With the recent airing of RTÉ’s documentary on the Arms Trial, (and accompanying podcast) and the release of new books on the subject by Michael Heney and David Burke, there is renewed interest in the events of August 1969 and early 1970. Therefore, I am putting up a series of extracts from my own work, Bombs, Bullets and the Border, which present a different analysis of the period than some more recent accounts. Before presenting a first extract from my work, it is worth making four brief points in advance. As Brian Hanley pointed out in a review of one of the recent publications, understanding these events is not just a matter of trawling through the minutia of the limited archives available, it also involves contextualising the situation. Key points of context are;
- There was no coherent security policy in August 1969, just a series of ad hoc decisions. The defence forces were poorly resourced and lacked a defined purpose. Indeed, on meeting Taoiseach Jack Lynch after the revelations of May 1970, the Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Sean MacEoin, first request was to ask Lynch to set out a clear defence policy, a White Paper on the role of the Army. The malaise within the defence forces was indicative of broader problems within the state’s public services. It can sometimes be forgotten how poorly administered Irish society was in the 1960/70s. The relevance of this is that there was simply no capacity for an invasion of Northern Ireland or to mount covert military operations.
- The state was not only weak in material terms, its constituent parts functioned in a system whereby political patronage was key to progression and access to resources. Everything from promotions to access to a household telephone line was perceived as being bound up in politics. In practice, politicians interfered in the day-to-day activities of soldiers, policemen and civil servants in a way that is inconceivable today. Successful politicians would exploit institutional weakness to accumulate personal power and, in some instances, wealth. The Arms Crisis is a clear illustration of the failed way decisions were made in the Irish state in the early 1970s. Professional bureaucrats and soldiers were ordered to perform tasks in a policy vacuum on the whim of Ministers, some of whom were acting outside their brief.
- The state was also weak in socio-political terms and obsessed with an internal threat, which security officials exaggerated. The Civil War was within living memory and dominated security discourse in the same way the Northern Ireland conflict does today. In matters of security, the state acted first and foremost to ensure its own stability and avoid another internal conflict. Even before, the August 1969 violence, there was a real concern among policy makers in the Department of Justice about the threat to the state from republicans and left wing agitators. The experience of dealing with thousands of northern refugees in late summer 1969 increased the paranoia. I would argue that even the most aggressive and apparently anti British security decision, (i.e. sending troops to the border in 1969), was carried out to counter the IRA threat domestically. The decision to move troops was in large part designed to undermine support for the republican cause south of the border.
- Finally, and importantly, there is a limit to what we can know about the events of 1969 from looking at the archives. Anyone who has done even the most basic research into the Troubles knows that the Dublin archives are pretty bare when it comes to sensitive matters. There is more material released by the UK government. I am unsure whether this is an issue of resourcing or a more conservative approach by archivists in Dublin, but it is a pretty indisputable observation. On the specific issue of the Arms Trial, I tend also to agree with former Minister for Justice Desmond O’Malley who wrote in his autobiography;
Crucial questions about the Arms Crisis were never answered. Which politicians conspired to subvert government policy through illegally importing arms? Did politicians conspire with members of illegal organisations? Did some politicians encourage the establishment of the Provisionals? What happened the bulk of money voted for relief of distress in Northern Ireland? The answers were unfortunately not always written down in files; some of what happened in 1969 and 1970 was never put down on paper.
Extract dealing with the events of August 1969;
……According to Seamus Brady’s account in Arms and the Men, ‘The first question at issue [at the cabinet meetings on 13–15 August] was the use of the Irish Army in crossing the border.’ However, this seems an exaggerated version of the truth at best. Two of those at the cabinet table from opposing standpoints paint a different picture. Kevin Boland stated that ‘there was no suggestion at any time from any Minister that this opportunity should be taken by the use of force’. Meanwhile, Minister for Education Pádraig Faulkner recalled that ‘The possibility of incursions into the North was raised but quickly dismissed. As far as I can remember the matter was raised in a rather haphazard way and given little or no consideration.’
Press reports of troop movements along the border accompanied by a TV address by Taoiseach Jack Lynch, in which he claimed that his government would not ‘stand by’, contributed to creating the myth that an invasion was not just being considered, but was quite likely. The creation of this myth helped contain republican sentiment at home but ominously it also meant that there was little clarity over what exactly policy was.
The immediate measures decided upon by the Irish cabinet were modest. These moves were ad hoc decisions and not part of a well-thought-out strategic policy, which meant that, given the nature of Irish politics, individual political figures could have undue influence on how decisions were implemented. Among the steps taken were the creation of five field hospitals along the border, the expansion of intelligence services in the six counties and the setting-up of a subcommittee to advise the Taoiseach on Northern matters. In particular, the relief fund established would have implications in subsequent months. It would later be alleged that money from this fund was used for illicit arms purchases. Likewise, the subcommittee that was established would create ambiguity and interfere with the Army’s chain of command. The subcommittee met only once but its two most powerful members, Blaney and Haughey, seem to unilaterally have taken over its functions. Along with these moves, an aggressive propaganda campaign was undertaken domestically and internationally that included an appearance by Foreign Affairs Minister Patrick Hillery at the UN Security Council.
The very public creation of field hospitals was in some senses the most spectacular gesture. It was the sight of soldiers moving northward to set up the field hospitals that triggered media speculation and rumours. Within weeks, the movement of troops towards the border was criticised in the Dáil by Labour’s Barry Desmond as giving ‘false hopes in the Bogside, to raise particularly false hopes in Belfast and to escalate a situation’. Elsewhere, Fine Gael’s Patrick Hogan claimed the manoeuvres ‘with banner headlines beat the drums with all the abandon of a July Apprentice Boy’. Indeed, it has been claimed by Eammon Mallie and Patrick Bishop in The Provisional IRA that ‘rumour of an impending invasion had certainly prompted the republican assault on Newry police station’. Neil Blaney, seen as the most hawkish minister, attempted to portray the field hospitals as something much more substantial in a 1993 interview:
It was the view of myself and others that we had to send our troops to protect the people and it was agreed to send the Army to the border, under the cover of field hospitals. But as it turned out the deviousness of certain minds thereafter utilised the ‘good cover’ as just that. But the field hospitals idea we went along with: I didn’t give a damn how they went up as long as the Army went up and were there to go in.
To test the veracity of this claim, it is necessary to consider the state of the Irish Army in 1969. Blaney’s view massively overestimates the ability of Irish Defence Forces for subterfuge. There were just 8,500 poorly equipped Irish troops. By the Army’s own estimate, the number capable of combat duty was just 2,300. An assessment from the British embassy, some time later, was scathing:
The efficiency of the Irish Army is thus limited considerably by a disorganised command structure at the highest level, an unwillingness to believe in its own usefulness, insufficient training, bad equipment except at personal level, and as promotion system that does not take fliers into account. Soldiers would probably acquit themselves well in fighting at platoon strength but could not organise or carry out a complicated tactical operation. They certainly present no threat to British forces in Northern Ireland.
The Irish Defence Forces reported on the feasibility of incursions in September 1969 and similarly concluded that they had ‘no capability of embarking on unilateral military operation of any kind (either conventional or unconventional), from a firm base at home’. Indeed, a later internal Army assessment claimed that the experience of mid-August had borne out ‘every defect of the present organisation referred to in correspondence over the last decade’. The assessment went on: ‘No one unit from its own resources was capable of immediate response to the government’s directive to place personnel at the strength required on the border in August. Personnel from different units had to be hastily assembled and formed into ad hoc groups.’
The sight of Troops on the border
In one respect, Blaney was right. There was more to the establishment of the hospitals than the humanitarian needs they fulfilled. The five field hospitals were of limited use in practical terms. The Rockhill and Dunree camps in Donegal treated thirty-one and eleven casualties respectively. Fourteen casualties were treated in Dundalk. Castleblayney and Finner camps both treated just one casualty while none were treated in Cavan. To put these figures in context, it is estimated that about 750 people received injuries during the August period north of the border. The field hospitals remained open for some months afterwards, treating just two new patients, one in Rockhill on 25 September and another on 27 September. The real significance of the field hospitals was in the aesthetics of the operation. The sight of troops being moved towards the border helped assuage nationalist sentiment. It also reinforced the seriousness of the situation for the British government. Indeed, it has been argued by Tony Craig in his excellent Crisis of Confidence that the subtext of the entire ‘stand (idly) by’ speech, in which the field hospitals were announced, was not that ‘the Republic wished to invade Northern Ireland in defence of the minority, but that it wanted Britain, at least temporarily to take responsibility’. A report in the Vincent Brown edited Nusight (October 1969) cited Charles Haughey’s support for this analysis: ‘It seems Haughey calculated that unless the government acted strongly “irresponsible groups” in the Republic (the IRA) might attract substantial public support and take precipitous independent action. There was also a rather woolly hope that by escalating the situation, the British government would be forced to intervene directly’………..