40 years ago this evening the Provisional IRA launched a purge against the Official IRA in Belfast. It was much like the night of the long knives pulled on the IPLO 17 years later. The same sort of rationale was used: the communities were being cleaned up of criminals. Unlike the IPLO, the Official IRA did not disband but rallied their troops and fought back.
Before it ended a fortnight later more than ten people had lost their lives and many more had been injured. Some were Provos, others were Sticks and some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were deemed guilty by association. Paul Best, Mario Kelly, Seamus McCusker, John Browne, names plucked from memory, amongst their number.
It was a Wednesday evening around tea time that the Provisionals’ Belfast Brigade mobilised across the city. On the first night Robbie Elliman was shot dead by a three man Provisional team in McKenna’s Bar in the Markets. He had been doing nothing more harmful than having a beer when confronted and blasted by a man wielding an armalite rifle. He was the sole fatality of the night which was more characterised by kneecapping. Whether an authorised execution or local autonomy exercising muscle it heralded a homicidal descent.
One of those killed was six year old Eileen Kelly who was blasted in the chest in her own Beechmount home by Provisional IRA volunteers the night following Robbie Elliman’s death. They were in search of her father who was said to be associated with the Workers Party. The disproportionate loss of so much for having done so little seemed not to figure in the considerations of those directing and prosecuting the purge. It was not considered a reason to call a halt, merely a spur to send armed men into even more homes.
The following summer, the story went, during one of the occasional verbal jail flare ups, Official republican prisoners in Cage 2 were taunted by Cage 3 Provisionals mimicking the rocking of a cradle to the words “rock-a-bye Eileen.” One of the hooters can be seen occasionally on our television screens advocating the policies of those he mocked. Any difference is negligible. In his defence he has matured greatly and probably cringes at the memory of it. Teenagers in armed conflict don’t much do empathy.
In Magilligan Prison at the time, a week short of my release, I like most Belfast men seemed to think attacking the Sticks was a pretty good idea. With plenty of years to reflect since, it was a rubbish notion. The Derry City and rural volunteers couldn’t fathom it, thinking it typical Belfast turf wars, devoid of any ideological substance.
Robbie Elliman’s crime was that he belonged to a body that wanted to support the police, reform the Northern state, go into Stormont, acquiesce in the consent principle, and desist from all armed actions against the British, while keeping more than a gun or two in the dumps for purposes of financing and protection from other organisations. What he more or less died for was belonging to an outfit that had the foresight to sense the shape of things to come. For that, the body that killed him denounced him and his colleagues as traitors and criminals. Now it is doing pretty much as Robbie’s crowd did. A united Ireland is no closer. Ultimately Robbie Elliman died as part of a project that eventually came to think that the Provo Stormont was somehow better than the Stick Stormont. A wanton waste of his life and every other life lost during the two week orgy of bloodletting. As the late John Kelly was not averse to saying "we are all Sticks now."
After coming out of jail, I bumped into Sticks, went on the booze with them, visited their homes, had them in my own, debated with them, worked alongside them on joint projects, and addressed one of their ex-prisoner conferences. What I noticed about them was that unlike the Provos who essentially believe in nothing other than the office soup of the day, they possessed a strong sense of social conscience. Tug a Stick this way and that, they invariably end up pulling you onto the ground of social deprivation and the need to tackle it. Whatever about their strategic or political orientation, they were into helping people in dire economic circumstances. Even on an individual basis they would do it without any discernible advantage accruing to their political project. Never once did I find my past an obstacle to a dig out. Plenty of old Provo friends were on hand as well but the Sticks weren’t old friends, just good neighbours.
Shouting "Up Stormont" at each other is much better than shooting each other, but it can hardly justify the rounds fired before that point of realisation was reached. Forty years on, some of us cannot forget the horror we inflicted and the Sticks probably cannot forgive. When blameless babes are cut down it runs very deep. Eighteen years spent in prison amounts to nothing set against the life sentence without prospect of release that comes with losing a child.