Provos: The Secret War

Where does one begin with the IRA? In the 17th century with the first Protestant settlers in the Northeast of Ireland? With Patrick Pearse’s seizure of the GPO building in Dublin in 1916? With the Partition of Ireland in 1921? With the bombing campaign of the 1950s? In 1968 with the first civil rights marches? With the arrival of British troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969?

Any one of these flash points could have served as a starting point for Peter Taylor’s remarkable book – and indeed he pays more than lip service to their importance in Irish history. Yet he wisely chooses to make the events of 1970 to the present day his main focus, because despite what took place before, these are the years that will determine the shape of the new Ulster.

In 1970, the IRA was largely held to be a spent force. The Loyalists were running riot in Northern Ireland, while the IRA had largely forsaken nationalism in favor of extreme left-wing politics. They saw the upper classes as the oppressors of the Irish people and held that the Catholic and the Protestant working class should join together against the prevailing system and thus advocated a non-violent response to their Protestant comrades.

Whatever the merits of this analysis – and there were and are some – this wasn’t quite how the Catholic working class of Ulster saw the situation. They saw they were living in worse accommodation, they saw that the political system was gerrymandered to prevent change and they saw that Catholic unemployment ran significantly higher than Protestant unemployment. So to the Catholics the IRA came to stand for “I Ran Away”.

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