Sweeping statements are fun to make, but less fun to read.
A week or so after A Broad Church was available for purchase, author Gearóid Ó Faoleán gave interviews about his work to a variety of sources, discussing his findings and how he hoped the book will find an audience.
Unsurprisingly, certain people got very excited by this on Twitter. Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie even told the News Letter "This book will help address the selective amnesia at play in the Republic regarding its role during the Troubles. For decades the IRA was able to mount cross border raids almost at will, and murder hundreds of people as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign of border protestants. The Republic was also the source of numerous arms dumps and training camps. It is also a fact that the 30 year IRA campaign could not have been sustained had there not been support – both overt and tacit – from a significant section of the population there.Leaving aside the irony of his own party's links with the UVF, both with it's inception (Gusty Spence could be heard claiming that party members unhappy with Terence O'Neill had a hand in the formation of the UVF) and in recent news it's interesting how he seems to happily accept that various incarnations of the Dail had a hand in supporting the IRA (in spite of Section 31, the 'Heavy Gang', the McCarthyite attitudes that took over in the media coverage of the conflict and the fact that people could be jailed on the word of a senior Garda). It's amazing how history can be discarded by some when it doesn't fit their narrative (and if he can deliver proof regarding the "ethnic cleansing" claim, that would be great as well).
The most uncomfortable aspect of the past for the Dublin Authorities is the extent to which the IRA received support and assistance from the political class, elements of the judiciary and sections of the police. The media and Dublin Government are quick to rush to judgement regarding claims of collusion between the British State and loyalist gangs, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to an honest appraisal of the role played by the Dublin Government, its state actors and some of citizens in facilitating the activities of the IRA.
Anyone (and I mean anyone) with a half decent knowledge of the conflict will tell you that of course the south was important to the IRA (why do you think there was a decree from GHQ about not shooting Gardai) and that of course people helped out. It's a large country with a big population, so it shouldn't come as a shock that people from different social and economic strata's did give a hand to the IRA. Is this any different from members of the unionist establishment and community doing the same thing with the various loyalist paramilitaries?
While it has been documented in a variety of tomes throughout the years, Ó Faoleán's book is the first one (to my knowledge) to focus exclusively on the importance of the south and the role it played in the development of the Provisionals. In many ways, it's a perfect companion piece to Patrick Mulroe's highly recommended 'Bombs, Bullets and the Border' but the wider focus allows Ó Faoleán to examine the broader culture clashes that could exist between the cities and the countryside.
Beginning by noting how the attacks on the civil rights marches awakened nationalist sympathies in the south (furthered by the burnings of August 1969, leading to the biggest population displacement since WWII), Ó Faoleán then discusses how the split of 1969 impacted on the south, and how these units were quick to aid fellow units in the north, either through bomb making, robberies and organising camps.
What emerges is a picture that is nowhere near as clean cut as some unionist commentators would like it to be. A mixture of sympathy towards northern nationalists, Saturday night republican tendencies and a government watching the situation across the border deteriorate moment by moment led to a situation where the fledging Provisional IRA could assemble and organise in the south with little hassle from the authorities.
Interviews with various members further this image, with one bitterly remarking that certain people would help you out in some way (be it harbouring OTR's etc) but would not turn out and vote for them, or even publicly show support. Here, Ó Faoleán demonstrates how (ultimately) the support for the campaign was merely superficial. The old north/south divide showing itself again.
The vicious circle of the 'Heavy Gang' and how they were protected by Section 31 makes for deeply disturbing reading. The accounts of various republicans beaten and tortured by them could have come straight from accounts from Castlereagh in the same period. And the fact that Conor Cruise O'Brien could openly support such brutality and censorship, yet consider himself a liberal and free speech advocate, is breath taking. Just as evil as the paedophile priests.
What was interesting to read was the role Brian Stack (later murdered by the IRA) played in the beating of prisoners in Portlaoise, and how he was openly despised not only by republicans, but also his own staff. Little details like that are often left out of media coverage. I wonder why.
Oddly, when discussing the role of the Irish media, there is no direct discussion of the self censorship that journalists imposed upon themselves for fear of being seen as 'fellow travellers', nor the school of Irish revisionism practised by the likes of Kevin Myers and Ruth Dudley Edwards (which arguably began after the Dublin/Monaghan bombings). Both of these were just as important as the likes of Section 31 and Garda brutality in terms of stifling potential support for the IRA in the south and created a culture of self loathing, which carries on today (look at how the centenary for the Easter Rising was discussed in the mainstream Irish media).
Nor is there any mention of the conditions that the underfunded and overstretched Garda were forced to work under. The Garda oral history (cited by Mulroe) has numerous statements from former members about how the pressure to crack down on republicans lead to the rise of the criminal underworld (notably, the likes of Martin Cahill, John Gilligan and Gerry Hutch all started off in this period as bank robbers). And while there's nothing specifically in writing it's easy to envisage that, with both republicans and criminals running circles around them, disillusioned and disaffected Garda could often turn a blind eye to republicans, seeing them as the lesser of two evils.
Anyone hoping for evidence that the south and the IRA were in each other's pocket will be bitterly disappointed. What emerges is a lot more complex, but is made clear that the sympathy only went so far. However, if the book is read alongside 'Bombs, Bullets and the Border', then the reader is given an overview of an aspect of our recent history that is often discussed, but rarely given the proper contextualisation.
Something the likes of Doug Beattie won't take into account.
Gearóid Ó Faoleán, 2019. A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland 1969-1980. Merrion Press ISBN-13: 978-1785372452
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.