Chat to some friends in the Republic of Ireland and they might tell you about about a long dead relative who was in “The Old IRA”. The word “Old” is important as it seeks to distinguish the original IRA from any newer version. The Old IRA being the men and women from the period 1916-1922.
Look at old newsreel footage of the 25th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1941….and you will see middle aged men marching behind a banner styled “The Old IRA”. And check out the 50th Anniversary in 1966 and there are fewer people and they are now elderly and of course……the numbers get fewer and all are now (2012) dead. Yet thru the 1970s it was still possible to see veterans of that period interviewed in RTE documentaries.
Of course the Republic of Ireland is a homogenous country. Except for revisionists those men and women who fought against the odds to achieve Irish Freedom for a large part of the island……are revered as heroes. There is something….pure……about them. From hill and farm they answered the call…….and went back to the hill and farm when they …or History…..said it was all over. They enjoyed a certain reputation because they were better organised, more idealistic than those who fought on a risible war in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond. And just as crucially they had contented themselves that they had done all they could while arguably lesser men who had been their comrades were now governing the Republic of Ireland…….in Dáil Éireann or town and county councils. Lesser men who were more likely to identify themselves with militarism at Election time. In short, the “Old IRA” steered a path between militarism for its own sake and careerist politicians in political parties.
Of course Norn Iron is not homogenous. In the 1960s the “Old IRA” in Belfast referred to men from the 1916-1922 period and the 1940s……but not (usually) to the men who had been in the 1956-62 Campaign. Certainly as a young teen in the peaceful 1960s, my father would point out “Old IRA” men to me…perhaps have a chat with them outside Clonard Church. They were…it seems odd now…quietly religious “Confraternity” men….or GAA men. In the late 1960s these Belfast men had mostly severed any connexion with the IRA and its Marxist leadership.
Yet in August 1969 wnen West Belfast was attacked by armed loyalist mobs aided by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and B Specials……and the “Official IRA” refused to defend the Falls Road……..the entire defence fell to eight men from the “Old IRA”. Of course these men formed the nucleus of what would become the Provisional IRA leadership and embark on a campaign of violence that would take over 3,500 lives over a thirty year period.
So……last month I was at a funeral in West Belfast. An old family connexion. And a lot of 1970s “men” were in attendance. An old comrade. A strange sence of deja vu…..these men are now in their 50s, 60s, 70s………middle aged and old men. Rather like those middle aged and old men to whom my father would chat outside Clonard nearly half a century ago.
I was chatting to guy. These men describe themselves as “ex-prisoners”. He was looking forward to a fundraising dinner, where money would be raised to maintain the monument to “D” Company, Second Battalion, Belfast Brigade. Hardly the right place or time for me to pump him for information but it seems to me this old neighbour was as dismissive of the militant nihilists in dissident Republicanism as they are of the political careerists in Sinn Féin.
To some extent I was reminded of the old Hoyt Axton song………”Im A Good Ole Rebel” the anthem of continued Confederate defiance. Without any kind of prompting he rounded on the notion of Truth Commissions. He wasnt going to apologise to anyone for anything. ……….if people apologise, then it belittles those comrades who died for his and their beliefs.
As I have said….this man is an “ex-prisoner”. The attrition rate in the Provisional IRA was not particuarly high……less than 300 killed from 1969-1998. But the attrition rate in terms of prison sentences and internment without trial was massive.
Effectively “ex-prisoners” is coded term for people who were militant republicans, usually Provisional IRA. Of course that organisation no longer exists….officially. The Independent Monitoring Commission seems to think that the Provisional IRA is “no longer a threat”. But certainly there seems to be a belief in PSNI circles that they still actually exist. Of course there is an unspoken question here………as to whether a “Shadow IRA” (committed to Peace) monitoring the progress of the Peace Process is actually a bad thing. It seems naive to think that “they HAVE gone away you know”………..but our old friend Creative Ambiguity obliges everyone in authority to say they no longer exist.
At the end of the day its probably less important than the fact that “ex-prisoners” are still alive……still maintaining contact with each other.