‘No longer stand[ing idly] by’? Irish army contingency plans, 1969–70

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

An Irish army border patrol in the 1970s. How prepared were they for intervention in the North in August 1969? (National Museum of Ireland)

An Irish army border patrol in the 1970s. How prepared were they for intervention in the North in August 1969? (National Museum of Ireland)

On 13 August 1969 the Irish cabinet discussed the developing Bogside crisis. Neil Blaney, minister for agriculture, suggested sending the Irish army across the border in an attempt to provoke United Nations intervention and the consequent deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. After a brief discussion regarding possible outcomes, the cabinet wisely rejected military intervention, although Taoiseach Jack Lynch authorised the formation of a number of infantry groups on the border and the establishment of field hospitals. That evening Lynch made a televised address to the Irish people. He announced the formation of army field hospitals and claimed that his government would ‘no longer stand by’.
Directly after the cabinet meeting, all available regular army assets situated near or on the border were mobilised. This culminated in the establishment of an infantry group in the Letterkenny and Ballybofey areas of County Donegal, made up of nearly 300 combat soldiers, 101 command and support troops and twenty nurses. On 14 August the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC or B-Specials) formed up near the Bogside in preparation for an armed assault. British army intervention prevented USC action, and unrest in the city effectively ended.
The following day civil unrest continued throughout Northern Ireland, and the army received authorisation to mobilise a further two infantry groups ‘due to the deterioration of the situation in the North East part of the country’. Soldiers from the Cavan and Dundalk areas provided most of the personnel, augmented by troops from other counties. The combined force totalled 795 men, including four rifle companies (approximately 400 combat soldiers), three field artillery troops and a field battery. On the night of 14 August, violence within Belfast city resulted in the burning of hundreds of homes and the displacement of thousands of civilians. Even if the political will had existed within the Irish government, the infantry groups did not have the manpower, transport or equipment to protect the nationalist areas of Belfast. Speaking retrospectively, Lynch admitted that ‘we had no intention of moving in  . . . we did not have the men or equipment even if we had the desire’. Only areas close to the border could have been protected by the infantry groups. Areas such as Newry, however, despite experiencing medium-scale riots, saw negligible casualty levels.
The Irish government tried to maintain secrecy in relation to the infantry groups. A government press release claimed that only ‘medical and support’ personnel had been deployed, although it described the presence of ‘other support troops’. A Press Association correspondent in Dublin reported mass mobilisation of the army, a claim contradicted by an army spokesperson as ‘completely untrue’. On 14 August reports of full mobilisation, the calling up of the first line reserve and large-scale troop movements towards the border were denied by the Irish Government Information Bureau (GIB). A statement claimed that ‘there are no troops on the move except those directly concerned with the setting up of the field hospitals and their ancillary services’. On 15 August, in the aftermath of the Belfast violence, the GIB announced that the Irish government had decided to call up the first line reserve of the Irish army to have them ready for a peacekeeping operation. This admission of mobilisation stimulated invasion rumours. Revd Ian Paisley warned Protestants to prepare for the very worst. Sir Knox Cunningham, MP for South Antrim, said that ‘Mr Lynch’s order to move republican troops to the Ulster border is similar to the action of Hitler in 1938 over the Sudetenland’. Jack Lynch was no Adolf Hitler, and the Irish army, with less than 8,000 men, was certainly no Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, a general ignorance regarding the army’s capability provoked fearful comments.

Interim report, 1969

An Irish army encampment at Ramelton, Co. Donegal, part of an infantry group dispatched to the area by the Dublin government in August 1969. (Belfast Telegraph, 18 August 1969)

An Irish army encampment at Ramelton, Co. Donegal, part of an infantry group dispatched to the area by the Dublin government in August 1969. (Belfast Telegraph, 18 August 1969)

British army reinforcements gradually brought security to Belfast. By late August, British troops in Northern Ireland numbered 5,000. Manpower levels could satisfactorily contain small- to medium-scale public disorder. In a large-scale scenario, the Irish government and army planners viewed British strength as inadequate. Unionist opposition to internal political reform, and specifically the British desire to reform or disband the B-Specials, generated a fear within the Irish government regarding future loyalist violence, or even a B-Special revolt against the British government. Consequently the Irish army was authorised to assess its capability for intervention in Northern Ireland and produced an assessment, Interim Report of Planning Board on Northern Ireland Operations (27 September 1969). Military planners viewed intervention with clear apprehension and knew that an incursion without an attainable political objective would be counter-productive to Irish interests. They recognised the difficulty of justifying an incursion and realised that internationally the Republic of Ireland might be seen as an aggressor, with negative political and public opinion influencing ‘the outcome of any operations undertaken’. The army hypothesised four intervention scenarios: ‘Situation A’ involved Protestant extremists conducting pogroms against Catholic areas; ‘Situation B’ hypothesised conflict between the general Catholic community and the security forces; ‘Situation C’ was characterised by conflict between the Northern Ireland security forces and republican groups; and ‘Situation D’ involved conflict between Protestant extremists and the security forces.
Army planners warned that a serious supply and logistics problem might occur after intervention. For this reason they considered operations inside Northern Ireland as ‘militarily unsound’, although they accepted that operations up to company level (100 men) could be undertaken. In this scenario, other companies involved in the operation would secure and hold the spearhead company’s exit route, in theory ensuring that a rapid retreat was possible if the spearhead company risked encirclement. They knew that an incursion beyond the immediate border area was completely out of the question. Overall, the report reflected the deficiencies that existed within the army. The army assessors produced a realistic report of what the small, under-strength and under-equipped Irish military could accomplish—a brief, limited, short-term incursion across the border.

February Directive, 1970
In January 1970 events within Northern Ireland caused increasing concern for the Irish government. Loyalist opposition to the Hunt Report recommending the disbandment of the B-Specials, the growth of loyalist extremism, and the increase and severity of rioting compelled the Irish government to order the army to ‘train and prepare’ for an incursion. On 6 February 1970 the Irish cabinet discussed and defined the circumstances that would warrant military intervention. James Gibbons, minister for defence, received cabinet instructions to prepare the army. This decision became known as the ‘February Directive’. The army chief-of-staff was ordered to prepare and train the army for intervention in Northern Ireland.

Members of the Irish army medical corps at Bridge End customs post, three miles from Derry, on 14 August. (Irish News, 15 August 1969)

Members of the Irish army medical corps at Bridge End customs post, three miles from Derry, on 14 August. (Irish News, 15 August 1969)

On 13 February he held a meeting with Gibbons to clarify certain aspects of the directive. Gibbons informed him that intervention would only occur in the event of a complete breakdown of law and order in Northern Ireland, and the only objective would be to protect the life and property of civilians. Clearly intervention would only be authorised in the event of genocide or medium-scale expulsions of Catholics. The Irish government’s criteria for an incursion were nightmarish—the army would only cross the border if Northern Ireland were so severely destabilised that Irish entry would not cause further destabilisation.

‘Disastrous consequences’
In the spring of 1970 several events and incidents led the Irish government to reassess the northern situation. From August 1969 until March 1970 most of the violence that took place was between loyalists and the British army. From March onwards, however, violence increasingly featured nationalist protestors clashing with the British army. Concerns grew that the British army was no longer acting as an impartial force, and the role of the newly formed Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) became increasingly anti-nationalist. In late March/early April there was nationalist rioting against the British army in Derry and Armagh, and the Ballymurphy riots in Belfast saw Catholic residents repulse first a loyalist mob and then a British army force. Nationalists believed that the British army had collaborated with loyalists. Northern Ireland’s nationalist leaders appealed to Lynch for support in the event of a future crisis.
The taoiseach asked the army for an assessment and he received a memorandum stating that the Irish army could commit a maximum of 2,500 troops for an incursion. An Irish intervention force might have faced a maximum of 21,500 British soldiers, UDR and RUC trained in the use of firearms. Unsurprisingly, the Irish army warned of ‘disastrous consequences’ for an intervention force on the basis of limited manpower. Derry City by mid-1970 had been significantly reinforced by the British army, and this may have influenced Irish army planners in their recommendation that an incursion could only take place at one single point along the border. The chief-of-staff suggested Newry as the most suitable incursion point. In a hypothetical situation, 800 soldiers would take and hold the town while a greater quantity of troops secured and held a supply and retreat route. Army planners recommended an incursion lasting ‘24 hours’, the minimum length of time required to create an ‘international incident’. Despite envisioning such a small-scale, short-term incursion, the army gave a grim assessment that it could expect to sustain ‘considerable casualties’. Perhaps the most forbidding aspect of a short-term incursion was the fact that after the army had retreated back across the border into County Louth, the Catholics of Northern Ireland—not to mention those in Newry, who may have been viewed as Irish army collaborators—would have been left wholly at the mercy of the British Army, UDR, RUC and loyalist mobs.

Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons in February 1970 ordered the Irish army chief-of-staff to prepare and train for intervention in Northern Ireland, but only in the event of a complete breakdown in law and order. (Victor Patterson)

Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons in February 1970 ordered the Irish army chief-of-staff to prepare and train for intervention in Northern Ireland, but only in the event of a complete breakdown in law and order. (Victor Patterson)

Conclusion
The Irish government’s contemplation of military intervention never involved the question of partition. Assessments and contingencies developed in response to humanitarian concerns. As Jack Lynch accurately told an emotional Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis in 1970, the Irish army did not have the means to intervene, and his policy in relation to partition was to seek unity by consent. An Irish army incursion into Northern Ireland would have ended in two possible ways: either withdrawal or total destruction. The most likely British response would have been the issuing of a withdrawal ultimatum. Irrespective of the hypothetical, what is certain is that Jack Lynch placed the stability, security and economic prosperity of the Irish state above any potentially ruinous irredentist impulses. HI

Edward Longwill has a Ph.D in history from the University of Ulster.

Further reading:

T. Hennessey, Northern Ireland: the origins of the Troubles (Dublin, 2005).

M. Kennedy, Division and consensus: the politics of cross-border relations in Ireland (Dublin, 2000).

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