IRA’s bombing campaign aimed at weakening “awkward minority in a brave new Ireland”?

Newton Emerson began his column for the Irish News yesterday with an allusion to another sizeable elephant stuffed into the corner of Northern Ireland’s tiny room: the nature and purpose of the IRA’s extensive bombing campaign towards the end of the conflict:

…it remains poorly understood and is the subject of almost no study. Perhaps there is an academic prejudice against bourgeois property every bit as much as the bias towards examining ‘state actors’.


In 1992 with the Hume-Adams and Downing Street talks underway and a ceasefire in the offing, the IRA embarked on two separate bombing campaigns. The first targeted England and indisputably aimed at strengthening Sinn Fein’s negotiating hand with the British government.

The second campaign targeted town centres in Northern Ireland. What was its aim, given that the bombs in Northern Ireland placed little pressure no the British government? Nothing like it had been seen since the 1970s.

Now this is where the analysis gets interesting. Regarding the last big bomb of that campaign (on the Shankill Road) the IRA’s ‘story’ about targeting a UDA meeting doesn’t tally with the facts:

…there was no meeting and even if there was, carrying a bomb on a 12 second fuse into a crowded shop on a Saturday morning was a poor way for an ‘army’ to attack its opponents. The Shankill Road was still a thriving commercial centre before the 1993 bomb. It has never recovered.

Emerson asks why bomb Protestant towns and Protestant communities when it would bring little or no capital to the negotiating table?

Rather, he suggests, it was “a deliberate attempt at destroying their morale and more importantly their economic interested ahead of an all Ireland settlement”.

The Loyalist response to the IRA’s slaughter of ten innocent civilians in a Shankill Road chip shop was deadly. By the end of the week another 17 had been butchered across Northern Ireland.

This lethal counter offensive is coterminous with the Republican movement’s decision to end its ‘softening up’ exercise. There were no more big IRA bombs in Protestant town centres.

We know from contemporary documents (see Appendix 6 in Brendan O’Brien’s Long War) that Republicans at this time were pitching for a ten to fourteen year timescale towards full scale political unification with the south.

This keys with another part of Emerson’s analysis:

The Republican Movement was lured into the Hume-Adams and Downing Street talks on the assumption that the 2001 census would show an imminent Catholic majority.

It believed it was barely a decade away from Irish unity and knew it had a year or two at most to use violence towards that end.

The priority it assigned to flattening largely Protestant towns was a pre-emptive strike to weaken that awkward minority within that brave new Ireland.

He concludes rather plaintively: “if that is not the explanation, what other explanation can there be?”

See also: Mitchel McLaughlin’s Faux Pas of the Month…

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  • TwilightoftheProds

    I think thats very interesting.

    If there was some sort of ‘dealing with the past’ mechanism -it could ask questions about that-things that don’t often get asked; or get hidden behind ‘iconic’ cases.

    The mainland campaign is clear enough. For myself, the NI town bombings seemed …odd and rather desperate. Emerson might be right. But also it could have been a sign of relative Republican weakness, outside of South Armagh and parts of Tyrone. They found it harder, riskier and more time consuming to hit fortified barracks and patrols….so show you are still ‘capable’ of grabbing the news and costing millions by economic bombing. Sore thumb politics by the method of destroying high streets and businesses.

    Aside from using stats, the only way we are going to get info about ‘the bigger picture’ behind these campaigns is possibly by some sort of ‘historical’ commission or truth process….and people aren’t too keen on that for all sorts of reasons good and bad. Aside from that, the occasional whistleblower or biography might let some stuff slip.

  • cynic2

    The leadership were perhaps very conscious that they were finally about to admit defeat (no matter how dressed up) and therefore wanted to build creditability with the rank and file for whom murdering Prods was an end in itself.

    Losing the war and going out with a bang?

  • lamhdearg2


  • Mick Fealty


    Sometimes you are just too cynical for your own good.

  • sonofstrongbow

    The bombing campaign continued the sectarian violence of the Irish Republican murder machine. As has been referenced elsewhere Sinn Fein’s omnipotence in all things has gained mythical, yet underserved, status. Republican violence was opportunistic not nuanced. They attacked Protestant targets because they could, because it presented few risks (save from the hope that their devices would explode prematurely before others were at risk) but mostly because damage, death and injury to their targets would play well with their support base.

    I recall having to read the ‘Long War’ documents before. They were, and continue to be, a surreal read. Much the same mindset remains at the core of militant Irish Republicanism: blaming the violence on everyone save themselves, claiming kinship with, and a desire to peacefully coexist with unionists, whilst simultaneously murdering them and most notably a belief in the myth that a united Ireland was just around the corner.

  • Framer

    The final local bombings were all of a part with the previous 25 years of bombing where there were odd lulls. In all, some 5,000 buildings were bombed and destroyed, indicative of a remarkable productivity that would have had England or the US in uncontrollable vengeance mode.
    The basic motive was bomb everything British, in this case Ulster British, a policy of rage.
    It was nihilism with one political purpose and benefit – the enemy was decimated, literally.
    The Protestant population dropped by 10% and was entirely driven out of acres of territory.

  • DoppiaVu

    Mick – very interested in your response to Cynic2.

    Are you seriously saying that you don’t believe there was an element of pure sectarian hatred in the PIRA’s actions?

    Or maybe you were being ironic?

  • Mick Fealty

    No. We can probably take that as a given for non state actors on both sides. Hatred being an element of the struggle.. (

    It’s that cynic2 offers no evidence for his assertion that feeding the sectarian dog was the only element to this, other than his own eponymous cynicism.

  • “Now this is where the analysis gets interesting.”

    No that’s where he goes off on a flight of fancy without anything there corroborate his “analysis”. There were more town centre bombs, they just didn’t reach their destination. As I remember there was a 1000lb bomb intercepted outside Armagh the month after the Shankill bomb, followed a few days later by another which was intercepted in West Belfast.

    Emerson says there was no meeting in the fish shop that day. That may be so, but loyalists have admitted since that a meeting had been planned but moved the venue. The UFF had offices in the building and Adair had been spotted in the building on the morning of the bombing.

    Emerson offers nothing to link the Shankill bomb to the town centre campaign other that each device made a loud noise. In fact there is nothing to link the Shankill bomb to the town centre devices. One was a 5lb device carried by one man and the others were 500-1000lb devices transported by van and lorries. One was targeted against personnel and the others against property. One was no warning and the others in many cases gave warning of over an hour.

    “The Shankill Road was still a thriving commercial centre before the 1993 bomb. It has never recovered.”

    The Shankill Road was in decline both in population and commercial activity long before the bomb. The UDA racketeering did far more to hasten this than anything from the IRA.

    ““if that is not the explanation, what other explanation can there be?”

    Expense to the British exchequer in criminal compensation claims and to counter the normalisation strategy.

  • Professor Yattle

    But why counter the normalisation strategy in the year before they knew they’d be joining it? Why divert so many resources away from the mainland campaign, where the same effort cost the exchequer 100 times more?

  • Roy Walsh

    I think ‘Twilightoftheprods’ hints at what it was all about, the Provos had moved away from the targeting of innocent civilians, with limited success, into what was termed ‘economic war’ the attack on the Baltic Exchange being the highlight but bombing Britain was a costly and risky alternative to leaving a van/car in a town here where one’s accent was not suspicious to others.
    At one time some Provos believed the best way to win the war was sending Brits home in bodybags, others felt the continued drain on the home counties taxpayer better suited their aims.
    Certainly in some minds, bombing town centers to weaken Protestant resolve may have had some appeal, if showing a deep misunderstanding of Protestant psyche, but, as above, it also buoyed morale in some quarters in the run into final surrender.

  • I think the bombing of towns – which was far heavier than in the 70s btw – was designed to give the Provos something to trade with in the first stage of negotiations. It ended in December 93 after the Reynolds Major Joint Declaration. The following day a huge quantity of bomb material was left in Poleglass. I read that as the first act of decommissioning by the IRA. From then on, the ring of steel round Belfast was lifted and both sides had established their commitment to further similar trade offs.

  • Evolve

    I’m no expert on these matters, but there isn’t enough in the analysis offered above to form a coherent argument with the result that the final question asked by Newt is not meaningful.

  • lover not a fighter

    Though from another “Theatre” ( I hate that moniker for war) Maybe they just took a lesson from the Bomber Harris school of warfare (minus the planes).

  • cynic2

    “Sometimes you are just too cynical for your own good.”

    But there is evidence MIck.

    Don’t forget that within weeks of all this the blessed Gerry (who wasn’t in the IRA) was trailing the length and breadth of the North in an outreach campaign, meeting Volunteers (who were in the IRA) and explaining to them that this was all part of a cunning new strategy that would see a United Ireland by 2016.

    Open debate was encouraged at these meetings. Any volunteers who engaged in those discussions too fulsomely were quietly pulled by some senior members of PIRA as they left the meetings and re-educated on the need for Army discipline and the penalties for opening their mouths again.

    So SF was deeply worried about how it could swing this with the volunteers and spin a clear admission of defeat into a claimed victory. So a big bang on exit – especially killing lots of Prods – may well have been seen as part of this process.

    Cynical? Yes….but then what do you call an organisation murdering 2500 people over 30 years?

    And in the end it worked for them. And for the Brits.

  • PaddyReilly

    The bomb which went off in Frizzell’s Fish Shop on 23rd October 1993 killed, lest we forget, 10 people, 9 Shankill Road Residents, and the person who was carrying it, Thomas Begley. Presumably Volunteer Begley did not intend the bomb to go off in this way (suicide bombing had not yet been invented, and is in any case an Islamic preserve), and so its effect was not part of his calculations. Given the frequency with which this happened, it seems likely that someone, presumably the British Army, had access to the radio frequency of IRA created bombs, and used it to make sure they went off prematurely. This had a definite effect on the life-expectancy of the carriers, but had the incidental effect of causing unintentional casualties. Other contributors may feel that this is an exercise in shifting the blame, so I would propose the alternative explanation (believe which you will) that the IRA weren’t that good as bomb-makers.

    It does seem to be the case that while guns occasionally ricochet and kill some innocent bystander, they are still vastly more accurate than bombs, which have the power to kill vast numbers of people unintentionally. But the obvious conclusion is that Thomas Begley did not intend to kill himself, and most of the others in the shop (there was one UDA man among the deceased), nor did he or the IRA command intend to devastate the morale of the Shankill: rather they intended that the bomb would strike the serial killers upstairs and that the fish fanciers below would have time to escape. So Emerson’s analysis is just another example of confict prose, in which one side is portrayed as all good and all-suffering, and the other as all bad and totally unprovoked. The Shankill was targeted, not because they were harbouring serial-killers who had been murdering the targeters’ community, but because they were a harmless minority given to ethnic folk dancing whose only crime was loyalty.

    The Republican Movement was lured into the Hume-Adams and Downing Street talks on the assumption that the 2001 census would show an imminent Catholic majority.

    Subtle or perhaps unsubtle insertion of Unionist propaganda into history here. In point of fact at the time of the negotiations the 2001 Census was well into the future: to the same degree that the 2021 census is for us. The forthcoming demise of the Protestant majority, at least, was predicted by the 1991 census, which was widely publicised in 1992. Since that time its predictions have in fact been borne out: in 1993 there was a definite Unionist majority on Belfast council: 27 Unionists, 5 Alliance and 19 Nationalists. By 2011 this had turned into a Nationalist plurality: 24 Nationalists, 6 Alliance and 21 Unionists. In the same time Unionists have managed to lose a constituency in each of the 5 elections. So the armchair school of republicanism already had the necessary data to justify itself.

  • Professor Yattle

    “Fish fanciers”? A disgusting post, seething with hatred, evasion and contempt for the lives of others.

  • salgado

    “Given the frequency with which this happened, it seems likely that someone, presumably the British Army, had access to the radio frequency of IRA created bombs, and used it to make sure they went off prematurely.”


  • lamhdearg2

    “Presumably Volunteer Begley did not intend the bomb to go off in this way ”
    “and so its effect was not part of his calculations.”
    “Thomas Begley did not intend to kill himself,”

    Paddy, Begley did not make the bomb, there was a rumor that the bomb maker shortened the fuse, on the say so of the local PIRA M.O.C.* who wanted Begley dead.

    so the obvious conclusion is that, unless you have an insight into the events, ie the thinking off the Ardoynes PIRA military leader or his bomb makers thinking at the time, you are assuming.

    ps, “radio frequency” on a time bomb?.

    *known to all and sundry in north west belfast as a man happy to kill (sorry have killed) anyone he took a dislike to.

  • sonofstrongbow

    Indeed Professor. The same nonsense was pedalled to ‘explain’ the Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre. The Shankill Road bomb was a fused device not radio controlled.

    One could ask why the Republican “army” allowed its sectarian killer gangs to attempt to plant bombs knowing that the Army had access to radio frequencies used in IED. Could the local ‘commandants’ have been treating the ‘volunteers’ as bombing fodder? What next? Suggestions that the hunger strike ‘martyrs’ were sacrificed for political advantage?

  • Mick Fealty

    has anyone tried counting up twelve to figure how much these guys had to scarper? Or just how sure they must have been about what class of person would be killed?

  • Reader

    Paddy, I think the radio control story is only certified for pub use.
    In a more public arena, the official position is that the IRA were going to set the short delay timer, safely shepherd the numerous customers out of the shop, move crowds of people away from the vicinity of the shop front, and make their getaway along the length of the Shankill Road before the bomb went off. Or maybe that story is only for use in the pub too?

  • PeterBrown


    If you think suicide bombing had not been invented in 1993 or used in NI before 1993 you might want to recheck that with the family of Patsy Gillespie who was the unitended suicide bomber at Coshquin 3 years earlier or perhaps the British Army killed him too?

  • Turgon

    Most of PaddyReilly’s post has been rubbished already especially regarding radio frequencies on time bombs. Juyst to mention that suicide bombing had already been perfected by the IRA albeit using an involuntary “suicide” bomber. Patsy Gillepsie was murdered in a proxy bomb in 1990.

    At his funeral the Bishop of Derry Edward Daly said of those who committed the act… “the complete contradiction of Christianity. They may say they are followers of Christ”… “Some of them may even still engage in the hypocrisy of coming to church, but their lives and their works proclaim clearly that they follow Satan.”

  • DC

    Paddy, I think the radio control story is only for certified people.

  • DC

    No that’s where he goes off on a flight of fancy without anything there corroborate his “analysis”.

    Yea sure maybe somebody from the IRA of the day will come out and give their own analysis of its bombing strategy, i live in hope!

    Here’s the best take on any insight:

  • PaddyReilly

    Revived this thread nicely didn’t I?

    I do not know whether the bomb concerned was a radio controlled or a time bomb. I only know that the version which emerges after such an event is frequently a lie. In fact it makes no odds. As I said, believe which you will.

    If it was radio controlled, then someone must have had access to the frequency. If it was on a short fuse, then someone must have substituted an even shorter fuse: from 12 seconds to 0 seconds, in all probability. Given the late date of the operation: 1993, the likelihood that saboteurs had got to it is increased. What is not credible is that Thomas Begley wished to disassemble himself, in order to discommode a fishmonger and his customers, when the entire Ulster Freedom Fighters were believed to be upstairs.

    “It was rumoured at the time” is not a source acceptable to Wikipedia. “It was decided by Newton Emerson 20 years after the fact”, even less.

    You cannot commit unintentional suicide.

    Thomas Begley, aged 23, was a bit young to have earned the undying hatred of some senior person in his organisation: an organisation which was famous for nutting whoever it chose. So the facts are as I stated them. A bomb went off prematurely, due to sabotage by the opponents of the organisation who prepared it, or, if you prefer, due the deficient bomb making capabilities of said organisation. As a result several people were killed who were not the intended victims. The intended victims were a gang of serial killers. It was not intended to target an entire community. Newton Emerson’s thesis is untenable. We may convict on recklessness, but not on intention.

  • Turgon

    Incidentally PaddyReilly is wrong on another issue “(suicide bombing had not yet been invented, and is in any case an Islamic preserve”

    The Japenese kamakise pilots were not muslim: neither more recently were the Tamil Tigers.

  • PaddyReilly

    Well done Turgon: concentrate on the asides and trvialities and ignore the thrust of the argument.

  • lamhdearg2

    “undying hatred” is that a pun?.
    how about this A was involved in another job, where a off duty police man was murdered, A, could directly implicate B in this killing (B tended not to get his hands dirty anymore) B had become concered that A was not so much Johnny tight lips more frankie the squealer, so B as a leader in a “an organisation which was famous for nutting whoever it chose” decided to close As lips for good, instead of having to put the top brass through any embarrassment with As family,B did the nutting a sly way.

    however if you are coming at this from a wiki page, then i shall bow to your superior knowledge on the matter.

  • Mister Joe

    I have recently spent some time in Turkey. Muslim beliefs really impressed me.
    The worst sin of all is suicide; there is no forgiveness – straight to hell.
    The second biggest sin is to kill another person unless it is done to protect yourself, your family, your community or the honour of the family. How the last is sometimes interpreted is unfortunate to say the least.

  • Mick Fealty


    You’re trading in some second hand speculation (as are you LamhDearg), and some stuff you’re plainly making up yourself.

    Clearly the UDA offices *were* above the fish shop, but no one has confirmed that it was even in use that weekend never mind hosting a meeting that morning.

    What we also know is that *no* UDA men killed in the bombing, cock up or cover story. You take your pick.

    Lost Lives under John Desmond Frizzell, 3418 quotes fighting for the peace:

    “Forensic science experts reported, and republican sources have confirmed, that the timing device on the bomb could be set for a maximum of 11 seconds. But the IRA men did not have time to make their escape; nor did the people in the fish shop; and in any case the UDA office upstairs was empty.”

    It goes on to quote an IRA source that apparently blamed the young man who primed the bomb. “There is a thin line between disaster and success in any military operation”.

    A security source suggested that that this could have been a success but they suggest the IRA’s intelligence was screwy since the meetings that had taken place stopped weeks earlier when they’d noticed ‘the security force surveillance’.

    In short, your guess is as good as mine. But there seems no doubt it was detonated by a timer not a remote.

  • aquifer

    The IRAs attacks against London did more economic damage than the entire bombing campaign in the North, but if they had killed significant numbers of Englishmen the gloves would have come off and no complaints from the US ROI or other sovereigns. Armed blackmail is only effective if the victim feels he can negotiate. With dead mainland citizens on the streets that is much harder.

    The IRA also needed to demonstrate some kind of strength and current capability despite being compromised by informers. Killing Irish protestants is OK in the closed circular logic of Irish separatist gun gangs. However maybe the leadership also proceeded because they felt the gun gangs needed a reminder of the inherent limitation in waging sectarian war against an armed majority. Sectarian retaliation. Once the blood is up people do not listen to logic, they may need active learning.

    And finally, for the gun gangs to accede to power, they would first have to establish themselves as ‘non killers’ to avoid simple sectarian civil war as a reaction to the English handing over the North..

    The progress of the long war was being blocked by protestant countergangs and by infiltration, so the leadership were out of time on this.

    It was use it or lose it all.

    With 9/11 it was game over.

  • PaddyReilly

    You’re trading in some second hand speculation, and some stuff you’re plainly making up yourself.

    No I’m making it all up myself, though plainly others must have considered the matter and come to similar conclusions.

    You will appreciate that I do not wish to seem at all knowledgeable about the construction of bombs. It might attract unwelcome attention. But the 11 second fuse story strikes me as implausible. Would any one agree to lay a bomb of this magnitude (demolished the entire building) with just 11 seconds to get out? What if they slipped on a fish and fell? And even if they did get out, would they not be caught by the flying debris, as several passers-by on the pavement were? And even if they did get out and avoided the debris, would they not then be torn limb from limb by the people of the Shankill? Would any Director of Operations send someone out with an 11 second fuse bomb, for a shop in the Shankill, and expect them to come back alive? Try it yourself. Try depositing a basket in your house and giving yourself 11 seconds to get out and start driving down the road. It’s just too risky. Thus I can only suggest that there was both an 11 second fuse and a remote, the latter activating the former. Or the 11 second fuse story is entirely spurious.

    1993 was sufficiently late in the day for the IRA to have mastered the art of bomb-making and bombing. It was also sufficiently late in the day for the Security forces to have infiltrated IRA operations and/or learnt how to sabotage their radio frequencies. So yes I prefer lamhdearg’s story to the official version. Though I prefer mine to his.

    In February 1972 the OIRA bombed the Officers Mess of the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot, at lunchtime, in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. They achieved a direct hit, but the only admitted fatalities were the Regimental Padre and certain waitresses. This was presented in the papers the next day as “Mrs Mops and Catholic Priest”. The intended spin was that the OIRA’s intelligence was crap and the bomb had gone off at the completely wrong time of day. This distortion, and the negative publicity it created, achieved its effect: by May 1972 the OIRA had called a ceasefire and spent the next 30 years turning itself into a feminist organisation and political party with Rainbow George levels of voters.

    Obviously since then, if any organisation tries bombing to achieve its aims, then there will be a concerted effort to persuade them that their attacks always strike completely the wrong people. Every victim will be paraded as a model of innocence and disinterestedness. This is the propaganda approach. If an American drone hits an Al-Qaeda operative’s house killing his 3 wives, and blinding him, this will be portrayed as the assassination of 3 innocent village women and the wounds of the Al-Qaeda man will not be mentioned. Americans do this, not because they have any valid reason for opposing Al-Qaeda, but because they hate Islam and wish to impose Christianity on Afghanistan. And indeed on this thread we see the same approach. The IRA bombed Frizzell’s fish shop not because they were desperate to stop a gang who were randomly murdering members of their community without any intervention by the authorities, but because they love to steep themselves in innocent Protestant blood.

    The next step is sabotage. Ideally the bomb will kill the bombers, and people who are liable to be of the same political complexion as the bombers. You can achieve this by delays in evacuation, by having an agent in the organisation, possibly even by interrupting their radio frequencies.

    Now in the long term this is, I suppose, morally justifiable. Killing people cannot be right, so to hamper those who are engaged in this activity must be an improvement. The trouble is, the bombers are working on the same moral economy. I still resent some of the lies told, though.

  • DC

    What if they slipped on a fish and fell?

    Cod’s law i guess.

  • Brian

    ‘They attacked Protestant targets because they could, because it presented few risks (save from the hope that their devices would explode prematurely before others were at risk) but mostly because damage, death and injury to their targets would play well with their support base.”

    That explanation is lacking. They could have killed many more Protestants with bombs or shootings, but they (overwhelmingly)did not. The reason is that it was counterproductive and only played to the lowest elements of their support base.

    After bombings like that one and the Enniskillen, the amount of people willing to inform on the Provos and no longer turn a blind eye went up dramatically (referenced in any book or study of the Intelligence war in the period). After such bombings sympathy abroad soured, lukewarm supporters turned tepid, and even fanatical gunmen began to question their own view as “soldiers of the Republic.” (I doubt they fancied themselves as bombers of fish shops filled with ‘civilians’ (by any definition).) Electoral results for Sinn Fein always dropped after bombing fiascos like that, as well. Not only were bombings like those morally disgusting, but they were counterproductive to anything they were trying to accomplish (electoral success, military efficiency, negotiating as real “statesman” and not terrorists)

    Shankill was an attempt at getting the UDA leadership, for which many in the core support base had been demanding action against for several years. (The leadership had been holding their gunmen back from retaliating as it was bad for them to fall into obviously sectarian warfare while trying to get a seat at the negotiating table)