The IRA/ Provos

I think it's fair to say that the Irish Republican Army did not exist as a proper organization before about 1970. It had fought the border campaign between 1956 and 1962, it had lost the support of the Nationalist population in the north, the Irish government had interred many of its members during that campaign, and at the end of 1962 it decided that it would have to rethink its objectives.

And from 1962 onwards, it was controlled by a small Marxist leadership who believed that the way forward was not violence but was through a radical program of reform, whereby the working class in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland would be radicalized. Both would come, at some future historic date, to see that they had more in common than what kept them apart, and that, therefore, they would join hands and Irish unity would come about in that way.

The one thing that they had was their communal sense of history, a history in which they were the victims, in which, yet again, the Protestant majority was trampling on their rights and taking away the rights of their community. And therefore, the IRA had to be resurrected.

So the Republican movement, literally, had to begin from scratch in 1969. And what is very interesting about the Republican movement after 1969--it is the militants from the Belfast and Derry ghettos rather than the people from the south of the island, from Dublin, or Kerry, or whatever, who are the people that take control. And because they are the brunt of the campaign, they are the people who lead the Republican movement in a much more militant manner.

They move out of Marxist vaporizing, which had nothing to do with pieistic Catholic practice in any case, and they take them along the traditional road of resistance against the hated British. It was so natural that it was so easy to do.

I think that what happens in 1969 is unprecedented. Gerry Adams, in a book he wrote in 1986, referred to the connection between the Republican movement in the beginning of the century and the Republican movement and what it called the Barricade Days of 1969 to 1972.

The Republican movement at the beginning of the century was a military and political elite, they spoke on behalf of the Irish people. The point that Adams was making about the Barricade Days was those who now were militant were in fact the community itself, it wasn't an elite saying, "This is what you must do," it was the community saying, "This is what we must do to defend ourselves." And for the first time in the twentieth century, the Republican movement became a genuine mass organization. And that was the crucial weapon that it had at the very beginning.

The IRA were very conscious that in the past they hadn't brought the community with them. Now they knew they spoke on behalf of the community. And because they knew it, they were able to take more daring action, they were able to go to the Irish elsewhere and say, "We are the risen people, we are the defenders of the whole of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. We believe that the only solution now is Irish unity, and you must help us. We speak with the moral authority of everyone inside that Catholic community."

I think that the moral imperative which arose out of what became the battle of the Bogside, which spread to the rest of Northern Ireland was what give the Republican movement its new impetus. In the past, it simply being conducting a military campaign. Now they believe that they are conducting something much more significant than a military campaign.

It was a campaign for the hearts and minds, not only of their own community, which they believed they got, but of world opinion, because they were the people who were the victims. And world opinion could see that through their television screens night after night. And it was this which shifted, forever, the nature of the conflict. It was this which made the British authorities realize that they could not contain it simply within Northern Ireland.

That they would have to look at how international opinion was beginning to react to what was going on. And in terms of propaganda, the Republican movement were very quick to realize the huge advantages which could be got of painting themselves as the representatives of the down trodden people who where now the risen people.

The Provos

In Belfast in August of 1969 there was a serious split at a political level between those who were known as the official Republicans - that is those that had taken control after 1962, and believed in a different strategy, which was a non-violent strategy - and those who became known as the Provisionals, which was formed after 1969, who believed it was the abandonment of the original strategy which had left the Belfast Catholic community so undefended.

The slogan, "I ran away," was a turning point for contemporary Republicanism. What it said to the people on the ground was that they had failed their community in the ghettos in Belfast and Derry. That they needed to go back to traditional methods, that there is no sense in debating whether we're Marxist or not.

Our business is defense, resistance, and then trying to achieve a united Ireland. So the Republican movement split, not for the first time in its history. It split between those who believed in the traditional methods of resistance and military campaign and those who believed in a much slower political strategy based on fashionable Marxist tendencies at the time in the rest of the world.

The Catholic community was too impatient, too uninterested in these tendencies. It wanted protection, the traditionalists, that is the Provisional movement, took control automatically.

The Provisionals, and the title itself is interesting, because the title is taken from the 1916 declaration when the Irish rose against the British in Dublin when the British were fighting a war. And they proclaimed a provisional government. So the Provisionals deliberately used the title "Provisional" to make the link with 1916, to claim that they were the historic heirs of 1916. They where the true Republicans, whereas the Officials represented something which belonged to a world out there, but had nothing to do with everyday life in the streets of Belfast or Derry.

The Republican movement has always identified itself as being working class because those are the people it has had to defend. They've even used the word Socialist. It was only the officials who used the word Marxist. And when they used the word Socialist, it was a particular Irish variant of Socialism because it was defending the working class. In fact, it was so much verbiage, the Provisionals, just as much as the Officials, where part of this trend which was there in the late '60s where every radical identified with what was going on in the Third World. But, in fact, the Provisionals were traditional. They were following a policy which goes back, not to 1916, not to the middle of the 19th century, not to the rebellion of 1798, it goes back to the midst of Irish time where phrases such as Socialism are meaningless.

The official reason given for the break between the two wings of Republicanism was a debate at the Republican's annual conference as to whether they would take their seats in the Irish parliament. From partition, the Republican movement had always followed a policy of abstentionism, they abstained, they refused to recognize the parliament in Dublin, just as they refuse to recognize the parliament in Belfast, or in London. They had made the decision that if they were elected they could take their seats at the Parliament in Dublin. The Traditionalists said, "This goes against our complete history, our very essence. Dublin is as illegitimate as is Belfast, because it was Dublin that has accepted partition in the first place."

And that was the excuse used to make the break. But what I think it did was it masked other differences. And other differences were that those who had been in control of the Republican movement during the 1960s were working towards a reformist, rather than a revolutionary program, were not militant enough, were antagonizing Catholics through the use of Marxist jargon, and therefore were not going to succeed.

Hence, they literally walked out of the annual conference, went to another hall, set up their own organization, and in their very first statement said, "We are the heirs of the men of 1916, we are the true Republicans.And we call ourselves Provisional Sinn Fein and Provisional IRA. And we will have an army counsel made up of seven men, just as it was seven man who signed the 1916 proclamation. We will differentiate ourselves from the other Republicans simply through a campaign of resistance. We will be on the streets defending our people, we will not be wasting our time with internal debates, we will be there to defend our people, we will be using the language that Republicanism always been using which is the language at the end of the barrel of a gun."

"We are now into what we believe is the long war. We believe in a war of attrition, we know we are not powerful enough as we stand now to defeat the might of the British army, but we will wear them down just as our ancestors wore them down in the past, and we will lead them to a stage where they will want to withdraw from Northern Ireland. And we will persuade our Protestant neighbors that they have been suffering from a form of false consciousness."

"We will not run away. Never again will it be said IRA equals, 'I run away.' We will show by our very actions that we are the essence of Irish manhood. That was the type of language which has been used."

It is very important to remember that the leadership, which arose after 1969, were the children of the ghetto. They didn't come from various corners of Ireland, they didn't come from a rural background. They were the people who had suffered. They were the people who put up the resistance to begin with. They were the people who believed that they had a sense of how dangerous and how nasty the British were. That was their self-understanding.

They were the people who were saying, "Never again." They were the people who knew that they represented their community in a way that Republicans never could in the past. And they were the people who used the right symbols and attracted to the ranks some of the older Republicans, who could trace theirlineage back into earlier periods of struggle.

Gerry Adams himself, for example, through his maternal and paternal family, could trace a line which goes back to at least 1918. He could speak of members of his family who had been interned or imprisoned in early ages. And so, when he gets involved in the conflict it was as if nothing could be more natural, because he was taking up where his forefathers left off, and he personified a complete community.

So what the Provisionals represented was this sense of history, a history of resistance. But it was something based in the reality of the ghetto.

They believed that now, as never before, they had to get rid of the British presence in Ireland. What's more: There had been built into Irish Republicans in the past a sense of martyrdom. They had believed that they couldn't succeed, that it wasn't about succeeding; it was about dying for a cause, so that a new generation wold come along and take up that cause. It was the Adams and the Martin McGuiness generation who believed that they could deliver the final agenda, which would be Irish unity, because they could bring with them their communities as never before, and they could bring into it, as well, the whole web of the Irish diaspora, whether it's the United States, Australia, or wherever. And they had the moral imperative of international public opinion on their side.

So, they believed that everything was in place to fight the last long war. And out of that war of attrition, you would see British withdrawal, you would see the Protestant community in the north come to their senses and realize that the best answer for them, as well, is Irish unity.

The people who formed the Provisional started with a moral certainty, a self-righteousness, that because they had suffered so much, because they had been at the brunt of it, because they'd seen their families suffer, that they could deliver in a way that their forefathers never could deliver, that they were going to be the generation which would succeed for something which the Irish had been trying for from at least the 17th century, that at last you would have one indivisible and sovereign Ireland, totally controlling itself.


home .  the conflict .  inside the ira .  readings .  poems & songs .  special reports .  chronology .  map .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline PBS Online