South­ern dis­com­fort

The year the Trou­bles crossed the bor­der

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY BRIAN HAN­LEY ■ Brian Han­ley is au­thor of The Im­pact of the Trou­bleson­theRepub­li­cofIre­land,1968-79: Boil­ing Vol­cano? (Manch­ester Univer­sity Press)

The Ir­ish State’s tried and tested re­sponse to sub­ver­sion had al­ways been emer­gency law. In­tern­ment, mil­i­tary courts and re­stric­tions on the press were all im­ple­mented dur­ing the Civil War, the Emer­gency and the IRA’s 1956-62 cam­paign. But the sit­u­a­tion af­ter Au­gust 1969 was un­fa­mil­iar. The emo­tional up­surge that ac­com­pa­nied the out­break of con­flict in the North made se­cu­rity mea­sures against repub­li­cans prob­lem­atic. Dur­ing late 1969 and again in early 1972 plans to in­tro­duce re­pres­sive laws were stymied by pub­lic sol­i­dar­ity with north­ern na­tion­al­ists. But there was also a con­tra­dic­tion in south­ern na­tion­al­ism that ul­ti­mately was to prove cru­cial.

As Bri­tish diplo­mats noted in late 1972, “na­tion­al­ist strug­gles” in the North, whether about civil rights or re­uni­fi­ca­tion, deeply af­fect emo­tions in the South. To many, ac­tion against “Ir­ish pa­tri­ots” is un­ac­cept­able: ac­tion against those threat­en­ing the in­sti­tu­tions of the Repub­lic is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

While in pop­u­lar mem­ory re­pres­sion is as­so­ci­ated with the 1973-77 coali­tion, and cen­sor­ship al­most en­tirely with Conor Cruise O’Brien, when Fianna Fáil left power in 1973 they had ac­quired a much harder-line rep­u­ta­tion on law and or­der than their ri­vals. Jack Lynch’s ad­min­is­tra­tion had in­tro­duced the Forcible En­try Bill, the Pris­ons Bill, the Spe­cial Crim­i­nal Court and the Of­fences Against the State Amend­ment Bill. They had also tight­ened con­trol of ra­dio and tele­vi­sion and sacked the RTÉ Au­thor­ity for ob­ject­ing to govern­ment broad­cast­ing pol­icy.

In fact the govern­ment had been on the verge of in­tro­duc­ing new se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion against the IRA even be­fore the North ex­ploded. In early Au­gust 1969 Jack Lynch met RTÉ’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral and deputy head of news, along with the “ed­i­tors of Dublin and Cork news­pa­pers” to ex­press his con­cern at in­creased repub­li­can ac­tiv­ity. He pro­vided es­ti­mates of the IRA’s mem­ber­ship (1,200 in the Repub­lic) and sug­gested the com­mu­nists had gained in­flu­ence among its lead­er­ship. The taoiseach was wor­ried that the IRA’s cam­paign “against for­eign­ers might be broad­ened to in­clude na­tion­als who were con­sid­ered to have too much land or wealth and that this eco­nomic cam­paign was a pre­lude to a mil­i­tary cam­paign”.


He asked that the me­dia re­frain from pub­li­cis­ing IRA state­ments or us­ing lan­guage which he claimed ro­man­ti­cised them in “im­ma­ture minds”. Lynch also sug­gested that the term “il­le­gal or­gan­i­sa­tion” be used rather then “IRA”. He then sig­nalled that the govern­ment was in­tent on in­tro­duc­ing new mea­sures to deal with IRA ac­tiv­i­ties soon. How­ever, by Septem­ber events across the Bor­der had trans­formed the po­lit­i­cal mood and made this im­pos­si­ble. In­stead, repub­li­cans took ad­van­tage of the emo­tional pe­riod af­ter Au­gust to in­ten­sify their train­ing and arms pro­cure­ment.

Crit­ics ac­cused the govern­ment over the next year of pur­su­ing the “pol­i­tics of un­der­kill” in deal­ing with sub­ver­sives. In a num­ber of in­stances armed men were ap­pre­hended by gar­daí, but in court ar­gued that their weapons were not “to be used against forces in the 26 coun­ties but for the pro­tec­tion of peo­ple in the six coun­ties”. In such cases sus­pects were of­ten re­leased on pro­ba­tion or with a small fine.

Dur­ing 1970, an Ir­ish civil ser­vant ex­plained to a Bri­tish coun­ter­part how there was a “depth of pub­lic sym­pa­thy among Ir­ish peo­ple of all kinds for men sen­tenced for po­lit­i­cal of­fences – ir­re­spec­tive of the logic or even of the mer­its.” By the end of the year the mood had shifted some­what. Frus­tra­tion with repub­li­cans was ac­cel­er­ated by the killing of Garda Richard Fal­lon dur­ing a bank rob­bery in April.

Af­ter the shoot­ing one de­tec­tive stated that “the hon­ey­moon is now over. One of our men has been killed, a fa­ther of five, who never did harm to any­body. We’ve al­ways been painted as the vil­lains, the ones who were bru­tal. You go up and ask Dick Fal­lon’s widow to­day who are the bru­tal ones.”

One ac­tivist re­called hear­ing real anger ex­pressed at the IRA by work­ing class Dublin­ers in the af­ter­math of the killing. Fal­lon had been shot dead dur­ing a raid by the splin­ter repub­li­can group Saor Éire. Though much smaller than ei­ther the Of­fi­cial or Pro­vi­sional IRA, this group had gained no­to­ri­ety for au­da­cious bank rob­beries, which, un­like main­stream repub­li­can or­gan­i­sa­tions, they were pre­pared to ad­mit to.

De­spite some signs that a harsher se­cu­rity pol­icy was in the off­ing, there was shock when on 4th De­cem­ber 1970 Jack Lynch an­nounced that in­tern­ment without trial was to be in­tro­duced. The govern­ment claimed this was in re­sponse to in­for­ma­tion that Saor Éire was about to as­sas­si­nate or kid­nap politi­cians and civil ser­vants. Min­is­ters were adamant that the threat from a “se­cret armed con­spir­acy” was cred­i­ble. It was sug­gested that Saor Éire was tar­get­ing ei­ther the min­is­ter for jus­tice Des­mond O’Mal­ley, se­nior civil ser­vant Peter Berry at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice or chief su­per­in­ten­dent John Flem­ing of the Spe­cial Branch.

Re­ports that the Cur­ragh camp was to be re­opened and that lists of po­ten­tial in­ternees had been drawn up were soon in cir­cu­la­tion. A se­ries of Garda raids on repub­li­can ac­tivists dur­ing De­cem­ber were per­ceived as dry-runs for the mea­sure. The an­nounce­ment pro­voked ini­tial in­credulity, fol­lowed by out­rage. Most com­men­ta­tors felt that the threat, even if cred­i­ble, hardly jus­ti­fied such a mea­sure. The

Ir­ish Times warned that “in­tern­ment camps mean a step on the road to dic­ta­tor­ship”. The

Ir­ish Press on the other hand, while ex­press­ing “sur­prise and puz­zle­ment” nev­er­the­less con­sid­ered that “in a coun­try in which there is a tra­di­tion of not recog­nis­ing the courts, in­tim­i­dat­ing ju­rors and, above all, not giv­ing ev­i­dence against po­lit­i­cal de­fen­dants … some such re­course as de­ten­tion camps is in­evitable if dis­taste­ful”.

Repub­li­cans, the left, the labour move­ment and civil lib­er­ties groups were united in op­po­si­tion. Ea­monn McCann and Ber­nadette Devlin, along with Of­fi­cial Sinn Féin’s Máirín de Burca, Labour’s John Hor­gan and so­lic­i­tor Con Le­hane of Cit­i­zens For Civil Lib­erty were among those who ad­dressed a protest rally of 1,000 peo­ple out­side the Dáil. Walk­outs and “teach-ins” took place in sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties and lead­ing trade union­ists forcibly ex­pressed their op­po­si­tion. Four Labour TDs were sus­pended from Le­in­ster House for crit­i­cis­ing the gov­ern­ments re­fusal to al­low de­bate on the is­sue. Lim­er­ick TD Steven Cough­lan warned that “the taoiseach knows where this is go­ing to end, in hunger strikes and civil war. Be it on the taoiseach’s head.”

Noel Browne called for in­dus­trial ac­tion in protest while Conor Cruise O’Brien was phys­i­cally threat­ened by Fianna Fáil TDs as he left the Dáil cham­ber af­ter de­nounc­ing the mea­sure. North­ern ac­tivists, from Paddy Devlin of the SDLP to Michael Far­rell of Peo­ples’ Democ­racy noted that in­tern­ment in the South would only em­bolden the union­ist govern­ment in its use of re­pres­sion north of the Bor­der. In­deed the Rev Martin Smyth, a lead­ing mem­ber of the Orange Or­der and the Ul­ster Union­ist Party, had ap­plauded Lynch’s pro­posal.

Most of those who op­posed in­tern­ment sug­gested that govern­ment claims about armed threats were fan­tasy. Of­fi­cial Sinn Féin com­pared them to the Bri­tish govern­ment’s claims of a “Ger­man plot” dur­ing 1918.

Provoca­tively how­ever Saor Éire as­serted that they might in­deed just do what the govern­ment al­leged they were plan­ning to do and ad­mit­ted they had not ruled out kid­nap­ping as part of an ur­ban guerilla strat­egy. Fianna Fáil spokes­men dis­missed wor­ries about civil lib­er­ties, with tá­naiste Ersk­ine Childers ridi­cul­ing them as “wails of protest from a lim­ited num­ber of peo­ple.” But less than a fort­night later the is­sue had dis­ap­peared from the po­lit­i­cal agenda.


In­tern­ment was not in­tro­duced and dis­cus­sion of the is­sue proved re­mark­ably short-lived. Peter Berry later con­tended that the govern­ment had threat­ened the mea­sure in or­der to win sup­port in a by-election in Done­gal-Leitrim. The sub­stan­tial Protes­tant vote in the con­stituency, he sug­gested, would have been re­cep­tive to harsh mea­sures against repub­li­cans. But the by­elec­tion (won com­fort­ably by Fianna Fáil) had taken place on 2nd De­cem­ber, two days be­fore the govern­ment had men­tioned in­tern­ment. Min­is­ter for jus­tice Des­mond O’Mal­ley later gave a more cred­i­ble, if also cu­ri­ous ex­pla­na­tion. He claimed that gar­daí had in­for­ma­tion that Saor Éire was plan­ning a ma­jor op­er­a­tion against se­nior politi­cians or civil ser­vants. But the au­thor­i­ties were also aware that nei­ther the Of­fi­cial or Pro­vi­sional IRA wanted a clam­p­down in the

Lim­er­ick TD Steven Cough­lan warned that “the taoiseach knows where this is go­ing to end, in hunger strikes and civil war. Be it on the taoiseach’s head.”


By sig­nalling that they were about to in­tro­duce in­tern­ment the govern­ment hoped that the ri­val IRAs would head off such a threat by neu­tral­is­ing Saor Éire them­selves. So O’Mal­ley ar­gued, the govern­ment would “threaten to do it [in­tro­duce in­tern­ment] and con­vey to a much more size­able sub­ver­sive or­gan­i­sa­tion the fact that we were con­sid­er­ing that and let them ex­ert pres­sure to see that this mat­ter didn’t hap­pen. It wouldn’t have suited the more size­able or­gan­i­sa­tion. And that’s the way it worked, and it did work.”

In­deed Pro­vi­sional IRA chief of staff Seán Mac Stíofáin later claimed that he had “sent two peo­ple to the two peo­ple in Saor Éire. I said ‘look, if your peo­ple are re­spon­si­ble for in­tern­ment down here you’re all dead’.” That the Ir­ish govern­ment was pre­pared to let larger repub­li­can or­gan­i­sa­tions threaten smaller ones was cer­tainly in­no­va­tive, if hardly con­sis­tent with the rule of law.

As it was, the whole is­sue was for­got­ten re­mark­ably quickly, though when in­tern­ment was in­tro­duced north of the Bor­der dur­ing Au­gust 1971, union­ists were quick to point out that Jack Lynch had threat­ened to use the same mea­sure less than a year be­fore. Though the north­ern con­flict es­ca­lated ter­ri­bly dur­ing 1972, in­tern­ment without trial was not se­ri­ously mooted again by the south­ern state. How­ever by the con­clu­sion of that year sev­eral dra­co­nian se­cu­rity mea­sures to com­bat “sub­ver­sives” had been in­tro­duced, which de­spite wide­spread protest ul­ti­mately be­came per­ma­nent le­gal fix­tures and part of the legacy of the north­ern con­flict on south­ern Ire­land.


Garda Richard Fal­lon’s fam­ily sur­rounded by mourn­ers at his fu­neral. Garda Fal­lon was killed by mem­bers of Saor Éire dur­ing a rob­bery at the Royal Bank of Ire­land in Dublin in April 1970.

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