When one doesn't mind being called a Provo

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

When the IRA split in December 1969 the dissidents set up a Provisional Army Council until a proper IRA convention could re-constitute the organisation. That convention took place in September 1970 but by then the name 'Provisional' or 'Provo' had stuck and was used as shorthand by both supporters and the media, despite the distaste some veterans in the Movement had for that term.

The organisation which the dissidents had left initially enjoyed being called the 'Official IRA' and 'Official Sinn Fein' because those sobriquets suggested authenticity and legitimacy.

Years ago, although I consciously refrained from using the term 'Provisional' in press statements and when an editor, I never had any problems with it. Neither did the grassroots, among whom, "Say Hello to the Provos" and "The Provo Lullaby" were extremely popular if you'll excuse the adverb!

Different periods have seen republicanism undergo various name changes: the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, the Invincibles, the IRB, the IRA. Republicanism, militarily and politically, continually renewed itself and adapted to changed historical circumstances.

And so, the unionist pogroms of August 1969 and the subsequent repressive behaviour of British troops triggered a violent and sustained republican response and on the walls was written: "Out of the ashes of Bombay Street/Arose the Provisionals".

During the conflict the IRA survived everything that was thrown at it because it enjoyed popular support, was resilient, could renew itself, and was fighting against a background of political and constitutional crisis. In the 1990s, with the IRA undefeated but with a military stalemate having developed, the republican leadership took a mature and courageous decision to cease fire and to negotiate. That decision transformed the dynamic of politics, north and south. And today, nationalist morale is high and its mood buoyant, despite the slow pace of the peace process.

People who were once members of the mainstream Republican Movement, either up until the split over abstentionism at the 1986 ard fheis or until the ceasefire and peace process, continually refer to Gerry Adams and the republican leadership as "Provisionals".

You'll see it in their statements. In fact, you'll see it in almost every statement. It is a pretty infantile attempt at disparagement especially when one doesn't mind being called a Provo.

I can understand why dissident republicans bristle at being called 'dissidents'. After all, it inescapably defines and anchors them as being dissident relative to a much larger, successful republican organisation with which they disagree. But they only have themselves to blame given that they are more renowned for attacking Sinn Fein than for attacking the Brits.

Only when the IRA called a ceasefire did a group called the Continuity IRA pop up. When it first bombed a hotel or two in County Fermanagh it didn't initially claim responsibility and so the media started to talk about "dissident republicans" because it had no other name to go on.

The name stuck: they should get over it.

Later, the Real IRA announced itself. A fair degree of activity indicated that some former IRA Volunteers alienated from the peace process sometime after 1996/97 had become involved. If ever an organisation was obsessed with trying to embarrass the republican leadership this was it. If Gerry Adams was due to go to Downing Street or meet Bill Clinton a car bomb would appear in some town in the North to coincide with his plans.

In fact, it often appeared to be a car-bomb campaign against the Republican Movement rather than against the British presence, especially when no or few British army units or police patrols were ever attacked. Objectively, the Real IRA as guerrillas were hopeless and aimless and eventually it all ended in tragedy with the Omagh bombing which itself continues to raise major questions about agent infiltration.

Presumably a proper warning was meant to get through. The bomb would have exploded, damaging buildings only. The Real IRA would have been pleased to spread gloom and confusion. And the securocrats, who facilitated the explosion, would have been exploiting and playing out the explosion from every available angle to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein's involvement in the process.

But the warning didn't get through and the initial RUC investigation into Omagh, aimed at covering up Special Branch involvement, is slowly being exposed.

There is a certain irony in dissidents shouting sell-out and accusing Sinn Fein leaders of being British agents. How do we know the leaders of dissident republicans aren't agents? I read their speeches and often wonder who is pulling their strings.

Those involved in armed activities appear heavily infiltrated with informers, going on the number of their operations that are compromised.

After Omagh, Real IRA activity ended - at least for a while. Two weeks ago the organisation claimed responsibility for firebombs in Newry. Again, an isolated incident - a pinprick in real terms, however costly to the locals - which only highlights the desultory nature of their campaign. They will never get off the ground. There is no comparison to the type of oppression and brutality which gave rise to the IRA campaign. When we fought we had support within the community.

Dissidents can never hope to replicate the tempo of the IRA campaign. Today nationalists are glad the war is over, feel that a political solution is available and have rejected the SDLP in favour of Sinn Fein.

IRA Volunteers fought in the North; risked their lives bombing England and attacking those British politico- militarists responsible for war; operated in Europe; internationally sought and organised the importation of weapons; went to jail, died in jails and died on the streets and in the countryside. Many thousands of supporters - in Ireland and further afield - also suffered for the republican cause.

Now, you would think that this would entitle them to some say, the right to approve a strategy even if it meant adopting an imperfect peace process. But not according to dissidents who are completely elitist - despite not being able to muster numbers. They cannot sustain a propaganda newspaper or magazine. They have not produced a programme. They have not offered a compelling analysis or even a woeful one. Their spokespersons have been spectacularly unimpressive and inarticulate. They cannot even organise a meeting.

But, still, they are former comrades who maybe even once sang, "The Provo Lullaby"! They cannot all harbour that sense of personal hatred - a throwback to some perceived slight in the past, no doubt - which seems to motivate some of their more public spokespersons. If there is space for debate and discussion, even in private, it should be pursued. It would never be a waste of time.

Despite the early release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement there are still political prisoners in jails, north and south: many of these as a result of dissident or alleged dissident activity. They are entitled to be treated as political prisoners. It would be difficult to mobilise public opinion for an amnesty until the organisations to which they owe allegiance declare ceasefires but the situation here will not be normalised until all political prisoners are free.

The sincerity of those dissident republicans who believe that the strategy of the Republican Movement is wrong is easily tested.

Leave aside the personal attacks and explain what the alternative strategy should be. I don't believe there is one. But I am prepared to listen.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News