in Fortnight in February 1971 John Pilgrim
said about the Provisional IRA 'there is universal
ignorance of them.' That the same body of people
are still being written about in the same magazine
35 years later suggests that public interest in
the longevity of the Provisional IRA has been
nourished by access to ever increasing amounts
of information about the organisation. As both
beneficiary and benefactor of such information
Gary McGladdery's The Provisional IRA in England
is a must have addition to Provisional historiography.
live in an age where word association links bombs
in London almost exclusively with political Islam.
McGladdery's rich history of the violent campaigns
visited on England by Irish republicanism serves
as a stark reminder that Islamicist bombs have
preoccupied the British state for a relatively
short period of its existence. Political Islam
has in England fortunately not reached the 115
fatalities inflicted by the Provisional IRA.
where else have the British looked when deciding
how to deal with the threat posed by Islamicist
bombers but their own experience at the hands
of Irish republicans. A senior British security
source remarked during an intense spate of IRA
bombings in the 1990s that 'if you want total
security you shut down London - and the IRA scores
a great propaganda victory.'
one work to have previously dealt with the IRA's
English campaign was Martin Dillon's book The
Enemy Within. In it the author claimed to
have been made aware by sources inside the IRA
of the organisation's England Department. It was
certainly a valuable addition to public knowledge
about the functioning of the IRA and its tightly
managed English operation. Gary McGladdery relied
on no such sources, arguing that 'it is doubtful
that interviews with personnel in which the "official
line" was given would reveal anything that
is not already in the public domain.' In the academic
sphere McGladdery, while not a rabidly hostile
observer, seemed determined to follow in the footsteps
of the security official just quoted, and deny
the IRA any propaganda victory. For inside insight
he relied almost exclusively on former members
of the Provisional IRA including one of the first
volunteers to bring the organisation's war to
the British capital, Marian Price.
interesting source he drew on was the video collection
of Peter Heathwood. Over the years Heathwood has
with great tenacity meticulously recorded documentaries
and news programmes germane to the Irish conflict.
In years to come historians of that conflict will
increasingly revisit Heathwood's collection as
a rich source of information. In an age when journalists
in the public eye are lauded for their contribution
to public understanding, a less prominent figure
like Peter Heathwood merits public recognition
for the rich vein of knowledge he has preserved
and made available to researchers.
overdoing the narrative of unbreakable and unbroken
historical continuity, McGladdery traces republican
operations in England along with the logic underpinning
them back to the latter half of the 20th Century.
But the bulk of the work is on the Provisional
IRA's 24 year war fought on English soil. A central
plank driving Provisional strategy was the belief
that 'one bomb in London is worth a dozen in Belfast.'
It was a logic shared by many unionists who believed
the peace process was driven by a British need
to keep bombs out of London.
McGladdery, in considering such claims against
what the IRA actually achieved, arrives at a radically
different conclusion. One of the former IRA members
quoted in his book, Tommy McKearney, made the
astute observation that the bombing campaign in
England was 'more heat than light.' This logic
forms the spine of the McGladdery thesis: essentially
the IRA failed to gain from its England operations
anything that would remotely justify the energy
expended in waging it or explain the lives lost
in the course of its prosecution.
many within its ranks still refuse to accept that
the IRA was comprehensively defeated, that the
organisation is reduced to defending everything
it had previously attacked, right across the range
from Paisleyism to policing, shows just how little
impact the England campaign in particular or the
IRA armed struggle in general actually made. McGladdery
concludes that the supposed British initiatives
prompted by IRA activity in England were as much
a response to what was taking place on the streets
of Northern Ireland. As a Scottish court might
conclude, for the Provisional IRA, case not proven.
the IRA in recent years has attempted to rewrite
history in order to portray itself favourably
if judged against Al Qaeda and its contempt for
civilian lives, McGladdery drawing on the organisations
own words demonstrated that it was quite prepared
to slaughter innocent civilian populations. While
there was much opposition at senior level to killing
civilians the fact that such a sentiment could
manifest itself in a policy statement shows the
sway of those favouring it: 'Any brutality against
the defenceless prisoners of war would inevitably
force us into considering inflicting heavy civilian
a dirty war clean hands are hard to find.