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State Papers: Irish government on the PIRA's 'biggest propaganda coup since the 1981 hunger strike'

The Irish government raised its concerns to the British over the RUC’s handling of Larry Marley’s funeral.
Dec 31st 2017, 6:01 PM 26,517 84

ACCORDING TO STATE Papers from 1987 that have just been released, the documents reveal the government was told that the funeral of Larry Marley was the “biggest propaganda coup since the 1981 hunger strike” for Sinn Féin and PIRA.

The documents show that the government had a great deal of worry about Marley’s funeral, how the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) handled it and the violence that subsequently followed.

The behind-the-scenes discussions between the RUC and the Catholic Church, as well as talks  between then-Tánaiste Brian Lenihan and then-UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King are highlighted as well as their agreement not to go into details publicly about what was said.

Larry Marley

Marley was a member of the Provisional IRA from Ardoyne in Belfast. Imprisoned in the Maze Prison, he was described as one of the masterminds of the mass breakout in 1983.

He was shot dead in his home on 2 April 1987, and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) claimed responsibility.

ULSTER Republican filer Masked IRA provisionals at the funeral of Bobby Sands some years earlier. Source: PA Images

The State Papers detail how, after negotiations between the priest of Clonard Monastery in the Ardoyne, and the RUC, arrangements were made whereby the RUC would allow the funeral to take place.

This did not go to plan, however.

“Heavy-handedness”

In a paper written by a civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs at the time, however, “on Monday, 6 April, and Tuesday, between the manipulation of Sinn Féin/PIRA and the heavy-handedness of the RUC, the funeral was brought to a halt and eventually abandoned”.

ruc 1

With a heavy police presence, the perception among the nationalist community was that the RUC was unfair towards their right to bury their dead. What followed was several nights of rioting on the streets of west Belfast.

From the RUC’s perspective it appeared that the police was desperate not to “back down” in the face of the IRA on the matter.

On the Wednesday, a phone call was arranged between Lenihan and King.

Both men, looking at the actions of the police and the rioting on the TV, agreed they looked “awful”.

The perception that Irish officials had was the British government agreed that the RUC was acting disproportionately with the Catholic community for this funeral.

“Generally, we have the feeling around here that the British believe the RUC could have handled this funeral more sensitively,” documents said.

The difficulty for the police was that having taken the stand they did, it was very difficult for them to back down in face of the provocation from the provisionals.

There was a clear view from the government that the heavy-handed RUC tactics with the funeral, alongside the subsequent rioting “could only benefit extremists and undermine progress made in relations between alienated nationalists and the community in west Belfast”.

The Irish government wanted a “degree of sensitivity and a cleverer approach… an approach which does not play into the hands of the provisional IRA”.

The numbers and aggressiveness of the police seemed to many to be excessive.

The funeral, itself

Patrick Kelly Funeral - Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - East Tyrone Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of Patrick Kelly a month later. Source: PA Images

In the paper written by the Department of Foreign Affairs official, it said that during the few days of delay of the funeral, “the affair had developed into something of a cause celebre” with the ranks of the funeral cortege “swollen to ten times their original number” when permitted to go ahead.

The Sinn Féin and the PIRA, who had orchestrated the affair all week, manipulated the situation so that there were continuous violent clashes between the mourners and the RUC.

A reference is made to Ardoyne as a “depressed looking nationalist enclave surrounded on all sides by predominantly Protestant areas”.

It highlighted the campaign from nationalists to attempt to encourage people to attend the funeral.

“Sinn Féin/PIRA runners toured the Ardoyne and parts of west Belfast dropping flyers and calling on the inhabitants to attend the funeral next day, saying that free black taxis would be available to take people to the funeral,” it said.

It also makes a number of conclusions, including that it was a disaster for nationalist-RUC relations and that it was a major PR victory for the PIRA.

sinn fein ruc

The document closes with the warning that many nationalists would be looking at upcoming loyalist protests to gauge “RUC willingness to contain loyalists demonstrations and to protect nationalists from outbreaks of sectarian violence”.

After watching the violence that took place in the week of the funeral, the Tánaiste sought an urgent meeting with Secretary King to “thresh out the question of the handling of funerals”.

It said that the concerns of the Irish government were raised frequently with King’s office and that “the points we made did not appear to be heeded with the damaging results we saw this week”.

Read: ‘It’s disgusting’: Éamon Ó Cuív criticised for writing letter to IRA leader’s solicitor during trial

Read: Real IRA leader jailed for 11-and-a-half years for plotting attack during Prince Charles visit

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Sean Murray

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