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Without Prospect of Release

40 years ago this evening the Provisional IRA launched a purge against the Official IRA in Belfast. It was much like the night of the long knives pulled on the IPLO 17 years later. The same sort of rationale was used: the communities were being cleaned up of criminals. Unlike the IPLO, the Official IRA did not disband but rallied their troops and fought back.

Before it ended a fortnight later more than ten people had lost their lives and many more had been injured. Some were Provos, others were Sticks and some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were deemed guilty by association. Paul Best, Mario Kelly, Seamus McCusker, John Browne, names plucked from memory, amongst their number.

It was a Wednesday evening around tea time that the Provisionals’ Belfast Brigade mobilised across the city. On the first night Robbie Elliman was shot dead by a three man Provisional team in McKenna’s Bar in the Markets. He had been doing nothing more harmful than having a beer when confronted and blasted by a man wielding an armalite rifle. He was the sole fatality of the night which was more characterised by kneecapping. Whether an authorised execution or local autonomy exercising muscle it heralded a homicidal descent. 

One of those killed was six year old Eileen Kelly who was blasted in the chest in her own Beechmount home by Provisional IRA volunteers the night following Robbie Elliman’s death. They were in search of her father who was said to be associated with the Workers Party. The disproportionate loss of so much for having done so little seemed not to figure in the considerations of those directing and prosecuting the purge. It was not considered a reason to call a halt, merely a spur to send armed men into even more homes. 

The following summer, the story went, during one of the occasional verbal jail flare ups, Official republican prisoners in Cage 2 were taunted by Cage 3 Provisionals mimicking the rocking of a cradle to the words “rock-a-bye Eileen.” One of the hooters can be seen occasionally on our television screens advocating the policies of those he mocked. Any difference is negligible. In his defence he has matured greatly and probably cringes at the memory of it. Teenagers in armed conflict don’t much do empathy. 

In Magilligan Prison at the time, a week short of my release, I like most Belfast men seemed to think attacking the Sticks was a pretty good idea. With plenty of years to reflect since, it was a rubbish notion. The Derry City and rural volunteers couldn’t fathom it, thinking it typical Belfast turf wars, devoid of any ideological substance. 

Robbie Elliman’s crime was that he belonged to a body that wanted to support the police, reform the Northern state, go into Stormont, acquiesce in the consent principle, and desist from all armed actions against­ the British, while keeping more than a gun or two in the dumps for purposes of financing and protection from other organisations. What he more or less died for was belonging to an outfit that had the foresight to sense the shape of things to come. For that, the body that killed him denounced him and his colleagues as traitors and criminals. Now it is doing pretty much as Robbie’s crowd did. A united Ireland is no closer. Ultimately Robbie Elliman died as part of a project that eventually came to think that the Provo Stormont was somehow better than the Stick Stormont. A wanton waste of his life and every other life lost during the two week orgy of bloodletting. As the late John Kelly was not averse to saying "we are all Sticks now." 

After coming out of jail, I bumped into Sticks, went on the booze with them, visited their homes, had them in my own, debated with them, worked alongside them on joint projects, and addressed one of their ex-prisoner conferences. What I noticed about them was that unlike the Provos who essentially believe in nothing other than the office soup of the day, they possessed a strong sense of social conscience. Tug a Stick this way and that, they invariably end up pulling you onto the ground of social deprivation and the need to tackle it. Whatever about their strategic or political orientation, they were into helping people in dire economic circumstances. Even on an individual basis they would do it without any discernible advantage accruing to their political project. Never once did I find my past an obstacle to a dig out. Plenty of old Provo friends were on hand as well but the Sticks weren’t old friends, just good neighbours. 

Shouting "Up Stormont" at each other is much better than shooting each other, but it can hardly justify the rounds fired before that point of realisation was reached. Forty years on, some of us cannot forget the horror we inflicted and the Sticks probably cannot forgive. When blameless babes are cut down it runs very deep. Eighteen years spent in prison amounts to nothing set against the life sentence without prospect of release that comes with losing a child.

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Anthony McIntyre

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

20 comments to ''Without Prospect of Release"

  1. This article prompted me to look up these killings in Lost Lives and as with all visits to that book it was a depressing read. The othering of our enemies may be excusable in certain situations but the othering of our own neighbours seems purely evil and almost incomprehensible. The Troubles were rife with futile killings but the fued killings seem particularly vicious in hindsight. Often they were the settling of trifling old scores that leave deep scars inn our communities to this day.

  2. This is a good post directly from the heart. I'm not aiming thus at Anthony, but it would be really good from the point of humanity to read similar regrets written from an ex Provo in relation to the murder of a protestant, a soldier or a police officer. None of them had done anything which warranted a death sentence, but there is, for me at least, the suggestion from republicans that they were non people who did not deserve to live.

    Ten year old Leslie Gordon blown to pieces alongside her father on the school run in 1978 by an undercar booby trap planted by Francis Hughes would make a good starting point.

  3. Thanks Anthony for your moving, honest and mature critique of dark days.

  4. Cue Bono,

    but equally so for members of the security forces to write about the civilians they butchered ... 12 year old Majella O'Hare on her way to mass, 15 year old Manus Deery eating a bag of chips, 14 year old Julie Livingstone going to the shop, 12 year old Carol Ann Kelly carrying a carton of milk.

    They would make as good a starting point as the horrible and wholly unjustified slaughter of 10 year old Leslie Gordon, whose death was described on television by the late Tom Barry as a war crime.

    A certain type of eye will always fail to see this. If you see it you don't mention it.

  5. Anthony,

    Absolutely, and although I have no way of knowing, I would like to think that the soldiers who killed those children feel remorse for what they did every day of their lives. The two key differences for me are that they did not set out on those days to deliberately kill a child, whilst Hughes knew that he was going to potentially kill two, and they are not celebrated on gable walls as heroes of their community. Hughes was basically a serial killer who, along with McGlinchey, Milne and McIlwee, murdered a lot of good decent people including eighty year old Hester McMullan in her bed. Yet he is lauded by republicans as a great hero. It is litte things like that which tell unionists that their lives do not matter.

    When you mentioned the sticky prisoners being taunted about the murder of the little girl it reminded me of the way republicans in Cookstown taunted the widow of Albert Cooper. It wasn't enough for them to murder the man. For me there is something deeply primeval about that.

  6. Cue Bono,

    you would like to think, as would I ... but they have written nothing that we know off that would lead us to think that they have.

    It is impossible for many of us to buy the notion that they did not set out to kill children: for those of us who had to face them on the streets, listen to their threats and promises that they would murder children, see their brutality on a daily basis, the notion that they would murder children is not all that challenging. Yeah, there were many who would never kill children, who treated people with courtesy and civility, who refrained from the daily brutality meted out on the streets, but there were enough of them who did the lot and were covered for by the state.

    Given your reliance on court standard evidence in cases like the Orange Order guy ploughing into a teenager, it is going to be difficult to sustain the case that Frank Hughes was responsible for that particular action. He might well have been but he has been credited or blamed for a lot of stuff he was not responsible for. And you can't really blame him if your criterion is court standard conviction only. We can't always think that what we assume to know is what we actually do know.

    There used to be a Catholic screw in the Crum who apparently had a son in St Malachy's when I was in the jail in 1974: he was still in St Malachy's in 1978, and 1982. So when somebody told me in the 1990s about his son being in St Malachy's I said FFS he must be principal by this stage.

    Give a dog a bad name and everyone will kick it.

    And another thing, as we look back on all IRA operations, given the degree of penetration, we must always allow for the possibility that some security force handler knew of theses type of things in advance and allowed them to happen rather than compromise an asset. What we think we knew about the conflict is being challenged with every new revelation about the security forces.

    They don't get celebrated on gable walls but on occasion their commanders can get awards from the Queen - Derek Wilford got the OBE even though he disobeyed the order of Brigadier Pat MacLellan not to send his war criminals into the Bogside; or Sir John Waters, a Director of British state terrorism in the North from 88-90, becoming a member of the House of Bath.

    Frank and the team in South Derry and further afield killed a lot of combatants, people embedded and enmeshed in a repressive state apparatus that operated in a violent political conflict in the service of a state that tortured, murdered, framed, colluded, broke the law it professed to uphold every waking moment, in a fight against an adversary that was also capable of atrocity and war crimes. And they killed some who were wholly innocent along the way. You don't accept that. The battle of definition and interpretation will continue. But it seems to me that as an organisation, the IRA will probably not fare any worse than previously from that battle. The British state and their security apparatuses are being pulled ever closer to the abyss.

  7. We haven't read about their remorse because the average squaddie is not an author. He is a a young guy who tries to lift himself out of poverty by serving his country as a professional soldier. A job which requires him to be fit and switched on, but does not require him to be highly educated, and he did not have the luxury of a free OU education. The squaddie didn't come here tanked up on the sort of ancient hatred that was bred into the average Provo or loyalist. Any hatred he had was picked up on the job via the experiences he went through on the delightful streets of west Belfast, or in places like south Armagh and east Tyrone. The Welsh soldiers who came here in 69 were said to have left saying they would be coming back to join the IRA. I doubt that the Welsh soldiers who came here in the following decades felt the same.

    You know how the Provos operated and you know what Hughes and his friends did. You are happy enough to talk about Provo excesses against fellow republicans so I would be confident enough that you are well aware of what they were capable of doing to people they evidently despised. I know a man who was a friend and neighbour of Hughes and McGlinchey. He used to take the young Hughes to the NW200 on his motorbike and described him as the sort of boy who would climb to the top of a tree if you asked him to. McGlinchey he described as just being a bad, evil wee bastard. In later life they tried hard, but failed to murder him.

    This blaming of the Brits for Provo atrocities is a fairly new phenomena which I don't buy. Again you were there and you know what the Provos were capable of. You know that they didn't need any outside encouragement for the atrocoties that they carried out. I would put this to you. Scap was very highly regarded within the Provos before it was revealed that he was working for the Brits. No?

    Derek Wilford didn't kill anyone. Nor did he tell his troops to kill anyone. He certainly didn't target and murder a ten year old girl.

    Frank and the team in south Derry murdered their neighbours. That is what it boils down to Anthony. They murdered their neighbours because they were Protestants, and because somewhere in their little lives it had been battered into them that those Protestants had stolen their land and oppressed them. A lot of auld bollocks which sentenced good, decent people to often horrendous deaths.

  8. from interviews with the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld;

    "We no longer saw a human being when we turned up a Tutsi in the swamps. I mean a person like us, sharing similar thought and feelings. The hunt was savage, the hunters were savage, the prey was savage ... savagery took over the mind."

  9. Cue Bono,

    I just think it is a waste of my time. People who believe the security services so respected the law they wouldn't murder people are cut from the same cloth as people who believe Gerry Adams was never in the IRA. Best to discuss these issues with people who are serious.


  10. Henry Joy,

    that might be from his book, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak. I read that a few years back. A valuable addition to the existing literature or what I have read of it to date. Makes what happened here look civilised.

  11. AM

    I'd imagine that's one for short sittings all right.

    I took that quote from my current reading "THE LUCIFFER EFFECT, How Good People Turn Evil".
    For a short and balanced Sunday Times review click here.

  12. Henry Joy,

    I have not yet read a comfortable book on Rwanda. They are all difficult. I thought Hatzfeld did a good job in getting the voices of those people out there. Genocidal as they were, we need to hear them.

    I liked Zimbardo when I came across his work in prison. I read of his prison experiment at a time when the prison staff violence was effectively switched off. I could identify with it immediately. Some of the blanket screws would be on our wings and we would have non antagonistic conversations with some of them about the violence they dished out. They explained it as a mixture of orders and circumstances. On our post blanket wings they could be the nicest of guys, people you could have a drink with, would go out of their way to assist when they were under no pressure to do so. I never sensed there was anything intrinsically violent about them as individuals. That often made me wonder about the systemic circumstances that produce that type of behaviour. People familiar with prisons know the role of prison staff violence as a function of control. I am of the view that given the circumstances conducive to it, most of us are just about capable of anything.

    One reason I recoil from the hate filled is the ease with which I feel I could end up like them. They have this annoying ability to engender hatred in others even if it is not hatred of the same things they hate. I think it has something to do with the Nietzsche advice not to stare into the abyss too long otherwise it stares into you.

    As for the moral resistance and autonomy. We can state the ideal - whether we attain it or not is something else entirely. But at least it means we cannot pretend not to have known the difference.

    Will get that book on Kindle. Seems worth a read.

  13. Henry Joy,

    how about a review for us?

    Don't feel under pressure either way. It would just be good to have a considered opinion.

  14. Henry Joy,

    That quote captures it exactly.


    You have been on a long journey of enlightenment, and you are fortunate to have the intelligence to make that journey, but I sense that there are places that you still cannot go and things that you cannot accept. You see the evil in the Provos now because it has been visited on you and your friends. I hope you will come to see that it was just as evil when it was being visited on us.

    As to the 'screws' I would think that they treated republican prisoners badly because republicans were murdering their workmates.

  15. AM

    regarding a review:

    You do know you're leaving yourself open to further charges of 'encouraging' the bold HJ!
    That in itself though may be motivation enough to take the challenge on ... with some editorial support who knows what might be possible. I'll continue my reading with that in mind and if I can synthesise the information into a coherent piece I'll forward it on for consideration.

    I've barely made a start but I can't but continuously keep referencing the prison struggles here; it doesn't surprise me at all that you're familiar with Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and your comments above about your own prison experiences including the range of interaction and responses with staff over time and circumstance are a welcome and useful elucidation.

    Nietzsche's admonishment about staring into the abyss too long is succinct and generally useful. Its not however the whole story. Embracing emptiness is the goal of many who practise meditation after all. Better I believe to see the void as a dark mirror which reflects back, or perhaps a screen which we project onto the darkest parts of our own human condition. Rising above emotion, holding ourselves in reason and bringing curiosity to such processes helps minimise potential enmeshment in the dark turmoil of the other. Its a simple enough skill-set, not difficult to learn, practice or teach.

    I've just last week completed a first cursory read of 'The Death of Simund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism.' Its a useful read on how in vulnerable circumstances susceptible humans sublimate their autonomy and grant authority to sky-gods and dictators.

    Synthesising the information gleaned thus far from both books it does seem systemic and situational forces more often than not influence and compromise the dispositional tendencies. A full understanding of the dynamics at play in human behaviour requires that we recognise the extent and limits of personal power, situational power and systemic power. None of this of course can absolve personal responsibility for cultivating a functional disposition. It does though make allowance for situation and context as well as directing appropriate responsibilities to those charged with systems design and governance.

    (For anyone prone to eye strain considering reading The Lucifer Effect the font size is annoyingly small in the printed format.)

  16. Henry Joy,

    you are as free to write as much as the next person. If you manage we will be glad of it.

    Nietzsche's point about the abyss is I think not about the emptiness of it but the monster that is in it. I recall being beaten over a radiator at 14 years of age by a RUC detective in Musgrave Street in full view of everybody else walking through the station. It went on most of the morning. Even at that tender age I was able to ask what type of system allows this? I suppose the type that flourished in the Church and allowed other forms of abuse to happen to the young. I think gazing at that type of monster is likely to have an impact on the young teenager gazing into it. The Colonel Blimp types have in the past told me he was only doing it for my own good! Funny old logic.

  17. ...I'll forward it on for consideration...

    *sharpens knife*

    **buys dictionary**

  18. AM

    I still think that Nietzsche was referring to an existential abyss.

    "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you"

    The 'monsters' are the stuff of the mind created of internal conflict. The quotation is taken from 'Beyond Good and Evil'. The abyss falling between dichotomous towering certainties of 'good' and 'evil'.

    But all that seems very much superfluous as compared to the real monster your fourteen year old self had to contend with.

    What a demeaning and abusive exercise of power. It must have been such a difficult and traumatic time for you.

  19. Henry Joy,

    you could be right as to what Nietzsche meant.

    The Musgrave Street experience wasn't the worst - At 15 it got worse! Being grabbed off the street and then beaten in the British Army's Grand Central Hotel base became a regular feature. When I turned 16 I was handed over to the cops by the Army who refused to take me in but instead took me to the City Hospital due to the injuries I received from the soldiers.

    The thing is, the brutality was widespread. Much worse too for those living in areas like Ballymurphy and Bogside. I thought we had it easy compared to what they got.

    During the blanket protest I used to make the point that the jails was filled with criminals - they were all in the prison service !!

    Rushing off to do a talk in Dublin here



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