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Seán Lemass: IRA was infiltrated by British secret service

Taoiseach believed IRA bombing campaign in 1939 masterminded by British agents to scupper partition talks

The IRA, which carried out a series of bombing attacks in England before the opening of the second World War, had been infiltrated by "ultra-conservative sections of the British secret service", Seán Lemass believed.

Lemass accused the IRA of scuppering attempts by the Irish government to open a line of dialogue with the Stormont government over the issue of partition.

The bombing campaign which began in 1939 was the “most disastrous thing that could have happened”, he declared, and so contrary to Irish interests that it could only have been work of British agents.

In 1938, the British prime minister, the Conservative Neville Chamberlain, stated that Britain would not oppose the unification of Ireland if the Irish people wanted it.


The declaration was considered as significant by taoiseach Éamon de Valera. Prior to that, it had been assumed that the British wished to retain Northern Ireland out of self-interest.

De Valera, Lemass maintained, developed a “tremendous respect” for Chamberlain and believed much of the criticism directed at Chamberlain over his policy of appeasement was unfair.

Lemass said the IRA bombing campaign, which began in Britain in January 1939, was “so contrary to Irish interests at the time that I always suspected that the British secret service was behind it, that the IRA had been infiltrated by some secret service man who was opposed to this idea [of ending partition]”.

‘Declaration of war’

The IRA bombing campaign began with the targeting of border posts in November 1938. This was followed by a “declaration of war” in January 1939 and by bombs shortly afterwards in London and Manchester. In August 1939, just five days before the second World War broke out, an IRA bomb in Coventry killed five civilians. The campaign petered out after that.

Lemass told his interviewer Dermot Ryan he was "deeply suspicious of the whole business and indeed both then and for quite a long time afterwards. I held the idea that the IRA was undoubtedly being influenced by some hostile element of that kind.

“It always seemed to become active whenever it suited this ultra-conservative element in Great Britain that it should become active, or did the very things that were going to destroy whatever hopes were emerging from our political activities.”

Lemass advances no evidence in his interviews to back up his assertion that the IRA had been infiltrated.

During the second World War, Lemass admitted the de Valera government was concerned that the IRA would make contact with the Germans and would behave in a manner which would see the British take action against Ireland.

De Valera interned 800 IRA men and women during the war. Lemass believed the decision was the correct one. “This was not necessary merely to prevent their being able to do anything effective, but it was also necessary as a sort of indication of our intention not to allow them to do anything effective.”

He said the British did offer an end to partition in exchange for Irish involvement in the war, but this was rejected. Lemass recalled that the de Valera Government would "not fall for the same trick twice" and that promises made at the start of the first World War to nationalist Ireland had not been kept.

Not sincere

Lemass said the 1940 approach by the British in relation to the issue of partition was not sincere. The British offered an end to partition if the Irish joined in the British war effort, but the Irish government insisted on an end to partition first.

Lemass conceded that the attitudes of both governments in relation to partition were “unrealistic” and that the Irish government was wrong in its assertion that it was up to the British government to end partition.

“In fact, there is no end to partition unless the people in the North are prepared to accept whatever arrangements are made,” Lemass told Dermot Ryan.

“Because in the last resort, you could have another Carsonite rebellion and doubtless the British government would not be expected to coerce people who are asserting their loyalty to Britain and it would have made a situation in which the ending of partition would be even worse than the partition situation where it would have to be done by military force with all the legacy of bitterness and hate that would result from it – a permanent and perpetual sore for the Irish people.”