Contributed by Brian Hanley
Time and word count are limted, so I’ll get to the point: a terrible waste of talent and production values, with no need at all for the final half an hour of sub Saving Private Ryan dramatics. If you are making a documentary on Brian Boru I can see why you may feel that reconstructions are neccesary. However there was a wealth of excellent archival footage and a wide range of interviewees (the ex-Irish soldiers were the best); why not stick to that? Presenter Tom Clonan in his army landrover driving around Newry was particularly ill-judged. All so that the programme could conclude that Lynch got it right (again) and weren’t we lucky to avoid some terrible bloodshed. At least Des O’Malley noted that actually 3,500 plus people died in a slow-drip civil war over the next 30 years. Admidst the neccesary hype to grab viewers the impression was given that the ‘invasion’ plan was news. In fact the key documents have been available to researchers since 2001 and have been written about on several occasions. (See the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog.)
While the idea of serried ranks of Irish troops crossing the border in Panhard armoured cars may cause hearts to quiver in the post-Articles 2 & 3 era, in fact there is nothing at all surprising in the Irish government contemplating this, given that they regarded the six counties as Irish territory (a revelation that they planned incursions into, say, Wales, would have been truly shocking) and that almost the entire southern establishment had at various stages sworn to end partition. The crisis of 1969 forced all this back on the agenda and of course any army would make contingencey plans of all types.
At times the presenters found it difficult to verbalise exactly the government were intending; an ‘Irish invasion of the north’ (how would that work?) ‘an invasion of the province’ (which province?) another ‘Bay of Pigs’ (!) and other strangulated terms were applied. The serious point was well made: the Irish Army would have been battered and in the programme’s conclusion Tom Clonan did (at last) mention that this could have led to massacres of Catholics in Belfast and elsewhere. Despite the praise for Lynch, his ‘not stand by’ speech was disasterous. Aside from references to ‘high profile hard liners’ Boland and Blaney, we were not told what anyone else in the cabinet actually said about the whole debate.
More seriously the IRA were not mentioned once. Despite the interviews with Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey there was no consideration of what was happening on the ground, organisation wise, in Derry and elsewhere. The Battle of the Bogside didn’t organise itself. The Defence Committee included several IRA members, with expertise in the rudiementries of street fighting, and more importantly it was IRA members who organised the demonstrations in Belfast on August 13 to ‘take the pressure off Derry’ that led to upheaval there. If Irish troops had entered Newry they would have found the main streets closed off, and the RUC barracks under siege, as here again republicans had responded to orders to stretch police resources. And when it came down to it, it was the IRA to whom elements in the government turned during the autumn and winter of 1969 to aid actual, rather than hypothetical intervention. The Irish government’s plans during August 1969 are certainly worthy of inclusion in a documentary on that crucial period, but what about an attempt to uncover what actually happened on the ground in Belfast and elsewhere?
Brian Hanley’s book (co-authored with Scott Millar) The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party is published this month by Penguin Ireland.