End of anti-IRA propaganda war

Eddie Ford reviews 'The Provos' (Peter Taylor documentary on BBC1)

You could argue that this documentary series is another product of the ‘peace’ process. Without the IRA ceasefire, it is almost certain that this film would not have been allowed onto our screens. There is a long history of censorship and media suppression when it comes to the Six Counties - remember the Death on the rock scandal, to name just one?

Peter Taylor’s accompanying book, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein, makes his agenda clear. He is a keen supporter of the ‘peace’ process - the raison d’être of which is to provide a “credible alternative” to armed struggle for the IRA and the republican movement as a whole, argues Taylor not unreasonably.

Predictably, ‘peace’ process or not, this film has generated a lot of controversy. One of the more hilarious accusations has been that The Provos is too ‘simplistic’ - ie, it [text currpted in archive file] criticism has been that the film is too one-sided and partial - claiming that the protestants do not get even a look in. The allegation is that the film implicitly ‘justifies’ IRA military action, by not showing the human face of loyalism in equal measure.

But for the rightwing press any portrayal of the IRA which shows them as something more than subhuman is beyond the pale. ‘Understand less, condemn more’ is the motto of the Neanderthal wing of the establishment.

In a review of Taylor’s book in the Sunday Times, Malachi O’Doherty severely chastised Taylor because he “accepts that the IRA defended the catholic community” and fails to provide a “credible account of the intentions” of the IRA campaign. “Why should the IRA be facilitated towards its goals?” says O’Doherty of the ‘peace’ process and Taylor’s ardent support for it (October 5).

Given the history of previous films and documentaries on the IRA - and the general way that the bourgeois media treat the war in the Six Counties - it is forgivable for communists to instinctively assume that The Provos will be propagandist rubbish or, at best, ‘well meaning’ but flaccid in a liberal, pacifistic sort of way. But that would not be an accurate summation. The film has some definite merit, especially the first episode, which dealt mainly with the period 1969-1973 - up to the point when the IRA decided to open up a ‘second front’ in the British mainland.

By use of some excellent archive footage, and fascinating interviews with IRA volunteers of the time, you certainly get the feel of a community at war. Butnot only that - a community feeling besieged and fearing for its life. A community scared of being massacred, a word that came often to the lips of the IRA volunteers.

The catholic/nationalist community in the Six Counties had good reason to be terrified. As the film amply showed, in 1969 loyalist/unionist mobs were engaging in pogroms, driving catholic families out of their homes - and generally taking part in violence and terror directed against the catholic population. The first episode was adequate in giving us a feel of what it is like to live in a totally downtrodden and oppressed community - which found its ghettos (themselves products of British imperialism and partition) turned into virtual concentration camps.

You can see why it has ruffled some feathers. It would certainly be hard after watching The Provos to come away with the impression that IRA volunteers were all a bunch of thugs, criminals or ‘godfathers’ - which is the normal portrayal in the media. In fact, the second episode looked at the ‘criminalisation’ policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher, when IRA and Irish National Liberation Army volunteers were robbed of their political status. “Crime is crime is crime,” Thatcher stubbornly persisted, thus creating the conditions for the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. In a sense, she helped elect Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams to parliament, so great was the revulsion amongst the mass of the catholic/nationalist population at the British government’s barbaric attitude towards the freedom fighters incarcerated in the H-Block. On the other hand the wall to wall, 24-hour propaganda campaign waged by the media has left the IRA associated with criminality in the minds of a very large section of the British people. Thus from that point of view the ‘criminalisation’ policy of Thatcher was relatively successful.

Without much doubt, the most valuable achievement of The Provos, even if it did not always have the courage of its own convictions, was to undermine the ‘hoodlums and psychos’ perception. All the IRA volunteers interviewed came across very strongly as extraordinarily ‘ordinary’ - people who had been catapulted into a maelstrom of violent and life-or-death struggle. One of the volunteers casually mentioned that internment was introduced on the very day his ‘A’ level results were due, so he felt particularly stressed that day - hoping he got the right grades. Needless to say, he signed up to the IRA the next day, good grades or not.

This touches upon another theme that the series highlighted - the sense of extreme pride which IRA membership brought, of throwing off your slave status. One of the volunteers, Martin Meehan, pointed out that “getting into the IRA was like getting into Westpoint”.

Another useful aspect of The Provos was that it reminded us that the IRA was a totally spent and derided force when ‘the troubles’ flared up again in 1968-69.One of the ex-IRA interviewees commented on the fact that the IRA were regarded as a bit of a joke - ‘I Ran Away’, as the graffiti daubed on many a catholic street corner said.

In this context, the documentary made a few, but unexplored, references to the “Marxist leadership” of the IRA pre-1970. In the words of Peter Taylor, the writer and narrator of the series, the “Marxists believed in non-violence and thought military action was sectarian” - ie, would be a manifestation of ‘catholic’ violence against ‘protestants’. Interestingly, even though this economistic/Official IRA line (as it became) was a by-product of the ‘official communist’ movement - particularly the Communist Party of Ireland coterie in Sinn Fein/IRA at this crucial moment - this is the now familiar line peddled in ‘soft’ Trotskyist publications like The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party. This means that the SP, like the Officials before them, refuse to side with the oppressed in their heroic struggle against British imperialism and objectively pass into the enemy camp - and all in the name of ‘anti-sectarianism’ and ‘socialism’.

No wonder that one Provisional IRA volunteer talked very dismissively of how the pre-1970 leadership were into “Marxist-Leninism and all that”, and said that for working class republicans like himself, “politics was a dirty word”. Given his, and others, experience of “politics”, it is only to be expected that the most brave and intransigent republicans would be attracted to the ‘physical force’ wing of the movement - ie, the newly (re)emerging IRA.

The treachery of the Officials and of the ‘Marxists’ amongst them guaranteed that the Provisional IRA, when it was born in January 1970, was catapulted in an anti-communist direction. This comes across starkly in an An Phoblacht/Republican News story from October 1970 on the history of Na Fianna Eireann, the IRA’s youth section:

“The doctrine of Karl Marx is contrary to the Fianna teaching. It is contrary to the Fianna Declaration which states: ‘I, ..., pledge my allegiance to god and to the Irish Republic’ ... Marx also stated that the working man has no country. We of Na Fianna for the most part are the sons of workers but we have a country and we love it very dearly. We can in no way be associated with international socialism. Our allegiance is to god and Ireland ...” (quoted in Kevin Kelley The longest war: Northern Ireland and the IRA London 1988, p129).

This was the republican movement at its most negative. Nevertheless, despite the blatantly reactionary, violently anti-communist, sentiments expressed in this period, the Provisionals’ role was objectively progressive in its intransigent physical opposition to British occupation. However, it is not the role of communists to act as uncritical ‘left’ cheerleaders for revolutionary Irish nationalism.

Naturally, the Officials responded in the only way they knew how, and urged all “progressive people” in Ireland and abroad to shun the PIRA as a “rightwing deviation” - also labelling them as a bunch of “Hibernian gun-slingers” who wanted to unite Ireland by force under the “neo-colonial” and “sectarian” rule of “catholic capitalists” in Dublin. This imperialist economism, as Lenin called it, came to its logical conclusion in the shape of the so-called Workers Party/Democratic Left - epigones of the Officials - in the Irish Dail, which damned the IRA as “terrorists” - and, on occasions, as “green fascists” - and ended up being to the right of Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael in terms of its pro-unionism/loyalism.

Under these conditions, the PIRA was the only serious force to oppose British imperialism - and for its pains its members were targeted, and in some cases assassinated, by the Official ‘Marxist’ IRA, as well as the loyalist death squads, RUC thugs, the British army/SAS, etc.

The Provos showed fascinating film footage of the actual (January 10-11 1970) meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin when the Provos and the Officials finally split - you saw the angry but determined Provisionals-to-be storming out of the meeting. One of its delegates even issued a short statement to the press waiting outside, announcing the formation of the PIRA - and, no, he was not immediately arrested.

But the documentary did have serious faults. It still resorted to some of the same old clichés that are permanently welded to coverage of the IRA - it just could not help itself. Therefore, we are told that the actions of the IRA caused the Six Counties to “suffer a nightmare of violence”; that, “here, history and the past are one”; and how by 1972-73 the IRA “now had an appetite for violence”. The massive bombing campaign in the Six Counties after the introduction of internment was described as “new savagery”.

In other words, Peter Taylor was still off-loading blame and responsibility for the continuing war in the Six Counties on the shoulders of the IRA - and it was implied that a romantic, quasi-mystical ‘blood cult’ was driving the PIRA. Of course, it would be foolish to deny that there are strong elements of romantic nationalism, of heroic ‘blood’ sacrifice, in the IRA and republican movement as a whole - how could it be otherwise? But that in no way defines the IRA.

For all its faults though, The Provos is the most informative programme on the IRA ever to have appeared on our screens - all thanks to the ceasefire. It could not contain the truth though, for all of its pro-‘peace’ orientation. The first episode featured an ageing ex-civil servant, Sir Peter Wright, who confessed that Stormont - the Northern Ireland parliament abolished and then replaced by direct rule from Westminster in 1972 - represented a “form of tyranny”. Correct, Sir Peter, and the essential character of the Six Counties has not altered for all of the reforms and concessions that have been introduced since ‘the troubles’ began.

Now Blair has placed Ireland back on the dissecting table. The republican movement is faced with a choice. Will it accept and police a new form of British partition? Or will it come to recognise that Ireland can never be free unless the workers are free?

Eddie Ford