DESPITE a very public US ban on selling arms to the RUC at the start of the 1980s, the force was secretly continuing to receive American-made weapons, confidential files reveal.
Not only was Northern Ireland’s police force able to evade the weapons ban imposed at the behest of Irish-American politicians, but it managed to acquire spying equipment so sensitive that it would have caused acute difficulties for President Ronald Reagan had the imports been made public.
Files released in Belfast under the 30-year-rule reveal that as well as Ruger weapons the RUC was supplied with surveillance apparatus “arguably more sensitive than guns”.
It is not entirely clear from the documents whether the US Government was aware of the shipments and tacitly approved of them or whether the UK was surreptitiously importing the weapons and kept American officials in the dark about the issue.
However, one former senior RUC officer told the News Letter that he believed the Reagan Administration was aware of the shipments but had “turned a blind eye to the issue” because of the US’s relationship with the UK.
The weapons ban had been introduced by Congress after allegations of sectarianism in the RUC.
However, a confidential 1981 memorandum to the Secretary of State released under the 30-year rule reveals that a ban orchestrated by Irish America because of allegations of sectarianism against the RUC was side-stepped to ensure that the arms requested by the Chief Constable were obtained.
The memo, prepared as officials decided how they would answer a written Parliamentary question from the UUP MP Willie Ross about the issue, said that the RUC had placed three orders for a total of 9,000 Ruger revolvers but that the Chief Constable subsequently decided that 6,000 would be sufficient.
The first order of 3,000 was delivered in mid-1979. But in July of that year the US government suspended export licences for arms for the RUC “pending a review of policy”.
By March 1981 the review had not yet been completed, leading to mounting anger among unionists in Northern Ireland and some mainland MPs as the police came under attack from the IRA.
In Parliament, one Tory MP raised the “irony” of the US government selling the Trident nuclear missile system to the UK but refusing to allow a UK police force to buy revolvers.
However, unknown publicly at the time, the force was continuing to receive the US-made weapons it had ordered from third-party suppliers, while the debate about the US arms embargo raged.
The memo to the secretary of state added: “In fact, despite the ban the RUC have continued to receive small supplies of Rugers from the UK agents with whom the contract was placed, and now await delivery of only 735 of these weapons.
“However, we have carefully avoided publishing information about arms supply in any detail because we are conscious that if it became known that the RUC is receiving arms and ammunition from the US including Rugers [underlined], despite the ban, attempts might be made in Congress to stop these supplies which the Reagan Administration might not be willing or able to counter.”
Another confidential March 1981 document reveals that during that financial year the RUC had received from the US — all via UK suppliers – 2,235 Ruger revolvers, 130 Smith and Weston pistols and more than 1.3 million rounds of various ammunition.
Another file reveals that to answer a Parliamentary question from MP John Farr would be “potentially embarrassing”, and not just because of the secret supply of US guns to the RUC.
The document said that to answer the question for a list of “arms and ammunition and other devices” supplied to the RUC from the US would “also reveal that they [the RUC] have received some US equipment for surveillance work which is arguably more sensitive than guns”.
“If these various supplies were stopped in future or spares became unattainable there would be serious damage to the RUC’s operations.”
The document goes on to list “direction-finding equipment, digital speech security radios, high power hand portables, test equipment and video equipment — time lapse recorders” as items received from the US, though it is not clear if this is the sensitive surveillance equipment to which the document earlier refers.
Files released last year by Dublin’s Department of Foreign Affairs under the Republic of Ireland’s 30-year rule showed that in 1979 the then US president Jimmy Carter had urged the US Speaker, Tip O’Neill, to end the embargo on arms sales to the RUC after a request by Margaret Thatcher.
But Mr O’Neill, a massively influential Irish-American figure, refused, arguing that to do so could bolster support for the IRA from the US.