Severe actions against IRA considered

MOUNTBATTEN KILLING: THE BRITISH government considered the introduction of severe measures to tackle the Provisional IRA following…

MOUNTBATTEN KILLING:THE BRITISH government considered the introduction of severe measures to tackle the Provisional IRA following the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the Warrenpoint attacks in August, which killed 18 British soldiers.

Measures considered including “more vigorous use of the SAS”, the “closing of Border roads” and even “reintroduction of executive detention [internment]”.

State papers released in London also reveal that Margaret Thatcher warned Jack Lynch that Irish citizens living in the UK might face repercussions, due to British public opinion, unless the Irish government took measures to improve security co-operation.

The relationship between Thatcher and Lynch had begun promisingly, following Thatcher’s election victory on May 3rd. Just a week later, Lynch became the first foreign leader to visit her at Downing Street. While expressing his desire to “see a more positive political approach in Northern Ireland”, he welcomed the fact that recent co-operation between the Garda and the RUC had been of a “high standard”.


A telegram from the British ambassador in Dublin, Robin Haydon, on June 22nd, 1979, confirmed this view. While Irish governments were “apt to feel inhibited from too obvious a display of security co-operation”, it was noted that Lynch’s government, despite pressure from the republican wing of his party, “are prepared to be reasonably helpful during the first months of our new administration”.

However, the relationship was thrown into disarray by the attacks of August 27th, evoking memories of the murder of British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs two years before. Mountbatten was killed – along with three others on his yacht – on Irish territory. Although the Warrenpoint ambush had taken place north of the Border, the IRA had also made use of the Republic as part of the attack, once again raising the controversial issue of security co-operation.

The day after the attacks, Thatcher convened a special meeting at Downing Street with the chief of the general staff of the British army, the home secretary, defence secretary and the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins. The aim of the meeting was to discuss strategies to “stiffen Irish government policies towards the terrorists”.

So long as Ireland had the EEC presidency, it was felt that it had “cards they could play against the UK”. However, the British discussed the possibility of making the rest of the world “more aware of the shortcomings” of the Irish government against the IRA.

Another suggestion was that the British might be able to exert some pressure by stepping up “administrative action against Irish immigrants to the UK, on the lines of the steps already being taken at UK channel ports against Algerians and Turks”.

Some foreign office officials had even mooted the freezing of Irish sterling balances in the Bank of England until Ireland signed the European convention for the suppression of terrorism, but this idea was quickly dismissed.

For the moment, the British government was agreed that an attempt would be made to secure greater co-operation from Lynch before the “more confrontational policy” was adopted.

The tone of Haydon’s dispatches from the embassy in Dublin back to the UK also changed markedly in the wake of the Mountbatten murder. On September 3rd, he wrote: “As was expected, last week’s public expressions of shame, shock and regret have by now been largely forgotten or overshadowed. Even now they remain obsessed by 800 years of history.

“Any suggestion that the British are telling them what they must do produces instant reflex statements about Irish independence and sovereignty.”

Tensions were extremely high when an Irish government delegation arrived at Downing Street on September 5th, having attended Mountbatten’s funeral in the morning.

Thatcher had a private meeting with Lynch, with only two other officials in the room. She put forward a shopping list of demands for better security co-operation, including extradition of terrorist suspects to the UK, permission for British army helicopters to fly over Irish territory in the Border area, and a suggestion that RUC officers be present at Garda interrogations of suspects.

Lynch observed that “all these would raise difficulties for the Irish government”. He also expressed a fear that the reaction to the Mountbatten and Warrenpoint attacks “might have repercussions for Irish people living” in the UK. “A majority of the population of the six counties had voted to remain part of the UK,” Thatcher continued.

This discussion was followed by an explosive plenary meeting at 4pm, involving senior delegations from both governments. Lynch stated that “the incidence of terrorism on the Border had been greatly exaggerated”. In reply, Thatcher “stressed that she would be unable to restrain public opinion in this country if, having agreed on the threat, she and Mr Lynch were unable to point to anything new that would be done”. She asked “whether the Irish side were prepared to get down to brass tacks” or would they refuse the British?

The minutes of the meeting also record a spat between tánaiste George Colley and British foreign secretary Lord Carrington.

“Mr Colley attempted to argue that Northern Ireland was an artificial creation, and adduced as evidence the fact that there had never been a change of government in Stormont. He did not deny it when the foreign and commonwealth secretary pointed out that there were many states in the world whose creation might, for one reason or another, be said to be artificial, but whose existence was nonetheless a fact.”

In the following weeks, the two governments came to a compromise and agreed a new security package on October 5th. The full details were not released to the public to avoid a reaction from the more republican wing of Fianna Fáil. However, a document in the British archives reveals that the new measures included the establishment of a new RUC-Garda panel to co-ordinator the activities of a specialist Garda unit on the Border (which was also strengthened), the granting of permission for British helicopters to cross the Border within a 5km range, the centralisation of Garda criminal intelligence machinery at Monaghan, and improved liaison between the two police forces.