August 15, marked the 25th anniversary of the Omagh bombing in which 29 people were killed and more than 200 injured.
The bombing had been carried out by a group that had split from the Provisional IRA after it had accepted the Good Friday Agreement and agreed to allow Sinn Féin participate in what were considered to be partitionist institutions to administer the 6 counties of Northern Ireland.
I was still a member of the IRA at that time, and while I had some concerns about where the political process might end up, like most other republicans I supported the ceasefire and thought that there was a dynamic in place that would bring about moves towards Irish unity quite quickly.
IRA members were regularly told that either this had been secretly agreed to, or that it was “inevitable” over a set period of 5 years, or ten years or, as the dates passed by; “before the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising” or some other increasingly distant milestone. As the years have passed that has become less plausible, with even the prospects of an unwinnable border poll little more than a pipedream that is trotted out for electoral purposes and to give the impression that progress towards unity is being made.
What has not changed is the almost total opposition among all but a very small minority of republicans for any renewal of an “armed struggle.” There is no doubt but that was reinforced by the Omagh bombing which brought closure, or certainly ought to have done, to any illusion that an armed campaign would be capable of forcing the British to declare their intention to leave.
There is also little doubt but that the Provisional IRA leadership used the bombing to effectively shut down any viable split as represented by the Real IRA which had taken many of the key IRA operatives with would certainly have been capable of sustaining some sort of low level military campaign had it not been for the fallout from Omagh.
So-called “dissidents,” which encapsulated anyone questioning the new dispensation after the second ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, were basically told to shut up. In some cases that included violence against, and even the murder of, republicans – some of whom were members of the armed faction, but others who were simply objecting politically, and some of whom were still members of the Provisional movement.
The intimidation, threats and actual violence against people like Anthony McIntyre and his wife in West Belfast and others was tolerated by the British state, with Mo Mowlam at one stage having infamously referred to the IRA carrying out “housekeeping” which was taken by some to signify that the British police and intelligence services were turning a blind eye to internal purges, which led to a number of republicans like Joe O’Connor being murdered by the Provisionals.
The Real IRA had claimed responsibility for the Omagh bombing, but ten years later issued a statement claiming that their only involvement had been the use by whoever did carry out the bombing of a codeword that had been supplied to the police by the organisation. This has contributed to a deliberate obfuscation regarding whether warnings had been properly acted upon, with some even alleging that the intelligence services had allowed the bombings to go ahead as a means to discredit armed republicanism, and even any political opposition from within the movement to Sinn Féin.
Anyone familiar with how the British state has acted in Ireland would not be surprised at anything they might do. Their use of informers and agents in both the loyalist and republican armed groups to carry out unspeakable acts bears witness to that. However, for supporters of a renewed armed campaign to attempt to absolve the makers and planters of the bomb of responsibility is both dishonest and cowardly.
If you place a bomb in the centre of a busy town and time it to explode on a Saturday afternoon then the consequences fall upon those who planned and carried out the operation – just as it did on the Provos, INLA, UVF, UDA and indeed the British undercover agents who were responsible for similar atrocities over the course of almost 30 years.
Those who supported the ceasefire and eventual calling off of the Provisional campaign were right in doing so, no matter what else you might say about them. Most of us who were members and indeed prisoners at the time backed this, with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm, for the simple reason that most republicans had come to the tacit and usually unspoken realisation that another twenty years of armed struggle were not going to achieve what the previous 20 had done.
Whatever the legitimacy of the initial armed defence of northern Catholics against the loyalists, unionist state and British army, and whatever actual chance there might have been up to 1974 of forcing the British to come to terms, had by then disappeared. Indeed, by the 1990s it was apparent that the IRA was not capable of even retaliating effectively let alone putting an end to the escalating and increasingly random and brutal loyalist campaign against innocent Catholics. This was especially true given that the killing was at least in part supported by elements within the state itself.
More than that, however, the end of the IRA ought to have meant a complete re-evaluation of the role of armed struggle itself. It could be argued that even a totally ineffectual and compromised “war” that results in nothing other than pointless deaths – and pointless waste of lives spent in prison that might have been put to more productive work – was elevated to the degree that just keeping going, or just claiming to be keeping going, is justification for there being an “IRA.”
Which is nonsense, and which is why in my opinion that the most astute of the Fenians realised in the 1880s that if there was to be a revolution, it must first be fought in the hearts and minds of the people that Fenianism claimed to want to liberate. Anyone familiar with the internecine feuding and blood letting of the Dublin Fenian sects of the 1880s and 1890s – very often manipulated by the G Division of the Castle and British intelligence – will not find it difficult to understand why the people who organised the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the movement to take the land back from the settler landlords, and the Irish based trade unions, and above all else the Gaelic League turned their back on all of that.
It was that which provided the Irish people with the means to at least attempt what Dubhglas de hÍde described in 1892 as the “necessity of de-anglicising the Irish nation.” It was cycling and hiking teachers of the Gaelic League who laid the basis for the revolution, not the lads hiding in the back of Dame Street bars planning to blow up the Special Branch offices across the street.
The cultural and political renaissance did lead to the Rising in 1916 and the partially successful struggle for independence after that. While the heroes of that were the men and women who sustained the armed fight, that was a popular manifestation of the democratic will of the Irish people, and engaged the energies of hundreds of thousands of people who also sustained the GAA, the language and literary movements, the trade unions, and co-operatives.
A similar mobilising of national energies is perhaps required today, and indeed is manifest in some of the same sort of areas as a century and more ago. Omagh stands as a reminder of the futility of the conspiratorialism which Fenianism later became – as does the absurd crèche far-leftism of the would be IRAs, and even the manner in which a secretive undemocratic leadership born from all of that has been able to misdirect the energies of Irish nationalism into channels that have nothing whatsoever to do with the original vision of The Republic.
That Irish nationalism decisively turned away from armed struggle in 1998 is a good thing. What has yet to happen is that the re-directed energies are channelled into a more productive way. The urgency of that is as acute today as it was in 1893.