Ironically, and this is for me the saddest part of having to admit that I was an IRA volunteer engaged in armed struggle, it’s that what we have now today is not better than the quality of life that people had pre-1969. But it is better than when people were being killed on the streets. The history of the statelet called Northern Ireland has now been reduced not to the past 100 years but to the past 35 or 40 years.
So when you’re asking people, “Would you like it the way it was?” you know, people aren’t saying, would you like it the way it was in terms of the Orange State, they’re saying it in terms of the war years. And if you take the statistical analysis between the implementation of the state in 1968-69 and now, there is a higher demand for housing in 2013 than there was in 1969. There is more evidence of institutionalized bias in the development of housing in 2013 than there was in 1969. There is more unemployment in 2013 than there was in 1969.
Almost by every index that’s used. And then what you have to say is this: “OK, but everybody shares – you know, at least now there is equality in our deprivation.” And then you go through the statistics. As recently as yesterday we have the statistics showing that West Belfast is the fourth most deprived area in the whole of the United Kingdom.
So, admittance of that would at least allow you to start looking at what you have now on the basis of how it compares to the quality of life that you should expect in the 21st century. So we’ve already looked at the figures on child poverty, the recent statistic, but again went virtually by-the-by, is that if you live in West Belfast you will live on average eight years less than someone who lives in South Belfast. If you live in the ward of the Old Park in North Belfast you will live 20 years less than if you walk 500 yards past the Waterworks into the ward of Fort William in North Belfast because Fort William is an affluent area, the Old Park is a fairly destitute area.
All of those anomalies, disparities, and inequalities, irrespective of whether you are a green republican or an orange republican, should be abhorrent to anybody who claims that they want to live in a just equitable society.
But none of those things get taken into consideration. What gets taken into consideration? The gate in Alexander Park is now opened for eight hours a day. Now, it doesn’t matter if kids have rickets but the gate’s open, and it’s open for eight hours a day.
I just think that it is about the indicators that you use, but we just have a bunker society now who, because the prospect – and the prospect is always drummed up by those whose interests it best serves – the prospect of going back to bombs in the town and bodies in the street is so fresh and horrific in people’s minds that that is almost used as the big stick.
Falling out with the leadership of the Provisional Movement
I was considered to be a fairly pivotal member of the IRA organizational team, which by and large was responsible for the organization that is now called Sinn Féin. So therefore I was well known in most of the areas, I was held in fairly high esteem in most of the areas. I had been quite happy to move about within the different organizational entities, arguing strongly that I was opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, that I was opposed to the Mitchell Principles, that I was opposed to the acts of decommissioning, and that I was opposed to the standing down of the IRA. And I put forward the argument that in my view it is quite all right for you, you, you, you, and you to say exactly the same thing, and to work against that. That’s not what’s called being a team player and adhering to team discipline.
That scared the life out of members of Sinn Féin because it was starting to strike a chord with people because they were looking at what was the peace process and they were going, “There is no quid pro quo here. I mean this is about surrender,” right? And no one wanted to use that term. No one would use the term that IRA had been defeated.
Now it’s commonplace for people to say. People, former IRA volunteers to say, yeah, we were defeated, and thankfully - and even though this isn’t done in a very, very vocal fashion - thankfully the degree of discipline, commitment, and maturity that those people showed while they were in the IRA has also demonstrated itself in the way in which they construct their arguments about the defeat of the IRA.
And they’ve been very, very clear that in 35 years of armed struggle, the membership of the IRA never let the leadership down once. Anything that the leadership asked for they got. They might not have got it to the degree or as quickly as they wanted but they got it to the best of the ability of the volunteers within the IRA. What happened from 1994 onwards was a failure of leadership not a failure of the IRA. It was a failure of the people who made the decisions as opposed to the people who were prepared to honour their commitment to the liberation of Ireland and were quite prepared to do it in a different fashion.
So the fork in the road for me was the 31st of August 1994 when as an IRA volunteer I was summoned to be given the briefing as to why there would be a ceasefire at 12:00 that night. And the guy doing it gave me the reasons why, and then foolishly enough asked for people’s opinions. So he asked my opinion and since I’m not usually very quiet, I wasn’t that particular evening. So he said, “Well, what’s your opinion?” and I said, “Well, I mean what is it you’re asking me for? Do you want my honest opinion about this or do you want me to say whether or not I support an army line?”
He says, “No, it’s not about an army line, I want your opinion,” and I said, “My opinion is this is all bollocks.” And I said:
You sat in February of this year and sent IRA volunteers out on operations that have resulted in them lying in the H-blocks of Long Kesh at this moment in time on the basis that all of the talk about cease fires was mischievous and that it was being put out by the Brits. You denied whenever you were asked that the mini cease fire in May for the Americans was a dummy run for what is happening now, and this hasn’t been done from a position of strength by the IRA it has been done as an admission of weakness and that’s my honest opinion on it.
And he says, “If you ever repeat that outside of this room,” that I’d be charged with treason. I said, “Right, so it wasn’t really my honest opinion you were after, you just really wanted me to agree with you.”
“No, no, no, I’m not saying that,” and I said, “Well then how can you say it’s fucking treasonous?” It was a stupid row what was or what wasn’t treason, but at that point then I was earmarked as someone who wasn’t on board with the leadership strategy.
Nothing could be further from the truth, for one simple reason. I could neither be on board or off board because I had absolutely no idea what the leadership strategy was. Because the leadership had no idea what their strategy was.
If someone had said to me, “Look, our purpose in doing this is to arrive at a point where we are getting rid of the IRA,” I would have argued strongly against it on the basis that the IRA shouldn’t be seen just as a military organization. When it’s seen just as a military organization then in the interest of peace you do need to get rid of it the way in which you would need to get rid of the British army.
But the IRA is not a conventional army. It is a volunteer army and it works on a completely different basis, and for me the IRA was the embryonic form of a vanguard party, very much in the theory or the theoretical paradigm of Lenin and that’s the way the IRA should be used. You have a cadre of people who had demonstrated their discipline, their loyalty, and their commitment, and for me you should keep that together. You shouldn’t throw that away. But, if you’re in a position where you actually fear that rather than embrace it, then I can see how it becomes a threat rather than an aid. For me that’s where it went for this particular leadership.
The role of leadership in the republican alternative
A friend of mine constantly makes the point what is missing in the alternative camp is a charismatic leader. And as soon as he says that everybody smiles and goes, “Haven’t we already been there once? And are there not massive pitfalls in having a charismatic leader?”
There is the rawness of that because it’s hard for me to convey just how much faith people placed in that leadership; you know, how much the fact that Martin McGuinness can stand along with Hugh Orde and Peter Robinson and call IRA volunteers traitors; how much that rankled with people who would have laid down their life on the belief that Martin McGuinness will be there until the end because he was seen as so dedicated, so committed. And the same with Gerry Adams.
And people have in their head, well, if someone who was as highly motivated and as dedicated as those two people were to become the Ayatollah and everyone follows them, then that means you end up like lemmings jumping off the end of the cliff. They needed to stay away from him, you know. Now, in my opinion, people have knee-jerked to that to an extreme, and that will take a few years to pan out.
The role of militarism and armed groups today
I think that the period when Irish republicans were going to make either physical progress or political capital out of pure militarism has completely closed down at this moment in time. But even within that, and maybe it’s because I was in the IRA, you like to see that anybody that is putting forward a militaristic view for Irish republicanism is actually doing it in some sort of coherent, competent, efficient fashion.
Three weeks or four weeks before the execution of two sapppers at Massereene, the Andersonstown News devoted their editorial column to explaining how dissidents weren’t true republicans, and they used two examples of true republicans. The two examples of true republicans that they used were Gerry Kelly and Raymond McCartney, and they named both in their editorial. And they were true republicans by virtue of the fact that both of them had killed people for the IRA. And how can you take a group claiming to be a militant republican group seriously if they can’t kill Brits or peelers, and how many Brits. That’s how bluntly they put it in the editorial. Three weeks later we have Massereene.
We have Martin McGuinness on the steps of Castle buildings pontificating about who had and who hadn’t the right to be Irish republicans. And the next week lo and behold the editorial of the Andersonstown News is not saying now by the standard that we set the people who carried out Massereene aren’t Irish republicans. Their name was dirty stinking dissidents killed two unarmed soldiers who were waiting to leave the country.
It is clear that the people who were responsible for Massereene, Ronan Kerr, David Black, and a number of other successful operations which they claimed is this new grouping of a realignment of the IRA.
I would say from the way in which they’ve conducted their business that they work on the view that this is not a period of revolution but this is a period of consolidation, and that in a period of consolidation, the cutting edge and what that means in real human terms of an armed organization like the IRA cannot be consigned to history, and that all they’re basically doing is keeping a benchmark as opposed to waging the war.
In the late ‘50s what you had was individual republicans who were sort of trying to keep the light of the good faith burning. This has been done in an organized fashion. Then the criticism will be because the benchmark, whether you like it or not, the benchmark that you will be judged by is the efficiency, the viciousness, the extremism or the cruelty of the Provisional IRA.
But, if for a second you wipe all of that out and begin with a blank canvas and turn around and talk about an armed organization, whether you agree with the objectives of it or not, who clearly define what their targets are and why they will be inflicting or attempting to inflict casualties on those targets, and that excludes the civilian population, ordinarily people would say that’s a good thing, you know. Okay, we don’t like to see policemen getting killed, but you know, they put the uniform on. There’s a price that comes with it. We don’t like to see British soldiers getting killed but they put the uniform on, there is a price that comes with it.
We now have the anomalous situation that because you aren’t killing enough British soldiers, and you haven’t done all of the things that people said the IRA were doing wrong, i.e., no warning bombs, proxy bombs, etc., etc., etc. All of that has been removed, and yet those people are still being criticized for what they either do or don’t do.
And what it means is if you turn around and say, for example, what shows that you’re effective as a competent military organization is that you can carry out operations towards your stated objective, or whether or not you can just cause mayhem. And if you adopt the line of well, the amount of mayhem that you cause is an indication of your prowess as a fighter then okay, the Provisional IRA stand head and shoulders above everyone else.
If you take it on the basis of the quality of the operations in terms of underscoring the political point as to why you’ve resorted to a means of last resort in the first place, you have to ask yourself which one of the two is better. So on the basis of that, right, you need to go back as far as Loughall for the last time that the Provisional IRA walked up to a barracks, occupied by armed members of the security forces, and took them on. Now, those two volunteers that walked up to Massereene had no way of knowing how much fire power there was behind that gate.
So in terms of the quality of the operation, Massereene, if you even ignore the disjuncture from 1994 and look at the history of the Provisional IRA, the operation that was conducted at Massereene was a very clinical, calculated, well conducted military operation, more so than most of the military operations that the IRA put out after 1983. After 1983 the standard of IRA operations was atrocious. The IRA relied more and more on bombings rather than on face-to-face encounters with the enemy forces.
This is the soft targets, you know, the off-duty as he’s going home, the local judge as he’s going to mass, those sort of things. What people mean when they say these people aren’t as efficient as the IRA, what they mean is they aren’t killing as many people as the IRA killed.
I can’t answer authoritatively for them, but what I’m saying is I don’t see the unfolding of a new political dynamic that has been spurred by the killing of two sappers. Or the killing of the PSNI constable, the maiming of another, or the killing of a screw.
Somebody who’s engaged in it may have a completely different view. They may see this as the embryonic, you know, 1969 for the IRA. I don’t know. I don’t see it, and I don’t see any new political dynamic coming out of it. Now, I have to say that much to my shock and surprise at the time, I remember senior people within Sinn Féin arguing in the early ‘90s, when I still had a head full of Frelimo and jail education, saying that the function of the struggle was to keep the flame of Irish resistance alive in the hope – not the expectation – in the hope that something would break. So it’s not a new idea.
For me, I remember a journalist asking me one time, “At what point should a military organization consider cease fire?” And I said, “The day before they begin the armed campaign,” because if anybody’s beginning an armed campaign just to carry it on then they’re a psychopath. You should already have in your head what way in which you want to end this before you begin it.
You know, and if it just comes down to a body count then unfortunately the people who are trying in their eagerness to rubbish anybody who doesn’t have a Sinn Féin view, what they are doing is creating a backdrop where sooner or later someone will respond to it and go, “Well, if it’s just down to dead bodies on the streets well then let’s create more dead bodies than the dissidents have been able to do up until now,” and it’s just a road of madness.
So, and it’s one of my fears, is that the longer what has now become the mainstream constitutional nationalists and republicans constantly harp on about how there is not enough death and destruction to actually take these people seriously, that they’re basically saying to those people, “See, until you start leaving more dead bodies on the street we’re not going to take you seriously.”
The line that violence doesn’t work is completely belied by the people who are telling you. I mean Martin McGuinness sitting telling me that violence doesn’t work just doesn’t cut the mustard. I mean short of that he would be a butcher or a mechanic. Gerry Adams telling me that the only reason he’s not still pulling pints in the Duke of York is because he turned his back on violence is so far removed from reality that it doesn’t even bear thinking about.
All of the cues that tell you that violence does work are around you daily. To convince people that violence doesn’t work then what you need to be able to do is you need to be saying, “Here are the alternatives.” Now, the alternatives will only be as good or as bad as you make them. All we can do is point out where the roots are.