Like nearly everyone else, I cannot say for sure what motivated Sinn Fein West Tyrone MP, Barry McElduff when he placed a loaf of Kingsmill bread atop his head during a trip to a supermarket, got a friend to video it and posted it on Facebook or wherever.
But given the date the video appeared, on the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, it is difficult not to believe that the IRA killing of ten uninvolved Protestants at a bogus vehicle checkpoint near Bessbrook, Co Armagh was not, as they say, uppermost in his mind when he strolled through the supermarket.
But what has been striking about the reaction and media response to McElduff’s stunt, at least to my mind, has been the complete absence of context alongside a failure to understand its deeper meaning.
And it is that context and meaning, at a time when hostility between Sinn Fein and the DUP is at its sharpest for a decade, which add significance to McElduff’s behaviour.
The Kingsmill massacre did not happen in a vacuum but was a response – a classic Provo response, I would argue – to a burst of Loyalist killing which had claimed the lives of six uninvolved Catholics from two families – three in each family – killed by the UVF in south Armagh and south Down a day before Kingsmills happened.
The killings of the Catholics – members of the Reavey and O’Dowd families – was claimed by the UVF but the IRA hid its role in the Kingsmill massacre behind a bogus nom de guerre, the Republican Action Force.
That, of course, fooled no-one, least of all the Provo base who, truth be told, welcomed the IRA’s over reaction and saw it as an effective way of stopping, or at least curbing, Loyalist killings. Less an eye for an eye and more two of your eyes for every one of ours. And this, in 1975-76, during the worst years of Loyalist violence against Catholics.
The Kingsmill approach became the favoured grassroots Provo answer to escalations in Loyalist violence. So when, five years later almost to the day, UDA gunmen riddled Bernadette McAliskey and her husband Michael with bullets at their isolated cottage near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, the IRA’s response was immediate.
Three days after the McAliskey shooting, IRA gunmen drove to the Middletown, Co Armagh home of the former Unionist Speaker of the Stormont House of Commons, shot dead 86-year-old Norman Stronge and his 48-year son, James, and burned their mansion, Tynan Abbey to the ground.
A bloody and brutal message was sent: ‘try to kill our leaders and we will kill more of yours, and what’s more, we will make sure the job is done’. As my long term readers will know I have long argued that the Provisionals were more rooted in the Irish Defenderist tradition of 1798 than the republican one; the Kingsmills and Stronge incidents were classic examples of that in action.
The IRA’s national leadership’s decision to endorse and even encourage such local responses was of course full of significance; it went to the circumstances of the Provos’ birth, when Belfast republicans broke away from the mainstream in protest at the failure to protect Catholic Belfast from Loyalist mobs in August 1969.
Equally, it was therefore of even greater significance when, during the peace process, that approval was withdrawn and local units of the IRA forbidden from engaging Loyalists in such retaliation.
That was the story in Tyrone during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as the peace process gathered steam. As Loyalist killings and near killings of republican activists intensified, as UVF squads seemed to roam the county at will, local IRA units demanded action from their leaders.
But their warning, that if the IRA failed to nip these killings in the bud, with a Kingsmill or Stronge-type response, then republicans risked being overwhelmed, was rejected.
Tyrone IRA activists were told they had to target the UVF killers involved and no-one else, and of course, that proved to be next to impossible. And UVF killings increased.
The deeper message to places beyond Tyrone was unmistakable. The Provos, at least at leadership level, were changing; old ways were being left behind, new ways, viz the peace process, were being embraced.
Arguably, we are seeing in Barry McElduff’s suspension by his Sinn Fein leaders a sort of re-run of that episode in Tyrone’s troubled history.
Is it stretching things too far to see McElduff’s video in the context of the current stalemate in talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP, a deadlock marked by rising sectarian acrimony?
If not, then McElduff’s loaf of bread carries a subtle deeper meaning: a political version of Kingsmills is the only way to deal with obdurate Loyalism. And his suspension from Sinn Fein then, is equivalent to the rebuff delivered by the IRA leadership to Tyrone republicans in the 1980’s.
It will be interesting to see how this all works out. I would be especially interested in knowing how McElduff’s stunt has gone down in places like east Tyrone. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the answer was ‘well’.
COMMENT FROM EAMONN McCANN:
You will recall – and so will many who will affect to remember no such thing – that Kingsmills was quite popular with many – I’d say most but there’s no way
of verifying that estimate – supporters of the IRA, including the overwhelming majority of members of Sinn Fein. The argument you mention – that this was the only language sectarian Loyalist killers would understand – was routinely advanced. I heard it scores of times, in Derry, Belfast and Dublin. Adams, O’Neill and the rest of them are well aware of this aspect of the matter.
That said, it should also be said that when it comes to giggling and gloating about the killing of people of a different religion, the Provos have never been a match for the Loyalist paramilitaries.That doesn’t excuse McElduff or SF. But it points up the fact some of the Loyalists, including members of the DUP, who have been caterwauling about McElduff’s sectarian stupidity are liars, frauds and abject hypocrites.
It’s widely said and it’s probably true that there’s no point calling another NI election because the same two gangs of,useless galoots would be put back in again. But maybe we should find out. Deep down, and maybe not that far down, and despite the apparent contradiction, I reckon the people of the North are better than the politicians they elect.
If I am wrong about that,, what’s there left to say?
I look on your works ye midgets, and despair.
I well remember the atmosphere of nervous apprehension in north Armagh and east Tyrone from the mid-80’s until the final cease fire. Innocent Catholics from families with Republican connections were being killed repeatedly and the IRA was not responding in kind. The people I knew in that area regarded Kingsmill as having been a necessary and effective answer to an earlier wave of terror, but nothing like that was being done in response to the UVF killings of the time.
I didn’t know then that the lack of a sectarian response to the UVF killing was part of the IRA’s peace process turn. From my own moral and political point of view, I have to applaud the decision not to respond to the UVF and LVF with tit-for-tat atrocities. But fear and a feeling of helplessness helped build a mood of war weariness among mid-Ulster Catholics. That mood lifted when the threat of sectarian murder abated and Sinn Fein benefited politically, getting credit for having negotiated a settlement that ended the daily danger of assassination.
Support for renewed Republican warfare is minimal in the former “murder triangle” but as McElduff’s Kingsmill video shows, the Defenderist attitude remains strong. I’m a little surprised that McElduff was so politically tin-eared (more surprised that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir seconded his motion) but that’s what happens when you operate in a segregated sectarian bubble and don’t even consider how the other half of the population is going to take your little “joke.”
Sent from Outlook
You are right about naked ‘Defenderism’ …. good old sectarian murders springing from the 17th century religious wars. A long way from the Republican high rhetoric of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In the sectarian setting, two tits for a tat does seem appealing if you fear someone is going to machine-gun your family due to their religious affiliation.
Cheer up Henry Joy McCracken and Francis Hutcheson ….still a lot to be done in Ulster….
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Ed, you said:
“Loyalist killings and near killings of republican activists intensified, as UVF squads seemed to roam the county at will”
On CAIN it says that loyalist killings of Republican paramilitaries totalled 41 out of 1027. Would you consider that number an underestimate – and if so by a factor of what?
A loyalist I know is adamant the number is much higher, 50% was the claim – which I found laughable.
I know you touched on this in your book; the IRA leadership would at times not declare a volunteer as being a paramilitary for propaganda purposes.
Don’t know about either of those figures. Both seem to be off to me, one an understatement, the other overthe top. I was writing about Tyrone in a quite short period of time, late 80’s to early 90’s……
I would be inclined to think that Barry McElduff’s actions weren’t deliberate. Not that I don’t think SF would sink to such depths., it’s just I genuinely believe that he lacks both the intelligence and wit to deliver satire of any kind.
There wasn’t this much outrage when the DUP sang ‘Arlene’s on Fire’ at La Mon.
I’ve said it elsewhere there is enough wrong with Sinn Fein (and the IRA) without making stuff up. I think on this ocassion Barry McElduff was very stupid, but I don’t think he’s an idiot, and only an idiot could have concieved getting away with such a provcation. I honestly don’t think it was malicious. Are the Shinners capable of being malicious? You better believe it. But this is not an example of it. McElduff is known in Republican circles as a bit of a ‘comedian’.The idea that Mairtin O’Muilloer is daft enough to approve such an interpretation of the comment is preposterous. Sinn Fein’s creeping neo liberalism and ability to speak out of both sides of their mouth at the same time is surely enough concern to being going on with.
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I recently re-read the Loughall chapter that you kindly reproduced.
I’m not so sure that the “Defenderist” tag works. Kingsmill, the Stronges and also Tullyvallen were multiple fatality sectarian murders. And, particularly in the 70s, and especially in Belfast 74 – 76, many sectarian murders were carried out by the IRA. But I can’t think of any other major attempts by the IRA to deter loyalist murders. I tend to think of Kingsmill etc as the exceptions rather than the rule.
I actually think that the leadership were holding their more sectarian members back even before the late 80s intensified loyalist campaign.
it all depends on the meaning of ‘defenderist’…….!
The meaning I attached to “Defenderist” was engaging in hardcore sectarian murder in response to sectarian murder.
I think that, aside from Kingsmill, the Stronges and Tullyvallen (and the first half of the 70s, and even then not to the same large-scale degree), the Provos generally didn’t “up the ante” in nakedly sectarian actions.
I should say, lest anyone get the wrong idea, that I am not for a second defending the IRA’s “war record” or bestowing upon them any sense of morality. I think that if the leadership believed sectarian murder worked towards their objectives, it would have happened on a far greater scale.
My sense is that the leadership reigned in the dogs, so to speak.
I think you are missing something here. Go back to the very early days of the Provos, to 1970. MacStiofain had a two phase strategy. The first was to enable the IRA to defend Catholic areas so there would be no repeat of Aug 69. After that had been achieved and Catholic areas made safer from pogroms etc, the second phase would be to get the IRA into offensive mode and capable of attacking the British Army and securing withdrwal. The first goal was achieved during the w/end of 28-29 June, 1970 with the so-called siege of St Matthews and attacks on Orangemen in north Belfast. The war against the British then started but would not have been possible without first demonstrating defensive capabilities. The IRA thereafter always sought out Loyalist gunmen/leaders when possible and during the 1975-76 period descended into nakedly sectarian tit for tat killings. So I think the picture is more complicated than the one you paint….
I actually completely agree with the analysis that you provided above – I just think that that contradicts the point that you made earlier; “Less an eye for an eye and more two of your eyes for every one of ours. And this, in 1975-76, during the worst years of Loyalist violence against Catholics.”
My point is that whilst the IRA did massacre large numbers of Protestants post 1976 (La Mon, Enniskillen, Teebane for example), it claimed that they were either mistakes or targeted not on the basis of their religion and thus not “two of your eyes for every one of ours.”
If the Provos claimed these outrages as retaliatory strikes against Protestant targets for Loyalist murders, they’d fit the “defenderist” tag and Kingsmill model – but the Provo leadership were either meek (Enniskillen) or chillingly dogmatic (Teebane) in their explanation for the multiple murders.
“The war against the British then started but would not have been possible without first demonstrating defensive capabilities.”
Given the scale of the Loyalist onslaught against the Catholic population, I don’t think that the Provo defensive capacity was ever particularly real, but the perception was, and in my opinion galvanised and increased support for the Provos.
South Armagh aside, I can’t think of any area of NI where loyalists felt inhibited by potential Provo response to the murder of Catholics – that said, it’s simply that I can’t think of any examples and would be interested to hear of any.
well that is a matter of opinion. the provos will argue that but for their defensive role in the short strand and also in north belfast in 1970, it would not have been possible to have launched the commercial bombing campaign of 71-74. these small catholic areas were, in their eyes, being held hostage for the the good behaviour of catholics elsewhere. defending them so effectively enabled them to go on the offensive against the state itself. equally there is no doubt that the IRA split happened in no small measure because of its failure to protect/defend catholic areas of belfast in 1969 and that the new Provos were eager to demonstrate their willingness/ability to defend their people. i don’t deny that episodes like La Mon, Enniskillen etc did not fall into the defensive scenario but the events i deal with, like Kingsmill and Bernadette do, as also did Short Strand and North Belfast June 1970. read McCann’s comment at the end of my piece for further evidence. I would also argue that the Provo grassroots’ willingness to accept the GFA is even more evidence that republicanism came second to other priorities for most of them. each split in the provos, the O Bradaigh one, the Bell one and finally the RealIRA one were all about the purity of the ideology being compromised by the Adams leadership. Ideology came down the list of priorities for the Provos and their willingness to accept a package, the GFA, which ensured a better place for their supporters is further and perhaps the most convincing evidence that their roots lie in Defenderism rather than Tone republicanism.
“Ideology came down the list of priorities for the Provos and their willingness to accept a package, the GFA, which ensured a better place for their supporters is further and perhaps the most convincing evidence that their roots lie in Defenderism rather than Tone republicanism.”
I agree with your analysis and accept that I had a perhaps one dimensional understanding of the Defenderist description.
In terms of Provo retaliatory strikes, I have wondered why the Provos didn’t indulge in more Kingsmill style actions. My suspicion is that they’d have had no shortage of willing volunteers and most likely, if carried out at a time of intense loyalist murders, they’d have been popular to an extent with their general support base. That’s pure speculation, however.
I suspect the main reason was that the likes of Adams and Hughes were all too aware that it allowed the British to portray them as a sectarian murder gang, as opposed to an ideologically driven army.
Read Matt Treacy’s book ‘The IRA 1956-69’, and you’ll get a grasp of how republican ideology can be adopted by both the left and right wing.
well, they were doing that anyway……
True, but this was an incident to which there was there was no disguising the fact that it was an deliberate attack on people with no connections to para-militarism. Attacks like the Bayardo Bar bombing could be “accepted” in nationalist/republican circles because it was a UVF haunt. Kingsmill couldn’t be so easily justified.
Although I’ve no doubt there was a significant number who approved of the “fight fire with fire” method, it was a milestone as the SAS were swiftly introduced a few days afterwards and the policy of Ulsterisation (ushered in a few months beforehand) was seen as a logical step: with the IRA now “seen” in the light of day as sectarian murderers, their cause was null and void so support would fall away, the police could take over and the British government could take a step back,
Obviously it didn’t quite work out like that, but you could see the thinking behind such actions.
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