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Spot The Difference

William Johnstone tries in vain to find a difference between Sinn Fein and the Workers' Party. William Johnstone is a Ballymoney unionist with an interest in history and politics.

Let me get something straight here. I made a comment recently about how Sinn Fein has many similarities with the Worker's Party. Since then, I have been thinking about that.

The Republican movement split in 1970. The result of that split was the emergence of four groups. The "splitters" became known as Provisional Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. The remainder of the original movement became known as Official Sinn Fein and the Official IRA. It was not a harmonious split. Throughout the 70s, both factions turned their guns on each other during bloody feuds.

The main reason for the split, as I understand it, was unrest and anger from mainly Ulster based Republicans that the Southern leadership and their allies in Northern Ireland were not doing enough to protect Nationalists particularly in Belfast. Also, the "Officials"were moving in a particularly political direction at the expense of the military. The old Leftist Republicans like Cathal Goulding, Sean Garland and Tomas MacGiolla were under the spell of Roy Johnson who was weaning them away from a military victory, or even a military campaign. Whilst the Southern leadership were debating the works of Marx, Nationalists were under nightly attack from a a variety of groups.

The Provisional movement worried less about Marx and Trotsky and more about arms procurement and renewing the fight in Northern Ireland. They sought and obtained the blessing of Tom Maguire, the last surviving TD of the old Dail from whence Republicans drew legitimacy for their campaign.

In 1973, the Officials called a ceasefire that basically held, aside from the odd feud with Provisinals and a very bloody spat with the fledgling INLA/IRSP.

 What I need straightened out is where the difference lies between Sinn Fein / PIRA and the Worker's Party/OIRA? The old Officials expelled anyone who disagreed with them - the Shinners forced Ruairi O'Bradaigh, Daithi O'Connell and co out of the organisation for disagreeing with their change of policy. The Officials recognised the Dail and took their seats in it - so have the Shinners. The Officials accepted partition and the concept of majority rule - so have the Shinners. The Officials run down the military campaign and then abandoned it altogether - so have the Shinners.

I could go on and on but it wouldn't become any clearer. The old joke that the only difference between the Officials and the Provisionals is 25 years rings true. Not that I would know much about it, being a stupid Prod and all that .........

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

35 comments to ''Spot The Difference"

  1. WJ

    From a my own nationalist point of view it was less ideologically driven from the Provo angle. The era of the OIRA after the border campaign fiasco and rejection by the RC population in N.I. was a time for deep reflection. The IRA after the 50s campaign largely blamed the RC community in the North for the failure. Johnston was a Protestant academic in Dublin and Goulding and Co. under his influence were heading towards trendy lefty and trade union circles whilst Bombay Street burned. The notion of civil rights and peaceful agitation was fine until Paisley and his B Special buddies got their dander up and those in the IRA leadership now encamped in Dublin's D4 wine bars were uninterested in defending those they helped encourage onto the streets to protest in the North. It was a missed opportunity on the part of British and Stormont intelligence. One I think they were quick to put to rights.

    The Provos were a result of the anger that was ignited at the period. I think what is evident after the ceasefires and GFA is that British security services infiltration and a lack of a political programme on the part of the Provos has resulted in the total capitulation that they experienced. As Tommy McKearney has said the bottom line with the Provos is that there is no bottom line. The level and scale of penetration to me is identifiable in that by the time the Hunger Strikes were ended with severe communal polarisation and tons and tons of Libyan weaponry available, the Provos under the Belfast mafia were already looking a way out.

    In short the OIRA were political, the Provos opportunistic and they have only gotten worse as time has gone on.

  2. As a response the question needs asked what it is the Provos responded to? In my view they were a response not to the British being in Ireland but how the British behaved while in Ireland. Therefore to win the Provos over, the British did not have to leave Ireland but change the way they behaved. From the Provo point of view British rule was not all that bad otherwise why be so eager to administer it? Was the problem not in its existence but in its administering? What the Provos settled for would suggest so. Whereas the long held republican view as articulated by Wolfe Tone was that Britain wax the cause of the evils in Ireland. But then according to Gerry Kelly's calculations Tone would not have voted him but Nigel Dodds, given that Tone was a protestant and protestants' only vote for protestants and catholics for catholics.

  3. according to Gerry Kelly's calculations Tone would not have voted him but Nigel Dodds

    If he wasnt interned by remand first, prisoners cant vote.

    I dont usually read tout books, but the Eamon Collins book was highly recommended. One of the many funny annecdotes in it was Gerry Adams never forgiving Collins for calling him a Stick. I think it was years later when he was meant to join Newry SF that it was brought to a halt because clearence never came from Belfast,Adams had remembered the "insult" after all that time.Which is strange given the trajectory he has traversed, which was to renounce everything the OIRA did decades before.

  4. AM
    If memory serves the provos were formed around Dec 69 and the relationship between the catholic community and the British army didn't break down until the Falls Curfew in the summer of 70, so what British behaviour are you talking about? Our wee country was governed by the Unionist party and the BA was still welcome in catholic areas when the Provos were formed. How were the Provos a " how the British behaved while in Ireland"? The Provos were formed to fight their neighbours.

  5. Peter,

    there is a dispute about when the relationship broke down. Derry people claim it was breaking down by October. Belfast republicans told me that by the end of 69 the relationship was worsening. Oddly enough, one of the republicans who organised protests outside army barracks said a lot of the motivation from the youth was the British army dances which local women were attending. Strange the motivations that feed into conflict. By March 1970 there was serious and sustained rioting in Ballymurphy between the residents and the British army. By April the army GOC was threatening to shoot petrol bombers dead. So the chronology is not as linear as you suggest. What made the curfew important - allowing for difficulty of untangling of myth from the fact - is that a week prior to it the IRA was seen to have mounted a very successful defence of the Short Strand and now the Army were coming in to steal the weapons that were considered necessary for such defence.

    The Provisional IRA's first leadership in Belfast were of the view that had the British introduced direct rule the day they brought the troops in the IRA could never have been formed. A long standing British aversion to the North rather than a desire to be involved with it allowed the Stormont regime to behave as it did. Had the British behaved differently the outcome might have been different also. The Provisional IRA was already in situ before it had been formed officially. The defence committees in Belfast came into the IRA en bloc. Their existence resulted from the August 1969 troubles which in the minds of many republicans were carried out by the state in the North which the British had allowed to run much as it wished for so long.

    The 1969 events were the formalising of a structure that within it represented a number of different agendas. There were people there that wanted to have a go at their neighbours who they blamed for the burnings, there were others there who wanted a go at the British. The energy that made the Provo insurrection possible was opposition not to British rule per se but to how that rule was operationalized.

  6. Peter, last para is about December 69 events

  7. Peter

    Good point. But please! dressing the unionist party in the innocent garb of 'neighbour' doesn't wash. I think you are referring to 50 years of prod misrule being ignited into the troubles by Paisley, B-Specials response to civil protest and then any RC hope of Brit impartiality being responded to with the Paras and Ballymurphy and Derry.

  8. AM
    Thanks for your detailed reply but it doesn't really answer my question. My da-in-law ( a great wee man) was raised a catholic in Lower Falls and was a socialist activist, the story he tells of the events of 69 is very different from that of republicans. If you believe the Provos were formed because of British behaviour in 69 then who am I to argue, I wasn't there, but I can't see how the BA and British govt was a bigger aggressor than the Stormont regime/loyalists/ RUC at that time.

  9. Peter,

    I am sure there are people from the Lower Falls who will recall it differently but that merely underscores the need for more narratives rather than fewer. But we are talking about what was the accelerant with the Provos which presumably your father in law did not join. I think you miss the point being made which is not that the British were the biggest aggressor on the ground but that British state policy held the ring within which the aggression could take place. That was perceived in a certain way by many people on the ground. And while there was an earlier view that direct rule could have removed the conditions within which the Provos were mushrooming, that banished with Bloody Sunday when it became an item of faith for many that the British would be no better. This made the suspension of Stormont much less influential than it could have been.

  10. The main reason for the split, as I understand it, was unrest and anger from mainly Ulster based Republicans that the Southern leadership and their allies in Northern Ireland were not doing enough to protect Nationalists particularly in Belfast.

    The man who was in charge of the group who broke away was born and raised in england and apparently worked for the gards as an informer but I don't know if that bit is a fact or just a rumour

  11. AM
    I have noticed that republicans like to frame the Provo campaign as a fight solely with the Brits and not their protestant Irish neighbours.

    You rarely turn down the opportunity for a bit of whatabouttery but remember that the majority of catholics rejected the republican way.

    Who wasn't a tout? Catney and Davison weren't even cold in their graves when people were on here suggesting they were agents. It is clear republicanism suffers from one hell of a collective paranoia.

  12. Peter,

    It is generally how they saw it over the distance. Just as their Protestant neighbours saw their support for the British state security services as a fight against terrorism rather than support for state terrorism. The majority of Provo kills were British state security services. The Provos at times wilfully attacked their Protestant neighbours on the grounds that they were Protestants whose "necessary murder" might have facilitated a purpose. And in the mix there is every possible motive. We try for the purposes of understanding tease out trends. I think it is the best we can do. It is far from perfect.

  13. From Beano

    I enjoyed the article but thought that the comments were much more interesting. From a loyalist perspective it’s fascinating to hear the thoughts of people in regard to the formation of the PIRA. I, like most people have my own recollections, thoughts and opinions around this. But to find that there doesn’t seem to be a definitive is a bit strange. Is there no accounts of documentation from the 69/70 period that can rubber stamp it? My school of thought was that there was some form of breakaway in late August 1969 with the likes of Cahill and McKee wanting the IRA to take a harder line. McMillen opposed but was allowed to stay in charge until December when there was an official split-pardon the pun-and a new army council was formed. Sinn Fein followed the same route in January 70 at the Ard Fheis and that was more or less it. From an East Belfast Prod’s point of view-I was 15-during the so called battle of Saint Matthews-I had also been aware of the story that June 1970 was the “proving” of the new Provisionals and that they used the situation on the Newtownards Road to establish their arrival. The events of that day will always be contentious—heroic defence of the Strand, or alternatively an unprovoked murderous attack on unarmed protestants returning from a parade. My narrative has always been that the new IRA seen an opportunity to prove themselves-amidst allegations that the Officials were letting the catholic people down-the weekend of the Whiterock parade coincided with the funeral of a highly respected republican-there were lots of IRA men in Belfast and they took the opportunity to impose themselves. So, was this the real birth of the Provies? Other things that puzzle me around this...Billy McKee was obviously one of the new guard but what of the well known Short Strand IRA men like Dennis Donaldson..was he also a new recruit? Or one of the originals? Was it only provisionals took part in the gun battle that night or was there also the old officials—seemingly SS was a bit of a Stickie stronghold. How much truth is there in the stories that the split was down to ideological differences-rather than due to personalities? And was the North/South divide also the huge contributing factor we are led to believe?

  14. Beano,

    is there ever a definitive account of anything? Accounts become definitive to a large extent by their ability to delegitimise or suppress other accounts. A full piece would be required to address the questions you raised. But the Short Strand was always known as a Provisional hot bed and not a comfortable place for the Officials. The Strand was always looked up to as the flag bearer of the Provisionals in East and South Belfast.

  15. Peter

    It is only whataboutery if you consider the unionist population as untainted law abiding citizens. My oul fella ex RAF worked in Shorts. He didn't find it a pleasant experience by all accounts. Talking to a Protestant co. worker one time they mentioned Stormont's record that led to the civil rights. 'You took it for fifty years why couldn't you take it for another fifty' was the attitude. Had it been down to people like my da...majority of RCs, we would still be taking crap.

  16. AM et al

    I've combed through many sources trying to pin down the reasons for the PIRA/OIRA split and have emerged more confused than at the start. Such is the nature of history, mirrors of mirrors. Would it not be partially true to say, however, that ideological differences also formed a crack that grew into a split in 1969/70? Weren't Billy McKee and Sean MacStiofain critical of the IRA's left tilt under the influence of Cathal Goulding and Roy Johnston? I've come to see the split, perhaps in a too simplistic way, as in part a squabble between republican leaders with a Marxist interpretation of history (an international perspective) and others more attached to Roman Catholicism and conservative values (a local culture attachment). There was some OIRA man, can't recall his name, who called the Provies "The Rosary Brigade."

    Simple things like neighbourhood identification and personal allegiances always seem to knock ideology to the back of the bus. My good friend from the Lower Falls joined the Sticks in a time of crisis, taking the oath at the behest of someone he knew through his work and trade unionism. I get the impression that he formed an ideology after the fact. Defending his streets, from the Loyalists and the RUC initially, came first. But too he believed that the Brits had created the conditions for violence and sectarianism with partition, and when the Falls Curfew came down, the Brits took their proper position as enemy number one. As for the IRA leadership at the time, there seemed to be some serious personality conflicts, fueled in part by intellectual arrogance and a resentment against it. Whatever the case, there will be no end to interpretations of the split, revisionism and counter-revisionism forever in a tussle.

  17. LKIO give a conflicting account, 'De-Bunking the Myth of the Battle of St. Matthews.'. Where they portray the protestants as innocent by-standers.
    Even if there was any truth in this version, their story is self-damning and exposes their psyche. Why do they admit without any embarrassment that the crowd surged towards a lone tricolour carrying youth, only to be confronted by a kneeling gunman. Is this the action of an innocent people going about their business? If that youth existed I wonder what would have been his fate in the absence of the gunman.
    And.. wouldn't the law abiding citizens of the Newtownards Road have ran for the police instead of into their homes to get more guns? I always found it strange that the British army set up a curfew in West Belfast in order to capture the weapons used in battle of St. Matthews , while conveniently ignoring the other weapons used on that night.

    The republican account, which has been accepted by historians and journalists, is for me the most plausible.

    As for spotting the difference, simple. The original was moving towards socialism the provisionals were a reaction to this. Billy McKee has said that the last thing he wanted in Ireland was communism. Every time I see discussion about republican unity I think of McKee's stance. The differences are insurmountable - McKee's version of republicanism doesn't even meet the 1798 mantra of fighting for the men of no property.

  18. The Provisionals outlined five reasons for the split. My own research on the matter led to me to see things in a certain way - doesn't mean it was the right way, but it is always hard to blow a hole in your own findings: like punching yourself - really only works when somebody else throws it.

    In my view the key issue was defence: The Provos were essentially a Belfast phenomenon that spread out from the city. McStiofain would later write a book where everything was neat and tidy when in fact his book did not gel with the facts on the ground as narrated by people there. Nor was his three phase strategy of defence, retaliation, offensive, really exists in anywhere but his own head. It was like his inquiry finding that the IRA did not bomb Claudy - an unsustainable assertion. And despite the hawkish image of him I concluded that he more than the rest of them saw the limitations of a prolonged campaign and wanted it wound up but could never impose his authority and was therefore inclined to endorse decisions already taken by Belfast (Lenadoon collapse of truce for example, which he never wanted broken). I interviewed Sean when @ Queens, liked him, but just didn't buy into the narrative including the neat cut and dried opposition to Marxism. That narrative seems to overlook the presence of Marxists within the Provos and its at ease relationship with People's Democracy.

    The opposition to communism may well have manifested itself in continued indifference to the movement: the question of defence energised the Belfast anti-Marxists in a particular way that anti-Marxism on its own would never have done.

    For what it is worth the Provos were more of a discontinuity with the republican tradition that it was a continuity of it. Traditionalists like O'Bradaigh sensed this instinctively and intuitively so his task of managing it was never going to be an easy one. When you would ask Ruairi a question about some received wisdom he would respond with a sceptical aha and then go on to tell you the right way of things. His death was not only a loss to the republican tradition and his family but also to republican historiography.

  19. from Beano

    The point I was making about the Strand/Officials was at the start of the conflict—and again its only my perception. My belief was that in 69/70 the Officials were strong there and in the Market but that June 70 changed all that. After that there was a euphoria around the gun battle that turned Billy McKee’s crowd into instant legends---No?

  20. AM, I love hearing anecdotes like that. Isnt it all crying out for *someone* to write an 'Alternate History of The IRA' type book?

  21. Daithi,
    Tommy McKearney's 'from insurrection to Parliament' is quite alternative.

    I can't wait for Anthony's book, the one I suspect he's quietly working on, possibly with the aim of publishing when he has retired from all his other activity?

    I would be a shame if I'm wrong on that one as I find his recounting of this history the most revealing and the most honest.

  22. All histories of the IRA are alternatives - to other histories. We need more narratives. And we need a few more different frameworks for understanding. When I took it on, I dropped the traditionalist continuous approach, opted for a discontinuous conjunctural analysis that rooted the Provos in a dialectic between the British state and northern nationalism post 69, used Marxist protest theory to explain the rise of the Provos but dispensed with it when analysing the role of the British state, preferring the neo-realist school approach that provided insight into state behaviour determined by r'aison d'état. So there was a marrying of two separate methodological approaches combined with a non ideological impetus governing Provo behaviour. Are we any wiser because of that? Not a bit of it LOL

  23. Michael,

    not working on any of it whatsoever. Have never looked at my thesis from the day and hour I submitted it. Am surprised that I can remember anything from it

  24. Its really fascinating stuff, given what happened to the Boston College Project, you are now the sole vessel of all that knowledge. Perhaps we need to get you pissed and get the camera phones out (to record the stories, nothing seedy!).

    Michael Craig, its one of those I meant to read. I actually follow much of his speaking engagements (the ones posted online) so I really should,on the Provisionals subject he is very eloquent, leaving aside some baffling economic ideas.

  25. It is clear republicanism suffers from one hell of a collective paranoia.

    I am not a republican, I said it may just be a rumour that Macstiofan worked for the police I didn't say it was a fact. The IRA head of security was a British soldier and his deputy worked for the army, maybe they weren't paranoid enough.

  26. Holy smokes Mackers, you lost me completely 'til you got to LOL. Provos more interested in defending nationalist areas than getting in a huff about reds, got that. My two-bit Queen's MA thesis only told a story about some Fenian bones and their long trip from Frisco. Seriously, this is a great thread, the split an endelessly fascinating topic about ordinary people in extraordinary times.

  27. From Beano

    Michael-the version of the so called battle of St. Matthews on LKIO is as valid as the one that has been propounded for 45 years. It wasn’t written to glorify or to lay down “the poor beleaguered prods” maxim. The republican version was-and is-trotted out, as I said before to expound the point that the Provies had arrived. Prior to the return of the parade that day-much earlier than the one sided gun battle-there had been tensions. Why? Because in West Belfast the provisionals had attacked the Whiterock parade resulting in the deaths of 3 unarmed-and yes-innocent men. As for the hordes of people returning to their homes to fetch more guns!! What nonsense!! The amount of guns on the Newtownards Road that night was paltry-minimal-and certainly no match for the barrage coming from the chapel. The two men fatally wounded that night were totally innocent-of that there is no doubt. The fatality occurred within the church grounds was wrongly laid at the feet of loyalist gunmen for many years before the real murders were exposed—the new IRA. But I imagine Dennis Donaldson would have known that all along.

  28. Beano, how can there be a gun battle if only one side is armed?

    A quote from the LKIO

    ' On a pre arranged signal a youth emerged from the shadows of Seaforde Street waving a tricolour. As expected many of the Protestant crowd surged towards the provocateur. Immediately a lone IRA man stepped forward—crouched down on one knee into a firing position and unleashed a volley of shots from a pistol in the direction of the crowd. Mayhem and panic ensued. After the initial salvo of shots a barrage of heavy gunfire followed forcing the Protestants to dive for cover in the little side streets.'

    'Hastily some of those who were present issued an appeal to provide arms to protect the streets. In a short space of time a small stockpile was amassed. This amounted to a paltry number of weapons—A Steyr rifle—an old Martini Henry—a Lee Enfield rifle and a couple of hand guns—some dating back to the previous century—but in the face of the fusillade now being directed from the supposed sanctuary of St. Matthews Roman Catholic Church it amounted to little by way of defence. The gunfire was intense.'


  29. There will always be "tribal myths" for the want of a better description from loyalists and republicans about what happened in St Matthews. I imagine the guns on either side were far fewer than is sometimes claimed. The IRA leadership in the city were concerned about the threat and were alarmed even further by the roadblocks on both main bridges. The British Army said they were under instructions not to go in. The IRA leader in the city made it in to the area from the West to take charge of the situation. They genuinely feared the enclave being overrun and burned and were not prepared to allow a rerun of August 69 when directions coming up from Dublin were to approach the loyalist attackers and explain to them that they were workers. Whether loyalists had any such intent is another matter but it is easy to see how in the atmosphere of the time the IRA would suspect that they did. There has been some press spec about Donaldson shooting McElhone but nothing that I have ever heard would support it. There is nothing to emerge that would show McKee to have been shot by anybody other than a loyalist. But in all these things we know from experience of being in a situation and then reading about it in the news or listening to it on television or hearing accounts of it from people who were not there, how wide off the mark narratives can be. As for the other three Protestants shot dead, it occurred in Ardoyne. The IRA there claimed that those killed were all attackers. But how are we really to know? The same IRA also denied killing the Orr brothers two years later which even by the standards of the day was considered a very pitiless act. The importance of the St Matthews event was that as one IRA leader claimed IRA no longer meant I Ran Away and the Provos had persuaded many in working class nationalists areas that they could repel an attack. That in turn fed into the anger in response to the curfew: here was the British Army that was not prepared to enter the Strand to protect nationalists now entering the West to remove the weaponry of the group that had defended the nationalists and in an act of solidarity with unionism paraded two unionists through the Falls in an open jeep. We can argue back and forth about the accuracy of the accounts but it is also important to realise that social movements, nations and religions are built to some extent on foundational myths. That has to be the case also in loyalism and republicanism. It would be a strange phenomenon were they not to be tainted by it.

  30. Mike,

    all academic gibberish! I always advise people not to do PhDs. If they start one I will help but if they have not I will advise them to avoid them. They reduce you to a walking footnote. There was nothing special about mine, bog standard history. It was described by one fantasist as an anti peace process PhD even though it never went beyond 1973. Anyway ...


    it is amazing the number of people who think I can remember the BC stuff! I remember reading Ed's book and the interviews I did with Brendan were in it but I could have passed a lie detector maintaining that it was the first time I had heard much of it. The ability to forgot is a power we should never underestimate.

  31. AM, didnt Bobby Storey bug your place? Maybe ask him if he has any copies knocking about ?!?

  32. Big Porter Rockwell wouldn't bug places DaithiD

  33. AM, apoligies, I thought it was the implication from an Ed Moloney article on the state of PIRA organisational structures still being apparent.

  34. No need to apologise. Big Porter is an upstanding citizen.

  35. Ex-Workers' Party leader and IRA man Garland dies at age of 84

    A former president of the Workers' Party in Ireland, he had also been an active IRA member in the 1950s and later the Official IRA. The Workers Party said he had been "an inspiration to all of his comrades". Known as a man of iron ideology, even the fall of the Berlin wall did not deflect him from his commitment to communism.

    In the 1950s he joined the IRA, and infiltrated the British Army to procure arms, successfully seizing guns from a barracks.

    In his own words, he was "actively involved in organising and participating in a number of major operations from 1955-56"

    The most famous of these was when he led an IRA squad that attacked a police station in Co Fermanagh where two IRA men, Sean South and Fergal O'Hanlon, were shot dead. Garland was seriously wounded. When the IRA split into traditional and Marxist factions in the late 1960s, he opposed the "narrow nationalism" of the Provisionals and pursued a left-wing political path as one of the leaders of the Official IRA. That group announced a ceasefire in 1972, but for years remained intermittently involved in violence. In particular, it was embroiled in a series of often lethal feuds with the mainstream IRA and other republican splinter groups.

    Born in Dublin in 1934, Garland was arrested in Northern Ireland in 2005 on the foot of an extradition warrant from US authorities. They wanted to question him about the laundering of high quality counterfeit $100 bill produced in North Korea. It was alleged he had transported the 'superdollars' from North Korean embassies abroad for distribution in Ireland. Garland was arrested while attending the Workers' Party ard fheis in Belfast. He denied the charges but jumped bail, fleeing to the Republic. In 2011, a Dublin court refused to extradite him to the US.


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