One Week On

by Kieran Healy on July 14, 2005

London and many other places will “observe two minutes of silence”: at noon GMT today for the victims of last week’s bombings. The debate has already begun (“see below”: about the right political and legal response to the attacks. Besides policy and law, though, Britain and Ireland have suffered long enough from terrorism to have produced literature about it. Below the fold I reproduce a powerful poem from the late “James Simmons”: It commemorates one of the earliest, and worst, atrocities of the Northern Ireland conflict, the IRA bombing of Claudy town in July of 1972. The circumstances of that event were different from last week’s attacks, but some things were the same. I don’t know of anything else that conveys them nearly as well.


for Harry Barton, a song

The Sperrins surround it, the Faughan flows by
At each end of Main Street the hills and the sky
The small town of Claudy at ease in the sun
Last July in the morning, a new day begun.

How peaceful and pretty, if the moment could stop
McIlhenny is straightening things in his shop
His wife is outside serving petrol and then
A child takes a cloth to a big window-pane

And McCloskey is taking the weight off his feet
McClelland and Miller are sweeping the street
Delivering milk at the Beaufort Hotel
Young Temple’s enjoying his first job quite well

And Mrs. McLaughlin is scrubbing her floor
Artie Hone’s crossing the street to a door
Mrs. Brown, looking around for her cat
Goes off up an entry, what’s strange about that?

Not much, but before she comes back to the road
The strange car parked outside her house will explode
And all of the people I’ve mentioned outside
Will be waiting to die, or already have died

An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear
Young children squealing like pigs in the square
All faces chalk-white or streaked with bright red
And the glass, and the dust, and the terrible dead

For an old lady’s legs are blown off, and the head
Of a man’s hanging open, and still he’s not dead
He is shrieking for mercy while his son stands and stares
And stares, and then suddenly – quick – disappears

And Christ, little Katherine Aiken is dead
Mrs. McLaughlin is pierced through the head
Meanwhile to Dungiven the killers have gone
And they’re finding it hard to get through on the phone.



Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 5:19 am

The last line of the poem (regarding the failed bomb warning in an era before mobile phones) illustrates the greatest single difference between the Provos, even at their worst, and the Bin Laden groupies.

The Provos killed plenty of civilians by ‘accident’ (if the inevitable collateral of their campaign can be so described) and ever-expanded their range of ‘legitimate targets’ to include to include reams of civilians only tangentially connected to the ‘British War Machine’. They also periodically killed civilians expressly as sectarian ‘reprisals’ (particularly in 1976 – 7).

However, they didn’t attempt to maximise civilian casualties chosen at random, which is why these amateur brats in London killed more in one attack than the far more professional IRA ever managed.

This, I think, is why Blair is right to recognise the unique threat of Islamicist terror: it’s not so much their capability that is the problem, as their ambition. These people really would use WMD on civilian populations. I can’t think of a terrorist group in the last century with the same limitless tactical repertoire.


Kieran Healy 07.14.05 at 5:24 am

However, they didn’t attempt to maximise civilian casualties chosen at random

I think you are forgetting the Omagh bomb and the pub bombings in mainland Britain, amongst some others.

And while the Provos never had to (thought to?) resort to suicide bombers, proxy bombing was one of their more disgusting innovations.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 5:29 am

Nope, not forgetting. Omagh (Real IRA rather than Provos) was a f**ked up bomb warning, not a no warning bomb. Ditto Birmingham, Guilford, etc. (The Harrods bomb may have been no-warning – I’ll have to check – I seem to remember that the ASU was disbanded). Proxy bombs were not heroic, I agree. Ed Maloney even suggests that an informer riddled Provo leadership Okayed them to discredit the armed struggle. But I don’t hold with that one.


Kevin Donoghue 07.14.05 at 6:41 am

The last line of the poem (regarding the failed bomb warning in an era before mobile phones) illustrates the greatest single difference between the Provos, even at their worst, and the Bin Laden groupies.

It’s a matter of opinion whether the efforts to warn the police were sincere. Personally, I might have believed they were, if I had only heard that excuse once or twice. In reality, it reached the point where you knew you would hear it after practically every bombing. I think it was just part of the whole sick propaganda campaign.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 6:57 am

Nah, don’t think so. Most bomb warnings worked. One just doesn’t remember them. Famously, the Provos bombed the centre of Derry so hard that it looked like it had been hit from the air, with virtually no casualties.

The Claudy bombing was on the day of Operation Motorman (re-occupation of No-Go areas by the army – first & only use of tanks in NI), so it was a propaganda disaster for the IRA. It was also a catholic area, so most victims were nationalist politically. Unusually enough, the leader of that ASU was a Catholic priest, who supposedly went a bit barmy thereafter.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 7:12 am

“the leader of that ASU was a Catholic priest”

I should add, ‘allegedly’.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 7:13 am

There’s a very good, very apposite stanza in Richard Simmons’s ‘Kill the Children’, about another Northern Irish bomb:

‘Sick minds sing sentimental songs
Or speak in dreary prose
Or make ingenious home-made bombs-
And this was one of those’.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 7:30 am

On the subject of dreary prose, thank you to Marc Mulholland for your characterisation of ‘proxy bombs’ (translation: an IRA gang forcing its way into the home of a Catholic building worker with access to a police station, taking his family hostage and threatening to kill them all unless he drove a suicide bomb to the police station) as ‘not heroic’.

Gee Marc, saying that took courage. Do you think rape and paedophilia are ‘not heroic’ too, or do you want time to think it over? Kneecapping and torture, the Forkhill machinegunning and Bloody Friday- ‘not heroic’, or is that pushing it a bit far? I’ve told a roomfull of fellow squaddies that I think Bloody Sunday was murder, but I guess ‘not heroic’ was the phrase I was looking for.

As for ‘most bomb warnings worked’: the casualties when they didn’t tended rather strongly to be Protestants or mainland Brits, not real human beings. Examples: Harrods (four civilians, one junior female cop- many wounded); Warrington (two children dead, many wounded); Birmingham; Guildford; Enniskillen; Bloody Friday; the Shankill Rd fish shop; Claudy- the list could be extended. There are various excuses for all the above (the detonators went off prematurely on the Shankill, the Brits didn’t evacuate Harrods quickly enough, the Brits may have detonated Enniskillen themselves and anyway there were Crown forces in the vicinity)- but the Provos knew a)that mistakes tend to happen around explosives as around any form of dangerous material and b)they wouldn’t face serious consequences from Washington, Dublin or their host community in the Republican working class so long as civilian casualties were not too high. When nine Proddy civilians got blown up in Enniskillen, with two soldiers, or when a fish queue rather than the Combined Loyalist Military Command were wiped out on the Shankill, there were all sorts of indignant speeches from the US and the Irish Republic: but oddly enough the Americans never extradited any Provos, and the Garda never quite found anyone to arrest in Dundalk. And a lot of people in Republican areas condemned the killing of British or Protestant civilians, but when the IRA blew up two Catholic ‘good neighbours’ in Derry, Martin McGuinness was beaten up outside Derry Cathedral- by some accounts he was lucky to get away with his life.

The IRA were more ‘restrained’ but the reasons are not far to seek: they were quite happy to create a drip-feed of civilian casualties in the knowledge that this would exert pressure on the British Government whilst not quite making American or Irish pressure unsustainable. And looking at the glittering political careers of Messrs Adams and McGuinness, who can say they were wrong?


Mrs Tilton 07.14.05 at 7:30 am

they didn’t attempt to maximise civilian casualties chosen at random

No doubt Kingsmills was one of those f**ked-up machine-gun warnings, then.

It’s an unorthodox reading of Simmons’s poem, I’d say, that makes out of it a mitigation of the IRA’s actions.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 7:34 am

Claudy, and I think Bloody Friday, caused Catholic as well as Protestant casualties. But overwhelmingly they were Protestant, in areas known to be largely Protestant (Claudy was a mainly Protestant village, the commercial premises of Belfast largely Protestant-owned)- so the ‘defenderism’ of the IRA wasn’t seriously damaged with NI’s working class Catholics. The level, rather than the ethnicity, of civilian casualties, was probably what counted most with Washington or Dublin, although one does frankly wonder about some of the bigots in Fianna Fail.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 7:50 am

Mrs Tilton: Amongst other things, I had Kingsmill in mind when I mentioned “sectarian ‘reprisals’ (particularly in 1976 – 7)”. If the last sentence of the poem does not refer to a bomb warning, please parse it for me correctly. If describing the typical IRA MO is mitigation, well I don’t know how to vindicate myself. Tell appealing untruths perhaps?

Dan, my understanding of the Enniskillen Bomb is that the device was not in fact triggered electronically. The IRA put this theory about in the hope of blaming the security forces for exploding it accidentally with scanning devices. It was a timer bomb that was intended to catch security forces sweeping the area. It denotated at the wrong time. This, of course, does not justify the IRA, as such accidents are inevitable, and anyway, levying war was not justified at all in the conditions.

Fair play to you describing the Bloody Sunday killings as murder to a room full of squaddies. My own suspicion is that BS was not murder as such, more over-reaction by pumped-up paras. The killings in Glenfada park may be an exception, however. We’ll see what Saville has to say.


Kevin Donoghue 07.14.05 at 7:57 am

Now that Dan Hardie is on the case I will leave Marc Mulholland alone. But Dan, how could you let him away with this:

Operation Motorman (re-occupation of No-Go areas by the army – first & only use of tanks in NI)

Have you grown weary of whacking that old chestnut? As noted in previous exchanges, the were tanks of a sort; they just didn’t have any shells (or even any guns if memory serves).


Mrs Tilton 07.14.05 at 8:05 am


the mitigation inheres in your drawing the distinction between IRA bombings, which were sometimes preceded by warnings that sometimes worked, and suicide bombings with no warning. There’s a distinction here, sure. But I’m not altogether persuaded that the distinction imparts any moral lustre on the IRA. To point to the distinction as though it does is startlingly similar to the ‘USA — we’re not as bad as Stalin!’ arguments of morally quadriplegic American warbloggers.

If your intention was not to offer a mitigation of IRA killings (and the final sentence in the penultimate paragraph of your last comment suggests it might not have been), then my reading of your first comment was mistaken. On the basis of that first comment alone, though, I don’t think this an unreasonable mistake.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 8:08 am

Dan, you’re right. Claudy was mixed. Five of the fatalities were catholic, four were protestant.

Kevin; I’d forgotten that I’d mentioned tanks before! I suppose it might be newws to some readers. They were adapted Centurions, used to pile through barricades, certainly not to blow people up.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 8:12 am

Mrs Tilton, I’m sorry for giving you a misleading impression. My words mean just what they say: no particular level of moral outrage should be inferred, as I don’t usually do that kind of thing in writing.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 8:13 am

I think some BS killings may have been manslaughter (younger toms hearing firing and putting rounds into running men) but a lot of it simply must have been murder. I can imagine one or two men being shot dead in the confusion of a (perceived) contact, but not fourteen. Very many soldiers think the same, in private. There is one lance-corporal who shot several blokes and if there are no charges against him it will be a disgrace. An even bigger disgrace is the fact that Bloody Sunday gets a huge inquiry and the several hundred unsolved IRA (and Loyalist) murders get none. I don’t regard Blair with much respect: he does cave in to violence, and the key factor in setting up the Saville inquiry seems to have been the indignant requests of the mass-murderer Martin McGuinness.

As for the ‘proxy bombings’, if anybody ever murders you, having first subjected your family to prolonged threats and psychological torture, rest assured that I will be the first to describe the killers as ‘not heroic’.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 8:14 am

PS: ‘USA—we’re not as bad as Stalin!’ does carry some weight with me, I must say. But I think I know what you mean.


ogged 07.14.05 at 8:28 am

Thanks for the poem, Kieran. It’s excellent.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 8:30 am


That’s interesting on BS; you’re quite likely right.

The phrase ‘not heroic’, as you probably recognise, was ironic understatement. Blogs always seem to be demanding appropriate levels of rage, sorrow or whatever (Normblog, for all its merits, does this lot). I find this difficult, & I have two theories why:

1. My parents were of the genuinely stiff-lipped generation.

2. There is the antroplogical concept of ‘telling’, in which one looks for emotional responses in one’s interlocutor in order to identify them as ‘one of us’ or ‘the other’. This is very notable in a divided society such as Northern Ireland (where I come from). It’s often a subtle or non too subtle form of intimdation. This is why it is impolite there to discuss politics at all in mixed company. I think this socialised reserve has become engrained in me.


P ONeill 07.14.05 at 9:18 am

The Omagh bomb “warning” was so fuc*ed up it sent all the people towards where the bomb was. It would have been better to have had no warning at all. Not caring enough to get the details right is a pathology, not a mistake.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 9:39 am

You’re right, P. O’Neill [any relation? :)] – no warning probably would have been better.

What happened was (if memory serves):

The bomb team was to place the device outside Omagh court-house, while a chap somewhere else was to phone in the warning specifying the location of the bomb and the time of detonation.

The bomb team, who were greenhorns, reached the target to find security forces there. Rather than abort the operation, which would have been standard operating procedure, they dumped the car-bomb down the road (Newry Court House sits on a hill).

Unaware of this, the warning guy phoned through with, as was now the case, the wrong location. Security forces cleared the area, as SOP, but in doing so inadvertently moved a large crowd to the very place where the device now stood.

The RIRA were forced to declare a ceasefire in the following furore; particularly as the Provos now felt they could get away with plugging them if they continued ‘armed struggle’.

I don’t really understand the pathology point. I think it’s just the case that republicans were embarrassed by ‘non legitimate’ civilian casualties, and alomst always tried to avoid them. From security force documents I’ve read, this seems to have been the understanding of the government too. Having said that, ‘legitmate targets’ covered a range beyond anything normally understood as combatants.

It’s certainly the case that ‘accidental’ civilian casualties are inevitable in this kind of campaign, so they cannot be excluded from the moral calculus just because they were disavowed.

Out of interest, have there been any cases of Bin Ladenesque attacks with specific warnings?


a 07.14.05 at 10:13 am

“while a chap…” marc, you must work for the BBC. How about using “terrorist” instead of “chap” ?


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 10:17 am

‘A [short for Andy] Chap’ was his given name. Odd, eh?


a 07.14.05 at 10:24 am

marc: you called him “a warning guy” as well. Amazing, Chap also went by the name of “Andy Warning Guy.”


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 10:30 am

Yep. Very odd.

I’m joking, of course. Please don’t go assaulting any Andy Chaps you might know in revenge.


P ONeill 07.14.05 at 10:51 am

P. O’Neill [any relation? :)]

No, but if that P. O’Neill wants to meet face-to-face to discuss usage of the moniker, I’d be happy to oblige. I might even bring a gift to the meeting, such as a beard trimmer.


Brendan 07.14.05 at 12:32 pm

Anyway to get back on topic: i disagree that Al-Qaeda are sui generis. Aum Shinrikyo actually used WMDs, to maximise civilian casualties (though yet again the idea that this was motiveless malignancy was false: apparently the attack was an attempt to divert attention from Aum when the group obtained some information indicating that police searches were planned). I remember reading in Bill Bryson’s book on Australia that some people suspect that Aum Shinrikyo actually built and even detonated (!!!) a nuclear device in the Australian outback, and nobody noticed!!! Perhaps one of Bryson’s more tasteless jokes, but on the other hand, some people seem to believe it.


Marc Mulholland 07.14.05 at 12:48 pm

‘Aum Shinrikyo’ – Good call. I hadn’t thought of them.

I also remember reading something about survivors of the Holocaust who, in vengence, wanted to poison the German water supply and kill millions.


bryan 07.14.05 at 2:15 pm

I knew Stalin was dead of course, but I was not aware he had turned yet.

That said perhaps someone will make the argument someday in earnest which I will now make in flippant fashion, that the suicide bomber is more moral than the IRA because the suicide bomber kills themself as well as their victims thus dealing out the punishment for their crime. Sounds like the movie Seven now that I think of it. One could work up quite a frothy paen to the noble suicide bomber and the deep brotherhood of death between them and their victims. I am however not sure how sincere it would seem.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 2:38 pm

‘I also remember reading something about survivors of the Holocaust who, in vengence, wanted to poison the German water supply and kill millions.’

Marc, IIRC you are very inaccurate here. This is discussed in a book by the BBC journalist Michael Elkins- ‘Forged in Fury’, republished 1997 by Piatkus. My memory is that the plot was to poison German PoWs, especially SS men, and some attempt was made to do so: it may even have killed a few, but in the chaos of postwar Germany, there was no investigation. (Possibly no one in the US or British armies wanted to try Jewish Holocaust survivors for killing SS men, and so just quietly warned against any repetition.) Again IIRC there was no attempt to ‘kill millions’- any attempt to generally poison the German water supply would have had Allied troops as the first victims, since they had first claim on all water and food supplies. Many of the Jews participating in the attack had been trained in the British army and had little desire to kill Allied troops, at any rate in 1945. I could be wrong.

Re your question: ‘Out of interest, have there been any cases of Bin Ladenesque attacks with specific warnings?’ If Bin Ladenesque means ‘Islamicist’ I can’t think of any- but I would be interested to hear more about Muslim-on-Muslim terror campaigns (there are so many, but Algeria springs to mind). Possibly in that context, where there is at least some possibility of ‘converting’ the enemy to one’s precise religious and political views, there might have been some tactical restraint, a la the IRA.

Re ‘not heroic’: yes, all the social codes stuff is true. But if I make little of something bad that’s happened to me, that may be admirable stoicism, but adopting the stiff upper lip in the face of someone else’s pain is more than a little suspect.

Beyond that,I think we should ask British Muslims to confront the things done by some of their co-religionists, but God knows we ought to face up to the fact that a great many non-Muslim British, Irish and American people suffer from the same tendency to go all mealy-mouthed in response to murder.


Urinated State of America 07.14.05 at 5:19 pm

“‘I also remember reading something about survivors of the Holocaust who, in vengence, wanted to poison the German water supply and kill millions.’

Marc, IIRC you are very inaccurate here. This is discussed in a book by the BBC journalist Michael Elkins- ‘Forged in Fury’, republished 1997 by Piatkus.'”

No, actually Marc is correct here. This is discussed in an article by E. Spinrak and Idith Zertal in “Toxic Terror” (ed. Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute for International Studies). It’s one of the ten-odd actual cases of terrorist (or non-state actor, if you prefer) use or attempted use of poisons/WMDs.

The organization, called Avenging Israel’s Blood (Dahm Y’Israel Nokeam, or DIN), did plan to poison the city water supplies of several German cities; it even infiltrated a worker into the water utility at Nuremburg. One of their operatives, who had obtained poison (arsenic) from Chaim Weizmann in then-Palestine, was arrested on-ship while travelling back from then-Palestine; he managed to warn his colleagues before his arrest, who dumped the arsenic into the sea.

DIN then switched plans to poisoning Nazi POW’s in Stalag-13. They succeeding in poisoning the rye bread sent to the camp (which was almost exclusively eaten by German prisoners). Casualties are unknown (the Americans did not release details at the time for fear of creating a panic). Press reports at the time claimed that 2,300 were sickened, 207 hospitalized and none killed; DIN members claimed that 4,300 were sickened, 1,000 hospitalized, with 700 paralyzed or killed.


dan hardie 07.14.05 at 5:35 pm

Excellent- thanks for the reference. Pretty horrific, circumstances notwithstanding.


nikolai 07.15.05 at 5:06 am

While we’re talking about the ethics of terrorism, I’ve become very interested in the early anarchist terrorists. They went about assassinating people who they thought deserved it, but – at least in some cases – were scrupulous about avoiding killing anyone but the person targeted. Could anyone point me in the direction of a good book or other reference about this movement?


Brendan 07.15.05 at 5:14 am

I also think that one of the early anarchists, Théodore Meunier, threw a bomb into a restaurant, aiming to kill as many people as possible, reasoning that anyone who could afford to eat there must be ‘bourgeois’ and that all middle class people were fair game. Don’t know how many he got though.

In any case, my point stands. I don’t see any RADICAL and FUNDAMENTAL difference between Al-Qaeda and (some) previous terrorist movements. The idea that we are faced with some unprecedented new threat the likes of which the world has never seen is false, although of course (mainly due to changes in technology) there are differences of scale.


Marc Mulholland 07.15.05 at 9:10 am

What technology change?

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