The sorry truth – Are we healing or hiding from the past?

Brian Rowan with a piece that was originally published on Eamonn Mallie's website on the 9th of September. It is reproduced with the author's permission. 

It is six months since Declan Kearney introduced the word sorry into a reconciliation debate here; sorry in a humanising context to acknowledge the many hurts of war.  Since then he has described the events of Bloody Friday – the IRA bombing blitz of Belfast 40 years ago – as “unjustifiable”.

Republicans are stretching their words and language, but is it about healing or hiding? Hiding the real truth of events; concealing the detail within that changing language and generalised apology? It is a question that is being asked as this reconciliation conversation develops; a question I will return to later in this piece.

Martin McGuinness, the now Deputy First Minister, was part of a leadership that directed the IRA war. Recently, he described the bombing of Claudy 40 years ago as “indefensible”. Then, at the weekend, Kearney spoke again, at a Sinn Fein summer school in west Cork, stating “there is no excuse for the human loss and suffering of the Shankill bomb”.

Why this specific mention of one dark day that dates back almost twenty years? It was because he was sharing a platform and a debate with Alan McBride, the victims’ campaigner who lost his wife and father-in-law in that explosion on a Saturday afternoon in 1993.

I remember being there that day; remember the people digging in the rubble of the blast; remember the body count rising; remember the then assistant chief constable Ronnie Flanagan whispering to me the possibility that one of the bombers had been taken to hospital.

It was one of those days that speak out loudest from this conflict, because of the civilian dead, the nine Protestant people killed in a botched attempt by the IRA to target the UDA leadership, including Johnny Adair.

I remember many months later an interview with a police officer, who was at the bomb scene that day; an interview with me in which he described seeing a child’s foot poking through the rubble and not wanting to dig any deeper because he knew what he was going to find.

Declan Kearney is right. There is “no excuse” for what happened that day, and on many other days, many of which are forgotten or ignored because the body count was not as high; not as numerically startling; the scenes not as dramatic or dark.

These are not just days for republicans to speak to, but those on the many other sides of this conflict. The story of the Shankill bomb should not end with Thomas Begley, the IRA ‘volunteer’ killed in the blast, or with Sean Kelly, another IRA man, injured and later jailed. He was freed from prison in July 2000 as part of the early release arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement and for almost twenty years has been the ‘bogeyman’ of that bomb and that day in October 1993.

So, much of the picture is missing; the detail relating to planning, the decision to deliver a bomb on a short fuse to a target on the Shankill, the inevitability that even if the IRA had been able to target the loyalist leadership, civilians were also going to be killed; sacrificed to achieve the goal. Begley and Kelly had parts at the end of the plan, but who designed it, who made it happen?

In whatever process is constructed to answer the questions of the past, individual accountability is not going to happen, but in an organisational sense, the IRA or republican leadership could speak about that day. It could expand on what Declan Kearney said about there being “no excuse” for what happened; could answer some of the questions above.

There is something else I remember from that day; a statement from the UDA-linked Ulster Freedom Fighters warning that a “heavy price” would be paid for “today’s atrocity”. Part of the context of that period, long before the events of that October day, was a re-arming of the loyalist organisations and a marked surge in their activity – spanning the years of the early 1990s.

Amanda Fullerton’s father, the Sinn Fein councillor Eddie Fullerton was shot dead in Co Donegal in May 1991 – shot dead by the UDA-linked UFF during a declared truce by the then Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC).

Amanda was also part of that weekend debate in west Cork, during which Declan Kearney made clear that dealing with the past and all its hurts is a challenge not just for republicans: “That means accepting and acknowledging hurt was caused on all sides; to both Alan McBride and Amanda Fullerton’s families; and, many others,” he said.

I was one of a small number of journalists to whom the CLMC truce statement was given; and I remember weeks later asking questions of the UFF after the Fullerton killing. There was an explanation that the truce did not extend into the Irish Republic, but there was no reference to this in the original statement.

In this period of the early ‘90s I took scores of statements from the loyalist leadership, delivered with now defunct codewords including ‘The Ulster Troubles’ and ‘Crucible’.

I spoke to that leadership on the Fullerton killing, to a man since exiled from Northern Ireland – ordered out under threat. I am not referring to Johnny Adair, but to another one-time ‘inner council’ leader. As far back as January 1993 this source told me that Ulster Resistance sold guns to the UDA, to individual units. He was describing a significant development in that re-arming of the loyalist organisations that sparked that surge of killing in the years immediately pre-dating the 1994 ceasefire.

The information was part of a BBC news report I compiled in January 1993. Will those loyalists who know the story of this period come forward to fill in the missing detail that relates to their decisions; the orders and actions, how the strings were being manipulated in the background?

This takes us back to the earlier question of healing or hiding; hiding in terms of burying detail and information. We don’t know what republicans are prepared to reveal, because we don’t know the contributions and responses of many others.

No one knows where this reconciliation debate is going; no one knows its potential because the question of amnesty has not been addressed and there have not been the conversations to determine levels of co-operation from all sides and within what type of mechanism.

Building that process and finding the international architects who can design it – make it happen – should be the principal aim of any on-going conversation. Alan McBride suggested the report of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past  – binned three years ago – should be given another chance, but it has a design flaw.

It left the question of amnesty hanging, and suggested a Legacy Commission with investigation and information-recovery units.

Investigations won’t work, won’t deliver the missing detail, and there is no point establishing a Commission of any kind until levels of co-operation are known and terms and conditions agreed.

This is the unfinished work; determining who will co-operate – republican, loyalist, security forces/intelligence services, politicians/governments, churches, media and others; deciding how much information can be delivered and how best that is achieved; and remembering that a process on the past is not just about the IRA’s answers, but also about the questions those republicans want answered.

Who will help and who will hinder are questions for everyone – not just the IRA; not just Adams and McGuinness.

The full text of Declan Kearney’s address to the summer school in West Cork.


  1. That's a very good article. Adams and McGuinness have moored the republican movement in the dry-dock of Castlereagh interogation centre in my humble opinion. The historical crimes unit is busier than ever with pensioned off bigots re-hired. The Smithwicks enquiry has been digging about relentlessly. The reality of the GFA is that some minor person like myself who served a 5yr sentence in the 1980s cannot do a Teaching MA 25 yrs later but the RUC and Brits are digging for more convictions with a passion. Now SF for more self serving vote catching crocodile tears want further wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and no doubt RUC historical crimes unit meddling.??

    Sooner or later SF need told, get the fuck off the merry-go-round your ticket has expired.

  2. Yes Brian it is unfinished business 800 odd years of it,we will never get truth or justice while we have an English parliament presence in any part of this island,along with their agents in either so called loyalism or ex republicans,remove the pollution of perfidious Albion and with the clean air of freedom in our lungs we can at last speak and unravel the history of this island over the centuries and Englands destructive presence will never happen while they remain entrenched here ..

  3. Has The British Army/Ruc/UVF/UDA/UFF etc Offered any apologies, Except for Bloody Sunday.
    I believe the Shankill Rd Bombing was a catastrophic, misinformed intelligence blunder by P.I.R.A.
    Did The P.I.R.A. Army Council meet at the same time and place for every meeting? , NO, so why expect the UVF/UDA/UFF to meet in the same place and time for every meeting?. I also believe that all sectarian murders were totally uncalled for. We are supposed to be trying to Unite the people, Green and Orange, Not Slaughtering each other ,without that happening we will never see a united Ireland.
    If the British Made a declaration of intent to withdraw from Ulster, Don't think for one second the Orange Order and its Armies would sit down and say, OK you win. They would Mobilize in probably one week minimum with weapons left for them by the British, but, Little do they know, that's exactly what the British want, Let the Irish Kill the Irish. To many innocent people have been killed in the conflict.

  4. Larry.
    Sorry to hear you cant do your teaching MA, That is out of order.
    There must be something that can be done. Try approaching the Education Minister!!! asif.

    Just read this on the BBC News, Northern Ireland web site.

    First Minister Peter Robinson has called on the Irish government to apologise for its role in the early years of The Troubles.

    Mr Robinson said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny should apologise for the role previous governments played in arming and encouraging the IRA.

    Is Robinson going to Apologise , as Paisley's right hand man and 2ic of the uda , who was photographed with an AK47 in Israel, Maybe Martyboy can tell us, as I'm sure Peter told him what he was going to say, This is what we are up against, Hold a hand of friendship to them and they will slit your throat, Its the younger generation who need to be taught about sectarianism, It is a serious illness and needs to be CURED, Alas, that is out of PSF's scope. Lets see what happens when they all march for the Carson Bigot at the end of this month, Be Ready For The onslaught of sheer bigotry and dutch courage. PSF, get your finger out of your arse's and get off your high Horses, They are playing cat and mouse with you and you know it, Fools you for expecting to get a United Ireland by sitting in Stormont, Its called The Unionist's Castle. Its Only Our Rivers Which Run Free, and always will be while you sit in that Orange House.

  5. itsjustmacker

    'I also believe that all sectarian murders were totally uncalled for. We are supposed to be trying to Unite the people, Green and Orange, Not Slaughtering each other ,without that happening we will never see a united Ireland.'

    'If the British Made a declaration of intent to withdraw from Ulster, Don't think for one second the Orange Order and its Armies would sit down and say, OK you win. They would Mobilize in probably one week minimum with weapons left for them by the British'

    seems to me SF share your logic and decided the only way to unite Ireland is within the UK eventually. The unionists are not Irish and never will be.

  6. itsjustmacker

    Im doing an MA history and PHD. Never even thought of contacting O'Dowd...aren't they moving the Irish History department from Magee in Derry to Coleraine. Just another stunt like the closong of Magee and building of Coleraine in the first place to prevent taigs getting degrees....and on SF watch too tut tut.

    You seem to be advocating an end to sectarianism but at the same time highlighting the fact the loyalists/unionists will never change...i'm a tad confused.

  7. Larry

    You are correct about Coleraine.
    Good luck with your MA and PHD, I have a brother who lives in Ballycastle, he detests going to coleraine, I'm not a lover of it myself.

    What i mean is, The Children of staunch Loyalist need to be educated on sectarian bigotry, then , and only then they might accept that being born on the Island of Ireland they are actually Irish, this is something which needs to get through to them, otherwise ,wars will continue forever on our Island and will always end up like the situation we see ourselves in today.

  8. It is useful that Barney Rowan probes at these matters and holds up mirrors which people can reflect in.

    Something that many people are going to think about is just how honest is SF being here? How can they truly say sorry for Whitecross or Joanne Mathers when they deny ever having carried out such actions?

    Acknowledgement of culpability would precede professions of regret. It is my own view that the senior leadership see the combined underbelly of the Irish Labour Party and Fianna Fail vulnerable. To be more presentable than McGuinness proved to be in the Presidential election, where the son of Private Kelly derailed his campaign, the party needs to put the Provisional IRA not only into in the historical past but also banish it to a completely different moral past. And the party view of that moral past has to gel with the view of wider Southern society for it to progress.

    Tactically meritorious, even if opportunist, it still faces the problem of current leaders. The leadership qualities of Adams and McGuinness are useful in closing a door as they leave rather than opening a new one to step into. While they are at the helm, the same problems of the past are going to keep cropping up.

    If there is to be genuine remorse for the past that inevitably means genuine remorse for the role of Adams in that past. All else is, as Mencken would have said, moonshine.

  9. I am very wary of all these so called apologies, whether it be Cameron over Hillsborough or calls for the IRA to apologise for actions in the past. Funny how most of these apologising folk have little interest in apologising for the lives they are damaging today, but no worries about stepping up to the plate and saying I am awfully sorry for what my predecessors said and did.(This alone puts SF in a double bind as unlike all the others some of the same people run the outfit today as during the war)

    I'm sure when Gerry and Marty fall off the twig some ambitious young shinner will say sorry for what the Provos did, but will it mean didley squat?

    It is easy for the South Africans to apologise as they won their war, although they are working hard at loosing the peace.

    Perhaps today's ANC leaders should apologise for that, but we all know that will never occur.

    Peace and reconciliation; and apologies coming or being demanded from mainly one side, are a totally different kettle of fish.

    By the way, did Dev or Collins ever feel the need to say sorry?

  10. I wonder how long the bearded one will remain at the helm,there is as you say Anthony a golden opportunity for qsf to grab hold of power in the south going begging,Adams is a mill stone round that part of the party, the southern wing,I,d bet they wished he had stayed in the black north,but given he is now ensconced in the safe seat he is a problem for the ambitious carpetbaggers,I,d bet he gets booted up the stairs as a figurehead president for life without any real powers.the chances of the truth ever emerging diminishing with the passage of time,and the notion of Adams running for president.dont hold your breath for any personal apology from the man that never was.