Out Of The Ashes

From The Transcripts John McDonagh & Martin Galvin speak to Professor Robert White via telephone about his new book, Out of the Ashes An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement.

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(begins time stamp ~ 20:16)

Martin: Professor White, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann and congratulations on the book.

Robert: Well thank you very much, Martin. And hello, John, I hope all’s going well.

John: Hello, Robert. Yep.

Martin: And this is a book – John said it’s a ‘coffee table book’ – it’s four hundred and eighty-eight pages. It goes through everything and I should ask you first: How long have you been working on this book ’cause I know I met you, I don’t know, it was somewhere around 1990, the early ’90’s…

Robert: …Yes…

Martin: …you were going in…

Robert: …It would have been…

Martin: …Yeah…

Robert: …It would have been ’96, I think, is when we met – up in Monaghan and…

Martin: …That’s correct. You were going in to interview Brian McDonald who was the former Sinn Féin head of publicity. You were doing a first party interview with him, an original research with him, and I don’t know if – we can talk about it in a bit about you had been there in 1984 on the Falls Road, along with John and I, when that was attacked but how long have you been working on this book and how long have you been doing the research that led up to these four hundred and eighty-eight pages?

Robert: Well the research started formally, in terms of interviews, in 1984 when I first arrived in Ireland that January and went to the Sinn Féin head office in Dublin and met a few people. Joe Cahill was very supportive, went up to Belfast, met a few people and pretty much it was from that point on – the journey has not ended. I’ve gone back goodness knows how many times – had a sabbatical leave there, spent extended – I think it was the summer of ’95 – much of that over there, etc…

Martin: …And now…

Robert: …And so, in a sense, since 1984 but to more formally answer the question, I suppose, like in ’96 when we met I would have been doing follow-up re-interviews from the ’84 and that led to a paper that was ultimately published. I did the Ó Brádaigh biography that you’re familiar with; that came out 2006. And then I did a documentary. I got interested in video things and on the Irish Republican Movement Collection there’s the video, Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ (in quotations) Irish Republicans and that’s open access. And it was around 2012 that I’d realised I had just all this information from all these different perspectives, RSF, (Republican Sinn Féin) 32 County Sovereignty Movement, people who had left plus people who’d stayed with the Provisionals so really I started writing, roughly, 2012 but the research has been going on for a long time as you mentioned.

Martin: Okay, now the book title is Out of the Ashes An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement. And of course there’s a famous expression: Out of the ashes of ’69 arose the Provisionals – an area in Belfast was attacked, many homes burned down by Loyalists. The British, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) did not intervene to protect them and there was a feeling that the IRA had not been there to defend the area and that’s what led to the Provisionals – that’s the title. But when we spoke that it’s actually – the story of how the Provisionals started is much broader than that.

Robert: Yeah, in some way ‘out of the ashes’ is sort of the myth of the Provisionals – now that might not be the right word – but there were Provisionals, people like Joe Cahill who I mentioned, Billy McKee, who I think you mentioned earlier, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh – people like that – they were around long before August of 1969. So what happens in August of 1969 is a major confrontation, major rioting, that leads to a split in the movement and you get the Provisionals vs the Officials but the reality is that the people who created the Provisionals were there for a long time and the younger people, as far as I know, the younger people weren’t in the room, or the rooms shall we say, when let’s say when the Provisional IRA was founded – it was a bunch of middle-aged men.

Martin: Okay. You have a struggle, you talked about it – Seán Mac Stíofain, who was one of the first Chiefs of Staff, left a good job, as you describe it in the book, with the Gaelic language – he had a good job. McKee actually was working – came back to the movement. Other people came forward. What was it – you had a struggle from 1969 to 1998. You had people joining this movement, fighting the British on a massive scale, despite internment, despite being put in jail, despite seeing civil rights marches shot down, despite shoot-to-kill policy, despite – gave up economics, certain jobs and stuff – what is it that sustained that struggle?

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Robert: Well you had people like Seán Mac Stíofain, as you mentioned, Joe Cahill, Billy McKee, who returned – and some of them – Mac Stíofain was there the whole way through. I would argue that there was going to be a split in the movement whether or not August of 1969 happened. The Officials, led by Goulding, Cathal Goulding, Tomás Mac Giolla, were going to go their direction and Ruíari Ó Brádaigh, Seán Mac Stíofain, that group, were going to go their direction. And as Ruíari told me once in the middle of that disagreement, political disagreement, The North just, The North blew up and changed everything. And what happened was with August of ’69 – then you get the Falls Road Curfew, the attack at St. Matthew’s – I think the same summer, 1970, then internment in ’71 and especially internment followed by Bloody Sunday – that just sends people to the Provisionals in flocks of them, droves, however you want to say it. And my argument would be that the Provisionals, shall we say, they would have gotten off the ground but they wouldn’t have gone very far without internment and without Bloody Sunday. And what those two events did was they legitimised, or validated, what people like Seán Mac Stíofain and Billy McKee and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and others were saying which was that: We’re not going to get justice from the British. We’re not going to get justice in Northern Ireland. We’re gonna have, you know, we’re gonna face oppression and lo and behold! what happens with internment was they started arresting people and locking them up and throwing away the key, not charging them and it validates the perspective of the senior people. And as I understand it, I mean, after Bloody Sunday the Provisionals were literally signing people up on clipboards.

Martin: Now you are a sociologist. You write about the differences between social movements versus terrorism and you show a lot of statistics, you do a lot of research to say that the Provisionals – that this was a social movement, it’s very different, not terrorism – that label just doesn’t apply. Why is that?

Robert: Well my view would be that if you’re going to call people terrorists then you pretty much need call everybody who engages in that kind of behaviour a terrorist. And as I mention in the first chapter of the book in I suppose it was 1940 Churchill, the Prime Minister Churchill, in response to, I think it was the bombing of Coventry, he, they had come up with a war plan where they’re going to bomb German cities and they want German cities with narrow streets so that would, the rubble would hinder firefighters from putting out fires and you’d cause more damage, kill more civilians, etc. Well is that terrorism? Okay? If you look at what President George W. Bush did with the Shock and Awe treatment of Baghdad – they knew there was civilians there and they dropped all kinds of bombs on them in 2003. So what’s terrorism then? And my issue would be, my issue with many of the terrorism experts or ‘terrorologists’, however you want to describe them, would be that they focus on groups like the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRA, etc and they don’t focus on state terrorism. And by doing that they miss the fact that state oppression, state repression, state violence, really, is a key factor for getting people to engage in what I call ‘small group political violence’. And instead of the use – instead of the term ‘terrorism’ – I would much prefer ‘political violence’ which can be done by pretty much all kinds of groups – from the United States to Israel to Iran to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It’s all violence. And I think we do a great disservice to understanding why people engage in violence if we throw in that word ‘terrorism’. It’s, to me, a useless concept or pretty much close to a useless concept.

John: And Professor White, I mean you were talking about the ‘splits’ and about the definition of terrorism – depends on I guess on who’s broadcasting it – but a lot of stuff we do here at Radio Free Éireann is just trying to correct some of the re-writing of Irish Republican history going on particularly now with Gerry Adams – he’s taking a court case that he never really tried to escape from prison – whereas people like Brendan Hughes used to brag and they’re making movies about escapes. How did you find Gerry Adams psychologically? And how was he able, at one stage of his life, be in the IRA and say: We have to bring down the state. We have to smash Stormont to evolving to say: No, in order to get a united Ireland we have to bring back Stormont and not only that I have to administer British rule in Ireland. How was he able to do that psychologically and bring the majority of the movement along with him? I mean you’ve interviewed him and you’ve seen the process and how it’s evolved. How did it all happen? ‘Cause that’s why we’re sitting here – how did it all happen?

Robert: Well I’ve met Gerry Adams and, in fact, and I’ve seen him in action in the sense that one of my most revealing situations watching him was when he introduced you in 1984 at the anti-internment march. I’ve met him a couple of times, etc, seen him in action, shall we say, but I have to point out that I never interviewed him formally. Now, having said that…

Martin: …Just – Professor White, this is Martin Galvin – You do have, for example, quotes from Martin McGuinness let’s say…

Robert: …Sure! Oh yeah, I…

Martin: ….And you start out: ‘I’m a member of the Derry Brigade of the IRA. I’m very proud of it.’ Then: ‘Our position is clear. It’ll never, never changed. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.’ And then he ends up talking about multi-national companies and the New York Stock Exchange and it’s about jobs and contacts etc which is pretty much the same thing.

Robert: Sure! Martin McGuinness, I would say, changed, okay? In my, from my perspective, having seen him at the 1984 Ard Fheis, seen him do a meet and greet with secondary school students, they looked like, in the Great Hall at Stormont to following him on the presidential campaign trail in, I guess it was 2011. In my opinion the man changed. Going back to Gerry Adams – that’s a really interesting question because if Adams changed – when did he change? And given part, some of what you asked, obviously the guy is just a brilliant strategist and the question really is: At what point did McGuinness and Adams decide that they could get more by disavowing political violence? And arguably it was in the 1990’s but if you look back in the letters, like Alex Reid’s famous letter I think it was 1987, I mean this stuff started much earlier and it may go back all the way to the hunger strike and it’s a really good question. And the issue is: Did Adams change or is he just a very strategic, very political thinker who pretty much everything is on the table all the time? And that’s a hard one to answer.

Martin: Alright. One of the things – Professor White, this is Martin Galvin, again – we had a question from John – one of things that interested me, in your book, in the preface, you actually said that when doing your research you were referred to Denis Donaldson and…

Robert: …Yeah…

Martin: …and your contact information was given to him. And then you later found that, you didn’t contact him at that time, but Denis Donaldson was, of course, sent out here – you later found that you were investigated by the Feds, you found that out through a Freedom of Information Act request that you were investigated by the Feds because he had apparently given your information, your name and information, to him. Now he was somebody – came out here, turned out that that he was a spy and a traitor and had given your information to the federal government and as somebody – I originally just thought he was bad for, just wrongheaded about what he was doing but through a couple of things – what happened after Hugh Feeney was arrested at the Irish People office and one night with him drinking and federal FBI agents coming into The Phoenix – I had actually begun to call Ireland about him and say that I thought he was an agent. But what was your experience with him?

Robert: Well I met him the one time, it was actually in Belfast when I met him, and I think it would have been the mid-90’s and as I said in the preface he just had this sort of wry, snarky, however you want to describe it, grin on his face and at the time, you know, it didn’t click but I did the Freedom of Information request – I got stopped, we missed an airplane and because of it flying into Newark they wouldn’t – customs held us up – and it turned out I had been flagged for and so I started asking questions and sent letters to everybody under the cousins saying: What’s the deal here? And finally (it takes forever as I’m sure you know) you get this information – and I’d been investigated and cleared evidently. But and then when it comes out that Donaldson was an agent it all starts to fit together. I don’t know for sure if he passed my name on but my guess would be that he did because that sort of was – that’s what his job was, right? And I found the whole thing very curious and you start putting two and two together and you wonder if maybe you got four. And clearly, I mean in retrospect and in speaking to you and others about him, there were all kinds of signals being sent and the people in the Belfast leadership apparently knew of those signals, right? You mentioned it, I quote you in the book, you were making phone calls. And nothing was done about it.

Martin: Well, they told me he had impeccable credentials. Okay, why did…

John: …He certainly did.

Martin: That’s what they said. He had impeccable credentials and it must be – you have to work with this guy. Alright. Why do you think this whole peace process began? Why, how did the Provisionals turn out they way they did? The last thing you do in your book is talk about decommissioning.

Robert: Yeah well I think what happened was by 1990 and especially the early – I think there was an election in ’92, a Westminster election, which went very poorly but by 1990 – I have a quotation from Mitchel McLaughlin who’s talking about how much more open minded they were – and I think by that point they were starting to realise they weren’t going win. You’d had disasters like Enniskillen, you had the arms shipment captured from France and they realised, my guess is, that they could go on forever with this small scale war but it wasn’t gonna go anywhere and, in the meantime, their families were suffering. And at the ’86 Ard Fheis John Joe McGirl makes this comments about not wanting to turn the struggle over to yet another generation and that’s what was happening. And I have a quote from a woman who ended up getting arrested and she had like two, single mother – two children – and you know her life is now seriously – is facing serious difficulties and this would have been, I suppose, the third generation if you think Joe Cahill’s group being the first and then Adams and McGuinness and company being the second so it’s being passed again and there were all kinds of things and so there was no single thing but at some point they started checking into, you know: What kind of deal can we get?…

Martin: …Okay, and…

Robert: …and it leads, well it leads to the first ceasefire and I thought, personally, that the British played that very poorly so then you get Canary Wharf and then there’s another couple of elections and you bring in Tony Blair, who’s much more serious, and then then Fianna Fáil comes back and you get the second ceasefire and to me, ultimately, decommissioning. Once you do have the Good Friday Agreement and you have somebody like David Trimble who was willing to…

Martin: …Right. You say in the book David Trimble won the Good Friday Agreement – that’s almost a quote – I took it out. And I’m just coming near the end but why do you think that David Trimble, who was an Official Unionist Party – his party actually went down in terms of the Unionist vote and they’ve now been surpassed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led today by Arlene Foster – but why do you think that David Trimble and the Unionists, you know, in the end, won the Good Friday Agreement?

Robert: Well I think he’s the winner of the peace process in the sense that by the time he leaves the stage the stage has been set for Sinn Féin to make some major compromises and fully, become fully constitutional – no army, accepting policing, etc – and it’s because he kept dangling, if you will, or I don’t know how else – there are other ways to phrase it – but he was not going to go into Parliament as long as they had guns and then of course he makes compromises and then you get the – I guess it’s February of ’99 – when it turns out the IRA hadn’t even bothered to consult with the International Arms Commission etc but by doing that dance of ‘no guns no government’ – and then well, maybe a little bit and then no again – he brings them further and further into constitutional politics and the presence of the Provisional IRA becomes more and more of a liability and eventually it became very clear that, you know, the IRA had to go and politics was the future and I would say much of that is because of David Trimble. Because he was willing – if he had just said ‘no’ then nothing probably would have happened, okay? The fact that he was willing to try opens the door to all kinds of political outcomes that would not have been available. And he also, and as a by-product of that, the DUP also gets involved and they also go into Stormont of the Northern Ireland Assembly and so on. So to me, David Trimble is sort of the key person who allows all of this to happen, sets the framework and then, ironically, he gets pushed aside by Paisley and the DUP.

Martin: Right, but his goal of preserving British rule – that’s seems secure and certainly…

Robert: …Exactly!…

Martin: …the goal of Republicans of getting a united Ireland – it doesn’t seem to be any way – we’ve had ten years, for example, in coalition, didn’t unlock Unionism, they’re feeling as strongly as ever so certainly David Trimble’s goal of not having a united Ireland, of continued British rule seems secure. He won in that sense…

Robert: …Oh, yeah…

Martin: …I know that from a Republican perspective. Okay – We’re going to have it quickly: How can people – if you don’t pledge the hundred dollars (Martin provides telephone number for donations). – if you don’t do that how can you get copies of the book?

Robert: Well in the US it’s available at amazon dot com – twenty-six dollars and thirty eight cents apparently and seven ninety-nine as an eBook. If you’re in Ireland apparently it’s available at bookstores all over the place…

John: …Oh! Just walk into Eason’s on O’Connell Street. It’s on the front table, walking in.

Robert: Well that’s very nice to know. I plan to be over later next week and I will definitely do that. If you want to buy it online Irish Academic Press has it for twenty-four ninety-nine euros and amazon dot co dot uk has it for nineteen ninety-nine sterling or six seventy-one Kindle. There are all kinds of ways to get it and you know I very much appreciate the time and I hope everybody enjoys the book.

John: Well, alright. Thank you.

(ends time stamp ~ 41:28)

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

4 comments to ''Out Of The Ashes"

  1. Interesting read despite John and Martin's leading interview styles. Their agenda-driven stances coupled with the two against one' format sometimes seems a tad interrogatory ... and this time leaves me wondering what opportunities for greater truths and revelations other than Trimble's victory were missed?

  2. I have just finished this book and would recommend it. I have read countless books on the conflict and despite that I found some new things in the book. Often you can enjoy a book on the conflict and paradoxically not learn anything new.

    I found it educational in many senses and although much was known before, Robert White's analysis is balanced and fascinating.

    Sometimes when I thought "oh he definitely has some agenda" he goes and follows up with a piece of counterbalancing analysis.

    Much of the interviewees arguments and the counter-arguments are equally as eye-opeming. There was much in this book and altough it's not a light read it's also not too heavy for the subject matter.

    Henry JoY, I feel you'd enjoy it in particular as, even if you don't discover anything new, it's still an excellent book.

  3. Thanks for the welcome nudge Simon. Ancora imparo.

    (Hope to get to it once I finish Ivor Browne's autobiography 'Music and Madness') LOL

  4. Henry JoY, it is an interesting and enjoyable read but takes a certain amount of effort.

    I am back on the lighter reads. "I Heard You Paint Houses" by Charles Brandt. It was sitting in my library for ages but when I read that Scorsese is turning the story into a film I thought I better get started.

    Mafia books should be required reading by insurgency groups as a lesson in what not to become. Even more so than works by Che Guevara, Marx etc. Once you tar your cause with criminality your cause goes down the tubes.

    Ivor Browne sounds fascinating. I had to do a Google search. Looks a little heavy. Anyway, back to "the Irishman".


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