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.’


If you liked this piece and would like a free copy 
of my novel The Fabricatorclick here and I'll send it by. 

Thank you for reading. – Colm

Views: 1858

Tags: Belfast, Downing, IRA, Living History, McGuinness, Street, civil, rights

Comment by michael dunne on April 11, 2017 at 5:35am

There is much more Ruth Dudley Edwards does not understand. A large section of the North's population are not aware of or make any meaningful attempt to understand their origins. That is their choice. If Ruth presents herself as an historian then it is necessary she take a broader look at our history and the plantation of Ulster. Or else she should stick to novel writing. A young Martin McGuinness was an unfortunate bi product of this ignorance.

Comment by Colm Herron on April 12, 2017 at 10:09am

Thanks Michael. Edwards knows more than she lets on but she's in some ways like a lot of Catholic middle and upper-middle class suburbanites here in Derry. By and large the people in these areas are steeped in a stew of wilful ignorance and bigotry. In contrast, the underprivileged, as the poor are often euphemistically called, are - broadly speaking - very much on the ball about Ireland's history. And I share their anger at the misery the British, the west Britons and the quislings have wrought here.

Comment by michael dunne on April 12, 2017 at 7:04pm

Agreed Colm.

In a recent radio programme, I heard it discussed how there was a lot of Viking blood in our ancestry and which was deliberately played down/overlooked in preference to the Cambro Normans. (an oversight, as the same Normans were descendants by a couple of generations to the Vikings via William the Conqueror) We always aspire to whomever appears to be in the ascendancy. Later after the defeat of the Irish at the Battle of Kinsale it is thought the itinerant class evolved and scattered throughout the island maintaining their Irish traditions in a nomadic lifestyle. We also distanced ourselves from this class, preferring to identify with our colonizers in the hope of currying favour. For these residents within 'The Pale' this phenomena was critically referred to as The Jackeens...loyal to the Union Jack and the rest of us the Barbarians from 'Beyond the Pale. Thankfully we have arrived assimilated and now see our futures as EU citizens.  Our nation had the lowest marriage rates in Europe during and towards the end of the 19th Century. We may blame the effects of the famine of 1847, but the Irishman's love affair with the cow and dowries were more directly to blame. Any landholders were terrified that they or their offspring would slip down the rungs of the social ladder, so as needs must, people stuck materialistically to their often wretched class. And today more than ever we have the spectacle of 'where wealth accumulates and men decay'

Comment by Colm Herron on April 17, 2017 at 6:37am

Great information Michael. You're a fount of knowledge, eye and ear always ready to see and listen, interpret and impart. Thanks!

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on April 17, 2017 at 12:23pm

Ms. Edwards overlooks that many good people went to the Widgery Commission to give testimony in full belief of obtaining justice by lawful, judicial means only to be completely disillusioned by one of the greatest mockeries of justice in the history of man.  This drove many to conclude that there was no path to justice by peaceful means and for that the British Government must bear full and complete responsibility

Saul Bellow appeared to Ms Edward's and other revisionists in mind when he wrote "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep

Comment by Noel Regan on April 18, 2017 at 2:39pm

"....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." Can you elaborate on this bit please? 

Comment by michael dunne on April 18, 2017 at 7:02pm

Neil F Cosgrove.

"To worship according to his faith, the Catholic must attend illegal meetings; to protect his priest, he must be secret, cunning, and a concealer of the truth.These were dangerous lessons for any government to compel its subjects to learn, and a dangerous habit of mind for any nation to acquire" Taken from Woodham Smith's 'The Great Hunger' and as you probably know what is being referred to was the oppressive nature of Colonization and the Penal Laws. Sadly in the 21st Century people who should know better, persist in their denial. But sadder still so many Irish people are caught up in this bitterness.

Comment by Colm Herron on April 19, 2017 at 4:55am

To Noel Regan:

The IRA (later known as the Official IRA or simply the Officials) were not in evidence during the pogrom of August 15 in Belfast and this caused a lot of ill-feeling among many Catholics in the north. The Officials had a fairly large store of guns and ammunition but the perception was that, at best, they were caught napping that night and, at worst, didn't want to engage the RUC or the Loyalists. The result was that groups of militant Catholics began to form their own defensive organization. They appealed to Dublin for help and Taoiseach Jack Lynch arranged that two Republican-minded members of his cabinet - Neil Blaney and Charlie Haughey - should take charge of the gunrunning. This was a clever political move on Lynch's part because he considered Blaney and Haughey to be threats to his own position and saw the chance of landing them in the soup if word got out about the guns. Word did in fact get out - to Westminster - because there was a mole in the Irish cabinet who was reporting to Downing Street. When Lynch discovered this he acted. See .... and much more if you search.

Comment by Noel Regan on April 19, 2017 at 7:10am

Many thanks Colm, Interesting stuff I wasn't aware of this but I'll do a bit more reading on this episode. Cheers

Comment by Colm Herron on April 19, 2017 at 7:38am

To Neil F. Cosgrove:

Great quotes from Saul Bellow and Woodham Smith, Neil. I was in Rossville Street during the Bloody Sunday slaughter and will never forget what I saw. In my opinion Bloody Sunday was arranged by Peter (Lord!) Carrington, then British defence secretary, his purpose being to destroy the N Ireland civil rights movement. Perfidious Albion's reasoning was that the Brits were getting a bad press worldwide because of their  savage handling of Catholics and their leaning towards Loyalists and the best way to deal with this was to give the Provos ample motivation to swell their ranks and to commit their own unspeakable atrocities. The Provos fell for that scheme. 

As for the civil rights movement here, it petered out after Bloody Sunday. 


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