Bobby Storey: First Among Equals

The funeral of Volunteer Bobby Storey has created something of a palaver. Palavers, of course, are not unusual in the weird political construct of ‘Northern Ireland’. They are the very stuff of the communal grind and they gain extra purchase when they occur within one of the two communal blocs rather than between the two. Condemnations of a Republican show of force at a funeral are nothing new from Unionism. The interesting thing is the reaction within the Catholic community.

The view that has been expressed within the media by some ordinary, decent, right-thinking Catholics, and given extensive publicity, is that some people are more equal than others. For months relatives have had to put up with harsh restrictions in burying their loved ones, due to the Covid restrictions, and been instructed by the Executive, including the Sinn Fein leader of the North, to desist from normal practice associated with grieving. Seeing Sinn Fein flouting the directives given to the masses and doing its own thing with its own has angered a section of the community and this anger has been extensively aired in the media and latched on to by those who wish to do Sinn Fein ill, for various reasons.

The anger is understandable at a personal level. But surely, at the political level it is a case of first among equals rather than some being more equal than others. The sending off of Bobby Storey had every appearance of a State Funeral, a special event that had a status above the temporary circumstances which now regulate ordinary behaviour for individuals. If H.M. the Queen or another important Royal were to die would the restrictions imposed on the masses be applied? I very much doubt it. And there is little doubt that Bobby Storey was very special indeed in relation to the achievement of the current position of the Catholic community and the resurgence which brought it to a position of equality within ‘Northern Ireland’.

Bobby Storey was the most vigorous of spirits within that resurgence – ordinary in so many ways but special all the same. He was the embodiment of the struggle in most of its forms. From when he joined the IRA, during the high point of the Republican offensive, between Internment and the fall of Stormont, he was in the thick of the action – fighting gun battles with Crown forces, attempting to spring comrades from gaol in helicopters, serving nearly 20 years in gaol himself, organising the Great Escape of 1983, directing large and flamboyant operations like the taking over of Belfast docks by volunteers, when fleets of lorries were brought from South Armagh, to offload the captured goods to be taken south, and directing intelligence operations in the crucial period after 1998.

Could anyone within the demoralised and beaten community of the early 1960s imagine such things? Their occurrence helped demoralise the Unionist political class and their ascendancy over the Catholic community and forced the real Power in the Land to exact structural change that equalised relations between the two communities.

I have seen Bobby Storey compared to a number of figures by the political adversaries of Gerry Adams. Ed Moloney of Boston Project infamy called him “Gerry Adams’ Beria” and “Luca Brasi with brains” after the character from The Godfather. All very predictable from Moloney. Former comrade, Anthony McIntyre, compared him to Richard Mulcahy “an IRB and subsequent IRA leader who became a key player in the violent enforcement of the Treaty against those who maintained fidelity to a republican project.”

McIntyre described Storey as “an immensely courageous and determined IRA volunteer who invariably led from the front… A man of immense practical intelligence coupled with a tactical verve and… remarkably bereft of all political and strategic acumen… It is not that Bobby Storey abandoned everything he ever believed in. Politically, there was extraordinarily little he did believe in other than the IRA… His politics were those of armed resistance to the British state. When that ceased he was left with no politics… he became an enforcer for the Adams political career project.”

McIntyre rejected comparisons with Michael Collins made by some, founded on Storey’s role as Head of IRA Intelligence. Actually comparisons with Collins are very instructive. Certainly Storey was more of a fighter/soldier than Collins and spent much more time in British gaols. An argument could be made that he was an even more effective director of intelligence than Collins within the situation he operated. But his great attribute was actually the fact that he left the politics to others and then implemented agreed decisions to great effect. If Collins had left the politics to DeValera in 1921, and not engaged in statesmanship himself, on a unilateral basis, would the movement have been split by the British in the way it was? And if Collins had left the fighting to his men in the countryside and not indulged in reckless bravado in West Cork he would have preserved himself as the indispensable element for his stepping stones to freedom.

Bobby Storey had an immense task entrusted to him when he was released from prison in 1998 after the Good Friday Peace settlement. It was to organise the Republican Army’s retreat from the battlefield in the transition from war to politics. Retreating from the battlefield whilst maintaining your forces in good order and discipline is one of the most difficult of military manoeuvres. Britain, which is the most martial state in history, is well aware of how armies have been destroyed, whilst being formerly undefeated, in such a manoeuvre. Micheline Kerney Walsh described it well in her masterpiece, ‘Destruction by Peace: Hugh O’Neill after Kinsale’ and Cardinal O’Fiaich, who wrote the preface, surely communicated its lessons to Charles Haughey and Fr. Reid and Gerry Adams, who were at that time developing a new peace with the British State. Germany in 1918 was also a good case in point, for a more recent British achievement.

There were two problems in successfully performing such a manoeuvre. Firstly, the British State and its various and myriad agencies naturally wished to destroy the force that it had failed to defeat in war and which now confronted it politically. Secondly, there was always the problem of the Republican forces fragmenting and being torn apart by Republican diehards who wished to maintain the traditional position and found it impossible to accept the prospect of a political transition to the final objective, for which the war had been fought. This element was bolstered by the fact that Republicans had maintained a hostile disposition to many of the things Sinn Fein began to embrace to secure the secondary objective of the war – the equalising agenda – in the transition to the final objective. And there was a long experience of “sell-outs” through participation in the systems that were pointed to in order to preserve the core of the movement from the virus of the political process.

If the British State had got the better of the Republican movement in this process the resurgence would have been rolled back and the community position of equality squandered. And there were certainly some within the ranks, and outside, who would have been happy at this and to have said: “I told youse so!” 

There was therefore a shadow war which had to be organised by Bobby Storey against the British in the IRA’s fighting retreat. Storey established a meticulous intelligence gathering operation with assets in many important places, and he ran sleepers in significant positions within key institutions. This shadow war comprised obscure events like the Castlereagh break-in, the Northern Bank Robbery, the Stormontgate spy ring etc. It was never quite clear who was involved in these mysterious events but they were probably combinations of British/Republican activities: British Intelligence attacks on the Republican position which were warded off by very competent responses directed largely by Bobby Storey. What was proved was that the IRA remained a fighting force, not to be taken lightly by its former foe, as it metamorphosed “from a caterpillar to a butterfly, and flew away”, in Bobby Storey’s imaginative phrase.

It would have given Bobby Storey great pleasure to have seen the Republican movement take control of an area of East Belfast, in alien and hostile territory, to complete his passing. It was an operation that he would have organised himself if he had remained at the helm, and he surely would have smiled at what was accomplished in his absence.

Irish Political Review August 2020


  1. guess what,prince philip has died and there was social distancing etc.

    hey,no-ones perfect,never mind.


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