RUC tipped off the Garda about Robinson’s ‘invasion’ of Clontibret

Peter Robinson attends Ballybay Courthouse in the Republic following the Clontibret incident of 1986
Peter Robinson attends Ballybay Courthouse in the Republic following the Clontibret incident of 1986

There is remarkably little material in the files just released about one of the most bizarre and infamous episodes of 1986 — Peter Robinson’s ‘invasion’ of the Co Monaghan town of Clontibret.

However, one file states that the RUC had tipped off the Garda about the border incursion, something which was welcomed by senior government figures in Dublin.

In an August 15, 1986 letter from Mark Elliot in the NIO to Sir Alan Goodison, the British Ambassador to Dublin, the NIO official said: “The RUC’s action in tipping off the Garda during the night of August 6-7 about the incursion by Peter Robinson and his loyalist thugs was also warmly appreciated in Dublin, according to Michael Lillis.”

In Ian Paisley’s final interview, broadcast earlier this year by the BBC, he said that the Clontibret invasion “should not have been done” and suggested that Mr Robinson did so in an attempt to get the DUP leadership, adding: “I think he thought that was going to be a tremendous uprising, but that didn’t happen.”

Mr Robinson hit back at what he described as a “recollection failure” and claimed that Dr Paisley “was the one who had agreed to go to Clontibret” but the DUP leader had to attend a funeral in the US.

But historians hoping that the 1986 government records would contain some snippet of contemporaneous government intelligence about who was responsible for the extraordinary episode are likely to be disappointed.

A near-contemporaneous official account of the Clontibret incident is given in an NIO ‘political developments’ report circulated to other departments.

The August 13 report said: “In the small hours of August 7, a crowd of around 150 loyalists, some wearing paramilitary uniforms and carrying cudgels, accompanied by (or, according to some reports, led by) Peter Robinson, crossed the border near Keady and marched through the Co Monaghan village of Clontibret, daubing slogans on the unoccupied Garda station and injuring two Garda officers who confronted them.

“They dispersed when other Garda fired shots into the air.

“Robinson, who appears to have lingered behind deliberately, was arrested and held in custody for 36 hours (during which he refused all sustenance provided by the Garda, preferring the wholesome Ulster food brought to him by his wife) before being charged with four offences, including assaulting Garda officers and causing wilful damage.

“He was granted bail and is to appear in court in Dundalk, Co Louth, on August 14.”

It said that the incident had been widely condemned by government ministers on both sides of the border and by leaders of the SDLP and Alliance. DUP spokesmen hailed the operation as a clear demonstration of the absence of cross-border security, whilst Ken Maginnis of the UUP felt able to condemn only the attack on the two gardai.”

It added: “There is a suggestion that the Clontibret incident was a spontaneous reaction to a thwarted attempt to occupy Keady, though Robinson’s involvement seems to argue for a planned exercise and is another example of his choosing to raise his profile during his leader’s absence abroad.

“His role thus far during the marching season has been only peripheral. He has now won a considerable propaganda coup and prompted Dr Paisley to cut short his tour of the USA ostensibly to show support for his deputy and to accompany him to his court appearance in Dundalk but also, no doubt, to reassert his own position as the man in the driving seat.”

The only other substantive reference to Clontibret which the News Letter could find during five days searching the files was an account of a visit to the Foreign Office by Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson. Both men formally complained to the government about sustained attacks on the vehicles of DUP supporters who had accompanied Mr Robinson to a subsequent court appearance in the Republic.