Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Ruth Dudley Edwards

Atonement and Redemption

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 2017

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=29362

 

Sean O’Callaghan was once a killer for the Provisional IRA. He died on 23 August 2017. His death was not a violent one. He died in a swimming pool in Jamaica, probably of a heart attack, while visiting his daughter, Tara. For many years, O’Callaghan himself had been expecting a violent death because, after becoming disillusioned with the IRA, he turned informer and was a fierce critic of his former comrades. He put his chances of dying a natural death at less than 20%. He wrote: “As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland”.

Early Life

He was born in Tralee, County Kerry in 1954 and was part of a family with a long tradition of nationalist rebellion. In his teens, he gave up Catholicism and became an atheist and a student of Marxism. He saw the unfolding events in Northern Ireland as an indictment of British Imperialism and joined the Provisional IRA in 1969 at the age of 17. He went to prison after accidentally detonating a bomb he was making and completed his sentence.

Murders

He claimed to have been responsible for two murders in 1974:  in May, a “Greenfinch” Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, Private Eva Martin aged 28, the first female from the security forces to die in the Troubles, was killed in a mortar attack on the British Army’s base at Clogher in County Tyrone; in August 1974 O’Callaghan murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, an Ulster Catholic officer of the RUC Special Branch, by shooting him repeatedly with a handgun in a public house in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. On more than one occasion O’Callaghan confessed to killing John Corcoran, another informer whose body was found in a sleeping bag by the side of a road in Ballincollig, County Cork in March 1985. No-one ever stood trial for that murder and there has been speculation that the state colluded in the murder and did not want its dirty linen to be displayed in court.

Taking Responsibility

When he was 21 in 1976, O’Callaghan left the IRA, and moved to London where he established a successful cleaning business.  In May 1978, he married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. However, he could not settle: “In truth there seemed to be no escaping from Ireland. At the strangest of times I would find myself reliving the events of my years in the IRA.” In 1979, the IRA contacted him and he decided to work against the organisation from within. He claimed this was his chance for atonement and redemption. He did not see himself as a traitor. “I had been brought up to believe that you had to take responsibility for your own actions. If you did something wrong then you made amends. I came to believe that individuals taking responsibility for their own actions is the basis for civilisation, without that safety net we have nothing”.

Charles and Diana Assassination

Although he wanted to subvert the IRA, he still did not want to work with the British government. He returned to Tralee in 1979 and offered his services to Detective Sergeant Seán O’Connell of the special branch of the police of the Irish Republic, the Garda Síochána. He met Kerry IRA leader Martin Ferris and participated in a number of attempted robberies. O’Callaghan claims to have foiled these attempts “by a whole series of random stratagems”. In 1984, after a tip-off from O’Callaghan, the Irish Navy and the Garda Síochána intercepted an arms shipment from Boston to the IRA. O’Callaghan claims that he foiled the assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by alerting the authorities to a bomb planted in the Dominion Theatre before a Duran Duran concert.

Surrender

On 29 November 1988, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He served his sentence in prisons in Ulster and England, during which time he foiled several planned escapes by IRA prisoners. He was released as part of a Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. In 1999, he published an account of his experiences entitled The Informer: The True-Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. After his release, he lived openly in the UK after repeatedly refusing offers of witness protection and a new identity.

Doubters

It is not surprising that Sinn Féin questioned his account; The Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht concluded an article about O’Callaghan: “No-one likes informers. They tell lies.” An Phoblacht said: “During almost eighteen months in Crumlin Road Sean O’Callaghan’s mental health was a cause of concern to the prison authorities. He tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and he was taking regular medication”.  The paper dismisses the claim that O’Callaghan gave himself up out of remorse. “An Phoblacht has learned that throughout 1988 O’Callaghan was drinking heavily and becoming increasingly depressed at the turn his life had taken…  MI5 had cut him loose. … He realised he had outlived his usefulness for his British handlers – that was why he did not offer his super grass strategy to MI5 – and he could not return to Ireland”.

O’Callaghan’s former IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, is now a member of parliament in the Irish Republic. He is derisive about O’Callaghan: ““His many attempts at self-aggrandisement were highly fanciful and despite the attempted lionisation of Sean by some, his obvious fabrication of the truth is clear for anyone that has delved into his claims and counterclaims.”

Others with less of an axe to grind have doubts. Some said the reason for O’Callaghan’s release was so that he could express the views of Conservative politicians who opposed the peace negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe interviewed O’Callaghan during the time of peace negotiations and he insisted that Sinn Féin was not serious about peace: “His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.” Nevertheless, Dean Godson, the biographer of David Trimble the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who fought hard to push the peace process through found O’Callaghan’s counsel helpful: “O’Callaghan’s advice was particularly important to Trimble, giving the latter extra confidence to join the first power-sharing Executive between Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in 1999”.

Supporters

Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “One of the many reasons that despite coming from a Dublin Catholic nationalist background I came to form great friendships with Ulster Protestants was their astonishing ability to forgive.” O’Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: “The IRA wasn’t really after the British,” “It was the guy down the road who had the better land that his ancestors had taken from the Catholics. The bitterness was there all the time, rooted and deep. What they really wanted to do was to murder their neighbours. It was tribalism.”

Ruth got to know O’Callaghan well when he worked with her to seek justice for victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I wrote about that in these pages. https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/omagh-part-one-the-road-of-tears/

Those who seek to question O’Callaghan’s account and his motives often cite him as being under the influence of those who seek to question the mythologies of Irish nationalism. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of those people as is Conor Cruise O’Brien and Eoghan Harris. I myself have been greatly influenced by Ruth’s writings and those of Professor Liam Kennedy, who coined the acronym MOPE about the Irish “Most Oppressed People Ever”.

I sought to apply what I had learnt from them to the Sri Lankan situation and encountered a great deal of abuse as a result. http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/ As Michael Clifford wrote about O’Callaghan in the Irish Examiner: “His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.”

When someone has committed terrible crimes is it possible to put that behind us as we move to the future? Many who did terrible things for the LTTE still walk free. Eoghan Harris wrote on hearing the news of O’Callaghan’s death: “O’Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line. His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA. To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.”

 

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal. May his soul be on the right hand of God.

MOPE – a Tale of Two Diasporas

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 28 2016

Colman's Column3

Susan Sontag: Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking.

Shedding Blood in Every Generation

Four years ago, I posted a lengthy article on Groundviews which was prompted by a statement in May 2011 by MDMK chief Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. He said that the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remained a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow. For a very small number of Irish people the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising remain a shining example. In her new book, The Seven, about the seven members of the Military Council who made the decision to rebel in Dublin, Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, concludes: “By courting death for a cause that had no popular support, were the Seven different to Bobby Sands and his comrades who committed suicide by starvation? Or from the jihadis who these days joyously sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings? They shared a sense of their own absolute moral superiority as well as an ambition to achieve some kind of immortality”.

Choosing Martyrdom

Ruth Dudley Edwards quotes words of Yeats written in 1939:

Some had no thought of victory

But had gone out to die

That Ireland’s mind might be greater,

Her heart mount up on high;

And yet who knows what’s yet to come?

For Patrick Pearse had said

That in every generation

Must Ireland’s blood be shed.

 

In my Groundviews article, I asked: “Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?”

 

Unhappy Land of Heroes

Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, recently published a collection of essays entitled Unhappy the Land. That phrase comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. The subtitle to Professor Kennedy’s book is The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? The acronym MOPE has been used a lot since Kennedy first introduced it in what Ruth Dudley Edwards called “a good essay at the very end of a book containing lots of boring economic history”. Professor Kennedy writes: “It is hard to overestimate the role of self-delusion in in Irish history, whether as a force animating colonial ‘reformers’ in the seventeenth century or Sinn Fein activists in the twentieth”. Self-delusion is not confined to the Irish.

Unhappy

Unhappy Land?

Did Ireland suffer from exceptional disadvantages? Kennedy thinks not  “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.

Some might point out the number of Irishmen who perished in the First World War. About 210,000 Irishmen, all volunteers, served in the British forces during World War One and 35,000 of them died. Others might draw attention to the deformation to the Irish psyche caused by being next door to England and being subsumed into the oppressive British Empire.

A Happy Land?

 

Kennedy

As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.

Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.

The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.

Diaspora

Emigration has been seen as a downside, a drain on the economy, depriving the nation of its bright ambitious young. Professor Kennedy sees a positive side. The Irish have unlimited freedom of exit and have enjoyed privileged access to two of the highest-wage economies in the world – North America and Britain.

Large-scale emigration began after the Famine and it did not take long for the victims to become victimisers. The New York riots of 1863 (as featured in Scorsese’s film The Gangs of New York) were called the Draft Riots because of protests against conscription into the Union army in the Civil War. In fact, they were race riots carried out by Irish immigrants, the children of the Famine, who feared competition in the labour market from emancipated black slaves. At least 119 were killed in an orgy of lynching and arson.

One of the Seven, Tom Clarke, lived in America and revelled in the atmosphere of grievance and heroic struggle that Irish Americans propagated. He expressed a virulent hatred for blacks. As Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it: “Irish Americans would take the narrative of exceptional Irish victimhood to extreme levels of narcissism, self-pity and absurdity and feed it back to republicans in Ireland in what became a malign circle”.

The Politics of Grievance

Sound familiar? In the same way, genuine grievances of Tamils living in in Sri Lanka get subsumed in the exaggerated claims of genocide uttered by sections of the Tamil diaspora.

Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.

However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.

Bosnia provides a warning. The horrors of the 1990s came “out of a hate-filled history of victimhood. The sadism of the moment was clouded by the rhetoric of the centuries”. Let us not dwell on self-delusion about “800 years of oppression” or deal with perceived grievance by more bloodshed.

 

Easter 1916 Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 22 2016

Colman's Column3

This  year  marks  the  centenary  of  the  Easter  Rebellion  in  Dublin.  This provides opportunity for reflection on the meaning of the event. What kind of modern nation emerged from the Rising? Although I am endlessly quoting my own adage –“the road to hell is paved with false analogies” – I will attempt to draw some parallels between Ireland and Sri Lanka.

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The Rising failed and was followed by a war of independence and a bitter civil war developed out of the ensuing treaty. The Republic of Ireland has just had a general election in March 2016 in which the two parties which developed out of the civil war reached a stalemate and Sinn Fein increased its seats. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) was the anti-treaty party of De Valera.  Fine  Gael  was  the  pro-treaty party  of  Liam Cosgrave,  Michael Collins  and  the  Free  State  government.  Éamon De  Valera  fought  against  the  treaty because  it  left  Ireland  divided,  part  of  the  Commonwealth  and  owing  allegiance  to  the  Crown. Ireland now owes allegiance to the European Central Bank rather than the Crown and  is still divided.

 

The aim of the 1916 Rising was to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was occupied with World War I. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Joseph Plunkett travelled to Germany in April 1915 to join Roger Casement in a bid to recruit Irish prisoners of war to the rebel cause. The two men met the German Ambassador in Washington to seek German support for Irish independence. Plunkett and Casement presented a plan which involved a German expeditionary force landing on the west coast of Ireland. That plan did not work out, although Casement brought guns into Ireland from Germany.

Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has a new book just out – The Seven. This refers to the seven men who made up the Military Council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, whose purpose was to resist Home Rule for Ireland, by force if necessary, the IRB were behind the initiative which eventually led to the inauguration of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. The IRB intended to use the Volunteers to seek a republic, recruiting high-ranking Volunteers into the IRB, such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Thomas MacDonagh. These men, together with veteran Fenian Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Eamonn Ceannt and James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army, constituted the Military Committee. It was just these seven who decided to wage war on the British Empire. On the morning of Easter Sunday 1916, they met in Dublin’s Liberty Hall. By noon, they had printed and issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which they declared themselves to be the provisional government of an entity that claimed the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman, even though the people had not been consulted.

Patrick Pearse was a poet and playwright who founded schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn and to learn the Irish language: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”. Pearse developed an unhealthy obsession with blood sacrifice.  “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”.

Though not obviously a fighter, Pearse was enthused by the sight of armed Ulster loyalists and wanted to emulate them: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a messianic and sacrificial notion that his cause was, through a symbolic loss of life, comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse expressed an ecstatic view of the energising force of the sacrifice of death in the First World War. He frequently celebrated the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.  Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote: ““It would be frequently remarked of Pearse that he had no understanding of the mundane day-to-day concerns that precluded others from showing the same fanatical dedication to his successive causes: he lived and died for a people that did not exist.”

James Connolly was more hard-headed, a socialist and trade unionist who responded thus to an article by Pearse: “We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think that anyone who does is a blithering idiot”.

Nevertheless, Connolly did sacrifice himself. The rising was planned as a “blood sacrifice” for a society that had become apathetic. There were disagreements among the rebels. Eoin McNeill, chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, wished to proceed only on a basis of realistic hope of success rather than staking everything on a gesture of moral revivalism. He thought the blood- sacrifice option intellectually flaccid. Many, however, like 18-year-old medical student, Ernie O’Malley, who had no previous record of nationalist involvement, were strangely stirred by Pearse’s peculiar theology of insurrection. O’Malley became a key organizer and leader in the later guerrilla war as well as one of its most prominent literary chroniclers.

 

The Rising began on Easter Monday, 1916, and lasted for six days. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country limited to parading. There were isolated actions in other parts of Ireland, but the orders for a general uprising were countermanded by Eoin McNeill. He had no role in the planning of the Rising, which was carried out by IRB infiltrators. He found out that Pearse had duped him and placed a last minute news advertisement advising Volunteers not to take part. McNeill was supported by Bulmer Hobson and The O’Rahilly but O’Rahilly joined in the rebellion and was killed in action.

By the time Pearse surrendered, only 64 rebels had been killed. In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. The British Army in Dublin that Easter reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were civilians. British and rebels shot civilians deliberately on occasion when they refused to obey orders. There were at least two instances of British troops killing civilians out of revenge or frustration, at Portobello Barracks, where six were shot and North King Street, where 15 were killed. Most of the civilians killed were victims of indirect fire from artillery, heavy machine guns and incendiary shells. The British seem to have caused most non-combatant deaths. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, “They regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved”.

With vastly superior numbers and artillery, the British army quickly suppressed the Rising, and Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender. Most of the leaders were swiftly executed following courts-martial.

The Rising had no popular support. As the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them. In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens (poet, novelist and short story writer) wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”

 

Next week – how things changed.

Omagh Part Two

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday September 14 2015

Mandy2

The Law’s Delay

 

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. a 500lb bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, killing 31 people (including unborn twins) and injuring 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissident republicans who were against the peace process. There had been a warning call to Ulster Television in Belfast at 2.29 p.m. saying there was a bomb timed to go off in 30 minutes outside the Courthouse on Main Street. There was another call at 2.31 to the Samaritans in Coleraine. That caller said the bomb was about 200 yards up from the Courthouse on High Street. There was another call to UTV at 2.31. The callers used a code word associated with the Real IRA.

Warnings and Hoaxes

Perhaps the various brands of IRA terrorists might seem more “civilised” than the Tamil Tigers – they do tend to give warnings before they slaughter civilians. That is of small comfort to the thousands of people affected by their tactics. At Omagh, the first of three confused warning calls came less than half an hour before the car bomb went off. Superintendent William Baxter told the inquest in September 2000 that since August 15 1998 there had been 68 hoax bomb alerts in the town. Although many thought the warnings on August 15 were a hoax, the police took them seriously and immediately went into action with well-established procedures. The duty sergeant, Phil Marshall, was pleased that they managed to clear 200 premises in the short time available. “My initial thought that it was perfect, that we couldn’t have done better. Omagh was like a ghost town, I thought, if anything goes up now, it’s buildings only”.

There is no Main Street in Omagh. The courthouse is roughly 400 metres from the spot where the car bomb was parked in a stolen maroon Vauxhall Cavalier. It seems that the courthouse was the intended target but the bombers could not find a parking space and left the car outside SD Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street, on the southern side near the crossroads with Dublin Road. The police had, in effect, been evacuating people towards the bomb rather than away from it. The bombers claimed it was not their fault and that they had given adequate warnings. If they had been concerned about loss of life they would have triggered the bomb at 3 a.m. not 3 p.m. on a public holiday when the streets were full of people.

Civil Action

On January 20 1999, Mo Mowlem, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary, pleaded with the MP Andrew Hunter not to use his parliamentary privilege to name six suspects in the Omagh bomb murder inquiry. They told Mr Hunter, chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland, that such action would prejudice any prosecution.

Frustrated by delays, the families took action. On 28 October 2000, the families of four children killed in the bombing – James Barker, 12, Samantha McFarland, 17, Lorraine Wilson, 15, and 20-month-old Breda Devine – launched a campaign to bring a civil action against the suspects named in a BBC Panorama programme. On 15 March 2001, the families of all twenty-nine people killed in the bombing launched a £2-million civil action against RIRA suspects Seamus McKenna, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.  The civil action began in Northern Ireland on 7 April 2008.

Jason McCue

Human rights solicitor Jason McCue fought the case for the families over many years. He has been described as a “rock ‘n roll lawyer” – he married TV celebrity and journalist Mariella Frostrup (her father was Norwegian but she was brought up in Ireland) and they hang out with George Clooney. He wrote of the families: “Their achievement is important for Ireland and for the UK. It is a happy irony that their civil action did more to unite Ireland than the murderers that killed their families. But more than that, the Omagh civil action drew support from across the 32 counties and when the verdict came in, households throughout Ireland raised a toast to their achievement.”

Peace, Compromise, Impunity

The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as historian Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments, who for varied reasons thought their actions misguided, counterproductive or unhelpful to the peace process”. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice.

Peter Mandelson

Former Northern Ireland secretaries Peter Mandelson, Tom King, Peter Brooke, Lord Hurd, Lord Prior, and Lord Merlyn-Rees signed up in support of the plaintiffs’ legal fund. Mandelson took the lead in coordinating this.

In 1999, Peter Mandelson had succeeded Mo Mowlem as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mowlem was popular with the British media and public; her willingness to speak her mind, often without regard to the consequences, was seen as strength. Mandelson was regarded as a cold Machiavellian manipulator. However, the campaigners warmed to him and he to them. Mowlem wanted to do everything to avoid undermining the peace process which was her monument.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was heavily involved in the campaign and wrote a book about it. She had worked in the British civil service, and was impressed that, soon after taking office, Mandelson had taken the unusual step of writing to her, commending her article in the Telegraph. He wrote that such articles “play an important part in changing the environment in which the terrorists operate”. “I agree with you entirely that everything possible should be done to try and bring those responsible for the Omagh bomb to justice”. He was distancing himself from Mowlem, who had seemed, according to Edwards, more comfortable with ex-terrorists than with victims and whose seeming indifference to the Omagh relatives had been “scandalous”.

Mowlem had discouraged ministers and civil servants from meeting the families and wanted to play down expectations of bringing the bombers to justice. Mandelson insisted on meeting the families. He was so affected by an exhibition of children’s art work. One of the relatives said: “Peter Mandelson is the nicest man, the best man…He cried, he cried in there and he put everyone out of there, even his Private Secretary. All politicians want to do is look after themselves. They don’t care about anything, but Peter Mandelson did care”. The Mail published a picture of his grief-stricken face. He said: “I feel a tremendous sense of loss every day I wake up and find yet another day has passed without these prosecutions taking place”.

Mandelson continued to offer practical help after he ceased to be Northern Ireland Secretary. He played a very active role behind the scenes and with the media. He also contributed generously from his own money.

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes, flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up an “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies.

Unfortunately, the Real IRA are still in business. Recent events indicate that the Provisional IRA might also still be active. Eternal vigilance is essential. Could the LTTE also rise like a Phoenix?

More next week about the unraveling of peace in Northern Ireland.

 

Omagh Part One – The Road of Tears

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 8 2015

Colman's Column3

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After the bombing, Cathy could never settle back into her university studies at Derry and Patsy was often on the road to bring her traumatised daughter back home. In the car mother and daughter would be keening uncontrollably for Aiden, the son and brother forever lost to them. They christened the road from Derry to Omagh ‘The Road of Tears’.

On 15 August 2000 my wife and I were having a post-shopping Murphy’s at Le Chateau on St Patrick Street, Cork City in Ireland. I was going to write “enjoying a pint of Murphy’s” but that would not be appropriate because, like everyone else in the bar, we had tears streaming down our faces. The TV was on and the news programme was marking the second anniversary of the Omagh bombing.

 

On August 15, 1998, just two months after we had gone to live in Ireland, a huge bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, a small market town in rural County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. A total of 31 people were to die as a result of the bomb, and 220 were injured. The dead included a  woman 4 months pregnant and her unborn twins girls; six children, three of whom had been visiting from County Donegal in  the Irish Republic and one of whom was on holiday from Spain (Fernando’s mother, Lucrezia, had previously been traumatized when her husband had been seriously injured by an ETA car bomb) and six teenagers. Death was ecumenical; nineteen of the dead were Catholics, eleven were Protestants.

It Was People who Died

Each person who died represented a crushing loss to a wide circle of people. The bombers killed two babies and two about to be born, three schoolgirls, four schoolboys, six students, three shop assistants, a despatch clerk, a shopkeeper, a crane driver, a mechanic, a horticulturalist, and an accounts clerk. These were the targets of the “soldiers” of Éireann, the “freedom fighters”.

It was the time of year when parents and children went to SD Kells or Watterstones to buy new school uniforms. Most of the people in the centre of Omagh on August 15 1998 were from the town or surrounding countryside. It was an uncommonly sunny day for that part of the world and crowds were gathering for the processions that mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The original plan was for the procession to start 200 yards from where the bomb exploded. Thousands would have been close to the explosion if the plan had not been changed.

Damages

Recent horrific pictures of drowned refugees have sparked controversy about the ethics of displaying such images. I want to convey to you the horror of Omagh but I want to respect the sensibilities of my readers and the dignity of the dead. Buses were used to ferry victims to hospital and blood was flowing down the steps on to the road. In the rain, the gutters ran red with blood and rose petals. A young girl sat in the street holding a severed hand saying: “I don’t want her to be alone”. A policeman who had wandered up and down the street carrying a head had to be invalided out of the RUC. Steve Buttle was so affected by Omagh that he functioned badly at work and his relationships deteriorated. Eventually he wrapped himself in a body bag and shot himself in the head.

The poison administered on August 15 1998 did harm not only to those who were present in Omagh on that day. It spread far and wide and for a long period, for generations into the future. Thousands had their lives blighted by intense sorrow, physical pain and depression beyond imagining.

Who Was Responsible?

Unusually, no group claimed responsibility on the day of the attack, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary suspected the RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army).Indeed, three days after the attack, the RIRA claimed responsibility and apologised for the attack. The RIRA had few members and the authorities knew who most of them were and where they lived. Two months after we had been crying in our Murphy’s, BBC put out a Panorama programme called Who Bombed Omagh? hosted by journalist John Ware. The programme gave the names of the four prime suspects as Oliver Traynor, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.

 The Law’s Delay

Daly was not charged with the bombing in a criminal case until April 10 2014. However, a civil case brought by the victims’ relatives was concluded on 8 June 2009. Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were found to have been responsible for the bombing and held liable for £1.6 million of damages. It was described as a “landmark” damages award internationally.

The Campaign

Because of frustration at the slow progress of the criminal investigation, the families of the victims created the Omagh Support and Self Help Group (OSSHG) soon after the bombing. The organisation was led by Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aidan in the attack. In the 30 years of The Troubles, there was no precedent for a group of victims challenging the system in this way.

In the tribal society that is Northern Ireland it was surprising that the OSSHG included hard-line and moderate unionists as well as nationalists; there were Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, and a Mormon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

I draw in these articles on the work of,  among others, Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruth was deeply involved in the campaign and her 2009 book about the Omagh bombing was named the Sunday Times current affairs book of the year and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for non-fiction. The book, Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, should be of interest to Sri Lankan readers. Ruth is a distinguished Irish historian from a distinguished family of Irish historians.  She was born and brought up in Dublin and educated at University College Dublin (UCD), Girton College, Cambridge and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She has worked in the London civil service.

She is also a crime fiction writer and a prolific columnist, often stirring up controversy in the British and Irish press.  She now lives in London and describes herself as British-Irish and is comfortable with being culturally both Irish and English. She takes a particular interest in Northern Ireland and her writings have had her placed in the category of “revisionist”. That is to say, she has no time for myths about heroes and martyrs. She once told a hostile audience: “I wear the badge ‘revisionist’ as a badge of honour! Patrick Pearse had a right to sacrifice himself but not all those civilians! If seven people can determine these things, the Continuity IRA has the right to style themselves the heirs of 1916. There is a flouting of democracy.”

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real  IRA into giving up the  “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies. How did that work out?

Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as Ruth puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments”.

More on this next week

The Disappeared – Call for International Investigation

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday June 18 2014

MI+Children+the+home+tuam+galway+Connacht+Tribune+June+1924

In Ireland, an alliance of mother- and-baby home survivors has called for a full statutory inquiry chaired by an international judicial figure. A wide coalition of groups representing former residents, came together to highlight the injustices affecting them. The Adoption Rights Alliance highlighted the fact that those adopted have no right under law to access their own records. They called for legislation to allow adoptees access to their birth information and biological family health history, as is the norm in other EU countries.

Last week, I wrote about the story of an alleged mass grave in Tuam, County Galway in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Mail on Sunday was published the story and the Irish American website Irish Central gave it a further push.

This week, I examine further developments.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is a distinguished Irish historian. She also writes entertaining and literate crime novels and is a tireless blogger. She has written many columns for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the Irish Independent. She commented on Facebook: “My professional trade is that of historian. I think we should suspend judgement until we know what happened.” This was in response to an article in the Irish Times. Catherine Corless, the local historian, whose research was the basis for the Mail story, told Rosita Boland: “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”

Arch-contrarian, Brendan O’Neill , addressed the topic on the Spiked website. The mission of Spiked is to challenge received wisdom. O’Neill scolded: “Courtesy of a modern media that seems more interested in titillating readers …than giving us cool facts, and thanks to a Twittermob constantly on the hunt for things it might feel ostentatiously outraged by, the story about babies being dumped in an old, out-of-use septic tank by nuns at a home for ‘fallen women’ in Tuam in Galway made waves in every corner of the globe.”

Despite his over-heated prose, O’Neill makes some good points. I myself have drawn attention to the way western media distort facts when dealing with Sri Lanka. No UK journalist can write about Sri Lanka, even about holidays or cricket, without the mantra of “40,000 civilians killed”. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story is passed around and is treated as legal currency. BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism “churnalism”: “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

I responded to Ruth on Facebook: “I suppose that Mrs Corless is finding that if you sup with the Mail you need a long spoon. … The constant mantra of “800 babies dumped in mass grave” by Irish Central made me suspicious…”

Perhaps a proper investigation will clarify the “facts”. One thing is beyond doubt. The Irish State and the Irish Church would not have been interested had Mrs Corless not spent her own money comparing death certificates with burial records. Also beyond doubt is that many children died unnecessarily.

O’Neill writes: “Clearly this isn’t about news anymore; it isn’t a desire for facts or truth that elevated the crazed claims about Tuam up the agenda; rather, a mishmash of anti-Catholic prejudice, Irish self-hatred and the modern thirst for horror stories involving children turned Tuam into one of the worst reported stories of 2014 so far.”

Up to a point, Brendan. I cannot speak for anyone else, but my own views about the Catholic Church have nothing to do with prejudice or self-hatred. I was never sexually abused as a child and most of the priests I encountered were decent men. I was a good Catholic boy, playing as a toddler as a priest saying mass. In my early adolescence, I read a lot of Catholic literature. What made me lose the faith was the arrogance combined with ignorance that allowed the priesthood to tell me what to think about politics as well as theology. If I can pinpoint the moment when I lost it – my parish priest giving a sermon saying there was nothing wrong with apartheid because people should have the choice to live separately.

I feared that I might upset some of my Catholic friends with last week’s article. Here is how one commented: “As you noted, these mothers and children were meant to suffer to atone for their sins…as we all know, it takes only one instance of romance (or rape) to change forever a woman’s life with an unplanned ( or unwanted) pregnancy. Labelling a person’s life worthless due to the outcome of a few minutes time is too harsh, too judgmental, but oh so Catholic….”

An 85-year-old woman who survived the children’s home in Tuam has told of the miserable conditions at the home in 1932. She recalled that the children were “rarely washed”, and often wore the same clothes for weeks at a time. She said: ‘We were filthy dirty. I remember one time when I soiled myself, the nuns ducked me down into a big cold bath and I never liked nuns after that.’

Catherine Corless may not like being misquoted but she has not recanted this statement: “They were always segregated to the side of regular classrooms. By doing this, the nuns telegraphed the message that they were different and that we should keep away from them. They didn’t suggest we be nice to them. In fact, if you acted up in class some nuns would threaten to seat you next to the Home Babies. That was the message we got in our young years”.

The son of a widower, who lived in the Tuam house for many years when his father worked at the home, recalls no brutality and can remember gifts brought to him by Santa Claus. The nuns did not lack the training or knowledge of how to care for children; they deliberately chose to ignore the humanity of the “illegitimate” children in their care, which Irish society, Church and State collectively, despised.

Eoin O’Sullivan, associate professor at Trinity College Dublin, is co-author of the 2001 book Suffer the Little Children: the inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools. He said that the practice of mass burial, often with just one headstone marking the site, was not uncommon in many mother and baby homes and psychiatric hospitals at the time. “Remember that the children went in there so the families could conceal their shame, and the kids were often adopted. The nuns were not going around grabbing pregnant women; the women were taken there by their families who knew what conditions were like.”

Whatever about the sensationalism of the Mail and Irish Central the salient issue was always the deaths of these children. The Mail article quotes from a Health Board report of 1944, which paints a gruesome picture of horrific conditions at the home in Tuam. June Goulding, a midwife who worked at the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork for a year from 1951, describes in her 1998 book The Light in the Window how women were not allowed pain relief during labour or stitches after birth, and when they developed abscesses from breast-feeding they were denied penicillin. Survivors from these homes report mothers and children being denied medication and mothers getting septicaemia from dirty needles.

Dr. James Feeney, the health board’s Chief Medical Officer, visited Bessborough in 1951 to investigate the horrific death rate in the home, where 100 out of 180 babies born had died. “Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhoea, carefully covered up. There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about. Without any legal authority, I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer. The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing.”

Is it sensationalism or scapegoating of the church to be concerned if there are suspicions that children may have died due to a deliberately low standard of care? Defenders of the church cannot claim that the press is sensationalising the stuff of nightmares when there is plenty of evidence that nightmares were real.

Many of the commenters on Irish Central are angry about the Church being attacked. Some say the Irish people are to blame. Maybe so, but did the church not create the mentality that stigmatised unwed mothers? The Church was allowed to run a totalitarian system. If you did not submit, you would be ostracised. Family as well as parish and state policed the system.

There is a chain message doing the rounds. “Our goal is to reach ten million Hail Marys for Pope Francis. This campaign started today. Send this message to all Catholic friends or even to those who dislike him. We pray for the Holy Father that the heavenly Mother intercedes for him and protects him in his ministry”.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, announced that Pope Francis would be visiting Sri Lanka next year from January 13-15. In February, Pope Francis received members of the Sri Lankan community at the Vatican following a mass held by the Archbishop of Colombo. He said to them, “I thank Cardinal Ranjith for the invitation to visit Sri Lanka. I welcome this invitation and I think the Lord will give us grace.” We might expect His Holiness to bring a message of reconciliation to us so that we can heal the wounds of our long conflict.

Will he call for an international inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka?

 

 

The Arrest of Gerry Adams

This article was published in Ceylon Today on May 14 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

 

The police force of part of the UK arrested a member of parliament of a separate nation in connection with a crime committed 40 years ago. The PSNI (Police Services of Northern Ireland) arrested Gerry Adams, MP for Louth in the Republic of Ireland, under the Terrorism Act 2000, and questioned him for four days at Antrim police station. Adams leads the party that jointly governs Northern Ireland. He was one of the key brokers of the accord that ended what had been a brutal 30-year war.

 

They were investigating his alleged involvement in the murder of Jean McConville in 1972. The IRA dragged Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten, from her west Belfast home and executed her, claiming that she was an informer. Her body was found in August 2003 buried on a beach in County Louth. Forensic tests showed she had been badly beaten and shot in the back of the head.

 

Adams said: “I believe that the killing of Jean McConville and the secret burial of her body was wrong and a grievous injustice to her and her family”. The PSNI released him without charge.

 

Boston College

 

Boston College interviewed several former paramilitaries about the Troubles on the understanding that they would not publish transcripts until the interviewees were dead. PSNI subpoenaed Boston College in 2011. A provision of US law forced them to hand over the evidence, which they did after two years of legal battles. A court last year ordered the project to hand over the tapes to PSNI.

 

Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre ran the project. McIntyre is a former IRA life sentence prisoner. Moloney is a Belfast journalist who published A Secret History of the IRA, twelve years ago. Moloney revealed that in the early 70s Adams had established a unit in the Belfast IRA called the “unknowns”, which conducted several “disappearances”, including that of McConville.

 

Adams and the IRA

 

In interviews for the project, two former IRA operatives, Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price, confessed to involvement in Jean McConville’s murder. When former IRA commander Brendan Hughes, died in 2008 it emerged that on the tapes he alleged that Adams was a senior IRA leader during the Troubles and had ordered Mrs McConville’s killing.

 

Adams said: “Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership and our peace strategy and have interviewed former republicans who are also hostile to me and other Sinn Féin leaders.”

 

Moloney says: “…the Sinn Féin leader chose to lie about his past, saying he was never in the IRA. That claim is so absurd, and to many of his former comrades so hurtful, that some were bound to protest.” Brendan Hughes in his Boston interview: “[When Adams denies IRA membership] it means that people like myself … have to carry the responsibility for all those deaths, for sending men out to die and sending women out to die, and Gerry was sitting there … trying to stop us from doing it? I’m disgusted by it because it’s so untrue and everybody knows it.”

 

 

Isn’t Northern Ireland ‘Sorted’?

 

 

Someone asked me: “Isn’t Northern Ireland sorted?” This is not a surprising reaction. When people outside the island of Ireland think about Northern Ireland at all, which is probably rarely, they are comfortable in thinking that the old problem has been “sorted” by the hard-won Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Tony Blair and New Labour and Bill Clinton presented the Northern Ireland peace process as a resounding success in bringing centuries of ‘ancient hatred’ to a close and providing a model for the rest of the world’s ethnic trouble spots to follow.

 

 

I suspect that many in Sri Lanka would see Northern Ireland as a model, like South Africa, for the reconciliation process in this country. The Adams case shows that Northern Ireland is not “sorted”. Why have the hopes invested in the Good Friday Agreement not been fully met, sixteen years after it was signed?

 

 

Ongoing Strife

 

 

There is likely to be a further plunge in turnout at this month’s municipal and European elections, reflecting growing disillusionment with the dysfunctional administration at Stormont. A recent newspaper survey of young people in Northern Ireland found that two thirds did not believe they enjoyed peace and the same proportion wanted to leave to pursue their aspirations.

 

 

Adams and Mandela

 

 

Adams cynically exploited the global wave of emotion surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela to create the impression that he was Ireland’s Mandela. Mandela openly acknowledged his role in orchestrating the campaign of violence against the repressive apartheid regime. His admissions, and similar acknowledgments of culpability from leaders on both sides of the South African conflict to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were fundamental to helping the country move from the horrors of the past.

 

 

Adams has actively concealed the truth of his past and sought to discredit those who have sought to bring light to the subject. Adams told members of the McConville family “Thank God I was in prison when she disappeared.” In fact, Adams was free at the time of the killing.

 

 

Justice or Peace?

 

There are lessons in this affair for other post-conflict situations. Who can argue with victims’ commissioner Kathryn Stone, when she says, “There can be no sustainable peace in Northern Ireland until every victim has true peace of mind”?

 

Ruth Dudley Edwards recently wrote: “The reluctance to dig into the past that has enabled both sides to continue their habit of what in Northern Ireland is called ‘whataboutery’ – in which any allegation by a member of one tribe is answered by a counter -allegation from the other.”

 

Others argue that those who did not live through the horrors of the Troubles do not appreciate the hard bargains that had to be struck to bring the relative peace enjoyed today. Official amnesia allowed fringe figures on the Loyalist side, such as firebrand bigot Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, to acquire legitimacy in order to achieve an ostensibly democratic administration in Belfast. Robinson was convicted in a court in the Republic of Ireland of unlawful assembly, having led an incursion across the border during frequently violent Protestant protests against an intergovernmental agreement between London and Dublin in 1985.

 

Impunity or Therapeutic Amnesia.

 

In the years after the IRA ceasefire, the Irish government had an unofficial policy of playing down IRA violence. Just two years after the 1994 ceasefire an IRA unit shot dead Jerry McCabe, a police officer, in Co Limerick during a botched robbery. The attempt to cover up the IRA’s role in the McCabe murder caused outrage among the Garda Síochána.

 

In March 2014, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly stated that 187 people had received letters assuring them that they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes.

 

Only a day before Adams’s arrest, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers ruled out inquiries into the British Army Parachute Regiment’s killing of ten mourners at a funeral in Ballymurphy, in August 1971, and the IRA’s killing of 12 people in the La Mon House firebomb massacre, in February 1978.

 

There is little doubt that Adams, whatever the truth of his connections with the IRA, played a large role in ending the conflict. If he was not in the IRA, how did Adams have the authority to persuade the IRA hardliners to agree to peace? Today, people of violence on both sides sit down and discuss sewage plans, pension problems and how to invest in infrastructure. As Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Adams and [Martin McGuinness] have been indispensable in moving Northern Ireland from the evil and horror of the past to the relative tranquillity and stability of today.”

 

In the Good Friday Agreement, approved in 1998 in referenda north and south of the border, there was no amnesty – only a concession to the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes that if found guilty, they would serve only two years in jail.

 

How does Northern Ireland confront its past without undermining peace? Should politicians from all parties in Stormont, Dublin and Westminster to talk seriously about whether they can establish South African-style truth and reconciliation hearings, in which individuals can publicly declare their crimes and express contrition, in exchange for freedom from prosecution?

 

 

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