The Blanket


Anthony McIntyre

When the leadership of the Belfast IRA decided that the opportune pretext to end the truce of 1972 had arrived, chief of staff Sean MacStiofain knew little about it but was tasked with preparing the statement announcing its collapse. The leader of the IRA did so with words displaying characteristic bellicosity, but this merely belied his true feelings on the matter. He wanted the truce to continue. Although he would later, with justification, dispute Gerry Adams’ contention in Before The Dawn that MacStiofain himself had felt the truce talks with William Whitelaw had brought republicans close to securing from the British side a declaration of intent to withdraw, he realised that a sustained truce was the only means to achieve his idea of an all-Ireland conference.

Maria McGuire in her book on her involvement with the IRA claimed that MacStiofain was dependent on Belfast as a means to secure his leadership and for that reason was ‘taking the movement where Belfast wanted it to go’. He was certainly the national leadership figure who had identified most strongly with that Belfast section of the pre-split IRA that was virulently opposed to the leadership of Cathal Goulding. Belfast was so strong within the republican ensemble that no chief of staff could afford to lose its approval. Goulding failed to keep the Belfast contingent satisfied and ended up seeing it go on to form the Provisional IRA. The latter were the dissidents or ‘rejectionists’ of their day, opposed to all and sundry who suggested ending the war or wanting to go into Stormont.

So central to post-1969 republicanism was its organisation in the Northern capital that a key figure in the SDLP in 1972 felt that one of those who attended the truce talks in London was the power behind the IRA throne and that ultimately he would have to be supped with, and MacStiofain and O’Conaill bypassed, if progress towards ending the IRA campaign was to be made.

Even before the truce, MacStiofain had been told by both Ivor Bell and Seamus Twomey that he would only get to call one if he first secured the release from prison of Gerry Adams in order that the latter could accompany the others to the talks in London. This not only showed that the balance of power lay in the North but also that within the North it was heavily tilted in Belfast’s favour. MacStiofain, in his truce manoeuvrings, had been considering a request from the leadership of the Derry Brigade to consider a cessation. Belfast would determine whether he achieved it. Relatively lightweight compared to its counterpart at the other end of the M2, the Derry IRA had only one representative at the London talks vis a vis three from Belfast.

In preparation for collapsing the truce in Lenadoon, the leadership of the Belfast IRA sent some of its most seasoned volunteers into the area under the instructions that once a volunteer and on-the-run prison escapee gave a signal on the orders of Seamus Twomey, they were to open fire on British soldiers. British military fatalities would have occurred only the IRA volunteers held their fire for fear of hitting members of an irate nationalist crowd at the army billet observing Twomey arguing with troops. But little time had passed before the North was plunged back into full scale guerrilla war. The decision taken by the Belfast delegation on the plane returning home from the truce talks was put into operation with devastating effect.

Although there is a belief in some circles that the coordinated and concerted bombing strike in Belfast thirty years ago today was specifically designed as a response to the breakdown of the truce, the operation was in fact planned quite some time before the truce and was put on hold in order to allow the ‘peace initiative’ to become operationalised.

On the 21st of July disaster struck. Civilians, soldiers and one child lost their lives. Arguably, after the Donegal Street bombing in March the IRA should have been alert to the very real possibility that the organisation was a long way off from developing a highly sophisticated warning system that both it and the British state security forces could manage between them if mass civilian casualties were to be avoided. Prior to that the August 1971 bombing of the Electricity Board of Northern Ireland offices on the Malone Road in which one person died had indicated to the IRA leadership that greater precautions would need to be adopted if civilian fatalities were to be avoided. The shooting dead the following month of the toddler Angela Gallagher by an IRA sniper attacking the British Army not only underlined this need for greater protection for the public, it caused a furious dispute within the Republican Movement, with MacStiofain blowing a fuse when Sinn Fein President Ruairi O’Bradaigh described the child as ‘one of the hazards of urban guerrilla warfare’. While O’Bradaigh genuinely felt his comments had been taken out of context MacStiofain claimed to be appalled at what he regarded as the callous insensitivity of the statement.

In spite of all the warning signals, the IRA failed to take heed and in publicity terms paid the price. On the day that became known as ‘Bloody Friday’ they extended their reach at the expense of their grasp, lost control of the operation and in addition to the fatalities allowed the British state to get up from the moral floor where it had ignominiously lain since Bloody Sunday and begin punching again to its own chant of ‘Bloody Friday’.

If my recollection is correct, within three hours of the bombings Belfast Sinn Fein were distributing a leaflet, Friday - The Facts, but to little avail. Words on paper could prove no match for graphic imagery of limbs being shovelled into plastic bags. Nor was it a challenge to the 250,000 copies of the British Government’s The Terror And the Tears. Armed with a new found moral advantage the British moved to close down the no-go areas militarily through Operation Motorman while politically at the Darlington Conference in the autumn, they presented their alternative to republicanism - the framework that in 1998 lay at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

Within the year the IRA was on the ropes. Having lost the initiative both militarily and politically, operations came to be more rurally based. The insurrection in the cities had all but fizzled out. It took the coming together again in 1977 of the three truce plenipotentiaries of five years earlier to act as a catalyst to its revival. And within the year Bloody Friday raised its head once more. On a Friday evening in February 1978 the absence of any developed warning system led to the organisation’s Belfast Brigade wiping out 12 innocent people in a ball of fire at La Mon House. Guaranteeing civilian safety from IRA operations had become the labour of Sisyphus.




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We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.
- Adlai Stevenson

Index: Current Articles

25 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


How the Peace Process Divided Ireland

Brendan O'Neill



Anthony McIntyre


Death Walks Our Streets Again

Davy Carlin


Uninvited Guests Become Neighbours
Sam Bahour


Two Notices from Anti-Fascist Action, Ireland


Moving Along
Brian Mór


The Belleek Solution
Brian Mór


Moving Statue

Brian Mór


22 July 2002


Systemic Breakdown

Anthony McIntyre


Opportunity Knocks, or Not?

Davy Carlin


Nothing Left
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain


On Behalf of the Republican Peace Movement...
Brian Mór


Once Upon A Time

Brian Mór

Sorry, Shergar
Brian Mór


So Sorry It Hurts





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