Why Provo campaign was unlike what came before


THE FREEDOMS won by the volunteers of the War of Independence to which Danny Morrison alludes (Opinion, Oct 6th) were indeed substantial and have gradually and peacefully been expanded upon since. By contrast, the 25-year campaign waged by the Provisional IRA only resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, and untold economic damage.

That campaign won no freedoms and advanced no civil rights. Instead it was marked by vengeful, deeply sectarian incidents: the murders of retired members of the security forces, the killing of a congregation at prayer in Darkley, of workers going home at Whitecross and Teebane, of a gathering in commemoration at Enniskillen, and the singling out of predominantly Protestant or unionist towns like Ballymena, Bangor, Coleraine, and Portrush for massive bomb attacks.

Blaming the British army, the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries for firing the first shots, as Morrison does, hardly absolves those who responded with such viciousness. The former have to answer for their actions. But those who directed the IRA’s campaign did so calmly and coldly, recruiting to their cause young men and women in the foolish belief that violence would produce a British withdrawal and, consequently, a united Ireland.

It was from the outset a futile, tragic and unattainable objective by those means, and none of its leaders has fully answered for the mayhem caused.

Unlike in 1919-1920, there was a viable, widely supported constitutional and peaceful alternative in the North in the form of the civil rights movement and the SDLP under the leadership of men like John Hume and Séamus Mallon, and by successive Irish governments.

The equivalence that some, among them Martin McGuinness, have drawn between violence and the constitutional approach is patently false. There was no equivalence, a fact the overwhelming majority of Irish people recognised in every test of popular opinion throughout the Troubles.

It was this constitutional alternative that ensured the achievement of the civil rights agenda, from “one person, one vote”, to fair housing, to equality of opportunity in the workplace. The political achievements of 1973, culminating in Sunningdale, were forerunners by 25 years of the Good Friday agreement.

Those agreements contained all of the essentials of the 1998 agreement: powersharing, a Council of Ireland and human rights reforms. Yet those who negotiated these agreements, the SDLP and the Irish government in particular, were roundly denounced as traitors to the cause of Irish unity by the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin. SDLP public representatives were subjected to violent attacks while being described by Martin McGuinness as “cringing and crawling” for negotiating with the British and unionists. More ominously, McGuinness vowed the Provos would continue their “war” until a British withdrawal had been declared.

Whatever the truth of McGuinness’s formal links with the Provos after 1974, he does not deny his continuing influence on that organisation. Indeed he clearly admits that he never “distanced” himself from it. Over the following 10 years, Sinn Féin persisted in its unquestioning support for the IRA’s campaign, during which it committed some of its most vicious deeds – La Mon Hotel, Mullaghmore, Brighton. It can only be concluded, therefore, that as a member of Sinn Féin, he too fully supported that campaign.

It was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, also denounced by Sinn Féin, that its leadership began searching for a way out of the bloody cul-de-sac down which their movement had been led. The roles of Adams and McGuinness in eventually leading their colleagues on to the path towards the Good Friday agreement have been widely and deservedly acknowledged.

However, their embrace of powersharing and all of the other elements of the Good Friday agreement was a very belated admission of the validity of the constitutional approach. And that embrace should never overshadow the terrible cost the Irish people, particularly in the North, were forced to pay.

Now, as Sinn Féin so frequently demands, that others face up to and honestly acknowledge their past, surely when one of its leading members is seeking the highest office in the land, it too should do likewise. 

Seán Farren (SDLP) is a former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a minister in the powersharing executive, 1999-2002

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