Sunday Business Post


Sunday Business Post
01/08/04 00:00
By Tom McGurk

In the first 13 months of the life of veteran republican Joe Cahill,
455 people were killed in Belfast - 267 Catholics and 185

The state with which he struggled all of his life was already in
violent gestation.

Just months before partition, in May 1920, Cahill was born the first
of 11 children at 60 Divis Street.

He hardly had time to walk before he was catapulted into the post-
partition reality that left the nationalists of the North abandoned
by Dublin and London and in the keeping of their mortal political
enemies, the Ulster orange tradition.

Pogrom followed on the founding of the northern statelet, and in the
first two years of its existence, thousands of Catholics were driven
from their homes as the new state battened down the hatches.

The former UVF gunmen were recruited into the RUC and the Specials,
martial law and curfew was instituted, and slowly but surely the
North's inbuilt minority were cowed into silence, at least, if not

The Northern IRA, who were utterly confused by mixed signals from
Michael Collins, found themselves on both sides in the Civil War
before they contemplated the dimensions of the unionist forces that
faced them.

In a short time many of them were mopped up into prison camps, while
the rest fled south to join the new Free State army.

The IRA in Belfast were reduced to a few embittered veterans who
showed the flag at Easter, packed their bags when royal visits
demanded their temporary incarceration or just quietly passed on to
their children their belief in physical force when the next time came.

That time came during the IRA's harebrained war in the 1940s,which
resulted in Joe Cahill's death sentence, later commuted to life
imprisonment, for killing an RUC officer.

Tom Williams was the only member of the IRA squad to be hanged, and
that occasion brought to Belfast's Crumlin Road as ghastly a capital
punishment scenario as one could imagine.

With police barricades separating them, a nationalist crowd knelt all
night saying rosaries, while on the other side an orange crowd
celebrated with songs and drink. Cahill heard it all from his prison

A generation later, the Thompson guns were rattling once again as the
ill-fated 1956 border campaign began.

Again Cahill was to the fore, and again it ended in jail for him.

Not surprisingly, by now Cahill enjoyed a legendary status in west

The IRA in that city, which was always an amalgam of a few families
who carried the torch in the no-hope days, settled back yet again to
watch events. A generation later, when the civil rights campaign came
up against a unionist backlash, the guns started coming out.

It was no surprise, when this new generation emerged as the
Provisional IRA after the split with the socialists' rump, that Joe
Cahill was on the Army Council.

The traditionalist loyalist pogrom attempt on West Belfast in August
1969 unleashed an IRA quite unlike anything seen before. Mass
agitation, British army involvement and a Dublin political status quo
reeling from the impact all contributed to a campaign that was,
amazingly, to straddle the next two generations.

Stormont was prorogued, unionism split and across the Six Counties, a
new generation of young nationalists flocked into the IRA. The
smoking bonfire that Cahill and his tradition had carefully tended
during their lifetime in the back streets of Belfast and the country
lanes of Tyrone and Armagh now suddenly burst into flames.

With television revealing the political slum that the North was - and
with successive London and Dublin diplomats attempting to fix up a
middle-ground solution to get them to the next election - the IRA
somehow remained undefeated.

Car bombs, civilian casualties, executions, loyalist death squads,
hunger strikes, attacks on Britain and Europe - by now the Northern
crisis had spread, and had implications for political establishments
far beyond traditional `dreary spires' territory.

In the late 1980s, when the Belfast leadership, facing seemingly into
a future of conflict with no end in sight, seized control from the
old southern leadership with its civil war mentality, pragmatism as
opposed to partitionism was always going to have its day out.

In the south, it took ten years before the new leader, Albert
Reynolds, read the signals and acted with singular courage. He
convinced a sceptical Dublin, and then the political establishment in
London, that there was no solution without the republican movement's

Hats were eaten, curses were uttered, but the new leadership of Adams
and McGuinness were found to be earnest and trustworthy.

But having passed the first test, the next and most difficult one
loomed: could they deliver the IRA? From partition to independence in
the south, and right through to the 1970s, every IRA campaign has
ended with the politicians parting from the militarists.

Cumann na nGael, then Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta and then the
Workers' Party had all endured the same revolutionary genesis.

But at least one belief was common to all the participants in what
became the peace process - if the IRA split under the new demands,
then the whole enterprise was doomed. This time all the militarists
had to be carried along.

The inner workings of the IRA are, of course, secret unto themselves.
They fundamentally trust only their own, so I suspect that this
hidden process of politicisation will continue to tease historians.

But what we do know for almost certain is that, if Joe Cahill had not
agreed to the peace process, there would most probably never have
been one. Or at least one that has struggled on to today.

The proposition was simple enough and it worked, with the secret army
in Ireland and the US: ``If the process is good enough for Joe
Cahill, it's good enough for me.''

They sent him off in Milltown this week, with the Army Council in
suits, a lone piper and no graveyard shots to echo across the bog
meadows. The old Fenian was getting a proper `New Fenian' funeral.

But at least one major southern political figure understood all this
as he attended the funeral. At least one knew the dimensions of the
remarkable journey from the hangman's rope to the inside of 10
Downing Street.

And no surprises for guessing who it was - Albert Reynolds, of course.

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