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A View North Feud for thought: Have republicans learned lessons?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

In Belfast, bitter words follow hard upon brutal acts. At the funeral of Joe O’Connor, murdered in Ballymurphy last week, the bitter words came from Marion Price, ex-Provisional IRA activist, who blamed her former comrades-in-arms for his death. She described the Provisionals as "the armed militia of the British state" and said his death was at the hands of "pro-British elements," a formulation that republicans traditionally used to refer to loyalist hit squads.

I never thought I would live to see the day.

This is not the first time that Ms. Price, who served a long sentence for the first Provisional IRA bombing attack in London in March 1973, has denounced republicans for their role in supporting the Good Friday peace agreement. At a Wolfe Tone commemoration ceremony last summer she said: "Quite simply what we are stating is the obvious: that the Stormont Agreement is not a compromise of the political principles for which so much was suffered by so many but a blatant and disgraceful sellout of every principle and belief which genuine Irish Republicans hold dearly. . . . The sacrifices of the past three decades were not made to facilitate political opportunists and their egotistical lust for power and pecuniary reward from the British Treasury and United States capitalist corporations."

Bitter words that have been echoed in the speeches of other members of what Gerry Adams likes to call "the republican family." To denounce an agreement as a sellout, and those who support it as venal opportunists, is one thing — well within the vocabulary of political disputes. But to describe them as "pro-British elements" represents a level of vituperation that has not been heard since the bad old days of the 1970s, when Official IRA and Irish Republican Socialist Party activists were hurling insults at each other across the graves of fallen comrades. It is the talk of feuds, not political disagreements. And it is dangerous talk because history has shown that the republican family has a fratricidal streak running through it.

It is only four years since the vestiges of the Irish National Liberation Army — which broke from the Officials in 1974 — turned their guns, yet again, on each other, leaving six dead (including a 9-year-old girl) and dozens wounded. Nationalists fear the current tension between the Provisionals and the RIRA could break out into violence. Republican history has too many gloomy precedents for anyone to be sure that lessons have been learned.

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The INLA and IRSP feud with the Officials in 1975 was every bit as bitter as the situation that now seems to exist between the Real IRA and the Provisionals. IRSP speakers at funerals denounced the Officials in terms similar to those being used by republicans and dissidents. IRSP leader Seamus Costello accused his former comrades of "having betrayed the people. They ran away from the struggle." Cathal Goulding, then chief of Staff of the OIRA, condemned the IRSP in one graveside oration as "a few power-hungry and confused dissidents." An activist was a respected republican one day and a sectarian thug the next. Heroes became traitors overnight. This has been going on within the "republican family" since 1922.

In republican quarrels, the circumstances change but the underlying pattern remains fairly constant, as do the terms in which the disputants hurl abuse at each other.

Like the Officials leadership before them, the Provisionals have been treating their breakaway faction with disdain. In a statement issued after the Real IRA threatened to retaliate for the murder of O’Connor, Gerry Kelly, former adjutant general of the Provisional IRA, brushed it aside in some contempt with the words that "it was of no consequence." Any group which is prepared to leave a 500-pound car bomb in a crowded market town on a Saturday afternoon in the name of Irish freedom should not be so flippantly dismissed, as Mr. Kelly well knows.

Since the murder of O’Connor, the RIRA has put on two shows of force in the Ballymurphy district of West Belfast, as if to prove Kelly wrong. In one, nine armed men and women fired a volley of shots into the air. In another, during the funeral itself, eight masked men and women attended the coffin and one fired a salute over it — the first such display at a republican funeral in West Belfast many years. Ballymurphy is not an area normally associated with the RIRA — it always has been a stronghold of the Provisionals. Indeed, it was one of their first areas of support when the IRA split in late 1969.

In other words, RIRA is now in Adams’s backyard, though it remains to be seen what their real strength there is.

It is believed — or at least hoped — by most that the RIRA’s strength is so weak that it would not dare to escalate the current dispute by killing a member of the Provisional republican movement in revenge. But just how strong the RIRA is depends on whom you talk to. The Provisionals and their supporters usually dismiss its support as insignificant, at least in public. In private, both they and the Irish government are watching with some anxiety in case the RIRA’s somewhat sputtering campaign manages to pull off a spectacular, which it came close to doing with its grenade strike against MI6 headquarters in London last month.

That campaign would be disastrously derailed if the RIRA were stupid enough to attack the Provisionals. A feud would also lead to a rapid decline in whatever support the dissidents presently enjoy. That was certainly the experience of the INLA/IRSP in 1975. Initially, they were recruiting heavily among members and former members of the Officials, who were disgruntled at the party line. When INLA activists in Belfast — against the orders of their leadership in Dublin — hit back at the Officials, many people just walked away from the new group and its political wing. The feud that followed was a blow to the IRSP, from which it never really recovered. Costello recognized this, and commented that it had destroyed the political prospects of the organization.

Hopefully, in the ranks of the dissidents this lesson has been learned. But, unfortunately, in the North the potential to ignore history never goes away.

Correction: In last week’s column on Steak Knife, the alleged informer, I mistakenly attributed the story about collusion being behind the murder of Francisco Notarantonio to the London Sunday Times, when it was the Sunday People that broke it.

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