The Troubles in Northern Ireland and Intelligence Failures in the Irish Republic

Emily Boulter’s article on ‘The Islamist terrorism threat in Ireland’ is very welcome. Despite some criticism from others there is very little that one could disagree with what she has written. A writer putting an article in the public domain is also putting their head above the parapet to get shot down. If their article should be critical of government or security services they are likely to be knocked for ‘lacking insight’ as they do not have or are not privy to the knowledge, information or intelligence available to those in the security services. So, it is brave of Emily to have her article published and it is great to see an additional contributor to the debate on security in Ireland. The more contributions and debate the better, after all there is an awful lot to be discussed.

Emily’s article and subsequent contributions raised some relevant points. However, I think the most important point is the continuation of the myth constantly repeated by certain members of the media, members of An Garda Síochána, and government ministers, especially ministers for justice. The myth is that ‘An Garda Síochána faced down an existential threat to the security of the Irish State by what was perhaps the most successful terrorist organisation in history; the Provisional IRA’.

Belief in that myth has led to hubris by Garda management and government ministers and as a consequence the Irish Taoiseach and government are failing to adequately address contemporary state intelligence shortcomings. By doing so they are putting the lives of the citizens at risk, are risking the economic well-being of the state, and endangering relationships with our neighbours and partners.

Investigations into successful terrorist attacks invariably find inter alia that: governments and security services had failed to identify lessons from previous attacks, had learnt the wrong lessons, were preparing for last attack rather than the next attack, and had not prepared sufficiently.

To learn from history one must eliminate the propaganda that surrounds it. For those researching the security situation in the Irish Republic during the Northern Ireland Troubles they should be cognizant of two facts. The first is that Article 8 of the PIRA Handbook precluded armed actions against what they termed ‘Free State’ forces, they being the Irish Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána. Whilst of course PIRA and other terrorist organisations did conduct terrorist operations in the Republic, and members of the security forces were murdered, the Republic was not their direct target for constant violent attacks as occurred in Northern Ireland. Thus, as the tempo and scale of terrorist operations were very different to Northern Ireland, the approach to security and intelligence adopted in the Republic was very different to that adopted in the north.

In the main, Sinn Féin / PIRA conducted a subversive campaign in the Republic with the intention of undermining the legitimacy of the state, its government, and security services. They understood that armed attacks in the south lost them support, they feared a major clamp down by the authorities in the Republic as happened during previous campaigns resulting in the termination of their campaigns. The republican movement (Sinn Féin / PIRA) understood very well that maintaining ‘an acceptable level of violence’, with different levels in Northern Ireland and in Republic, facilitated the maintenance of a safe-haven in the Republic which they exploited for training, fund raising, logistical bases, rest areas, and bases for attacks across the border.

The second fact that researchers should understand is that the PIRA was confronted in the Republic not just by the Gardaí alone but by a joint military Garda security operation. The Gardaí maintained primacy with the military (army, naval service, and air corps) providing armed and other support in what was known as ‘Aid to the Civil Power’ (ATCP) operations. The military and Gardaí worked together and became very familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

During the Troubles, Irish authorities (the government, military and police) conducted what today might be called an ‘information operations campaign’ both at home and abroad, to influence opinions. The stability of the Republic was paramount and in the high tensions resulting from various atrocities and outrages in the North it was necessary to positively influence public opinion. In that regard there were at least three methods: firstly, all successes were credited to the Gardaí; secondly, the military were kept in the background with a policy of ‘no green to be seen’ and accordingly they shied away from publicity except when it was necessary to reassure the citizens that the state was still secure, and finally, criticism of intelligence failures was kept to the minimum.

Throughout the Troubles there were a large number of intelligence and counter-intelligence failures by the intelligence services in the Republic. The Gardaí with primary responsibility for intelligence must take responsibility for those failures. These would probably have resulted in resignations by government ministers and security chiefs but during the Troubles the lid had to be kept on them in order not to undermine people’s confidence in the Gardaí, an important organ of state.

A non-exhaustive list of intelligence failures includes: the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Dundalk bombing, the prisoner escapes from Mountjoy and Portlaoise prisons, the Shergar kidnapping, the Mountbatten fishing party murders, the assassination of the British Ambassador, the Warrenpoint ambush, Derrada Wood etc. Some would argue that these were once off events, were difficult to detect, and therefore did not indicate intelligence failures. These arguments could only be acceptable if one had very low expectations from their intelligence service.

More importantly however, Garda intelligence failed to detect the importation, transportation and storage of four large shipments of weapons, ammunition, and explosives from Col Gaddafi in Libya to the PIRA in the Republic. Not alone did they fail to detect these cargos landing on four occasions but continuously failed for nearly twenty years to detect their storage in this state or their movement in this state to Northern Ireland for terrorist activities. We are not talking here about a small cache of arms but about enough military hardware to supply a small army that could compete with the levels held by the army. Not alone did these military supplies feed a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland but were a continuous danger to security in the Irish Republic. In summary, Garda intelligence failed during the Troubles and only for British intelligence infiltrating all echelons of the PIRA there probably would not have been a Good Friday Agreement.

The threats and risks facing modern Ireland are very different from those during the Troubles; Brexit however may see the return of some of the old threats. Intelligence failure in the Irish Republic is a political failure. Ministers for Justice have tinkered with reform but have failed to take the courageous steps necessary at real reform. The government has set up a Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. However, bearing in mind that: reputable Conor Brady resigned from Commission because he considered the government wasn’t taking it seriously; interviews for the new Garda Commissioner are to take place before the Policing Commission finishes its work; and, the government does not have a problem with a foreigner taking charge of the security of the state, it is hard to believe that the current Taoiseach or Minister for Justice will seriously address the state’s intelligence shortcomings.

Some might claim what I have written as being part of an ‘alarmist narrative’ but I am afraid lessons have not been learnt by the Irish Government and we are due to replicate the failures of the past. We can only hope that ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 28 Feb 2018