This is one of those weeks when I am glad to be in New York and not Belfast. I’ll explain why further down, but it’s not for the reasons that you think.
Last weekend, dissident republicans, i.e. anti-Provisional ones, killed a young member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, using a bomb that was a standard IRA weapon when the Troubles were raging. It was nicknamed by those who developed and used the device ‘an up and under’, an appellation derived from the way it was placed.
An “up and under” was a small bomb, usually packed into a Tupperware-style container that was attached to the underside of a car, usually just beneath the driver’s seat, assuming the driver was the target, and designed to explode while the car was in motion.
It was affixed to the bodywork by a strong magnet and detonated by a mercury tilt switch, essentially a small tube partially filled with mercury that would flow from one end of the tube to the other, thereby completing an electrical circuit, whenever the car was driven on to a gradient.
Once it was flowing, the electric current would detonate a fuse which in turn would set off the main charge. It was the easiest device to place and it took just a few furtive moments to begin the process of hurling someone into eternity. All the bomber had to do was crouch down, slip the package underneath the car and then up into the seat well. Hence the nickname.
The Provisional IRA, whose resourceful engineering department devised this and many other weapons during the Troubles, used this sort of bomb repeatedly. Not only was it an effective weapon that invariably killed but it required little in the way of investment: a few ounces of explosive, some basic intelligence work, one person and a getaway car with driver. One additional bonus was that the hardest bit, placing the bomb, could be done in the middle of the night when the risks of being caught were minimal.
It also terrified those who were its potential targets, mainly RUC officers and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also politicians, judges, prosecutors and civil servants whose every day would have to begin with an undignified but possibly life-saving search of the underneath of their vehicles. The bomb was the ultimate psychological weapon, a constant reminder from the Provos to the security establishment that there was a war going on which might tomorrow morning claim their lives, or at least their legs.
Most the weapon’s victims were policemen or UDR soldiers killed as they drove to work in the mornings but there were more prominent casualties as well. John McMichael, the talented UDA leader, was one, killed in the driveway of his Lisburn,
Co. Antrim home by an “up and under” device. His killing, it was widely believed at the time, was carried out by the IRA in retaliation for the assassination bid on Gerry Adams, shot as he was being driven through the centre of Belfast after a court appearance in March 1984.
McMichael was the UDA’s military commander at the time and since he was spotted scouting the courthouse a few minutes before Adams was ambushed, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that he had something to do with it. The Provos bided their time and killed McMichael in December 1987 over three years later.
The timing of McMichael’s death may also have had something to do with an internal inquiry he had launched into fellow UDA member Jim Craig who was
killed by his own people a year later. Craig was a UDA traitor and as corrupt as they come. He had been passing on information to the IRA and INLA for some time and was believed, for instance, to have told the IRA where they could best kill Lennie Murphy, the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang who was gunned down by an IRA squad in 1982. Revenge for trying to kill Gerry Adams was certainly one motive for blowing McMichael to pieces but so was the desire to preserve a valuable asset in the UDA.
(The Adams’ shooting had an interesting sequel. The late Tommy Little, who some years later succeeded Andy Tyrie as Supreme Commander of the UDA, told
me that later on the day of the Adams’ shooting an angry Joe Haughey rang the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road demanding to know what had happened to ‘the top men’s agreement’. Haughey was an IRA leader from the Unity Flats area, incidentally, who was later charged with, but acquitted of killing Mary Travers, the daughter of Belfast magistrate Tom Travers a few weeks after the attempt on Adams’ life. So why was an IRA commander making angry phone calls to the guys who had just tried to kill his boss? How come he even had their number?
Tommy made some inquiries and discovered that ‘the top men’s agreement’ was just that, a deal between the leaders of the IRA, UDA and UVF that while their respective ‘grunts’ were fair game, none of their leaders would ever be touched. It apparently had been struck sometime in the mid-1970‘s when Belfast’s sectarian slaughter was at its height. Such were the ethical rules of Northern Ireland’s dirty little war: kill the other ranks whenever and wherever you can, but we officer-types are off-bounds! Anyway the Adams’ assassination effort marked the end of the ‘top men’s agreement’, although it is remarkable how many of the ‘top men’ nonetheless came through it all with nary a scrape.)
Nor was the IRA the only republican organisation to use “up and under” bombs. Their most famous victim was the Tory MP, Airey Neave who was killed in 1979 when just such a device placed by the INLA exploded under his car as he was driving up the ramp from the underground car park at the House of Commons in Westminster. The bomb blew off both his legs and he died an hour later in hospital from massive
shock and loss of blood. Neave had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the leadership of the British Conservatives and was slated to be her NI Secretary, which would have been good news for Unionists since he was an avid supporter of their cause.
I mention all this to demonstrate that the sort of bomb which killed Ronan Kerr has been around for decades and there is absolutely nothing new or particularly innovative about their use. But what did I read in the following Monday’s Irish Times but this:
British and Irish security and intelligence sources are increasingly concerned at the technical capacity of dissident republican groups following Saturday’s murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in an under-car explosion in Co Tyrone.
They believe the dissidents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their bomb-making capability, while the PSNI has described as ‘substantial’ the device that killed Constable Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic, in Omagh.
The PSNI, Garda and MI5 fear the dissidents are using under-car bombs that are miniature and more difficult to detect.
Reading that brought me back with a jolt to the days when it was often my job to write up such incidents. My abiding memory of that time was that the media, both Irish and British, often felt free, some seemed compelled, to write the most exaggerated, loosely sourced nonsense about such events. The effect was to to paint groups like the IRA in the most lurid of colors so as to emphasize how utterly beyond the pale they were.
In more recent times, both pre and post the St Andrews’ Agreement, there has been a small industry working away with energy and skill to do the same sort of thing with the dissidents, except in their case it is to inflate the perceived threat that they represent.
Before the St Andrews’ Agreement it was mostly Sinn Fein who were in this business and from their viewpoint it made sense. The more they could persuade everyone that only they stood between a fragile peace and a return to the bad old days of the Troubles, the easier it was to extract political concessions from the British and Irish governments and the easier it was to persuade the authorities on both sides of the Border to turn a blind eye to their various, uh, money-raising ventures, like armed robberies and tiger kidnappings on the grounds that such things were necessary to keep the hard men happy and on board.
Post the St Andrews’ Agreement a number of groups have had a vested interest in over-egging the dissident pudding. Some, like this bunch of London-based neocons, are in the business worldwide and especially in the Middle East, of exaggerating terrorist threats but is it not hard to work out either that, in these straitened days, both the PSNI and MI5 have much to gain if we are all led to believe that the dissidents are really, really bad news.
The PSNI and MI5 are, in Northern Ireland, primarily in the anti-terrorist business so the more terrorists they make us think there are and the more fearsome they seem to be, the greater the amount of money, manpower, prestige and bureaucratic clout that will come their way. There are also those, in both these two organisations and in the wider political world, who hope that in such ways Sinn Fein might be persuaded to embrace its Four Courts moment and take the offensive against erstwhile comrades, an event that would, like its Dublin counterpart in 1922, finally seal the peace process beyond any doubt or chance of retreat.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not going the other way and minimising the threat posed by dissidents. Clearly they are capable of killing people. It’s just that compared to the Provos and what it was really like during the Troubles, even in the final years, the dissidents are a faint shadow, a mouse beside an elephant in comparison and they just don’t merit the hysterical, exaggeration-laden coverage of the last few days. I’ve seen reports, for instance, that the dissident groups have 600 members between them. In the name of God, that’s more than the Provos had in their ranks in the 1980’s when they nearly wiped our Mrs Thatcher’s entire Cabinet!
Nor am I necessarily getting over-exercised about the behaviour of the PSNI and MI5. It is an immutable law of organisations that they overstate the need for their own existence. In such ways not only do they get to keep their jobs but they get better and bigger ones. I don’t like nor approve of what they do, but neither am I surprised. And as for nudging the Provos to their Four Courts moment, what would you expect?
What really bugs me, and brought me back in this instance with a jolt to the days when I had to report similar events, is that it is no business of the media to indulge these organisations and interests in the way reflected in that Irish Times report. Of course, reporters must give an account of what such people have to say, making clear these are only claims, and balance the report by putting what happened in context. But no more than that.
To highlight what I am trying to say here, that Irish Times report could just as easily have read:
Dissident republicans kill first security force member in two whole years using booby trap bomb technology developed thirty years ago and inherited from Provisional IRA campaign. Security experts believe dissidents have sourced a supply of smaller Tupperware containers. Attack highlights patchy and fitful pattern of violent activity from dissident groups better noted for incompetence, political confusion and propensity to steal money sent from American sympathisers for prisoners’ families.
The reason why reports like the one in the Irish Times that I have just lampooned bug me is that I know that the reporters are fully aware of all this yet it doesn’t stop them. I can’t speak on a first-hand basis for the situation nowadays but when I used to observe this sort of reporting in situ, I was overwhelmingly aware of the real, albeit unspoken reason and I doubt if it has changed that much.
It was as if the journalists were saying:
OK, I strongly suspect we’re being fed mostly bullshit. But if I don’t go along with it I’ll be accused of not taking the threat seriously which means people might think that I secretly sympathise with those responsible because I don’t want to make them look bad. So rather than be labelled ‘a sneakin’ regarder’, I’ll go along with all the hyperbole and that way I’ll keep my job.
That sort of reasoning is part of what I call the Section 31 syndrome, a nasty leftover from the official censorship and its more insidious cousin, self-censorship that was ushered in by the Irish Republic’s broadcasting law of the 1970’s. The law forbad radio and television outlets from broadcasting the voices of members of certain proscribed groups. The IRA and SInn Fein were the principal targets but it had a chilling effect generally on coverage of the Troubles that lasted for many, many years.
The official censorship filtered into the print media and brought Ireland into an ice age of self-censorship that for many reporters was all about professional survival. Journalists were terrified of being labeled a fellow traveler of the IRA while timidity and mediocrity thrived. In my view Section 31 needlessly perpetuated the Troubles because it inhibited real understanding of what was going on. Simple reportage of the “Last night a bomb exploded….” variety almost entirely replaced efforts to explain what persuaded otherwise normal people to do things as extreme as planting the bombs.
The law was repealed at the outset of the peace process but the truth is that by that stage it was unnecessary to do such things by law; the media were perfectly capable of censoring themselves without any urging from the State. They still are and that this sort of behaviour lingers on in the coverage of bombings like that at the weekend is profoundly depressing and for me a reminder of why I was so happy to leave it all behind. And it’s why this week I’m glad I’m here and not there.
On a slightly different tack the killing of Ronan Kerr has brought the Provos a little closer to their Four Courts moment and that’s important because it helps to explain why the dissidents exist and are so intent on keeping a war alive that everyone else regards, correctly, as a lost cause.
The move came from Martin McGuinness who had these words to say to the media in the aftermath of the bomb:
I would say, and I am standing up to be counted, give the information to the police, give it to the Garda in the south if you have it, give it to the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] in the north.
My message is very, very simple: those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.
These are people who are pledged to destroy the peace and destroy a peace process that many of us have invested much of our adult lives in trying to bring about.
That’s a step up from McGuinness’ comments when dissidents last killed security force members, two soldiers shot dead in March 2009 at an military barracks in Co. Antrim and a PSNI member shot dead in Co. Armagh. That time he called the perpetrators “traitors”. He was roundly criticized by other, non-Provo republicans, and even by some Provos, for his choice of words and that he has gone a stage further this time and called on people to inform is surely significant. It will also spur the dissidents to more violence.
A measure of how significant his words are can be judged by watching, by way of sharp contrast, this extract from a TV interview that McGuinness gave when he was Northern Commander of the IRA and men and women under his command did a good deal more than plant “up and unders” beneath policemen’s cars. “Death”, he agreed with interviewer Peter Taylor, was the fate reserved for those who betrayed the IRA.
Martin McGuinness knows a thing or two about informers. He was centrally involved in the celebrated, not to say infamous case of the Derry informer Frank Hegarty about which you can read more here. The affair ended with Hegarty’s death and a more than lingering belief amongst some at the IRA’s highest reaches that perhaps the wrong informer had been killed.
He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)
She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.
And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.
The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.
The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on. McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about.
And it worked perfectly, well almost so. Dissident opposition to the Adams-McGuinness strategy did emerge but it came in two waves and because of that the strategy triumphed. The first was led by people like Michael McKevitt, the IRA Quarter-Master General who was close enough to events and the major players to
get suspicious early on about the real deal that was coming down the pike. But his effort to overthrow Adams was frustrated and then when he broke off to form the Real IRA and made common cause with the INLA and the Continuity IRA against the Adams-McGuinness strategy, the venture was torpedoed by the Omagh bomb.
The next wave came many years later and really didn’t gather steam until the Provos agreed to accept and recognise the PSNI in the wake of the St Andrews’ Agreement which brought them into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP. The people involved in this wave were those who had ignored McKevitt’s warnings, and went along with the leadership’s claim that he was just an ambitious malcontent. They chose to stay within the bosom of the Provos, preferring to believe Martin McGuinness’s soothing words rather than the reality unfolding all around them. But when Martin & Co. agreed to back the PSNI they could deny the reality no longer.
Their determination to go back to war appears therefore to be fueled less by any sophisticated plan to destabilize Sinn Fein or the peace deal and more by their anger at being misled and tricked by the Provo leadership, especially the bad cop, Martin McGuinness. They were always wary of Gerry Adams. He was ever the crafty politician, never to be trusted. But Martin was one of their own. How could he lie so treacherously, they cried?
And so their anger at McGuinness is expressed in the killing of Ronan Kerr. Except that’s not the full truth either. The people they’re really angry at are themselves, for being so stupid, except they won’t admit as much. That’s why they’ll keep on planting “up and unders” and why others like Ronan Kerr will die. And it is why they’re not really a threat and why the peace process will likely survive everything they throw at it.