Talkback yesterday is worth a listen (indeed the programme should be archived). It was recorded live at the Whiterock Leisure Centre. It has rich witness accounts from people who lived with the troubles at its height on their doorsteps, from newly weds to school teachers. It also has Gerry Fitt quoting James Callaghan in a phone call from a bookmaker’s shop in West Belfast, when he asked for the soldiers to be sent in. Callaghan told him, “It would be relatively easy to bring the army into Northern Ireland, but it would be the devil of a job to get it out”. Just over half an hour in, it has one of the few relatively heated exchanges, between Malachi O’Doherty and Gerry Kelly:
My sense is that some of us are talking about the army as though it were a change in the weather, as though it happened for no particular reason.
The IRA and the British Army of the early seventies were almost made for each other. That the army came in wasn’t just a unionist demand, Gerry Fitt had asked them to come in as well.
But the army came in ineptly led, and with many of their forces undisciplined, who were drunk and rude on the streets to young men like me. And provocative in their behaviour.
And then you had the organisation of the Provisional IRA determined to have a revolution. They had seen that the Civil Rights movement had invalidated the RUC, if you like, and they thought they could push on, and they were right in this calculation, to bring down the Stormont government. They brought it down within two years.
But for Gerry Kelly to be evasive about mistakes by the IRA. When the IRA bombed, albeit by accident, the Short Strand, an area they were committed to defending, and killed eight people in one bomb. A two minute warning, for the bomb in the Abercorn. Half the members of the IRA in the early seventies who died were killed by own goal bombs that went off, because kids who knew no better were sent out to drive bombs into the centre of Belfast to find a parking space for them with timers they had no access to.
So we have to be very careful about talking about the Army as if the Army just came by some determination to invade and oppress the Catholic people of Ireland.
I haven’t been evasive at all about the issue. [Malachi interrupts: Here you go again] What I said was.. Well, if you’d let me talk, that’s your usual response to these issues. You’d think you were ashamed of being a nationalist.
What I was saying, and I was saying it very clearly, so let me say it again, just in case Malachi wasn’t listening, and I was listening to him very carefully. The combatant forces, that includes the IRA, and I was in the IRA, made mistakes. They were wrong in some of the things that they did. And it was a war. Now I heard a British general on today saying it wasn’t a war, and we argue over whether it was a conflict or a war, but the fact is that over three thousand people have been killed. The fact is that it could have come to a conclusion much earlier. The fact is that the British government decided to deal with this as a security problem, as opposed to trying to deal with it in a conflict resolution situation.
Now it took well over two decades to get to that point. As a politician, as a Sinn Fein member I can say, that you can take the antecedents of the peace process way back into the eighties when we have been trying to bring this conflict to an negotiated solution and it took a very long time to do that. But we are where we are, and we have managed to put together a power sharing situation to deal with the issues of equality there are many issues ahead of us yet, but we have to the point which in my opinion we should have come to in the…. [Dunseith talks over the end]
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty