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A View North: The deadly history of the car bomb

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The fact that it was a car bomb that caused the massacre in Omagh on Aug. 15 came as no surprise. Car bombs have become an accepted tactic of paramilitary organizations throughout the world — the week before Omagh, two were exploded at U.S., embassies in Africa. And before that, well, there have been so many car bomb massacres over the last 20 or more years that a listing of them all would fill a book with one blood-stained page after another.

It seems like such a simple tactic — pack a few hundred pounds of explosives into the trunk of a car and drive it to your target — that it may appear odd that it should have been necessary to "invent" it. Yet it was. And the man who more than any other can be "credited" with this invention is the late Daithi O Conaill, founding member and former adjutant general of the Provisional IRA.

The first use of the car bomb was in Derry in March 1972, when it devastated a downtown area of the city. One of the Provisional IRA commanders in the city at the time was Martin McGuinness, who recently was moved by the Omagh horror to condemn the tactic. But in 1972, the Provisional IRA leadership rushed to justify its use, even though it clearly put the lives of ordinary civilians — many of them nationalists — at risk. It tied down huge numbers of soldiers and it cost the British treasury vast sums of money in compensation payments for those whose property was destroyed.

Just how risky a tactic it was became obvious within days of the Derry attack. On March 20 the Provisionals telephoned a warning that a car bomb had been left in downtown Belfast. The police moved people away from what they thought was the target area into nearby Donegall Street, where the car bomb was actually ticking away. When it exploded, it killed seven people, two of them police officers who were evacuating the crowd. For the first time in the history of the Troubles, people came home and switched on their nightly television news to watch pictures showing the charred remains of their fellow citizens being scrapped off the pavement and placed in plastic bags alongside smoldering bits of axles, wheels, and other automobile fragments. The car and the human being were fused in one dreadful event.

1972 became the Year of the Car Bomb. More than three dozen people died between March and December in car bomb explosions, the vast majority of them the work of the Provisional IRA. One of the worst was also one of the most senseless. On July 31, three car bombs wrecked the small village of Claudy, Co. Derry, killing nine people. (It was a nationalist village. Interestingly, the bombs were left outside Protestant-owned businesses.) This time, the Provisionals tried to telephone a warning to the local RUC station from another village but found that in an earlier attack another IRA unit — from Derry City — had blown up the local exchange. That was the Trouble with car bombs. It was so very, very easy to get it wrong — and the ordinary people usually bore the consequences.

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1972 also showed that when it came to car bombs, the loyalists were not slow to learn from the Provisionals. On Sept. 30, they left one outside a pub in Smithfield — the old market near central Belfast — and killed two Catholics. A month later, a loyalist car bomb killed two young girls — one aged 4, the other 6 — as they played in the street near the pub outside of which it had been parked. In December, the loyalist UDA made a little bit of history when they drove the first car bomb south of the border and left it in Dublin, where it exploded on the evening of Dec. 1, on Sackville Place, near O’Connell Street, killing two workmen.

The Provisionals soon started exporting the device themselves. In March 1973, they drove three car bombs into London, where they went off, injuring hundreds, of whom one later died. That same year, a car bomb in Coleraine, Co. Derry, claimed the lives of seven Protestants, aged from 60 to 76. Car bombs are no respecters of age, no more than they are of religious or political affiliation. In the Coleraine bombing, as in so many such incidents where car bombs caused a massive loss of life, arguments about warnings followed the carnage — the Provisionals claiming that warnings were sent, the authorities denying it or else claiming that the warnings were "inadequate" — too vague or too late and occasionally, as in Omagh, alleging that they were deliberately misleading.

The trouble with car bombing as a tactic is that the terrorists even if they do send a warning cannot make it too precise. A precise warning might allow the security forces to locate the car in time to defuse it, which would negate the point of the attack in the first place. For the same reason, they cannot allow too much time between when the warning is called in to the time the bomb is supposed to detonate. As well, bombs are notoriously volatile devices, and have been known to explode when they weren’t supposed to, especially if they are being driven around on a bumpy road. Indeed, on June 23 1973, near Omagh, three Provisionals killed themselves when their car bomb went off while they were driving it to its target.

Yet, in spite of all these risks, the Provisionals were still willing to take them — or I should say, they were willing to allow the Irish people to take them — in pursuit of what they called the "economic" war against Britain.

The "real" IRA is simply carrying on that tradition — doing what the Provisionals did for 25 years or more. Except now, the Provisionals have decided that for political reasons it is no longer acceptable. There is nothing moral about their condemnation of the Omagh massacre, though their cheerleaders both here and in Ireland would like people to think there is. The fact that it is wrong to do in 1998 what it was right to do in 1997 is a matter of political expediency, nothing else.

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