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?”