Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamil National Alliance

Who’s Sorry Now?

Colman's Column3A version of this  article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 24 2015.


Freedom Fighter

Kieran Conway says he is very sorry. What could this respectable-looking white-haired 60-year-old man in his smart suit and red silk tie possibly be guilty about?

Well, there is the small matter of blowing 21 innocent people to giblets while they were out enjoying a quiet drink.

On top of that is the fact that six innocent men each spent 15 years in prison for what Mr Conway and his friends did.

In a recently published book, Southside Provisional : From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, Conway, who ran the Provisional IRA’s intelligence-gathering in the 1970s, made the first formal IRA  admission that it had carried out the bombing of the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush pubs in  central Birmingham. Notice that he thinks of himself as a “freedom fighter”. Conway claimed that the civilian casualties had not been intended. One is reminded of the sentiments expressed by Padraic Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter rising: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”.


Birmingham Bombings

I was living in Manchester on 21 November 1974. One of my close friends had recently moved to Birmingham. I had often visited him there and become friends with many of his new friends. I knew the city well because I had been visiting since before I was ten years old to see my cousin Pat Saward, who was also captain of the Republic of Ireland team, playing football for Aston Villa. When I heard the news of the bombings, I was immediately concerned for my friends. I had often been in the Tavern on the Town. I could picture the streets where the atrocity was perpetrated.


The bombs killed 21 people and injured 182. The dead and wounded were mainly young people between the ages of 17 and 25, including two brothers: Desmond and Eugene Reilly (aged 22 and 23 respectively). Their names clearly indicate that they were of Irish extraction and not British imperialists. The Mulberry Bush was on the lower two floors of an office block called the Rotunda. The police began checking the upper floors of the Rotunda but did not clear the crowded pub at street level before the bomb exploded at 20:17. Ten people were killed in this explosion and dozens injured.


At 20:27 a bomb exploded at the Tavern on the Town, a basement pub 50 yards away on New Street. It killed a further 11 people and left many with severe injuries. Several victims were blown through a brick wall. Their remains were wedged between the rubble and underground electric cables; it took hours for firemen to free them. A passing West Midlands bus was wrecked in the blast and passersby were struck by flying glass from shattered windows. The fact that two bombs had exploded  close together meant it was difficult to get casualties to hospital in the chaos.


One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had only gone into the Tavern in the Town to hand out tickets to friends for a party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub and had been standing beside the bag containing the bomb when it exploded. Her friend, 17-year-old Jane Davis, was the youngest victim of the bombings.


Birmingham Six


On the night of the bombings, six Irishmen were arrested at Heysham Port while about to board a ferry to Belfast. They became known as the “Birmingham Six”.  The six were from Belfast but had lived in Birmingham for some time. They were going to Belfast for the funeral of James McDade who was killed in a premature explosion while planting an IRA bomb at the Coventry telephone exchange. One of the six was also intending to see an aunt in Belfast who was sick and not expected to live.

West Midlands  police were under great pressure to make arrests and the British government were under pressure to clamp down on the IRA. Someone had to pay and it did not really matter who the sacrificial victims were. The Birmingham Six – Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker—were quickly arrested and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975. The West Midlands Police tortured them- they were deprived of food and sleep, they were interrogated sometimes for up to 12 hours without a break; threats were made against them; they were punched; fierce dogs  were allowed close to them; there were  mock executions.


Forensic scientist Dr Frank Skuse used positive Griess test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives. Dr Hugh Kenneth Black of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives at the Home Office challenged Skuse’s interpretation. The men had been playing cards on the train and that could have given the same results as explosives. The judge (and the jury) preferred Skuse’s version.  In October 1985, a  World in Action TV documentary In The Interests of Justice concluded that the real Birmingham pub bombers had gone free. Days after the TV programme, the Home Office retired Skuse, aged 51, from the Civil Service on the grounds of “limited effectiveness”. All 350 of Skuse’s cases, dating back to 1966, were re-examined. In 1991, the Court of Appeal stated that the Griess test should only be used as a preliminary test and that Dr Skuse’s conclusion was demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.


The convictions of the Birmingham Six were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14 March 1991. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million. They had each spent 15 years in prison.



Guildford Bombings – Legitimate Targets?

Kieran Conway is now a criminal lawyer in Dublin. He says in his book that where off-duty soldiers were the targets of bombings, “I had little sympathy for either the soldiers or the unfortunate civilians who had been sharing their drinking space.”

The bombing of the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars in Guildford in October 1974 would be acceptable to this freedom fighter because those two pubs were popular with off-duty soldiers from the barracks in Pirbright. Four soldiers and one civilian were killed, whilst a further sixty-five were wounded. Once again innocent people –

Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson

-each spent 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Conlon had been in London at the time of the bombings, and had visited his aunt, Annie Maguire. A few days after the Guildford Four were arrested, the Metropolitan Police arrested Auntie Annie and her family, including Gerry Conlon’s father, Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon. The Maguire Seven were falsely convicted of providing bomb-making material in March 1976 and sentenced to terms varying between four and fourteen years. The Guildford Four were held in prison for fifteen years, while Giuseppe Conlon died near the end of his third year of imprisonment. All the convictions were overturned years later in the appeal courts after it was proved the Guildford Four’s convictions had been based on confessions obtained by torture whilst evidence specifically clearing the Four was not reported by the police.

Gerry Conlon, despite being portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in a film, did not have a happy life. He died last year at the age of 65. He spent 25% of his life in prison for a terrible crime committed by someone else and had mental problems as a result.



Paul Hill did rather better. He moved to the USA. In 1993, married Courtney Kennedy, a daughter of assassinated American senator Robert F. Kennedy and a niece of assassinated president John F Kennedy. They had a daughter in 1999, but legally separated in 2006.

paul hill

Troubled Times


The year 1974 was a particularly uncomfortable one in which to be Irish in England. I recall sitting in the Irish Club in Gloucester with my sainted aunt who was on a visit with her son and his wife. Our pleasant evening was marred by a brick being thrown through the window. A work colleague vehemently told me that she was boycotting Kerry Gold butter because of the IRA.  One had to be constantly vigilant. When I worked in a social security office in Manchester, we evacuated the building when a security guard found a suspicious parcel in a toilet. It turned out to be a package of sausages. When I worked in London for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee, I had the building, near Lincolns Inn Fields, cleared when an unidentified parcel arrived addressed to Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur was an eminent lawyer and Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University. We were planning our annual visit to Belfast and he was very nervous about it, having received threats. I was not at all embarrassed when the parcel turned out to be a tape of an interview he had done. Because of the actions of Conway and his friends, we had to live with fear and even today, people in the UK are living with the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.


In his book, Conway writes about his participation in bank raids and gun battles and his encounters with leading IRA figures. He refers to Gerry Adams as “a mendacious, lying bastard”. Conway  told the Irish Independent newspaper: “For much of its existence, Sinn Fein was a support group for the IRA, a junior and not terribly effective part of the republican movement. Though always controlled from a distance by the IRA, the IRA leadership decided in the late 1970s that the party would come under IRA control at every level.” This sounds similar to the relationship between the LTTE and the TNA.


Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out 30 years ago that those who carried out the Easter Rising in 1916 believed they were entitled, although they were but a small unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in which many innocent people were killed. “Armed struggle” generally means  fanatics killing innocents by remote control. Revolutionary leaders presume a lot. Pearse might nobly say: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. The majority of the casualties in the Easter Rising were civilians. Did Prabhakaran ever ask Tamils civilians  if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?

Despite the undoubted success of the Good Friday Agreement a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland. Today, after so much bloodshed, Ireland is still not united. Today, after so much bloodshed, there is no Eelam.

How Sorry Is Conway?

Maxine Hambleton’s family and the campaign group Justice4the21 met Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper last week to ask for her support for new inquests. They have also met Home Secretary Theresa May and are preparing a case for the European Parliament. Inquests were opened days after the bombings and closed in 1975 without hearing evidence, because of the guilty verdicts on the Birmingham Six.

While Conway was heading the IRA’s intelligence department, the Provisionals killed 140 people. Conway said in an interview: “I have no doubt that actions of mine resulted in serious harm to people and worse, and I regret that. I very much regret it in view of the outcome… The IRA has disappeared into history having taken a position on how to achieve Irish unity which is identical to that of the British government it fought against for 25 years and that is not a good outcome,” ”


Julie Hambleton is asking why this “freedom fighter” is not questioned about his role in the murder of her sister following his admissions in his book.


Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 3

This was posted on August 26th, 2009


When I first moved to Sri Lanka from Ireland some seven years ago, a friend wrote to me asking if I missed the Cork rain. I replied that indeed I did…  I missed its moderation. My first impression was that the rainy season in my new home lasted 13 months every year. I realise now that I was being hyperbolic but this is the first August that torrential rain has not been coming through my roof. A few years ago, there was one occasion when I woke up at about three in the morning to watch my slippers floating past me on the tide.

I am not being flippant here, merely trying to feel some empathy for those in the IDP camps in the north. How would I feel being in a tent in such weather? I spent a weekend in a tent in a sea of mud at the Glastonbury festival but I knew when it would end and there was the compensation of seeing Johnny Cash, Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakam, among others, perform.

The monsoon season in Sri Lanka used to be predictable and everyone knows that it entails torrential downpours and floods of red mud. People die. It was expected in the north and fears were raised about the effects on those living in the camps.

There have been floods at Menik Farm already, before the real monsoon arrived. ”If only three or four hours of rain cause this much chaos, only imagine what a full monsoon can cause,” said David White, country director for Oxfam.

Disaster Management Minister Rishard Bathiudeen (who has been an inmate of an IDP camp himself because of ethnic cleansing of Muslims carried out by the LTTE) said the recent breakdown of the sewage and drainage system at displaced people’s camps because of flooding could not be blamed on the government. Mr. Bathiudeen said it was the fault of the UN agencies, which constructed the drainage system and set up flood preventive measures. ”So how can you blame the Government for the blockage in the drainage systems and the overflow of sewage during the floods,” he said. Mr. Bathiudeen said only about 400 refugees in ”˜Zone 4’ were affected by the flood and the matter was dealt with as soon as it was reported to the authorities. He said the refugees were provided with meals, accommodation, and healthcare facilities.

P S M Charles, the Government Agent in Vavuniya, said 60 families had to be temporarily moved to a higher location within the camp but that the situation was under control. Charles said that on the first day after the rain, cooked meals were provided for 21,000 people. “We have now managed the situation. Extra tents were distributed among the affected people. The drainage system was also cleaned”. By the second day, things were brought under control and cooked meals had to be provided for only 500 people and people were again able to cook for themselves.

Mavai Senathirajah MP, the general secretary of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the parliamentary voice of the LTTE, told Parliament that people were undergoing immense mental strain because of living conditions in the camps. ”There is a horrible situation there. The country will experience the north-eastern monsoon rains next month, and the situation will deteriorate further then. The camp site is impassable for vehicles too. We will not be surprised if the people confront the military. We sound a warning of this”.

A blogger unsympathetic to the Tamil cause remarked: ” Don’t be panic! Tomorrow sun shines! Those IDPs are used to monsoon rains in Sri Lanka. They used to spend the night in the jungles during last 30 years under LTTE. Nobody complained to anybody. Now everybody complains to everybody.”

Why are people being held in camps?

Whatever about the reality of conditions: Why is the government keeping people in these camps? Why are they not being allowed to return to their homes?

The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which they fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. The UN requires a 99.6% clearance rate before resettlement and that is a slow and expensive job. Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The war has crippled the north and east for more than 30 years. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure.

Critics respond to that by saying that the government found the resources to build a new airfield so why can’t they move more quickly to re-house the IDPs?

Some cynics have suggested that preparations are being made for the tourist industry to steal land belonging to the IDPS. According to Naomi Klein similar things happened after the tsunami.

Access and security

Apart from the need to clear mines and rebuild infrastructure the government says the camps are necessary to weed out LTTE cadres who escaped with the refugees. Rohini Hensman has written: ”The IDPs came out cursing the Tigers and positively inclined towards the government forces which had helped them to escape, but with every day that they remain in detention, their hostility to the government will grow”. She argues that the LTTE’s military capability has been destroyed, its top leadership wiped out; for a group that was identified completely with its supreme leader Prabakharan, and was defined by its military prowess, this means that it is finished.

Recently-retired Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has been regarded by some Sri Lankans as a check on the potentially despotic inclinations of the executive branch. He warned that the camps could lay the groundwork for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war which has just ended. He said the situation insults the soldiers who risked and in many cases lost their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

On the other hand, Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the Rwandan camps in Goma. There have been recent reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. Some commentators have expressed fears of ”little tribes of people going underground and fighting guerrilla war”. These commentators believe that it is realistic for a government to consider that small groups could wreak havoc with random explosions in cities crippling the economy and compromising the safety of ordinary people.

Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told Parliament that some LTTE cadres had infiltrated the refugees and until they were filtered out,  the displaced people would be kept within the camps. He said that the government was determined to provide shelter, water, sanitation, food, healthcare, education and other ancillary services for these people. The Minister said that he was particularly concerned that human rights were adequately catered for.

A group of volunteers visting the camps who were quoted by the Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj on his blog suggested the LTTE suspects in the camps were treated somewhat better than others: ”œThe LTTE detainees are housed in different locations. There are separate camps for boys and girls. There are around 9000 plus boys and 2000 plus girls. They are looked after quite well except when they protest or appear to get aggressive… The problem is that they need regular supplies and that they idle the whole day.”

There are many stories of LTTE soldiers escaping after bribing army, police or health personnel. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, (the TNA were the mouthpiece in parliament for the LTTE) S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from the camps by paying money to police and army personnel. The Army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE in their former controlled areas and expects to recover more. Defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, warned that this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.

Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses, people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who has often been vehement in her criticism of President Rajapaksa conceded: ”œI thank the President for finishing off the LTTE who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the President because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”

A recent visit to the camps by the President’s eldest son prompted heated exchanges in parliament. The Marxist JVP asked why opposition MPs are still not allowed access to the camps, accusing the government of trying to hide something. However, international and local humanitarian aid organizations have access to the camps to conduct their humanitarian work.

John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed journalists in Geneva following a mid-year review conference with Member States on the status of the 2009 consolidated humanitarian appeals. He said that the biggest problem in the Sri Lankan camps was not access, but the lack of freedom of movement of those in the camps. They should be able to move about even now, despite security concerns, so that these were IDP camps and not internment camps.

Adnan Khan, country director the World Food Programme (WFP), said: “Food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said that they were now able to move more freely within the camps.


The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK government has promised GBP 500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.

Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle, by the end of the year, at least 80% of those in the camps and to rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families which had direct contacts with the LTTE.

The UNHCR described a previous re-settlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division, in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE. ”The Government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”

On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people 60 years old or above, were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. ”I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P. Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.

Recently-appointed head of the army Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya (I met him at a Christmas buffet at the Bandarawela Hotel some years ago, before he reached his current exalted position ”“ I believe he is related to my wife by marriage) said that the removal of high security zones in the Vavuniya area would facilitate the resettlement of civilians displaced during the war.

He said that Army engineers had been deployed to clear mines and other explosive devices. He said the Army was spearheading a two-pronged development programme in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. ‘People visiting Vavuniya could now see the difference as the Army had taken steps to relax security measures that had been in place for years’, the Commander said.

Jayasuriya said his main priority was speeding up de-mining efforts across 8,000 sq km so people could be resettled as soon as possible. He declined to give a time-frame. “I want to take engineering battalions that were in an infantry role to do de-mining. Right now there are 300 soldiers working with four non-governmental organisations to clear the mines.”

Jayasuriya has sent 400 more for training and is aiming to purchase demining machinery. Sri Lanka has given assurances that everything possible would be done to resettle the majority of the displaced by end of this year.

Chief of Defence Staff General Sarath Fonseka said: “We have the men and the material to meet any requirement,” he said, adding that the Army was also playing a major role in restoring the northern railway track. He said that the Army would have an important part to play in resettling the displaced and that the Army had contributed 36 million rupees to meet the urgent needs of children in the north.

He also said that those who had been critical of the Sri Lankan government had conveniently forgotten that the security forces spearheaded by the Army rescued 300,000 people held at gun point by the LTTE. Fonseka said allegations that over 20,000 civilians had perished in the final battle in and around Nanthikadal lagoon, were propaganda.

He ridiculed attempts to portray welfare centres set up in the north as detention camps. He said that the international community couldn’t find fault with Sri Lankan political and military leadership for taking on the LTTE. “What we did was right and we knew exactly what we were doing and there is absolutely no scope for an international inquiry,” he said.

Fonseka’s calls to add 100,000 troops after the war perturbed Western diplomats who wanted Sri Lanka to prioritise post-war redevelopment and not further militarisation, especially as it was seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan at that time.

Jayasuriya takes a softer line: “”A little increase may be required. An increase of police or Special Task Force (police paramilitaries) would be much more beneficial. I think 20,000-50,000 would be fine. I think the government does not want to increase the budget. To hold and consolidate what we captured, you need more troops than you do to fight.”


Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in The Sunday Leader: ”As a Southerner and a Sinhala Buddhist, I am ashamed of what we have become, and how we silently countenance, nay justify, this significant post-war violence against fellow Tamil citizens. We were silent patriots during war, because we thought they were all terrorists. We are silent patriots after war, because we think they must still be terrorists. Menik Camp is a litmus test of our real commitment to peace. We do not need more support to strengthen it. We need resources and the political will urgently to dismantle it.”

Canadian minister, Bev Oda, was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. ”This is not an ideal situation… I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.”

The Tamil journalist, now resident in Canada, DB Jeyaraj has written: ”I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”

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