Wednesday 23 January 2019

Atrocity akin to Omagh but reaction was so different

Tim Pat Coogan

ONE of the reasons that I bear a deep affection for my fellow Dubliners, was their behaviour on the night of Friday May 17, 1974. I walked through the stricken city as broken glass was still falling and ambulance sirens wailed, but neither at that moment nor subsequently, did I ever hear one word of anger directed at those responsible for the carnage.

The principle reactions of Dubliners were to do what they could to help the victims, those that were still alive, that is, and to queue in their hundreds to give blood at the various hospitals catering for the injured.

There seemed to be a general mood of "this is what they've been going through in the North" and there was the fact that people were more docile then, the famous "free secondary education" reforms introduced by Donogh O'Malley some six years earlier, had not had time to spread a spirit of confidence and individual worth, which ultimately led to the Celtic Tiger.

But these were not the only reasons for the meekness of the South's response to what is still the worst single day's death toll of the entire Troubles, the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings.

The seemingly incomprehensible difference between the pro-active manner in which decision taking Dublin, Belfast and London reacted in trying to bring to justice those responsible for the Omagh bombing and the inadequate response by the coalition government of the day, and indeed, of successive Dublin administrations since, to the far greater atrocities of May 1974, can be explained, if not condoned, by an examination of the circumstances of the time.

Firstly, it has to be understood that the bombs were no random atrocity, but part of the on-going campaign which loyalism, was conducting against the Power-Sharing Executive in Stormont, with the encouragement of the British Army and MI5, which, at the time, was engaged in a turf war, which it eventually won, with MI6 for control of intelligence gathering in the Six Counties.

The Labour Government in London, led by Harold Wilson, was unpopular with the British Security Services and Wilson was booed by naval cadets while visiting a naval vessel at Portsmouth.

The Unionist Party, led by Brian Faulkner had been weakened by the results of the election the previous February, which had returned Labour to power and placed eleven Protestants in the twelve Ulster seats at Westminster.

The Power-Sharing Executive had been set up as a result of what was known as the Sunningdale Agreement, concluded a few months earlier, which also provided for a Council of Ireland.

Unionism reacted violently against both the Power-Sharing Executive and the Council and at every level of the unionist community, there was support for a strike against the Sunningdale Agreement which broke out in May 1974, just days before the bombings south of the border.

The power workers at the giant generating plant at Ballylumford, refused to provide electricity and all across the Six Counties masked men put up barricades across the roads preventing people either going to work, to school or distributing essential supplies such as food and petrol.

These barricades were manned by masked, cudgel-wielding, and sometimes armed members of the UVF and the UDA. The British Army refused to take any action against these barricades and were frequently photographed and filmed chatting to the strikers, while figures ranging from John Hume to teachers trying to get to their schools, vainly implored the soldiers to take action.

The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was the weak and faltering Merlyn Rees, who had succeeded the far more forceful James Callaghan who later became Prime Minister. Callaghan himself later told me that he believed that the barricades should have come down and that the Power-Sharing Executive should have been upheld.

However, it was not to be. The unionist minister, who first broke ranks with his Power-Sharing Executive colleagues, was Roy Bradford.He issued a public statement warning that water and sewerage supplies might cease and on the 28th May the day of the statement, the Executive collapsed.

Later, Bradford told me himself that he issued the statement after a visit to his office in Stormont by "two of his constituents". One of them turned out to be Ken Gibson, who just happened to be the Chief of Staff of the UVF. Citizens of this State will regularly understand the impossibility of a Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA being able to walk into a ministerial office at Leinster House and call for, and get, a far-reaching political change.

However, the reaction from Dublin was one of activity without movement.

The bombings of May 17th had killed whatever little appetite that had existed in a coalition government which included Liam Cosgrave and Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, for standing up for either Councils of Ireland or nationalists rights within the Six Counties.

The Fianna Fail opposition of the time was demoralised and still somewhat choked by the fumes of sulphur emanating from the Arms Trial which had seen figures like Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney unsuccessfully prosecuted on charges of illegal arms importation.

Ideologically, the climate was one in which Dr O'Brien theorised about cleansing the culture of nationalist infections and a determined effort was made to extend the influence of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act into the print media.

Dr O'Brien is on record as having told Bud Nossiter of the Washington Post that he objected to the sort of letters which were appearing in the Irish Press and saw the Act as being used against its editor (myself).

Dublin wound up the investigations into the bombings a matter of months after they occurred and took some extraordinary steps, such as, sending the forensic evidence to the RUC to be tested.

My understanding, at the time, was that Irish military intelligence had obtained information which strongly indicated collusion between elements of the Security Forces in Northern Ireland and the loyalist bombers who struck Dublin and Monaghan.

However, I was informed that the government had taken a view that it was unlikely to get any co-operation in following up the affair from the RUC and that the net effect of making noise about the bombings would be to give aid and comfort to the IRA, thus the matter was shelved.

Certainly, the part of Mr Justice Barron's report which refers to the Irish Army having been informed by its British Army contacts within days of the atrocities occurring, that it knew who the culprits were and had two of them in custody, would appear to bear this out.

It would appear to be axiomatic that the first duty of a government is the care and protection of its citizens, but this principle would appear to have been breached in the Republic of Ireland from 1974 onward.

The impetus towards opening the files and eventually setting up the Barron Inquiry, (first begun by the late former Chief Justice Liam Hamilton), came not from Dublin, but from a Yorkshire television programme in the early 90s.

Along with the many other initiatives which he was undertaking in connection with the Peace Process, Albert Reynolds ordered that the issues raised and the allegations made of British agents' collusion in the bombings be investigated. They were, and so the road to Barron began.

It would appear that nationalist claims of collusion, dirty tricks, and downright murder even murder committed within this State's boundaries, always require an extra dimension of justification to those made by unionist spokespersons for assaults directed at their communities.

Tim Pat Coogan's latest book Ireland In The 20th Century is published by Hutchinson.

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