On Tuesday, Seán Crowe rose to make a fine speech in the Dáil to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Speaking on behalf of Sinn Féin, he was eloquent on the need to combat amnesia about war crimes: “While we remember that appalling act of genocide we must also commit to continue to challenge and oppose any attempts to minimise or deny the genocide that took place at Srebrenica and oppose the glorification of war criminals. I do not think anyone has mentioned the fact that to this day, many look up to the war criminals.”
The previous day, BBC Northern Ireland broadcast an interview with Michael Hayes, a former member of Sinn Féin's sister organisation, the IRA. Hayes declared himself an active participant in the Birmingham massacre of November 21st, 1974, when the IRA unit of which he says he was a part slaughtered 21 civilians and maimed 160 others in two pubs, the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. This massacre was not, like Srebrenica, genocidal in nature. But it was undoubtedly a war crime – the international law of conflict outlaws the deliberate or reckless targeting of innocent civilians.
At the heart of this evasion is a brazen lie: that when the IRA slaughtered civilians it did so accidentally
Yet not only do people such as Hayes continue to enjoy apparent impunity in Dublin while openly admitting that he was “a participant in the IRA’s activities in Birmingham” and declining to deny that he actually helped to plant the bombs. Many people, in Crowe’s words, continue to “look up to the war criminals”. The same party that pledged on Tuesday in the Dáil to “continue to challenge and oppose any attempts” at “the glorification of war criminals” has never even been able to bring itself to describe Birmingham and similar massacres by the IRA as crimes.
At the heart of this evasion is a brazen lie: that when the IRA slaughtered civilians it did so accidentally. Hayes, in his BBC interview, went so far as to claim that he and the other IRA members involved in the Birmingham bombings "had no intention of hurting anybody". This might be dismissed as a grotesque absurdity if it did not encapsulate a larger rewriting of history in which the IRA was just a more robust version of the civil rights movement that acted reluctantly to defend Catholics from attack. Breandán Ó hEithir mocked one kind of extreme revisionism by composing a ballad called The Gentle Black and Tan. But that was obvious satire: the Gentle Pub Bomber is intended as a statement of historical reality.
The first obvious question is: if the IRA had no intention of hurting anybody, what did it intend to do that night? The only other possible goal would be simply to destroy the two pubs. The logical time to do this would be in the dark of night, when the buildings were empty. Instead, the bombers chose a Thursday night – pay night in working-class communities in the 1970s. (Some of the dead could be identified only by the names on their pay packets.) They chose a time, 8.17pm, when the pubs were certain to be packed.
The bombers had to go into those pubs, which means they saw the people whose lives they were about to extinguish. Most of them were very young: Jane Davies was 17, as was Neil Marsh; Maxine Hambleton was 18; Ann Hayes and Pamela Palmer were 19; Maureen Roberts and Paul Davies were 20. The brothers Des and Eugene Reilly, typical English working-class children of Irish emigrants, were 21 and 23. Are we really supposed to believe that the gentle bombers saw these people and hundreds of others out with their friends and thought they might not be harmed by explosions that, according to one witness, were "like a volcano had erupted"?
The second obvious question is about the standard escape clause for the IRA and its apologists: we tried to give warnings but alas something went wrong. This is Hayes’s line in his BBC interview: they intended to give a half-hour warning but one of the phone boxes they tried to use was broken and another was occupied.
In itself, this is not remotely credible. Since these gentle men knew that hundreds of lives were at risk, why did they not drag the occupant of the phone box out and commandeer the phone? Hayes claims, moreover, that the warning was thus delayed by eight minutes and that this created the massacre. The IRA warning was actually phoned in to the office of a local newspaper six minutes before the first bomb went off. And it was deliberately vague: “There is a bomb planted in the Rotunda and there is a bomb in New Street at the tax office.” Even on Hayes’s account of an eight-minute delay, had everything gone to plan there would have been just 14 minutes for the newspaper office to contact the police, for the police to decipher the cryptic message and for two packed pubs to be cleared.
The evidence very strongly suggests that the “warning” was not intended to save civilians from being killed or maimed. It was intended to provide the killers with a fig leaf of political and moral cover for a naked act of mass murder. And this conclusion is supported by another obvious fact – both before and after Birmingham, in atrocity after atrocity, the IRA consistently claimed that it had tried (but sadly failed) to give warnings.
The failed warning was part of the IRA's modus operandi. After nine innocent people, including a nine-year-old girl, were murdered in its bombing of the village of Claudy in July 1972, James Simmons famously concluded his Ballad of Claudy with the lines: "Meanwhile to Dungiven the killers have gone,/ and they're finding it hard to get through on the phone." Even if the IRA did really intend to give warnings and save lives, the repeated catastrophic failure to do so shows that it knew the risk of failure was very high and that mass deaths of civilians were very likely. This recklessness is itself a war crime. Repeated criminal recklessness is not an accident.
All widows and widowers must feel as I do, that you can't talk to anyone about things you would normally talk about with your partner
If the dead of Birmingham were Catholics slaughtered in Derry or Belfast by the British army or loyalist paramilitaries, Sinn Féin would demand that Michael Hayes be arrested and that no stone be left unturned to bring justice to the bereaved families. And rightly so. If Hayes was a Serbian paramilitary who had announced in Dublin that he had taken part in the Srebrenica massacre, Sinn Féin would certainly urge his extradition to face trial. And rightly so. But the bereaved families of Birmingham are just an embarrassment. They do not fit the desired narrative of a heroic armed struggle for human rights.
A year after the massacre, the widow of Trevor Thrupp, who was 33 when he was blown to bits in the Mulberry Bush, leaving her to raise their three little children, wrote about enforced silence: “All widows and widowers must feel as I do, that you can’t talk to anyone about things you would normally talk about with your partner. It’s a lonely life.” And a life made all the more forlorn when history moves on and buries atrocity in fake apologies riddled with lies and evasions. When war crimes are reshaped as tragic accidents and killers emote on television about how bad they feel, the victims recede even further into the great loneliness of oblivion.