The Blanket

Systemic Breakdown

Anthony McIntyre

Thirty years ago today the IRA’s Belfast Brigade committed one of the organisation’s most notorious acts. The city’s three battalions between them detonated bombs throughout the Northern capital, killing nine and injuring scores of others. It became the bleakest day in the Provisional IRA's then barely three year history. Few predicted in the summer of 1972 that many bleaker were to follow.

There has been an attempt in some media circles to narrow responsibility for the bombings down to a very small number of particular individuals - the three Belfast republican leaders who attended the London truce talks a number of weeks previously with William Whitelaw. The purpose has been to allocate Gerry Adams, Seamus Twomey and Ivor Bell the lion’s share of culpability for the day’s events. Twomey is now dead, Bell has had a vow of silence imposed upon him and Adams, the only one free to speak if not speak freely, has made it easier for his media detractors by denying any involvement in the same breath as he gainsays ever having been a member of the IRA. If the Sinn Fein president expects his audience to treat each assertion with equal respect, he must realise that there is a certain price to be paid. No one takes the denial of IRA membership seriously, allowing those who are sceptical to attribute the same lack of seriousness to his denials of involvement in the Bloody Friday debacle. This compounded by the public profile of Adams in contrast with the now virtual anonymity of the other two has ensured the hot seat is his alone.

However, even without closer inspection, the allegations against the three truce plenipotentaries in general and Adams in particular seem threadbare at their strongest. This is not to present a case for their or his innocence. I do not know if they are. It is merely to state that in the case of Bell and Twomey there is nothing other than tenuous media speculation. As for Adams, his unpersuasive denials of IRA membership are insufficient to infer that he is unworthy of belief on other matters such as Bloody Friday. While his total deniability approach makes it difficult, the possibility must still be allowed for that each component of his denials are stand alone matters and should be treated separately.

Anyone seeking to query the evidence presented against Adams would point to the bulk of it coming from Pete ‘the Para’ McMullen who claims to have attended meetings with the Sinn Fein leader as he planned the coordination of the concentrated bombing strike. McMullen is a self-confessed informer. His version is ‘reinforced’ by media allegations that at the time Adams was adjutant of the Belfast Brigade. Realistically, informer evidence counts for little. Even in the Sunday papers as some journalists are running with stories built around McMullen's testimony Greg Harkin in today's Sunday People claims that McMullen has signed an affadavit refuting his original accusations against Adams. He is quoted by Harkin as having said 'I made the whole thing up'.

Much less central to the arguments of the critics of the accusations against Adams, but worthy of mention nonetheless, is the allegation that he was the adjutant of the Belfast Brigade at the time it carried out the bombings. They could plausibly contend that the role of the adjutant generally is to maintain the structures of the army rather than oversee its operations.

None of this of course proves anything. What role, if any, Adams or the others played on the day will be subject to endless speculation and conjecture. It is thirty years since the event and it is unlikely that even forty years after it the public will be any the wiser as to what really happened. What is certain is that no tiny group of individuals should carry the responsibility for the enormity of the carnage inflicted on a shopping population as it went about its Friday business. It was the responsibility of the organisation pursuing armed struggle rather than the foibles of one or two people. The most senior IRA leaders and strategic planners, intelligence and operational directors, engineers and quartermasters, hijackers and look-outs, active service volunteers and the owners of safe houses all armed with a blinkered doctrine of physical force made the events of Bloody Friday possible.

The responsibility was a collective one. It amounted to a systemic breakdown resulting in the structural failure of the IRA to prevent a civilian population being blitzed. It was an experience from which the organisation learned only limited lessons. That shortcoming perhaps more so than what happened on the day was the most appalling outcome. Out of it grew the endemic organisational incompetence that characterised so much of the IRA’s campaign, leaving so many innocent dead in its wake. Inexcusably, forewarned did not prove to be forearmed. Therein lies the real culpability.

Nevertheless the events of Bloody Friday were the result of unmitigated negligence rather than murderous intent. It is not an excuse but an observation to say it was wrong, not deliberate.

Further reading on Bloody Friday: Sisyphus




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Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.
- Lenny Bruce

Index: Current Articles

22 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Systemic Breakdown

Anthony McIntyre


Opportunity Knocks, or Not?

Davy Carlin


Nothing Left
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain


On Behalf of the Republican Peace Movement...
Brian Mór


Once Upon A Time

Brian Mór

Sorry, Shergar
Brian Mór


So Sorry It Hurts



19 July 2002


The Sorry Truth

Anthony McIntyre


Neutral Environment?

Billy Mitchell


Sectarianism and How It Can Be Fought
Hazel Croft


Support Irish Glass Bottle Workers




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