Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: The Provisional IRA are 50 years old, but who speaks up for the 1,800 people slain in its bloody history?

To date, Sinn Fein have been unusually quiet ... but then the anniversary is nothing to celebrate.

IRA terrorists on the streets of Belfast in 1997
IRA terrorists on the streets of Belfast in 1997
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

During the First World War, the night of December 24, 1914 was a beautiful, moonlit night with frost on the ground. The silence of the night was broken by the sound of singing and British soldiers in their trenches could hear the German soldiers singing the carol Stille Nacht.

As well as hearing the sound of the Germans singing, they began to see German soldiers coming out of their trenches and soon soldiers on both sides emerged from the trenches, the Germans singing Stille Nacht and the British soldiers singing the English words Silent Night.

There was a short Christmas truce and, later, on Christmas Day, some of the soldiers exchanged little gifts with soldiers from the opposing army, while others were able to bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on No Man’s Land.

Christmas is seen as a time for peace on earth and most of us will be familiar with the words of the angels as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Year after year, we hear those words repeated at carol services and school nativity plays, or we read them on Christmas cards. Even those who are not regular Bible readers will be familiar with them.

The angels were declaring peace, but 50 years ago in Ireland, at Christmas 1969, there were those whose hearts and minds were set on something very different.

Just before Christmas, a special IRA “general army convention” was convened at a location in the Irish Republic.

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It was an acrimonious convention and the most extreme militarists walked out.

A few days later, on December 28, 1969, a statement was issued by the IRA “provisional army council”.

The statement described the delegates to the IRA army convention as “unrepresentative” compromisers. It also said that the provisional army council would “reaffirm the fundamental republican position”.

This was the first public statement from the Provisional IRA and the first appearance of the words “provisional army council”.

The IRA general army convention was followed by a Sinn Fein ard fheis on January 11, 1970, and another walk-out.

Those who walked out then formed Provisional Sinn Fein as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. The two wings of the provisional republican movement were in place.

Since then, Official Sinn Fein has gone through several name changes to become the Workers Party and Provisional Sinn Fein is now known as Sinn Fein.

In the years that followed, the Provisional IRA became the dominant IRA faction and its members murdered around 1,800 people.

Their firepower provided the bargaining power for the SDLP, at least according to Danny Morrison.

Later, as Sinn Fein moved into the political arena and pursued its strategy of “Armalite and ballot box”, that same firepower provided the bargaining power for Sinn Fein.

Over the past few years, we have seen many commemorations of key events in 1968 and 1969 and, as we approach the 50th anniversary of that first Provisional IRA statement, I wonder what sort of commemoration there will be.

Will Mary Lou McDonald and other Sinn Fein leaders hope that the 50th anniversary of the Provisional IRA passes by quietly, without too much mention of the 1,800 people the Provos murdered? Or will they adopt an “Up the rebels” approach to it?

Or will they wait until January 11, 2020 and focus on the birth of Provisional Sinn Fein, hoping that no one notices that the people who formed Provisional Sinn Fein were the same people who had formed the Provisional IRA a few weeks earlier?

But, for the rest of us, as we approach these two dates, the first this coming Saturday and the second a fortnight later, it may be an appropriate time to reflect on the legacy of those events.

Christmas is a family time and many families gather around a dinner table, or a fireside.

But in many homes in Ulster, there will be a vacant seat and sad hearts, as families recall the lost lives that are the real legacy of those who formed the Provisionals 50 years ago.

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