- The 1975 British-Provisional IRA Truce in Perspective
Beginning in August 1969 and formally continuing until July 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was actively engaged in a paramilitary campaign designed to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland and to create a democratic and socialist Irish Republic of thirty-two counties. The two main protagonists in this conflict, the Provisional IRA and the British government, had a repertoire of actions available, and over the course of the struggle each developed tactical innovations in response to the other's approach. 1 And in spite of pledges never to negotiate with terrorists, at various points representatives of the British government met and entered into agreements with representatives of the Provisional IRA.
One set of negotiations led to a British-Provisional IRA truce lasting from 10 February to 22 September 1975. 2 When this truce [End Page 211] broke down, its failure demonstrated to all parties concerned that neither a Provisional IRA victory nor a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland was on the horizon. Rather, the Provisionals and the British were in for a "long war"—a war that continued virtually uninterrupted until the Provisional IRA ceasefire of August 1994. The 1975 truce is often presented as a watershed, one of two key events (the other being the 1981 hunger strike) that changed the course of modern Irish republicanism.
The standard interpretation of the truce is that the British tricked the Irish republican leadership into believing that they were considering a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. From this viewpoint the IRA leadership based in the Republic misread the situation, while the British introduced the twin policies of Ulsterization and criminalization. Ulsterization moved the Northern Irish security forces to the fore in the fight against the Provisional IRA. This limited the impact of the conflict in Britain and supported the view that the core of the Troubles was a Northern Irish sectarian problem (Protestant versus Catholic), with the neutral British caught in the middle. Criminalization combined the ending of political status [End Page 212] ("special-category status") for paramilitary prisoners with the termination of internment without trial, which had been widely criticized as an affront to civil liberties. Provisional IRA activists were then more easily labeled criminals and terrorists. And as the truce continued, the Provisional IRA reputedly lost direction and engaged in sectarian attacks and a feud with a rival organization. These activities seemingly validated the British interpretation of the conflict, further undercutting the Provisional IRA. By the end of the truce, it is argued, the Provisional IRA was a greatly weakened organization and on the verge of defeat.
This standard interpretation of the 1975 truce is found in several sources. Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie have observed in their book The Provisional IRA: "The period ushered in by the ceasefire marked the Provisional IRA's darkest hours since its inception and brought it the closest it has yet been to collapse and defeat." 3 Brian Feeney remarked of the truce in Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years: "Nor did it lead to British withdrawal, as IRA leaders deluded themselves into believing was on the agenda. Rather, it caused great tensions within the IRA at leadership level and between North and South and proved to be the catalyst for change in both the IRA and Sinn Féin's role in the republican movement." 4 Jonathan Powell has commented in Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland that "the new Labour government, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, made secret overtures to the IRA, and the IRA leadership agreed to a ceasefire in 1974-75. This is seen now by IRA members as an unmitigated disaster in which Volunteers' morale plummeted and the movement was penetrated. The southern leadership of the movement had been duped by false promises." 5
The accepted account of the 1975 British-Provisional IRA truce has important implications. The story ends with a younger, more militant, and Northern-based Irish republican leadership, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, saving the Provisional IRA and its political party, Provisional Sinn Féin, from certain...