The Provos' Big Mistake

By Kent, Gary | New Statesman (1996), December 15, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Provos' Big Mistake


Kent, Gary, New Statesman (1996)


Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dressed Up Defeatas Victory

Henry McDonald

Gill & Macmillan, 256pp, [pounds sterling]16.99

This is the tale of two IRAs, the Officials and the Provisionals, which split in 1969 over whether to reform or destroy Northern Ireland. The Officials renounced violence and their political wing embarked on a journey on which its most gifted parliamentarians became leaders of the Irish Labour Party. However, the Provisionals prevailed in the early 1970s even as the peaceful civil rights movement emerged successfully to tackle discrimination. They became "the most well-armed and sophisticated paramilitary force in the western world", according to this veteran Ireland correspondent's book.

The supreme irony is that the Provisionals' belief in sickening the UK into abandoning Northern Irish Protestants has substantially or perhaps permanently deferred Irish unity. "A charade of gunsmoke and mirrors" has subsequently covered a retreat from their early revolutionary rhetoric as Sinn Fein plays catch-up with the Officials and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

This fast-paced and passionate (but occasionally sloppy) polemic is a scathing indictment of republican illusions and brutality, without neglecting loyalist and state actions, in a conflict that claimed thousands of lives and cost billions. Henry McDonald argues that the Provos spent years sending violent messages to "the wrong address"-to the UK Establishment rather than the local Protestants. They were long dismissed as imperialist stooges but are now being "love-bombed" by Sinn Fein, which requires some of them to amass a majority for unification.

Republicans failed to cajole the UK into withdrawing and being a persuader for unification. Instead, London built solid relations with the Irish government and insisted that Irish unity required consent rather than coercion. In the 1990s, republicans gradually dumped the ballot box and Armalite for an unarmed strategy to advance a unitary Ireland through an alliance of UK sympathisers, nationalist Ireland in the 2.6 counties, and American supporters.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

However, these hopes evaporated and Irish unity seems unlikely by 2016-the centenary of the Easter Rising. Partition is an increasing fact of life in the Republic, where Sinn Fein is more isolated because it is seen as irrelevant to domestic issues. Hostility there has also been fuelled by several high-profile, bitterly contested and so far unresolved murders.

The United States became less sympathetic after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and even before that the IRA's dalliance with Fare narcoter-rorists in Colombia infuriated the Bush administration, which rounded on Gerry Adams.

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