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The Provisional IRA emerged in Belfast in the context of attacks by Protestant mobs, supported by elements in the police, on Catholic areas in Belfast and Londonderry in August 1969. The Protestants were upset because, in the context of the civil rights agitation of the late 1960s, the ground rules of the existence of Northern Ireland were being broken. They saw the civil rights movement as an anti-partitionist offensive, an attempt to overthrow the 'Orange state'. In this respect they were simply following the logic of the perilous situation of Northern Ireland, perched uneasily on the window sill of the UK house, neither quite in nor quite out. To ensure peace and tranquility, the 'croppies' had to be kept down, for the most part through their own strong consciousness that if they asserted themselves too stridently the consequences would be unfortunate. It seemed that they needed once more to be persuaded of this.

Bombay Street, Belfast after it was burnt out by a Protestant mob in August 1969

Initially the defence of Catholic areas was largely led by members of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association which was, as the name suggests, made up of Catholics who had served in the British Army. They were far from being doctrinaire Republicans. The IRA, as it was at that time - the 'Official IRA' - had committed itself wholly to the civil rights agitation, had entered into alliance with the Communist Party and was adopting a Marxist world-view (insofar as the CP could be said at that time to possess a Marxist world view) in response to the failure of the 1956-62 campaign. It had lost, or at least put aside, its military capacity. When Catholics, in the desperate situation in which they found themselves, went down to Dublin to the IRA GHQ asking for weapons it couldn't supply them. 

This was the context in which the Provisional IRA emerged, initially under the leadership of traditionalists based in the Republic, who had opposed the Marxist orientation assumed by the official leadership. But in reality this was a new development, destined to drift away from any connection to the traditional IRA. The traditionalists were motivated by a romantic nationalism, a love for the idea of Ireland. The Northern Catholics who were flooding into the IRA may or may not have loved the idea of Ireland but they were primarily motivated by a determination never to return to the conditions of life they and their parents had known for the previous fifty years. And they believed the only way they could free themselves was through full incorporation into the political structure of the Irish Republic - a united Ireland.

We took the view that that was hopeless. It required a war that could not be won. There was, however, another way in which Northern Ireland, with its permanent majority facing a permanent minority, could be overcome - a way that did not require war, that could be achieved entirely by political means. This was full integration into the political system of the UK, most importantly with the right to join and vote for or against the political parties that could form the government of the UK.

Had the Labour Party been organised in Northern Ireland from the start, Catholic Socialists could have been members of a government sovereign over the government of Northern Ireland. Nor would they have had to renounce their aspiration towards a united Ireland. There are plenty of MPs in all the major British parties, but especially the Labour Party, who want to see a united Ireland.

In principle I believed, and still believe, that the Northern Ireland problem was solved in 1972 when Stormont was prorogued. This meant that Catholics could enter into the administrative structure of the country. Whether it was a matter of discrimination or of deliberate boycott on their own part, they couldn't do it under the Unionists. From 1972 onwards they were entering in large numbers, but as beginners at the lowest levels. Through the 1980s and 1990s they were moving into the higher levels. The framework of patronage and public support was changing radically. Direct rule was a stable and widely acceptable form of government. It required very little tweaking to be made a convincingly permanent form of government. (13) But it was destabilised by the continual efforts of the British government to put an end to it, to extract themselves from the 'Irish bog' by restoring legislative authority back into local hands. 

(13)  Stormont was prorogued at a moment when Northern Ireland was undergoing a radical reform of local government based on the recommendations of a review chaired by Patrick Macrory ( One of the aims was to reduce the amount of patronage held in the hands of Unionist or Nationalist (mostly Unionist but the Nationalists were at it too) councils. The number of local councils was greatly reduced and major local gvernment functions, notably education and health, were given to non-elected regional councils. The idea was that these would be responsible to the elected centre at Stormont. The prorogation of Stormont created what was called 'The Macrory Gap' but it would have been quite possible to close this gap with a purely administrative elected upper tier of local government which would not have the powers of a legislative devolved Parliament. The Unionist Party under the intelligent leadership of James Molyneaux, supported by Enoch Powell, were willing to accept this and it was included in the 1979 Conservative Party manifesto. A large degree of 'power sharing' between the different parties, including Unionists and Nationalists, was already being practised at the level of the local councils and would have been much easier to achieve in an upper tier of local government than in a (pseudo-) legislative Parliament.

From the point of view of the IRA this provided a strong incentive for continuing the war. The first was the clear indication that the Brits wanted out. The weak point of the union was, or appeared to be, the Westminster government. If the Catholics ceased to be a nuisance, Westminster was perfectly capable of handing the place back to the majority Unionists. Doubtless there would be token safeguards for Catholics but effectively it would be back to the old Unionist domination. By contrast, if Catholics continued to make a nuisance of themselves, embarrassing the UK government in the eyes of the world, and especially in the eyes of the US, maybe - just maybe - they would cut and run altogether and there could be a united Ireland.

After a disastrous period in the mid-70s when Merlyn Rees as Secretary of State tried to cultivate the idea of an independent Ulster and promoted the policies of criminalisation of the IRA (denial of political status) and 'Ulsterisation' (restoring responsibility for security into the hands of the Protestants), I believed we were in for a slow but inevitable drift towards full integration in the British political system, simply because that was the only possible option. It was proving impossible to devise a system of devolved government acceptable to both Unionists and Nationalists. If only Westminster would make the necessary arrangements for an adequate system of non-legislative local government then the IRA would recognise that a united Ireland was not on the cards but also that there was no danger of a return to the bad old days of Stormont rule.

That happy idyll was smashed in 1985 with the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement. The Anglo Irish Agreement effectively gave the Dublin government a veto over any final arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland and they would never agree to full incorporation of Northern Ireland into the UK. It was also a large step taken towards the realisation of a united Ireland obviously achieved through the pressure exerted by the IRA and holding out the promise that more pressure would yield more progress in the same direction.