There was considerable media interest around Southside Provisional when it was first published a few years ago, prompted in large part by a genuine curiosity about how a young man with his comfortable South Dublin background descends into the trenches to fight alongside people South Dublin tended to revile. Whether a bit of rough with the ideologically promiscuous Provos or something more nuanced, the book offered a massage to the media.
Conway’s early flirtation with revolutionary ideas helped nudge him onto the path of the Provisional IRA. The wider Republican Movement was made up of right wingers as well as left, promiscuity the moving force. Still, there was nothing remotely resembling the lurch to the right – masked in Left rhetoric for consumption by those more assuaged by soundbites than ideas - made by the Adams led Provos.
When it came to making real choices, he scorned the entryism of the Official Republicans/Sticks which he felt allowed people to enjoy the experiment of subversion while taking none of the risks. The Republican Clubs were embarrassed by Pearse: military activity was for cash hold-ups, not for holding up the march of British imperialism – might as well join a firm of more honest bank robbers.
The far Left, as they sometimes like to be called, were away with the fairies. Some things have a timeless quality: “the various left groups squabbled fiercely over Stalin and Trotsky” As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Conway’s debate with Austin Currie at a university law society, which saw him duly thrashed, did nothing to dissuade him from a course of action that would ultimately end up embracing Currie’s outlook anyway. That Fine Gael thing, perhaps.
Headed for the action, Conway was unable to join the Provisional IRA in Belfast, the sheer volume of people lining up put him at the end of a line longer than a Brexit dole queue. The aspiring Irish revolutionary, treading in the footsteps of Tom Clark, Albert Price and others, made his way to London where he trembled with pride at achieving the status of a Provo volunteer. It was there that he met Pat Ward, a provocative thinker, a man not known for the type of blinding conformity that would later come to characterise the Provisional Movement. Both would help recruit Michael Gaughan in Manchester, who would go on to become the first of twelve republicans to die on hunger strike in British run prisons in the 1970s and 80s.
Pat Ward was a key IRA figure whose thinking probably more than any other individual had shaped the Long War strategy implemented by Gerry Adams as the IRA chief of staff in the late 1970s. By the time Ward died in 1988 his mark had been made, his strategy in place, although his political objectives were on the way to the sin bin. He had come to national prominence for a short time in 1975 when he knocked on death’s door while hunger striking in Portlaoise. His battle of wills with Fine Gael Justice minister Paddy Cooney is something long since forgotten as Ward’s descendants preen themselves in anticipation of assuming Labour’s traditional function as a condom for Fine Gael, to be duly cast aside once the screwing of the poorest has been accomplished.
The insertion into public discourse of characters long marginalised, forgotten or never much heard of in the first place is one of the book’s endearing attributes. The IRA was not all about Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Conway writes about Brendan Holland, a man with strong Marxist leanings who encouraged me to think critically as a nineteen-year-old while in prison. I still failed to get past the first page of a book he suggested I read: The Phenomena of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. People like Joe McKee, the late volunteers Martin Meehan, Bobby Campbell and Tony O’Kane all feature as are the controversies that sometimes blew up around them.
Elsewhere, the reader comes across the late Paul Marlowe, a key but rarely mentioned IRA volunteer who lost his life in a premature explosion in 1976. A former SAS operative, he was one of a small number of former British troops who inflicted serious casualties on their former colleagues. The IRA drew on experience and know-how wherever if found it. Two of its chiefs of staff by 1974 had experience in the British armed forces.
Another chief of staff, Joe Cahill, was “a place seeker, a yes man and a virtual mascot behind whom the leadership were able to take cover …” An eventual successor to Cahill, Martin McGuinness, Southside Provo found prissy with little sense of humour.
Although Gerry Adams is widely acknowledged as having ordered the 1973 bombing of London, he was not the first to come up with the idea. Earlier, the IRA had planned an ambitious assassination and bombing campaign in England but wiser counsel prevailed and decided that London should instead be used as source of funding for the IRA. The chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofáin, perceived as an action man more than a reflection man, had in a similar bout of blinkered ardour instructed Belfast to stage an Easter type rising in the northern capital at Easter 1970. The more grounded IRA leaders in the city harboured no such illusions and told him where to go.
With his cover finally blown as a result of a bank robbery mishap Conway fled England and took up a role in the IRA’s Training Department, running camps for volunteers from Derry city. With Martin McGuinness facing accusations of inexperience and recklessness Conway soon became the GHQ rep to the city. His time in Derry helped dissuade him from sharing the conventional wisdom that internment was good for the IRA or that RUC Special Branch was bereft of up to date intelligence.
He developed a good relationship with Dáithí Ó Conaill, one-time president of the army council although never chief of staff as was so widely believed. It is disappointing that no biography of Dáithí Ó Conaill, has yet emerged, given his political acumen, strategic awareness and centrality to the Provisional IRA in its most productive, even destructive, period.
Southside Provisional incrementally expands on the rationale behind strategy as it developed such as the bombing campaign. It also maps out structure and the personalities involved in staffing the structure. The targeting of soldiers was shaped in part by Aden where the British sustained 36 fatalities. There was a view in the IRA at the time that if the same could be produced in the North, an outcome similar to Aden would result. Like much else the strategic thinking here was lacking.
It was not long before the earlier wisdom of caution in respect of how England should be addressed evaporated and civilian casualties mounted up. The IRA leadership being caught unaware by the Birmingham bombing was revealed by both O’Conaill and Kevin Mallon, a Mountjoy Prion helicopter escapee. Both men were furious at the attack. They were not alone.
Overall, despite the intense activity, “much of the time IRA activity was deeply frustrating with only a fraction of what was planned and prepared for actually coming off.” Something that did come off was IRA counter intelligence. It is widely known that the IRA had tapped Thiepval Barracks and Conway depicts an enlarged capability with the claim that the Garda HQ had been tapped for years.
As for Sinn Fein, the current dominant Provo arm, in the early years in Belfast Tom Hartley was the only true Sinn Feiner of that generation. This complemented what I had learned from a senior Sinn Fein figure many years ago who explained that Hartley more than Adams deserved credit for building Sinn Fein and turning it into something other than what Conway described as a home “for the old and the lame, for those too cowardly or not capable of serving in the Army!
The book takes up the dirty war via the prism of the MRF scare and concludes it was not simply a ruse. The British were setting up counter gangs and the IRA hit back hard. Vincent Heatherington and Miles McGrogan, central to a poisoning plot against Brendan Hughes in Crumlin Road prison in 1974, were later killed by the organisation in 1976 and 1977 respectively. Others met a similar fate, for the same alleged reason: the unfortunate Columba McVeigh among them. The MRF was seriously exercising the IRA, causing paranoia to swell. The phenomenon was one of the first things the Southside Provo reported to the leadership upon his release in late 1974 before becoming assistant to JB O’Hagan, at that time running the Intelligence Department. When he eventually assumed overall departmental control he was immediately introduced to the legendary “banker”. His contribution endured for the entire Provisional IRA campaign. The IRA was so localistic that it did not want to be encumbered by something as centralised as an Intelligence dept. That would not be put right for some years to come. Conway would average around 1000 miles a week on the road – during a ceasefire to boot – to run the Intelligence Department.
The complicated claim is made in the book that the IRA provided information to the UDA. Complicated because the highly valued PR term, “collusion” is the word Sinn Fein use to describe that sort of thing today: invariably to hammer the British for providing information to Loyalists. Now in receipt of seemingly high-grade intelligence, the loyalists acted upon it and killed a man, probably Craig Brown. The loyalists believed as a result of IRA information that Brown had killed Tommy Herron, the most public of UDA leaders in the early 1970s. Later in the company of Martin McGuinness, the Southside Provo would hold talks with the UDA during the ceasefire of 1975.
Conway reminds the reader of the provenance of peace processes within the Provisionals. It was not always unremitting war. Unlike the current peace process where political careers figured hugely, the earlier initiatives were political in composition but because of the republican irreconcilability with the British position, which has always been unity only with consent, there was little hope of peace initiatives coming to fruition in terms of enduring cessations.
A serious draw for the history buff is the time served in the jails. There is very little written about B Wing in 1971 where 100 or so republican prisoners were housed. Conway’s first cell mate was Larry O’Neill, an Antrim republican I met in Magilligan in the 1970s and who has made a number of critical contributions to public discourse from a republican perspective throughout the peace process. There was a view that those captured were “not long for the place”, again symptomatic of the failure to understand the long terms commitment of the British. There was also an inability to grasp the dynamic in unionism. Having spent some time in Armagh Gaol, on his return to the Crum the B Wing O/C was Jimmy Davison, father of Gerard who would be shot dead in the Markets area supposedly by a former comrade a couple of years back.
Conway read the standard fare for the politically thinking prisoner: Fanon, Mao, Seale, Stalin, Lenin, the engrossing Wolves In The City by Paul Hennisart. Over the years the reading material stayed consistent while the politics changed. That the disjuncture seemed to have gone unnoticed to all but a few, calls into question the depth of political thinking within the ranks. Recreational rather than real revolution. The later prison administration attempts to restrict reading material to novels in the wake of the 1981 hunger strike proved futile.
When the prisoners were moved to C Wing, Conway would become O/C and regales his reader with the obligatory tale of Martin Meehan’s own mixes backfiring on him, an ubiquitous feature of prison life.
The book is revealing on the periodised nature of political status. Conway and the other imprisoned republicans wore prison uniforms and they were not considered a problem. But a groundswell of opinion within the Crum developed, leading to protest and eventually hunger strike fronted by Billy McKee, a veteran of previous IRA campaigns. Conway joined the staggered hunger strike in the third week and was on it 23 days, losing two stone in the process. He would again take part in an 18 day hunger strike again led by McKee in pursuit of the return of the compassionate parole facility sabotaged by the absconding of Gusty Spence while out for his daughter’s wedding. Spence was a “grandiose Poseur” and “pompous bigmouth.” He ran a tight ship with military discipline whereas McKee was much more relaxed while maintaining an IRA control over the men under his command. The major fault line in the republican wing was along Palestinian/Israeli lines, Cleeky Clarke before a mid sentence conversion being prominent among the pro-Israelis. Other struggles were supported almost unanimously. That was before the rightward drift of the current leadership.
After moving to Long Kesh the author became editor of Faoi Glas, the internal jail paper. McKee later appointed him camp adjutant of the jailed republicans. He did not witness the supposed book burning which might just be a jailhouse myth rather than having any basis in events. Playing Ouija was banned, however. The “real” devil, seemingly, rather than the orange one was considered more of a threat.
Conway errs on a few things. The loyalist killers who shot dead fourteen year old David McClenaghan and raped his mother Sarah, did not serve their time in the loyalist cages but were expelled from them by their own command structure. The IRA has, contrary to what is asserted in the book, the authority to order its volunteers to cease hunger striking. The 1981 hunger strike ended with a comm in the name of the army council, but in fact from the leadership committee who ran the strike.
Southside Provisional is one of the few insider accounts that acknowledges the Provisional IRA’s onslaught against Protestant civilians during the 1975 truce. It did not balk from describing IRA operations as “nakedly sectarian killings.” The IRA bombed the Mountainview Tavern killing six drinkers. His point about the organisation lying over its involvement in the Bayardo bombing which took the lives of five drinkers, underscores that lying for Ireland did not have its provenance in the persona of Gerry Adams. The IRA had throughout its campaign sought to lie its way out of embarrassing situations. In a heated jail debate with Ardoyne’s Martin Meehan, the latter told Conway that as somebody from south Dublin it was easy for him to oppose sectarian killings whereas hailing from Ardoyne moulded a different view. Ardoyne would later become lethally efficient in a campaign of sectarian assassination. Imprisoned volunteers from the area would in 1976 often shout out from behind their Crumlin Road prison cell doors - half a mile down the road from Ardoyne - “Up the Sectarian Assassins.” Nevertheless, Conway challenges what he calls the myth of an all but destroyed IRA as a result of the 1975 truce. Elsewhere, Martin Meehan agreed with him on that.
Conway ceased being a southside Provo and went off to complete his studies. He left the IRA for a number of years before returning to it in 1981. Six years later he joined Sinn Fein while remaining a member of the IRA. He felt it was a mistake – there was no real political strategy just an electoral one. The culture of the movement had been undergoing major change throughout the 1970s as it moved away from egalitarianism, and towards concentrating power in the hands of the Adams cabal: much as in Animal Farm, this goes with the revolutionary turf. At the end of every revolution the same three categories of people remain: those at the bottom, the middle and the top. As Peadar O'Donnell might have quipped, different monkeys, same old superstructure. When the British through the Downing Street Declaration underscored the unionist veto, leaving IRA leaders to pretend that it was something else, he drifted off into the wilderness.
Now a defence lawyer, Kieran Conway bumps into special branch detectives in the courts and Garda stations in an Ireland as partitioned as it ever was. Billy McKee ended up with tattered hands working on a building site in Dublin while the long war leaders built cosy political careers on the average industrialist wage.
While agreeing with Bernadette McAliskey’s brief summation that the war is over and the good guys lost, and concluding that he had played “a bit part in the failed Irish revolution,” he is not too hard on Gerry Adams: yes, the former IRA chief of staff Adams was a “mendacious lying bastard”, but what else could he be?
closing position on how to achieve British withdrawal and Irish unity by then identical to that of the successive British governments it had fought against … the outcome of a quarter century of war was not worth a single drop of anyone’s blood. Was it all then a futile, useless waste of lives, Probably … Somewhere along the way the movement lost its republican soul and became that collection of soft left nationalists who now help to administer British rule in Ireland.Southside Provisional while a highly readable account of IRA life through the eyes of a Dubliner, is a salutary reminder of just how little progress the IRA campaign made. British Prime Minister Edward Heath, post-internment, had been “offering at most, and then only following an end to violence, a mechanism for guaranteeing minority rights with some as yet undefined element of “participation” in government for nationalists": ultimately the sum total of the Provisional IRA campaign countless fatalities later.
Why it took Sinn Fein so many deaths to become career politicians just like all those they had pilloried over the decades for having been career politicians, is a matter for endless speculation and future research, if the researchers and researched are not jailed for contributing, Orwell, perhaps has the last word: nine times out of ten revolutionaries are social climbers with bombs.
Kieran Conway, 2014. Southside Provisional. Publisher: Open Press. ISBN-13: 978-1909895553
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
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