On Wednesday the 28th of October 1987 the windows of a Renault 9 car parked outside a line of garages in the Creggan district of Derry, a majority nationalist city in the United Kingdom’s rump colony on the island of Ireland, were blown outwards when a loud explosion ripped through the interior of the four-door saloon. The confined blast caused horrific injuries to the two male occupants, whose bodies were lifted from the smoking wreck by local neighbours and passersby. One of the men had been killed almost instantly while the other was fatally wounded, dying minutes later. An ambulance sped the pair to the nearby Altnagelvin Hospital, where they were pronounced dead upon arrival. It was the late afternoon before cautious British soldiers and officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the UK’s then paramilitary police force in the disputed region, entered the cul-de-sac where the incident took place, fearing a potential trap. By then a group of men had set fire to the remains of the damaged car in the hopes of destroying any forensic evidence it might contain.
Some time later, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) released a statement naming the deceased persons as Patrick Deery and Edward McSheffrey, better known to their families as Paddy and Eddie, two volunteers with the guerrilla movement’s Derry Brigade. The duo had been on active service at the time of their deaths, using the vehicle – stolen that morning – to transport one or more blast-incendiary bombs to an undisclosed target, presumed to be a local fortified RUC base, when one of the devices exploded prematurely. McSheffrey, who was siting in the passenger seat of the car with the bomb on his lap, died within seconds, while the driver, Deery, survived long enough for his own brother to happen upon the tragic accident and spend some moments with him before the emergency services arrived.
Following their loss, the comrades were described by the Sinn Féin deputy-leader and senior IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, as children of the so-called Troubles: the euphemistic name for the insurgency and counterinsurgency war in the north-eastern Six Counties. Paddy Deery’s mother had been seriously wounded during the Bloody Sunday Massacre of January 1972, when the British Army attacked a civil rights march in the city, killing fourteen demonstrators. Subsequent to that, his then fifteen year old brother, Manus, had been murdered while out buying fish-and-chips with his friends, fatally wounded in the head by a British sniper firing from the security of an observation post. Paddy himself had been shot in the face by troops when he was a teenager, leaving him blind in one eye. By the time of his death at the age of thirty-one he was married with three young children.
Eddie McSheffrey, aged twenty-nine, had a similar traumatic background, his father having been interned – imprisoned without trial – by the UK authorities in the infamous Long Kesh Concentration Camp during the early 1970s. As a child he was arrested during street protests at the age of eleven, going down an activist path which eventually led him into the ranks of the Fianna Éireann, the youth-wing of the IRA, and then to the Republican Army proper. Married with two children, he had suffered injury, torture and periods of incarceration as a political prisoner during his nearly life-long participation in the “armed struggle”. In the words of McGuinness, the all too typical personal histories of both men illustrated “…the reality of British rule in Ireland.”
Thousands of mourners attended the funerals for the duo on the 2nd of November, in one of the biggest displays of public support, or sympathy, that the Republican Movement in Derry had seen for many years. To counter this, the Royal Ulster Constabulary swamped the neighbourhood around St Eugene’s Cathedral – where the joint ceremonies were due to take place – with hundreds of officers, while armoured jeeps prowled the streets and surveillance helicopters circled overhead. After four hours of protracted negotiations between the families, local Roman Catholic priests, politicians and the RUC, the combined funeral was allowed to proceed, the long cortege moving towards the city cemetery. However when a volley of shots was fired over the flag-draped coffins of the men by an armed volunteer of the Derry Brigade, the British forces moved in, attacking the cheering crowds. In scenes of virtual hand-to-hand combat near the graveyard, over twenty civilians were seriously injured, many requiring hospitalisation, as RUC men fired plastic bullets at point-blank range, the coffin of Eddie McSheffrey falling twice to the ground as the pall-bearers were beaten and shoved. Stories of dress shoes abandoned by women and girls on the road as they ran for cover into nearby homes became highly emotive focal points for the local population.
The actions of the police in Derry, defended and lauded by senior government ministers in Britain, infuriated many units of the Irish Republican Army in the west of Ulster, leaving some determined to strike back at the enemy if similar circumstances arose. Within a few days of the bedlam at the funerals, officers of the South Fermanagh and West Fermanagh Brigades of the IRA decided to carry out two operations in their local command area, targeting the annual memorial services for the British Armed Forces on Sunday the 8th November in the rural, unionist-dominated towns of Enniskillen and neighbouring Tullyhommon. In the former location, a local intelligence officer was tasked with hurriedly providing information on the best spot to deploy an explosive device, targeting UK military and paramilitary personnel assembling at the “war cenotaph”, a prominent imperial monument in the town-centre.
Over the course of twenty-four hours an 18kg bomb intended for the Enniskillen strike was moved across the north-south border from a secure location in County Leitrim, using several relay teams in cars, until it was eventually carried in a sports bag by a lone volunteer to the Reading Rooms, a public building owned by the Roman Catholic Church in the centre of the town. The device was placed against an interior, gable-end wall facing the war memorial, the electronic timer set to explode the next morning at 10.43 when the military parade was due to pass outside. Given the large quantity of explosives involved, it was almost certain that casualties would be inflicted, delivering a propaganda blow to the precarious British presence in the lakeland region. However, it was equally certain – even during the rushed planning stages – to the experienced guerrilla fighters that some civilian losses were not just possible but highly likely. This was in direct contravention of the objectives set out by the leadership of the Republican Army during a period of heightened concerns about bad publicity and counterproductive military operations in the embattled territory.
As intended, the bomb exploded as troops from the hated Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a unionist-dominated British Army militia closely associated with pro-UK terrorism, marched to the cenotaph. The explosion blew out the outer wall of the Reading Rooms, where a crowd of ordinary people and various dignitaries, including politicians, soldiers and police officers, were gathered, burying many of them under rubble and hurling masonry skywards. Dozens of bystanders rushed forward to free those trapped underneath the fallen bricks in scenes of chaos and panic, as smoke and dust drifted around the site. Eleven people were killed almost instantly, including three elderly married couples and one RUC man. These were Wesley and Bertha Armstrong (aged sixty-two and fifty-five), Kit and Jessie Johnston (aged seventy-one and sixty-two), William and Agnes Mullan (aged seventy-four and seventy-three), John Megaw (sixty-seven), Alberta Quinton (seventy-two), Marie Wilson (twenty), Samuel Gault (forty-nine) and Edward Armstrong (fifty-two); the latter two were former and serving RUC officers, respectively. A further sixty-three people were injured, children among them, almost all of them entirely innocent civilians, and members of the Fermanagh unionist community. One of these, Ronnie Hill, remained in a coma until the day of his death fourteen years later.
The atrocity in Enniskillen shook the Irish Republican Army to the core, as regional, national and international audiences recoiled in horror at the news. In an initial statement released the next day to the press, the General Headquarters Staff in Dublin claimed that the device had exploded prematurely when a supposed radio-control trigger was set off by the British Army’s electronic warfare efforts in the area. Though this was a known issue resulting from the technological struggle between the insurgents and their opponents, it quickly became clear that the bomb had indeed been fitted with a pre-set timer and that the GHQ Staff had lied, or as some allege, were lied to by officers on the ground. An investigation was ordered by the ruling Army Council, and the brigade which originated the operation was stood down pending its outcome. Despite claims by republican sources to the news media that several senior volunteers had later faced a court-martial and been dismissed from the guerrilla force, most of those involved were eventually transferred to other units or duties. Nevertheless, the IRA apologised for the “catastrophic consequences” of its actions in County Fermanagh, a rare admission of fault and contrition.
Within the Republican Movement, it was becoming clear that the extended nature of the “Long War” against the United Kingdom’s continued colonial rule in the north-east of the island was leading to a hardening of attitudes and feelings. While those born and raised before the “Troubles” were in the leadership of the insurgency, a younger generation of men and women born into the conflict were rising up through the ranks, embittered and driven to the extremes by their experiences. For some of those, the slaughter in Enniskillen was a legitimate response to the brutality of the British Occupation Forces, in a struggle where the ends were increasingly justifying the means. However for the majority of activists, military and political, the mass murder of so many innocent people and the adverse reaction to it, the drying up of support in hitherto sympathetic communities, was a signal that something needed to change before a far bloodier and far more pitiless war emerged from the stalemate both sides were locked into.
Consequently, the terrible events of November 8th 1987 accelerated tentative peace moves between the Republican Movement under Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others, and the Conservative Party government under premier Margaret Thatcher MP in Britain. Four months after the massacre, Sir James M. Glover, the former Commander-in-Chief of the UK Land Forces, would take the unprecedented step of admitting on a rare BBC documentary examining the conflict that the IRA could not be defeated. Though a series of covert communications between Gerry Adams MP of Sinn Féin and Tom King MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (SOS), would grind to a halt shortly thereafter, within twenty-four months, under the direction of Thatcher, a new government minister, Peter Brook MP, would also be briefing the Press Association that a military defeat of the Irish Republican Army could not be envisioned, now or in the immediate future.
From that admission grew the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s. A peace process which may never have existed without the horrific loss of life in Enniskillen. In more ways than one, the carnage on that faithful Sunday morning was a wake-up call to all the participants in the conflict. And a warning of what might lie ahead unless they made the winning of the peace, and not of the war, their priority. As the United Kingdom abandons its membership of the European Union in pursuit of some revanchist fantasy of a new “Empire 2.0”, it is worth remembering the bloody past the UK ‘s wayward politics could plunge us all back into.