Recent revelations of unease amongst Nationalists about the Hume – Adams Talks that are credited with leading to the 1994 ceasefire are quite interesting. Seamus Mallon is now said to have been unnerved at his exclusion by Hume when it came to crunch talks with Adams and members of the Dail. This all came about at a time when there were serious rumours that a senior Nationalist politician was being blackmailed by the Provisionals over an allegation of sexual impropriety with a journalist.
However, anxiety about the direction the Adams faction was taking Sinn Fein long predated the Hume – Adams initiative. Long before Gerry Adams met Hume, he had to convince his own party and, more particularly, the PIRA, that his plans for the future of Irish Republicanism were the correct plans to adopt. Although today the PIRA exists in some form, in the 1980s they were the ruling force within Republicanism. This was not something the Adams faction felt comfortable with because they knew they would be changing the entire ethos of the IRA and they needed to ensure that the IRA would be complicit in this.
The election of Bobby Sands to Westminster heralded a new chapter for the Republican movement. Up until that by-election, caused by the death of the MP for Fermanagh – South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, Sinn Fein was an impotent force and regarded by many as merely the public face of the IRA and a rest home for old Republicans no longer able to participate in military operations. It also provided a place for Republicans who were afraid to become embroiled in paramilitarism, the so-called “Draft Dodgers”. With a strict abstentionist policy firmly in place, there was little point in voting for the party as they would not physically represent the electorate at any level of government.
However, the election of Sands, and the subsequent election of Owen Carron after Sands had died on hunger strike, gave fresh impetus to the Republican movement, particularly the pro-political Adams faction. What if Sinn Fein could become a viable political party? What if they could monopolise on the double election successes in Fermanagh – South Tyrone and win seats at local and national level? The possibilities were limitless but not everyone agreed.
Convincing the political wing would be much easier than persuading the militarists who sincerely believed they had the ability to drive “the Brits” out of Ireland. The thorny issue of abstention would need to be tackled first. If the Adams/McGuinness faction could remove the barrier to taking seats in local councils and in any future Assembly, the party could begin to function more fully and prepare for elections. The road to “constitutionalism” began with an internal drive to undermine and get rid of the old guard Republicans like Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connaill. They put this into action by first canvassing the party membership to drop the Eire Nua (Federal Ireland) policy much loved by the O’Bradaigh/O’Connaill faction. At the 1982 Ard Fheis, the party voted to drop the policy and the following year all reference to it had been removed from all things Sinn Fein. Within a further three years, the Adams /McGuinness faction had done their work and, at the 1986 Ard Fheis, abstention was dropped and O’Bradaigh, O’Connaill and their faction, by now a minority within Sinn Fein, walked out to form Republican Sinn Fein and continue to fly the abstentionist flag.
With the political wing now firmly under their control and the key positions within it filled with members of their faction, Adams and McGuinness turned their attention to the military wing. By the mid-1980s, key members of the PIRA were either in HMP Belfast on remand or in Long Kesh as sentenced prisoners. One fly in the Sinn Fein ointment was Ivor Bell. Bell, a committed Marxist saw no meaningful role for Sinn Fein and vocally opposed the Adams – McGuinness leadership’s direction, particularly their spending on the party machinery at a cost to the PIRA. However, although many others agreed with Bell, few were prepared to be as outspoken and challenging. As a result, Bell was expelled from the PIRA and played no further role in the movement.
With Belfast and Londonderry firmly under their control, the next problem the Adams – McGuiness faction had was East Tyrone. The East Tyrone Brigade of the PIRA had always been particularly active and had proved themselves to be a close-knit community within the community. Marital and familial ties kept their circle small and tight. Certainly, some of their members had been caught and imprisoned and they had lost others in gun battles but these were sporadic and more the exception than the norm. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the run-up to the ceasefire, all that was about to change.
Padraig McKearney and Jim Lynagh were almost legendary figures within Republicanism, not least in East Tyrone. It is no secret that they also shared Ivor Bell’s concerns and their relationship with the Belfast based leadership was quite the opposite of their relationship with each other. Lately, there has been speculation that they intended to break away from the mainstream IRA and operate as an independent armed group. A split is something the Belfast leadership did not want and could not afford. Lynagh and McKearney could attract followers from other areas and that would ruin the Leadership’s plans completely and leave them like the Official IRA after the split that led to the formation of the INLA-weakened with their most effective militarists gone to the other faction. That was soon to be resolved in a way no one could have imagined and in a way that could not have been done without collusion and betrayal by the Leadership.
On 8th May 1987, an eight-man unit of the East Tyrone IRA, led by McKearney and Lynagh, set off to blow up the police station in Loughgall. The unit used a digger with a bomb in the bucket which they would use to obliterate the police station. The driver of the digger that day was Declan Arthurs and the rest of the unit followed closely behind in a van. Two of the men in the van then joined Arthurs in the digger and another jumped out and sprayed the building with gunfire. The digger drove straight for the police station and the bomb detonated, destroying the digger and the wall of the building. Then, mission accomplished, the security forces who had been lying in wait, opened fire killing all eight IRA men, namely McKearney, Lynagh, Arthurs, Gerard O’Callaghan, Tony Gormley, Eugene Kelly, Patrick Kelly and Seamus Donnelly. In one night, the Republican leadership lived to see their greatest threat wiped out and were presented with eight new martyrs to mourn and commemorate. The path to a political settlement was a lot clearer after Loughgall and a massive thorn in the side of the Adams- McGuinness faction had been removed.
The East Tyrone Brigade of the PIRA was not wiped out at Loughgall, just the biggest threats of the time. In 1991, another East Tyrone unit set out, this time to the Protestant village of Coagh. This unit, consisting of Tony Doris, Michael ‘Pete’Ryan and Lawrence McNally were intending to murder a part-time UDR member but just as they approached their target, the security forces opened up and killed all three of them. Once again, the security forces were lying in wait for a unit of the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA and once again an IRA unit was wiped out. The following year, younger members of the East Tyrone Brigade decided to strike a blow for Irish Independence by conducting a heavy machine gun attack on Coalisland police station. It has been said that after they carried out the attack, they drove past Tony Doris’ house and paid loud homage to his memory. However, when they pulled up their vehicle in the grounds of Clonoe Chapel, the security forces were AGAIN waiting and opened up on the IRA men, killing Kevin O’Donnell, Patrick Vincent, Peter Clancy and Sean O’Farrell.
This is by no means an in-depth look at the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA. It does, however, show how easy it was to take out practically every active member at two different times – Loughgall in 1987 and Coagh/Clonoe in 1991/2. Arguably those who died in the latter two were the very people who replaced those who died in the first attack. Someone somewhere did not want the East Tyrone Brigade to succeed. How could it be that after decades of minimal success against this brigade, they were suddenly so easily killed? How did the security forces know to be in the three places the IRA carried out their attacks, especially the one in Clonoe where it is obvious the security forces knew where the unit would go AFTER the attack in Coalisland?
Sinn Fein blazed a trail in their allegations of collusion but we believe sincerely that there is conclusive evidence here alone that they were the master of it when the end justified the means.