Regular readers of this blog will be aware that last night I posted an article dealing with Allison Morris’ story in The Irish News alleging that the RUC was aware in advance, thanks to a top-level IRA agent on their books, of the plan to blow up the UDA leadership as they met on the Shankill Road in October 1993.
As we all know, the plan went badly awry. The bomb was hung on the ceiling of a fishmonger’s shop called Frizzels, in whose upper floors the IRA believed the UDA was in conclave. The fuse was lit but the bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of the two IRA bombers; two children and seven shoppers were blown to eternity in the blast which collapsed the building.
In the following week Loyalist paramilitaries went on a vengeful rampage and between fourteen and sixteen people died violently at their hands, in shootings and bombings, nearly all of them Catholics.
The spur, in the first place, for the attempt on the UDA’s leaders, the Shankill militant Johnny Adair in particular, was an escalating number of Loyalist murders of Catholics in the weeks beforehand. So all in all, Northern Ireland seemed locked into an unstoppable downward spiral which the Frizzels bomb could only accelerate.
For other reasons, the slaughter of that awful week or so in the autumn of 1993 took place at a critical moment in the then unfolding peace process.
Opposition to the Gerry Adams’ led peace process was growing in the IRA, and was intense at the upper reaches of the organisation in Belfast. The about-to-be published Downing Street Declaration would be a big disappointment to pro-peace elements in Sinn Fein and the hard-pressed Tory government in London was beginning to turn to the Unionists at Westminster for support in the voting lobbies.
The Shankill bomb genuinely terrified ordinary Catholics while raising serious questions about the utility of political violence. All these years later the frightening atmosphere of that time, especially in Belfast, seems to belong to a different planet, but it was a moment when the oft-predicted civil war scenario did not look so far-fetched, while the appetite for an end to the killing certainly sharpened.
Within republicanism, Gerry Adams – whose spin doctors told the media he was furious about the bomb – was forced to defend the bombers and to carry the coffin of the dead IRA bomber, Thomas Begley, at his funeral, to the universal scorn of the media and embarrassment of political leaders and governments who had indulged the SF leader in his mission for peace.
Ironically, though, the bomb and its aftermath served more to strengthen Adams and weaken his opponents, even though politically the peace process was going badly for them and would get worse, circumstances that otherwise would be meat and drink to the militarists in the IRA.
The bombing was a disaster that overshadowed everything else and there was little doubt in the public mind, especially in the Catholic community, that the IRA was at fault.
To call it a turning point in the process might be a stretch but within a few months Gerry Adams had a visa to the US, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was scrapped and by August 1994, ten months after the bomb, the IRA had called a ceasefire and the path to the Good Friday Agreement was set.
Arguably none of this could or would have happened had the Shankill bomb not clipped the IRA’s wings.
So, when a story appears in the media, as it did in The Irish News this morning, saying that the RUC Special Branch knew all about the bomb plot and did nothing to stop it, all sorts of questions follow.
Not least among these is whether the intelligence apparatus deliberately allowed carnage to happen on the streets of Belfast on the assumption/belief/hope that it would have positive political consequences for the peace process? And if the spooks had interfered once to the benefit of the process, had they done so before or after?
The other question, or at least one of them, is who leaked the story to The Irish News and why? That was the import of the blog post I wrote last night and it would be quite extraordinary if the same questions did not leap to the mind of every journalist in Ireland who knows how this business works.
It is the first question that comes to most reporters’ minds because there is no such thing as an altruistic source, at least in my experience. There certainly are sources who are mostly motivated by the search for truth – or at least anger at its suppression – but I have yet to meet one who is entirely driven by that consideration.
Every source has his or her special reason for talking to a journalist and quite often it is that motive which becomes the most interesting element in the story – which I believe may well be the case in this story.
And so, it is a perfectly legitimate, and journalisticaly justifiable, for other reporters to speculate about who leaked a story – and therefore why. In this case I made no secret of my suspicion that it was probably Sinn Fein/IRA figures who gave Allison Morris the story since a) they had the facts: the information stolen from Castlereagh RUC Special Branch offices and b) and the motive: to get one over the British in the squabble/debate about how to deal with the past.
Nowhere did I say or suggest that Allison Morris should disclose her sources. I would never do that. And if the PSNI do come after her, which I don’t think will happen, I will be one of the first to defend her.
But equally, she does not have the right to forbid others to speculate in a legitimate way about who her sources were, even though she may not like reading on the internet that Bobby Storey may have been the guy who whispered in her ear. It’s called freedom of speech, which where I now live is something protected by the First Amendment.
And especially she does not have the right to misrepresent other journalists who do indulge in such speculation.
But that is just what she has done to me, in this twitter response to Dixie Elliott:
The kindest response I can make to this, is that the Shankill bomb story has perhaps gone to Allison’s head. The best advice I can give her is to draw the curtains, lie down and try to get some rest. Maybe if she can dream about days like the one pictured below, she’ll get her sense of proportion back: