Enniskillen Revisited

The following comment appeared on this blog in response to a recent article on the Enniskillen bombing of 1987.

Why would the IRA leadership's response to the Harry Keyes killing invalidate the view that bad operations like Enniskillen assisted the peace process faction in the leadership? Both Enniskillen and the Keyes murder brought discredit to the militarists’ argument and strengthened the view that a political alternative should be followed. The expulsion of the unit that killed Keyes, almost unprecedented in IRA history, in fact introduced and made respectable the notion that some IRA operations could be counterproductive, an essential prerequisite to the eventual discrediting of the armed struggle tactic and its replacement by the peace process.

It was a probing question, the response to which ended up being considerably longer than originally intended. For this reason a separate piece is probably the right way to deal with it.

It would be a risqué venture to assert without equivocation that bad operations per se hindered the peace process lobby. Yet, in as far as they may be said to have been enabling rather than restricting, this was almost certainly determined by their timing. At the specific strategic moments of the Enniskillen bomb and the Harry Keyes killing it remains doubtful that these military actions helped that lobby. Other than argument by assertion little has to date emerged that would substantiate the view that either operation was put together or allowed to happen in such a way as to produce an outcome that would strengthen the peace process lobby over its armed struggle rival.

The IRA had demonstrated as far back as 1970 a capacity for serious mistakes and by 1971 for errors that would result in the loss of civilian life. The challenge is to find the point, if there is one, where operations which produced overwhelming negative public reaction stopped being the result of debacle and became the product of deliberation.

The notion that it was ‘essential’ to discredit IRA operations in order to allow a political alternative to develop is arguably not as persuasive as the suggestion that more advantageous to the emergence of a political alternative than botched operations was an inability to carry operations out. The former leads to demands for more caution when conducting operations, the latter to considerations of something to fill the vacuum caused by an inability to perform militarily. The IRA’s inability to effectively perform in the North in the wake of the Thiepval Barracks bombing of 1996 earned it the pejorative dismissal of being engaged in a ‘pathetic grubby little war.’ Bill Lowry then head of Belfast Special Branch later claimed that the leadership’s position in the hiatus between the two big ceasefires was not to seriously wage war but ‘to let the army carry on until they seen for themselves how futile it was.’ That futility was rooted in failed as distinct from disastrous operations.

The argument that ‘bad’ operations aided the peace process acquires more merit when pitched in relation to the ‘human bomb’ attacks of the 1990s where there would appear to be stronger grounds on which to base the contention that the leadership approved such operations in the full knowledge of the consequences. This does not mean that it did calculate the negative effects on armed struggle, merely that the case for it having done so is stronger.

Even well into the peace process when it was clear that a ceasefire was only a matter of time and did not require bad operations to make it possible they still occurred. It hardly needs saying that the peace process lobby in the IRA leadership, if it benefited by botched operations, did not need to organise or approve them. The IRA on the ground managed this as was demonstrated in the Shankill bombing which caused the peace process lobby more trouble than it was worth.

Quite frequently in the attempt to make sense of a certain phenomenon an order is imposed which seeks out continuity while the discontinuities are downplayed even though they may prove more revealing. What might hold good for one phase of the IRA’s campaign should not be extended back in time beyond the circumstances that gave rise to it.

Post-the Peter Brooke 100 day statement of 1989 where he referred to an IRA that could not be militarily defeated and his utterances the following year about Britain having no selfish strategic interest, the IRA found itself in a different discursive era (although a major strategic reversal on the part of the organisation had long been in the making by the time Brooke arrived). Brooke helped create conditions in which the language of peace processing could be more effectively cultivated before it shifted from discourse to full blown strategy. Subsequently, the leadership had more space internally to make the case for exploring some sort of political adjunct that might, given the right conditions, bloom into an alternative. At that point bad operations could be evaluated by militarists through an alternative lens. This would seem a more suitable point for cynical minds to flirt with the concept of ‘atrocities for peace’. While highly speculative it was at this juncture that ‘human bomb’ operations occurred.

Prior to Brooke the environs in which the IRA leadership conducted its business were more constrained. If it is true, as alleged by Peter Taylor, that Gerry Adams suggested a ceasefire immediately after the Enniskillen bomb he seems to have felt compelled, in spite of his legendary caution, to rush his fences. It would not have fitted into his overall strategy of which a ceasefire was only a part, albeit crucial, and the optimum moment for such a shift was still some years off. Before botched operations could become a strategic asset rather than a liability certain conditions had to be fulfilled. Nowhere does it seem that Adams had in the 1980s reached the commanding height from where he could safely take the movement down the full blown peace process path. Operations that forced the hand of the peace process lobby cannot at the same time be said to have been under the guiding hand of that lobby.

It is in this context that the death of Harry Keyes should be evaluated. What was so particularly repugnant about his death that would place him at the apex of a hierarchy of victims? His killing was consistent with what the IRA did. Former members of the British security forces often found themselves targeted either as a result of intelligence failings within the IRA or as a manifestation of a moral malaise which cared little for demarcating between current and former membership. It was not on a par with Enniskillen, Bloody Friday, Claudy et al. That he was killed was less important for the leadership than where he was killed. Location prompted leadership ire.

1988 was a year when the IRA by its own standards bungled many operations in the North. In terms of human tragedy some dwarfed the unjustified taking of Harry Keyes’ life. The wiping out of the Hanna family serves to illustrate the point. Yet the IRA leadership saw no need to publicly whip those responsible. Its response to the Harry Keyes killing in Donegal in January 1989 was arguably an attempt to stave off a hostile southern opinion making ominous noises about the prospects of Sinn Fein vote growth in the Republic. His death threatened the electoral strategy largely devised by the peace process lobby.

The IRA leadership’s response to the killing was forced for a public audience and not a private IRA one. Internally, the leadership did not have to make any public statement flaying those responsible, instead moving against the culprits in time honoured clandestine fashion. It has yet to be shown how public flagellation of the unit involved was designed to discredit the militarist case within the IRA and strengthen the view that a political alternative should be followed. Moreover, little more than two years after the 1986 Ard Fheis, which got by on the basis of an army convention, the way to ensure no militarist head of steam was hardly by embarrassing those of militarist persuasion in public, and thus run the risk of increasing hostility against the now emerging peace process lobby.

What was ‘unprecedented’ in IRA history was the public expulsion of the unit involved. Volunteers had often been disciplined internally and on occasion expelled over botched operations. The suggestion that the idea of counterproductive operations developed with the killing of Keyes overlooks the IRA statement post-La Mon in February 1978. It made it very clear that some IRA operations were counterproductive. Sinn Fein also condemned the La Mon attack.

Overall, the evidence available at the minute would not lend itself to a firm conclusion that at any point in the 1980s botched operations were a necessary condition for the peace process to develop or that they were advantageous to the leadership rather than disabling.

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