The Dynamitards

John Horgan

  • Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance since 1848 by Charles Townshend
    Oxford, 445 pp, £22.50, December 1983, ISBN 0 19 821753 6

A secret Clan na Gael memorandum exactly a century ago, two years after the inauguration of the 1881 Fenian bombing campaign in London and Liverpool, vowed to ‘carry on an incessant and perpetual warfare with the power of England in public and in secret’. That warfare has been intermittent rather than incessant: but the Christmas bombing in London offers devastating evidence of its durability.

The dynamitards, as the Fenians were known by their frequently frustrated opponents in the intelligence services, were capitalising on a new technology – the invention of high explosives. Their successors have shown themselves to be murderously adept in the same line of business: the car bomb concept has been a significant Irish contribution to the lexicography of international terrorism. Nor do the parallels stop there. Almost a hundred and sixty years ago, a landlord was complaining that ‘the lower orders of the county Leitrim in general are sworn Ribbond men so that my own tenants living on my own property will no longer assist me against them – indeed I should not consider my life safe now amongst them.’ In the week the Harrods bomb went off, members of the same organisation which planted it shot and killed two of their fellow-countrymen, members of the Irish security forces, in the inhospitable Leitrim uplands where they had been holding for ransom a senior executive in a multinational company operating in Ireland.

Some things have changed, of course. The greater part of the island of Ireland is now an independent state. Northern Ireland itself has gone through several sea-changes, from Stormont through the power-sharing Assembly to Westminster direct rule. And yet, no matter how much the political landscape alters, violence remains endemic, like a morbid condition which is triumphantly resistant to all known forms of political antibiotics.

The degree to which the IRA in general, or Mr Gerry Adams in particular, may have been responsible for this or that outrage is largely a matter of theology. It is not just that the IRA – and indeed most similar para-military organisations on either side of the Northern conflict – have a well-known track record of evading responsibility for terrorist attacks that go wrong, or which provoke an unforeseen public reaction. It is also that even in the modern IRA, with almost fifteen years experience of armed conflict and a highly sophisticated command structure, anyone with access to a stick of gelignite is, in the final analysis, his own Chief of Staff. In circumstances like these, responsibility is a movable feast. And the tears shed by Sinn Fein and its politicians about media coverage are largely of the crocodile variety. Listening to an organisation which has developed considerable expertise in media management (not excluding death threats to named journalists) is rather like hearing Herod complain about the annual report of the NSPCC.

Recent television programmes on BBC and ITV, readily accessible to many Irish viewers, have been investigating para-military organisations like the IRA and the INLA, and their political front organisations Sinn Fein and the IRSP, with a toughness and persistence that seems to some observers to mark a distinct shift in emphasis. That shift is away from the temptation to romanticise the men of violence – a temptation given added glamour, it must be said, by some of the more dotty decisions of media bureaucrats in the past – and towards the best public service broadcasting tradition, in which media access can be given to apologists for the indefensible in a context which stops well short of legitimising their cause.

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