Leading Article: The patriot shame

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The Independent Online
FRIENDS, relations and descendants apart, few of us have thought of these five people for a very long time. Gwilym Rowland, age 50, worked for the local council. John Corbett Arnott, 15, served behind the counter in a shop. Rex Gentle, 30, had a name which served him well in his duties as a relief clerk. Elsie Ansell, 21 and another shop assistant, was due to be married in a fortnight's time. James Clay is simply recorded by his age, 81, which means that probably as a child he met old men who remembered Waterloo. All of them led unexamined and uncelebrated lives, and their brief (and now forgotten) moment of national exposure owes everything to the way they died. They were all in the Coventry shopping street called Broadgate when the bomb went off at 2.30pm on 25 August 1939.

The street was crowded. Scores of injured lay among the shattered glass and the debris, and at first the conscious among them thought that the Second World War, which began a week later, had started; an unidentified bomber had been seen overhead shortly before. But the Germans had not yet bombed Coventry. Members of the Irish Republican Army had hidden the bomb in a basket of a tradesman's carrier-cycle which was parked outside a paint shop. It was the bloodiest outrage in the IRA's terrorist campaign on the mainland, which lasted 15 months through 1939 to 1940, in which bombs exploded in pillar-boxes, telephone booths, railway left-luggage rooms, post offices and (yes) litter bins, with the usual harvest of innocent life and limb and the usual question and answer.

Why? Because of partition; because history required it. That great set text of Irish republicanism, the 1916 Easter Week proclamation, was quoted by the IRA when they formally announced their 1939 campaign. The document constituted 'the rallying centre for the unbought manhood of Ireland in the fight that must be made to . . . redeem the nation's self-respect that was abandoned by a section of our people in 1922. The time has come to make that fight. So, in the name of the unconquered dead and the faithful living, we pledge ourselves to that task'.

The campaign's 'achievement' - we speak here in the IRA's terms - was chiefly negative. The governments in London and Dublin passed laws and locked up the innocent as well as the guilty. Anti-Irish feeling ran high. In Dartmoor, a dozen IRA prisoners were badly beaten up. The status of Northern Ireland went unchanged. The IRA did not select targets in England again for more than 30 years, and in 1962 renounced violence in Northern Ireland itself, though not, as it turned out, for long. Chiefly negative, then, but not entirely.

In February 1940, two Irishmen, Peter Barnes and Frank Richards (alias McCormick), were hanged for their part in the Coventry slaughter. Their role in the bomb's manufacture is disputed, but neither had actually planted it and a large section of Irish opinion was outraged. After he was sentenced, Richards told the court: 'As a soldier of the IRA I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it in a just cause.' Among republicans, he and Barnes became heroes and martyrs and have never been forgotten. In 1969, after negotiations between London and Dublin, their remains were taken from prison graves and reinterred in the Irish Republic, with great ceremony.

The contrast with the victims of Coventry could not be starker. But this is the way history is written, especially the history of Britain and Ireland. Young men's history, shot through with noble, silly words and phrases: unbought manhood, the unconquered dead, the pledge, the cause.

These are cautionary thoughts at the end of a week which has seen deep compassion and anger in Britain and Ireland in the wake of Warrington. We have been here before, and often. The killing of children has dramatically heightened resolve to find a solution to a very old problem. The trick will be to keep that resolve in focus, so that Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry become neither martyrs in the blood-for-blood tradition of Ulster, nor as obscure as Ansell, Rowland, Clay, Arnott and Gentle, who 54 years ago went into that good night.

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