The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

No Clean Hands

The Provisional IRA In England: The Bombing Campaign 1973-1997. Author Gary McGladdery. Publisher Irish Academic Press. ISBN 0 7165 3374 X

Book Review


Anthony McIntyre • Fortnight, November 2006

Writing in Fortnight in February 1971 John Pilgrim said about the Provisional IRA 'there is universal ignorance of them.' That the same body of people are still being written about in the same magazine 35 years later suggests that public interest in the longevity of the Provisional IRA has been nourished by access to ever increasing amounts of information about the organisation. As both beneficiary and benefactor of such information Gary McGladdery's The Provisional IRA in England is a must have addition to Provisional historiography.

We live in an age where word association links bombs in London almost exclusively with political Islam. McGladdery's rich history of the violent campaigns visited on England by Irish republicanism serves as a stark reminder that Islamicist bombs have preoccupied the British state for a relatively short period of its existence. Political Islam has in England fortunately not reached the 115 fatalities inflicted by the Provisional IRA.

Indeed where else have the British looked when deciding how to deal with the threat posed by Islamicist bombers but their own experience at the hands of Irish republicans. A senior British security source remarked during an intense spate of IRA bombings in the 1990s that 'if you want total security you shut down London - and the IRA scores a great propaganda victory.'

The one work to have previously dealt with the IRA's English campaign was Martin Dillon's book The Enemy Within. In it the author claimed to have been made aware by sources inside the IRA of the organisation's England Department. It was certainly a valuable addition to public knowledge about the functioning of the IRA and its tightly managed English operation. Gary McGladdery relied on no such sources, arguing that 'it is doubtful that interviews with personnel in which the "official line" was given would reveal anything that is not already in the public domain.' In the academic sphere McGladdery, while not a rabidly hostile observer, seemed determined to follow in the footsteps of the security official just quoted, and deny the IRA any propaganda victory. For inside insight he relied almost exclusively on former members of the Provisional IRA including one of the first volunteers to bring the organisation's war to the British capital, Marian Price.

Another interesting source he drew on was the video collection of Peter Heathwood. Over the years Heathwood has with great tenacity meticulously recorded documentaries and news programmes germane to the Irish conflict. In years to come historians of that conflict will increasingly revisit Heathwood's collection as a rich source of information. In an age when journalists in the public eye are lauded for their contribution to public understanding, a less prominent figure like Peter Heathwood merits public recognition for the rich vein of knowledge he has preserved and made available to researchers.

Without overdoing the narrative of unbreakable and unbroken historical continuity, McGladdery traces republican operations in England along with the logic underpinning them back to the latter half of the 20th Century. But the bulk of the work is on the Provisional IRA's 24 year war fought on English soil. A central plank driving Provisional strategy was the belief that 'one bomb in London is worth a dozen in Belfast.' It was a logic shared by many unionists who believed the peace process was driven by a British need to keep bombs out of London.

But McGladdery, in considering such claims against what the IRA actually achieved, arrives at a radically different conclusion. One of the former IRA members quoted in his book, Tommy McKearney, made the astute observation that the bombing campaign in England was 'more heat than light.' This logic forms the spine of the McGladdery thesis: essentially the IRA failed to gain from its England operations anything that would remotely justify the energy expended in waging it or explain the lives lost in the course of its prosecution.

While many within its ranks still refuse to accept that the IRA was comprehensively defeated, that the organisation is reduced to defending everything it had previously attacked, right across the range from Paisleyism to policing, shows just how little impact the England campaign in particular or the IRA armed struggle in general actually made. McGladdery concludes that the supposed British initiatives prompted by IRA activity in England were as much a response to what was taking place on the streets of Northern Ireland. As a Scottish court might conclude, for the Provisional IRA, case not proven.

Although the IRA in recent years has attempted to rewrite history in order to portray itself favourably if judged against Al Qaeda and its contempt for civilian lives, McGladdery drawing on the organisations own words demonstrated that it was quite prepared to slaughter innocent civilian populations. While there was much opposition at senior level to killing civilians the fact that such a sentiment could manifest itself in a policy statement shows the sway of those favouring it: 'Any brutality against the defenceless prisoners of war would inevitably force us into considering inflicting heavy civilian casualties.'

In a dirty war clean hands are hard to find.

















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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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