“It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.” Irish Republican motto*
Welcome to Free Armagh
In November of 1974 the United Kingdom’s then Secretary of State for “Northern Ireland“, Merlyn Rees MP, borrowed a Wild West phrase to describe a strip of rolling fields and woods running along the southern border of County Armagh, which he deemed to be “bandit country“. This pejorative reflected the British view of the area, where most people opposed the UK’s continued colonial presence on the island of Ireland, and where the nascent guerrilla resistance of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army was at its strongest. The term was taken up with glee by the press in Britain, in direct response to the IRA’s labelling of the locality as “liberated“. However the very fact that a government minister found it necessary to engage in a war of words over the status of “South Armagh” with the UK’s insurgent enemy illustrated in many ways the fundamental weaknesses of London’s counter-insurgency strategy in the 1970s. Over the next decade the guerrillas would gradually force the British military and paramilitary forces in the region to withdraw to a number of fortress-like outposts or hill-top watchtowers dotted around the countryside.
This retreat created a zone of farms, villages, roads and tracks roughly thirty kilometres long and fifteen kilometres wide immediately to the north of the “frontier” with the rest of Ireland. It gifted the Republican Army a “safe haven” where it could train and operate with relative ease. Yet, despite its acknowledged importance to the insurgency, for the next thirty years Britain would make no concerted effort to reassert its control over “Free Armagh“. Effectively the ground war in the region was over by the beginning of 1980 as the military took on a passive rather than an active role.
While several factors contributed to the United Kingdom’s standoff policy in the area, the government’s determination to pursue a strategy of “Ulsterisation” undoubtedly played a major part in this. Adopted in 1975, and inspired by the United States’ “Vietnamization” programme of the late ’60s, this plan placed the emphasis for war-fighting on local forces. In the UK’s case this required the pro-British unionist community to take the brunt of the battle – and the fatalities – while Britain’s armed forces assumed a supporting role. In south Armagh, however, the only organisation which could realistically contest the supremacy of the IRA was the regular British Army, and by the early 1980s it had all but abandoned the fight.
Human Shields for Soldiers
In truth, the exaggerated dangers of the Armagh “Bandit Country” had become a form of self-defeating propaganda for the casualty-adverse United Kingdom. Aside from occasional foot patrols, British movement in and out of the southern county was mainly by helicopter. This made the local army heliport at the Bessbrook Mill one of the busiest in the world. For observation duties a policy of constructing outposts in dense civilian housing, using the local population as “human shields“, was adopted by the military planners and engineers. This greatly reduced the number of combat casualties, reflected in the far lower percentage of fatalities suffered by the UK forces from 1977 onward. However the flip-side to this success, in the border counties at least, was a reluctance by soldiers to venture forth from their relatively safe quarters except in strength. And with good reason.
By the late 1980s and ’90s the Irish Republican Army was deploying a wide range of effective conventional and improvised weapons against vehicle or foot movement by the British forces in the border counties of Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh. These munitions ranged from landmines to horizontal-launch rockets, heavy machine guns to high calibre rifles. Indeed, the fear of snipers was so demoralising for soldiers stationed in these areas that they frequently ignored reports of suspected operations by the IRA, believing them to be traps, even when in eye-shot. In one well-known example at a permanent vehicle checkpoint (PVC), the troops falsified the number of car inspections each day rather than leave the security of their blast-proof bunkers. In another, an irate officer threatened to bring his soldiers up on court-martial charges for “mutiny” when they refused to go out on a night patrol.
The No-Go Zones
However, what began in south Armagh did not stay in south Armagh. By the late 1980s politicians from the UUP and DUP, the main pro-British or unionist parties in the contested region, were complaining that the UK forces had accepted the establishment of several “bandit countries” in the Six Counties. It was claimed that these ran from Newry in the south-east to Derry in the north-west, and represented places where the army and police rarely ventured forth except in great numbers. In April of 1987 the then Secretary of State, Tom King MP, was forced to deny the existence of “no-go areas” along the border following the assassination of Sir Maurice Gibson, the “Lord Justice of Appeal in Northern Ireland”. Accompanied to the boundary line at Drumad, County Louth, by a vehicle containing armed Gardaí, Gibson and his wife had been due to meet a new set of guards, paramilitary police officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), at the heavily fortified British Army outpost at Killeen, County Armagh, several hundred metres north of the border. Approximately two minutes into their short car journey along the main Dublin-to-Belfast road Gibson’s vehicle was engulfed in flames when a massive bomb operated by radio control detonated beside the route. The couple were killed instantly, their vehicle torn apart by the force of the blast.
Tom King desperately attempted to clarify the security position in Britain’s House of Commons later the same day:
“…about no no-man’s-land. There is no no-man’s-land – that ground is patrolled by the Army – but it is true that the security forces vehicle checkpoint is some distance back from the border because of the problems that have been experienced.”
Unionists and many Conservative Party politicians greeted this half-admission with derision. Some weeks after the Gibson killings a nervous-looking King, surrounded by hundreds of troops and armed police, arrived by helicopter to visit the frontier to proclaim Britain’s continued authority to a gaggle of bemused reporters. In the words of the Reverend William McCrea of the DUP, a few weeks later:
“I …resent the fact that the Secretary of State should make a trip along the border surrounded by great numbers of security guards and the Army and then stand before a television camera and say, “This is to prove that this is not a no-go area.” How ridiculous can one get? The only time members of the security forces can enter many areas of the Province is when they are speeding through in armoured cars. That is disgraceful, but it is factual.
If Honourable Members do not believe that, I gladly invite them to come to my constituency and see the parts where there are no checkpoints and where members of the security forces are not permitted to patrol the roads—where, indeed, they cannot because of the continuing spiral of IRA violence threatening their safety.”
The perennially besieged King found himself facing the parliament again in March of 1988, still declining to admit the existence of “no-go areas”, in relation to another IRA attack:
“In my statement I made clear the position about the road. It is not a no-go area. There are no no-go areas in Northern Ireland. There is a difference between routes that soldiers or security forces use when on operational duty, and those that they use when they are not on operational duty.
I assure my Right Honourable Friend that there are no no-go areas. The writ runs throughout Northern Ireland, as it does throughout the United Kingdom, but I draw the distinction, which Right and Right Honourable Members will recognise, between routes where there are no no-go areas and routes that are more sensible, or less sensible, to use when not on operational duty.”
That was in reply to those raising concerns about the assassination of Superintendent Bob Buchanan and Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, two senior officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary killed in an ambush at Jonesborough by an Active Service Unit (ASU) of the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. The Reverend Ian Paisley of the DUP, in typically caustic form, later characterised such places as “no-go” for the British Army and “all-go” for the IRA. Over the following months King’s timid obfuscation was to be parsed again and again by UK ministers and officials when unionist politicians claimed that the Republican Army had established a veritable cordon sanitaire along the border. Indeed some local MPs claimed that the zone, up to several kilometres thick in places, was visible on a number of secret operational maps used by the “security forces”.
While the government in Britain may have been determined to deny the reality of a “slow defeat” in Ireland the military were far more honest. On the 11th of January 1992 the normally hawkish Times newspaper published a leaked presentation from a “senior British Army officer”, widely understood to be General Sir John Wilsey, the General Officer Commanding the British Army in Northern Ireland, giving a “depressingly realistic assessment” of the Irish Republican Army:
“[The IRA is] …better equipped, better resourced, better led, bolder and more secure against our penetration than at any time before. They are an absolutely formidable enemy. The essential attributes of their leaders are better than ever before. Some of their operations are brilliant…”
Helicopter Gunships versus Mobile Gun Platforms
One of the more telling examples of the IRA’s operational brilliance during this period was the so-called “Battle of the Newry Road” which took place on Thursday the 23rd of September, 1993. The contest began around 13.00, when five Active Service Units of the South Armagh Brigade, some forty volunteers, moved into several firing positions around a British Army base in the nationalist village of Crossmaglen. Two DShKM 12.7 mm heavy machine guns (HMGs) for long range fire and several FN MAG 7.62 mm general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs) for medium range exchanges were mounted on a pair of flatbed trucks, classed by the IRA as “mobile gun platforms”, and covered with tarpaulins. These were crewed and protected by volunteers carrying AKM assault rifles and RPG7 rocket launchers, one of the vehicles taking cover in a nearby wood.
A third improvised fighting vehicle, a Toyota 4×4 pickup mounted with a single GPMG, was placed off to one flank. The planned targets of the operation were a large Puma transport helicopter, flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF), which was due to pick up soldiers from the installation’s exposed helipad, and its escort of two Lynx helicopter gunships from the Army Air Corps. All of these aircraft carried door-mounted 7.62-mm GPMGs.
When the three helicopters flew into view the IRA units didn’t react, remaining concealed as the Puma came in high before diving low to land inside the base. The volunteers watched while troops ran from the shelter of their bunkers, instinctively ducking under the whirring blades, while the Lynxes circled above, watching the ground for unusual activity. Around 14.00, as the laden Puma lifted into the air, the three gun platforms opened fire, the machine taking several hits from one of the DShKMs as it climbed all but vertically into the sky, the rapid angle of ascent and the thumps of incoming rounds terrifying the passengers. Meanwhile the second DShKM and the GPMGs opened fire on the smaller aircraft, designated by the British as Lynx 1 and 2. The nearest helicopter swerved away from its position, zooming down over the rooftops of the town as tracer rounds filled the sky. Unfortunately this manoeuvre brought it within range of the machine gun mounted on the back of the Toyota jeep which raked the chopper with bullets.
However, unknown to the South Armagh Brigade a series of previous attacks on military aircraft had caused the British to change their operational procedures, adding a further two escort helicopters to aerial convoys working along the border. These choppers, Lynx 5 and 7, were “standing off” just out of sight and now swooped in to the battle. This led to several minutes of intense gunfire, the three mobile platforms blazing into the sky while the four gunships circled overhead tearing apart trees and vegetation with return fire. Eventually an order was given by radio for the IRA to withdraw from the area when one of the HMGs jammed, two trucks and a car taking a fast escape route east along the Newry Road towards a predetermined “dispersal point”.
All four aircraft, soon rejoined by the Puma, followed close behind the convoy of armed vehicles in a twenty kilometre running battle, the gunships peppering houses and farm buildings with bullets as they fired at anything which moved, including civilian onlookers and traffic. When one of the Lynxes strayed too close to the ASUs’ return fire it sustained light damage and was forced to peel off from the attack. Meanwhile one of the trucks in the group turned into a farmyard where the rear gunners could aim targeted shots at the pursuing choppers, which retreated from the vicinity. When ground reinforcements were landed near the location some fifteen minutes later both the mobile gun platform and the volunteers were gone.
Though the escape car had disappeared during the course of the engagement, the second lorry was followed by the pursuing helicopters to the main street of a local village, where it screeched to a halt. A number of volunteers transferred the heavy weapons from the truck to a waiting van, before speeding away, while the choppers circled overhead. At this point Lynx 1, which had picked up a platoon of eight soldiers from the Crossmaglen fort, interdicted the vehicle, landing in front of it in a blaze of bullets. With their way blocked, the three occupants abandoned their vehicle and retreated to a nearby house where they commandeered a car to make good their withdrawal. The soldiers, though they took up firing positions, declined to press their attack, preferring to wait for reinforcements.
After thirty minutes of moving gunfights along the roads and villages of County Armagh the battle was over. The Irish Republican Army had lost one mobile gun platform, a transport van, one heavy machine gun, two general purpose machine guns and an assault rifle, and over a thousand rounds of ammunition expended. The British suffered three helicopters damaged by gunfire, several hundred bullets spent, and a very public humiliation in the eyes of the local population and the press. To make worse within twelve months of the incident some of the same units of the South Armagh Brigade would go on to bring down two military helicopters in a number of further operations.
Military Stalemate versus the Myth of Defeat
All of the above history should be borne in mind when observing the desperate attempts by some British nationalists, whether in politics, journalism or academia, to rewrite the record of the 1966-2005 “Long War”. One suspects that the recent mantra-like words of conservative columnist, Alex Massie, in the right-wing Spectator magazine, are more for his own eyes than for anyone else’s:
“…the truth is that the IRA lost. It was the IRA who were brought to the negotiating table, not the British government. It was the IRA who were defeated, not the British government. It was the IRA who discovered that the price of continuing the armed struggle could no longer be sustained. It was the IRA who were forced to capitulate, compelled to abandon their past positions and accept terms laid down by their opponents.”
Only the most wilful, self-deluding ignorance could lead one to make such a dangerous argument. When it comes to Irish history, as with the Irish-British peace process, it is “Massie and those of a like persuasion who still have some ground to make up“. Ground that Britain’s armed forces left behind decades ago.
*Note: The slogan comes from two sources. The first is a speech made by Terence James McSwiney following his successful election as the Lord Mayor of Cork on the 31st of March 1920 (his friend and mayoral predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain, was assassinated on the 20th of March by a British military death squad). At the time of the election he was also the officer commanding the No. 2 Cork Brigade, Irish Republican Army, and the Sinn Féin TD for the constituency of Mid Cork. McSwiney later died in UK custody after seventy-four days on hunger-strike, his death on the 25th of October 1920 generating world-wide sympathy for the Irish revolutionary cause.
“…I wish to point out again the secret of our strength and the assurance of our final victory. This contest of ours is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance – it is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most will conquer…”
The second source dates from the 21st of December 1921 and a contribution to the debates held in Dáil Éireann on the controversial Irish-British Treaty signed some weeks earlier. The speaker was Mary McSwiney, the formidable older sister of Terence, a leader of the Cumann na mBan (a feminist and republican militant group) and the Sinn Féin TD for the constituency of Cork Borough. She herself survived two lengthy hunger strikes as well as periods of brutal imprisonment for her political beliefs.
“This is a spiritual fight of ours… It is those who stand for the spiritual and the ideal that stand true and unflinching, and it is those who will win—not those who can inflict most but those who can endure most will conquer.”