There are plenty of reasons to object to the journalist Roy Greenslade’s secret support of the IRA, which he now admits to harbouring during his long Fleet Street career. But as a former police officer involved in counter-terrorist search operations during the height of the Troubles, there was one thing in particular that is hard to take: his view on who was responsible for the casualties from IRA bombings. In his article republished in the Sunday Times, Greenslade said:
‘In Belfast, in discussions with republicans, I heard about the beginnings of what came to be known as “the dirty war”, the security forces’ use of collusion, the deliberate failure by the authorities to act quickly enough in response to phone calls warning of bomb placements, and the willingness of the RUC and army to allow loyalist paramilitaries to bomb and kill with impunity.’
Here Greenslade appears to point the finger, not at those who planted the devices, but at people – police officers who responded to these incidents across Northern Ireland and the mainland UK -– who apparently failed to react in time.
Although such bomb warnings are presented here as some kind of favour from the IRA, they were anything but. If any warning at all was given in the first place, terrorists would make them in order to present themselves in a position of moral ascendancy in the reporting and perception of such attacks. It clearly worked in the case of Roy Greenslade. But they were no such thing.
These calls would often allow the police minimal time to react. Sometimes police would receive imprecise (or false) locations or other misleading information. Sometimes the call would be directed to a third party in order to add delay and confusion.
Why did the IRA do this? The answer is simple: to do as Greenslade does and blame the authorities rather than the criminals who planted the bombs.
It’s also worth remembering that secondary devices were sometimes used to target police and first responders; those poor souls were never given a warning. Even if the intended targets weren’t the public, they were regarded as acceptable collateral damage. Police officers or military personnel, in the eyes of the IRA, were entirely ‘legitimate’.
Terrorists would also make common use of false reports made to sow public panic or test police responses. And news reports would often talk of ‘coded warnings’ as though they were part of some kind of special agreement with the police. They were not. Neither were they part of any strategy to specifically avoid harm.
To make matters worse, these campaigns often encouraged non-terrorist copycat criminal hoaxers attracted by any publicity.
So who was responsible for the victims of IRA bombings? The IRA. Not those police officers given precious little time to respond to devices placed in busy city centres.