, like Margaret Thatcher sixty years later, refused to give in. On both occasions, the political consequences were momentous.
The British media at the time regarded the IRA and its leaders in much the same way as the British media of today regards the IRA and Sinn Fein. Michael Collins was the archetypal "terrorist." On the morning of Sunday, November 21, 1920, his gunmen wiped out fourteen of what Collins called "the Dublin Castle murder gang" in a series of surprise attacks throughout the city. Their victims were members of the British secret service in Dublin. Nine were shot dead while still in their pajamas. Only a few days before Collins' bloody onslaught, Lloyd George had boasted that he had "murder by the throat" and the Chief Secretary to Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, had told an anxious House of Commons that "things are very much better in Ireland." The reprisal for the dramatic killings that Sunday morning was swift. The same afternoon, a mixed force of RIC, military and "Black and Tans" opened fire on 15,000 spectators watching a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary at Croke Park. The unit was said to be looking for Collins' men who had been responsible for the massacre that morning. The troops opened fire, killing twelve civilians. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday." The official British account was that their troops had been fired on by members of Sinn Fein, and had been forced to retaliate in self-defense. The British account of the eponymous "Bloody Sunday" in Derry on January 30, 1972, has haunting parallels.
The Anglo-Irish or "Tan" war descended into savagery as both government and public became increasingly uncomfortable with its conduct and the losses sustained. Henry Asquith, the former Liberal leader who had been Prime Minister at the time of the Easter Rising and who had expressed reservations about the executions, did not mince his words, declaring that "Things are being done in Ireland which would disgrace the blackest annals of the lowest despotisms in Europe." In the eighteen months during which the war raged, over 500 soldiers and policemen and over 700 IRA volunteers were killed. Over 700 civilians died. By the spring of 1921, both sides recognized that the other could not be defeated. A similar recognition was made in this current conflict in the late 1980s (see chapter twenty-one). The IRA for its part was stretched and exhausted as well as being short of men and munitions. Collins is reported to have subsequently said, "You had us dead beat. We could not have lasted another three weeks." In July 1921, a truce was agreed as a prelude to negotiations between the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and the Irish team led by Michael Collins of the IRA and Arthur Griffith of Sinn Fein, both acting as plenipotentiaries for the as yet unrecognized Irish government in Dublin.
But the problem of Ireland was not--and is not--solely about British withdrawal. It is historically complicated by the presence of around a million Protestants in the six counties of the North who regard themselves as British subjects and who owe their allegiance to the Crown. This problem ties at the heart of the Irish question and the inability of successive British governments to find a successful resolution to the conflict. The Protestant community is concentrated in the three northeastern counties of Antrim, Down and Armagh, where it constitutes a heavy majority. There are Protestants, too, although in smaller numbers, in the other three counties of Londonderry, Fermanagh and Tyrone, as well as in the border counties of the Irish Republic of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan that originally made up the ancient Irish province of Ulster. Many of these Protestants, especially those in the northeast, are the descendants of the "plantation" of Ulster at the beginning of the seventeenth century when King James I encouraged the settlement of loyal Protestants in that corner of Ireland as a bulwark against his repeatedly rebellious Roman Catholic subjects.
The question of "Ulster" was, and remains, explosive because of the threat of armed revolt that traditionally accompanies any attempt to coerce Northern Protestants into any form of united Ireland. History shows the threat to have been real. When Prime Minister Asquith finally steered Home Rule for Ireland through the House of Commons in 1912, granting the country semi-independence with its own parliament and powers, Protestants armed themselves, regarding Home Rule as the first step in the severance of the Union. In Belfast, the unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson MP, led nearly half a million Protestants in signing the Ulster Covenant on September 28, 1912, which declared their determination to defend their position in the United Kingdom by any means necessary.
By 1913, Protestants had formed the "Ulster Volunteers" and had begun assembling and openly practicing drills with wooden rifles throughout the North. The "Irish Volunteers" who fought with Patrick Pearse in 1916 had originally been set up in response to them. But by 1914, the Ulster Volunteers had no need of wooden rifles. They had the real thing, 20,000 of them and three million rounds of ammunition smuggled into the ports of Larne and Bangor from Germany on April 25, 1914. This Protestant citizens' army became known as the "Ulster Volunteer Force" (UVF). Eighty years ago, the forerunners of the modern IRA and UVF were first ranged against each other. The showdown was postponed by the outbreak of the world war on August 4, 1914, the year the Home Rule legislation received the royal assent. But the problem was still there when the war was over, despite the Treaty of Versailles, which was designed to help determine the future of small nations.
In 1921 as the Treaty negotiations began, the question high on the agenda of both negotiating teams was what was to happen to "Ulster." The Irish were demanding independence for the whole island of Ireland as proclaimed by Patrick Pearse, while the British were conscious of the need to accommodate the Protestants in the North and their unionist representatives at Westminster. Lloyd George thought he had already found the answer the previous year when the Government had passed the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which finally introduced Home Rule, but not along the lines of Asquith's legislation of 1912. Under the new Act, the island was partitioned to create two separate states. But despite the Cabinet's reluctance, the new state of Northern Ireland was gerrymandered under unionist pressure. The boundary was not drawn along the border of the historic nine-county province of Ulster, which included the counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, because this natural entity would not have provided Protestants with the inbuilt majority upon which they insisted. So the boundary of "Northern Ireland" was drawn around six of the nine counties--Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Londonderry/Derry--thus guaranteeing what seemed at the time to be a permanent Protestant majority. Put bluntly, it was the maximum area that unionists could hold. Dublin and Belfast, the capitals of the now divided island, were each given their own Home Rule parliaments. Northern Ireland's parliament was based at Stormont, just outside Belfast, and was to govern the province for the next fifty years. But the Government of Ireland Act did not end there. The partition of Ireland was never intended to be permanent--it was seen as a temporary solution that would, it was hoped, lead to a final resolution of the Irish question. The legislation contained a clause that foresaw "as soon as may be after the appointed day" the establishment of a Council of Ireland to harmonize and ultimately unify the island under "a parliament for the whole of Ireland." It was a clever but eventually disastrous balancing act, wherein the origins of the present conflict lie.
Ten days after the signing of the Truce that ended the Anglo-Irish war, de Valera went to London as President of Dail Eireann for exploratory talks with Lloyd George about the settlement that should follow the ending of hostilities. He came away convinced that the Republic was not on offer and any settlement would institutionalize partition since the British Government was not prepared to confront the unionists in the North. Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were sent to London to get the best deal possible. The settlement was to be on Collins' head and not de Valera's. Collins did not want to go, arguing that he was a soldier and not a politician, but in the end he reluctantly agreed. On December 6, 1921, after three months of intensive negotiations and under threat of renewed war "in three days" by Lloyd George, Collins, with heavy heart, signed the Treaty. Troops were to be withdrawn, partition was formalized and the twenty-six counties of the South were to become known as the "Irish Free State"--Eire--with Dominion status like that of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Republic it was not, a fact underlined by the obligation on all members of the new Free State parliament to swear that they would be "faithful to HM King George V, his heirs and successors." Collins knew that Pearse would have turned in his grave at the oath, despite the compromise he had negotiated. Ironically it was the oath of allegiance and not partition that had proved the most controversial aspect of the negotiations for the Irish delegation.
Eight months earlier, Lloyd George had likened the prospect of meeting Collins to that of meeting a murderer and had described the IRA as "a small body of assassins, a real murder gang, dominating the country and terrorizing it." Now he described its commander as "one of the most courageous leaders ever produced by a valiant race." It was not the first or last time that government attitudes towards "terrorists" and their leaders would change. Seventy-two years later, the British Prime Minister, John Major, told the House of Commons that it would "turn his stomach" to sit down and talk with "Mr. Adams and the Provisional IRA." A year later, the Government was talking to the Provisionals' leadership and Gerry Adams was about to be invited to the White House. In 1921, as Michael Collins left Downing Street to walk London's streets, "cold and dank in the night air," he reflected prophetically:
Collins knew the settlement was unsatisfactory but that the alternative, a return to war, would have been disastrous, with the IRA short of arms, men and energy after being stood down for almost six months. As we will see, the IRA was similarly weakened after prolonged inactivity during the bilateral truce of 1975 (see chapter thirteen). Collins had pinned his hopes on a "get-out" clause in the Treaty that a Boundary Commission would finally determine the borders of Northern Ireland "in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants" and "so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions." Collins calculated that the new boundary would be drawn around the three predominantly Protestant counties, Antrim, Down and Armagh, to produce a political unit which would be economically unviable. The result, he calculated, would be the amalgamation of the Stormont and Dublin parliaments as originally envisaged in the Government of Ireland Act, thus bringing about the final integration of the two parts of the island.
Lloyd George was jubilant, convinced he had finally solved the Irish question. In reality he had essentially left it unresolved, although it is difficult to see what other option was realistically available at the time. The British Government felt obliged to remain true to their loyal subjects in the North who had sacrificed so much at the Somme, while Collins, who proved to be a political as well as a military realist, recognized that, at that time, the Irish Republic was simply not on.
Collins knew what the reaction would be when he returned to Ireland. The man who had brought the war to the British and forced them to the negotiating table was denounced as a traitor who had sold out the Republic. Dail Eireann debated the Treaty for a stormy four weeks with old comrades-in-arms unleashing their fury on each other. De Valera, who had skillfully remained aloof from the negotiations in London by staying away, rejected the Treaty out of hand. He said it had been signed "at the point of a pistol" and under the threat of "immediate war." He declared that the Treaty "makes the British authority our masters in Ireland."
Collins passionately defended his decision to sign the Treaty with his famous argument that it gave Ireland the opportunity to achieve freedom:
Collins' recognition of the political realities of Northern unionism and the dire consequences of coercion are recurring themes of the current conflict as the North-East did not, as Collins had fervently hoped, enter the Irish parliament. As far as the unionists were concerned, partition was permanent. After decades of rejecting the notion, the IRA and Sinn Fein of today finally recognize that their fellow Irishmen and women of unionist persuasion have to be accommodated in any new political structure and not forced into it. This has always been the view of the British Government and latterly of the Irish Government in Dublin. For the Republican Movement to accept it represents a major departure in its thinking.
The Treaty was finally ratified by the Dail by the narrow margin of sixty-four to fifty-seven. On January 16, 1922, Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule, was handed over to Collins and the Provisional Government of the new Irish Free State was formed. British soldiers left Ireland with their former enemies fatally divided. The animosities and divisions the Treaty debate had brought to the surface were soon to break out in a fratricidal civil war. On March 26, 1922, the IRA called a General Army Convention at the Mansion House in Dublin. Only anti-Treaty IRA Volunteers attended. A new IRA constitution was drawn up stating:
The IRA Volunteers who were delegates to the Convention elected a sixteen-person Army Executive to whom they held themselves responsible. In turn, the Executive elected an Army Council with a Chief of Staff and his Deputy, an Adjutant General, a Director of Organization, a Director of Intelligence, a Quarter Master General and a Director of Engineering. They were to be assisted by a General Headquarters Staff (GHQ). The IRA was organized along British army lines into brigades, battalions and companies. With minor changes, this remains the structure of the IRA of today. Only the IRA's Army Convention, made up of representatives of all IRA Volunteers throughout Ireland, can decide on the issue of peace or war. Constitutionally, a campaign can only end when a General Army Convention decrees it. This, too, remains the case today.