By Jack Holland
At the beginning of 1974, the leadership of the Provisional IRA declared that it would be "the year of victory" — the year when the British government would be forced to announce a timetable for a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Ten months or so later, with the British presence still very much in place, the Provisional leadership opened secret talks with the government of Harold Wilson and declared a cease-fire on Dec. 20, 1974.
I remember, three years later, wandering down some desolate back street in the Falls area and seeing a tattered "1974 — Year of Victory" poster flapping mournfully in the cold winter wind and thinking to myself how mistaken a notion that had been. It was only much later that I understood the factors that pushed the Provisionals to make that proclamation.
It is interesting to compare the situation then with the current peace process, which after 25 years, sees the Provisionals deeply involved with negotiations with the British.
According to Billy McKee, in 1974 Officer Commanding the Belfast Brigade, it was the British who made the first moves. He met with James Allen, a high-ranking British civil servant, with a view to exploring ways of ending the conflict. The Provisionals later claimed that during these meetings British officials had made a commitment to withdrawing from Northern Ireland over a defined period.
The contacts could not have come at a more delicate time for the Provisional IRA. McKee said in a interview in 1998 that by the Fall of 1974 "there was no IRA in Belfast, thanks to internment." Belfast has always been the key to the Provisionals’ campaign. The movement had a desperate need to get its men out of Long Kesh.
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Of course, this was not admitted publicly at the time. Rather, the IRA was insisting that it was the brutal no-warning bombing campaign in England, which on Nov. 21 had claimed 21 lives in Birmingham when two pubs were blown up, which brought the British to the negotiating table. This was just the latest, if the most bloody, of a series of bombings aimed at the British heartland which the Provisionals were convinced would force the government to the negotiating table.
The initial attempt to broker a cease-fire collapsed but was successfully resumed in February 1975. The cessation that began on Feb. 10 that year would prove to be the longest until that of Aug. 31 1994, which initiated the current peace process.
The 1974-75 talks were never acknowledged at the time, and their exact agenda is still a matter of dispute. Interestingly, when the British reopened contacts with the IRA in the early 1990s, they were at pains to distinguish the process that they said they were engaged in then from that of 1974-75, which they alleged had been deliberately staged to compromise the IRA.
In the 1970s, the Provisionals had no political machinery worth speaking of — Sinn Fein was regarded with disdain by republican activists and had no elected officials in the North. The peace arranged with British officials was in fact meant to give them some status within the nationalist areas — the party set up "truce-monitoring centers," which it is presumed were supposed to become the organizational base for the IRA’s political wing. But Sinn Fein lacked political credibility in 1975 and was not able to take advantage of the situation.
As well, the cease-fire of the mid-1970s was hardly a cease-fire at all. The Provisionals continued a campaign of sectarian retaliation for loyalist attacks on Catholics. Of the 80 civilians killed between mid-February 1975 and August, more than half were Protestants, of whom 26 were the victims of direct retaliation by republicans. The Provisionals also continued to murder policemen. Only British forces were exempt from attacks.
In contrast, the 1994 cessation was "clean" — the Irish government insisted on there being no "retaliation" clause. It came about as the result of a rather more complex process than that of two decades earlier. There were at least three sets of talks going on before August 1994: those between Hume and Adams, those between the Provisionals and British officials, and those involving the SDLP, the British and the Irish governments. There were also underground contacts between the Provisionals and Dublin.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein had been transformed into a viable political party, having demonstrated that it could win elections at a local and national level, and was ready and eager to break out of the political ghetto into which it increasingly felt it was being confined by its support for the armed campaign. As a political force it had to be taken seriously.
However, there are some similarities between the two periods that are worth drawing out. Security setbacks helped provoke both attempts to reach an accord. In 1974-75, according to Gerry Adams, the Provisionals were as close to defeat as they ever came. Twenty years on, their "final push" to get Britain to declare its intention to withdraw had spent itself. The armed campaign was proving to be increasingly costly. A political machine was waiting and willing to help the Provisionals move away from violence and into the peace process.
Another characteristic both periods share is the secrecy that shrouded the intentions of the Provisional leadership. While the 1990s talks and contacts were made public, with detailed documents published, and eventually open negotiations taking place in full view of the media, the actual agenda of the Provisionals’ army council remains as much of a mystery now as it did when the process started. The rank-and-file of the 1990s know just as little about the leadership’s agenda is as did their predecessors in 1974-75. The public statements by the Sinn Fein leaders was and is couched in the language of evasion, no doubt for pragmatic reasons.
They leave many questions unanswered. In 1994, what was the goal of the army council when it took the peace process route? Did it expect to negotiate the British out of Northern Ireland? Did it plan to engineer a confrontation between Britain and the Unionists? Was it prepared then to reverse the republican movement’s traditional opposition to Stormont and its support of physical force or were these radical departures an unforeseen product of the developing situation?
In 1974-75, however much of a shambles the peace process might have been, the aims of the Provisionals were clear enough, if unrealistic: a British withdrawal. Now, in contrast, we have a clean, organized cease-fire and an open political process but one whose outcome remains problematic and uncertain, if not contradictory, at least in terms of traditional republican goals.