The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Death of an IRA Volunteer

One owes respect to the living;
but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth.
- Voltaire

Anthony McIntyre • March 17, 2003

There was a time when the death of an IRA volunteer had some meaning broader than the end of an individual life. No matter how startling the loss nor intense the grief, it could always be rationalised in terms of some wider purpose. When Seany Bateson died in jail in June 1990, his passing proved particularly difficult to come to terms with. When Sean Lynch informed me of the news at the grill separating the two republican wings, I blanched and gripped the bars for support. Seany had breathed his last simply walking up the wing - the result of what appears to have been a congenital heart defect. Others had died in prison but their deaths were easier to comprehend. When Tom McElwee expired through hunger strike his death hurt us badly but it had a very definite purpose. The lives of IRA volunteers were considered so precious to their comrades that the ending of one was incomprehensible if it could not be fitted in with some higher end. Our minds could not fathom how one could die merely walking up a wing. Going out that way gave life a pedestrian status - walking into a cul de sac from which little meaningful could emerge.

In earlier years within the prisons the deaths of IRA volunteers would be marked by a 'day of mourning' on the occasion of their burial. Each cage would hoist a black flag and a military parade would be held in the yard in full view of the prison administration and the armed British sentries guarding the jail. It concluded with a two minute silence. There would no television viewed, games played or even handicrafts made. People sat and read or walked the yard in pairs. A silence enveloped the cages and was accompanied by a sombreness that could make the warmest summer acquire an autumn chill.

Nobody seemed to mind such a regime. It seemed the least we could do. And if there were any who suspected enforced contemplation, they kept their opinions to themselves. Gradually, such measures became less stringent. The television would be turned on at 6 in the evening and the atmosphere lightened. As far as I am aware no one suggested by way of complaint that the days of mourning were punitive rather than mournful. It just seemed that jail leaderships merely took a step back, relaxed matters and allowed those under their command to honour the dead in their own way. By the time the blanket protest had concluded and H-Block republicans were very much in charge of their own wings, the day of an IRA funeral was pretty much the same as any other apart from the news programmes which invariably saw a concentration of people in the canteen.

On a Friday evening in May 1987, not long after we had been locked up for the night, the radios we had in our cells informed us of a gun battle at a RUC station in some rural village and that heavy caualties had resulted. Doors banged and a few cheered thinking that the news indicated a military success for the IRA. Others urged caution, reminding everyone that we had at that point no way of knowing who had died. An uneasy thought ran through my mind. Jack Hermon, head of the RUC, had days earlier promised a tough response to a spate of IRA successes which had included the killing of, what from a republican perspective, was a particularly detestable high court judge. Was this pay back time? We had no watches but there was a permanent chiming sound in our minds as the minutes and seconds ticked away painfully slowly until the next news programme. As the night drew on the name 'Loughgall' picked at our consciousness. Few of us had heard of it but it would burn its way into our memories to claim a permanent place. It was the worst loss of life experienced by the Provisional IRA since its emergence in 1969. And it was the backdrop to the most concentrated round of IRA funerals ever witnessed in the North.

In the days that followed, we watched the television as our comrades were lowered into their graves and out of our sight for eternity. We listened to our leaders speak at their gravesides and promise us that the rich and the powerful would be made to pay for butchering our fellow volunteers. Some of them had come through the jails with us. Padraig McKearney from Tyrone was one of the first prisoners I had met when I arrived in prison for the first time as a sixteen year old in 1974. Shortly after my arrival his brother Sean died on active service with the IRA. We held our parade in the yard for both he and a comrade who died alongside him. In Cage F Magilligan the following year I would chew the fat with Padraig in his cubicle in the half-hut, both of us blissfully unaware of what lay ahead for him.

As each volunteer died we reflected and, steeled by the experience, moved on. Their deaths gave reinvigorated meaning and determination to our lives. I felt this about the deaths of all volunteers. When my head was pressed tight against the coffin holding the remains of Volunteer Thomas Begley in October 1993, I felt honoured to help carry him to his final resting place. The operation he carried out days earlier had went disastrously wrong but the purpose and ethos that were the backdrop to his 'putting the gloves on' that bright Saturday resonated with powerful meaning. Reviled by both press and politicians Thomas Begley was, in our view, an honourable man. When people from our communities gathered on the Falls Road to mark his passing, it reinforced our morale. They had not mistaken his intentions.

And then something changed. IRA volunteer Ed O'Brien died on a London bus in 1996 when the device he was carrying exploded prematurely. Local republicans in Ballymurphy gathered at the small commemorative plaque on the Ballymurphy Road on the day of his funeral. Ed was one of our own and his death had the same poignant meaning. Despite whatever doubts some of us might have had about the politics behind the peace process, it still seemed that there was this teleology taking us to something much better than we had then; that by merely believing in it's inevitability it could somehow be willed into being. Shortly after this I flew to London to take part in a discussion at the Camden Irish Centre. Somebody, in the audience harangued me for defending volunteers like Ed O'Brien.

And then, as if she was administering an electric shock, Suzanne Breen, the Irish Times journalist - also on the discussion panel - stated that Ed O'Brien died to achieve all-party talks which themselves could only lead to an internal settlement. What a waste of life she opined. I tried to parry her comment and offer a different context for the death of Ed O'Brien. As I did, I felt overcome by that same sense of hopelessness I had experienced on being told Seany Bateson had died. This was a death that would achieve nothing. It seemed that the words coming out of my mouth in disagreement with Suzanne Breen were in some way disconnected from my intellect. From that point on a belief began to take root within my mind - there was no reason for IRA volunteers to have their lives exposed to risk for a strategy, the real purpose of which the leadership would not come clean about.

Last Thursday, a young IRA volunteer, Keith Rodgers, died. I am not now a part of the Republican Movement, can no longer identify with the attitudes and behaviour of its volunteers and would like to remain emotionally detached from events like that in South Armagh. But I can not. Because somewhere within me as a result of my long association there is still a Provisional IRA volunteer that empathizes with other volunteers no matter how removed I am from their allegiances, activities and associates. And when they die it dismays and angers me.

The circumstances of Keith Rodger's death are still disputed but it is hard to find anyone persuaded by the IRA leadership's version of events. There is a view that the peace process is so in need of its intake of lies that the manner of volunteers' deaths is to be falsified now as well. Where once the IRA activity that led to their deaths could be proclaimed as worthy, it now seems that active service is a source of major embarrassment. And if Keith Rodgers did give his life on active service why can't those who led him stand over the actions that he was engaged in at the time of his death? Is their sense of establishment duty more in need of protection than the integrity of dead IRA volunteers?

If Keith Rodgers did die on active service, what, in the minds of the Sinn Fein leadership is so terrible about IRA active service that it needs to be buried along with its volunteers? And if there is something so terrible about it is it not better to call it to a halt rather than have IRA volunteers die absolutely needless deaths? Republicans would be spared the revolting spectacle after incidents like that in South Armagh of having to endure some Sinn Fein waffler come on TV and tell us the IRA ceasefire has not been broken and that IRA guns are silent. Thursday's needless and futile loss of an IRA life may emit a message to some within the rank and file that republicanism now has a cynical self-serving leadership whose eagerness to jump into the political establishment has rendered null and void the purpose and meaning of IRA deaths throughout this conflict. That volunteers should still be dying as a result of such leadership is a crime for which leadership should carry ultimate responsibility. It is their crime and they should be told most clearly - no blood for power and privilege.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

17 March 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Death of an IRA Volunteer
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Fein @ The Bush Party
John Meehan


Not In Our Name, Bertie and Gerry

Brendan Young


Republicans' Big Risk
Paul Fitzsimmons


The Good Friday Agreement? What About the St. Patrick's Day War?
Eamonn McCann


St. Patrick's Day Message
Jimmy Sands

Only Another Eleven Palestinians
Margaret Quinn


13 March 2003

Anthony McIntyre

One For All & All For One
Paul Dunne


Brave New World, Indeed.

Tommy Gorman


Ireland: Direct Rule Continues
Paul Mallon




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