Shortly after the death of Martin McGuinness, I listened to a radio discussion about the Provisional IRA and its origins. Among the contributors was Ruth Dudley Edwards, the self-professed revisionist historian. At one stage in the programme, I heard her say, “I can understand why people went out on civil rights marches – because there were injustices that needed to be dealt with – but I find it completely unjustifiable that people on these marches should have then turned to the bullet and the bomb to right those wrongs.”
This made me angry because in that one sentence Ms. Edwards had shown herself to be a propagandist. I knew that she could not have been ignorant of the origins of the Provisional IRA. She must have known, for example, that in August 1969, about a year and a half after the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was set up, there were pogroms in Belfast. Seven people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Whole streets of Catholic houses, as well as factories and shops, were burnt out. In addition, thousands of mostly Catholic families were driven from their homes and fled in terror with only the clothes they had on them. The Royal Ulster Constabulary made no effort to protect Catholic areas and in many cases joined the militant Protestants who were petrol-bombing the houses. All this resulted in many thousands fleeing Northern Ireland, resulting in – at that time – the biggest movement of population in Western Europe since World War 2.
The Labour government in Westminster sent the British army into our little state in what it said was “a limited operation” to restore law and order. My friends and I understood that the Brits had really come to prevent British investment being wrecked by rampaging rioters from both Catholic and Protestant sides but nearly all Catholics still welcomed the troops with open arms because they saw them as their protectors in a life-and-death situation.
While the British army were settling into the North, a loosely-organized defence outfit that called itself the Provisional IRA was slowly being formed. Guns were secretly sent to them by the Irish government in Dublin on the understanding that they would be used only to protect Catholic lives.
In the meantime, an emergency meeting involving some of the British army’s upper brass and Catholic community leaders was held in Saint Teresa’s parish hall in Belfast. At that meeting, the Brits confessed that they couldn’t guarantee round- the-clock protection for all Belfast Catholics, so it was agreed that, in the event of Protestant / Loyalist attacks, Catholics would be permitted to protect themselves by use of arms in situations where the British army was not able to arrive on time. The Brits’ one stipulation at that emergency meeting was that they should be informed as to the exact location of those arms. The people who owned the weapons were members of the Official IRA, which had been inactive for seven years.
During the following nine or 10 months, events took an alarming turn for Ulster Unionist politicians here. More and more, the British army found themselves protecting Catholics against Loyalists, while the Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen more and more as protecting Protestants from rioting Catholics. This resulted in great resentment on the part of Loyalists and increasing aggression by them toward the army. There was now a real danger of Northern Ireland’s link with England being damaged or even broken by the very Protestant people who most wanted to maintain it.
Fate took a hand, however, when Labour lost power in Westminster and Edward Heath became Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister on June 18, 1970. The date is important because just 15 days later – on the 3rd of July – the British army suddenly raided houses in Balkan Street, Belfast. The trigger for this, according to the British army, was an anonymous phone call from a woman claiming that there were arms and explosives in at least one house on Balkan Street, an exclusively Catholic part of Belfast’s Lower Falls Road. But the houses that the Brits raided were, in fact, those whose addresses had been supplied to them by Official IRA representatives after that momentous meeting in Saint Teresa’s hall the previous August.
This turn of events raised questions. Why did the army carry out such a raid when it was bound to cause untold outrage and dire consequences? (It was, in fact, a tragic turning point in Irish history, the incident that transformed the Provisional IRA from a defensive outfit to the most ruthless and sophisticated guerrilla army on earth and ushered in nearly 30 years of death and destruction, marking the dirtiest war that the British ever waged, while generating spiralling atrocities and reprisals and both mindless and mindful murders on a massive scale.)
The answer lay with a politician called Brian Faulkner, a particularly Machiavellian member of the Northern Ireland government. Faulkner was a twin soul of the newly elected Conservative and Unionist government in Westminster and a natural bedfellow of Edward Heath, just then ensconced in Downing Street. Faulkner saw an opportunity to bring an end to the explosive relations between Loyalists and the British army, which threatened the link with Britain; but, along with this, he hoped to further destabilize the Northern Irish situation and so bring about the resignation of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clark, so that he, Faulkner, could step into his place. (He, in fact, achieved these aims.) For someone of Faulkner’s cunning, it would have been easy to convince Edward Heath that the British army should deal urgently with a situation in which lawless men in John Bull’s other island had easy access to illegal weapons in an already perilous situation.
I am still filled with loathing of what both Downing Street and the Provisional IRA did to Ireland over a period of 30 years. The British government’s sanctioning of mass murder of innocent people, both Catholic and Protestant, cannot be forgiven. They organized these foul deeds mainly through Loyalist murder gangs, the misleadingly named Field Reconnaissance Unit and other deadly undercover operatives that were recruited by the British army, MI5 and the RUC Special Branch. All of these bodies were up to their necks in the lowest forms of criminality. And, as for the IRA, well, words fail me. So I think I should leave the final ones here to a supreme wordsmith, the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. A heart-scorching poem of his – Casualty – centres around the Provisional IRA bombing of a pub to punish its owner and occupants for defying an internal Catholic curfew the Provos had demanded after the Bloody Sunday massacre by British paratroopers in Derry in 1972. An acquaintance of Heaney’s, an elderly fisherman, was among the IRA's victims, "blown to bits" for being "out drinking in a curfew," as the poet puts it. And then Heaney asks:
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
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Thank you for reading. – Colm