Belfast Telegraph

Full excavation of past could dig up more controversy for our politicians

The Belfast Telegraph's revelations about the Enniskillen bomb and Loughgall shootings contradict the republican narrative of the 'armed struggle', argues Henry McDonald

Liam Clarke's illuminating revelations in this newspaper about the IRA's actions in two seminal incidents in 1987 that arguably marked major turning-points in the Troubles prove an old trope - the one that advises you to be careful what you wish for.

When the Provisionals and loyalists' armed campaigns effectively ended in 1994, the 'war' switched from being a conflict waged with bullets and bombs to a battle of history.

The Provisionals, in particular, attempted to re-shape their 'armed struggle', not so much as total war to drive the British out, but, perversely, as some kind of logical extension of the civil rights struggle.

This shift was presaged on the day of the IRA cessation, August 31, 1994, when Gerry Adams addressed the faithful on the Andersonstown Road. Adams told a crowd gathered to celebrate the IRA announcement that we had been "on our knees" before the Provisionals' offensive started.

The innuendo being that somehow the 'armed struggle' was purely reactive, a response to the repressive measures of the British Army and the structural discrimination of the unionists.

Since the ceasefires that changing narrative has become mainstream republican orthodoxy. Of course, it is blindingly obvious to state that thousands of young nationalists embraced the IRA campaign due to humiliating treatment by the security forces and the hostility of the unionist establishment that made them feel excluded from society.

However, it is a perversion of history to ignore that there were those who made free choices; who wanted a united Ireland and were prepared to kill (and die) for it.

Part of this 'battle of history' was to demand a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. The focus for mainstream republicans was trained on killings directly carried out by members of the security forces, or loyalist murders in which there were suspicions of collusion.

The problem with the Northern Ireland conflict, unlike South Africa, is that the former was not quite literally black and white.

The violence and pain inflicted in the Troubles came from a multiplicity of quarters, rather than the grand narrative of the Apartheid struggle, where a privileged white minority cruelly oppressed the black majority.

Liam Clarke's (pictured right) exclusive reports on two Historical Enquiries Team (HET) investigations - into the 1987 Enniskillen massacre and the wiping out of the east Tyrone IRA brigade's most active unit the same year - have, in their different ways, disturbed the narrative the Provisionals have sought to create a mythos from regarding the Troubles.

On the Enniskillen bomb, it appears the HET has concluded the IRA unit deliberately targeted civilians at the town's war memorial. The HET report found that the bomb had been placed at the side of the cenotaph, where civilians and members of the Royal British Legion were gathered.

In addition, the HET also uncovered a parallel plot to explode a bomb in Tullyhomin, 20 miles away, which, if it had detonated, would have killed members of the Boys' and Girls' Brigade.

Shortly after the atrocity, the IRA insisted the carnage had been the result of a mistake and the unit responsible was stood down. Yet it now appears the plot factored in the loss of civilian lives.

Clarke's second revelation concerned the SAS ambush seven months earlier in which eight IRA members and one civilian were killed. The Loughgall shooting was the biggest blow to the IRA since the War of Independence.

The HET report into Loughgall has found that the IRA team attacking the town's police station fired first. The conclusion caused political furore among the families of the dead IRA men, who have always insisted their relatives were victims of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy.

Because the investigation seems to be suggesting that there may have been grounds for the SAS firing back (whether the families like it or not), the HET has provided the SAS with some moral cover.

Republicans and unionists will never agree over the truth behind the latter incident, which, it could be argued, started to convince a number of top figures in the Provisional movement that the 'armed struggle' was a futile, counter-productive cul de sac.

The loss of IRA activists, like the notorious Jim Lynagh, also removed a potential source of serious armed opposition to the 'peace camp' within the Provisionals.

But one thing is clear: the inquiry culture that has become so prevalent in post-Troubles Northern Ireland can take even its greatest enthusiasts all kinds of directions they didn't expect to travel in.

The HET's conclusions over the Enniskillen massacre paints those responsible as, at the very least, guilty of callous disregard for civilian life and, at the worst, as viscerally sectarian.

In relation to Loughgall, the HET line is quite stunning, because it actually aids the SAS story, rather than those on the receiving end of their firepower.

For political actors on either side who would seek to use inquiries to re-write history, these bit-by-bit explorations into the past have a double-edged quality: they can inflict as much damage on them as on their opponents.

Unless there is some kind of overarching truth commission that allows for a full excavation of what actually happened over the last four decades, then this will continue.

But does anyone really think that some of the new vested political interests in Northern Ireland are genuinely ready to open up all the files - given that they could be cause for major embarrassment, or further controversy?

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