The split in the Republican movement, 1969–1970
The shift to the left
The split in the Irish Republican Army, soon followed by a parallel split in Sinn Féin, was the result of the dissatisfaction of more traditional and militant republicans at the political direction taken by the leadership. The particular object of their discontent was Sinn Féin's ending of its policy of abstentionism in the Republic of Ireland. This issue is a key one in republican ideology, as traditional republicans regarded the Irish state as illegitimate and maintained that their loyalty was due only to the Irish Republic declared in 1916 and in their view, represented by the IRA Army Council.
During the 1960s, the republican movement under the leadership of Cathal Goulding radically re-assessed their ideology and tactics after the dismal failure of the IRA's Border Campaign in the years 1956–62. They were heavily influenced by popular front ideology and drew close to communist thinking. A key intermediary body was the Communist Party of Great Britain's organisation for Irish exiles, the Connolly Association. The Marxist analysis was that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a "bourgeois nationalist" one between the Ulster Protestant and Irish Catholic working classes, fomented and continued by the ruling class. Its effect was to depress wages, since worker could be set against worker. They concluded that the first step on the road to a 32-county socialist republic in Ireland was the "democratisation" of Northern Ireland (i.e., the removal of discrimination against Catholics) and radicalisation of the southern working class. This would allow "class politics" to develop, eventually resulting in a challenge to the hegemony of both what they termed "British imperialism" and the respective unionist and Irish nationalist establishments north and south of the Irish border.
Goulding and those close to him argued that, in the context of sectarian division in Northern Ireland, a military campaign against the British presence would be counter-productive, since it would delay the day when the workers would unite around social and economic issues.
The sense that the IRA seemed to be drifting away from its conventional republican roots into Marxism angered more traditional republicans. The radicals viewed Ulster Protestants with unionist views as "fellow Irishmen deluded by bourgeois loyalties, who needed to be engaged in dialectical debate" . As a result, they were reluctant to use force to defend Catholic areas of Belfast when they came under attack from Ulster loyalists—a role the IRA had performed since the 1920s. Since the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association marches began in 1968, there had been many cases of street violence. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had been shown on television in undisciplined baton charges, and had already killed five non-combatant civilians, three were children. The Orange Order's "marching season" during the summer of 1969 had been characterised by violence on both sides, which culminated in the three-day "Battle of the Bogside" in Derry.
August 1969 riots
The critical moment came in August 1969 when there was a major outbreak of intercommunal violence in Belfast and Derry, with eight deaths, six of them Catholics, and whole streets ablaze. On 14–15 August loyalists burned out several Catholic streets in Belfast in the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969. IRA units offered resistance, however very few weapons were available for the defence of Catholic areas. Many local IRA figures, and ex-IRA members such as Joe Cahill and Billy McKee, were incensed by what they saw as the leadership's decision not to take sides and in September, they announced that they would no longer be taking orders from the Goulding leadership.
Discontent was not confined to the northern IRA units. In the south also, such figures as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Sean MacStiofain opposed both the leadership's proposed recognition of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This increasing political divergence led to a formal split at the 1969 IRA Convention, held in December. when a group led by Ó Brádaigh and MacStiofán walked out. The split resulted from a vote at the first IRA Convention where a two-thirds majority voted that republicans should take their seats if elected to the British, Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland Parliaments. At a second convention, a group consisting of Mac Stiofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Ó Brádaigh, Joe Cahill, Paddy Mulcahy, Leo Martin, and Sean Tracey, were elected as the "Provisional" Army Council. Their supporters included Seamus Twomey.
Accounts at that time suggest that the IRA members split roughly in half, with those loyal to the Goulding-led "Official" IRA prominent in some areas while the Provisional IRA were prominent in others. A strong area for the Official IRA in Belfast was the Lower Falls and Markets district, which were under the command of Billy McMillen. Other OIRA units were located in Derry, Newry, Strabane, Dublin, Wicklow and other parts of Belfast. However, the Provisionals would rapidly become the dominant faction, both as a result of intensive recruitment in response to the sectarian violence and because some Official IRA units (such as the Strabane company) later defected to them.
There was a similar ideological split in Sinn Féin after a contentious 1970 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. The leadership of Sinn Féin passed a motion to recognise the Parliaments in London, Dublin and Stormont but failed to attain the prerequisite two-thirds majority necessary to change Sinn Féin's constitutional opposition to partitionist assemblies. Those defeated in the motion walked out. This resulted in a split into two groups with the Sinn Féin name. Those supportive of Seán Mac Stiofáin's "Provisional Army Council", were referred to in the media as Provisional Sinn Féin, or Sinn Féin Kevin Street, and contested elections as Sinn Féin. The other group, under the leadership of Tomás Mac Giolla, was to contest elections first as Official Sinn Féín, then Sinn Féin The Workers' Party, and aligned itself with the Official IRA, as the Marxist faction had come to be known. The party retained the historic Sinn Féin headquarters of Gardiner Street, thus giving legitimacy to its claim, in the eyes of some, to be the legitimate successor of that party. It was briefly known popularly as Sinn Féin Gardiner Place.
The Officials were known as the "Stickies" because they sold stick-on lilies to commemorate the Easter Rising; the Provisionals, by contrast, were known as "Pinnies" (pejoratively "Pinheads") because they produced pinned-on lilies. The term Stickies stuck, although Pinnies (and Pinheads) disappeared, in favour of the nickname "Provos" and for a time, "Provies".
(The paper-and-pin Easter Lily of the IRA was the traditional commemorative badge of the Easter Rising, whereas the self-adhesive Easter Lily of the Officials was a novel invention, symbolic of the divergence of opinion between them).