<preform>Faith & Reason: Apologies from the IRA offer hope for Ireland's future</preform>

The exchange of the bomb for the ballot box becomes more likely when past wrongs are acknowledged
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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago this weekend, two pubs in Birmingham were destroyed by bombs planted by the IRA. The 21 people who lost their lives and the 182 who were injured had no particular connection with republican or loyalist politics in Northern Ireland. They were simply enjoying a drink or spending an hour with friends.

Thirty years ago this weekend, two pubs in Birmingham were destroyed by bombs planted by the IRA. The 21 people who lost their lives and the 182 who were injured had no particular connection with republican or loyalist politics in Northern Ireland. They were simply enjoying a drink or spending an hour with friends.

It was not an isolated incident. Horrifying though the carnage was, it was part of routine violence, with murder perpetrated as an ongoing necessity of the IRA campaign. The victims were among hundreds of people blown up by large urban bombs in Northern Ireland and England. The pattern of terror was relentless, and supported by overseas finance, including from within the United States and later from links with Libya. The fundamental principles of respect for human life, and living within the structures of law, were laid aside in the name of a cause which was believed to take precedence over everything else.

In the attitudes of 1974, the weapons, the terror, the murders, the beatings and maiming were all felt to be justified. The IRA placed the blame on the British government, the police, the soldiers, the loyalist groups. It saw its own actions as legitimate in the fight against the occupation of Irish territory by the government of Britain through military domination. Belief in the morality of its own stance was at the centre of the IRA's view of reality; it was this very sense of rightness which drove the decades of terrorism.

Certainly, there were loyalist atrocities. The British government, too, had a case to answer when, in 1995, the United Nations Committee against Torture called for it to repeal its repressive legislation and close the Castlereagh Prison. The final verdict on the Londonderry massacres may also involve serious culpability. Nevertheless, the logic of the IRA's moral high ground was flawed. How does killing or kneecapping a person help unite Ireland? How can the supposed control of Northern Ireland by the gun be undermined if the "solutions" are also imposed by the gun? And what ever justifies the murder and maiming of people sitting in a pub, and the heartache of those who loved them?

This week, anticipating the 30th anniversary, Sinn Fein has said that the Birmingham bombings were wrong; they should never have happened. This acknowledgment indicates that an apology may be coming from the IRA. If so, it would be in keeping with several apologies offered in the last two years. A month ago, the IRA issued a "statement of regret" for killing 15-year-old Bernard Teggart in Belfast in 1973. Last year, it apologised for the grief caused to the families of the "disappeared" who were murdered and secretly buried during the 1970s. In 2002, it apologised to all civilian victims of its campaign of violence. It has also (through the republican newspaper An Phoblacht) offered "sincere apologies" to the families of those killed in the bombings on Bloody Friday, 1972.

What do all these apologies mean? Are they personal admissions of guilt? Will they be followed by some offer of restitution? None of this is clear. It is not clear, either, why an apologetic IRA should still be reluctant to allow the decommissioning of weapons to be fully verified. The question "How can you govern us if you are proposing to kill us?" is a fair one. The insistence on laying down weapons seems crucial as a condition for participating in Northern Ireland government.

And yet, apologies are powerful statements and offer a strong foothold for a new way forward. I believe that these apologies from the IRA have two implications. The first is to recognise a moral point: that murder and destruction are no foundation for the building of a new future for Ireland. The only foundation is one which respects human life and cares for those who are to be governed. The exchange of the bomb for the ballot box and weapons for dialogue becomes ever more possible when accompanied by an apology for harm caused in the past.

The second is to recognise a spiritual point; that mere time does not cancel out sin. Thirty years after the Birmingham bombings, the evil that was done there remains. Three decades after people were callously murdered, the iniquity of it continues. Time might ease the pain of the thousands who lost loved ones in the terror, but it does nothing to eradicate the wrong. The sin lingers, and guilt remains for as long as it stays unacknowledged and unconfessed. Only through repentance can wrong can be righted, for it takes an act of God to forgive evil and cancel out sin.

Apologies from the IRA might sound easy when compared to the terror suffered by people who deserved none of it. But if they come from an awakened conscience, and real sense of remorse, they offer the best possibility yet of healing the past and hope for the future.

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