International Papers

The Hardest Word

On Tuesday, the Irish Republican Army issued a surprise public apology to the families of civilians killed and injured in its 30-year campaign of violence. The Irish Times’ editorial declared: “After all of the years of cajoling, threatening, and persuading the IRA to acknowledge, and to apologise, for the murderous acts which it committed in the name of their so-called war in Northern Ireland, the statement has eventually come. After all of the weasel words which compromised the peace process and confounded their constitutional counterparts within it, the IRA has finally said sorry.” Released five days before the 30th anniversary of “Bloody Friday,” when nine people were killed as 22 bombs exploded across Belfast, the statement read, in part:

While it was not our intention to injure or kill non-combatants, the reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequence of our actions. It is, therefore, appropriate on the anniversary of this tragic event that we address all of the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us. We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families.

The British and Irish papers applauded the gesture, albeit amid complaints that the expression of contrition didn’t go far enough. Britain’s Daily Mirror filled its front page with an image of traumatized survivors of a 1987 bombing under the headline: “Sorry? So you bloody should be.” The Daily Express went with the not-exactly neutral “IRA scum says sorry.” The unionist Belfast Telegraph said the apology “is too late, too qualified and too suspiciously timed a week ahead of a landmark statement by Tony Blair on the state of the IRA ceasefire, but, hopefully, it represents an important step on the road to a fully-democratic future.” Like many others, the paper noted that words are not enough, “Action, to match the gestures, is essential.” The Irish Independent offered a “grudging welcome,” concluding, “It is strange to think of sincerity and repentance and forgiveness in relation to the IRA, but there is a time for such things and that time should be soon.”

The London Independent balked that the IRA apologized to non-combatants and merely “acknowledged” the “grief and pain” of combatants’ relatives. The paper pointed out that the IRA’s list of “legitimate targets” included not just “judges and magistrates, prison officers, former members of the police, Army and Ulster Defence Regiment … security-force suppliers, contractors and workmen,” but also “those in the Civil Service, fuel contractors, caterers and food contractors, transport, ie shipping and bus companies who ferry British soldiers and UDR men back and forth from Britain, cleaning contractors, those who supply and maintain vending machines and anyone else who takes on Ministry of Defence or Northern Ireland Office contracts.” Similarly, the Daily Telegraph asked if the IRA was repentant about “census collectors—murdered at a time when the heavily Protestant demographic balance in the Province meant that the republicans had no interest in reminding the outside world that they were seeking to bomb a large majority into a united Ireland?”

Who was the apology really aimed at? Not the unionists, said the Telegraph; they “don’t believe the IRA’s treacly, belated protestation.” Nor would it have much effect on the British mainland. “The real target audience is nationalist Ireland, north and south of the border—which is more easily satisfied with minimalistic gestures and can thus be detached from the emerging inter-governmental consensus.” The Times said it was aimed across the Atlantic: “The IRA hierarchy is acutely aware that the attitude of this United States Administration, amplified further since September 11, is radically different to that enjoyed when Bill Clinton occupied the White House. A blanket apology of the form issued yesterday therefore makes tactical sense, even if received with derision by those to whom it is addressed.”