1970 – IRA splits into Officials and Provisionals (Provos).

The split in the Republican movement, 1969–1970

The split in the Irish Republican Army, soon followed by a parallel split in Sinn Féin, was the result of the dissatisfaction of more traditional and militant republicans at the political direction taken by the leadership. The particular object of their discontent was Sinn Féin’s ending of its policy of abstentionism in the Republic of Ireland. This issue is a key one in republican ideology, as traditional republicans regarded the Irish state as illegitimate and maintained that their loyalty was due only to the Irish Republic declared in 1916 and in their view, represented by the IRA Army Council.

During the 1960s, the republican movement under the leadership of Cathal Goulding radically re-assessed their ideology and tactics after the dismal failure of the IRA’s Border Campaign in the years 1956–62. They were heavily influenced by popular front ideology and drew close to communist thinking. A key intermediary body was the Communist Party of Great Britain’s organisation for Irish exiles, the Connolly Association. The Marxist analysis was that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a “bourgeois nationalist” one between the Protestant and Catholic working classes, fomented and continued by the ruling class. Its effect was to depress wages, since worker could be set against worker. They concluded that the first step on the road to a 32-county socialist republic in Ireland was the “democratisation” of Northern Ireland (i.e., the removal of discrimination against Catholics) and radicalisation of the southern working class. This would allow “class politics” to develop, eventually resulting in a challenge to the hegemony of both British imperialism and the respective unionist and nationalist establishments north and south of the Irish border.

Goulding and those close to him argued that, in the context of sectarian division in Northern Ireland, a military campaign against the British presence would be counter-productive, since it would delay the day when the workers would unite around social and economic issues.

The sense that the IRA seemed to be drifting away from its conventional republican and nationalist roots into Marxism angered more traditional republicans. The Arms Crisis provided evidence that some members of the Dublin (Fianna Fáil) government had attempted to supply arms and funds to groups in Northern Ireland that were not left-wing. The radicals viewed Ulster Protestants with unionist views as “fellow Irishmen deluded by bourgeois loyalties, who needed to be engaged in dialectical debate”. As a result, they were reluctant to use force to defend Catholic areas of Belfast when they came under attack from loyalists—a role the IRA had performed since the 1920s. Since the civil rights marches began in 1968, there had been many cases of street violence. The Royal Ulster Constabulary had been shown on television in undisciplined baton charges, and had already killed three non-combatant civilians, one a child. The Orange Order’s “marching season” during the summer of 1969 had been characterised by violence on both sides, which culminated in the three-day “Battle of the Bogside” in Derry.

August 1969 riots

The critical moment came in August 1969 when there was a major outbreak of intercommunal violence in Belfast and Derry, with eight deaths, six of them Catholics, and whole streets ablaze. On 14–15 August loyalists burned out several Catholic streets in Belfast in the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969. IRA units offered resistance, however very few weapons were available for the defence of Catholic areas. Many local IRA figures, and ex-IRA members such as Joe Cahill and Billy McKee, were incensed by what they saw as the leadership’s decision not to take sides and in September, they announced that they would no longer be taking orders from the Goulding leadership.

Discontent was not confined to the northern IRA units. In the south also, such figures as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean MacStiofain opposed both the leadership’s proposed recognition of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This increasing political divergence led to a formal split at the 1969 IRA Convention, held in December. when a group led by Ó Brádaigh and MacStiofán walked out. The split resulted from a vote at the first IRA Convention where a two-thirds majority voted that Republicans should take their seats if elected to the British, Irish or Northern Ireland Parliaments. At a second convention, a group consisting of Mac Stiofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Ó Brádaigh, Joe Cahill], Paddy Mulcahy, Leo Martin, and Sean Tracey, were elected as the “Provisional” Army Council. Their supporters included Seamus Twomey.

Accounts at that time suggest that the IRA members split roughly in half, with those loyal to the Cathal Goulding led “Official IRA” prominent in some areas while the Provisional IRA were prominent in other areas. IRA historian J. Bowyer Bell stated, with respect to the Provisional IRA, that, “There was some support in Belfast, although less than claimed” (p. 367). A strong area for the Official IRA in Belfast was the Lower Falls and Markets district, which were under the command of Billy McMillen. Other OIRA units were located in Derry, Newry, Strabane, Dublin, and Wicklow and other parts of Belfast. However, the Provisionals would rapidly become the dominant faction, both as a result of intensive recruitment in response to the sectarian violence and because some Official IRA units (such as the Strabane company) later defected to them.

There was a similar ideological split in Sinn Féin after a contentious 1970 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. The then leadership of Sinn Féin passed a motion to recognise the Parliaments in London, Dublin and Stormont but failed to attain the prerequisite two-thirds majority necessary to change Sinn Féin’s constitutional opposition to ‘partitionist’ assemblies. Those defeated in the motion walked out. This resulted in a split into two separate groups with the Sinn Féin name. Those supportive of Seán Mac Stiofáin’s “Provisional Army Council”, were referred to in the media as Provisional Sinn Féin or Sinn Féin Kevin St and contested elections as Sinn Féin. The other group, under the leadership of Tomás Mac Giolla, was to contest elections first as Official Sinn Féín, then Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party and aligned itself with Cathal Goulding’s Official IRA, as the Marxist faction came to be known. The party retained the historic Sinn Féin headquarters of Gardiner Street, thus giving legitimacy to it, in the eyes of some, to be the legitimate successor of that party and briefly known popularly as Sinn Féin Gardiner Place.

The Officials were known as the “Stickies” because they sold stick-on lilies to commemorate the Easter Rising; the Provisionals, by contrast, were known as “pinnies” (pejoratively “pinheads”) because they produced pinned-on lilies. The term Stickies stuck, though pinnies (and pinheads) disappeared, in favour of the nickname “Provos” and for a time, “Provies”. (The paper-and-pin Easter Lily of the IRA was the traditional commemorative badge of the Easter Rising, whereas the self-adhesive Easter Lily of the Officials was a novel invention, symbolic of the divergence of opinion between them).

Impact of the split

Initially there was much confusion among republicans on the ground, Martin McGuinness for example, joined the Official IRA in 1970, unaware that there had been a split and only later joined the Provisionals. The Provisionals launched an armed campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland. Despite the reluctance of Cathal Goulding and the OIRA leadership, their volunteers on the ground were inevitably drawn into the violence. The Official IRA’s first major confrontation with the British Army came in the Falls Curfew of July 1970, when over 3,000 British soldiers raided the Lower Falls area for arms, leading to three days of gun battles. The Official IRA lost a large amount of weaponry in the incident and their members on the ground blamed the Provisionals for starting the firing and then leaving them alone to face the British. The bad feeling left by this and other incidents led to a feud between the two IRAs in 1970, with several shootings carried out by either side. The two IRA factions arranged a truce between them after the OIRA killing of Provisional activist, and Belfast brigade D-Company commander, Charlie Hughes (a cousin of the well known Republican Brendan Hughes).

Soviet defector Vasili Mitrokhin alleged in the 1990s that the Goulding leadership sought, in 1969, a small quantity of arms (roughly 70 rifles, along with some hand guns and explosives) from the KGB. The request was approved and the weapons arrived in Ireland in 1972. This has not been independently verified however. On the whole, the OIRA had a more restricted level of activity than the Provisionals. Unlike the Provisionals, it did not establish de facto control over large Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry and characterised its violence as “defensive”. However it retained a strong presence in certain localities, notably the Lower Falls, Andersonstown, Turf Lodge and the Markets areas of Belfast, along with a big presence in Derry but particularly Free Derry in the Bogside area.

Though the OIRA made many attacks against the British Army and the RUC throughout 1970, injuring many, along with killing Provisional IRA members through a 1970 feud, they did not make a strong paramilitary presence until early 1971. In August 1971, after the introduction of internment without trial, OIRA units fought numerous gun battles with British troops who were deployed to arrest paramilitary suspects. Most notably the Official IRA company in the Markets area of Belfast, led by Joe McCann, held off an incursion into the area by over 600 British troops. In December 1971, the Official IRA killed Ulster Unionist Party Senator John Barnhill at his home in Strabane. This was the first murder of a politician in Ireland since the assassination of Free State Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins in 1927. In February 1972, the organisation also made an attempt on the life of Unionist politician John Taylor. On Bloody Sunday, an OIRA man in Derry is believed to have fired several shots with a revolver at British troops, after they had shot dead 13 nationalist demonstrators – the only republican shots fired on the day and contrary to his orders. The anger caused by Bloody Sunday in the nationalist community was such that the Official IRA announced that it would now be launching an “offensive” against the British forces.

However, the OIRA declared a ceasefire later in the same year. The ceasefire, on 30 May, followed a number of armed actions which had been politically damaging. The organisation bombed the Aldershot headquarters of the Parachute Regiment in revenge for Bloody Sunday, but killed only six civilians and a Roman Catholic army chaplain. After the killing of William Best, a British soldier, home on leave in Derry, the OIRA declared a ceasefire. In addition, the death of several militant OIRA figures such as Joe McCann, in confrontations with British soldiers, enabled the Goulding leadership to call off their armed campaign, which they had never supported wholeheartedly.

Photo: Official IRA “mobile patrol” in Turf Lodge, Belfast, April 1972.



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