Socialist Party archives - added, June 7th

Provisionals: Lessons after 20 years

Lucy Simpson, Militant, Dec 1989-Jan 1990

Twenty years ago this winter saw the birth of the Provisional IRA. They emerged in the aftermath of the upheavals in the North in 1968-9.

Resentment at 50 years of Unionist misrule, of poverty, discrimination eventually erupted in the Catholic areas in 1968. A civil rights demonstration on October 5th was met by a hail of police batons.

Tens of thousands joined civil rights marches. Sympathy and support existed for these movements amongst Protestant workers and particularly the youth. A great opportunity existed for the labour movement to head this struggle, link up with the Protestant working class and fight for socialism.

In the 1950's the IRA had launched a 'border campaign'. It was a total failure and was eventually called off in 1962. The main effect it had was to demoralise their small membership.

During the 1960s the remnants were re-examining their policies and wondering how to rebuild again. By 1968 attendance at their public events had fallen to a handful. By August 1969 serious estimates put their active membership in Belfast at not much more than a dozen or so.

In the 1960s the republican movement was split. The majority of the IRA leaders, later to become the Official IRA, favoured a shift to the Left. They advocated a move away from nationalism and a concentration on social issues. However they remained outside the mainstream of the labour and trade union movement and adopted Stalinist policies supporting the dictatorships in Russia and Eastern Europe.

In actual fact they never advocated socialism. They limited themselves to democratic demands. They even claimed that those arguing for socialism were a diversion.

Other IRA leaders, who went on to found the Provisionals, such as Sean MacStiofain and Rory O Brady, adopted a right-wing nationalist and sectarian position. Right-wing businessmen and bigots in the South were involved in an effort to split the movement developing in the North along sectarian lines.

The summer of 1969 saw the outbreak of sectarian fighting. This period transformed the character of the 'troubles'. The 'Battle of the Bogside' took place in Derry and there was the beginning of sectarian pogroms in Belfast. During the rioting in Belfast police opened fire. Six people were killed in two days during August 1969.

The British ruling class intervened as the situation was getting out of control. Security was removed from the hands of the local politicians and troops were sent in on August 14th 1969. The leaders of the civil rights movement, those on the left, except Militant, and many Catholics, welcomed the troops.

But the handful of IRA members around at the time saw it as an opportunity to re-group and possibly build a base among the Catholic population. Out of the confusion and vacuum that existed the IRA got their opportunity. Labour's failure became the Provos opportunity.

The foundation of the Provos eventually came after a walkout from the IRA conference in December 1969. In January 1970 approximately one-third of the delegates to the Sinn Fein conference also walked out. They became known as the Provisionals. The Provisional IRA was born.

The British army became more and more the repressors of the Catholic ghettos with the searching and wrecking of homes and the beating of young people. As a consequence of the vacuum the Provos were to open up their ranks to hundreds of young people in the Catholic ghettos. The youth saw it as a way of hitting back at the system. As many young people saw it at the time they had nothing to lose under the unionist state.

The Provos had no strategy even then except a bombing campaign which was in full swing in 1971.

There were two actions by British Imperialism that ensured the Provisionals the support for their campaign from thousands of youth. The first was internment, introduced by Faulkner the then Northern Ireland Prime Minster at Stormont on August 9th 1971. The army moved into working class areas and interned and tortured hundreds of people. Many internees were members of left-wing organisations. The result was virtual uprisings in the Catholic areas.

A major campaign against internment developed. Once again the total failure of the Labour movement to intervene meant that the only organisation to make major gains were the Provos.

The second event six months later, on January 30th 1972, soon became known as 'Bloody Sunday'. The Parachute regiment opened up on a civil rights march in Derry killing 13 unarmed civilians, some at point black range. There was revulsion in the Catholic areas. Factories, North and South, shut down. 60,000 people attended the funerals in Derry. A mood of intense rage and hatred exploded in the Catholic areas. The Provos were inundated by thousands who wanted to hit back at imperialism.

Again the labour movement did nothing, preventing the possibility of channelling the justifiable anger in a class manner. In the strikes that followed Bloody Sunday Protest workers, as well as Catholics, participated.

But the only answer the Provos had was to intensify their bombing campaign. Many civilians died. In July 1972 the Provos planted several bombs in Belfast city centre. Nine civilians died in what became known as 'Bloody Friday'. The campaign of the Provos played into the hands of the most extreme loyalists.

Mass rallies led by the semi-fascist elements like William Craig were openly advocating sectarian reaction. 'Protestants must be prepared to shoot to kill' is a famous statement of his.

Loyalist paramilitaries further developed. They began a campaign of sectarian assassinations, another factor in the development of the Provos at this stage. By the end of 1972 89 Catholics and 38 Protestants had been assassinated. These assassinations never had the support of Catholic or Protestant workers. It was in fact the revulsion to these assassinations that led to the significant fall in support for the Provos and the total isolation of the loyalist paramilitaries.

By the middle of the 1970s many Catholics were questioning the campaign of the Provos. Many lives had been lost and nothing had been gained even though they have been claiming victory every year.

On leaving the 1973 Sinn Fein conference, for example, a newly elected joint National Secretary declared that 'the delegates were fully aware that we are on the verge of final victory'. They were becoming increasingly sectarian in their actions. In 1976 they shot ten Protestant workers in Bessbrook in South Armagh.

The working class had enough of the killings. It was the pressure of the rank and file of the labour and trade union movement that had a definite effect on the Provos. From the mid-1970s on they suffered a huge loss in support from the Catholic population.

Over the past 20 years Militant has consistently explained that the Provos can never succeed. The first issue of the Irish Militant said this clearly in an article headed 'Provisional IRA strategy cannot defeat British Imperialism'.

The Provos repeatedly attempt to portray themselves as a guerrilla army in an attempt to justify themselves. But guerrilla war is a form of peasant war. In backward countries in Asia, Africa and Central America the majority of the population are peasants or farmers. This is the base for guerrilla war. In these countries the state is relatively much weaker.

In China, Vietnam and other such countries guerrilla armies developed into conventional armies and came to power. Not so the Provisionals. Northern Ireland is a relatively developed and urban society where a powerful state apparatus exists. The use of similar type methods in an urban environment is not guerrilla methods but the methods of individual terrorism.

Individual terrorism has never and can never defeat imperialism or capitalism. On the contrary the employment of such methods can only lead to the derailment of the revolution.

In Argentina and Uruguay, in the 1970s, the activities of the Montoneros and the Tupamaros, using the same methods as the Provos, led to counter-revolution, defeat and the rise of military dictatorships. Yet the Montoneros had been able to hold demonstrations of hundreds of thousands.

The Provos have provided every pretext and excuse for the British ruling class to strengthen state repression. But the role of the Provos had the additional effect of exacerbating the already existing sectarian divisions in the North. Their actions are detested by Protestants and help strengthen Paisley and right wing loyalist bigots.

Stumbling along from one military operation to the next, the Provos found another platform that was to give them a new lease of life. The movement inside the prisons at the beginning of the 1980s and the death of 10 prisoners through the hunger strikes prepared the way for the rise of Sinn Fein and their entry into the political arena. The theory of the 'armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other' is as doomed to failure as their military campaign has been for 20 years.

In fact the Provos leadership were not in favour of the hunger strike in the H Blocks. They could not control what was happening in the prisons and when the hunger strikes became a reality they were dragged along by events. Some people argued at the time that the development of Sinn Fein into a political party represented a swing away from militarism and even the beginnings of a mass left wing socialist movement in the North, These arguments have been proven wrong over the past decade.

After 20 years of failed strategy and tactics, the Provos still believe that they can force British Imperialism into a situation of being unable to control the North and hence withdraw. If British Imperialism thought they could withdraw from the north without getting blood on their hands and without having a civil war to cope with, which would not be confined to the North but would quickly be felt in Britain and the South, they would pull out tomorrow.

Britain spends 1,500 million on its subvention each year to the North. This does not include the financing of security. It is costing a packet, but withdrawal is not something British Imperialism can easily contemplate. They can no longer control the Unionist sectarian monster that they have nurtured since partition. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a warning to British Imperialism. If they move down the road of a capitalist united Ireland they will quickly meet with the armed resistance of the Protestant population who genuinely fear for their own destiny.

The best contribution the Provos could make to progress in Ireland would be to call a cease-fire and admit their 20 years of military action has been a mistake, both militarily and politically.

This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

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