The first item on the agenda: the split

As far as alternative histories go, Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is my favourite, but how about an alternative history of the IRA? Specifically, if what the late Tómas Mac Giolla claimed about the 1969 split is true, would the conflict have ended a lot earlier – 1970s? 1980s? – without the intervention of just one man?

1969 and all that

An interview published today lays the blame for the IRA split of 1969 at the feet of one man: Seamus Costello. If true, what does this mean for our understanding of recent Irish history?

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  • Marcionite

    On train from Dublin so Ill be quick.

    There is a Great Man theory of history which states that key trajectories of nations are dependant on the decisions of one man, sometimes innocuously

    I suggest contributors read The Lost Revolution, recently published which is a superlative treatise on the history if the modern IRAs and far left in Ireland in modern times

    IMHO, Costello was not responsible insofar as if it wasn’t him, someone else would have started a Provo-like spilt. The Officials were seen to have abandoned the defence if their cimmunities in favour of left wing theorising, a luxery that they ill afforded.

  • joeCanuck


    This is your second post today on this.
    Can you give us your analysis.
    Especially, can you tell us more about Costello. As I said on the other thread, most of us probably know next to nothing about him.

  • Jason Walsh

    I don’t have an analysis, Joe. I’m just thinking out loud. The best I can do is the linked article, which merely asks a few questions.

    Moreover, how can I even know if what Mac Giolla said is 100 per cent true, tendentious or an outright lie?

    Like Marcionite I myself don’t subscribe to the ‘great man’ theory of history. I do accept, thought, that articles of faith are often built on quixotic foundation. What interests me is that the timing of the split is what mattered – it’s what created the Provos. But what if the IRA had stayed together and operated primarily defensively until such a point that the conflict died-off a bit, then split? Would the new group be as big as the Provos were to become?

  • I think Jason you need to be more precise in your language in the blog, which is running together the pre-existing split in the IRA and the walkout from the Ard Fheis.

    The IRA had already split. Mac Giolla seemingly has said that the walk-out from the Ard Fheis was provoked by Costello, not the split within the IRA. This is not a new claim, by the way, having been referred to in published work on the period. It was not Costello who proposed the motion of confidence in the IRA leadership but a delegate from Armagh, although the accusation has been made that he did so at Costello’s behest. Given that there had already been an attempt to take over the IRA in Belfast by the dissidents, and their contempt for politics over the next decade, we can be safely assured that there would have been next to no difference.


    Costello was a senior member of the IRA and Sinn Féin at this time. He was in favour of abandoning abstentionism and the turn to the left. He would later found the INLA.

  • joeCanuck

    the whole thing is either untrue or so tendentious that it makes any questions surrounding it an irrelevance

    Jason, that about sums it up probably. You should have gone with your first instinct not to indulge in what-ifs.

  • joeCanuck

    Thanks Garibaldy. I think he disappeared into the murky mists when the Officials assassinated murdered him.

  • Jason Walsh

    Garibaldy, yes, you’re right. Will amend in the morning.

    Joe, perhaps, but it is interesting to me all the same.

  • Mark McGregor


    You’ll get a lot on here

  • Marcionite

    Sinn Fein in their current incarnation were the first republicans to have face their Irish Unionists as opposed to English Whitehall conduits. Result, peace of sorts through the grinding erosion of river and rock. Bring controlled by nirtherners helped.

    Previously, the main republican groupings post partition were controlled by out of touch southern republican theorists who looked upon unionists as a slugs in the lettuce patch

  • Marcionite

    I sometimes think my postings are drafted by the English airmen from Allo Allo.

  • joeCanuck

    Thanks, Mark. Interesting character but I don’t think the Irish will ever accept far left socialism, absent a complete collapse of the capitalist system. Came close last year???

  • Alias

    Brendan Behan famously quipped that the fist item on any new republican agenda was the split – but he might not have noticed in whose interests it was to make it the first item. There is ‘evidence’ that MI6 (who had control in the early years when these groups were formed) used splits/splinter groups for their own purpose.

    At any rate, that is what MI6 muppet Kenneth Littlejohn told a Dublin court after he was extradited from the UK to face a charge of bank robbery in Ireland – specifically that the money was to be used to form a splinter group formed from ex-Officials. He also said that MI6 had given him a list of individuals who they would like killed, and that Seamus Costello was on the list.

    The problem, however, is that while Littlejohn was handled by a senior MI6 agent in Ireland, Douglas Smythe (alias John Wyman), he also had a tendency to embellish his own importance to the Security Services. Douglas Smythe also ran an MI6 agent, Detective Sergeant Patrck Crinion, who was private secretary to the head of Ireland’s Special Branch, having full access to all classified documents. That meant that MI6 knew everything that Ireland’s Special Branch knew about subversives and also knew everything that they knew about MI6’s role in Ireland, so Douglas Smythe was clearly a senior controller in MI6 of British agents within the Irish state.

    Unfortunately for him, however, Ireland’s Special Branch began to suspect an agent at the top of the organisation and the finger of suspicion fell at first on the head of Special Branch and then onto his private secretary. A trap was laid and Patrck Crinion was duly arrested passing state secrets to Smythe in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel. Douglas Smythe was also arrested but the Irish government later allowed both of these agents to leave the state without any charges being brought against them. The Irish government traded both men for the low-rent Littlejohn but were only allowed to prosecute him for the charge of bank robbery, with the British state telling the Irish state that embarrassing disclosures about senior Irish politicians might emerge if any charges were made that presented Littlejohn as a British spy rather than a common criminal.

  • USA

    While I would not agree with the goal of a 32 county Socialist republic, it has to be said that Seamus Costello was dedicated to the working class, and was a great organiser and activist within republican circles in the early 70’s.

  • Munsterview


    Regarding Detective sergeant Patrick Crinion, it was in the Irish State interest to play down his importance and his influence rather than admit the penetration, extent and damage of MI6 in the Southern Security Services.

    Yes Crinion had assess to intelligence that he passed on to his handlers in MI6 but that was not the full extent of his activities during the period he worked for the British state. I am relying here on discussions with media insiders who covered the affair and in particular with discussions that I had with the Late Captain James Kelly and other politicians who were in power at that period.

    Det. Crinions job description as private secretary to the head of the Special Branch is too bland and restrictive by far for his activities.

    1) Crinion had access to almost 100% of the information that the gardai themselves, military intelligence ( where appropriate), politicians, media people, political activists etc see fit to deliberately disclose or inadvertently impart.

    2) Given the need to know operative internal policy of the special branch, much of the information that arrived in Crinions desk came from divers individual sources and were only collated by Crinion in person.

    3) Crinion graded and assigned weight to the various intelligence’s in order of significance and priority.

    4) Crinion was in a unique position where he could give a higher or lower grade classification to information depending on the requirements of his British Government Paymasters.

    5) This ‘sexed up’ ( to use a current term ) or indeed down presentation of information could be delayed simply by passing it back down the food chain for clarification, or Brit required material given a priority.

    6) These these doctored collations went to the head of the Special Branch and his top associates, once considered briefs were prepared for the Garda commissioner et al.

    7) These briefs were used to regularly used to update the Secretary of the Dep. Of Justice, then the Minister for Justice and through him all the Government Ministers in Cabinet.

    8) Government ministers and spokesmen then put selected bits of this information out openly into the public domain while far more was given in off the record briefings to selected Journalists. This in turn through the media informed, shaped and moulded public opinion.

    Far from being the simple desk jockey that he is usually presented as, Crinion was one of the most successful, effective and important British agent to operate in Southern Ireland since the start of the troubles.

    Credit where credit is due to the Brits, a fine operation for them!

  • Scaramoosh

    “I sometimes think my postings are drafted by the English airmen from Allo Allo”

    I sometimes think that they are drafted by the American airman from Catch 22 (Read it)…

  • Reader

    Munsterview: …discussions that I had with the Late Captain James Kelly…
    He was more the ultimate fall-guy rather than any sort of well informed insider, wasn’t he? So who are your other informants?

  • An Phoblacht Abu

    MacGiolla had it in his interests to try and blame Costello for as much as possible, hence why MacGiolla and his henchmen had him murdered.
    Seamus Costello had he lived would have made a very interesting politician for our times

  • Ramzi Nohra

    What happened to Crinion in the end? I presume he’s very old or dead by now

  • Munsterview


    with respect why not do as your name implies; quite a lot of this information is there in the public domain albeit not nicely collated and tied up in a ribbon just waiting to undo but still there to be found!

    If interested try Captain Kelly’s own book, Orders For The Captain if memory serves me right as to the name. Yes! The Good Captain was made a fall guy but he was also central to events in the early period of the troubles. He interfaced with most of the prominent figures on the Nationalist side in that period.

    The fact that he did his professional soldierly duty as ordered and was then thrown to the wolves did give him an appreciation as to the lack of principle and morals of the the Southern Establishment…….. and a determination to expose this corruption at the core of the State.

    It also gave him an empathy with those opposed to this Southern State’s corruption even if he did not always agree with the methods used. He honored the Oath of his commission even while the State he served was dishonored and victimizing him!

    The Magill magazine series of interviews with the late Sec. Of the Department of Justice who continued in office long after retirement age, such was his knowledge and expertise in issues arising from the unfolding Troubles, is also a mine of information on this period.

    In particular his term of office was extended because he had a developed and cultivated a long decades relationship and apparently friendship with an informer inside the Official IRA Army Exectuive and also Council.

    As to my other ‘informants’……… been there when history was made as the saying goes…….. but one rule in this game, off the record with journalists is off the record and I can honestly say that in four decades I did not discuss matters with one that broke that first principle of journalism with me. Likewise informal conversations behind doors, even with political opponents, stayed there as a matter of trust and respect, especially to those who facilitated such encounters!

    As to Detective Sergeant Patrick Crinion; his paymasters arranged a one way trip to South Africa for him. He entered ‘ The Hall Of Mirrors’ there, where presumably he was able to pass on Irish Special Branch Expertise ( such as it was) in suppressing civil rights and freedom movements to the White Discriminatory Regime there for use against Mandela, the A.N.C. and their comrades.

    Come to think of it, in the changed political circumstances there, the files should be available. Fancy a trip anyone ?