American IRA Figure Calls For End to Dissident Republican Armed Struggle

Henry McDonald, The Guardian's Ireland correspondent, teases out the views of US lawyer, Martin Galvin, as well drawing on a previously unpublished interview with Tony Catney who died last August. A full version of the Martin Galvin interview will run on TPQ this evening.
  • Martin Galvin, a co-founder of Noraid which funded the IRA, says the popular appetite for republican violence has receded. 

Martin Galvin
Martin Galvin, centre, at a dissident republican commemoration in Derry to mark the 93rd anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, in 2009. Photograph: George Sweeney/Rex

A hardline Irish-American backer of the IRA, who was once banned from Northern Ireland by Margaret Thatcher’s government, has said the conditions no longer exist for dissident republicans to continue their “armed struggle”.

Martin Galvin, a co-founder of Noraid and later a bitter critic of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy, is the latest voice within dissident republicanism to call into question the use of violence by the new IRA and other anti-ceasefire paramilitaries.

The New York-based lawyer said he was an unapologetic supporter of Provisional IRA violence during the Troubles. But Galvin – the public face of the Provisionals in the US for several decades – said there was a lack of support for armed struggle within the republican community at present.

“You would need a sufficient popular acceptance or acquiescence in the use of force in nationalist areas, or at minimum in republican heartlands. You will not get such support until political alternatives fail and are seen to have failed,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.
You must have the personnel, resources and support network to sustain a campaign. There must be a well-developed political strategy in which armed struggle is only one part. Republicans had the capacity to sustain a long campaign across the north [of Ireland] which could not have been done without meeting these conditions. I have no inside information about any armed group and do not pretend to have any special knowledge or expertise in this area. I am making a personal judgment based upon information publicly available. It does not seem that these conditions exist today.

In 1997 the Provisional IRA split with a minority faction opposed to further political compromises, which broke away to form the Real IRA. At the time Galvin broke with Sinn Féin and openly supported Real IRA figures including its founder, Michael McKevitt.

The former spokesman for Noraid also admitted there was a debate going on within the armed anti-ceasefire groups about the efficacy of using violence.

I would expect and believe that the leaders of any armed republican group are evaluating their own capabilities in relation to these same conditions and making a pragmatic as well as moral judgment on whether their campaigns are advancing the objective of ending British rule and uniting Ireland.

The recent election of independent republican candidates to local councils in Northern Ireland was an encouraging sign, Galvin said:

The issues are there to be raised. The unionists have Jim Allister as the Traditional Unionist Voice tail that wags the Democratic Unionist party dog. Could independent republicans do the same? Suppose an independent republican made a real issue of the crown arresting Ivor Bell [a former IRA negotiator] and other republicans on decades-old charges, while drip feeding the Bloody Sunday families with empty promises of still more investigations. Could Sinn Féin take up a call to walk away from its justice ministry compromise or [police] constabulary boards? Could it afford not to do so and be seen as party to such injustices? Could it still get away with lip-service?

He continued:

It should be remembered that not so many years ago the SDLP scoffed at the idea of Sinn Féin ever winning seats and taunted them with questions about having no support and being afraid to contest elections. The openings are there if independent republicans have the political will, commitment and strategy to make proper use of them.

In August 1984 the Thatcher government banned Galvin from entering Northern Ireland but he defied the ban, turning up at a republican rally in west Belfast. When Royal Ulster Constabulary riot squad officers tried to arrest him outside a Sinn Féin office there were violent clashes. During the disturbances a policeman fired a plastic baton round into the chest of a local man, Sean Downes, who later died from his injuries. In 1989 Galvin again tried to defy the ban but this was time was arrested and deported to the US.

The ex-Noraid publicity director and former editor of the pro-PIRA newspaper the Irish People is the third major figure in the disparate dissident republican family to call for a halt to the armed campaigns of the new IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann.

The Guardian has also obtained a taped conversation between a leading dissident republican, the late Tony Catney, and members of the Presbyterian church in Belfast. On the tape Catney reveals his own doubts about ongoing “armed struggle”.

Catney, who after breaking with Sinn Féin became an influential figure within dissident republicanism, tells Fitzroy Presbyterian church in Belfast it is time to admit that the IRA lost the war it fought from 1969 to the ceasefires of the mid-1990s.
In the interview, Catney is particularly scathing about romantic portrayals by some of his former comrades of the Troubles and the armed campaign.
I think part of the dilemma we face at the minute is because the conflict, the war, the Troubles, whatever term you want to put upon it has been so fudged that it has become an old black and white newsreel. Which isn’t really real and didn’t have consequences. It was a ‘bit of craic’ to burn buses on the Falls Road; it was a ‘bit of craic’ to barricade yourself into the area so the Brits couldn’t get in; it was a ‘bit of craic’ to hijack the local bread lorry and then give the bread out free to the residents. It was all ‘craic’ and fun because the consequences of it are not openly dealt with - he tells the Presbyterians.

The convicted IRA killer, who served 16 years in prison for shooting a Protestant teenager during an attempt to steal the victim’s shotgun in 1974, tells his interviewer from the church that there exists a “potent mix” of continued social deprivation and the mythologising of the conflict.
“There is the mystique of ‘let’s-get-back-to-the-early-70s’, let’s-get-back-to-getting-the-balaclavas on’ … it becomes Robin Hood, resistance in the second world war and it also becomes glorification, the jingoism rather than someone turning around and saying: ‘Look, listen, let me tell you I was involved in it and I wish, I wish it had been otherwise.’”

The tape was made last January and only handed to the Guardian after Catney was buried with full paramilitary honours in August. His interview was part of an engagement between mainstream and dissident republicans and members of the Protestant churches, facilitated by a Belfast Catholic priest. The talks are aimed partly at persuading hard-line republicans opposed to Sinn Féin’s peace strategy to abandon armed campaigns.

Earlier in 2014 Gerard Hodgins, Catney’s close personal friend and an IRA hunger striker, also called publicly on the three armed republican organisations to declare ceasefires and create the space for “alternative republican politics”. Hodgins, also a critic of Sinn Féin, told the dissident groups:

The tactics and strategy they are trying to develop are tactics and strategy that we tried, but which failed: the British can deal with these frames of reference. There is also no popular support for armed insurrection and, without a support base, armed insurrection is irresponsible.


  1. Sean Smith has left a new comment on your post "American IRA Figure Calls For End to Dissident Rep...":

    A chara
    I think that's a great analysis of were anti agreement republicans are, at the present time.we have not managed to develop a coherent strategy and the result of this is good men and women spending long periods in jail it seems like we're going round in circles. Arms were dumped (Not surrendered) by honourable republicans in the past this is the debate that must be had.

    I have being in jail for p.i.r.a activity and anti agreement republican activity (which I make no apology for) However I believe we owe the
    next generation of republicans the chance to create a new opposition to partition. If the different groups agreed on a unified approach on the next phase of the struggle that would be a headache for our oppents.

  2. Cáit Trainor has left a new comment on your post "American IRA Figure Calls For End to Dissident Rep...":

    Reading the full interview I don't believe he was calling for anyone to do anything, just giving his thoughts on how things are at present.