A couple of thoughts on the ‘Human Bomb’ tactic which the IRA employed in 1990.
The first is that its use, in three places (Derry, Newry and Omagh), in three different counties (Derry, Down and Tyrone) on the same day (October 24th, 1990) is consistent with the tactic being ordered and co-ordinated at a leadership level in the IRA.
That means that the plan must have been approved and maybe even devised at Northern Command level. And since Martin McGuinness was OC of Northern Command at this time it is impossible not to conclude that at the very least he gave the plan his approval, even if he and his staff did not come up with the idea.
The other unavoidable aspect of the tactic comes in the form of two questions: Why did the IRA adopt a tactic so barbaric that it was bound to be roundly criticised and condemned not just by the British and the Unionists – and the world at large – but by the community from which the IRA derived its support and succour.
More to the point why did Martin McGuinness, an intelligent and well-informed individual, give the go-ahead to the tactic? He, of all people, must have known how his own people would have greeted a tactic which involved tying a humble short-order cook to the driver’s seat of a van packed with deadly explosives and wired to detonate if, as he did, Patsy Gillespie managed to free himself and open the driver’s door.
In my book ‘A Secret History of the History’, I devoted a chapter to the aftermath of the human bomb tactic in Derry. I called the chapter ‘The Derry Experiment’ and in it, I argued that the wave of condemnation which greeted Patsy Gillespie’s death – for example, The Derry Journal compared Catholic anger in the city to the atmosphere after Bloody Sunday – created conditions which led to the secret implementation of de-escalatory measures mutually agreed by the IRA in the city and the British Army.
The facts are clear. The five soldiers killed along with Patsy Gillespie that autumn dawn in 1990 were the last British troops to die in the Troubles in Derry. IRA violence declined dramatically in the years after Coshquin. For instance between 1986 and 1989, the Derry Brigade had, on average, accounted for 13 per cent of all IRA operations in the North; between 1990 and 1993 that fell to 5 per cent, a drop of sixty per cent.
The value of what became know in British circles as ‘the Derry experiment’ was that it provided a blueprint for de-escalation when the larger ceasefire was called in 1994.
‘The upshot was that when we started discussing various de-escalatory measures (throughout Northern Ireland), it was possible to say that we have already done that in Derry’, a senior British military commander told me.
The mutual de-escalation plan was modeled on Cold War diplomacy intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear war and the proposal was put forward by two English-born Quakers, John and Diana Lampen, who were associated with a branch of the 1976 Peace People in Derry, called the Peace and Reconciliation Group.
Through their work with children and others in the community, the Lampens had got to know Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin well. The pair became the Lampen’s point of contact with the IRA, while they also liaised with the British military.
At one point John Lampen presented a detailed programme for de-escalation to both the Provos and the British side, eleven moves that the British could take and ten that the IRA could implement. The full programme is reproduced in ‘A Secret History….’, pp 368-369 in the 2nd edition.
The list was compiled after discussions involving the Northern Ireland Office, the British Army’s Western Brigade commander, the RUC divisional commander – and Sinn Fein.
The IRA never officially responded to Lampen’s proposal but events on the ground showed that many of the measures were in fact implemented. The British side also implemented many of the Lampen suggestions. The details were all published in ‘A Secret History….’ (see Chapter Thirteen).
Both Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin angrily denied the existence of the Lampen’s diplomacy when I met them in the Sinn Fein centre in the Bogside to discuss the Quaker couple’s activity, about which at that point I was not fully aware.
Initially, and to my regret, I believed them. Subsequently I learned the truth, which was that yes, the Lampens were active, more active than I had imagined, and there was a de-escalatory plan in Derry which had been inspired by the Lampens and discussed with McGuinness and McLaughlin – but the approval and consent of the Army Council had never been sought.
From thereon I could never believe anything either McGuinness or McLaughlin said. It wasn’t that I was shocked at being lied to but the realisation that these people, and others like them, could rarely tell the truth about anything, given the business they were in at the time.
It was a secret mini-peace process, hidden like a Russian doll, inside a wider process and concealed from all the IRA’s leaders bar, I venture, one figure, about whom the late John Kelly once commented: ‘Not even a sparrow falls from a tree but he knows about it’.
As their relationship with McGuinness and McLaughlin turned to tatters, the Lampens left Derry to take up work on behalf of the Quakers elsewhere. Now retired or near retirement, their small but crucial part in the Irish peace process has at least been immortalised in the pages of my book.
But what of Martin McGuinness’ motives in authorising the ‘human bombs’? That, alas, is an enigma that may never be unraveled.