The war produced the biggest military and political defeat since 1798. It alienated Protestants from a United Ireland and enshrined partition in international law
TODAY is the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Provisional Sinn Féin (as they called themselves at the time). The event was marked by some delegates walking out of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin’s International Hotel (republicans splits were more affluent in those days) in protest against the party’s decision to end abstentionism from Leinster House.
The move followed the establishment of the Provisional IRA two months earlier in Belfast, when demands to abandon the IRA’s left-wing policies and replace some of its leaders were rejected. The Ard Fheis walk-out was led by PIRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin (born John Stephenson in London, he spoke good Irish with a Cockney accent) and included 1916 veteran Joe Clarke (pictured below), a quiet bespectacled man who, despite his crutches, often attended protests in Dublin at that time.
Although the walk-out received less media coverage than the anti-apartheid protest against the South Africa rugby team at nearby Lansdowne Road, it would change the course of Irish history – but not quite as intended. It came at a time of immense hope. This was exemplified by the north’s civil rights movement, the rising tide of political protest against inequality in the south and the formation of Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibhialta na Gaeltacht (Irish language civil rights movement) in Conamara. The pro-peace IRA played a key role in all three.
The PIRA were the dissidents of their day, intent on violence. (Those in SF today who complain about republican attacks on the PSNI might not know that the civil rights movement disarmed the RUC, but the PIRA shot at them and effectively re-armed them.) It was time to free Ireland. So the PIRA went to war for 25 years to achieve ‘Brits out’, followed by 25 years of politics, when they agreed that not only could the Brits stay (particularly the Queen), but SF would administer the northern state for them. The war produced the biggest military and political defeat since 1798. It alienated Protestants from a United Ireland and enshrined partition in international law.
It also led to the abandonment of the historic Irish nation. Arguments for a United Ireland are now based on capitalist economics, rather than Wolfe Tone’s call for men of no property to substitute the common name of Irishman for Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. The gift of Irish unity remains in British hands. We have to ask Britain for a border poll – hardly a good return for 50 years of struggle. (One ex-combatant told me recently that British soldiers in World War I were said to be lions led by donkeys. “We were the same,” he said.)
To deflect from the IRA’s defeat, SF has rewritten history so much that they now lay wreaths in Belfast to commemorate the same British army which executed Joe Clarke’s (pictured above) comrades (hardly what Joe had in mind when he walked out). Meanwhile in Dublin they object to plans to commemorate the RIC. Their “Tiocfaidh ár lá” mantra has symbolised their difficulty: it represents an elitism by predicting victory specifically for them, not for the ordinary people. (Why not “Tiocfaidh bhur lá” – your day will come?) They abandoned the Protestant working class to the DUP and chuckled about it as they took their seats in the Dáil (40 years too late) and a hugely dysfunctional Stormont.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in poverty and deprivation in places like west and north Belfast, where much of the war was fought. What were they fighting for? Those who walked out 50 years ago are now largely dead. Most of those who fought have wandered away or been dumped, replaced by a new generation, sadly unaware of their political origins or how they became constitutional nationalists. The chance to build a new Ireland in 1970 was a lost opportunity to unite the people of this island in Peace and true equality. But then some Irish have always been good at losing opportunities and writing laments about them. There has been a lot to lament in the past 50 years.
With many thanks to: The Irish News and Patrick Murphy
for the original story
This letter appeared in the Irish News column on January 27th 2020 and was published in reply to Patrick Murphy’s peice
PATRICK Murphy – ‘Dissident Sinn Féin, IRA of 1970 lost great Irish opportunity’ (January 11) – focuses on the events of the 1970s. The ‘split’ – a peace loving republican movement and a civil rights movement that would transform the six Counties and indeed Ireland. Where Mr Murphy’s article falls very short (has he a selective memory?) is the period before the 1970s. May I remind him of partition, Gerrymandering and bigotry that went before the 1970s. May I remind him of Malvern Street and Silent Valley? May I remind him of the civil rights marches that were met by such ferocity. All Mr Murphy’s article reflects is a finger-pointing piece targeting republicans that said no to a two-state nation led by the likes of MacGiolla. They saw the sectarian state in the raw, not through some rose-tinted glasses. There was not going to be a “great Irish opportunity”. What we had was a festering mess that Bernadette Devlin would say it was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ it needed confronted. Mr Murphy’s romantic meanderings are just that. MANUS McDAID Derry City
Follow these links to find out more: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%A1n_Keenan