Bob Purdie, I remember the Provisionals.

Bob Purdie (1940-2014) wrote several autobiographical essays on his Facebook page. In his last few months he also started publishing his lectures and essays.Several essays deal with Purdie’s days in the Revolutionary Marxist Group IMG in the 1960s & 1970s. In addition there are numerous essays on Irish politics.

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I remember the Provisionals.

I came to the conclusion that my analysis of the Republican split had been simplistic after I discussed it with a member of Provisional Sinn Féin in London. He was an activist in the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign and he confirmed that although most of the traditionalist and anti-Marxist element of the Republican Movement had gone with the Provos a number of left wingers, like himself, had also joined them. They included some who had been influenced by the People’s Democracy and/or the British far left and they rejected what they saw as the reformism of the Officials.

My friend also gave me an explanation for the name “P. O’Neill”, used on Provisional IRA press releases. Statements before the split were signed, “J.J. McGarrity” – the name of a prominent Irish-American Republican and the Officials continued this practice. But “P. O’Neill” was a typewriter, not a person. Some of the lettering on the machine the Provisionals used had been worn away. “IMPERIAL” with “IM” and “ER” omitted would be: “. . P . . IAL”, which could be filled in as “P O NIALL,” an Irish version of the name. However, I have no corroboration for this story.

He and I were on a demonstration at the Irish Embassy. Jack Lynch, the then Taoiseach, was in London for talks and his car was taking him back to the Embassy. The police pushed the protestors back, but they let the two of us through. I used to carry a black shoulder bag and I think they took us for photographers. This gave us an opportunity to jump out in front of the car and I knew he had a poster under his coat. To make sure, I muttered to him between clenched teeth, “have you got the poster?” Immediately a policeman’s head swivelled round and he fixed us with a beady eye. We quickly were escorted away and I escaped arrest on that occasion, but I have had a great respect for the keen hearing of the Met ever since.

I got mixed impressions from Sinn Féin members at this time. I remember a young Provo from Birmingham speaking at a public meeting in 1970 or ‘71. He wore a combat jacket and the green beret of Fianna Éireann, the Republican youth movement. He thumped the table and declared that the Provisionals were going to, “bomb their way to the conference table!” Some time later, on a boat to Dublin, I met another Birmingham Sinn Féin member who been involved in a recent incident. His son was due to be confirmed by the Catholic Bishop of Birmingham, an Englishman who had preached against the IRA. He held the boy back, shouting that he objected to the bishop and would not allow his son to be confirmed by him. He told me, “Bob, if you scratch an English Catholic, you’ll find a Protestant.” A veteran IRA man, whom I met on a picket at Brixton Prison, was delighted to hear I was from Edinburgh. He said he had spent some time there. It turned out that had been held in Saughton Jail. As we picketed he shouted, “Ireland is one nation. If God had meant Ireland to be two nations he wouldn’t have made it an island”. I reflected on the implications of this for Scotland.

A main reason for my close working relationship with Brendan Magill was that the London Provisionals needed a political face, but they very few members with the necessary experience, so Brendan sub-contracted that work to the IMG. And we had other resources that were useful to him. At his request we printed an edition of the propaganda pamphlet Freedom Struggle by the Provisional IRA, which had already been published in Dublin. Brendan could be quite politically astute, in 1972 the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road jail went on hunger strike for political status. He was invited to make an appeal for support at the IMG conference. He addressed us as “comrades” and pressed all the buttons likely to get a favourable response from the far left.

Brendan invited me to attend the Provisional Sinn Féin ard fheis in the Autumn of 1973. It was held in the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House, where the first Dáil had met in 1918. The level of political sophistication was lower than I remembered from the Official ard fheis two years earlier, a persistent theme of speakers from the floor was the failure of members of Sinn Féin to live up to the expectations of the heroic Volunteers of the IRA. One speaker wound himself up to a pitch of indignation and shouted, “the Army is disgusted with ye”. There were whisperings on the platform, and the chair intervened to make it clear that the delegate had no mandate to speak for the IRA.

Another speaker wore the green uniform, slouch hat and Sam Browne belt of an officer of the Fianna Éireann. Unfortunately his trousers were not quite the same shade of green as his tunic, which spoiled the effect. He was loudly applauded as he made his way to the rostrum, but he rewarded the ard fheis with yet another tongue lashing.

In his presidential address Ruairí Ó Brádaigh referred to the death of Salvador Allende, “the overthrow of whose democratically elected government, all right thinking Irish people condemn.” Afterwards Brendan’s wife asked me what I had thought of the speech. The bit about Chile meant that I could be complimentary, but I was not happy with the low political level and I was disturbed by the slogan, “1974 Year of Victory” because I knew that no such victory was in sight. There was insufficient support in the South and without that they could not overcome the numerical weakness of Northern Catholics. From that point on I became more critical.

On the last afternoon the ard fheis was addressed by Dáithí Ó Conaill, on behalf of the Army Council of the IRA, at that time he was a fugitive from both the British and Irish authorities. As he ended his speech a tall thin man, about the same build as Ó Conaill, walked up to the stage. He was wearing a pork pie hat, a car coat and heavy rimmed glasses. He proceeded to swap these for Ó Conaill’s jacket. The ard fheis was abruptly ended and everyone was told to leave immediately. Ó Conaill and his double mingled with the delegates as they flooded out into Dawson Street. This was an effective way of covering his escape, but it meant that the ard fheis ended with a number of resolutions still not discussed.

Outside the crowd surrounded a car with two occupants, who they assumed to be members of the Garda Special Branch. They thumped on the top and sides and eventually overturned it, with the men inside. And two uniformed Gardaí were trapped by a yelling mob; they had been standing beside some railings which ran at right angles from the doorway of a shop and were, literally, cornered. They remained calm as the crowd screamed abuse, but they must have been terrified and I felt sorry for them.

In June 1974 I attended the Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown in County Kildare, where the leader of the 1798 Rebellion is buried. IRA members in black berets and balaclavas paraded past, followed by contingents of Fianna Éireann.. They wore green berets, heavy boots and jeans with wide legs which came only to mid-calf, in the teenage fashion of the time. They used the same stamping march as the IRA. I walked with the London Sinn Féin contingent and my youthful experience of Boys’ Brigade drill came in handy, as we left wheeled and right wheeled.

I also attended the Dáil Laighin Convention in Mullingar. Influenced by the writer Desmond Fennel, the Provisionals had come up with a scheme for a federal Ireland, based on the four provinces. They argued that this guaranteed the position of Protestants in a united Ireland, since they would be in a majority in the historic nine counties of Ulster. A Dáil Uladh Convention had already been held, to set up an assembly for Ulster, now the same exercise was being carried out for Leinster. I don’t remember much about it, except that it confirmed my view that this was an artificial body which represented nobody outside the Provisionals (as a Trotskyist I was very familiar with this phenomenon).

Afterwards I travelled north on a coach to Andersonstown. It was full of Belfast youngsters who skylarked noisily all the way. They sang:

This old man, he played one,
he shot a soldier with a Thomson Gun.
With a knick-knack paddywhack, give a dog a bone
This old man came rolling home
This old man, he played two,
he shot a soldier with a twenty-two.
With a knick-knack etc.
This old man, he played three,
He shot a soldier with a thirty-three.
With a knick-knack etc.
This old man, he played four,
he shot a soldier with a forty-four.
With a knick-knack etc.
This old man, he played five,
he shot a soldier with a forty-five.
With a knick-knack etc.
This old man, he played six –
UP THE PROVIES DOWN THE STICKS!

On one occasion Brendan invited us to a meeting in his house in Kilburn and I went together with Géry and an Irish Canadian member of the IMG. We were introduced to a visitor who had just come over from Northern Ireland. We were not given his name but I recognised him as Frank McManus, the Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone who had been elected as a “unity” candidate and was not, at that time, openly close to the Provisionals. They were trying to get us involved in a political campaign, but I don’t remember what it was about.

It was probably about political status for IRA prisoners, internment was giving way to this issue and hunger strike. The Price sisters, who had been jailed for their part in the London bombings of 1973, were on hunger strike and were being forcibly fed. I took part in a television programme in which an IMG member, who was a junior doctor in a psychiatric hospital, demonstrated force feeding. I thought it was my duty to be the victim and I lay flat as he pushed a tube down my throat, producing the inevitable gagging reaction. I didn’t have to exaggerate the effect.

An IRA Volunteer, Michael Gaughan, died in Parkhurst Prison, we believed as a consequence of force feeding. His coffin was processed through Kilburn to a requiem mass, before going back to Dublin for the funeral. In Irish fashion, it was carried by a succession of pall bearers. Brendan invited IMG members to participate so I helped to carry the coffin, together with Géry and Tariq.

Gaughan had been arrested for trying to rob a bank in Crouch End and I suggested to my IMG branch, which was based in our house that we rename ourselves the “Michael Gaughan Branch”, it was the Irish custom to name branched after a dead hero. I had intended it as a joke, but I have a habit of joking with a straight face and I was taken seriously. We did adopt the name and a member of the Political Committee came down to lecture us about our irresponsibility. Instead of admitting it was a joke I put up a stout defence, but the branch voted to drop the name. This kind of mischief was an expression of my increasing alienation from the IMG and its leadership.

With megaphone, Brendan Magill

With megaphone, Brendan Magill

In fact I was so fed up that I considered resigning and joining Sinn Féin. After all, my Irish friends were not continually trying to undermine and discredit me, and I trusted Brendan Magill much more than I did the leaders of the IMG. But I quickly dismissed the notion from my mind. I was a Marxist and a socialist, not a Republican, and I was Scottish, not Irish.

By this time the police had come under pressure to stop paramilitary displays, and the announced that a black beret would be deemed to be a political uniform and would lead to arrest. I watched as the police swooped on the colour party heading a demonstration that was making its way to Speakers Corner. As the hustled one of them away a woman grabbed the beret off his head and put it on hers and she was arrested to. I doubt if it actually led to charges. My last public involvement with the Provisionals was to chair a mass rally following the concession by the Home Office to end force feeding. Not long afterwards I left London to begin my studies at Ruskin College, by the end of my two year course I had radically changed my views on the Irish question. But I have much more to tell you before I get to that point.

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