Now that the furore surrounding the untimely demise of Mr Martin McGuinness, man of peace and Deputy Leader of Northern Ireland has died down and I have recovered from my hangover, let’s examine an important milestone in the IRA’s road to peace. Why did the most effective terrorist organisation in the world decide to embrace the political process and lay down its arms in perpetuity? Oh wait, it didn’t…. Could it have been the blinding charisma of John Major, or the modest, unassuming negotiating skills of Anthony Blair, who disliked soundbites but told journalists that he felt the hand of destiny on his shoulder?
In the 1980s, the IRA Active Service Units (ASUs) (note how they assume the trappings of the military), in Border areas such as East Tyrone and South Armagh were running a highly successful campaign in their war (the IRA’s nomenclature) against the Security Services. They had adopted and adapted a proven Maoist military theory, which had proved to be so successful in Southeast Asia and Central America. This involved creating “no go zones” where the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) could not control and then expanding them until the IRA controlled swathes of the country. There were already areas such as East Tyrone and South Armagh where the security forces feared to tread because of roadside bombs and long range sniper fire.
The first stage of the plan was to drive out the security forces by destroying rural police stations, then killing or intimidating any contractors that were sent to rebuild them. From 1985, thirty-three security facilities had been destroyed and over 100 damaged. There were two so-called “spectaculars,” an attack on Ballygawley barracks and one on an RUC station at The Birches, County Armagh. This involved driving a JCB with a 200lb bomb in the front hoe, through the reinforced fences, destroying the station and raking it with gunfire. In 1987 the IRA shot and killed Harold Henry, one of the main building contractors to the security forces. The same year a 500lb bomb under their car, killed Lord Justice Gibson and his wife who were returning across the border after a holiday. The explosives came from Czechoslovakia, via Libya.
The British Government knew that it had to act, but couldn’t use the same tactics in Northern Ireland as it had used so successfully in Malaya against Maoist guerrillas. However, MI5 and the Army had run a successful campaign of recruiting and nurturing double agents from the Republican movement. Other vital intelligence came from listening devices planted in the homes of prominent IRA members in their absence, or even incorporating them when the houses were being built. These devices could be monitored from miles away or downloaded from a helicopter overhead. Known players were kept under “eyes-on” observation, from the incredibly brave men and women of the notionally Army’s 14 Intelligence Company, known as “The Det.” The stories of their courage and the casualties they sustained will almost certainly never be told. Known arms caches were kept under observation and one of these was visited in early May 1987. Intelligence was received that Jim Lynagh, one of the IRA’s most notorious gunmen “The Executioner,” would be coming over the border to add his expertise. The security forces had good but still incomplete intelligence.
The target was known to be Loughgall RUC Station and a team from the SAS and the RUC’s undercover E4A unit conducted their recce just after dusk on 7th May 1987. The RUC officers had volunteered to remain inside the station to act as decoys and give a feeling of normality, where they made sandwiches and cracked jokes while the SAS fire teams took up their ambush positions. There they would wait, well-camouflaged and immobile for as long as necessary. A security forces Tasking and Co-ordinating Group (TCG) had been set up within the area to act as the tactical headquarters.
During that long day of the 8th May, the lanes around Loughgall were watched and patrolled by “Det” teams. One of them was a young woman called “Anna,” who with her male oppo spotted a blue Toyota van driving slowly behind a JCB. She notified the TCG and held back to avoid arousing suspicion. Now the security forces knew that the IRA would be using the same modus operandi as used at the Birches RUC Station.
The IRA ASU was led by Patrick Kelly, an experienced IRA Commander with a criminal record to match it. Also in the ASU were four young friends from the village of Coppagh. They had joined the IRA because one of their friends, Martin Hurston had died on hunger strike. Declan Arthurs would drive the JCB and its bomb.
At 1900H in the gathering dusk, the JCB with its high-raised front hoe, rattled past the police station in a cursory recce, the van following behind. The mini convoy turned, headed back to the RUC post and the JCB accelerated towards the security fencing, the van drawing level. Patrick Kelly and other members of the ASU jumped out and began to spray the RUC post with automatic gunfire. One of the undercover RUC team was looking out of the window, ten yards away from the digger when the bomb went off. The RUC men survived despite being buried in the rubble. The ASU members did not.
|The bullet riddled van after the operation. The strands denote the trajectory of the SAS rounds|
The SAS team opened fire from their covered positions with two General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG) and Heckler and Koch 7.62mm assault rifles, expending more than 200 rounds of ammunition, which is a commendably small amount given that they killed eight terrorists. The van was like a sieve and so were the eight bodies of the ASU in their dark boiler suits and balaclavas. The bodies were checked for documents and other intelligence and then the SAS and RUC teams were withdrawn as soon as the uniformed RUC arrived on the scene. Tragically, two brothers returning from work had passed the RUC post at the time of the ambush and they were also killed by the SAS. They had been working on a car and were wearing boiler suits. I don’t want to gloss over this. It was inexcusable to allow anyone else into the cordon sanitaire once the trap had been sprung, because it sullied an otherwise brilliantly planned and executed operation. May those two innocent men rest in peace and may their families find solace.
When “Anna” with her “Det” colleagues and the SAS returned to their base, a great deal of beer was drunk. But shockwaves were felt throughout the Republican community. The IRA had been at the height of their confidence, their arms caches boosted by 130 tons of heavy weapons and explosives, courtesy of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. Amelia Arthurs, the mother of the JCB driver wailed: “Declan was mown down, he could have been taken prisoner. The SAS never gave them a chance.” The ASU certainly didn’t intend to take any prisoners that night and it was their nefarious actions that resulted in the deaths of two innocent men.
|The Loughgall “martyrs.”|
The Loughgall Ambush sent a clear and decisive message to the IRA that any of its members engaged in “The Armed Struggle” were legitimate military targets as far as the security services were concerned and this was reinforced by the Gibraltar operation a few years later. By the 1990s the IRA had been so comprehensively infiltrated that London knew when its main players were having a bowel movement. There was the predicted wailing and gnashing of teeth about a “Shoot to Kill” policy, from the usual suspects: Amnesty International, and from some politicians still active today and occupying senior positions in the Labour Party. What other policy would they suggest? A shoot to frighten? A shoot to mildly annoy? Or perhaps just let the scallywags get it out of their system. And don’t give us the vacuous “they were unarmed” line. How do you know with less than a quarter of a second to make a decision? It’s called getting inside your enemy’s OODA Loop. They didn’t bleat when a Brazilian electrician, who looked a bit dusky, didn’t feel like paying for an underground ticket and got Banjoed by the Met’s finest.
The IRA was militarily defeated in a war of their making, on a battlefield of their choosing, using their tactics, aided by perverse international law and backed by politicians from the most powerful country on the planet. From this victory the British politicians snatched defeat and allowed a defeated enemy not only to keep its weapons, but to dictate the terms of the government’s own surrender to them. The RUC, probably the most effective police force in the country was disbanded to appease crushed terrorists. Everyone in the Armed Forces who served in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” (the war against the IRA) is now in the legal spotlight. If you were involved in an operation where someone was killed, injured or “traumatised” even if they were IRA, sooner or later you may receive notification from the Police Service of Northern Ireland saying that they would like to interview you. I pray to God that even this putrid government would protect undercover operatives, but I have my doubts, given their handling of the IHAT and PIL’s hounding of Iraq veterans, providing them with taxpayers’ money to do it. As the other man of peace, the one with the beard and pipe said: “They haven’t gone away you know.”