It was on August 25, 1939, that I read in my local newspaper, the Midland Telegraph, that five people had been killed and 70 injured “when an IRA bomb exploded in Coventry’s city centre on Broadgate, the main shopping street thronged with shoppers and workers.” Among the crowd walked Elsie Millets, 21, “who paused for a second to gaze in a jewellery shop window.” In that second, a 2.3 kg bomb sitting in the carrier basket of a bicycle resting at the curb, exploded. “Elsie was killed instantly. She was identifiable only by her engagement ring.”
I was 15, old enough to be shocked by the brutal slaughter of innocents by members of the Irish Republican Army that had its roots in the failed, but legendary, 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The rag-tag, ill-trained army of dissidents seeking to persuade England to end its occupancy and let the Irish run their own affairs, was crushed in less than a week, its leaders tried and executed.
Three years later, in 1919, the IRA was created to replace the Irish volunteers. Its purpose was clearly stated: It would use armed force to pursue its objective of an independent Ireland. Thus began the real Irish Troubles with close to three years of guerrilla warfare which led to negotiations and agreement to partition Ireland. Twenty six counties would become the Irish Free State with dominion status; six counties would become Northern Ireland and remain part of Great Britain.
The division didn’t please everyone and the IRA faction continued to recruit and train, stepping up a campaign of terror with indiscriminate time-bomb attacks in England and raids on understaffed police stations in Ireland. In 1919, the British Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill launched a recruitment campaign to attract thousands of unemployed WW1 veterans to join his newly created Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve. There was no shortage of recruits for what proved to be an undisciplined force given to brutal attacks on civilians, the destruction of homes and sometimes entire villages.
The force, with its improvised uniform of khaki slacks and dark blue shirts, became known as the Black and Tans. Their record remains a shameful chapter in England’s checkered history and stays high on Churchill’s bad decisions list. It was also one of his great failures. The Black and Tans terror attacks stirred the IRA to greater action, increased violence and a division of power. In 1969, the Army became two pronged – one named “Official” and the other “Provisional. The Officials pursued the fight for independence in parliament while the “Provos” stepped up the bullets, bombs and assassinations campaign.
Between 1969 and 1994, it is estimated the Provos executed 1,800 people of which 600 were civilians.
In 1994, the IRA declared “a complete cessation of all military activities” and agreed to destroy some of its weapons but not its complete and substantial armoury. In 2005, it agreed it would abstain from all violence as it continued to fight for a united Ireland.
It is believed that some of the organizational structure of the “old IRA” remains in place.
So, what’s the purpose of this recital of evil times long ago? Well, I got to wondering about terrorists and acts of terror and people fighting for what they believe are their rights; and other people who disagree with those beliefs and insist, by force if necessary, they should be denied.
I got to thinking about 1920 when the Sunni and the Shia Muslims of Iraq united to force the British out of their country and the UK responded with a 100,000 strong army of British and Indian troops supported by the Royal Air Force perfecting unchallenged bombing runs. It was called “aerial policing of recalcitrant tribal chiefs.” A BBC report says thousands of Arabs were killed “and hundreds of British and Indian soldiers died.” All about the same time the IRA and the Black and Tans were trying to outdo each other in the unwarranted death stakes on the green hills and fields of Ireland.
It was all 90 or so years ago and here we are still trying to figure out who the real terrorists were then – and who they are today.