The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Acquiring Transmission Points

Anthony McIntyre • 12/01/2003

The New Year is that one time when large swathes of the population become like politicians and make resolutions and promises they have absolutely no intention of honouring. Caught up in the revelling, caution goes into the bin along with the cigarette packet only to make a comeback a day or two later. For those with a more political bent - not politicians, who rarely want the truth out about anything unless it helps propel their own careers - the New Year is an intellectual Christmas with the Public Records Office willing to oblige in the role of Santa. Amongst these types, the New Year is greeted less because it itself is new but more for the new light it throws on events in a year now three decades old.

The past three to four New Years have been of particular interest because they have begun to peel away the layers of secrecy shrouding the formative years of the post-1969 conflict. There is a tangible rather than abstract feel to the events referred to because unlike documents from the 1920s many of us were witnesses to history as it was being made and can recall the matters referred to in the freshly released papers as they blink under the spotlight of public view. The participants were real flesh and blood, people of our time, rather than the jerky characters of old film footage and poorly maintained newsreel.

It is said that history is invariably constructed from the perspective of the present. How we view things today tends to shape the interpretive framework we approach the past with. It never just explains itself from the perspective of its own day. It is subject to evaluation and in many cases revisionism. What is relevant to one historian may be inconsequential to another; appetite, interest and no small measure of prejudice ultimately playing some part in governing choice. For myself, wondering how we republicans ended up with the wooden spoon, what I found most interesting about the papers from 1972 is the extent to which it becomes clear that the most violent year if not the most turbulent - 1981 may compete with it for that - was also the one where, from a position of the British admitting to being on the point ‘of losing control of events’ there emerged a clear British state strategy which by the 1990s ultimately came to prevail and secured a British victory over its main antagonist, that other ‘determining force at the heart of the crisis’, the Provisional IRA.

What also becomes clearer as each year passes is that the British had no imperialist designs on the North and that the anti-imperialist struggle republicans engaged in was more rhetorical than real. This does not mean that the British were any less malevolent because of that, nor does it imply that the sufferings and sacrifices of republicans were in some way less meritorious. The British proved a brutal and cynical opponent who called into being against themselves an army of deprived people determined to go round for round. The British willingness to cast off territory through re-partition meant that they had no commitment to the territorial integrity of the ‘UK’, as they liked to term it, not that they would be any less brutal in ensuring that their own writ would run unchallenged while here. Ultimately, the North of Ireland could come or go as it pleased. Despite the leftist rhetoric of the time, particularly pronounced with Michael Farrell, the British did not require territorial acquisition to maintain capitalism in Ireland or to keep the working class downtrodden and divided. There were plenty in Ireland quite willing to do that on their behalf. There are probably even more now than then. The British lack of commitment to holding on to the North as a territorial entity can be seen in divisions within the cabinet with Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister Heath's foreign secretary, claiming that no sustainable framework was possible to keep ‘Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom’. He backed a united Ireland as the long-term solution. Heath, while showing no such radical inclination nevertheless sensed the key to resolving the issue from a British point of view when he defined the problem in the following terms: ‘a major obstacle to any rational solution was likely to be the absence of any incentive to the IRA to desist from violence at any point short of a revolutionary all-Ireland republic.’ The primary goal from that point on would be to create an alternative to republicanism while a secondary and somewhat delayed objective would be to entice some within republicanism to embrace it.

Ronan Fanning and James Downey for the most part, in separate accounts, describe accurately this alternative to republicanism. 1972:

was the year when the British Government, having finally abandoned the Unionist regime by introducing direct rule, opted instead for an Irish dimension and an alliance with the Irish Government in the governance of Northern Ireland … during the course of 1972 and 1973 the political and official establishments in both London and Dublin began the process which led in the end to near-consensus and the Sunningdale Agreement. The principles underlying that accord were carried through into the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement.

In movement which showed that strategic thinkers rather than Colonel Blimps were the intellectual driving force behind the British counter insurgency campaign, British military leaders of the day, Harry Tuzo and Michael Carver, rather than favour the prosecution of an escalatory war against republicanism advocated a scaling down of war-like activity. Concomitantly, the British Government noted as early as March of 1972 that ‘acceptance by Roman Catholics of any political settlement, however, depended in large measure on its endorsement by the Government of the Republic.’ Clearly, the North of Ireland was not considered as British as Finchley. Nor has there ever been any suggestion that Bradford should be governed only with the endorsement of the governments of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Clearly, the die was being cast. The outstanding problem was to find sufficient transmission points within the insurrectionary community through which the British state could make its strategic logic appear irresistible to the point where the bulk of the opposition would shout in chorus, in agreement with the British, ‘there is no alternative’. If the hard opposition could not be diminished in both size and strength it would have to be co-opted. But it would be some years before General Sir James Glover could claim with undoubted satisfaction that the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, is ‘a man with whom we can do business.’

Glover uncapped the crucial moment when it had arrived, even if it was a long time coming. In this sense the 1972 papers reveal that Glover had reached conclusions rather than starting points. The genesis of this type of thinking existed in 1972. But the papers also show the state of despair which gripped the British, leading them to exhibit tendencies of the wish being father to the thought. There is no doubt that when the colonial military logic of 'shoot the big bugger at the front wearing the turban' was breaking little delft other than that within the hearts of British politicians, a new logic kicked in - that of cultivating leaders amongst the insurgents whom they could either work with or work through. But the British delegates who met with Gerry Adams and Daithi O'Conaill in exploratory talks, in their eagerness to find a quick fix solution attributed characteristics to Adams that were not in fact there at the time. ‘There is no doubt whatever that these two genuinely want a ceasefire and a permanent end to violence.’

At that meeting Philip Woodfield asked both Adams and O’Conaill if the upcoming meeting in the Cheyne Walk home of Paul Channon could go ahead unadorned by the presence of the Provisional IRA chief of staff Sean MacStiofain. At the eventual face to face meeting between the Provisional IRA and William Whitelaw British officials noted that ‘MacStiofain was ‘very much in charge … dictating surrender terms to us like Montgomery at El Alamein.’

What this does not tell us of course is that when MacStiofain (who had been exploring the possibility of a ceasefire as far back as September 1971 on the basis that it was a prerequisite for launching his scheme of an all-Ireland conference aimed at creating sufficient pressure to secure British disengagement) first proposed the ceasefire to the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, he was informed by Seamus Twomey and Ivor Bell, that he would only get it if he first secured the release from internment of Gerry Adams. MacStiofain’s brashness at the Cheyne Walk meeting was less about negotiating with the British but more about staying at the head of the pack of militant Belfast wolves who had accompanied him to London. Half the delegation came from the Northern city.

Regardless of the MacStiofain stance at the meeting, he left determined that the truce would hold whereas the Belfast delegation decided on the plane back to Belfast that they would break it. Days later they did. Although the IRA was eager to blame British bad faith at Lenadoon, the 1972 papers show that the British military on the day paid the organisation a sum of money designed to take the heat out of the situation. The Belfast leadership, happy enough to divest the British of their money, had no intention of meeting the requirements for receiving it. They had already ordered some of their most seasoned volunteers, Maidstone escapees amongst them, to open fire on the British Army on receipt of a hand signal from another experienced volunteer. The sham negotiations at Horn Drive were an exercise in damage limitation and culpability transference. MacStiofain’s role in the truce ending was not one of making the ultimate decision but of being told by the Belfast leadership to release a statement to the effect that the truce had collapsed due to British obstinacy. He obliged with considerable despair.

When Tom McGurk of the Sunday Business Post claims that the British and the Provisionals ‘might still be circling each other had not wiser heads opted for the peace process … in the years between Seán MacStiofáin and Gerry Adams, the IRA was locked into a desperate political ghetto…’ he is helping to impose a template which is considerably at variance with what we now believe to be a more plausible account. MacStiofain was not the uncompromising hawk whose presence at the London talks pre-empted any movement toward peace. Nor was Adams the dove who sought peace and was frustrated by MacStiofain and his baneful influence which, if McGurk is to be believed, long polluted the intellectual and strategic stratosphere inhabited by Provisional leaders for some time after his departure as chief-of-staff; and who once free from the influence of MacStiofain could begin to develop a peace process. The two central planks of the peace process - a power sharing executive accompanied by an Irish dimension - were key British objectives as far back as 1972 in their bid to build an alternative to republicanism. Gerry Adams for long helped frustrate any peace process.

Our knowledge of how and why Adams shifted position by 180 degrees, is severely limited. And in an environment where that supposedly omniscient discursive formation, the peace process, ‘is watching you’ the tendency to ask the type of questions that might begin to produce such knowledge is severely curbed. Consequently, historians could do much worse than take their courage in their hands, refuse to be intimidated or dissuaded and concentrate on tracing the contours along which these British objectives were pursued and secured. Ed Moloney alone seems to have acquired the distinction of being the sole writer to have offered a rigorous and as yet unrivalled account of this process. In his work A Secret History of The IRA he outlines how the British were able to secure within republicanism sufficient points of transmission through which they could secure the hegemony of their alternative to republicanism. For his efforts Sinn Fein has described him as a ‘bitter wee man.’ Perhaps his plucking of a ‘bitter wee truth’ from a carefully constructed maze of lies is the real source of the party’s annoyance. If other writers and historians lack the fortitude to do likewise, we may just wait until 2032. Although by then we may be distracted by other things - such as blaming the securocrats for sabotaging the end of partition 16 years earlier.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

12 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Political Violence and Questions of Legitimacy
Christina Sherlock


Acquiring Transmission Points
Anthony McIntyre


The Blood Stays on the Blade

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Identity Under Siege
Paul de Rooij


No War On Iraq
Davy Carlin


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


9 January 2003


Pressure on Sinn Fein Grows
Tommy McKearney


Hiroshima non amour: Desmond Fennell’s predictable dissent

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Bush and Blair are going for it: Time to Act
Davy Carlin


Lied His Way In - Lied His Way Out
Anthony McIntyre


Six Soldiers
Annie Higgins


Imperialism - It Hasn't Gone Away, You Know
Brian Kelly


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


The Letters page has been updated.




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices