The recent untimely death of the former leading Provisional activist Tony Catney – known everywhere as ‘TC’ – brought in its wake valuable lessons from the Troubles’ past and less certain pointers to the future of republican resistance to the 1998 peace accords.
The event that hit the headlines, with the usual predictable howls of Unionist outrage and media hype, was of course the volley of shots fired over an improvised shrine to Catney’s memory by masked men a few days after his funeral. Styling themselves ‘the IRA’, a dissident group which the dead man appeared to have been associated with in some way, the gunmen were signaling a) that they still had access to modern weapons and b) were willing to use them, even if the only living beings at danger from their efforts would be passing seagulls.
The second was the emergence of parts of an interview that Catney had given to Dr Peter Trumbore, an American academic political scientist from Oakland University in Michigan and reprinted on the Pensive Quill website. The interview was notable for a number reasons, one of which was a question that immediately jumped into my mind: why aren’t Irish academics, why aren’t Irish historians doing interviews like this? Why do American academics have to do the work that Irish ones should be doing but aren’t, or won’t? Where on earth, for instance, is Diarmaid Ferriter, Ireland’s ‘historian laureate’ and a man who is quick to criticise others who research the IRA but whose own record in this regard is lamentably lacking? We all know the answer.
Guardian correspondent Henry McDonald brought up another issue raised tangentially by Catney’s interview, the future of armed struggle as a response to the Sinn Fein-led peace process. McDonald saw in Catney’s remarks dissident doubts about the viability of the tactic although others, myself included, read it the other way.
The section of the interview that jumped out at me, not least because I covered the same area with him in conversations before I left Belfast, I reproduce below with the kind permission of Dr Trumbore:
So the fork in the road for me was the 31st of August 1994 when as an IRA volunteer I was summoned to be given the briefing as to why there would be a ceasefire at 12:00 that night. And the guy doing it gave me the reasons why, and then foolishly enough asked for people’s opinions.
So he asked my opinion and since I’m not usually very quiet, I wasn’t that particular evening. So he said, “Well, what’s your opinion?” and I said, “Well, I mean what is it you’re asking me for? Do you want my honest opinion about this or do you want me to say whether or not I support an army line?”
He says, “No, it’s not about an army line, I want your opinion,” and I said, “My opinion is this is all bollocks.” And I said:
“You sat in February of this year and sent IRA volunteers out on operations that have resulted in them lying in the H-blocks of Long Kesh at this moment in time on the basis that all of the talk about cease fires was mischievous and that it was being put out by the Brits. You denied whenever you were asked that the mini cease fire in May for the Americans was a dummy run for what is happening now, and this hasn’t been done from a position of strength by the IRA it has been done as an admission of weakness and that’s my honest opinion on it.”
And he says, “If you ever repeat that outside of this room,” that I’d be charged with treason. I said, “Right, so it wasn’t really my honest opinion you were after, you just really wanted me to agree with you.”
“No, no, no, I’m not saying that,” and I said, “Well then how can you say it’s fucking treasonous?”
It was a stupid row what was or what wasn’t treason, but at that point then I was earmarked as someone who wasn’t on board with the leadership strategy.
Those readers of thebrokenelbow.com who are familiar with my book on the IRA and the peace process, ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ will know that I believed that the strategy that led to the IRA ceasefires and ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement and IRA decommissioning had certain unique features, which were: it was devised and implemented in great secrecy by a very small team of people grouped around Gerry Adams; the vast bulk of IRA activists and Sinn Fein members, and much of the IRA leadership, were in almost total ignorance of the developing strategy, and lastly, that lying and dissembling were the principal tools used to still and quieten doubts amongst the grassroots – and of course threats of the sort that Tony Catney received.
Tony Catney’s account to Dr Rumbore is a public acknowledgement of all this. But it is more than that. Tony Catney was not typical of rank and file republicans. He was a valuable and skilled political worker for Sinn Fein and the IRA and at one point was the party’s Director of Elections, a post he held with considerable distinction. He was a senior party apparatchik, partly responsible for Sinn Fein’s growing electoral successes in the early 1990’s, a confidante of and advisor to the party’s top echelon, yet even he was kept outside the circle of knowledge. That much is evident by the anger he expresses in his exchange with his IRA briefer about the lies told about the growing momentum towards the August 1994 ceasefire, the denials from leadership figures, the comrades imprisoned in pursuit of an armed campaign that had already been secretly abandoned by the organisation’s navigators.
It is part of human nature, I believe, to seek refuge in self-denial and self-deception when a person realises that they have been lied to and made a fool of, especially when hindsight shows how mistaken or even gullible they really were. In relation to the peace process this took various forms, the most pathetic of which was to cling to the belief that ‘Gerry has got something up his sleeve’ as inexorably Sinn Fein travelled towards constitutionalism and the IRA to oblivion. I wish I had a fiver for every time I heard that in Belfast circa 1993-2001, when I finally left. The truth was that the only thing up Gerry’s sleeve was air.
I had occasion to debate all this with Tony Catney before I left and he stubbornly adhered to the line he gave Dr Trumbore. Explaining to his IRA ceasefire briefer why the accusation that he wasn’t on board with the leadership strategy was baseless, he told the American academic:
Nothing could be further from the truth, for one simple reason. I could neither be on board or off board because I had absolutely no idea what the leadership strategy was. Because the leadership had no idea what their strategy was.
I have to say that I formed the conclusion both when we last spoke and on re-reading his views in this interview that to believe that there was no leadership strategy was his way of saying “I wasn’t really fooled because they didn’t know what they were doing”. In fact the evidence of a clear and thought out strategy is there in black and white and I reproduced it in the second edition of “A Secret History…” in 2007. It is the letter written to Charles Haughey by Gerry Adams’ peace process interlocutor, Fr Alex Reid in May 1987, just days after the Loughgall massacre, setting out the ways by which the Provos would and could end their war. It is the Rosetta Stone of the peace process.It happened more or less exactly as Charles Haughey was told it would.
That Tony Catney refused to acknowledge its existence and accept its relevance makes his life and death that little bit sadder.