Feigning weakness, exploiting strength…

Malachi O’Doherty with an extract from his forthcoming book (to be published by Gill and MacMillan in the Spring) that focuses on one of the most traumatic years of the early troubles – 1972. This section, which appears in this month’s Fortnight magazine, outlines the IRA’s first negotiation with the British, which according to government papers took place in a country house in Ballyarnet, close to the Derry/Donegal border. The IRA representatives were Dáithí Ó Conaill and Gerry Adams – who, bizarrely, still maintains he was never a member. At least some of the strategy, if not the actions, will be familiar to unionists like David Trimble:

Every time the IRA was faced with a request to recognise British difficulty it opted for the least sensitive response, yet the manner of Adams and O Conaill was construed by Woodfield [along with MI6 man Frank Steele the representative of William Whitelaw] as obliging, amenable and naive. Woodfield went away convinced that he had been dealing with people who were much less experienced and adept than himself. The measures taken by the IRA after the meeting suggest otherwise.

Asked to leave MacStiofain off the delegation and to keep the delegation small, the IRA would include MacStiofain and all the senior leadership. Given to believe that it would be difficult for the government to commit itself to allowing the IRA members during the ceasefire to carry guns, the delegation would bring a token gun with them to the meeting with Whitelaw.

Woodfield explained to them that he would like there to be two weekends within the 10-day period of the ceasefire before the meeting with Whitelaw could take place; the IRA would time the ceasefire to start on a Monday for no apparent reason other than to deny him this. And crucially, though Woodfield had understood that the ceasefire would include avoidance of conflict with loyalists, the IRA would enter into a tit-for-tat war with the loyalists during the ceasefire period.

Advised that the army would play a low key role but could not accept IRA guidelines on areas to stay out of, the IRA would set up checkpoints in Catholic areas to assert itself as the legitimate army presence there, and even shoot dead two drivers who failed to stop for them.

All these things must have had meaning for the British in terms of Woodfield’s discussion. They were all symbolic denials of any ground to the British. Adams and O Conaill had located points of anxiety and, instead of working with the British by assuaging those anxieties, had in all cases aggravated them.

The IRA ceasefire collapsed on the Sunday afternoon of July 9 1972, when the IRA demanded that Catholic refugees be allowed to move into allocated houses in Horn Drive, Belfast, against the insistence of the UDA that they should not. The British army had barred their way and the IRA opened fire on the army barricade. The IRA had now an excuse to proceed with its war – the British had sided with the Loyalists.

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