The Bryson Incident and the Provisional IRA
Historians’ understanding of the development of the Provisional IRA in the 1970‘s and its transition into a smaller, leaner but more politically attuned group - the precursor of the body that endorsed the Republicans’ journey into the peace process - may have to be revised in the light of a recently acquired British military account of a crucial phase in the war between the IRA and the British Army. By Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell.
“The Royal Green Jackets (RGJ) Chronicle of 1973”, a privately circulated journal which includes an account of a tour of West Belfast by the regiment’s 3rd Battalion during the summer and autumn of 1973, challenges a central pillar of the Provisional leadership’s narrative of their own rise to power.
It reveals that the IRA’s re-organization into cells - credited with rescuing the organization from defeat in the late 1970’s - was forced upon the group not because of a destructive ceasefire called by the IRA’s national leadership in Dublin in 1974-75, as the conventional account claims, but because of critical setbacks in Belfast more than a year earlier when Gerry Adams was the city’s commander.
The RGJ account reveals that after a series of security force successes against the IRA in August 1973, the then Belfast commander, Ivor Bell planned a massive re-organization in the city: scrapping the IRA’s battalion and company structure and replacing it with thirty-two cells or Active Service Units (ASU’s). The new cells would be under his direct control. By contrast the accepted account, which has underpinned the rise of the current Sinn Fein leadership, says that the cell system was not introduced until 1977 in response to the setbacks caused by the 1974-75 ceasefire.
This revelation comes alongside a graphic description in the RGJ Chronicle of an undercover ambush by soldiers from the regiment which resulted in the deaths of two prominent IRA members from Ballymurphy in West Belfast. One was Jim Bryson, a notorious and fearsome gunman and the other was Patrick Mulvenna, Gerry Adams’ brother-in-law.
The two men had been chosen by Bell to be members of the new Ballymurphy cell and their deaths were hailed by the Green Jackets as evidence that the British were “inexorably winning a kind of military victory in Belfast”. Their killing was characterized publicly then and ever since as a chance event but this previously undisclosed background raises the possibility that the ambush may have been intelligence-led.
The Royal Green Jackets account challenges the hitherto prevailing version of history by showing that long before the 1974-75 ceasefire the IRA was in such danger of defeat in Belfast, its most important arena, that the leadership in the city was obliged to contemplate a radical re-structuring to survive. This new account suggests that attempts by the Adams’ leadership to put the blame on the Dublin leaders for the IRA’s woes in the mid-1970‘s, at least in Belfast, may at least be misplaced or overstated.
While Ivor Bell planned a large scale re-organization of the Belfast Brigade in the late summer of 1973, a series of security force successes against the IRA at that time, including the killing of Bryson and Mulvenna, forced him to scale his plans back and instead, according to the Chronicle, just twelve cells were created, each with five members. Nonetheless this was a radical break with IRA organizational tradition and a pointer to the pressure then facing the IRA in Belfast.
The established version of IRA history dates the genesis of the cell structure to a conspiracy against the IRA leadership led by Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes from the cages of the Long Kesh internment camp from 1974 onwards. That conspiracy was inspired, according to this rendering, by an open-ended ceasefire called by the older, mostly Southern leadership.
The Adams’ critique of the 1974-75 ceasefire claimed that the IRA’s then leaders - represented in the Northerners’ demonology by Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O Conaill - were suckered into the cessation with false promises of withdrawal by the British who used the time to reconfigure security policy.
Special category status was withdrawn from IRA inmates in the jails, internment was phased out, the RUC was given primacy in security matters and soon police interrogation centers were producing a conveyor belt of confessions to be processed by new no-jury, single judge courts and the jails began filling up with IRA prisoners who were now treated as common criminals.
THE IRA IN RETREAT
The IRA’s Dublin leadership was blamed for bringing the organisation to the verge of defeat, a charge that both justified the Adams-led conspiracy and produced the plan to re-organize the IRA.
While there is no doubt that the Adams’ critique had considerable validity and that the 1974-75 ceasefire did enable the British to revamp security and seriously intensify pressure on the IRA, it is also evident, if the Royal Green Jackets’ version is correct, that the IRA in Gerry Adams’ own backyard in Belfast was in such deep trouble that cellular re-organization was forced upon its leaders long before all this.
According to the conventional narrative of this period the cellular structure was not introduced into the IRA until 1977, four years later, when Adams and Bell were released from jail and other changes were introduced, including the concept of the “long war”, the creation of a Northern Command and Republican involvement in agitational politics, a transformation in the Provisionals’ character that led to the growth and ascendancy of Sinn Fein and ultimately to the peace process.
When Ivor Bell implemented his cellular plan, Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes were already in jail. They had been arrested in July 1973 as they attended a Belfast Brigade meeting in the Iveagh district of West Belfast, apparently betrayed by another brigade member whose work for the British was a major factor in the organization’s degradation. The fact that Bell began the cellular re-organization so soon after Adams’ arrest suggests that the plans were in the pipeline for some time before. Bell replaced Adams as Belfast commander and stayed in that post until his arrest in the Spring of 1974. Brendan Hughes escaped from Long Kesh and replaced Bell as IRA commander in the city until he too was re-arrested in the early summer of 1974.
Although the RGJ Chronicle does not deal with events in the IRA subsequent to the arrest of Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes, it is safe to assume that their successors, who were loyal to the pro-ceasefire leadership in Dublin, reverted back to the brigade structure and scrapped Bell’s cells. This is implicit in Brigadier James Glover’s famously leaked assessment of the IRA in 1978, ‘Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends’ which dates 1977 as the year in which the cell structure was brought in. Glover also describes Gerry Adams as “the prime architect” of the change.
THE AMBUSH IN THE BULLRING
There were very fews things that the Provisional IRA in Belfast and the British Army would agree about in August 1973 but on one issue they had no argument: James Emerson Bryson was a very dangerous character indeed. “A controlled psychopath”, is how an IRA colleague described Bryson to one of the authors in 2001. “A cunning ruthless killer”, was the judgement of the Battalion Intelligence Officer with the Royal Green Jackets regiment in his five-page account of the ambush by his soldiers that led to Jim Bryson’s death and the closing of one of West Belfast’s most violent chapters in the early years of the Troubles.
Bryson was only twenty-six when bullets fired by a soldier hidden in a covert observation post slammed into the back of his neck and mortally wounded him. But the Ballymurphy IRA activist had long before achieved legendary status in the Republican community and helped make his neighborhood in West Belfast one of the toughest and most uncompromising Provisional strongholds in Northern Ireland.
The ambush that was to claim his life also took that of Patrick Mulvenna whose wife, Frances was a sister of Ballymurphy’s most famous son, Gerry Adams. A cousin was Gerry Kelly, another Ballymurphy stalwart and currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast, who took part in the first IRA bombing of London in March 1973. At the time of the Bullring ambush, Mulvenna was commander of the Ballymurphy IRA ASU, arguably the cream of Ivor Bell’s new Belfast cell structure.
Although these days he disavows any connection to the IRA, Gerry Adams became ‘B’ Company’s very first commander when the local unit decided in early 1970 to break with the mainstream IRA, soon known as the Official IRA, and align with the newly formed breakaway group that, thanks to lazy journalism, would be dubbed the Provisionals. Formed in angry protest at the Officials’ failure to defend Catholic areas from Loyalist and police attacks the previous summer and committed to the gun as the only solution to political problems, the Provisionals were a natural home for the likes of Jim Bryson.
That Ballymurphy’s IRA activists became so feared and fearsome in the years following the birth of the Provisionals was due in no small part to the presence in the ranks of ‘B’ Coy of remorseless gunmen like Jim Bryson. There was, consequently, one other thing the IRA and the British Army could agree on that late summer day in 1973. Bryson’s death was a huge blow to the IRA; that of Patrick Mulvenna and the wounding and capture of a third member of the ASU completed a miserable day for the Provo command in Belfast. As the RGJ Chronicle account of the deadly ambush put it: “(The attack) destroyed arguably the best Provisional ASU in Belfast disposed of two of the most wanted and dangerous men in Northern Ireland.”
Gerry Adams’ relations with Jim Bryson were, by some accounts, complex. He has described Bryson as “a dear friend” and wrote in the first part of his autobiography, ‘Before the Dawn’ how, not long before the BullrIng ambush, he had counseled Bryson to keep a low profile: “...I had argued with him very earnestly....that he needed to keep his head down; things, after all, had changed from the time he could wander around the Murph at will.” as the British would be keen to remove him from the scene. But the late Brendan Hughes, quoted anonymously in ‘A Secret History of the IRA’, had a different view. “Bryson didn’t trust Adams, because he had never fired a shot,” he told one of the authors in 2001. “He was such a hard bastard, and I think Adams was basically frightened of him.” When Adams needed to curb Bryson, he added, he would send someone else to do the job, usually “a fellow operator” for whom Bryson had respect.
Bryson’s reputation was well earned. He had escaped from British custody three times. The first was from the back of a Saracen armored car where he fought soldiers with his fists to get free. The second time was when he and six other IRA internees swam to freedom through the icy waters of Belfast Lough from the prison ship Maidstone. The third time was from the underground passage that linked Crumlin Road jail to the Crown courthouse. Using a smuggled pistol Bryson and another prisoner, who were facing arms charges, overpowered warders, changed into their uniforms and made their way out of the courthouse. Bryson made it to the street and then to safety, his collaborator was caught.
In the early years of the Troubles, Bryson’s favorite weapon was a vintage Lewis machine gun, a relic from the First World War which was standard issue for British forces up to the Second World War. He used the weapon to break the IRA’s 1972 ceasefire when he, Brendan Hughes and a fellow Maidstone escaper, Tommy Tolan opened fire on British troops during a confrontation in Lenadoon, in West Belfast. After his death, Ballymurphy Republicans created a wall mural to commemorate Bryson and Mulvenna. In the mural, Bryson is depicted carrying the Lewis gun, his IRA trademark. Bryson was also a feared sniper and used an Armalite rifle fitted with a telescopic sight. The British believed he killed a number of soldiers and policemen with this weapon.
(The Ballymurphy mural depicting Patrick Mulvenna [left] and Jim Bryson, carrying Lewis machine gun - © CAIN [cain.ulster.ac.uk] )
To this day, Bryson’s memory is invoked by Republican leaders although in these days of the peace process, not to justify nor praise armed struggle. When the Ballymurphy mural was unveiled in 2001, Gerry Kelly told a crowd gathered to remember Bryson and Mulvenna: ``None of us can speak for Jim or Paddy and say what they would think of the situation today. But at the time they were leaders of the struggle and they led with courage and imagination. There is nothing to say they wouldn't have shown the same courage today.''
THE ROYAL GREEN JACKETS
In the British Army they have a nickname for the Royal Green Jackets. They call them “the Black Mafia”, black after the color of the buttons worn on the shirts of their dress uniforms and mafia because of the number of senior, influential officers produced by the regiment since it was formed in 1966 from the amalgamation of elite infantry regiments that date back to the early days of the British Empire.
The RGJ Association approvingly quotes a rival complaining that “the Green Jackets run the (British) Army”, and it is hard to quarrel with that. A snapshot of senior officers in 1984 produced by the association showed that in that year there were no less than twelve RGJ officers above the rank of Major-General, including two Field Marshalls, one of them Sir Edwin Bramall, Chief of the Defence Staff.
The Green Jackets also had a name for producing some thoughtful and liberal-minded officers. A former battalion commander was Sir David Ramsbotham who went on to become Britain’s Inspector of Prisons, in which capacity he quarreled with both Conservative and Labour governments over his insistence that prison should be about reform not punishment. He was eventually sacked by Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw - a badge of honour by itself in some quarters - when he complained that his reports were being ignored, including one that protested about a woman who gave birth in chains.
The CO of the 3rd battalion in the summer of 1973 was Robin Evelegh, who later wrote a book about his experience in Northern Ireland in which he questioned the usefulness of many military operations. He also had an intriguing take on informers, noting that while they were the “most effective weapon for destroying terrorists”, “the rank of the informer in the subversive organization is of less significance than might be supposed. A relatively junior member...can do enormous damage...in achieving the operational destruction of the organization.”
There is however one former RGJ officer whose name invariably evokes darker images. Sir Frank Kitson, a former commander of the 1st Battalion of the RGJ will always be associated with the murky side of the British military during the dying days of empire. In the early 1950’s he headed military intelligence operations in the bloody campaign against the Mau Mau, organising terrorist-type counter gangs to oppose them. He then served in Malaya during the war against communist guerrillas and in Cyprus during the Eoka uprising.
In 1969 he spent a year at Oxford refining ideas on counter intelligence developed in these outposts of a vanishing imperium which were published in book form in 1971, with the title Low Intensity Operations. The previous year he was given command of the British Army in Belfast. 1970 was the year the IRA’s campaign began and Kitson was able, at the very start of the Troubles, to put into practice some of his counter intelligence ideas.
(General Sir Frank Kitson - a former commander of the Royal Green Jackets)
One was the use of covert observation posts, both to collect intelligence and to ambush terrorist activists (Kitson’s emphasis on intelligence-led operations to produce contact with the enemy, by 1973 universally accepted by the British Army in its war with the IRA, suggests that the Bullring ambush may not have been just as unplanned as it looked).
The other was the creation of an Irish counter gang, called the Military Reaction Force (MRF). Specialist plain-clothes soldiers formed the core of the MRF but agents were also recruited from the ranks of both branches of the IRA, some of whom served in the MRF and the IRA at the same time. The MRF both collected intelligence on the IRA and roamed the streets of Belfast in civilian vehicles ready to shoot or assassinate IRA targets,
One initial goal of the MRF was to capitalize on the intense and sometimes violent rivalry that existed in the early years of the Troubles between the Official and Provisional wings of the IRA in Belfast. The two groups regarded each other as threats to their existence and rivals for popular support in the Catholic ghettoes while some of their leaders harbored personal grudges against each other dating from the acrimonious split of 1970. It was fertile ground for trouble making.
Frank Kitson would have two reasons then to heartily approve of the ambush in the Bullring. The IRA’s plan to create a network of secret cells in Belfast had been disrupted through the use of a covert observation post ambush - known in military jargon as Observation Post/Reactive - while one consequence, albeit unintended, was that afterwards the Provisionals blamed the Officials for killing their two men and the two groups were at each others throats.
The truth as revealed by the RGJ Chronicle was more prosaic and even pathetic - the Official IRA, led in Ballymurphy by Ronnie Bunting, had indeed set out to kill Jim Bryson that day but the lone gunman who volunteered for the task developed a bad case of fright when he encountered Bryson and his team and fled home.
(Ronnie Bunting - Official IRA commander in Ballymurphy in August 1973)
Nonetheless, the fallout was intense as Provo supporters in Ballymurphy pointed the finger at the Officials. Fights between Provisional and Official remand prisoners broke out in Crumlin Road jail, there were numerous assassination bids and it took a fortnight of diplomacy between the two groups before peace was restored. The RGJ Chronicle (p.104) recorded the violence and tension that followed the Bryson/Mulvenna killings, but revealing in the process considerable naivete about the potential of the Officials:
The shooting of Bryson and his compatriots highlighted the increasing friction between the Official and Provisional wings of the I.R.A. The feud intensified dramatically in the Ballymurphy with a large number of shooting incidents which did not involve Security Forces. Both sides seemed to have designated members of the opposing I.R.A. wing for execution. The Provisionals were firmly convinced that the Officials had been responsible for the shooting of Bryson, Mulvenna and O’Rawe. In the Clonard and Beechmount there was increasing evidence of dissension between the two factions. The Official I.R.A. had slowly spread their insidious influence as the decimated Provisionals lost more men. The Officials had become highly motivated and politically aware. Their leaders are educated and probably sincere in their wish for a Socialist State gained by political means. Equally they are prepared to terrorise and “hood” when expedient to do so. Tough, arrogant men well versed in the handling of weapons and their use. They repudiate the R.U.C. and angle strongly for a locally raised police force, namely themselves. They are a real danger, now and in the long term, to the R.U.C. and politically to the still shaky S.D.L.P.
(In the aftermath of the Bullring ambush, Provisional supporters betrayed an Official IRA arms dump to the RGJ. It included the grease gun that was supposed to have been used that day by an Official gunman to kill Jim Bryson)
(Jim Bryson - pictured after his arrest in early1973)
(The shot-up car, a Vauxhall Viva and not a Hillman Hunter as the RGJ Chronicle mistakenly described it, used by Jim Bryson, Patrick Mulvenna, ‘Bimbo’ O’Rawe and Frank Duffy)
In its summary of the 3rd Battalion RGJ’s four month tour of West Belfast, from the end of July until the end of November, the Chronicle devotes two fascinating paragraphs to the Bryson Incident, in which the shooting of the Ballymurphy ASU is placed in the context of Ivor Bell’s cellular re-organization of the Belfast IRA. They read:
On the last day in August the Bryson incident occurred which was of such importance that it is the subject of a separate article. Undoubtedly the shooting dead of Patrick Mulvenna, the wounding and subsequent death of Jim Bryson and the capture of James O’Rawe was was not only the most significant single event of our tour but brought to a close one more chapter of the I.R.A. campaign. History may show that 31st August was an important landmark in the fight for peace in Northern Ireland. The weapons recovered in this remarkable incident and the follow up amounted to thirteen rifles and pistols including ammunition and explosives. After this event and other steady success it was hard to resist the conclusion that the Security Forces were inexorably winning a kind of military victory in Belfast, if not Ulster. Six gunmen were killed in August bringing the approximate number of terrorists put out of action, one way and another, to one thousand two hundred and sixty-five, including one hundred and ninety five Protestants. In Belfast the three Provisional battalions, which were sited in the Andersonstown, Ardoyne and our own district virtually ceased to exist. In their place the I.R.A. tried to create small Active Service Units, A.S.U.’s whose members would be known only to others in the same unit and which would be directly responsible to the Belfast Commander, Ivor Bell.
The original I.R.A. plan for eight A.S.U.’s each of five men in each of the three battalion areas, had to be revised because of the shortage of dependable men. The compromise of four A.S.U.’s in each district had to be modified as a result of the level of attrition achieved by the Army and R.U.C. The Ballymurphy A.S.U., which had included the gunman Jim Bryson, had been eliminated.
The author of ‘The Bryson Incident’, Captain Robert G K Williamson was the Intelligence Officer for 3rd Batt RGJ. When he retired from the British Army he teamed up with his commanding officer, Col Robin Evelegh and another former RGJ officer to set up a company specialising in the international transit of explosives. He declined to be interviewed for this article. Evelegh died in 2010. The Lance-Corporal who killed Bryson and Mnoulvenna was promoted to corporal and awarded the Military Medal. James ‘Bimbo’ O’Rawe recovered from his wounds, was convicted for his role on August 31st, 1973 but less than ten years later was free. He was briefly an IRA ‘supergrass’. He broke during RUC interrogation and agreed to implicate six colleagues in IRA activity, but he retracted before the case came to court. Ivor Bell went on to become IRA Chief of Staff but also fell foul of a supergrass and lost his seniority in the IRA. He later broke with Gerry Adams, accusing his former ally of moving the IRA away from armed struggle, was court martialed and left the IRA for good. He has refused all media invitations to talk about his life in the IRA. At the time of writing, General Sir Frank Kitson is still alive and is 86 years old.
 RGJ Chronicle 1973, p 103
 NI: Future Terrorist Trends, Brig-Gen J Glover, Defence Intelligence Staff, Ministry of Defence, 1978 - page 8
 An Phoblacht Republican News, June 7th, 2001
 Before the Dawn, by Gerry Adams, p 226
 A Secret History of the IRA, by Ed Moloney. Second Edition, p 105
 An Phoblacht, op cit
 Peace-Keeping in a Democratic Society: The Lessons of Northern Ireland, by Robin Evelegh, p 133
 RGJ Chronicle, 1973, pp103-104