The thirty-fifth anniversary of the IRA’s massacre of those who had gathered at Enniskillen to honour the memory of the dead of two world wars fell on November 9, 2022. There was one small item about it in the Irish Times the following day. There has been no inquiry into this slaughter, and no one has been prosecuted for it. This year, the Irish Times has carried twenty-eight items on the Bloody Sunday massacre by British paratroopers in 1972, for which no one was prosecuted, though it ultimately led to the Saville inquiry, which cost £400 million and lasted twelve years.
And that pretty much sums up how public memory functions in Ireland: a British atrocity generates a vast inquiry and endless headlines even fifty years on. A more recent IRA atrocity far vaster in scale and intent merits a single item, which was not even by an Irish Times journalist but was agency copy.
The Enniskillen slaughter of 1987, though murderously magnificent in scale, was not as bloodthirsty as intended. The bomb killed twelve people and injured sixty-three, many of them permanently. One of these, Jim Nixon, lived every day thereafter in almost unbearable agony: “My mouth was blown out. My right jaw was missing. I was split open nine inches from my face to my ear. My face and tongue were paralysed. I had nine broken ribs. My pelvis, both hips and one leg were smashed.”
This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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Another victim lay in a coma for thirteen years, visited every day by his wife, until he finally switched categories from “injured” to “dead”. Despite IRA lies that this massacre was “accidental”, it was fully intended. As too was a second bomb at Tullyhommon nearby, at precisely the point where Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades were gathering. Here, however, only the detonator exploded, without causing the main charge to blow. Had the Tullyhommon bomb gone off, the death toll on that Remembrance Sunday could well have reached forty, mostly children, with hundreds injured.
But even then, it is unlikely that the Republic of Ireland, whose border is not far from Enniskillen, would have cracked down on the IRA. After all, the Irish Prime Minister at the time, Charles Haughey, had when Minister of Finance helped fund the formation of a breakaway and aggressive Sinn Fein-IRA alliance (henceforth called SFIRA in this account) with £100,000 of government money in 1969-70.
It is barely believable, but believe it we must: the people who were responsible for Enniskillen (and for 60 per cent of all the killings in Ireland’s Troubles, 1969 to 1998) are today on the brink of being elected government of the Republic, as well as being (if somewhat bizarrely) “as of right” in government of Northern Ireland. So yes indeed, the salutary spirit of Munich lives on …
Moreover, Enniskillen commands our attention because it truly represents the twin faces of public memory in Ireland. On the one hand we are told by SFIRA that any unnecessary remembrance of the Enniskillen dead is maudlin, reactionary and unhelpful, but on the other hand, SFIRA reserve the right to celebrate their heroes of the Troubles and yes, even sing about them.
How is such hypocrisy possible? Easily, once you believe you have a monopoly on truth and moral righteousness, as SFIRA really do. This is what allowed them to kill all round them for nearly thirty years while retaining an air of sanctimony throughout. The thread that binds atrocious deed and winsome and even melodious memory within the SFIRA family is myth. The ability of Irish mythmakers to create an agreed but falsified narrative is only possible in a culture where personal memory is so regularly subordinated to groupthink. The mythmakers of SFIRA, although actually defeated in the futile twenty-eight-year war they fought against the British presence in Northern Ireland, have in the past twenty years been triumphant in the creation of a largely fictional public memory of those “Troubles”.
First, the truth, and how to undo it. Opinion polls show that the majority of Northern Irish Catholics today believe SFIRA’s long war was somehow or other “legitimate”. But that is not how Northern Ireland Catholics felt during SFIRA’s campaign. A 1978 poll, before the deaths of ten hunger-strikers boosted the republican cause, indicated that 65.8 per cent of Catholics agreed with the statement that SFIRA were basically criminals and murderers, whereas only 8.8 per cent strongly disagreed. In the European elections of 1984, even after the hunger-strikes, a SFIRA candidate won barely more than half of the vote won by a vehement Catholic opponent of SFIRA, John Hume. However, Hume later abandoned his long-standing condemnation of SFIRA atrocities, apparently after being caught in a honeytrap of the kind to which he, with an exotic pelvic history, had long been vulnerable. Soon, he was having much-publicised talks with SFIRA’s political and military leader, Gerry Adams, which prepared the ground for what became known as the “Peace Process”, which may now, thirty years on, properly be called “Surrendering the Narrative to SFIRA”.
Next, deceit. Before SFIRA start killing people, they tell lies. It is the almost universal belief in both the Republic of Ireland and amongst Catholics in Northern Ireland up until 1968, that the position of Catholics of Northern Ireland was like that of blacks in the southern states of the US. In fact, the voting rights for Catholics and Protestants were identical, though gerrymandered constituency boundaries gave Unionist (or Protestant) politicians disproportionate power. But that didn’t make Northern Ireland Alabama. In 1965, Northern Ireland appointed its youngest-ever High Court judge, a Catholic named Rory Conaghan. He would soon imprison the fiery fundamentalist Protestant trouble-maker the Reverend Ian Paisley, and he later condemned the British Army for brutality—which did not prevent him from being murdered by SFIRA gunmen soon afterwards. The head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—Northern Ireland’s police force—at that time was also a Catholic, Sir Jamie Flanagan, whom SFIRA repeatedly but vainly tried to kill. Other Catholic judges targeted by SFIRA included William Staunton, fatally shot as he dropped his daughter off to school, Willie Doyle, murdered as he left Sunday Mass, and William Travers, shot leaving the same church on a different Sunday. He survived, but his daughter did not. A landmine attempt on the life of another Catholic judge, Eoin Higgins, resulted in the killing of Robin and Maureen Hanna and their six-year-old son David, on their way home from a holiday in Florida, orphaning two other Hanna children.
Next, fratricide. SFIRA’s shooting war—which is now being euphemistically renamed “resistance to British rule”—began, as it ended, with the deliberate and cold-blooded murder of fellow Irishmen. In North Belfast, SFIRA gunmen shot dead three unarmed Protestant men of a peace delegation who went for talks with the local SFIRA. Some weeks later, two young policemen of the recently disarmed Royal Ulster Constabulary were blown to smithereens by a SFIRA booby-trapped car in South Armagh, and in Belfast, SFIRA shot dead two Catholic men who had defied their ban on card-schools.
Next, murder of the helpless. It pretty much began with the abduction and execution of three off-duty unarmed Scottish soldiers, two of them brothers and one of them aged just seventeen, before graduating to the thoroughly exotic. This included murdering twenty-one innocent revellers in bomb-attacks on pubs in Birmingham, burning a dozen dog-fanciers alive in a napalm-bomb attack on a Belfast hotel, blowing Christmas shoppers to pieces outside Harrods in London, and slaughtering twelve innocent people on a coach crossing England, including Clifford Houghton, his wife Linda and their two young children Lee and Robert: unlike the Hannas, who lost 60 per cent of their number, this was extermination of an entire family. Other atrocities included the slaughter of a boatload of old people and youngsters in the west of Ireland and machine-gunning eleven Protestant workmen in South Armagh before finishing them off with synchronised headshots, though one man survived with seventeen gunshot wounds.
These were public events. Rather less public was the “disappearing” of seventeen people, including a widowed mother of ten children, the oldest being fourteen.
For every single one of these deeds, in the absence of a lawful authority, SFIRA would have been answerable to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Yet they have all been largely “forgotten”, an act of deliberate concealment by SFIRA and an unintentional act of amnesia by British politicians, who can be relied on to forget most things Irish, and sooner rather than later, along with a very deliberate act of amnesia by British intelligence agencies.
Next, moles, or how SFIRA managed to make the Irish people forget. In the 1980s, as SFIRA realised their war was going to last a very long time, they embarked on a strategy of systemic subversion of the law courts, the media and academe. Suitable volunteers were told not to reveal their true SFIRA loyalties as they took their places in various institutions, rather like 1930s communists. Their job was to stick to their careers and become covert agents of influence. This process is now yielding a bumper harvest. Artful lawyers have in recent years turned investigations into the killings of known SFIRA terrorists by the security forces decades ago into modern tribunals to investigate the murder of “innocent victims” by the police and army. One such investigation into the thoroughly deserved killing of one SFIRA gunman has lasted four years, already cost millions of pounds and has generated endless headline criticisms of the security forces, even though the victim was a notorious serial killer who cannot be named here for legal reasons (see what I mean?).
Next, memorial asymmetry. Local commemorations for dead SFIRA men killed in the Troubles are now annual affairs, with bands, parades and speeches that manage to convey the innocence of the men concerned as well as their status as martyrs. The eighty-three men and women SFIRA executed as “informers”, including the seventeen “disappeared” are of course not so remembered. Quite simply, SFIRA are creating a new historical landscape which they are busily populating with fictions of their own devising, which is what SFIRA have always done.
The template for this was the so-called “Easter Rising”, which did not take place on Easter Sunday, though it is celebrated as if it did. The fourteen republican leaders who led the Rising and who were later executed by the British became folk heroes; the 500 other victims of the Rising, including forty children—the first being fourteen-year-old Eleanor Warbrooke, murdered in cold blood by an insurgent—were rapidly forgotten. The pattern continued in the decades that followed. Ireland remembers the dozen or so rebels executed by the British in 1920-21 but forgets the hundred rebels executed by the new Irish government during the incomprehensible civil war in Southern Ireland in 1922-23.
In 1922, two atrocities convulsed the newly-formed entity of Northern Ireland, which remained in the United Kingdom. In March of that year, a group of Protestant terrorists led by a police officer, John Nixon, murdered seven innocent male members of the Catholic McMahon family in North Belfast. Nixon was later decorated by the police—not for his involvement in that evil deed, for which at that point he was unsuspected—before he was sacked for making a political speech in violation of police rules. Every single Catholic in Northern Ireland today is aware of this atrocity and the fact that a Protestant policeman, whose career was soon ended, was never charged for his involvement in it.
Three months later, in June 1922, IRA men under the command of their brigadier Frank Aiken in the Irish Free State moved into the Northern Irish village of Altnaveigh near the new border, burning many houses and murdering six Protestants, five men and one woman. Like Nixon, Aiken was never charged with this atrocity, but unlike Nixon, a glittering career beckoned. In time Aiken became the Irish Minister for Defence and later Minister for External Affairs, in which capacity he addressed the United Nations, where it was said he “bestrode the world like a Colossus”. The Irish Army barracks, not far from where his men set about their heroic feat of ethnic slaughter, still bears his name. Meanwhile, the five men and one woman murdered by IRA men under his command at Altnaveigh were (and remain) largely forgotten by Catholic Ireland.
Next, attacking the media. SFIRA propagandists are now masters of the internet, and they start each day restating SFIRA’s online history of the Troubles as well as systematically attacking opponents of the SFIRA agenda. Most anti-SFIRA journalists have their little stories, and here are mine. Some twelve years ago, SFIRA activists created a Wikipedia entry for me, saying that when I worked in Belfast, I raped little boys and my victims’ families were threatened with murder by British intelligence if they complained. Of course, every single item in that foul and fictitious catalogue of defamation constituted criminal libel, but Wikipedia has no legal presence in Ireland, meaning that I would have to sue it before a court in California, the legal equivalent of invading mainland China.
Five years ago, an English journalist named Roy Greenslade tweeted the allegation that I was an anti-Semite and Holocaust-denier, and the false allegation went round the world, ending my career as a journalist. What didn’t go round the world was the categorical rejection of these lies by Ireland’s Jews and the revelation that for three decades, Greenslade had been an agent of influence for SFIRA. He had even stood bail for a SFIRA terrorist charged with slaughtering four soldiers and seven horses in a bomb attack on cavalry near Buckingham Palace.
Other Irish journalistic critics of SFIRA have been similarly marginalised into silence by SFIRA smear tactics and legal threats from SFIRA lawyers. Very few Irish journalists will now take on the might of SFIRA: quite simply the personal price is too high, not least because the Sinn Fein arm of the SFIRA alliance is the wealthiest “political” party in Ireland, with a vast property portfolio here and in Britain. Other incomes are generated from cross-border liquor and diesel scams that produce a vast untaxed revenue, which then vanishes into offshore accounts.
Next, the repression of inconvenient truths. The IRA—supposedly dissolved after the Belfast Agreement “ended” the Troubles in 1998—actually continued to rearm well into this century, with fresh weapons shipments from Russia. The Irish government even tipped off the IRA that a consignment of their weapons from the former Yugoslavia was being closely watched by British intelligence in France. The IRA promptly abandoned the armaments rather than have their political project fatally compromised.
It is hard to see what SFIRA would have to do to cause the British to lose faith in the “peace process”. The British commitment to propitiating SFIRA is as unequivocal as Chamberlain’s surrender in Munich, and the pro-British unionists of Northern Ireland—probably rightly—feel they are sooner or later going to be betrayed by London. Both branches of British intelligence—MI5, the UK’s internal secret service, and MI6, the international branch—agree that Britain’s interests would not be served by further involvement in the province. Therefore, any concession which promotes the likelihood of a united Ireland is to be welcomed—and this includes allowing SFIRA to win the post-struggle propaganda campaign. Intellectually, emotionally and morally, the British have already withdrawn from Northern Ireland, and they really don’t care if SFIRA is seen to be victorious.
I got a real sense of this some years ago when I was talking to an MI5 agent called Nick at a British Army dinner where we were both guests. “I’ve read your stuff,” he told me. “All very moralising and so on. What we have to do is work with what is, not with what we want. And the truth is that there was never any real will in the Republic of Ireland to confront and defeat SFIRA. That’s a fact that you and people like you will have to accept.”
Of course, Nick was right, as shown by our next category, cowardice. Despite countless and quite unspeakable SFIRA atrocities—the list really would do credit to an SS Einsatzkommando in Ukraine in 1942—no Irish government has sought to crush SFIRA. Their leadership often lived quite openly in the Republic, even keeping office hours, while SFIRA safe-houses were usually just that. SFIRA perfected their lethal barrack-buster mortar bomb on the beach outside the home of a well-known SFIRA leader in the Republic, and the nightly explosions apparently provoked no interference from the Irish police. The basic instrument for limiting SFIRA—the no-jury Special Criminal Court—had relatively little impact on most of the SFIRA’s activities, and virtually none on the border with South Armagh, the heart of SFIRA’s campaign, where 165 soldiers and police officers were murdered.
Irish governments were more interested in deploying the Irish Army on UN peace-keeping operations in the Lebanon than on peace-enforcing operations on the border. Even the great Irish diplomatic coup in 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave Dublin a permanent say in the day-to-day running of affairs in Northern Ireland, did not stiffen the Irish government’s attitude towards SFIRA. Two years after that momentous triumph for Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs came Enniskillen. A year later, an appalled world watched the television coverage of two British Army corporals being publicly lynched in Belfast by a SFIRA mob. Two years after that monstrous spectacle, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that SFIRA terrorists could not be extradited to Northern Ireland since their violence was no more than an acceptable if somewhat unusual interpretation of the Irish Constitution, which denied the lawfulness of the partition of Ireland.
That same Constitution, which claimed that all people in Northern Ireland were as Irish as those in the south, could have been used to invoke the rule of law against SFIRA terrorists who murdered Irish people anywhere, but of course, that never happened.
The end of the Troubles came about because British intelligence—and primarily the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s counter-terrorist Special Branch—had thoroughly penetrated the SFIRA infrastructure with informers. However, SFIRA’s unpenetrated “England Unit” still retained a terrifying ability to bomb London, so British intelligence was prepared to reach a deal with SFIRA, not least because basically both were on the same side, namely that of disengagement. That is still the MI5/6 project, and many of Northern Ireland’s lawyers, civil servants and apparatchiks have been inducted into the program to promote SFIRA’s wholly spurious account of the Troubles. The police resistance to this has been weak and underfunded, while SFIRA’s campaign against the police is essentially (and incredibly) state-backed. But the opposition to this re-writing of history from the British Army, which appears to have the memory span of a gnat flattened on a speeding juggernaut’s windscreen, is non-existent.
The economic arguments for a united Ireland are similarly insubstantial: the Republic can neither afford a modern European welfare state nor is competent to run one, as any citizen of the Republic will grimly attest. It could not remotely match the capital transfers from London that enable the province to function, and in the process has created a vast dependency-class of indigents, whereas the Republic, with the greatest per-capita national debt in the EU—the equivalent of €35,000 for every single human being in the state—could no more afford Northern Ireland than lasso Mars. It has no proper army, navy or air force and its police force has been so politically corrupted down the decades that its present Commissioner had to be recruited from the old RUC, being a Northern Protestant whose father had been murdered by SFIRA. In many ways, the people of the Republic of Ireland are not so much governed as vaguely and imprecisely administered. The idea that the Republic could extend its querulous remit over the unwilling and surly neighbours to the north is simply preposterous.
But that does not prevent SFIRA pushing ahead for “reunification”. Most Irish people say (a) they want a united Ireland, but (b) don’t want to pay for it. The first part is what SFIRA pays attention to, as they cling to their ancient agenda, and being “realistic” is not part of it. After all, killing Protestants in very large numbers for twenty-eight years seems an unpersuasive way of convincing them that SFIRA really loved them.
For the men who guided SFIRA down the decades, realism is a discomfiting distraction from the hallucinations that once governed their terrorist campaign and now nourish their political manifestos. These manifestos promise houses for all, jobs for all and lower taxes for nearly all, the exceptions being the rich who will obligingly pay for everything, just as they always do in the nirvanas of socialist dreams, rather than vanish, which is what happens in the real world. That SFIRA’s governing seven-man army council are all millionaires, courtesy of vast criminal rackets, is apparently not a fact that has sunk in amongst the electorates of both north and south.
Finally, tribal pride. This addiction is the most terrifying, because it seems immune to the iron laws of evidence and predictable consequence. The roots of the Troubles lay in part in the giddy zeal with which nationalist Ireland commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, even though that event set the seal on partition and convinced Northern Unionists that they had nothing in common with the largely Catholic and Nationalist South. IRA recruitment amongst Northern Ireland Catholics increased after 1966, thereby stoking Protestant insecurities. So surely the Republic would not celebrate the centenary of the Rising in 2016 with the same headstrong disregard for consequence? Oh, but that is exactly what it did, with fresh state funerals for executed heroes from 1916 and Irish army officers reading the Proclamation to every school in the country, with that especially tasty reference to the Butchers of Belgium being “our gallant allies”.
This seems to have once again lit the blue touchpaper of tribal pride, confirming SFIRA’s boast that they were the true inheritors of the pure republicanism of 1916 and the defenders of the Northern Catholic minority, claims that require astonishing factual ignorance. The result is that SFIRA is terrifyingly close to taking power by democratic means in the Republic, while they have already captured the hearts and the minds of most of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland. The Republic’s political classes apparently lack both the moral and philosophical certainty to confront this lethal hybrid slouching towards them, quite unrepentant about its record of murder or its evil associates of the past.
So naturally, the IRA’s alliance with Hitler does not in the least perturb their leader, Mary Lou McDonald. She made her maiden public speech at the statue of Sean Russell, an IRA leader who died aboard a U-boat on a Nazi-backed mission to Ireland in 1940, acclaiming him as a great patriot. Nowhere else in Europe is a collaborator with the Third Reich so honoured. Yet because SFIRA is central to the “peace process”, there is a reluctance to discommode the SFIRA leadership by mentioning the moral squalor of this relationship, which would render the party unacceptable in any other democracy, as would indeed what SFIRA got up to in the Troubles.
This has recently been redefined as resistance, perhaps best proclaimed with a French accent, and another see great lie. It is the lie that successive Irish governments have been reluctant to remind people of, perhaps because those governments have protected SFIRA’s negotiating position with the British. It is the lie that unionists tend to whisper gently under their breaths because they still have to share government in Belfast with SFIRA, an entity which they utterly detest, if they are to have any control over the future of their province. It is the lie that successive British governments swallow in silence, not least because the Westminster intelligence mandarins long ago decided that Britain’s future conclusively lies outside Ireland whereas Ireland’s lies inside the EU.
Ah, but the jinxed propinquity of these troubled islands does not permit of such conclusive resolutions. It seems we are cursed to hurt one another needlessly and repeatedly in a deranged Riverdance tarantella of murder and misery. This is now and then interrupted by bafflingly peaceful interims, during which the British forget everything while the Irish salivate over recycled and much-adorned tales of British infamy, before both resume where they left off. And so on and so forth, in saecula saeculorum, a perpetual cycle of violence, grievance and asymmetric memory, until finally, bloodied and crawling on our knees, we reach the Holy Grail of the next interim, whereupon the British sink into the fetid amnesia of the brain-dead while SFIRA start feverishly preparing for the next conclusive resolution …
Among Kevin Myers’s books is the memoir Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast. His Dublin Letter on Queen Elizabeth II appeared in the November issue.