Kingsmills 40 years on: Legacy of 1916 stymied Garda fight against IRA

Dublin in the wake of the Easter Rising 1916
Dublin in the wake of the Easter Rising 1916

A lack of resources and a political and public culture of ambiguity towards republican violence meant hopes of catching the Kingsmills killers were destined to failure, says academic HENRY PATTERSON

At the beginning of the year when Irish nationalists and republicans will commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the 40th anniversary of a sectarian atrocity carried out by republicans calls out for reflection on the darker side of the legacy of 1916.

Professor Henry Patterson argues that Dublin should acknowledge the darker legacy of 1916

Professor Henry Patterson argues that Dublin should acknowledge the darker legacy of 1916

A few weeks after the Kingsmills attack an official from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs had lunch with a senior Ulster Unionist in Loughgall. The man was deeply depressed by the possibility, not of outright civil war, but that loyalist paramilitaries would launch a series of devastating retaliatory attacks on the minority community – he expected to see a bomb in a church some Sunday morning with 100 or more killed.

He reported that ‘most unionists’ accepted that the Irish government was sincere in its commitment to security cooperation with the authorities in the North but the effectiveness of Irish efforts was being questioned particularly in south Armagh where “most unionists are convinced that the 20 or 30 Provos who operated in that area regularly and frequently cross the border to known haunts in Dundalk. It seems extraordinary to most people that we have not been able to pick up any of these people.”

The fact that the van which was used in the attack had been stolen from outside the Ballymascanlon Hotel in Co Louth around 3.30 on the afternoon of the attack and was found by Gardai south of Dundalk at 8.00am the next day was highly embarrassing for the Irish government as the Minister of Justice had put out a denial the previous day that the murderers had fled into the Republic.

The feeling that the government in the Republic could do more to deal with the IRA’s exploitation of the border and their territory as a ‘safe haven’ for training, the manufacture and importation of weapons and explosives and for the planning and carrying out attacks in the North was not simply a concern for unionists. British ministers and officials as well as the Army and RUC commands believed that a key to defeating the IRA lay in maximising security cooperation with Dublin. However, they were also aware that there were limits to what could be expected.

These limits were in part to do with resources. My former research student Paddy Mulroe’s thesis on Irish governments’ security policies along the border in the 1969-1978 period shows that the Garda lacked the necessary intelligence gathering and technical resources to deal with the upsurge of violence and paramilitary activity in the Republic.

More fundamental, however, was a political and ideological limit because of the Irish state’s own birth through revolutionary violence against the British state. This had left a political culture and public opinion shot through with ambiguity towards republican violence. The coalition of Fine Gael and Labour which was in power between 1973 and 1977 contained some of the most vehemently anti-IRA ministers of any post-1969 Irish administration. Yet as one of them explained to the British ambassador in Dublin any cooperation with the security authorities in the North left them open to charges of ‘collaboration’ with the Brits.

The result was that the undoubted cooperation that there was went on, as far as possible, unacknowledged for fear of a republican backlash. It was also the case that the unarmed Gardai who were already subject to attacks and threats from republicans would be in the front line of any intensified security clampdown in the Republic and that there were fears of possible IRA infiltration of the Irish army.

Thus although the Irish Minister of Justice, Patrick Cooney, agreed to discuss with the Garda Commissioner the possibility of pressing charges of IRA membership against 60 or so republicans who operated north of the south Armagh border but were based at least some of the time in the Republic, it is not clear if any extra action was taken by the Garda. In part this is because most of relevant Irish government files on this and other incidents have not been released.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was correct when he told the families of the Kingsmills victims that the blame for the crime lies with those who planned, organised and carried it out and not with the Irish state. However, at a time when the Irish government is emphasising that the commemoration of 1916 should be ecumenical and non-triumphalist, some recognition that part of its legacy was to give comfort and support to those waging a bitter ethnic war in the North would be welcome.

Henry Patterson is Emeritus Professor of Irish Politics at UU. Palgrave Macmillan are bringing out a paperback edition of his book ‘Ireland’s Violent Frontier’ this year.

See other ‘Kingsmills 40 years on’ reports:

:: We cannot move on until the truth is revealed - sister

:: Questions on Dublin’s role in creation of IRA - Foster

:: HET report named seven IRA men linked to Kingsmills

:: Heartless ghouls robbed me of so many close friends

:: Border Protestants were victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’