The Blanket

A Stick To Be Beaten With

Anthony McIntyre • 29.10.02

Twenty seven years ago today the Provisional IRA launched a strike against members of the Official IRA and Republican Clubs in Belfast. On the opening night of the assault - a Wednesday - an unarmed Official IRA member, Robbie Elliman, was shot dead in McKenna’s Bar in the Markets and 16 others were kneecapped in a city wide offensive. The Sticks, as they were known, did not take matters lying down. They were old hands at the feuding game who, for the most part since their ceasefire of May 1972, had reserved their weapons for use against republicans whether of the Provisional IRA or INLA variety. During the ensuing feud they claimed the lives of two innocent civilians and a brace of Sinn Fein members, one of whom was later acknowledged by the Provisional IRA to have been one of its volunteers. Yet despite their penchant for internecine fighting, the Officials seemed to follow the dictum of Terence MacSwiney, always managing to endure more than they were ever able to inflict.

Both sides sought to out kill each other, and respect for civilian safety was an impediment all too readily dispensed with. The Official IRA shot dead Owen McVeigh as he ran through his home trying to escape two of their armed members. The Provisional IRA killed 6 year old Eileen Kelly while trying to assassinate one of her relatives. People were gunned down at bus stops, in their homes, playing snooker, or at their place of work as nationalist Belfast was gripped for two weeks by ferocious bloodletting.

At the outbreak I was far removed from all of this being ‘safely’ ensconced within the newly erected walls of Magilligan Prison just one week short of my release. Unfortunately, as Alan Judd argues ‘believing and feeling ourselves to be part of a tradition profoundly affects how we behave.’ Consequently, I thought attacking other republicans was a good thing. A teenager, stupefied by a self-induced belief in the potency of Provisional IRA leadership infallibility, I offered little resistance while slipping into that life of obedience so well described by Adolf Eichmann ‘in which one's creative thinking is diminished.’ Some years would pass before Pat McGeown - who had been active during the feud - would painstakingly persuade me to purge such notions from my mind. His portrait now adorns a wall in my room - a reminder not to slip again.

I was finally released the following Wednesday. It was November the 5th. Drink, girls and the IRA rather than the flavour of the day, Guy Fawkes, were the only things on my mind. The English parliamentary abolitionist, however, would not escape my republican mindset altogether. Years later Gerry Adams would remind us of his worth when he said that Fawkes was the only person ever to enter the British parliament with good intent. A point he would underscore when describing the Brighton bomb attack against British parliamentarians and their aides as a blow for democracy. My waiting mother had no interest in any of it, contented only with the idea that her son would be returning home. I can still recall her disappointment when I informed her at the prison car park that I could not go home as a result of the feud. She would have been even more disappointed had I taken her advice and ended up as one of its victims. As I almost did when, a week later, armed Sticks hit a house in Hatfield Street minutes after I had left. They were hardly in a forgiving mood. One of their comrades had been riddled at his front door the night before while his wife and children looked on. My non-involvement in the feud would probably not have saved me from their wrath.

Instead of returning to the family home in Twinbrook, I went to Lenadoon - as directed by the IRA leadership within the prison who were fearful for my safety. There, before being taken out on a night’s drinking - by IRA members I had only just met - to celebrate my new found freedom I reported back to ‘the army’. The next day, after meeting Joe McDonnell, who would later die on hunger strike, I was sent to Ardoyne for the duration of the feud. It would see me there a week. The North Belfast area was regarded as being an IRA stronghold and impregnable as far as Official IRA penetration was concerned. The first week of freedom was viewed in large part through a drunken haze, a result of knocking about the pubs and clubs with Maurice ‘Isaac’ Gilvaragh whom I had previously known through Ardoyne school friends. The contrast between his fate and that of Joe McDonnell’s could hardly have been sharper - death alone united them. The IRA would kill ‘Isaac’ five years later claiming he was an informer. The extent of his nefarious activity I do not know but like many other informers he had probably decided to decommission some of the organisation’s weaponry before the leadership got round to doing it for themselves. For that he has remained poles apart from Joe, firmly rooted at the bottom of the republican hierarchy of victims - which we are all supposed to pretend does not exist - and dismissed in our collective folklore as a ‘tout’, a perpetrator rather than a victim. And if he could, he may well wonder, from his lowly rung, at the leadership - who covertly met more British spooks and decommissioned more weaponry than he could ever have imagined doing - praising itself for its ‘courageous and imaginative’ venture while having dispatched him to the netherworld for ‘treachery. A tout, seemingly, is only a matter of dates, decided by those with the power to arbitrarily define.

By the time the mediators had managed to calm matters down, the feud deaths had reached double figures. The tension in the areas however abated only slowly. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for me were spent in street brawls with Official IRA members, one of whom had shot a friend and comrade, Angela Gallagher, in the legs. My daily visits to her hospital bed hardly enamoured me to them or him. He too would end up shot and permanently disabled - a victim of loyalists. But there is no sense of gratification to be derived from that.

Now that it has all passed and some of those who spent time trying to kill one another can on occasion be found drinking in each other’s company, the seeming losers in those feuds - the Officials - must be sitting wryly observing that, body counts apart, they ultimately came out on top. We, who wanted to kill them - because they argued to go into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the RUC, uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who disagreed with them - are now forced to pretend that somehow we are really different from them; that they were incorrigible reformists while we were incorruptible revolutionaries; that killing them had some major strategic rationale. And all the while the truth ‘sticks’ in our throats. They beat us to it - and started the peace process first.



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It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.
- Arthur Calwell
Index: Current Articles

31 October 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Real IRA
Eamonn McCann


A Stick To Be Beaten With
Anthony McIntyre


A Modest Proposal

Tommy Gorman


Minimum Wage or the Abolition of Wage Labour?
Liam O Ruairc


27 October 2002


Bloody Sunday
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Under the Ulster Hand

Brian Mór


Security Forces

Brian Mór


Selling Ideas
Liam O Ruairc


Dirty Harry
Anthony McIntyre


Thoughts On The Coming War (Part 2)
Sean O Torain


Academics on Independence (Part 3)

Paul Fitzsimmons


Reform By Imprisonment
Sam Bahour




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