Sinn Féin’s problem is not so much with the past as with the truth

Opinion: A generation with no memory of the Troubles must be told what the IRA did

'Obviously people will have their own interpretation of that" was one of the starker lines delivered by Martin McGuinness during a debate at the Oxford Union this week. Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister was the main speaker at an event co-hosted by Al Jazeera on the theme: "Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: When Should We Talk to the Enemy?"

In his this newspaper on Wednesday London Editor Mark Hennessy reported that McGuinness insisted at the event that the IRA had never deliberately targeted civilians during the Troubles and insisted that the deaths of any civilians were because of “huge mistakes” in IRA operations that went wrong.

The line about others having “their own interpretation of that” was uttered by McGuinness when he was repeatedly pressed at the event about how the IRA killing of Patsy Gillespie in 1990 was “anything other than cold-blooded murder”.

It says something about the Sinn Féin leadership’s cavalier relationship with the truth that Martin McGuinness has persuaded himself that the circumstances of Patsy Gillespie’s death were open to any interpretation other than that it was the coldest and bloodiest of murders. Gillespie’s killing was not some operational mistake. He was deliberately targeted in a “tiger kidnap” style operation with premeditated murderous intent.


Patsy Gillespie appears at number 3,146 of the 3,661 entries in Lost Lives, the definitive catalogue of killings in the Northern Ireland conflict from 1969 compiled by David McKittrick and others and most recently republished in 2001.

Gillespie was a 42-year-old Catholic father of three who worked in a British army canteen. On the night of the October 24th , 1990, he was used as a “human bomb” by the IRA in an attack on Fort George army base in Derry. The operation involved at least 11 members of the local IRA brigade. Gillespie’s family was held at gunpoint as their father was forced to drive a van loaded with a 450 kg bomb to the army checkpoint. An armed IRA team followed him by car to make sure he drove the van to the base. Just minutes before he reached the checkpoint the IRA party armed the bomb remotely.

When he reached the checkpoint, Gillespie tried to get out but the IRA bombmakers had installed a detonation device linked to the van’s courtesy light, which came on when the van door opened. Gillespie and five soldiers were killed in the resultant explosion. The bomb was so powerful that it not only devastated the army base and a number of armoured vehicles but it also caused damage to 25 houses in an adjoining estate. One can only imagine the horrific manner in which Gillespie himself died.

Abductions, killings and secret burials
McGuinness's turn at the Oxford Union came the same week as the other Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams TD, faced similar questioning about IRA killing of civilians in Darragh MacIntyre's haunting documentary about the Disappeared.

The abductions, killings and secret burials, including that of Jean McConville, which were the subject of the programme were certainly not operational mistakes.

MacIntyre’s programme showed how they had been planned and executed with some precision. They were part of a deliberate strategy to punish those who the IRA determined had acted against the interest of its campaign. They were a means of intimidating the nationalist community to comply with IRA will.

Adams and his colleagues will try again this weekend to dismiss the focus on these killings as another example of media critics in the Republic seeking to disrupt the political advance of Sinn Féin but frankly the issues involved are more important than any consideration of party political rivalry. They touch on fundamental moralities surrounding current political debate.

McGuinness is being less than honest when he suggests that the IRA’s killings of civilians were merely the result of operational mistakes. No one believes Adams when he says he was not a member of the IRA and we have not had the full truth about the extent of his knowledge about the disappearance of Jean McConville and others. They must be challenged on these matters.

It may not be possible to prove these things in a criminal court of law but in the court of public opinion, in which they now seek to operate and in which their party seeks support, the expert evidence is now overwhelmingly against them.

Security sources and senior political figures on both sides of the divide and both sides of the Border have always placed Adams beside McGuinness at the senior levels of IRA management.

Most journalists and academics who have specialised in the study of the IRA have long disputed Adams’s denials about his involvement. To these voices must now be added those of former leading IRA commanders who have spoken about the extent of Adams’s knowledge and involvement.

Intellectual corruption
The idea of McGuinness in Oxford, or Adams this weekend on a fundraising tour of the United States, seeking to portray themselves as Mandela-like peacemakers forces us to confront an intellectual corruption in which our political system has engaged in recent years.

For too long too many have held their tongues on the true horrors of IRA atrocities in order to foster the fragile peace process. It surely must be able to bear the weight of the truth now.

The Sinn Féin leadership, and a generation of voters with no memory of the IRA’s campaign, must be repeatedly confronted with the stark and horrific reality of what the IRA did to the Gillespies, the McConvilles and many families like them.