Last weeks Sunday Tribune featured a very instructive article by Suzanne Breen. The paper’s Northern editor interviewed the former Tyrone IRA prisoner Brian Arthurs who up until two years ago was a prominent member of the Provisional Movement. ‘One of the most senior ex-Provisional IRA figures in the North’ Arthurs was a high profile activist who lost a brother, Declan, to the SAS during a compromised IRA operation at Loughall in May 1987.
Given that Provo revisionism has been scaling heights formerly attained by their predecessors in the Sticks the Arthurs intervention helps frame matters in some form of republican context. This adds to our understanding of the conflict rather than serving to detract from it as tends to happen when revisionism distorts the prism through which the conflict is viewed.
An example of Provo revisionism came recently via the perspective of the former Provisional IRA activist Martina Anderson. Commenting on the Real IRA car bomb exploding outside a branch of the Ulster Bank in Derry, Anderson, in seeking to place clear Tory blue water between the former IRA she belonged to and the current IRA, dismissed any resemblance or line of continuity between the actions of the recent car bombers and the car bombers of her day. Mark Devenport of the BBC who witnessed her contribution during a Stormont debate summed up her position as follows:
Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson did all the other Stormont politicians might have asked of her - not only condemning the bombing, but calling on people to give information about those responsible to the police. However the jab at "born again Provos" obviously irked her. She rounded on the other speakers, claiming they were providing "a degree of comfort" for the dissidents by associating them with the Provisional IRA's campaign. Ms Anderson then argued that the dissidents and the Provisionals are completely different because the Good Friday Agreement had changed everything and removed the previous justification for resorting to violence, namely that Northern Ireland had been an unreconstructed "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people".
In arguing as she does Anderson is in effect repackaging the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle, seeking to mask its catastrophic failure, by linking it to a goal the organisation had never set itself - equality within the partitioned British state of Northern Ireland - and was long contemptuous of for its serious limitations in terms of republican ideology. For the Provisionals, during their war waging endeavours, the shortfall was simply too great. Argue as she might that the Good Friday Agreement ‘changed everything’ it in fact changed only the internal political landscape within the North. It changed absolutely nothing in terms of meeting the core demand of the Provisional armed struggle. The question of sovereignty went untroubled by the Agreement.
Any student of the political history of the North conflict can sense immediately that the Anderson case is piffle. The dynamic feeding the conflict arguably had its roots in inequality coupled with state repression. The grievances emerging from that dynamic were weaved into an ideological republican framework by the Provos, the apex of which was most demonstrably not equality within the North but the abolition of the north as a political entity.
Arthurs nailed the piffle immediately with his comment to the Tribune that:
no one can deny that there have been changes in the North but it is an equality agenda being pursued. People did not die, they did not take up arms, for equality. They did so for Irish freedom.
It is this simply stated logic that provides the strong umbilical cord linking the Provisional and Real IRAs. It also explains the difficulty many republicans experienced when they saw their former chief of staff Martin McGuinness denounce armed republicans as traitors. A colleague of Arthurs, Peter McCaughey, also interviewed by the Tribune expressed it:
We were disgusted when Martin McGuinness stood at the gates of Stormont with the chief constable of the PSNI after Massereene and demonised republicans. He did not speak for us.
As he continued to let even more air out of Anderson’s balloon Arthurs articulated a persistent republican sentiment which is far from being exclusive to those republicans who continue to favour armed struggle. Whereas the Derry Catholic advocated that people become informers for the British the Tyrone republican urged that they do nothing of the sort.
It can be argued that an armed campaign is not advisable at this point in time but it will never be right to inform on those who decide otherwise. Informing on republicans will lead to their families being oppressed by the state. It will lead to the arrest and incarceration of volunteers and, at worst, to their death. It was wrong to pass information to the police 20 or 30 years ago and it is wrong now. The graveyards are full of young republicans put there because a small minority of the nationalist community passed information to the British forces.
A poignant, telling comment from a man whose brother lies in one of those graves because someone ‘passed information to the British forces.’
Revisionism as practiced by the Provisionals suffers from the same deficiencies that beset the Sticks when they too tried rewriting history from the perspective of their current needs. Republican memory is longer and stronger than revisionist amnesia. The frailty of forgetting what was fought for finds itself flummoxed each time it arm locks with the muscle of memory.