The IRA’s director of intelligence from the 1970s says that those who carried out the organisation’s attacks at Kingsmills are guilty of war crimes.
Kieran Conway – now a Dublin solicitor – was made the director of intelligence for the IRA just a few days before the IRA bombs which claimed 21 lives in Birmingham in 1974.
He later went on to GHQ staff and the southern and northern commands. In 2014 he released a candid book about his life, Southside Provo.
This week he caused outrage when he defended the foot-soldiers who carried out the Birmingham bombs, saying they were not murderers but had been involved in “a just war” and had expected the pubs to be evacuated.
When contacted by the News Letter, however, he said that those who sent the young men out to Kingsmills – and the gunmen themselves – could be guilty of war crimes.
In 1976 the IRA killed 10 Protestant civilians near Kingsmills in south Armagh, as they returned from work.
“Kingsmills was another absolutely outrageous operation which they notoriously did not claim at the time,” he said.
However, he also justified the attack by saying that there had been “a wave of sectarian killings by loyalists in the south Armagh area prior to Kingsmills – and Kingsmills stopped it dead”.
(The Historical Enquiries Team said Kingsmills had been planned far in advance of UVF shootings the day before.)
Asked if the Kingsmills shootings were murders, he replied: “Yes.”
He added: “Rightly or wrongly I would be inclined to exempt the young volunteers sent out to do this awful thing.
“I mean it is a war crime in the same way as your ordinary German private in the Second World War [who] might have been prosecuted, but de facto he wasn’t. It was his commanders that were.”
Asked if the Kingsmills and Birmingham IRA commanders were guilty of war crimes, he replied: “Well they could be found guilty at a tribunal but I don’t think that will happen.”
He knows people in south Armagh and is “quite sure that some of the people I know were involved [in Kingsmills]”.
At the opening of last week’s inquest into the atrocity, the families expressed anguish that neither Sinn Fein nor the IRA ever accepted the latter’s responsibility for Kingsmills.
“Well I think they should,” said Mr Conway. “I don’t think it is going to be any comfort to the families but if it is of the slightest comfort to anyone then it should be done.”
He believes those behind Kingsmills will be following the ongoing inquest.
“I am quite sure that it is bringing it all back. It is in the news constantly and you can’t avoid it. Presumably it makes at least some of them feel bad.”
He advocates a blanket amnesty and believes the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement has ruled out a united Ireland forever. Power sharing now shows that “every single death” was futile.
If he was to live his life again he would do it all the same, he said.
“But if I knew in advance what the outcome was I wouldn’t have gone near it.”
He said it was “a shocking statistic” that the IRA took the lives of 642 civilians during the Troubles.
He accepts that targeting civilians is an international war crime, adding: “There were periods of the campaign where instead of going after loyalist killers and UDA and UVF, Protestant civilians were specifically targeted.
“That was wrong – it is a war crime and if some authority wanted to prosecute I personally would not have a difficulty with that, I couldn’t. Those were war crimes.
“There were other activities in the early 1990s that were absolutely outrageous and extremely immoral; the use of human bombs against British Army checkpoints – that was disgusting but at least IRA came to its senses and stopped after four-five incidents.”
Targeting Birmingham civilian pubs was also “deeply wrong” and outside IRA guidelines, he added.