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.
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.
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.