BOMBS, BULLETS AND THE BORDER Policing Ireland’s frontier: Irish security policy, 1969–1978

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Irish Academic Press
ISBN 9781911024521

Reviewed by: Deaglán de Bréadún

Deaglán de Bréadún is the author of Power play: the rise of modern Sinn Féin (Irish Academic Press, 2015).

Patrick Mulroe has performed a very useful public service in this book of almost 300 pages by chronicling and analysing the approach of the government in Dublin, as well as the Irish army and police, at a very difficult time, to the task of guarding the border that divides the island of Ireland into two parts. The author is a teacher in Monaghan, has carried out a huge amount of research and has come up with some very interesting findings.

His starting-point of 1969 was, of course, the year when it became obvious that a high level of violence was going to be a central part of life in Northern Ireland for some time to come. Initially there was a great deal of sympathy in the Republic and elsewhere for nationalists in the Catholic ghettos in Belfast and Derry, who were seen as being faced with pogroms. Even government ministers in Dublin were accused of attempting to import arms to support efforts at self-defence in those communities by local groups and individuals who, in many cases, joined together to form the nucleus of the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Inevitably, the violence spread to the border areas, and the southern part of County Armagh developed into such a rebellious sector of Northern Ireland that it became known as ‘bandit country’. Over time, the level of sympathy for the Provisional IRA declined, and by 1978, the last year in this book’s title, there was quite a different attitude among the general population and security forces in the Republic towards that organisation.

The author has searched through a veritable treasure-trove of official documentation, much of it from official British government archives, to give us the background to developments on the security front and the attitudes at the time among the police, military, civil service and politicians on both sides. It is hardly surprising that the British were never hugely satisfied with the performance of An Garda Síochána in dealing with the IRA threat. The conclusion to be drawn from Dr Mulroe’s book is that the Gardaí put considerable effort into curbing the activities of the Provisionals but that there were inhibiting factors, such as the innate nationalism that is part of most people’s outlook in the Republic, as well as some concern about British collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

Students of the political process will be interested in the different approaches to border security on the part of the Fine Gael-led government of 1973 to 1977 and the Fianna Fáil administration that replaced it. There was no fundamental distinction but Fianna Fáil tended to be more subtle than Fine Gael, thereby minimising the political damage among the more republican-minded sectors of the electorate. IRA activists still got locked up but there wasn’t the same storm of allegations that they were being beaten up by a ‘Heavy Gang’ in the Gardaí.

The author also draws distinctions between different areas adjacent to the border. In Donegal, perhaps partly because it has a substantial ‘Protestant vote’ as well as a large number of families with police connections, there was apparently a higher level of cooperation by Gardaí with the RUC and British Army than was the case in other border counties in the Republic.

There are striking photographs from the period showing the IRA on patrol, operating their own checkpoints and preparing an attack on the ‘Brits’. It would have been helpful to have a map to go with a text that contains so many place-names and territorial references. A list of abbreviations used in the text and notes would have been useful too. The author also tends to assume a level of knowledge and familiarity with the events and personalities of that time that the general reader simply does not possess, but this does not detract from the basic value of the work. Names in English and Irish are misspelt in some instances, where the correct versions are Colonel Michael Hefferon, Albert Luykx, Dáithí Ó Conaill and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, not to mention the author’s omission of the hyphen in the name of murdered British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs and his misspelling of ‘cumann’, the well-known Irish word used for a party branch.

The overriding impression of the Republic’s approach to border security was that it reflected a deep anxiety to ensure that the violence was contained within the ‘Six Counties’ of the north. The activities of the IRA in the Republic were for the most part kept within limits through the use of the non-jury Special Criminal Court, which proved very effective from the government’s point of view. The influx of refugees across the border from the north in the early years of the Troubles gets a degree of attention in this book that is as unusual as it is praiseworthy, and the author describes how their interaction with the south went sour after a while.

This well-researched volume is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in learning about the ways in which the southern state in Ireland dealt with security issues in the first decade of the Troubles across the border in the north. Since the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union the border is back in the news, not least because of the security implications if customs posts are re-established, which makes this study all the more relevant.


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