William Matchett: The RUC stood firm in the face of a bloody, borderland IRA cartel

We shared the same digs, dangers, and Christian values.

Wednesday, 22nd September 2021, 9:42 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 9:15 am
An IRA mortar team in south Armagh in 1993

When two teenage constables, a Protestant and a Catholic, patrolled south Armagh, the world’s deadliest cartel had made it a killing ground.

For the Provisional IRA, killing ‘Brits’ was not wrong. It was a legitimate political act, not a crime. There was no requirement to report it, no need to help stop it, and there is every reason to forget it.

Most disdain was for cops, who were to PIRA what women and girls are to the Taliban.

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I cannot identify my roommate because the threat is always there.

The PIRA targeted unarmed cops delivering normal/community policing. The first killings were in Crossmaglen.

Local folk getting to know police officers was fatal, thanks to unelected thugs seeking to control territory. Political violence distanced the police from the people, making it harder to build relationships.

The PIRA wanted cops in armoured cars, not on bicycles, because most people are good, and the natural default is friendliness.

South Armagh was no different. It is full of decent people. Sadly, the policing they deserved was made impossible by men like Conor Murphy, a current Sinn Fein MLA for the area.

Yes, police reform was required. But as that rolled out, a PIRA aggressor still needed to be tackled.

The PIRA killing far more cops than the other way around was country-wide, and persisted. The imbalance was sharpest in south Armagh though. If it were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it.

By 1982, when I met my mate in Newtownhamilton, terrorism was thriving. The following year Northern Ireland entered the record books as the most dangerous place to be a cop.

Typifying why the title was merited is one single terrorist, who was credited with killing more people than all the 20,000 cops who served in the chaos.

And his killings were all carefully planned murders, whereas nearly all killings by police were lawful, usually reacting to a threat.

He was in a union of smuggling families in a south Armagh PIRA brigade, better described as a cartel.

The cartel’s CV included massacres of Protestants, snipers, mortars, heavy machine guns and lucrative cross-border crime – not unlike the Taliban opium trade. The cartel was PIRA’s chief bomb-maker, exporting death far beyond Gullion’s gaze.

Against a Helmand-type onslaught, the Royal Ulster Constabulary stood its ground.

A prison full of terrorists of both shades signalled to the cartel to quit. They knew the net was closing in. Terrorists put in handcuffs by cops was the political leverage that forced PIRA to capitulate.

But this reality angered PIRA and embarrassed nationalism, so it was omitted from what the West has promoted as the benchmark remedy to ending a small war.

Most cartel members were never prosecuted, including the top hitman, and the peace deal kept it that way.

Every sense of doing the right thing departed as shamefully as C17s on a Kabul runway.

In 1986, Forkhill and Crossmaglen police accompanied by soldiers set out on patrol. Packed lunches were sneakily swapped before leaving.

Two young officers on one team teased the other two over the radio about losing the better sandwiches. Practical jokes lightened dire living conditions and an insanely-high threat level. Suddenly, those who did the ribbing felt the ground shake. Imprinted in the memory were two still bodies, grey faces covered in dust, beside a dry stone wall in a field.

Constables Lawrence Smyth (Catholic) and David McBride (Protestant), and major Andrew French perished in a massive terrorist landmine. The soldier died on the evacuation helicopter.

Protestants and Catholics served together and died together in doing their best to deliver normal policing.

The Catholic clergy in Crossmaglen condemned the bombing as “a crime against God”. The few who disagreed and did not even see it as an offence in law are now many.

William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA. This piece comes after the furore over the mooted removal of public RUC memorials from south Armagh police facilities

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