Last night was one of the very few occasions that I have watched the Nolan Show. My wife had it on otherwise I would never have bothered. The tabloid press with its gore galore ethic is burdensome enough without the additional weight of tabloid TV being thrown in to top it up.
The part of the discussion I watched dealt with the Shankill bombing of 20 years ago. On the day I was in the Linenhall Library in Belfast, shortly after one o’clock when the sound of the blast, which seconds earlier had destroyed so many lives, reached us. Later in the afternoon when I arrived in Castle Street and bumped into a former republican prisoner he told me there had been a bomb in the Shankill and there were said to be many casualties. It wasn’t long before the graffiti artists, having spotted an opening by dint of the fish shop in which the bomb had detonated, were out, scrawling sectarian slogans to the effect of ‘9 battered 50 well done.’ A former member of the Official Republican Movement daubed over them in one part of West Belfast. He had lost a brother to the conflict and hardly relished the innocent suffering insult piled on top of injury.
Days later I would attend the funeral of the IRA volunteer who died during the operation and helped carry his coffin along the New Lodge Road. Thomas Begley was 22 years of age, and ended his young life ending the lives of others. I don’t regret serving as a pallbearer. He was a comrade who lost his life performing an act both ordered and legitimised by people with more experience than he.
20 years on we can sit back and reflect longer and harder than we did then. We might even be judgemental about Thomas Begley, while offering platitudes that it should never have happened. But it did happen, and when it did we discussed not the morality of the attack but the length of the fuse. When a public figure gave out privately to the Belfast Brigade about the unsuitable timing mechanism he was reminded - lest he conveniently had no recollection - of his attendance at the army council meeting that approved the operation.
When a Sinn Fein figure many years ago was reported to have told a journalist that Thomas Begley ‘might be a piece of shit but he is our piece I shit,’ the one angry conclusion that came to mind was that the Shinner, not Begley, was the piece of shit. Sinn Fein leaders frequently directed the IRA campaign. Sure, Begley did, but they devised. Blaming him almost exclusively for implementing their strategy seemed a total abdication of their responsibility, a devious distancing from their own dark deeds.
Wax ethical and sigh at the terrible loss of life, as we might today, three quarters of we who came through the ranks of the IRA would have been queuing up to plant that bomb: the remainder, waiting to tell their handlers. The pot of gold at the end of the black rainbow - the pernicious figures behind the anti-nationalist killing machine – was a tantalising prospect. I would have been jostling for my place. Misgivings, if any, would have been confined to the suitability of the fuse and runback. And that is how it was. We were part of a guerrilla army primed for something other than social work.
As such, there was every intention to kill on the day. The killing was to be restricted to the UFF leadership believed to be above the premises, not the non-combatants going about their daily business. I suspect the volunteers tasked with entering Frizzells were under instruction to be the last to leave the premises. A dodgy fuse put an end to that. Thomas Begley is dead and Sean Kelly, as far as I know, has yet to tell us what the instructions were. In any event, transferred malice secures little in the way of mitigation.
Many lost lives were to follow the Shankill bombing as armed loyalists with clear intent targeted non combatants, punching holes in the IRA-as-defenders-of-the-nationalist-community narrative. Spared the trouble of agonising over time constrained fuses, no attempt was made to disguise the fact that the limited but lethal logic of Johnny Adair kicked in full throttle: ‘Yabba dabba doo, any Taig will do.’ No pretence at targeting the IRA leadership behind the bombing: just the wilful slaughter of civilians as they relaxed in bars or earned a crust.
Twenty years removed, it seems incredible that political conflict could have induced such destructiveness in us. That even where we did not intend to wipe out a civilian population we chose to risk doing so in pursuit of some short term military objective. I suppose it was something we shared with the RUC and UDR personnel behind many of the 120 Mid Ulster killings between 1972 and 1976.
Today’s phenomenon of victim-hugging played out with such media savvy, while a vast improvement on the victim-crushing of 20 years ago, has done nothing to assuage the unforgiving mindset of the brother of 13 year old Leanne Murray who died in the Shankill bombing or the daughter of Martin Moran, a young Catholic gunned down two days later. There is no reason why it should.
As a deeply divided society continues to play its endless blame game about the past, seeking truth not for reconciliation but recrimination, the victims of our collective war making have been invited not into any meaningful tribunal or truth recovery process. Instead, their lot has been a worthless ticket that secures them admission to the theatre of smoke and mirrors where, from ringside seats, they can watch the daily dance of deceit that pirouettes around the past. Meanwhile, those behind the lot of it seem to be doing just fine, determined not to be unsettled by discomfiting truths.
And this they shall maintain.