'Too little, too late'

COLIN Parry was getting ready to chair a meeting of the Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball Trust at the Peace Centre in Warrington on Tuesday night when the phone started ringing. A few hours previously, the IRA had issued an unprecedented statement to Dublin newsrooms and the Republican newspaper An Phoblacht, in which it expressed "sincere apologies and condolences" for killing 650 civilians during its 30-year campaign of violence.

The Peace Centre’s phone lines were jammed as journalists scrambled to find out what Colin Parry thought of the IRA’s act of contrition.

The Parry family is one of thousands left bereaved by the IRA. Their 12-year-old son, Tim, died, along with three-year-old Johnathan Ball, when two IRA bombs ripped through Warrington town centre in March 1993. "We got call after call on Tuesday evening as it all slowly began to sink in," Parry says. "It took me completely by surprise. I never expected anything like a public apology."

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For those whose relatives and friends died at the hands of the IRA, the apology is somewhat bittersweet. Many, like Parry, concede that while the move is a vital step towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland, it constitutes a poor salve for their loss.

"It has to be welcomed as a move away from the IRA’s belief that the end justifies the means and a step closer to saying the war is finally over. That has got to help the peace process," he says.

"However, like everything they seem to do, it is as late and as little as they can possibly get away with. This apology is not hugely significant for those who lost loved ones over the past 30 years. Nothing can lessen the damage the IRA did to my family. A blanket apology like this has no effect on me whatsoever."

Timing is, as always in Northern Ireland, everything, and the fact the IRA chose to issue its statement as MPs were debating the peace process at Westminster and only days ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Bloody Friday bombings - one of the most notorious atrocities of the Troubles - raised more than a few eyebrows.

The anniversary of Bloody Friday, when more than 20 successive bombs rocked Belfast on a July afternoon, killing seven civilians and two soldiers and injuring more than 130 people, raises uncomfortable questions for mainstream Republicans. The alleged role of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who is believed to have been the adjutant of the IRA’s Belfast brigade at the time, is a particularly thorny subject.

Perhaps pre-empting criticism, the IRA said that it was appropriate to issue the apology on the anniversary of Bloody Friday, adding that it had not been its intention to kill or injure non-combatants that day. But it went on to admit: "The reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequences of our actions."

Taken at the level of sheer realpolitik, cynics, particularly those in the Unionist camp, point out it is no coincidence that the apology was issued the week before Tony Blair is expected to make a statement on the validity of the IRA ceasefire. Unionists are pressing for the expulsion of Sinn Fein from government, citing the IRA’s involvement with Farc rebels in Colombia, its alleged role in the break-in at the Special Branch headquarters in Belfast in March and its part in orchestrating recent street violence in Belfast as evidence that the organisation’s ceasefire is a sham.

Ulster Unionist leader and erstwhile First Minister David Trimble said that the IRA statement should not affect any evaluation of the IRA ceasefire. "It is quite significant that this statement says nothing at all about the recent violence that the IRA has been involved in, nothing about what their future conduct is going to be," he said.

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"If the government uses this statement as an excuse not to fulfil those undertakings, the government will create a very dangerous situation indeed."

Kevin Toolis, author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within The IRA’s Soul, agrees that the timing of the statement was choreographed, but rejects Unionist accusations that it is meaningless. Writing in The Times this week, he said: "Any kind of IRA apology is a revolutionary move and a potentially dangerous repudiation of the bedrock on which Irish republicans fight their war.

"It raises the niggling question that maybe the IRA’s war was a mistake, and that the Troubles were not an easy liberation war that produced hunger-striking heroes such as Bobby Sands, but a human disaster."

Republican sources said that, even though the statement took Downing Street and Dublin by surprise, the move had been in the offing in IRA circles for some time. "It was a long-overdue apology," one source admitted. "But at this stage it didn’t cause any problems for the majority of Republicans."

Alex Maskey, Belfast’s first Sinn Fein lord mayor, said the statement was indicative of the present mood among Republicans. "This announcement is the result of a considerable amount of discussion over a considerable period of time," he said. "It has to be seen as a unilateral, stand-alone initiative."

Maskey insisted that if the IRA had wanted to make the most of such an apology, they would have released it before the Republic’s general elections in May, when Sinn Fein secured five seats in the Dail. "It was considered a timely and important thing to do, and reflects the frame of mind Republicans are in at the moment. Bloody Friday is, in anybody’s book, a difficult issue to deal with and this apology is a genuine attempt for the IRA to address the legacy of the conflict."

Despite the IRA’s professed desire not to create a "hierarchy of victims", their statement of atonement skirts around the definition of victim and offers qualified sympathy to those it terms as "combatants". "We also recognise the grief and pain of their relatives," the IRA said. "The future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt."

But the IRA’s definition of who was and was not a "combatant" is one which is sure to raise the hackles of those families whose loved ones were deemed "legitimate targets" because they were suppliers, contractors or ordinary workers for the security forces.

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Ulster Unionist hard-liner Jeffrey Donaldson, who dismissed the statement as a half-hearted apology which didn’t go far enough, said it should not be regarded as legitimate because it made no apology for the killing of policemen or soldiers.

Two members of his family were among 300 police officers murdered by the IRA.

"I do not think that anyone should miss the fact that the IRA are still playing this game whereby they regard police officers and soldiers as legitimate targets. None of us should fall into the trap of giving legitimacy to a statement that still plays this game," he said.

"My family have not received an apology from the IRA, yet their grief and their sense of loss is as deep as anyone else’s. "

However, Rita Restorick, whose 23-year-old son Stephen was the last soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland when he was shot by an IRA sniper in 1997, hailed the public statement of regret as a positive move.

"I understand that many families who have lost loved ones will just see this statement as empty words. It will mean nothing to them because they have suffered a great deal of pain," she said.

"But the distinction they have made between civilians and combatants is to be expected, because they regarded it as being at war. It doesn’t ease what we have been going through, but if we can look at it as encouraging for the peace process then something has been achieved. They have recognised the suffering and grief which they have caused."

The IRA’s mea culpa marks another crucial turning point as Northern Ireland slouches towards permanent peace. But such conciliatory gestures have created disquiet in some quarters of the Republican grass roots. Dissidents consider moves like this week’s apology as further evidence that mainstream Republicanism has sold out.

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Marian Price was jailed for her part in an IRA bombing campaign in England in the early 1970s. She left the Provisional IRA in 1998 and is now a spokesperson for the County Sovereignty Movement (32 CSM), an organisation considered to be a front for the Real IRA.

Price dismissed the apology as "another cynical stunt from Sinn Fein". She said: "I would question the motivation behind this apology and the timing of it. It is an insult to those who died or were injured that this apology is being choreographed to fit Sinn Fein’s agenda."

But Toolis, an authority on Republicanism past and present, observes that the apology has not been the only sign that the IRA has genuinely given up the struggle. He points to a ceremony earlier this year in Dublin, in which relatives gathered to honour 450 IRA ‘martyrs’ and receive commemorative tokens in their name. "Psychologically," Toolis said yesterday, "it was also an end point. The plaque and book were end-of-campaign medals."

All eyes are now on Blair and Northern Ireland secretary Dr John Reid, who will make a statement on the IRA ceasefire next Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether the shadow of the gunman - past and present - will yet be cast away.

Decades of bombing

FEBRUARY 22, 1972: Seven people were killed when a bomb exploded at the Parachute Brigade HQ at Aldershot.

JULY 21, 1972: Bloody Friday. Nine people were killed and 130 injured when the IRA detonated over 20 bombs in Belfast.

MARCH 8, 1973: Four car bombs were placed in London. Two - including one outside the Old Bailey - exploded, killing one man and injuring 180 others.

FEBRUARY 4, 1974: Twelve people died when a bomb exploded on a coach packed with soldiers near Leeds. Later that year, two bombs were planted in pubs in Guildford, Surrey, killing two soldiers and three members of the public as well as injuring 50 others.

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NOVEMBER 21, 1974: Twenty-one died in IRA bombing of pubs in Birmingham.

JANUARY 5, 1976: The Kingsmills massacre. Ten Protestant workers were shot dead by the IRA in South Armagh.

FEBRUARY 17, 1978: La Mon House massacre. Twelve Protestants were killed by an IRA bomb at a restaurant in Co Down.

AUGUST 27, 1979: Warrenpoint massacre. 18 soldiers were killed by IRA bombs. Hours earlier, Lord Mountbatten had been killed by an IRA bomb.

JULY 20, 1982: Hyde Park bombing, above. Eleven soldiers were killed and 50 people injured in Rotten Row and at the bandstand in Regents Park.

DECEMBER 17, 1983: The IRA bombed Harrods in London, killing six people - three of them police - and injuring 90.

OCTOBER 12, 1984: An IRA bomb, planted at the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference, killed five people and injured 30.

NOVEMBER 11, 1987: Eleven people died in the Poppy Day massacre when the IRA bombed the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in Enniskillen.

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APRIL 10, 1992: Three people died when an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange in the City of London.

MARCH 20, 1993: Three-year-old Johnathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry were killed in the Warrington bombing.

OCTOBER 23, 1993: Ten people died in Belfast’s Shankill Road when an IRA bomb exploded in a shop.

FEBRUARY 9, 1996: The IRA ends its ceasefire with the Docklands bombing in London, killing two and injuring 100. On June 15 that year, a bomb explodes in Manchester, injuring 200.

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