wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Michael Burleigh

Sacred Causes

By 1972 the Official IRA had formally renounced violence—on the ground that this increased sectarian mayhem—although they did not relinquish their weapons. Thenceforth most IRA violence was perpetrated by the Provisionals, or 'Provos.' A further breakaway faction from the Officials called the Irish National Liberation Army, INLA, managed to combine Marxism with psychopathic violence, which was erratically directed at the two larger factions of the IRA as well as at the security services and loyalists.

Although many of its leaders and activists were drawn from the South the Provisional IRA tilted towards tough northern Catholics, from both city and countryside, animated by a desire to avenge themselves on Protestants and clan mythologies in which many of their relatives had lengthy involvements with the IRA. The former barman Gerry Adams who despite never having fired a shot rose to the summit of the IRA came from two families in which his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and mother had histories of involvement with republican organisations. His comrade Martin McGuinness had once worked in a butcher's shop before devoting himself to armed struggle. Mighty matriarchs, some members of the IRA women's organisation Cumann na mBann, kept the home fires of sectarian hatred burning, while younger women helped move weapons or lure victims to their deaths through sexual entrapment. Children were recruited to the Fianna, the IRA's youth wing.

Eventually, the Northern Command would effectively take over the organisation, putting the older southern godfathers out to grass on their farms in Kerry, one of the South's hotbeds of republican extremism. Training camps situated in remote areas of the South taught northern city boys how to use rifles and to handle explosives, most of which were mixed on southern farms. IRA members had their own argot and culture, which included 'nutting' or 'stiffing' people—that is, shooting them—balaclava hoods, combat jackets, high-velocity rifles and US-manufactured machine guns. As the memoirs of convicted terrorists and informers amply illustrate, there was a hierarchical command structure, in which there were many chiefs and few Indians, fancy military titles, and much admired specialists such as bomb-makers, snipers, interrogators and torturers, roles that brought added kudos to those involved. Soubriquets like 'Dr Death,' 'Geronimo,' 'Hack Saw,' 'Slab' and 'Tonto' were used not solely to discriminate among too many people called Murphy, but to convey a specific air of menace in the way that Americans will be familiar with gentlemen called 'Fats' or 'Fingers.' The parallels can be developed further. Two of the Belfast IRA figures suspected of killing Robert McCartney are regarded locally as 'made men,' who in the run-up to the 1994 ceasefire had murdered various Protestant paramilitaries.

Speaking of gangsters, among Boston's criminal fraternity, shipping weapons to the IRA seems to have been a way of enhancing the local status of gangs like the Murrays, who were so untrustworthy that the IRA kept two of them hostage to ensure that an arms shipment was completed. The IRA's constant search for revenue ineluctably meant armed robbery, the supply of rigged slot machines, forgery and money-laundering, drug trafficking, motor-insurance fraud, and various scams connected to the construction industry in England, which are indistinguishable from the methods used by the mafia. It was and is a criminal organisation, whatever its political rhetoric, the only ascertainable difference being that the profits go to the organisation rather than to individual gang members, most of whom live modestly—often on British welfare—and appear to pay no taxes.

One fact about these people needs to be emphasised. Violence was glamorous in inner-city working-class areas and small rural towns that were largely deprived of it; every hick or urchin could play the role of 'romantic' rebel. Some, like Gerry Adams, whose abilities had got him into a grammar school run by the Christian Brothers, effectively wrecked their own education and career prospects when the IRA alternative path to the top beckoned. Adams and many others made up for this during spells in prison, which acted as universities for republicans and loyalists alike, although men like Adams prided themselves on their autodidactic achievements, to distinguish them from those of the educated Catholic middle class, like John Hume, a French teacher who rose to lead the moderate nationalist SDLP. Others, like 'Slab' Murphy, a Gaelic-football-loving bachelor farmer, could play the local Mr Big, building a fearsome crime empire under the guise of humble pig farmer. Below that august level are the usual quotient of loquacious dullards or stony-eyed psychopaths whose reputation is dependent on their skill in the kill.

The demi-educated leadership talked a good class struggle, but visceral sectarian hatreds were involved that are invariably presented in a one-sided fashion. A Belfast Provisional observed as he surveyed the Protestant areas of the city: 'that's my dream for Ireland. I would like, to see those Orange [Protestant] bastards just wiped out.' A spiral of violence ensued, in which the militarisation of searches and arrests by the security services led to incidents of heavy-handedness by soldiers who discovered this was not Wiltshire with more rainfall, while IRA shooting of British soldiers—some from cities, such as Glasgow or Liverpool, with their own sectarian history—resulted in the latter's inclination to deploy their considerable firepower regardless of any rules of engagement. The introduction of internment without trial in August 1971 ratcheted up the tension—without effectively rounding up terrorists—many of whom sneaked across the border of the complaisant Republic, where the mythology of 'rebels' had some sway. The impression of British injustice was compounded with the introduction of non-jury Diplock courts in 1972—an inevitable solution to the fact that potential jurors were too terrified to sit on cases involving terrorists since they had to make their way home at night.

On 30 January 1972 a civil rights march in Londonderryt agains the recently introduced policy of internment became a major tragedy. Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment, whom other regiments of the British army regarded as 'thugs in uniform,' were despatched into the Catholic Bogside to contain the disturbances and arrest rioters. For this task they were dependent on biased and inaccurate intelligence from the RUC. Arresting people was not a task paratroopers were suited to, so arguably those in London responsible for their deployment were at fault. The republicans were not blameless. The local Provo leader in waiting, allegedly Martin McGuinness, flitted and skulked about in the shadows, with guns and pipe bombs. Since the Parachute Regiment soldiers had (or claim to have) been shot at, they opened fire on the crowd, shooting dead thirteen unarmed people, in scenes that became a propaganda coup for the republican movement. 'Bloody Sunday' (although the IRA were responsible for bloodshed on every day of the week) attracted so many potential recruits to the IRA that the organisation was incapable of absorbing them. Republican tempers were further provoked when in April 1972 lord chief justice Widgery, who was predisposed to the forces of law and order, exonerated the actions of the Parachute Regiment. A re-run of the Widgery investigation (the Saville Inquiry) is still ongoing, which for the lawyers involved has turned into the most lucrative case in British legal history, with their fees totalling £85 million out of net costs of £163 million. This does not seem to embarrass the lawyers, but to many people it is a disgrace, especially because the peace process enabled McGuinness to use his own appearance/non-appearance as theatre.

It is also the most egregious instance of how British soldiers, who have been responsible for 8.2 per cent of all deaths in Northern Ireland, have been constantly subject to politicised inquiries, while republican terrorists, responsible for 58.3 per cent of fatalities, evidently do not excite the imaginations of lawyers or the human rights industry. It is worth noting, as a sort of glaring parenthesis, the callous treatment of relatives of people murdered by the IRA when they sought explanations from its senior figures. In 1991 a dissident republican, Eoin Ta'Morley, was shot twice in the back with a rifle when he defected from the IRA to the INLA. His father, the former head of republican prisoners in the Maze, asked Martin McGuinness, a logical port of call in such situations, to investigate whether inter alia his son's murderers had been drunk. The 'investigation' took place in a bungalow with the murderers present. 'Were youse drinking?' asked McGuinness, who presumably got his legal training while packing bacon in James Doherty's butchers shop. 'No, we don't drink,' replied the murderers, one of whom made to leave. 'Sit down, Patrick, I am finished, I'm quite satisfied,' said the scrupulous investigator. He reported to the parents of the dead man that this (ten-minute) 'court of inquiry' had found no wrongdoing. At least such investigations are cheap and don't involve lawyers.

In the wake of ever more killings and following the failure of the internment policy advocated by prime minister Brian Faulkner, the Heath government prorogued Stormont and opted for direct rule by the secretary of state (William Whitelaw being the first to venture into the political graveyard) with a Northern Ireland Office as the local administrative apparatus. This imposition of political tutelage without any regard to the wishes of the majority outraged Protestant opinion. Craig and Paisley organised a two-day strike that paralysed the province, while a hundred thousand Protestants marched on Stormont. One significant effect of the suspension of Stormont was a wholesale exodus of aristocratic and middle-class Protestants from Unionist politics, which left the field wide open for lower-middle-class demagogues and sectarian toughs from the Protestant ghettos. The number of British troops stationed in Northern Ireland climbed from seventeen thousand to nearly thirty thousand that year.

Although there were covert discussions between Whitelaw and the IRA in London, these brought temporary ceasefires rather than a cessation of IRA violence. Both sides were clearly also testing the wills of their interlocutors for the serious military coming. Twenty-one car bombs that detonated simultaneously in Belfast on 'Bloody Friday,' 21 July 1972, killed nine people and injured dozens more. An eyewitness described the scene at the Oxford Street bus depot where four bus drivers were slain:
You could hear people screaming and crying and moaning. The first thing that caught my eye was a torso of a human being lying in the middle of the street. It was recognisable as a torso because the clothes had been blown off and you could actually see parts of the human anatomy. One victim had his arms and legs blown off and some of his body had been blown through the railings. One of the most horrendous memories for me was seeing a head stuck to a wall. A couple of days later we found vertebrae and a ribcage on the roof of a nearby building. The reason we found it was because the seagulls were diving on to it. I've tried to put it at the back of my mind for 25 years.
The violence the IRA meted out to anyone failing to conform to their way of thinking within what they regarded as 'their' own violently 'greened' communities was terrifying. Jean McConville was a Belfast Protestant who converted to Catholicism when she married a Catholic builder, who died of cancer a year before his wife's disappearance. Menaced out of her home in a Protestant area, she and her family, which included ten children, moved to Catholic West Belfast. In 1972 the widowed McConville rashly tried to comfort a British soldier who had been shot virtually on her doorstep. In December, four republican women burst into her house, dragged Jean McConville from her bath, and abducted her in front of her brood of children. She was never seen alive again, although the IRA did eventually admit that it had killed her as a suspected informer. Her remains were discovered on a beach in 2003; she had been shot in the head. Eight of her children were put into care after her murder, as each of these killings has ramifications for many more than the victims.

As the RUC retreated from what became Catholic ghettos, the IRA assumed the role of surrogate police force, delivering rough justice to delinquents, who, if they refused to emigrate to England, were treated with baseball bats, concrete blocks, electric drills, all applied to their arms, knees or ankle joints, as well as the ultimate sanction of death by shooting. Such vigilantism caught up with twenty-eight-year-old Hugh O'Halloran in West Belfast on 10 September 1979. A Catholic with five children, O'Halloran had allegedly knocked a girl over in his car. A group of men connected to the IRA beat him to death with hurley sticks and a pickaxe handle as he returned home late at night. The attackers were all drunk.

Endemic violence also brought massive job losses. According to one of the most realistic Labour Northern Ireland ministers—the former coalminer Roy Mason, who occupied that office in 1976-9—the number of jobs created by inward investment fell from three thousand to three hundred per annum during his term in office. Seventy-two government-sponsored firms folded and sixteen factories were destroyed. Business costs were inflated by political extortion. One in five homes in Belfast were rendered uninhabitable.

IRA violence was also directed against England, which had become dulled by the chronicle of death across the water. Scotland and Wales were exempted, less because of pan-Celtic sentiment than because the ferry routes from Northern Ireland to Scotland were used as what the terrorists dubbed their 'Ho Chi Minh trail.' In 1972-3 the IRA bombed London's criminal court, the Old Bailey, and the Protestant UVF killed thirty-three people with bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan in the Irish Republic. In incidents that are etched into the mind of most English people of my generation, a small IRA cell conducted devastating attacks on pubs in Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham. These places were targeted on the notional grounds that off-duty soldiers frequented these establishments, but the wider expectation was that killing English civilians would attract enhanced news coverage, undermining English support for British government policy in Northern Ireland. So did the campaigns to free the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, that is those Irishmen who were convicted of two of these attacks, campaigns that in the left imagination eclipsed memory of the carnage the IRA had been responsible for.

In rural South Armagh, violence was savagely sectarian. Gunmen from nationalist and loyalist terror organisations simply burst into bars and the like to spray the patrons with bullets. Only murders in double figures attracted the big publicity. In one of the foulest incidents, twelve masked IRA men flagged down a red minibus containing a party of workmen on a lonely road at Kingsmills. The men had been chatting about English football. The IRA separated the sole Catholic from the eleven Protestants, whom they lined up and murdered in a hail of automatic gunfire—although one victim would survive despite being hit conflict that was not long in eighteen times. When the emergency services arrived on the scene, it was awash with blood, as well as littered with boxes of sodden sandwiches. This was a blatant sectarian killing, as it was certainly not part of the class struggle. Armagh, with its IRA roadsigns warning of 'Snipers at Work,' became so dangerous that it soon bristled with military watchtowers while troops moved around by helicopter.

In the mid-1970s the British government adopted a twofold strategy of deploying Special Air Service troops to apprehend or kill IRA men as they perpetrated acts of murder, and 'Ulsterising' the public face of security through the RUC and part-time Ulster Defence Regiment. While this meant that part-time policemen (and prison officers) bore the brunt of IRA attacks, whether shootings or bombs wired into their cars, it did not immunise the British army. In 1979 two trucks filled with Parachute Regiment troops were blown up by an 8oolb bomb as they passed a hay trailer. The survivors, and soldiers who had come to their rescue, were decimated by a second 800lb bomb concealed in milk churns, which had been deliberately positioned in anticipation of their probable defensive position. Eighteen young soldiers died at Warren-point that day; a surviving soldier was killed by the IRA a year later. The day also saw the murder of the seventy-nine-year-old earl Mountbatten, prince Philip's uncle, his grandson and a teenage helper, when a 50lb bomb exploded in the Shadow Vas they pulled up lobster pots. The earl's daughter Lady Brabourne died of her injuries the next day. To the IRA's warped mindset, Mountbatten was nothing more than a symbol of the British Establishment. As the Republican News explained: 'We will tear out their sentimental heart. The execution was a way of bringing home to the English ruling class and its working-class slaves that their government's war on us is going to cost them as well.'

These crimes had a complex impact on the major Churches. Violence between republicans, loyalists and the British armed forces and their local auxiliaries polarised communities, which in turn expected their respective clergy to clarify their own stance. The leaders of the flock were often the led. Internment was supported by many Protestant clerics, whose instinct was to support the forces of law and order, even as the Catholic hierarchy vociferously opposed it. While the priest Edward Daly was caught on film desperately waving a blood-soaked handkerchief after tending a victim of 'Bloody Sunday,' both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians regarded the rioters as the cat's paw of attempts to coerce Protestants into an all-Ireland republic. The Roman Catholic position was complicated by centuries of anti-Catholicism on the part of a Britain for whom militant Protestantism is a residual part of its identity, albeit a sentiment tempered by increasing tolerance of the Catholic minority in England, a minority that includes a huge Irish diaspora. Sections of that clergy had also imbibed the usual Gaelic cum Celtic mythology, and the republican ideology of the martyred rebel.

Most Catholic clergy north and south of the border felt strongly about the need for social justice for the northern Catholic community, as did the majority of citizens of the Republic, so long as they did not have to take on the fiscal burden of the North's far more extensive welfare arrangements. They condemned harsh army search tactics and the use of mental or physical coercion in police interrogation centres, although the Republic's Gardai were not known for their gentle approach to offenders. Like any normal person, they took grave exception to such instances as an ambulance being deliberately kept waiting at an army roadblock so that the wounded terrorist inside could bleed to death. 'That's the point, mate,' an English soldier explained when a priest objected. Emotionally clergy supported the goal of a united Ireland, and sympathised with the anti-British outlook of their parishioners. There was another reason for the clergy to become involved in the civil rights movement, namely the concern of their bishops that it might otherwise be dominated by secular Marxists in the IRA. Some priests went further in more or less overtly supporting the so-called 'armed struggle,' by hiding weapons or ferrying terrorists about and taking them to safe houses that they themselves provided. Only one priest, father James Chesney, seems to have been actively involved in terrorism—the 1972 bombing of the village of Claudy, which killed nine people, including nine-year-old Rose McLaughlin. Although it is difficult to get at the truth of the matter, memoirs of former terrorists frequently allude to the bigotry of Catholic clergy and their uncritical espousal of an unreconstructed republicanism. While making his getaway after murdering Peter Flanagan, a Catholic RUC Special Branch officer, in a pub, IRA operative Sean O'Callaghan—the future head of its southern command—stayed in a priests' house. The prospect of an over-cooked fried chop was enlivened by the TV and radio:
The IRA had regularly used this house for meetings, for the induction of recruits and as a general safe house and base in the area. The priest was an active IRA sympathiser with influence at the highest levels of the republican movement. He was as good as regarded as a senior IRA activist.