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: 1701

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

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on April 19, 2017 at 8:45am

Colm I think you are giving too much credit to devious intelligence for what can more simply be attributed as callous arrogance.  As to the civil rights movement, it transformed just as the home rule movement transformed from 1912-1916.  What the revisionist forget is that in both cases the Irish people endeavored change by peaceful means first only for Britain to change the rules.  If the Irish people fell into a trap, then it was the same trap the American fell into in 1776.  To finish with one last quote

 But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is (the peoples) duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security

Comment by Colm Herron on April 19, 2017 at 9:10am

I think we'll just have to disagree Neil. The SDLP, headed first by Gerry Fitt and then by John Hume, was a natural successor to the civil rights movement (CRM). Granted there was an overlap but in effect the SDLP, set up in August 1970, pursued the non-violent example of the CRM. If you look at my account of the events leading up to - and on - 3rd July 1970 you may well agree that Catholic violence became inevitable but the SDLP, as reformers, were on a different path to the revolutionary Provos. Hume paved the way for sympathetic hearings in the US and Europe. It wasn't quite as straightforward as non-violence not working and then being followed by violence. 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 27, 2017 at 4:05pm

Wonderful article Colm.... Ruth Dudley Edwards .. indeed.. Get the fact 

Comment by Colm Herron on April 28, 2017 at 7:09am

Thanks Mary. I think some of these radio stations wheel her on to spice up the discussion. Ratings at the expense of common sense.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 28, 2017 at 7:18am

You have nailed it on the head Colm....Lets not worry about the truth... just grab the audience for ratings, Shame oh Shame 

Comment by michael dunne on April 28, 2017 at 4:04pm

Why let the truth get in the way of a good story. And what a story is unfolding regarding the EU's opening gambit on UK associate membership of the EU. A startling revelation is their precondition that older issues would first be settled before what could and could not be conceded re the Single European Act. The oddest scenario now looms which includes the offer to make a united Ireland a full member of the EU and under Enda Kennys watch. Listening to Sinn Féin reps on a recent radio programme, they both were carefully threading water on this aspiration, not wishing to damage or rupture the excellent work and negotiations that went into the Good Friday Agreement. Without unduly muddying the waters, the coffin ships were to serve the policy of land clearances during Irelands hour of greatest need. Such was the response from what was arguably the most powerful and wealthiest wealthiest nation in the world of 1847 and onwards. Is there any reason to believe or expect the UK policy of laissez faire commercial interests would be any different today in its negotiations with the EU.

The people of the North are now on the horns of an economic dilemma. We have to be tactfully and not brutally honest in recognizing our past, and not jump to any populist opinions. Now that would be a truly worthwhile project for any Ruth that would have a mind to serve the interests of a frightened section of society.   

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 29, 2017 at 6:25am

michael dunne ... nice to see that you are still that expert that I have come to know on the Wild Geese... You input is always so clear and to the point,.that I love reading your comments on any article.......

Comment by Colm Herron on April 30, 2017 at 8:31am

To: That's Just How It Was yesterday

To: Michael Dunne

I agree Mary. Michael is lucid to the point of being dazzling.

Michael, the situation is intoxicating all right. Thanks to that eejit Cameron (plus the swivel-eyed wee Englanders) the Brits are in for an overdue chastening. For them and the unionists of whatever hue there will only be a least bad scenario vis-a-vis the border - and a helluva lot more. As for us and our representatives, prudence has to be the watchword.  

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 30, 2017 at 9:36am

I agree with you Colm ... prudence is the way forward...lets not destabilize the delicate balance that exists right.. I was so sad when Martin McGuinness died.. He had made friends with his worst enemy's .  even thought it caused him politically within his own party... I do hope that his greatest triumph , negotiating the peace treaty , will continue  throughout these troubled times,what with Brixit..and them not being able to negotiate a deal on all the outstanding issues, i.e Irish Language etc...with the Unionists 

I also agree with you that Cameron was a pure eedjit.. [Eton Boy ]  who walked off into the sunset, because he had no plan B ... Theresa May is not much better.. Watch this space 

Comment by michael dunne on May 1, 2017 at 9:04am

The single biggest error was allowing Catholics access to education. It would follow naturally from this, that these educated people would seek equality and set up civil rights organizations. Peaceful protest is the strongest form of protest to government and was therefore destroyed.The Good Friday Agreement is an opportunity for self realization and was at least supported by the UK among others like the people of Northern Ireland Southern Ireland and the European Union. Lets hope that a clash of the UK court and the European court can be avoided in this spat over Brexit. The future of people should never have been put at risk by a manipulative group of self interests propped up by either mis-information or no information.  


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