Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade
|South Armagh Brigade|
The SNIPER AT WORK sign in South Armagh became a republican icon of the Troubles
|Active||December 1969–July 1997|
|Allegiance||Provisional Irish Republican Army|
|Area of operations||South County Armagh|
|Engagements||1970 RUC booby-trap bombing
Jonesborough Gazelle shooting
Newry mortar attack
Cloghogue checkpoint attack
Occupation of Cullaville
Battle of Newry Road
Crossmaglen Lynx shootdown
South Armagh sniper campaign
The South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) operated during the Troubles in south County Armagh. It was organised into two battalions, one around Jonesborough and another around Crossmaglen. By the 1990s, the South Armagh Brigade was thought to consist of about 40 members, roughly half of them living south of the border. It has allegedly been commanded since the 1970s by Thomas 'Slab' Murphy who is also alleged to be a member of the IRA's Army Council. Compared to other brigades, the South Armagh IRA was seen as an 'independent republic' within the republican movement, retaining a battalion organizational structure and not adopting the cell structure the rest of the IRA was forced to adopt after repeated intelligence failures.
As well as paramilitary activity, the South Armagh Brigade has also been widely accused of smuggling across the Irish border. Between 1970 and 1997 the brigade was responsible for the deaths of 165 members of British security forces (123 British soldiers and 42 Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers). A further 75 civilians were killed in the area during the conflict, as well as ten South Armagh Brigade members. The RUC recorded 1,255 bombings and 1,158 shootings around a radius of ten miles from the geographic centre of South Armagh in the same period.
South Armagh has a long Irish republican tradition. Many men in the area served in the Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence (1919–21) and, unlike most of the rest of the Northern Ireland IRA, on the republican side in the Irish Civil War (1922–23). Men from the area also took part in IRA campaigns in the 1940 and 1950s.
At the beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubles in August 1969, rioters, led by IRA men, attacked the RUC barracks in Crossmaglen, in retaliation for the attacks on Catholic/nationalist areas in Belfast in the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969. After the split in the IRA in that year, the South Armagh unit sided with the Provisional IRA rather than the Official IRA. The following August, two RUC constables were killed by a car bomb in Crossmaglen. A week later, a British soldier was killed in a firefight along the border.
However, the IRA campaign in the area did not begin in earnest until 1971. On 7 August of that year, Harry Thornton, a 29 year-old sewage worker from South Armagh was shot and killed by the British Army while staying in a car outside Springfield road base in Belfast, he and his coworker Arthur Murphy having been mistaken for gunmen. Murphy was lightly wounded and arrested by the RUC. The incident caused outrage among South Armagh residents, provided the IRA with many new recruits and created a hostile climate where local people were prepared to tolerate the killing of security force members.
During the early 1970s, the brigade was mostly engaged in ambushes of British Army patrols. In one such ambush in August 1972, a Ferret armoured car was destroyed by a 600 lb landmine, killing one soldier. There were also frequent gun attacks on foot patrols. Travelling overland in South Armagh eventually became so dangerous that the British Army began using helicopters to transport troops and supply its bases - a practice that had to be continued until the late 1990s. According to author Toby Harnden, the decision was taken shortly after a Saracen armoured vehicle was destroyed by a culvert bomb near Crossmaglen, on 9 October 1975. Subsequently, the British Army gave up the use of roads to the IRA in South Armagh. IRA volunteer Éamon McGuire, a former Aer Lingus senior engineer, and his team claim that they were responsible for getting the British Army "off the ground and into the air" in South Armagh. He was identified as the IRA's chief technical officer by the Central Intelligence Agency. Another noted IRA commander at that time was the commanding officer of the first battalion, Captain Michael McVerry. He was eventually killed during an attack on the RUC barracks in Keady in November 1973. Around this time IRA engineers in South Armagh pioneered the use of home-made mortars which were relatively inaccurate but highly destructive.
In 1975 and 1976, as sectarian violence increased in Northern Ireland, the South Armagh Republican Action Force, allegedly a cover-name for the South Armagh Brigade, carried out two attacks against Protestants. In September 1975 they attacked an Orange lodge in Newtownhamilton, killing five members of the lodge. Then, in January 1976, after a series of loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) attacks on Catholic civilians in the border areas (including the Reavey and O'Dowd killings the previous day), the group shot and killed ten Protestant workmen in the "Kingsmill massacre" near Bessbrook. The workers' bus was stopped and the one Catholic worker taken aside before the others were killed. In response, the British government stated that it was dispatching the Special Air Service (SAS) to South Armagh, although the SAS had been present in the area for many years. While loyalist attacks on Catholics declined afterwards and many Protestants became more reluctant to help the UVF, the massacre caused considerable controversy in the republican movement.
By the end of the 1970s, the IRA in most of Northern Ireland had been restructured into a cell system. South Armagh, however, where the close rural community and family connections of IRA men diminished the risk of infiltration, retained its larger "battalion" structure. On 17 February 1978 the commander of the 2nd Battalion Royal Green Jackets, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Corden-Lloyd, was killed and two other soldiers injured when the Gazelle helicopter he was travelling in was attacked by an IRA unit near Jonesborough. At that moment, a gun battle was taking place on the ground between British soldiers and members of the South Armagh Brigade. The helicopter crashed while taking evasive manoeuvres after being fired at from the east side of Edenappa road. Corden-Lloyd's subordinates had been accused of brutality against Catholic civilians in Belfast in 1971. In August 1979, a South Armagh unit killed 18 soldiers in the Warrenpoint ambush. This was the biggest single loss of life inflicted on the British Army in its deployment in Northern Ireland (Operation Banner).
A number of South Armagh IRA members were imprisoned by the end of the 1970s and took part in the blanket protest and dirty protest in pursuit of political status for IRA prisoners. Raymond McCreesh, a South Armagh man, was among the ten republican hunger strikers who died for this goal in the 1981 hunger strike. The South Armagh Brigade retaliated for the deaths of the hunger strikers by killing five British soldiers with a mine that destroyed their armoured vehicle near Bessbrook.
In 1986, the British Army erected ten hilltop observation posts in South Armagh. These bases acted as information-gathering centres and also allowed the British Army to patrol South Armagh more securely. Between 1971 and the erection of the hilltop sites in the mid-1980s (the first in 1986), 84 members of the security forces were killed in the Crossmaglen and Forkhill areas by the IRA. After this, 24 security force personnel and Lord Justice Gibson and his wife were killed in the same areas, roughly a third of the previous yearly rate.
In March 1989, two senior RUC officers were killed in an ambush near Jonesborough. Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were returning from a meeting with the Garda Síochána in the Republic of Ireland, where they had been discussing a range of issues including ways of combating IRA attacks on the cross-border rail link, when they were ambushed. This incident was investigated by the Smithwick Tribunal into alleged collusion between the IRA and the Gardaí. As the divisional commander for South Armagh, Breen was the most senior policeman to have been killed during the Troubles.
South Armagh became the most heavily militarized area in Northern Ireland. In an area with a population of 23,000, the British Army stationed around 3,000 troops in support of the RUC to contain an unknown number of paramilitaries.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the IRA elsewhere in Northern Ireland found that nine out of ten planned operations failed to materialize. However, the South Armagh Brigade continued to carry out varied and high-profile attacks in the same period. By 1991, the RUC acknowledged that no mobile patrols had operated in South Armagh without Army support since 1975.
On 30 December 1990, Sinn Féin member and IRA volunteer, Fergal Caraher, was killed by Royal Marines near a checkpoint in Cullyhanna. His brother Michael Caraher, who was severely wounded in the shooting, later became the commander of one of the South Armagh sniper squads.
These squads were responsible for killing seven soldiers and two RUC members until the Caraher team was finally caught by the Special Air Service in April 1997. The South Armagh Brigade also built the bombs that were used to wreck economic targets in London during the 1990s, specially hitting the financial district. The truck bombs were sent to England by ferry. On 22 April 1993, the South Armagh IRA unit took control of the village of Cullaville near the border with the Republic, for two hours, making good use of dead ground. The fact that the IRA executed the action despite the presence of a British Army watchtower nearby, caused outrage among British and Irish parliamentary circles.
The South Armagh Brigade was by far the most effective IRA brigade in shooting down British helicopters during the conflict. They carried out 23 attacks on British Army helicopters during the Troubles, bringing four down on separate occasions: the Gazelle shot down in February 1978 near Jonesborough, a Lynx in June 1988, while in 1994 another Lynx and an RAF Puma were shot down in March and July respectively. The shooting down of the Lynx in 1994 during a mortar attack on Crossmaglen barracks is regarded by Toby Harnden as the most successful IRA operation against a helicopter in the course of the Troubles. A sustained machine gun attack against a helicopter was filmed by a Dublin television crew in March 1991 outside Crossmaglen Health Center. There was no reaction from British security although the RUC/Army base was just 50 yards away. The only successful IRA attack against an Army helicopter outside South Armagh was carried out by the East Tyrone Brigade near Clogher, County Tyrone, on 11 February 1990. By 1994, the safest way for the British army to travel across South Armagh and some areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh was on board troop-carrying Chinook helicopters.
Ceasefires and the peace process
The IRA ceasefire of 1994 was a blow to the South Armagh Brigade, in that it allowed the security forces to operate openly in the area without fear of attack and to build intelligence on IRA members. When the IRA resumed its campaign in 1996-97, the South Armagh IRA was less active than previously, although one of the sniper teams killed one soldier and seriously wounded an RUC constable. But the snipers also lost a number of their most skilled members, such as Mícheál Caraher, who were arrested and imprisoned just weeks before the second ceasefire. The capture of the sniper team was the single major success for the security forces in South Armagh in more than a decade, and was arguably among the most important of the Troubles, but by then, the IRA and Sinn Féin had achieved huge political gains towards their long-term goals. The last major action of the brigade before the last IRA ceasefire was a mortar attack on Newtownhamilton RUC/Army barracks, on 12 July 1997. The single Mk-15 mortar bomb landed 40 yards short of the perimeter fence.
In 1997, several members of the South Armagh Brigade, based in Jonesborough and Dromintee, following Michael McKevitt, left the Provisional IRA because of its acceptance of the Mitchell Principles of non-violence at a General Army Convention in October of that year and formed a dissident grouping, the Real IRA, which rejected the peace process. Their discontent was deepened by Sinn Féin's signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Most of the South Armagh IRA stayed within the Provisional movement, but there were reports of them aiding the dissidents throughout 1998. The Omagh bombing of August 1998, a botched Real IRA operation which killed 29 civilians, was prepared by dissident republicans in South Armagh. Thomas Murphy and the leadership of the IRA in the area have allegedly since re-asserted their control, expelling dissidents from the district under threat of death. Michael McKevitt and his wife Bernadette were evicted from their home near Dundalk. IRA members in South Armagh ceased cooperating with the RIRA after the Omagh bombing.
After the Provisional IRA announced its intention to disarm and accept peaceful methods in July 2005, the British government announced a full demilitarisation plan which included the closing of all British Army bases in South Armagh by 2007. The normalisation process, negotiated under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in exchange for the complete decommissioning of IRA weaponry, was one of the main goals of the republican political strategy in the region.
Senior IRA figures in South Armagh, notably Thomas Murphy, are alleged to have been involved in large-scale smuggling across the Irish border and money-laundering. Other alleged illegal activities involve fraud through embezzlement of agricultural subsidies and false claims of property loss. In 2006, the British and Irish authorities mounted joint operations to clamp down on smuggling in the area and to seize Thomas Murphy's assets. On 22 June 1998 a deadly incident involving fuel smuggling took place near Crossmaglen, when former Thomas Murphy employee Patrick Belton ran over and killed a British soldier attempting to stop him while driving his oil tanker through a military checkpoint. Belton was shot and injured by other members of the patrol, but managed to flee to the Republic. He was later acquitted of any charges, but he eventually agreed in 2006 to pay €500,000 for cross-border smuggling. Some sources claim that the smuggling activities not only made the South Armagh brigade self-sustained, but also provided financial support to most of the IRA operations around Northern Ireland. The IRA control over the roads across the border in South Armagh enabled them to impose 'taxes' on every cross-border illegal enterprise.
South Armagh Memorial Garden
A memorial garden was unveiled on 3 October 2010 in the village of Mullaghbawn, near Slieve Gullion mountain, with the names of 24 members of the South Armagh Brigade who died from different causes over the years inscripted upon a marble monument, along a bronze statue of Irish mythological hero Cú Chulainn. Martin McGuinness, then deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, gave the main oration, while Conor Murphy, then Minister for Regional Development, introduced the families of the dead IRA members. The unveiling involved a large republican parade which failed to comply with the procedures of the Parades Commission. A Police Service of Northern Ireland spokesman confirmed that an investigation was underway, but also stated that both Sinn Féin Ministers and everyone attending the parade were unaware that “the proper paperwork hadn’t been submitted”.
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