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The Birth of the Provisionals

Liam O Comain

Following the IRA ceasefire of 1962 (the so-called Border Campaign) a small group of republicans,
centred around Cathal Goulding, Seamus Costello and Tomas MacGiolla, were interested in the
ideas contained in a pamphlet by Desmond Graves: 'The Irish Question and the British People'.

Graves was a member of the Connolly Association in Britain and editor of its newspaper, The Irish
Democrat. In the pamphlet he argued that the best way forward for the anti-partitionist movement
was through a civil rights campaign.

In August 1966 representatives of an Irish version of the Connolly Association, namely the Wolfe
Tone Society (a republican think- tank) met in Maghera, Co. Derry . The subject of the conference
which included invited guests was whether a civil rights movement should be established in the six
counties of British occupied Ireland (as distinct from the 26 county neo-colonial statelet).

Those in attendance included the IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding, Roy Johnston, Ciaran Mac an
Aili, two Nationalist Party MPs, and Conn and Patricia McCluskey...IRA OCs and republican
organisers from the north were also in attendance.

After an agreement was reached to establish a civil rights movement, the Belfast Wolfe Tone
Society agreed to sponsor a meeting, later, in order to present the proposal to a wider spectrum of
potential supporters. In November the second meeting took place, and Kadar Asmal (who was
eventually to become a member of the South African Government, then a Law Lecturer at Trinity
College, Dublin) made an interesting contribution to the meeting. Among the other contributors,
Ciaran Mac an Aili, in a talk on civil disobedience as championed by Martin Luther King suggested
that similar tactics could be used in the 6 counties. A proposal to launch a movement was well
received, and at a third conference on January the 29th, 1967, the Civil Rights Association
(NICRA) came into being.

Parallel with these developments a reorganising of the republican movement was taking place. The
late Malachy MacGurran of Lurgan and myself (a native of Limavady, Co. Derry) were appointed
full- time organisers of the movement in the north of Ireland. In addition to republican structure our
task was to include the involvement of rank and file republicans in the civil rights campaign as well
as co-operating with individuals and groups in the establishment of housing action committees and
branches of the civil rights movement.

At the 1967 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, Tomas MacGiolla stated that it was the intention of Sinn Fein to
launch a campaign of social agitation north and south, particularly in the area of housing.

In the north housing agitation had an anti-unionist complexion. And because of Derry's uniqueness,
as a place of unionist discrimination and gerrymandering, I was given the task of forming a
coalition between members of the local James Connolly Republican Club and local radicals. In due
course this became a reality through the holding of meetings attended by a select number of people.

The meetings usually took place in the Silver Dog Bar and those in attendance were Norman
Walmsley, Eamon McCann, Janet Wilcox, Johnny White, Matt O'Leary, Dermie McClenaghan and
myself. There may have been others occasionally in attendance but the aforementioned were the
core unit. As stated, the meetings were selective and were not common knowledge at the time. In
fact this became as news to others who were involved in the resulting Derry Housing Action
Committee and other agitations. However it laid the basis as history now records for a large number
of protests including squat- ins, occupation of the city corporation chambers, sit-downs, street
blocking, etc, bringing to the fore such prominent activists as Fionnbar O Doherty, Brigid Bond,
and Michael Montgomery, etc.

The clandestine nature of the original Derry meetings as well as others taking place throughout the
north was based upon the need for republicans to keep a low profile. This was done precisely so that
the Civil Rights movement would attract diverse political tendencies. Not all republicans of the time
agreed with the 'new venture' for sadly the movement split in due course. Which raises the question
of whether those who supported the venture were seeking the mere democratisation of the northern
state. There were those who apparently inclined in that direction but to state categorically that was
not the objective of republican participation in the civil rights movement.

Otherwise Seamus Costello and myself among many others including people like Joe McCann of
Belfast would not have remained with the so-called Officials.

In fact, in an oration at a special Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, Co Kildare, I

emphasised the point that republican participation in the civil rightsmovement was for one reason
only: a means for "nurturing a revolutionary consciousness in the Irish people and gaining their

This oration was delivered during the re-dedication of a new memorial by the National Graves
Association, after loyalists (allegedly) bombed Tone's grave some months previously.

As a member of the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Fein at the time, I recall writing the oration in the home
of the then president, Tomas MacGiolla, who agreed with the contents and endorsed it on behalf of
the leadership.

Retrospectively, the tragedy of the split which gave rise to the birth of the Provisionals arose from
personality struggles, wrong assumptions, and the mistaken idea that physical force was a
republican principle rather than one of a number of means to achieve our objective of a free and
self-determining Ireland.

At a deeper level the split was the result of a decision by the Dublin Government to deliberately
destroy what they saw as a developing revolutionary movement which threatened their control and
stability. Recently released state documents confirms the above, and I personally at the time was
approached by elements of Fianna Fail seeking my allegiance. As were many others in the north,
some of whom were conned by the southern government representatives promising training, arms,
etc. Some training did take place in army premises at the time because it was felt that it would be
good for morale and being aware of what the Dublin Government was about that in turn they should
be used to the republican advantage.

There is also the case of one County Derry OC who received from a Fianna Fail member a couple
of dozen bullets as a bribe. Needless to say this person was not easily conned. One humorous
aspect, which I now recall, is the occasion when the southern Prime Minister Jack Lynch made his
famous untruth — 'we will not stand idly by' or words to that effect.

Volunteers from Counties Derry, Tyrone, and Cork were billeted at that time in the old Golden Grill
in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, which was loaned to us by a Fianna Fail member Senator
McGlinchey. We had been in it for some time and one night the Cork OC and myself were returning
very tired after travelling many miles looking to getting our heads down for a good sleep. But after
trying for some time to gain access to the Grill without success, a shadowy figure approached from
the darkness and informed us that the good Senator had chased the IRA volunteers and their
equipment out of the building because Fionnbar O Doherty had arrived from Derry and used the
Grill as a basis for the distribution of pamphlets calling upon the southern Irish Army to desert.
Needless to say, those who were thrown on the streets of the Donegal town took the initiative and
bedded down in a large straw barn some miles away.

This had all happened prior to the split proper but the cancer had started to take its toll,

I believe that if those who left and formed the Provisionals had stuck their ground the republican
movement's potential to achieve revolutionary change would have been immense and unstoppable.
Whereas, what we have at present is the rise of the recurring myth of 'a stepping stone towards the

In fact, the Provisionals have now abandoned the Republic of 1919 and are content with de Valera's
'con' construction of a republic and their exercising of power in the northern state, which inherently
is beyond equality of esteem.

Ironically, they have come full circle and are more politically negative than those whom they
condemned at the time of the split. Although admittedly some of my former comrades in the
Officials have also betrayed the Republic and tread the road that the Provisionals are now treading...

However, to return to those earlier developments, following a republican led squat-in at Caledon,
Co. Tyrone, which resulted in a publicity coup of some importance, the Dungannon-based
Campaign for Social Justice placed pressure on the NICRA leadership to hold a march from
Dungannon to Coalisland.
The squat-in was the occasion when the Nationalist MP Austin Currie reaped historical publicity at
the expense of the local Republican Club. At least the burial of the Club's central role in the event
was an example of a low profile being adhered to by republicans. Following on from the Campaign
for Social Justice pressure the first civil rights march took place successfully on August 24, 1968,
when approximately 4,000 people marched at the Tyrone venue. The republican movement
provided 70 of the stewards.

The success of the first march encouraged the demand for more. And in Derry the republican/radical
alliance via the Derry Housing Action Committee expressed its intention to hold a march from the
Waterside to the Cityside on October the 5th 1968.

NICRA agreed to sponsor the march in their name. As a response to this announcement the
sectarian Apprentice Boys of Derry (although the latter insists upon calling the city Londonderry
arising from a bigoted mindset) signalled their attention to march the same route on the same day at
the same time.

The sectarian intervention was part of a unionist strategy to prevent the civil rights march. For the
then so-called minister of home affairs, William Craig, at partitionist Stormont declared both
marches illegal: " in order to keep the peace". Craig's real target of course was the NICRA march.

At the time some of the NICRA leaders were in favour of calling the march off but the Derry
organisers would have none of this and declared their intention to proceed. Thus began the drama
which shook the unionist monolith and British hegemony in the north of Ireland to their

Under the marshalship of a Derry republican, the late Sean O Gallochair, we gathered near the old
railway station in the Waterside to begin our march. But on this occasion it was not to be, for the
fascist RUC went into action with batons, boots, and fists; supplemented with water cannon and the
odd blackthorn stick wielded by the elite of that infamous force.

What came to be known as 'Craig's blunder' received publicity throughout the world and the rest is
history: 'Who would have guessed their blows were blessings in disguise...'