Declassified Files: RUC and Army work in South Armagh ‘hitting the IRA’

The file is among many released at the Public Record Office in Belfast
The file is among many released at the Public Record Office in Belfast

Officials believed that the police and the Army had worked together against the Provisional IRA in ways that “would until recently have been unthinkable”, writes Tess Davidson.

In a confidential 1991 memo, PN Bell of the NIO’s Security Policy and Operations Division explained how his trip to Newry and South Armagh revealed improving attitudes to security forces in the two areas.

“The police and army were working well together”, Mr Bell recorded, while relations with the Garda were said “with enthusiasm and obvious sincerity, to be excellent”.

In part, this was seen to be a result of the new arrangements for co-ordinating the efforts of the police and Army.

Yet it was also acknowledged that “everyone also agreed on the importance of our effort to hit PIRA where it really hurts – in the their bank accounts. What might seem pin-pricks in financial terms to other organisations, were nevertheless vitally important to the IRA”.

Efforts were also being made to cultivate support from local community leaders. The result was – despite no police liaison committee existing in the Newry and Mourne area – the creation of a sub-committee to “meet with the RUC”. The outcome of this was that “the RUC are becoming acceptable members of the community”.

Balance was seen as being crucial, however. While talking to Lt Col Biggs, the Coldstreams’ Commander, Mr Bell wrote that he left them in “no doubt whatever” of the importance he attached to avoiding irritating non-PIRA members of the community.

The key to successful operations, according to Lt Col Biggs, was through “combining professional soldiering skills with the refusal to rise to terrorist and other provocation”.

Getting involved in “rough houses or worse with the locals” was akin to “falling asleep on guard duty, or negligent discharge”.

Despite Mr Bell’s earlier findings, the Lieutenant also gave his view that “he did not give a damn for police (or anyone’s) primacy: each force should do what it did best”.

Regardless of this, Mr Bell was still positive overall: “Whatever happens at Stormont (or elsewhere over the coming weeks, I have to confess... that at grass roots level in Northern Ireland things seem to me to be increasingly going our way.”

He added: “Republican men (and women) of violence are becoming increasingly marginalised”.