wouldnt doubt that the Maguires, Conlons and
others framed for the Guildford/Woolwich bombings
rest easier for the fact that Tony Blair has said
sorry. But the issue cannot be let rest.
We say sorry when we make a mistake. This wasnt
a mistake. The lives of 11 people were deliberately
ruined by a ruthless gang of politically-motivated
plotters, none of whom has been made accountable.
On Question Time on Thursday night,
somebody alleged in relation to the case that the
IRA had allowed innocent people to languish in prison
instead of owning up to the atrocity. But the IRA
unit involved did own up. Whether theyd have
done so if they hadnt been caught in the act
of a subsequent attack is open to question. But
the fact is, they did.
In December 1975, two months after the Guildford
Four went down, Joe OConnell, Harry Duggan,
Hugh Doherty and Eddie Butler, the Balcombe
Street Four, were arrested.. Three of the
four provided convincing accounts of the Guildford/Woolwich
bombings, describing the materials used, the journeys
to Guildford and Woolwich, the getaways etc., etc.
In every detail, these accounts matched eyewitness,
forensic and other evidence in police hands, including
evidence known only to the police.
OConnell recalled an encounter with a soldier
as he entered the Horse and Groom, Guildford, asking
him time of the last transport to Aldershot. This
tallied exactly with a soldiers deposition
already in possession of the Surrey police.
OConnell declared in court: I refuse
to plead because the indictment does not include
two charges concerning the Guildford and Woolwich
pub-bombings---I took part in both---for which innocent
people have been convicted. Butler and Duggan
made similar statements.
The police, the courts, the DPP, the Home Office
all knew---not believed or suspected, but knew---that
the Guildford Four were innocent. And yet they sat
back and saw them flung into jail. The Four were
given the longest sentences ever handed down in
England---entered as such in the Guinness Book of
Paddy Armstrong, 19, was sentenced to not less than
35 years. Mr. Justice Donaldson told
him: I must stress the words not less
than. I do not mean to give you any reason
for hoping that after 30 or 35 years you will necessarily
WMD Blair arranging his face for the cameras into
an expression of sincerity and saying sorry doesnt
cover it. He didnt acknowledge the corruption
and criminality which was involved.. None of the
corrupt criminals has been brought to book. Those
wrongfully imprisoned may have achieved closure.
But the case itself isnt closed.
It puts the question of the criminality of the Northern
Bank job into perspective.
Mitchel McLaughlin was splattered with scorn when
he told a Radio Foyle interviewer last month that
if the IRA had been behind the Northern Bank job
it wouldn't have been a crime.
It would have been a crime, he conceded, if IRA
members had carried out the heist for reasons of
"personal aggrandisement." But if the
operation had been properly authorised by a competent
IRA authority---which he denied---it wouldn't have
been criminal at all.
His underlying point was that the IRA embodies the
nation, and that its interests and the national
interest are therefore one and the same. And
nothing done in the national interest could be a
Taken on its own, this isnt outlandish. Governments
come out with the same sort of stuff all the time.
The "national interest" is regularly used
to justify everything from war to withholding evidence
from courts to telling the poor to tighten their
This perception of the IRA as the equivalent of
a government is regarded by virtually everybody
outside Republican ranks as a ridiculous delusion.
But its taken more seriously by many Republicans
than they often care to admit within earshot of
outsiders. It has been at the core of the justification
of armed struggle. Since the IRA embodies
the nation, runs the theory, the IRA Army Council,
tracing its succession back to 1916, has governmental
authority, and armed activity undertaken with its
imprimatur is, ipso facto, legitimate .
In their hearts, Provo leaders may long have had
an a la carte attitude to this ideology. Like many
a cynical Churchman, they may in their own minds
have dismissed the official beliefs of their Movement
as more codology than ideology, as embarrassing,
even, in enlightened company. But to spell this
scepticism out clearly to their "own"
rank and file would be to weaken their claim to
leadership and their hold on the Movement.
Thus Sinn Fein chiefs who could comfortably pass
themselves off as New Labour continue to approach
Catholic communities in a spirit not of seeking
their support but of claiming their allegience.
The problem for the Sinn Fein leadership now is
that they have abandoned the objective which the
armed struggle was intended to achieve and thereby,
implicitly, abandoned the underpinning ideology.
When they signed up to the Belfast Agreement they
accepted the principle of consent---that
the North will remain constitutionally part of the
UK until such time as a majority within the Six
Counties decides otherwise. This directly contradicts
the idea of the nation on which the Provos
conception of themselves and of their relationship
to "their" community is dependent. .
Whether or not they actually did the bank job, this
contradiction has now come to the fore and will
have to be dealt with.
If Sinn Fein wants to continue to progress towards
holding government office North and South, it will
have to give up the fantasy of the Army Council
as the government of Ireland and, formally and finally,
accept the fact of the two existing States. Thats
what the governments and the other major parties
have wanted and been expecting Sinn Fein to buy
into. In light of the Northern Bank job, they've
hiked the price that the party is being made to
One of the reasons Sinn Fein would be acceptable
in government on both sides of the border---if they
ended association with the IRA---is that, seeing
their Movement as representing the nation,
they dont advocate the interests of any one
class against another. In class terms, they are
reconcilers. They can use rhetoric suggesting they
are on the side of the oppressed and exploited,
while being trusted by their potential partners
in government not to destabilise the system which
generates exploitation and oppression.
One reason IRA disbandment is such a big issue in
Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein relations, for example, is
that, armed struggle apart, there are no serious
real differences between the parties. Looking back
on past Republican splits and incorporations, it's
striking that, once the guns were out of the equation,
Republican factions were able to meld into conventional,
constitutional politics remarkably easily, usually
Whats Sinn Fein's options if it doesn't do
what it's bid by London and Dublin? Give the IRA
the green light to resume shooting and bombing for
Brits Out and an all-Ireland Republic?
Thered be little support for such a course
in any of the overwhelmingly working class areas
where the party is well-rooted. And they wouldnt
be taken seriously anyway, having spent the last
dozen years preaching peace and the last seven extolling
the partitionist Agreement.
So, its into government, chastened, with right-wing
parties on a right-wing programme---or back to armed
struggle and isolation.
The answer for those appalled at the prospect is
not to go back and start out again along the same
road, as some Republican critics of Gerry Adams
and his associates advocate. It's always turned
out to be the road to compromise, betrayal and disillusion.
Not because of bad faith or venality on the part
of this or that leadership group, but because, well,
that's where this road leads. It doesn't go anywhere
else. It's the ideas at the heart of 20th-century
Republicanism which have proven inadequate, not
the stewardship of the ideas by whichever political
and/or paramilitary chiefs have from time to time
come to prominence.
Rank and file Republicans who want to carry struggle
forward should ask themselves whether the time has
not come to free themselves from the contradictions
in which they have been entangled and look for a
Socialist way forward instead.