The Ghost of Violence Past

Given the Provisional IRA’s penchant for large bombs a blast from the past is a description rich with meaning when applied to the re-emergence of former member Maria McGuire. The then young Dublin graduate and multi-linguist was a member of the Provisional IRA long before it ceased to be a republican body. Her book To Take Arms: A Year in the Provisional IRA can occasionally be picked up in second hand bookshelves. On a recent occasion I saw two in the one shop. This is rare given that many books on the IRA from that era have become valued collectors’ items. It was certainly the first insider account of the Provisional IRA and in my view was ‘the story of the year as regards Provisional historiography.’

Others don’t see it that way. In a recent interview the former IRA volunteer Marian Price, having read the book while reconnoitring England in preparation for a bombing operation, said ‘the material was so embarrassing we laughed as we read it.’ Others dismissed it but found little to laugh about while they did so. The IRA leaders from the era that I interviewed over the years always appeared ill at ease when her name came up. Given that she had some of them plotting to overthrow or assassinate others this can hardly come packaged as a surprise. Some of her colleagues of the day claimed that she had never been a member of the IRA. Sean MacStiofain tersely said ‘McGuire is a liar’. Ruairi O’Bradaigh dismissed her knowledge as ‘office gossip.’ Whatever the truth she proved highly controversial.

Her escape from Dutch authorities alongside the army council member Dave O’Conaill after Dutch police found a large arms cache at Schiphol Airport was sensational news. Instantly she and O’Conaill became republican icons. For the next four years O’Conaill became the most consistent public face of the Provisional IRA. McGuire for her part jumped ship, gave a detailed interview to the Observer, went on to write her book and allowed her name to slip into a blind spot. As O’Bradaigh put it ‘Maria McGuire just disappeared. I hadn’t heard anything about her until now. But I’m not surprised where she ended up.’ She went forgotten about outside history aficionados. Obscurity, however, had plucked only her identity from the public eye. Her person was anything but obscure as her exposure as a councillor in the Croydon Tory Party demonstrated.

That she should re-emerge as Gatland rather than McGuire in what for her were the most inauspicious of circumstances was as newsworthy as her defection was more than three and a half decades ago. For a week or two the press whisked us back to the early 1970s as we were regaled with tales of bombs and hot pants. All that was missing was a touch of Slade and T Rex providing some background mood music.

The political reaction was knee jerk par for the course. A spokeswoman for Croydon Council said: ‘The council has been advised that Maria Gatland has resigned as cabinet member for children, young people and learners. This follows emerging news of her connection to the Provisional IRA - which has come as a complete shock to Croydon.’ They were probably not half as shocked as the former Maria McGuire.

The leader of the Croydon Labour party, Tony Newman said: ‘The question that must be answered is what did the Croydon and national Tory Party know or not know about this issue.’ Even more strange is that British security services seemed not to know.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith broke the mould in being somewhat generous about the matter, expressing the view that McGuire was on no wanted list and that given the security implications it was understandable that she did not disclose her past.

Viewing it all from a different perch Malachi O Doherty points out ‘that people should not suffer for what they did in youth, if they have themselves reassessed those things and moved on from them. There are many others who were in the IRA in the early seventies and went on to distinguish themselves in other ways. Why should they be harassed now?’

That the Conservative Party should no longer want her as a member needs explained. Provisional Sinn Fein is a very conservative party where some former IRA members are made welcome as councillors. So much for parity of esteem!


  1. I can't understand all the hype about this. Is it really a story. A woman did something in her youth, and went on to make something of her life?

    What one of us in life has never made a mistake? Never stumbled, whether it was a huge public mistake or something in private?. Have you ever made a mistake?

    I don't think there is much value in pointing out the mistakes of others if they have recovered from them and moved on, as I understand you yourself have moved on from violence.

    Mistakes happen. Pointing them out repeatedly about others is hardly newsworthy. Big deal she was in the IRA and went into politics, is that really news or commentary in this day and age, or did you feel the need to get in on the act?

    I don't mean to offend by asking that, I merely seek to understand why you think it's worth commenting on when so much else in the world is going on, and you've written such excellent stuff on the Baby P affair.

    The IRA has gone, move on.

  2. It is very much a story albeit it a human interest one. Had she just turned up it would merit little attention. That she turned up as a Conservative Party councillor is what gives the story its news value.

    Everybody has made mistakes. The making of mistakes is not the story. I cannot see anywhere in the piece where I pointed out her mistakes. I was neither critical of her nor hostile to her. I didn’t feel any need to get in on whatever act has captured your attention. If it is the act of criticising her, I did not get in on that. If it is the act of pointing out her mistakes, I didn’t get in on that either. I followed my own instinct and interest. I have a particular interest in the era when she was involved. I wrote my doctoral thesis on it.

    I am not in the slightest offended, more amused at such a wrong reading of a piece of writing. You see where I did not get in on the act of criticising her you got in on the act of criticising me. There we go. Feel free.

    Baby P is an awful case and has concentrated my mind like few other things as of late. I suppose in some way writing about Maria McGuire or anything else helps disperse a heaviness of mind that is always associated with exploring the issues in the Baby P case.

  3. Always wondered what happened to her!.

  4. Anonymous; you way out on left field on this one. You perception of Mr. MacIntyre's article is all wrong.
    Settle down, man.