Could Dublin have done more to defeat IRA campaign?

A sense that republicans have been more effective in rewriting the history is at the heart of unionist disquiet

Former British Army watch towers on the border in South Armagh.

Former British Army watch towers on the border in South Armagh.


There was almost universal welcome from Unionist politicians and victims’ groups for Eamon Gilmore’s speech at the British Irish Association where he recognised the need to acknowledge those unionists who feel that the Irish State could have done more to prevent the IRA’s murderous activities in Border areas.

It was a welcome that was tinged with caution, reflecting the fact that in the speech the issue is defined as one of feeling and perception while for many victims of the IRA campaign along the Border theirs is the reality of past loss and the present reality of what they regard as a peace process tendency to focus on the transgressions of the British state and its security forces.

This sense that republicans have been more effective in rewriting the history of the Troubles, justified or not, goes to the heart of much of recent unionist and loyalist disquiet over the direction of the peace process. Although some of these complaints are of recent vintage the issue of the role of the Republic in the Troubles is a long-standing one.

Unionist complaints about the IRA’s ability to exploit the Border and Irish territory to support their campaign in Northern Ireland were constantly aired throughout the Troubles. They were usually brusquely dismissed by Irish ministers and officials who claimed they were exaggerated and ignored the fact that the main sources of violence lay north of the Border.

Although British ministers, convinced of the need for co-operation on the security front from Dublin, were reluctant to get into cross-Border slanging matches, in their private communications with Dublin it was made clear that they did not accept the claim that the Republic had more than a peripheral role in sustaining the Provisionals’ campaign.

In researching my recent book on the Border during the Troubles and in the ongoing work of my research student, Paddy Mulroe, a picture emerges which, although not black and white, does not support attempts to minimise the significance of the Border and the Republic’s territory for sustaining the IRA’s campaign and the inadequacy of the Irish State’s response to it.

Files in the National Archives at Kew are full of material on the problems for the British caused by IRA exploitation of the Border. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the British sent regular detailed analyses of the IRA’s use of the Republic to Dublin: from the planning and launching of attacks from Border towns such as Lifford, Clones and Dundalk, to the use of particular Border roads and tracks to escape after killings in the North.

Blind eye
They also highlighted areas where the Irish security forces were seen as being ineffective or turned a blind eye to IRA activities as long as they were directed North. In some cases members of the Garda were transferred away from the Border and there was also substantial increases in Garda and Army numbers in Border areas.

However, the focus of this increased security force presence was on IRA challenges to the stability of the South and possible loyalist incursions. The response to British pleas for more effective forms of co-operation was limited and patchy.

Irish governments did recognise the need for some degree of co-operation with the security forces in the North. This was in part because of the threat of loyalist attacks in the Republic. Intelligence on the loyalists could only come from the RUC. It was also the case that the British concern to improve cross-Border security co-operation gave the Irish State a leverage on British policy on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

The IRA was also a major threat to the Irish State. Although it prohibited attacks on members of the Irish security forces, its activities in the Republic, from bank robberies and kidnappings, to prison breaks and assassinations, demanded tough action from the State and led to a state of day-to-day antagonism between Garda and IRA members.

However, there were major political obstacles to being seen to help the security forces in the North. They were spelt out by Paddy Donegan, the minister for defence in the coalition government, in conversation with the British ambassador in 1973.

Donegan was a bitter opponent of the IRA and favourably disposed to doing as much as he could to improve co-operation, but emphasised the need “for absolute secrecy and discretion” which stemmed from “the age-old instinctive feeling on the part of most Irishmen that it was a bad thing for Irishmen to co-operate with the British in clobbering fellow Irishmen, however rascally the latter might be”.

Successive governments faced a dilemma. By co-operating with the RUC and British army against republicans, there was a risk of reigniting latent republican sentiment in a State with a nationalist ethos at its core.

At the same time the IRA had the expressed aim of overthrowing the Irish State and its activities were an ongoing threat to the authority and legitimacy of Government and the Dáil.

The dilemma was often resolved by a highly politicised approach to cross-Border co-operation. Areas such as extradition and direct contact between the Irish security forces and the British army in areas such as South Armagh, both of which could have contributed significantly to curbing the IRA, were effectively no-go areas throughout the Troubles .

Individual personalities
Co-operation on the ground in Border areas was often good but was often reliant on the personalities of individual policemen and what was perceived to be the attitude of Minister of Justice and government of the day.

The role of the Irish State during the Troubles is more than an idée fixe of unionists, it is a question of major historical importance with a central bearing on any process of dealing with the past. While the Saville Tribunal’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday cannot act as a template for any broader mechanism for dealing with the past, it did demonstrate the immense value of a state making the vast majority of its records open for scrutiny.

To build on Eamon Gilmore’s speech, the Irish Government should consider opening the State archives on these contentious issues in as comprehensive a manner as Saville. This would not end the battle over history in Northern Ireland but it would at least cut down on the amount of permissible lies about the past.

Prof Henry Patterson is a professor of politics in the University of Ulster and recently published Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles.
( Palgrave-Macmillan 2013)

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