Engaging with ‘Provo fascists’ unavoidable, AG told John Bruton

Legal advice to then taoiseach set out pros and cons for decision related to ceasefire

In October 1996, the then attorney general, Dermot Gleeson, sent a memo to John Bruton, in which he sought to distil for the then taoiseach the pros and cons of a decision then facing Bruton, and on foot of a conversation between them the day before.

The precise nature of the decision is not stated explicitly in the memo, but it related, apparently, to the possibility of a restoration of a then suspended Provisional IRA ceasefire, with the consequent inclusion of that organisation's political wing, Sinn Féin, in multi-party peace talks and likelihood of the Irish government engaging openly with the Sinn Féin leaders, including Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.

None of the latter is stated explicitly either in the memo, which refers repeatedly to “the proposal” and “this enterprise”, while characterising Sinn Féin and the IRA as a fascist organisation.

The memo, as is its accompanying letter, is dated October 23rd, 1996, and is stamped “secret”. It is headed “Choices on Northern Ireland”.


Dealing first with what Mr Gleeson terms the negative aspects of co-operating in the proposal, the attorney general writes: “There can be no doubting the parallels with fascism to which you have drawn attention: the simultaneous use of violence and politics; the cult of the charismatic leader, with his personal authbiography [sic] or testament, the widespread use of public deception as to the role of the political leadership in the use of violence, the use of a minority political base to infiltrate a larger community, the playing on atavistic and unsophisticated fears.”

Mr Gleeson goes on to refer to Sinn Féin’s “ambivalence about violence”, with, as he puts it, “tacit support for some violence with escape routes in the case of a particularly awful atrocity”, and says that no ceasefire could be taken at face value until a considerable period had elapsed after its coming into being.

He refers to the Sinn Féin and Provisional IRA twin-track tactic of the time, “the Armalite and the ballot box”, and suggests that “the Republican Movement wants us to stand with them on the same ambivalent ground”.

On the other side of the balance sheet, as it were, under the heading "in favour of engagement", Mr Gleeson notes that a majority of non-republican voters, plus a majority of TDs of all parties in the Dáil, constitutional nationalists in Northern Ireland, the US administration, and the British government and opposition "want us to carry this business through, even if it involves soiling our hands".

Mr Gleeson says there is value in an IRA ceasefire, even if it is believed to be “tactical and not truly permanent”.

He says that once called, the pressure to maintain a ceasefire would grow, and he quips that “armies become rusty”.

He writes: “If a ceasefire is declared and Sinn Féin move into democratic politics, that will be a substantial change; they will be obliged, when they arrive at the talks, to sign on to the Mitchell Principles which will rule out punishment beatings; there may well be applications to have them thrown out of the talks, if there are punishment beatings.”

Despite what he terms his own grave reservations, Mr Gleeson recommends that Mr Bruton “should go with this enterprise, planning as best you can to minimise the compromises on principle which are clearly necessary (public appearance with Adams etc)”. The alternative to engaging with what he calls “Provo Fascists” would be difficult to sustain, he says.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times