In a dingy waiting-room in Sinn Fein’s Falls Road headquarters in Belfast there is a mural of the Maze Prison – Long Kesh, as Republicans call it. Above it are painted the faces of IRA martyrs, and these verses:
I think how they Suffer in Prison Alone
Their Friends Unavenged and their Country Unfreed:
Oh Bitter I said is the Patriot’s Mead.
When the news of the killing of eight IRA men and one civilian at Loughgall came through to the H-blocks at the Maze, there were more than a few who counted themselves lucky to be suffering in prison, rather than tasting the bitter mead served up by the SAS in a wipe-out operation on that sunny spring evening in Armagh.
Loughgall has brought a temporary halt to IRA attacks on RUC and British Army bases. Before it, the IRA had carried out more than twenty attacks this year. The deaths of eight volunteers, their largest single loss since the War of Independence from 1919-21, is a serious blow which has removed their East Tyrone commander, along with a leading border operator. Despite reports of a high-level informer who tipped off the RUC six weeks before the attack, it now seems more likely that the ambush was the result of surveillance by the security forces of known IRA figures and of the movement of weapons and explosives. The IRA commanders also appear to have become over-confident. The killing of Lord Justice Gibson, number two in the Northern Ireland judiciary, and his wife, and the almost daily grenade, mortar and rifle attacks on RUC/British Army bases, had given the IRA their most successful four months since the late Seventies, when they killed Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers on one day. Tom King, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said that 500 new members of the RUC would be recruited, but he didn’t mention bringing in fresh troops. It is clear now that the SAS and possibly other undercover units were staking out police stations in anticipation of attacks. The IRA are having trouble piecing together what happened at Loughgall because the ‘godfathers of terrorism’ beloved of the tabloids were on the operation; and IRA talk to the effect that one of their men survived the Loughgall ambush is being treated with a large dose of scepticism. Had the intercepted IRA operation been a success, supporters would have praised it for its daring. Now questions are being asked about how the units expected to trundle a noisy JCB digger several miles, with at least one large bomb in its bucket, without alerting anyone, and about why there was no pre-ambush reconnaissance.
This upsurge in IRA activity is the result of an extraordinary IRA Army Convention last October, the first since 1970. It was attended by more than sixty leading IRA members, representing every unit in Ireland, over an entire weekend in a Meath hotel. The delegates voted by a three-to-one majority to drop their abstentionist policy in the Republic of Ireland. If they won seats in the Dail, they would take them. Their decision led to a walk-out by older Republicans at the Party’s annual conference the following month: the walkers-out included the former IRA chief of staff Daithi O Conaill. They have since formed Republican Sinn Fein, which is being treated warily, but which has so far posed no major threat. Given Sinn Fein’s fairly dismal showing in the March Dail elections, when they polled around 1.9 per cent of the vote, the walk-out may have been premature. The convention also took several decisions which had important consequences for the military campaign in Northern Ireland. Out went several ‘dual membership’ people (who belonged both to Sinn Fein and to the IRA), and into key positions went a number of Army-only personnel. (This was not an entirely new departure – it had been in effect in Belfast since at least early 1984.) Sinn Fein leaders are quick to dismiss any talk of conflict between politicians and militarists, but this trade-off probably nipped in the bud any possibility of a split along the lines of the 1970 one which led to the formation of the Provisionals. No one knows better than the young Northern Sinn Fein leadership that the Party is nothing without the IRA.
New tactics and methods were also hammered out. The IRA, which has about five hundred members, more than half of them in the North of Ireland, was purged as much as possible of security risks, who were taken out of the two vital areas of active service and communications/command. Weaknesses were examined. For almost five years the IRA had been severely impaired by the work of informers. These had put entire areas out of operation. The Provos in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, for example, were cleaned up for three years or more after Christopher Black turned Queen’s evidence and 38 people were arrested. Almost all had their convictions quashed on appeal, but the case disposed of several leading Provos for a number of years. A number of them have become re-involved and one is now a high-ranking member of the Belfast Brigade staff.
The IRA shot several informers and felt they had plugged the leaks. A new Belfast commander was appointed last autumn with orders to step up activity in the city, and until Loughgall they had considered themselves in better shape than at any time since the late Seventies. They have also been boosted by obtaining large quantities of Semtex H, a very high quality explosive, possibly from Colonel Gaddafi in retaliation for Mrs Thatcher’s aid for the US air strike on Tripoli. This explosive has no smell, is as malleable as putty, and is virtually undetectable by dogs, X-rays or the usual electronic gas detection methods. It is the perfect material for VIP ambushes. The IRA have made large numbers of grenade-launchers to replace the RPG 7s supplied by Libya in the early Sixties. Most of these had already been captured, and in any case the IRA had almost run out of rockets. The launchers proved more dangerous initially to themselves than to the security forces, but they have since been used to more accurate effect on police stations and in an attack on a judge’s home in Belfast.
All this military activity is geared towards reversing the Ulsterisation policy which puts the RUC and UDR in the front line and frees British Army battalions for service with Nato and elsewhere. The Provos want the British Government to draft more troops back. Killing British soldiers, they reckon, will have a greater influence on British opinion than killing RUC and UDR men. Equally, targeting VIPs is likely to have a much greater effect on Whitehall policy than shooting any number of part-time UDR members in the obscurity of Tyrone or Fermanagh. IRA figures are quick to dismiss reports of pressure on them for a ‘spectacular’ revenge attack after Loughgall. Gerry Adams describes the defeat as ‘part of the ups and downs of war. Sometimes the British Army is on top, sometimes the IRA are on top.’ Even so, Loughgall will increase pressure on them to show that they are still capable of influencing events.
IRA/Sinn Fein policy is strikingly simple. ‘As long as we keep going we will force a British withdrawal. The British will run out of options and will be faced with no alternative but to go.’ That’s the theory. Sinn Fein were rattled by the Hillsborough agreement, but now say that Nationalists will become disillusioned with it because it has failed to deliver substantive reforms of the RUC and the legal system, and to reduce discrimination against Catholics in employment. It has offended Loyalists, which has won it Nationalist support: but that won’t last for ever.
The biggest test of these analyses will be what happens to the West Belfast seat in the General Election – a matter that will have been resolved by the time this piece appears. Adams has been hoping to hold it against the SDLP’s Dr Joe Hendron. Adams is favourite, but has a fight on his hands. The Alliance Party have pulled out and Lord Fitt is ineligible. But there is a major doubt about Hendron’s ability to swing behind him the thousands of Loyalist votes which Fitt took last time out, given the strength of Loyalist hostility to the SDLP’s greatest achievement to date, the Hillsborough pact. An able Unionist, Frank Millar, who supports devolution, can also be expected to take a good number of Protestant votes.
Much of the background to the current state of the IRA is knowledgeably sketched by Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop. Anyone looking for startling new disclosures will be disappointed, but theirs is a solid, lucidly written account. Their judgments are shrewd and unsentimental and their analysis of the IRA of the Sixties acute. But their coverage of a number of crucial events, such as the IRA military campaign of the mid and late-Seventies, is patchy, and their account of the 1981 hunger strikes needs to be supplemented by an attention to David Beresford’s compelling, though less critical Ten Men Dead, partly based on previously unpublished communications between the IRA leaders in prison and those outside. Similarly, their account of the supergrass phenomenon seems almost entirely based on court transcripts or on newspaper reports (of the Christopher Black trial), as is their account of the English campaign which included the explosion at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, which killed five people and nearly claimed the life of Margaret Thatcher. What is also lacking is a sense of political context. Descriptions of the policies and actions of successive British governments are inadequately detailed. Major blunders, such as the handling of the UWC strike by Harold Wilson and Merlyn Rees, are skated over. It is quite clear from Rees’s memoirs that the British Government had no intention of facing up to the Loyalists.
All the same, the authors have come up with some extremely interesting titbits. For example, an IRA delegation visited Moscow in 1925, to enlist Stalin’s help. One of the delegation, Gerald Boland, said that the first question he was asked was ‘How many bishops did you hang?’ When he answered ‘None,’ his interrogator replied: ‘Ah, you people are not serious at all.’ One of the party, ‘Pa’ Murray, met Stalin, who showed himself surprisingly well briefed on Irish affairs. To Murray’s discomfiture, he reeled off a list of the guns seized by the Dublin Government to date. How could he be sure that any Soviet-supplied guns would not meet the same fate, and be turned into the material for anti-Communist propaganda? In the end, no help was forthcoming.
The Russian way with bishops may have crossed the minds of some leading Sinn Fein members following the climb-down they had to suffer recently in Derry. After an IRA colour party had fired shots over the coffin of a dead IRA man in church grounds, Bishop Edward Daly said that such bodies would not be allowed onto Church property. Next day, Derry’s Martin McGuinness, Vice-President of Sinn Fein, stated that they would review their position and soon afterwards the IRA announced that they wouldn’t repeat the exercise. Sinn Fein regained a good deal of support, though, after the RUC’s heavy handling of two IRA funerals in Belfast.
As Mallie and Bishop point out, the IRA is a very cheap organisation to run: ‘In 1983 it cost £2500 to finance the Belfast Brigade, a figure kept low by the meagre wages paid to members. Every full-time IRA member not in work was entitled to £20 a week, but if he took the money he was expected to forgo social security, as the weekly trip to the dole office increased the opportunities for state surveillance. Part-time members and those in work got nothing.’ This is a lot less than it takes to run a struggling Fourth Division football club. In the past, the IRA has been able to turn short-term defeats, such as internment and the hunger strikes, into long-term gains. It is highly unlikely that it will go away, though the strategy of a long war and its attendant attrition take their toll. No one is going to disagree with Mallie and Bishop’s conclusion: ‘The history of republicanism since Wolfe Tone has shown that as long as there is a British presence in Ireland it is an ineradicable tradition. The events of the last 17 years have only planted its spores deeper.’