From Civil Rights to Republican Wrongs

15 years ago today physical force republicanism devastated Omagh with a horrendous atrocity. The Real IRA took responsibility for the action and has been vilified ever since. As much as we might blame it alone, a more disconcerting truth is that those of us who privileged the physical force tradition to the exclusion of all else, have our moral fingerprints all over that bomb. The bombers on the day only delivered what the rest of us had for long enough primed with legitimacy. Wax philosophical if we wish about us and them, but the difference between our La Mon bomb and their Omagh bomb amounts to little more than a date.

In terms of casualties inflicted it was easily the worst republican assault on civilian life in the course of the Northern conflict. Even though the attack was not as malign as the Provisional IRA massacre of people gathering for a remembrance ceremony in Enniskillen 11 years previously, in so far as the intention was not to kill civilians but to blast the commercial heart of the town, it was no more palatable because of that. Republicans had no right to launch the attack and the civilians of Omagh had every right not to be bombed. Even when we can be certain that the hand of British spooks played some part on that darkest of days, it does nothing to absolve armed republicanism of its gross infidelity towards civilian life.

I met with the father of one of the children killed a number of years ago in Derry. He contacted me and asked if we could speak. I agreed, travelled up and found it an experience that I am not sure how to describe. Words like humbling sound trite. If he was uncomfortable, he overcame it with stoical forbearing, and spoke at some length with me over coffee. He showed great dignity and displayed no anger when I told him that there was nothing I could do to help him.

His son was twelve when his life was snatched away from him. Another child was 8, the same age as my own son is now - a sobering thought. Innocents callously exposed to tradition induced devastation.

I took a call shortly after the explosion from a republican friend on holiday in Donegal with his children. We had served time in prison together and he was not given to shallow thinking. His despair was palpable. If it was the event that heralded the end of physical force republicanism, it seemed far too high a price.

The journalist Suzanne Breen was one of many who wrote about the immediate horrific aftermath of the bombing. Her descriptions of human suffering, anguish and inconsolable grief seared the soul and may have in some republican minds cauterised the wound from which seeped the anger that led republicans to believe that they somehow could risk the existence of a civilian population in pursuit of righting a wrong. While I had for some years, by that point, abandoned the notion of armed campaigning as a means to realising republican objectives, the bombing of Omagh deadened within me any residual, lingering consideration that it was only tactically, but not morally, wrong to practice physical force republicanism.

Pacifism is not in my view a viable mechanism for displacing malignancy or overcoming aggressors. They see it as a weakness to be exploited. Moreover, coercion of some sort governs the whole range of human relations and is to politics what oxygen is to fresh air. The corollary of that truism, however, is not that physical force is the panacea to the problems of aggression. Violence if it is ever to be utilised purposefully in any conflict situation can only be driven by rational strategy and never by irrational tradition. I have seen no one yet who has made a persuasive argument for the application of republican physical force. Yet 15 years on from the worst atrocity yet unleashed from the republican armoury, Omagh remains the turning point at which physical force republicanism failed to turn.


  1. Just finished reading the book by Marianne Elliott, When God took sides. The book really did improve my understanding of Religion in Ireland whether Protestant or Catholic, but more importantly how the both sides viewed, perceived each other.

    I am no historian, by any stretch of the imagination, but she gives a great run up to where were are now and how the hell we got there. She doesn't take a side in it either.

    The main conclusions are sectarianism whether protestant or catholic are viewed on the basis of how each of the differing communities are prospering and advancing.

    Perception is key to all this. I walked away with the view that physical force republicianism or loyalism, has more than the potential to become paramount again in my lifetime. She also concludes that the only winners in the whole scenarios from 1600 to present were the middle class elites ie protestants. The new emerging "castle catholics" was also discussed and how the working class protestant loyalist has the potential to revert to violent norm in the future with the perceived gains of this catholic GAA loving, gaelic speaking, county loving university educated youth.

    Whether it is right or wrong physical force militancy for defence or attack of ones community, in whoever's view, unless there is a serious stance on anti sectarianism, I get the impression we could all be back to where we were 1970's style in 10-15years.

    Here is her link.

  2. Thoughtful words Anthony. Given the suffering endured by so many as a result of the conflict it's imperative that violence is never used for any purpose now other than self-defence and even then as a last resort. There are other avenues available to progress our struggle and it is these we must seek to develop, to nurture, to promote. Elitist insurgency is far too easily penetrated by the British and manipulated to the point of failure, we have to learn the lessons and your article helps us to do that. A humbling article, fair play to you

  3. Anthony,

    A thought provoking piece.

    I have long turned to an almost Aquinasistic or Salamancan (not sure of either of those are real words) approach to support for any armed struggle despite my own agnosticism.

    The Salamancan reasoning seems to resonant in some of your views above.

    As my own views are hard to express with ease I hope you'll permit me to lift a section from the ever unreliable wikipedia on the School of Salmanca theories on 'Just War':

    Given that war is one of the worst evils suffered by mankind, the adherents of the School reasoned that it ought to be resorted to only when it was necessary in order to prevent an even greater evil. A diplomatic agreement is preferable, even for the more powerful party, before a war is started.

    Examples of "just war" are:

    In self-defense, as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success. If failure is a foregone conclusion, then it is just a wasteful spilling of blood.

    Preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack.

    War to punish a guilty enemy.

    A war is not legitimate or illegitimate simply based on its original motivation: it must comply with a series of additional requirements:

    It is necessary that the response be commensurate to the evil; use of more violence than is strictly necessary would constitute an unjust war.

    Governing authorities declare war, but their decision is not sufficient cause to begin a war. If the people oppose a war, then it is illegitimate. The people have a right to depose a government that is waging, or is about to wage, an unjust war.

    Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.

    It is obligatory to take advantage of all options for dialogue and negotiations before undertaking a war; war is only legitimate as a last resort.

    Under this doctrine, expansionist wars, wars of pillage, wars to convert infidels or pagans, and wars for glory are all inherently unjust.

    For me the main obstacle for physical force republicans now as previously is the morality of waging war when their is no chance of success.

    Though that moral basis was a penny that came a dropping slowly personally. For some that ceased arm struggle morality was never a factor in their calculations before or since. I hold little hope that those currently supporting an armed option will reflect on such basics as the moral legitimacy for their actions.

  4. Great piece Anthony:

    After the Enniskillen Bomb , I felt so disheartened , and , that's the truth , But I then started to remember when we were laying to rest The assassinated Gibraltar 3 , Murphy came on the scene and started lobbing 36mills grenades and firing at the same time , I was so full of hatred I couldn't wait to get my hands on him, I just wanted to pull the pin out of one of his grenades and stick it in his mouth, alas that was not to be.

    As for the Omagh Bombing, The British MI5 let that one through. I have always thought , Why?. Keeping an agent safe!. I was disgusted with that bomb, normal people going about there everyday shopping and then wiped of the face of this Earth, Those maimed for life, both physically and mentally, an atrocity which could have and should have been stopped, But , It should never have been prepared in the first place, No logic in placing it there , nothing to achieve and , neither of those two bombs was done in my name. The answers the families want lies within the sleazy corridors of whitehall.

  5. My apologies for typing the wrong name regarding the shooting and grenade throwing at milltown whilst we were laying to rest three assassinated volunteers by the SAS in Gibraltar Ordered by the late witch Maggie Hatchet. I should have Typed "Michael Stone", not "Murphy"
    As I was typing, I was thinking of a Previous post from Daniel, and Fiddo jumped into my mind regarding the spelling errors etc which I replied to.

  6. Kev O'Higgins,

    The last work on Just War I read was Michael Waltzer. It was his 77 version and it has since been updated, although I only read it in the last couple of years. I think you provided a very useful summary of the main elements of the Just War position.

    I think the physical force tradition has always been far removed from any concept of Just War. I think it seeks out reasons for war rather than sits down and takes stock of the strategic circumstances.