How widespread was sympathy for IRA in the South in the 1970s?
Irish political parties were implacably opposed to IRA but some members dissented
In defiance of a goverment ban on the 1976 Sinn Féin Easter parade, Labour TD David Thornley sat on the main stage outside the GPO alongside senior members of the republican movement Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill. Photograph: Pat Langan
On July 14th, 1973, gardaí carried out a search at a printing works in Drogheda, Co Louth. In the course of their search, they discovered and confiscated some 8,000 copies of a booklet entitled Freedom Struggle. The previous evening, 2,000 copies of the booklet had been collected by persons unknown for sale and distribution across the country. The booklet was a Provisional IRA publication and featured a photograph of an IRA volunteer with an RPG7 rocket launcher on the cover.
A republican spokesman was reported as stating that “proceeds of the book would go to IRA funds”. The State responded, declaring that the booklet was both a seditious and incriminating document; possession of a copy thus became a legal offence. The printing company and two employees were fined for their part in its publication. It was later acknowledged in a government document that the publisher was “a prominent member of the Fianna Fáil party in Drogheda”.
Earlier that year, a general election had replaced the ruling Fianna Fáil party with a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour. A few short weeks later, the Claudia, a boat carrying a five-tonne consignment of Libyan arms bound for the IRA, was intercepted by the Irish Navy off the coast of Waterford. Several men, including IRA chief-of-staff Joe Cahill and quartermaster general Dennis McInerney, were captured onboard.
During a heated debate in Dáil Éireann regarding the Claudia, a north Cork Fianna Fáil TD shouted across the chamber, “More guns we want. Bags of guns.” A party colleague of his from Co Mayo had previously told a journalist that the shipment was in fact a decoy, adding: “I am delighted that the IRA got away with it. I have always been in favour of the IRA… we would not hand over any information to the gardaí. If they come to me, the answer they will get is no.”
Among those captured aboard the Claudia was Denis Whelan, a civil servant from Co Waterford. In addition to a prison sentence, Whelan was summarily dismissed from his employment, sparking a major campaign for his reinstatement. Among the representations made to the taoiseach were those from the two largest teachers’ unions in Ireland, the Co Waterford Vocational Education Committee, Dungarvan Urban District Council, Kilmacthomas Parents’ Committee and Past Pupils’ Union, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association as well as the East and West Waterford GAA boards. In the wake of the government’s refusal to reinstate Whelan, two Fianna Fáil councillors in Waterford openly declared “that can’t and won’t be the end of it” and “we’ll wait and see”.
In his 1987 book, Disillusioned Decades, Tim Pat Coogan referred drolly to the “late night Fianna Fáil drinker” who was “quite likely to mutter approvingly about the ‘boys’ – and then go off without a qualm the next day to vote for some Fianna Fáil measure to curb the IRA.”
Such ambiguity was not unique to Fianna Fáil. In the autumn of 1973, IRA prisoners in Mountjoy went on hunger strike focusing on three demands: the right for (IRA) prisoners to wear their own clothes rather than prison uniforms, the right to free association and exemption from prison labour.
In the midst of the hunger strike, taoiseach Liam Cosgrave received numerous letters from Fine Gael supporters asking him to grant the prisoners’ demands. One letter came from a man in his sixties, a lifelong Fine Gael supporter who considered Cosgrave’s acceptance of the seal of office in 1973 to be one of the proudest moments in his life. The author of the letter went on to say that the marriage of his UCC graduate daughter to a northern Catholic businessman in 1963 had opened his eyes to the plight of nationalists in Northern Ireland.
The letter stated: “I always supported the Treaty…I still support it of course and will to my last breath…Let me tell you right now, Mr Cosgrave, that if I was a young man brought up in N.I. I too would be in the IRA.”
It was during the tenure of Cosgrave’s coalition government that repression of Irish republicanism peaked. A loose collection of Garda detectives, known as the “heavy gang”, travelled the country using extreme violence and psychological abuse to extract “confessions” from republican suspects. In his memoir, Conor Cruise O’Brien recounted an occasion where gardaí transferring a republican prisoner from Limerick to Dublin went off the main road in order to “beat the shit out of him” without fear of disturbance. O’Brien remarked, “it didn’t worry me”.
Such were the attempts to control republican displays of support that the government banned the 1976 Sinn Féin Easter parade in Dublin. Official government parades at Easter had already been discontinued in 1971 for fear of encouraging militant republicanism.
Anticipating that republicans would ignore the ban, the coalition government declared that any civil servant who took part in the parade would lose their job. In defiance of this ban, Labour TD David Thornley not only took part in the parade, he also sat on the main stage alongside senior members of the republican movement. As a result, Thornley was expelled from the Labour Party.
Compounding his transgression, Thornley had declared on RTÉ radio in advance of the Easter appearance that if charged before the Special Criminal Court, he would refuse to recognise it. This marked him out as a dangerous fellow-traveller to the authorities, with the British embassy referring to his statement as “pure Provisional language”.
Thornley was emphatically not a supporter of the IRA’s campaign. For him, it was the stripping away of civil liberties that was abhorrent, and he was determined to make a personal stance against it. An estimated 10,000 others marched in Dublin that Easter in defiance of the government ban.
While Thornley was against republican violence, no political party was exempt from having members or supporters who aided or sympathised with the IRA during the Troubles. While not a precise indicator of IRA support, all major polls and surveys conducted in Republic of Ireland during this period continued to show overwhelming support for Irish reunification.
Distinctions could be, and often were, made between support for attacks on British soldiers and the killing of civilians. An individual could be appalled by the latter while quietly approve of the former. During the 1970s, hundreds of men and women from the Republic of Ireland served prison sentences for IRA activity. These people ranged in age from teenagers to septuagenarians. Their occupations were as diverse as carpenters, bakers, factory workers, Gardaí, soldiers and teachers.
Throughout the country, republicans were as much a part of their communities as any others. Many were involved in the GAA or other local organisations and their neighbours could, to paraphrase Coogan, quietly and approvingly mutter about the “boys” – and then go off without a qualm the next day to vote for a political party aggressively opposed to the IRA.
A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland 1969-1980 by Gearóid Ó Faoleán is published by Merrion Press