In this extract from his latest book, Malachi O’Doherty details how the Provos continued to murder people after announcing a cessation of violence in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles
Gerry Adams was released from internment in June 1972, into the care of the SDLP’s Paddy Devlin to prepare for talks with British officials.
He travelled a few days later to Derry to meet with two diplomats, both experienced in unravelling British colonial entanglements. These were Philip Woodfield and Frank Steele.
Woodfield was an old soldier who had helped prepare for Nigerian independence in the 1950s. Steele was an MI6 officer who had worked with Jomo Kenyatta in the run-up to Kenyan independence.
The IRA was represented by Adams and Dáithí Ó Conaill, and was assisted by a solicitor, PJ McGrory.
They all met at the Derry home of Sir Michael McCorkell, a Donegal man who was a colonel in the Territorial Army and an aide de camp to the Queen.
In order to get the IRA to this meeting, William Whitelaw, the secretary of state, had conceded special category status for IRA prisoners, thereby settling a spreading hunger strike protest.
First, the republicans asked to be allowed to speak by phone from McCorkell’s house to a senior member of the IRA in the prison to confirm that the hunger strike was over.
The republicans asked for the right to carry guns during the ceasefire, and the British refused a direct answer but said they hoped a situation would be created in which they would not feel the need.
Woodfield was clearly impressed by these men, and wrote in his report to Whitelaw, before the commencement of the ceasefire, “There is no doubt whatever that these two at least genuinely want a ceasefire and a permanent end to violence”.
He was impressed that they had called him “Sir”, writing: “Their behaviour and attitude appeared to bear no relation to the indiscriminate campaigns of bombing and shooting in which they had both been prominent leaders.”
The IRA gave four days’ notice of its ceasefire, killing five more soldiers and an RUC man between the meeting with Woodfield and Steele and the start of the cessation.
Announcing the ceasefire in the House of Commons, Whitelaw dodged questions from Ian Paisley about a deal with the IRA. Whitelaw said that he had already made clear that the Army and the police would continue to maintain the security of the people of Northern Ireland.
He said that the prison regime in Northern Ireland was “in line with what is already carried out in the special security wings at Leicester and Parkhurst prisons”.
He was plainly hiding the fact that he had accorded special category status to IRA prisoners as a minimal concession to get negotiations on a ceasefire.
The two weeks of the Provo ceasefire were more violent than those which preceded it, but this violence was mostly sectarian.
The IRA did not attack the Army or bomb commercial property, and the British conceded that this satisfied their conditions for a meeting with the secretary of state in London.
The Army changed its entire profile on the streets. Instead of soldiers carrying their rifles in readiness to return fire, they wore them slung over their shoulders, and vehicle patrols used open-topped, canvas-covered jeeps rather than the armoured ones that had become more common.
In effect, they were expressing their faith in the IRA’s promise not to fire on them.
The loyalists, who were not party to the agreement, were unsettled by it and increased their killing rate against Catholic civilians. Both wings of the IRA retaliated in kind, killing random Protestants.
In the two weeks of the ceasefire, loyalists and republicans, including Officials, killed 16 people between them, but Whitelaw accepted that the IRA was still on ceasefire despite this and his meeting with the leaders went ahead.
One of Whitelaw’s measures for appeasing the Protestants was a promise of a border poll which would likely prove that most people in Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the UK.
There were tense moments in which the stability of the fairly limited ceasefire was endangered, as Tommy Gorman (on the run having escaped from internment on the Maidstone Prison Ship in January 1972, and who was stopped by the Army in Bingnian Drive) recalled.
“I was getting back into the car and they came up and stopped me and stood round the car,” he said
“They started being not cheeky, but nasty. And I says, ‘You’re breaking the agreement’.They said, ‘What agreement’s that?’ I had a weapon in the car.”
Gorman thinks they didn’t see the weapon but that they understood that they could not take the matter further and arrest him. But he did not believe the ceasefire was going to last: “I didn’t believe it was for real. The volunteers were running about and laughing. I says to them, ‘It’s not over’.”
There were six sectarian murders in the first two days of July, four by loyalists and two by republicans. And now the UDA was erecting barricades in earnest around the city.
In those bloody days, it was rarely clear who was killing and why. Two brothers, Malcolm and Peter Orr, were shot dead and dumped on the road out towards the airport. They might have been killed by republicans for being Protestant, or by loyalists for going out with catholic girls. As was often the case, the most likely people to be killed in a sectarian attack were people with the least sectarian inclination themselves.
This was not a ceasefire at all in any meaningful sense.
From day one, the Provisionals set up roadblocks. They shot dead two people who tried to drive through them, just as the British had done. Bernard Norney was killed in Ballymurphy and Samuel Robinson in Cavendish Street.
A week later, the IRA leaders flew to London to meet Whitelaw, who did not regard these killings as a breach of the ceasefire.
Sean MacStíofáin, Daithi O Conaill, Seamus Twomey, Ivor Bell, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams gathered in Derry to be flown by helicopter to an RAF flight out of Aldergrove. They also brought Myles Shevlin, a solicitor, as a note taker.
The meeting was held on July 7, 1972, at 96 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, the home of the Tory MP Paul Channon. The house was on a T-junction, facing Chelsea Embankment, which was easy to secure. Whitelaw and Channon were accompanied by Woodfield and Steele.
Sean MacStíofáin read the republican position paper, requiring the British to make a public declaration of the right of the Irish people, acting as a unit, to decide the future of Ireland and to withdraw all forces from Irish soil by 1 January 1975.
They had nothing to barter with other than their power to end the IRA campaign.
But both sides had had a good look at each other. Connections had been established between them that would endure.
The British knew now that the IRA had total control over its organisation and some talented members in leadership.
The IRA knew that the British would negotiate again some day and that they would compromise on principle to do it.
They had seen that they could murder during a ceasefire and still be regarded as not having broken it. That was enough for now.
Two days later, the IRA would collapse the ceasefire with a major gun battle and four sectarian murders. The year of chaos was suffering its most chaotic month.
Extracted from The Year Of Chaos: Northern Ireland on the Brink of Civil War, 1971-72 by Malachi O’Doherty. Atlantic Books, now in paperback. £10.99.