A Stick To Be Beaten With

Danielle Ni Dhighe danielle at irsm.org
Sun Nov 3 13:42:46 MST 2002


The Blanket
29 October 2002

A Stick To Be Beaten With
By Anthony McIntyre

Twenty seven years ago today the Provisional IRA launched a strike
against members of the Official IRA and Republican Clubs in Belfast.
On the opening night of the assault - a Wednesday - an unarmed
Official IRA member, Robbie Elliman, was shot dead in McKenna's Bar
in the Markets and 16 others were kneecapped in a city wide
offensive. The Sticks, as they were known, did not take matters lying
down. They were old hands at the feuding game who, for the most part
since their ceasefire of May 1972, had reserved their weapons for use
against republicans whether of the Provisional IRA or INLA variety.
During the ensuing feud they claimed the lives of two innocent
civilians and a brace of Sinn Fein members, one of whom was later
acknowledged by the Provisional IRA to have been one of its
volunteers. Yet despite their penchant for internecine fighting, the
Officials seemed to follow the dictum of Terence MacSwiney, always
managing to endure more than they were ever able to inflict.

Both sides sought to out kill each other, and respect for civilian
safety was an impediment all too readily dispensed with. The Official
IRA shot dead Owen McVeigh as he ran through his home trying to
escape two of their armed members. The Provisional IRA killed 6 year
old Eileen Kelly while trying to assassinate one of her relatives.
People were gunned down at bus stops, in their homes, playing
snooker, or at their place of work as nationalist Belfast was gripped
for two weeks by ferocious bloodletting.

At the outbreak I was far removed from all of this being 'safely'
ensconced within the newly erected walls of Magilligan Prison just
one week short of my release. Unfortunately, as Alan Judd
argues 'believing and feeling ourselves to be part of a tradition
profoundly affects how we behave.' Consequently, I thought attacking
other republicans was a good thing. A teenager, stupefied by a self-
induced belief in the potency of Provisional IRA leadership
infallibility, I offered little resistance while slipping into that
life of obedience so well described by Adolf Eichmann 'in which one's
creative thinking is diminished.' Some years would pass before Pat
McGeown - who had been active during the feud - would painstakingly
persuade me to purge such notions from my mind. His portrait now
adorns a wall in my room - a reminder not to slip again.

I was finally released the following Wednesday. It was November the
5th. Drink, girls and the IRA rather than the flavour of the day, Guy
Fawkes, were the only things on my mind. The English parliamentary
abolitionist, however, would not escape my republican mindset
altogether. Years later Gerry Adams would remind us of his worth when
he said that Fawkes was the only person ever to enter the British
parliament with good intent. A point he would underscore when
describing the Brighton bomb attack against British parliamentarians
and their aides as a blow for democracy. My waiting mother had no
interest in any of it, contented only with the idea that her son
would be returning home. I can still recall her disappointment when I
informed her at the prison car park that I could not go home as a
result of the feud. She would have been even more disappointed had I
taken her advice and ended up as one of its victims. As I almost did
when, a week later, armed Sticks hit a house in Hatfield Street
minutes after I had left. They were hardly in a forgiving mood. One
of their comrades had been riddled at his front door the night before
while his wife and children looked on. My non-involvement in the feud
would probably not have saved me from their wrath.

Instead of returning to the family home in Twinbrook, I went to
Lenadoon - as directed by the IRA leadership within the prison who
were fearful for my safety. There, before being taken out on a nights
drinking - by IRA members I had only just met - to celebrate my new
found freedom I reported back to 'the army'. The next day, after
meeting Joe McDonnell, who would later die on hunger strike, I was
sent to Ardoyne for the duration of the feud. It would see me there a
week. The North Belfast area was regarded as being an IRA stronghold
and impregnable as far as Official IRA penetration was concerned. The
first week of freedom was viewed in large part through a drunken
haze, a result of knocking about the pubs and clubs with
Maurice 'Isaac' Gilvaragh whom I had previously known through Ardoyne
school friends. The contrast between his fate and that of Joe
McDonnell's could hardly have been sharper - death alone united them.
The IRA would kill 'Isaac' five years later claiming he was an
informer. The extent of his nefarious activity I do not know but like
many other informers he had probably decided to decommission some of
the organisation's weaponry before the leadership got round to doing
it for themselves. For that he has remained poles apart from Joe,
firmly rooted at the bottom of the republican hierarchy of victims -
which we are all supposed to pretend does not exist - and dismissed
in our collective folklore as a 'tout', a perpetrator rather than a
victim. And if he could, he may well wonder, from his lowly rung, at
the leadership - who covertly met more British spooks and
decommissioned more weaponry than he could ever have imagined doing -
praising itself for its 'courageous and imaginative' venture while
having dispatched him to the netherworld for 'treachery'. A tout,
seemingly, is only a matter of dates, decided by those with the power
to arbitrarily define.

By the time the mediators had managed to calm matters down, the feud
deaths had reached double figures. The tension in the areas however
abated only slowly. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for me were spent
in street brawls with Official IRA members, one of whom had shot a
friend and comrade, Angela Gallagher, in the legs. My daily visits to
her hospital bed hardly enamoured me to them or him. He too would end
up shot and permanently disabled - a victim of loyalists. But there
is no sense of gratification to be derived from that.

Now that it has all passed and some of those who spent time trying to
kill one another can on occasion be found drinking in each other's
company, the seeming losers in those feuds - the Officials - must be
sitting wryly observing that, body counts apart, they ultimately came
out on top. We, who wanted to kill them - because they argued to go
into Stormont, to remain on ceasefire, support the reform of the RUC,
uphold the consent principle and dismiss as rejectionist others who
disagreed with them - are now forced to pretend that somehow we are
really different from them; that they were incorrigible reformists
while we were incorruptible revolutionaries; that killing them had
some major strategic rationale. And all the while the truth 'sticks'
in our throats. They beat us to it - and started the peace process
first.


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