When the UK dons suits, dusts off umbrellas and adjusts our ties on another miserable-looking Sunday morning in preparation for our annual Remembrance Sunday commemorations, I wonder does the horror experienced by our fellow countrymen in Enniskillen on a similar morning in 1987 even enter many minds?
This was not an atrocity in a far off land that we can watch remotely reported on TV news, whilst secretly glad we’re safely in the ‘West’, secure in the knowledge that we have a massive security infrastructure dedicated (mostly) to ensuring we’ll pay our respects and return home to another Sunday roast. This was the UK, a Western corner of a province often forgotten.
The numbers dying in Northern Ireland during the lengthy ‘Troubles’ mattered more to NI residents, walking the same streets as victims and perpetrators alike and breathing the oppressive atmosphere of brutal death. The mainland UK carries some sort of mild immunity to the horror inflicted on their provincial cousins, sharing the trauma from time to time only when the mainland itself was bombed or a body came home and death/destruction somehow creeped a little closer. The daily media reports, at the time of the atrocities and murder, seemed to most to be reports of a far off war, something remote and unnatural.
During this recent dark history many bodies of young British servicemen were returned to the mainland to grieving families, killed on active duty on UK soil, yet feeling like a land a million miles away from home. Many mothers must have wondered what sort of a place their son had been sent to, no serving soldier returned home from lengthy tours untouched by their experiences in Northern Ireland.
Consider though, when you attend Sunday’s commemoration at war memorials across UK cities, towns and villages, the horrific moments experienced in the County Fermanagh town of Enniskillen on Sunday 8th November, 1987.
At 10.42am, people were eagerly awaiting what was always a grand, though solemn, procession through the picturesque town. A parade of Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldiers were making their way towards the cenotaph, where dignitaries and old soldiers would lay memorial poppy wreaths to remember the many, many deaths experienced by this small province in the wars patriotically fought alongside their mainland brothers.
At 10.43am, a bomb exploded without warning. It blew out the wall of the Reading Rooms, where many people were standing, hurtling masonry towards the crowd and burying those closest under rubble.
Note: this video shows scenes from the immediate aftermath, some may find shocking.
“The IRA probably thought if security forces members were killed, a few civilian deaths would be ‘acceptable’, especially since those attending the service would be seen by republicans as pro-British military and establishment. It had been a bad year for the IRA, six months earlier eight members were killed by the SAS at Loughgall.”
Denzil McDaniel, author of Enniskillen, the Remembrance Sunday Bombing
11 people died that morning including 3 married couples, with 63 injured, 11 of which were children. Ronnie Hill, a 12th victim, died in December 2000 after a 13-year coma resulting from his injuries.
The 11 murdered that day were:
- Wesley (62) & Bertha (55) Armstrong
- Kitchener (71) & Jessie (62) Johnston
- William (74) & Agnes (73) Mullan
- John Megaw (67)
- Alberta Quinton (72)
- Marie Wilson (20, daughter of Gordon Wilson, himself injured)
- Samuel Gault (49, an ex RUC officer)
- Edward Armstrong (52, a serving RUC officer)
The Enniskillen bombing was condemned worldwide, handing the IRA a major setback in their quest for public support. They went through the usual process of spin and denial, trying to convince an ever-wary public they meant no loss of civilian life, that the bomb exploded prematurely/accidentally. Their lies were exposed when a timer, set to the time of the explosion, was found among the debris.
We should also never forget that, only a few hours after the Enniskillen blast, the IRA telephoned a warning for another (much bigger) 120Lb bomb at Tullyhommon, where another commemoration (incliuding boys and girls Brigade parades) took place. This bomb had failed to explode.
The IRA lost much support among the grassroots of the Nationalist population, the IRA Fermanagh Brigade was disbanded as a result and Sinn Fein suffered heavily in the next local Council elections.
“Libya is aware of the difference between legitimate revolutionary action and terrorism aimed at civilians and innocent people. This action does not belong to the legitimate revolutionary operation.”
Libyan Press Association, 1987
Widespread condemnation of the atrocity included:
- Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said the bombing was “utterly barbaric” and “It’s really desecrating the dead and a blot on mankind”.
- Tom King, then NI Secretary of State, called it “obscene and debased”.
- Ronald Reagan, US president, said all of America joined him in his “revulsion”.
- The head of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Robin Eames, who was at Enniskillen said he “wished the bombers could have seen what I have seen”.
- Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich said anyone involved in the bombing was guilty of “murder most terrible”.
- Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi withdrew his support for the IRA and with that the supply of weapons and ammunition which the IRA had come to rely upon.
- Even U2’s Bono paused to denounce the bombing during his rendition of a protest song about the Troubles, Sunday Bloody Sunday.
“Where’s the glory in bombing a remembrance day parade of old-age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day?”
“Where’s the glory in that? To leave them dying, or crippled for life, or dead under the rubble of the revolution that the majority of the people in my country don’t want.”
The immediate aftermath of the Enniskillen Bombing may not be so vivid in the minds of those on mainland UK when they remember the casualties of war on another fresh Sunday morning. It may not be that we retain such traumatic memories of a bloody campaign, waged on our own shores, though we have generations scarred as a result.
The more recent terror attacks, under a new threat to UK society from imported religious fanatics, such as the 7/7 bus bombing or the horrific murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, are never far from the memory of the patriots who parade to our war memorials to commemorate our war dead. Those who lost their lives did so in an attempt to keep UK shores safe and those on parade are well aware of the burden we put onto our current forces home and abroad.
Personally, I’ll be attending a commemoration in Northern Ireland, one needs to be close to home soil to appreciate the sacrifices made to get every one of us to where we are today.
NOBODY HAS EVER BEEN PROSECUTED
FOR THE ENNISKILLEN POPPY DAY BOMBING
- Remembrance Sunday Bombing Wiki
- BBC History: The Enniskillen Bombing
- BBC: On this Day, 8th November
- “Attempt to airbrush Enniskillen from history”, The Sunday Tribune, October 28th, 2007
- “Murder of innocents – the IRA attack that repulsed the world”, The Irish Times, 5th November, 2007
- BBC iPlayer – Clips from “The Poppy Day Bomb”