Troublesome Questions For Sinn Fein On The Separated Brethren…..

Gareth Mulvenna, whose engrossing book on the Tartan Gangs of Belfast in the early 1970’s I was pleased to review in these pages, has been engaged in a fascinating if somewhat fruitless dialogue with Sinn Fein over their claimed commitment to engage positively and sympathetically with their separated brethren in the Loyalist community.

I reproduce here without comment, his recent post on the matter on his blog, with thanks to Huw Bennett for bringing it to my attention. Free life-time subscription to TBE for those who correctly put names to the Shinners involved. Enjoy:

Too uncomfortable a conversation?

In August I e-mailed a prominent member of Sinn Féin who recently came out in praise of the Orange Order.

The e-mail was as follows:

Dear xxxxxx,

I am a friend of both xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx and xx xxxx xxxxxxx.

My first book, ‘Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash’ will be published by Liverpool University Press on 30 September 2016.

Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries

I recently wrote about the book for The Irish Times:

…and was also interviewed for Balaclava Street blog:

As it is based on in-depth interviews conducted by myself I am hoping that the book provokes a more nuanced understanding of the loyalist experience at the start of the conflict.

I was wondering whether you would be interested in an ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ piece for An Phoblacht?

I look forward to your thoughts.

All the best,

I received a response via e-mail from another Sinn Féin member, who I had a telephone conversation with. I repeated the premise of my proposed piece and had a good chat about the subject and other matters. He told me to make the article as uncomfortable as I wanted it to be; basically to pose questions of the readership. It was suggested to me that I should look at the party’s ‘Toward An Agreed and Reconciled Future: Sinn Féin policy on reconciliation and healing’, bearing it in mind while writing the UC piece.

In this document, the party states that,

Irish society has yet to deal with the harms, fears and mistrust from the conflict. Despite the contribution from Republicans, and many others, the legacy of conflict and division stills casts a long shadow over efforts to build a better future. At its core a reconciliation and healing process must create the common ground to deal with the fears, the unanswered questions from the past and shape thinking and deeds that will create a pathway from the past to the future.

It also states that Sinn Féin’s approach to reconciliation and healing ‘has been informed by…The need to be sensitive to all hurt, loss and pain [and] The need for an acknowledgement of all the different human experiences of conflict felt across society, on this island and beyond…’

With all of this in mind I stated that I would try and get a piece together within the next few weeks. Shortly thereafter – within days – my first child was born. The person I had been talking to was keen that I get the piece in by Sunday 14 August if at all possible – long before the original deadline, and the day after my daughter had returned from hospital. The reason being that An Phoblacht wanted the article for its September edition. I got the article written and submitted on time. I have included it in full below

Over two years ago I set out to write a book about the loyalist Tartan gangs in early 1970s Belfast. Through conversations and meetings with former Tartan gang members who became loyalist paramilitaries I was given access to former senior members the Young Citizen Volunteers and the Red Hand Commando, the latter of which little is known about. Inevitably the book became more than a study of the Tartan phenomenon of which the Bay City Rollers had no bearing on.

Republicans gave Tony Novosel’s fantastic study of early loyalist paramilitary political initiatives a fair hearing. Indeed, I dare say that some people might have been a bit taken aback by just how progressive the political formulations of the Ulster Volunteer Force and RHC were during the mid-1970s. These ideas laid the seed by which the Progressive Unionist Party would flourish from the late 1980s until the late 1990s, but in the dark days of Kingsmill and the UVF Butcher gang they found little favour on the grey and frantic streets of Northern Ireland.
My book, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries is one which I do hope republicans will read. It will be slightly harder to digest as it concentrates on the violent activities of loyalists. This is understandably an area which must be approached with sensitivity, but it is also one we cannot shy away from in attempting to find a peaceful resolution in Northern Ireland.

The book also importantly demonstrates that there is more nuance to the pre and early Troubles loyalist story than has previously been heard.
While loyalists will openly admit that many of their actions were driven by sectarianism, there has been little to no public acknowledgement by former republican combatants and their supporters that the PIRA carried out a number of sectarian killings. This continues to frustrate the loyalist and unionist community. The men that I interviewed for Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries speak with an almost eidetic memory about their experiences of the Four Step Inn and Balmoral Furniture Showrooms bombings of September and December 1971 respectively.

They ask what the PIRA – long suspected of these ‘operations’ – had to gain from such devastating acts?

Did the PIRA seek to draw their Protestant working-class neighbours into a dirty sectarian war?
One thing that we know for certain is that these two events were key factors in driving many young loyalists, including Tartan gang members, into the nascent loyalist paramilitaries.

Throughout the loyalist ‘backlash’ in 1972 and beyond innocent Catholics would die at the hands of travelling gunmen, something which Plum Smith dispassionately stated some years later, ‘wasn’t personal’. Others would die horrific deaths in romper rooms.

Of course it is necessary to get past ‘whataboutery’, but the loyalists I interviewed would point to the gruesome deaths of Tom Kells, Robert McFarland and Robert Collins which were meted out by republicans. Republicans cannot seek to claim a ‘higher morality’ in legitimising their campaign.
For many loyalists, particularly those who agreed to ‘abject and true remorse’ this is an unresolved facet of post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Anthony McIntyre conceded in 2013 that ‘We [republicans] are often cynical about loyalists maintaining as a motivation a defence of their communities. Yet it features so much in their conversation and writings that it is simply impossible to think they are all lying’.

Gerry Adams stated in the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2014 that ‘The IRA that emerged in these years [between the 1950s and 1970s] was one built by ordinary people out of sheer necessity because of the conditions in which they found themselves. In nationalist areas of the north, the IRA was from the people, not some abstract idea’.

It might be impossible for many readers of An Phoblacht to acknowledge, but what I heard through the interviews that I carried out and the long conversations I had with former loyalists paramilitaries was a mirror image of Adams’s statement.

There is a long and deep feeling within the loyalist community that the PIRA set out over the final weekend of June 1970, during the St Matthews and Whiterock episodes, to kill Protestants in an attempt to provoke a backlash. It was shortly after these killings that a group of young men met in a house in Rosevale Street in the Oldpark area. There they agreed the founding principles of the grouping which would become the Red Hand Commando.

When Brendan Hughes stated that the republican objective was to ‘Get the Brits out through armed resistance, engage them in armed conflict and send them back across the water with their tanks and guns’ he may well have meant the British military presence in Northern Ireland. However, this was miscommunicated by republicans when they killed constitutional unionists and working-class Protestants. Ronnie McCullough, one of those young men who met in Rosevale Street, told me that such utterances couldn’t help but sound personal: ‘To get the British out of the north part of Ireland effectively meant to get us out of the north part of Ireland, because we subscribed to the British identity. Whilst we were Irish and recognised the fact that we do have an Irishness, we were Irish Unionists and wished to remain part of the British household’.
Republicans must ponder on the experiences and rationale which informed young loyalist men to take up arms in the early 1970s.

At the end of the month (August) I inquired about my article and was told that it was with the editor and hopefully ‘scheduled in in next month’. The article did not appear in the September AP.

In the middle of September I e-mailed to ask whether the editor had made a call on my piece. I was texted a few days later by the SF member I had been corresponding with and was told that he would phone me the next day. He didn’t for one reason or another.

At the beginning of October I sent a message to the SF member stating:

Hi xxxx – can I take it at this stage that the UC piece is not being printed? The deadline seemed pressing almost two months ago.

To which the response was:

Gareth can we schedule call. View is that pieces should engaged with UC parameters. Still up 4 piece. xxxx

I replied:

That is a shame xxxx – particularly that it has taken so long given that I rushed it together two days after the baby was born. Having read it again I feel it does fit into UC parameters but if AP doesn’t wish to publish it I think I will leave it.

The response was:

Gareth let’s schedule a call and talk through.

I very much appreciate the effort you put into article and I’d like to see a contribution from you in paper.

I wasn’t able to have the phone conversation due to work commitments and instead decided to write an e-mail outling my feelings:


Hi xxxx

Hope you are well.

Having now asked a few people with very different opinions on NI to read my article in the context of UC parameters they too are struggling to see why AP won’t publish – other than the obvious point…is the piece too uncomfortable?

Recent articles by Chris Donnelly and Ciaran MacAirt give one the impression that the UC series is now just republicans merely having very comforting conversations in-house and demanding that everyone else feel uncomfortable.

My article poses direct questions from loyalists to republicans that I encountered in my research – they are all crucial questions in legacy issues and reconciliation for Ireland. I am feeding back what I heard.

I absolutely fail to see where this article does not engage with the UC parameters and I can’t come to any conclusion other (which others agree with me on) that I have been censored so that there is no actual robust or truly uncomfortable questions asked of republicans in the UC series.

All the best


There the correspondence ends…

I hold no ill will toward the person I was corresponding with (I actually admire quite a lot of their discourses and work) but the big question here is – are SF serious about their UC series? Or do they believe in an ‘acceptable level of discomfort’ when discussing legacy issues and the past?

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