Current Affairs History Irish Republican Military

Who Won The Irish-British Troubles?

“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 1974 the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees MP, borrowed a phrase from the lexicon of the American Wild West to describe a strip of rolling fields and woods running along the southern border of County Armagh, which he labelled “bandit country“. The description reflected the British view of the locality, where most ordinary people opposed Britain’s continued presence in the north-east of the island 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 description of the area as “liberated“. However to many observers the very fact that a government minister found it necessary to engage in a war of words over the status of “South Armagh” underlined the weakness of London’s counterinsurgency strategy in the legacy colony across the Irish Sea.

Over the following decade the British Forces deployed along the southern edge of County Armagh found it safer to retreat into a number of fortress-like outposts or hill-top watchtowers dotted around the countryside than to be garrisoned among the native population. This withdrawal of authority 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 where the IRA could operate with relative freedom. For all intents and purposes the ground war in the region was over by the end of 1979.

While several factors contributed to the United Kingdom’s hands-off approach in South Armagh, the determination to pursue a strategy of “Ulsterisation” was undoubtedly the most important. 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 this case, it 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 from early on in the Troubles it had all but abandoned the fight.

Human Shields for Soldiers

In truth, the exaggerated dangers of the “Bandit Country” became a form of self-defeating propaganda for the casualty-adverse United Kingdom. Aside from occasional foot patrols, British movement in and out of the locality was mainly by helicopter. This made the 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 was a reluctance by soldiers to venture forth from their secure quarters except in strength.

And with good reason.

By the late 1980s and ’90s the Irish Republican Army was deploying a wide range of conventional and improvised weapons against vehicle or foot movement by the British forces in the 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. 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.

Civilian homes provide human shields for the British soldiers confined to the fortified UK military outpost in Crossmaglen, Occupied North of Ireland
Civilian homes provide human shields for the British soldiers confined to the fortified UK military outpost in Crossmaglen, Occupied North of Ireland, 1990s

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 existence of an emerging military stalemate in Ireland the armed forces 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 Active Service Units of the South Armagh Brigade, containing some thirty 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 sight the IRA units remained concealed, the Puma coming in high before diving down 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. Around 14.00, as the laden Puma lifted into the air, the three gun platforms opened fire, the aircraft 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 targets, designated by the British as Lynx 1 and 2. The nearest helicopter swerved away from its position, zooming low 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.

A British RAF Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma helicopter lands at a fortified UK base in the Occupied North of Ireland
A British RAF Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma helicopter lands at a fortified UK base in the Occupied North of Ireland, 1990s

However, unknown to the South Armagh Brigade a series of previous incidents had caused the British to change their operational procedures, adding a further two escort helicopters to 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 when one of the HMGs jammed an order was given by radio for the IRA to withdraw from the area, two trucks and a car taking a fast escape route east along the Newry Road towards a predetermined “dispersal point”.

All four enemy aircraft, soon rejoined by the Puma, followed 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 chase. 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 impotent choppers buzzed 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 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 attack some of the same units of the South Armagh Brigade would go on to bring down two military helicopters in further operations.

Volunteers of the South Fermanagh Brigade, Irish Republican Army, man American-supplied M2 Browning .50 Calibre heavy machine guns on the rear of an improvised fighting vehicle, February 1977
Volunteers of the South Fermanagh Brigade, Irish Republican Army, man American-supplied M2 Browning .50 Calibre heavy machine guns on the rear of an improvised fighting vehicle, February 1977. Even in the earliest period of the Long War the IRA was capable of utilising lightly armoured vehicles or in its own terminology, mobile gun platforms
Three volunteers of the South Fermanagh Brigade, Irish Republican Army, stand in the back of an improvised armoured truck with American-supplied M2 Browning .50 Calibre heavy machine guns, February 1977
Three volunteers of the South Fermanagh Brigade, Irish Republican Army, stand in the back of an improvised armoured truck with American-supplied M2 Browning .50 Calibre heavy machine guns, February 1977

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.”

23 comments on “Who Won The Irish-British Troubles?

  1. Graham Ennis

    Please, please, can people stop referring to events in Irish history as “Troubles”. They were not. They were WARS. Awful wars, of guerrillas and urban terrorism, fought against a massive enemy who used every evil trick in the book. When you consider that during the recent Northern Irish war, about 30,000 political prisoners made their way through the jails, via capture, torture, hunger strikes, and death. It devalues what happened, when it is downgraded to “Troubles”. It was a WAR. Even at the end, after negotiations in bad faith, and the hard peace bargain that was struck, eventually the UK government had to sign. it was then President Clinton, who pressured the UK regime, and did the main heavy lifting. The Republican leaders did not have to sign. They could have carried on. But the political reality is that prison is a great University for political education. The analysis of the situation, was that more could be gained, by the peace process, than by continued conflict. This has proved to be true. It was the UK Government that was uncompromising, mean spirited, and intent on sabotaging the peace process. There was, I seem to remember, no Republican “Surrender”, or giving in. Or is someone rewriting Irish history.? The sheer sourness and delusional writings of the UK right on what really happened, do not bear any scrutiny. The reality, now, is that reunification is inevitable. The sour realization of the Loyalists, that this is so, would be amusing to watch, if what has been gained so far, was not done with the terrible sacrifices that were made. But please, no more “Troubles”.


    • The headline is a bit of SEO jiggery-pokery on my part. Internet users searching “who won the Troubles” are more likely to stumble upon this post, and this answer to the question. A bit of counter-consensus opinion, framed in the right way to get the maximum exposure. Normally, as you know, I avoid that misleading euphemism. You are absolutely right why everyone should do so.


  2. ‘The reality, now, is that reunification is inevitable.’

    So inevitable that not even the majority of Catholics in the north are in favor or a UI…. Unionists were gutted when they saw republicans getting early release etc However, as times passes those wounds heal and reality sets in. ROI have no constitutional claim and the future of NI is based on the consent of it’s population. Unionism and the British government lost a few strategic battles but they clearly won the war.


    • Most people in the south don’t want reunification either. Only 30% are in favour if that means that they have to pay more tax. And tax increases are inevitable in that case – the Germans are still paying their solidarity tax 26 years after the reunification. Ireland will be no different.


      • ‘Most people in the south don’t want reunification either’
        Have you any evidence for that sweeping statement?
        Btw most people were not fussed about the same sex marriage debate but once the state and media engaged in it then it became a talking point. Just because folk arnt talking about it doesn’t mean that they won’t do the right thing once it is eventually put to them.


        • TurboFurbo

          You are absolutely correct – a ReUnited Ireland is inevitable and the vast majority of people in this part of the country overwhelmingly support ReUnifciation.

          As usual, Janazi is venting his bile – he hasn’t a clue.
          A very bitter individual who loathes Ireland.


          • Ah now, enough of the “Janazi” stuff, please. Being a devil’s advocate is no bad thing and ASF shouldn’t be an echo chamber of a certain type of republican thought. Jānis’ challenges to my thinking, or to those of a similar mind, is a good thing if it makes us think better 😉


          • Hi TurboFurbo,

            How do you like throwing the Irish language and culture away?


        • Yeah – as I said – “Only 30% are in favour if that means that THEY’D HAVE TO PAY MORE TAX.” Some people should read everything carefully before screaming “NAZI!”.

          That last part is important, because the rest of Ireland will have to pay NI those 10 billions per year that the rest of the UK is paying them now. And as I mentioned – Germany raised taxes after the reunification and are still paying them.


          • Graham Ennis

            Janis, learn some economics. The 10 billion that the North costs the Brits, is due to it being an un-viable isolated entity, separated from the rest of the UK. The EU mitigated this, but come BREXIT, it will slump back into poverty. Your curious obsession with money, and taxes, instead of principles, does you no honour. None at all. I wonder what the dead of 1916 would have said, if you had told them that they should not do it, “As you would have to pay higher taxes”. Are you actually concious of the fact there are other issues in life, like not living under an oppressive foreign occupation?….I think not.


          • Don’ t shoot the messenger Graham.

            I’m referring to this survey:
   Page 410:
            Base : All ROI Respondents
            Q.9 Would you be in favour or against a united Ireland if it meant …
            You would have to pay more tax
            31% – in favour
            44% – against
            25% – don’t know

            It’s not me – as you can see – most people do want a united Ireland – they just don’t want to pay for it. Taxes are more important to them than “liberating” people in the oh so “oppressed” north.


          • Yip that proves it lol. Stephen ‘our wee country’ Nolan and her royal wannabe highness miriam O’Callaghan have conducted an impartial survey! Jesus wept. Some people will believe anything they are told……they are to be pitied rather than scorned.


    • As I always say, let’s put it to the test. The British SOS runs scared from the referendum, as do most unionists politicos. It is not as clear-cut as people think, or unionist and partitionists hope.


  3. Graham Ennis

    Reunification does not depend on the voters, North or South. It depends on UK and Euro-politics, and other events. If the EU Commission decides that detaching the North and arranging reunification is a good thing, it will happen. Also, if there is a BREXIT, then that means a “hard” border again, militarised and security surveilled, as it will become an EU frontier. The Northerners will then be living in a ghetto, and one where the 70% of its trade with the South is sealed off behind a customs wall with 20% surcharges. We will see how they like that. It will cost them a damn sight more, at that point, to stay seperate, and even the majority of domestic Irish, , North and South, who long ago became selfish and self interested and without some basic principles, will feel the pain of not then having any. It will literally cost them a great deal. if the North then becomes even a bigger impoverished dump then it was in the Sixties, I shall have no sympathies for them, For they will deserve none.


    • Also, if there is a BREXIT, then that means a “hard” border again, militarised and security surveilled, as it will become an EU frontier.
      Not necessarily. If the Common Travel Area remains in place it will be no different to Norway-Sweden or Italy-Switzerland borders. The UK also would most likely get a similar agreement to the EEA or Switzerland-EU so there might not be a customs wall either.


  4. ar an sliabh

    We just had a Commonwealth Soldier (and an old one at that) enforce British law against an Irish protester in the 26 counties during a ceremony to honor and remember British soldiers who murdered our children in 1916. I guess the answer is clear who won that war and all the others before so far.


  5. Nobody won the “war” that lasted from 1970 until 1996, in the sense that over 3,000 people were killed and many more injured for absolutely no good reason at all, it was an exercise in futility, the triumph of dogma over common sense. In a narrower Republican sense, there is no doubt that they lost the “war,” as they failed completely to achieve what they were fighting for, i.e. British withdrawal and the establishment of an all-Ireland Socialist Republic, they now power share with Unionists in an Executive-Assembly, firmly within the U.K..
    I put the term war deliberately in inverted commas, as what I lived through between the above dates, from my teens though to my early forties was certainly not a war, it was a period of sporadic violence, largely confined to specific locations, which barely impinged on my life, or the lives of many others, aside from the minor inconvenience of being unable to park in “control zones” in the centre of towns, or the very occasional traffic delay caused by bomb scares, when I started my first job in Belfast.


    • How did World War Two impinge on the “citizens” of the Wee 6 between 1933 and 1945?
      Oh, I am aware that the Luffwaffe bombed Belfast etc. But that was a “minor Inconvenience ” compared to Coventry or that hardly counts eh?
      Do you then deny that WW2 was not a war because the people weren’t affected by it?
      It’s a rubbish criteria to judge a war.
      Including Military and civilan casualties the Brits lost about 500,000 people. The Chinese and Soviets lost 20 million people
      Can i say that Russia Ukraine Poland was at war because they lost 40x times the numbers of people than Britain.. And that Britain had little impact.
      Pfffttt… The Unionist mind is a thing of beauty to behold.


  6. Graham Ennis

    Ginger, I am interested in your “War between 1970 and 1996”. I was in Belfast in 1968, and it was distinctly unpeaceful. The local people were being very inconsiderate to motorists, especially Unionist ones. Not only were there severe parking restrictions, but parked cars were being set alight, even, especially ones emblazoned “RUC”. This disgraceful behavior to a certain class of motorist, was, of course, not a “War”. It must have been a traffic dispute. The loud bangs in the far distance, must have been fireworks. (no doubt set off by a dangerous non-unionist “Anti-Motorist Faction”. ) We all know, of course, that the “Anti-Motorist-faction” then became the even more dangerous “Provisional Anti-Moterist Faction”. What a dreadful business. But you know better. Apparently, between 1968 and 1970, the entire World media was there, reporting every day on the World’s biggest Motoring and parking dispute, which had become very nasty and violent. I feel sorry for you, and the anguish, the inconvenience, this must have caused you. How dare they interfere with your Motoring.


  7. I said it was violence limited to specific locations, was sporadic and didn’t affect most of the population, I’m sorry that conflicts with your notion that everybody, everywhere in N.I. existed in a state of “war” between 1970 and 1996. They didn’t, and that was as true for my Catholic neighbours as it was for me. What W.W.2. has got to do with this, I have no idea.


  8. Seán McGouran

    Nobody anywhere in Ireland, least of all Republicans, want to humiliate the Unionists. They still constitute about a fifth of the population if the island. As for those billions the London government, in the goodness of its heart lavish on NI, a substantial part goes to ‘security’. The security problem wouldn’t have arisen of the said government had taken its duties by all of its – tax-paying – citizens seriously. London allowed the Ulster Unionists (yes, those nice ‘moderates’) to run their wee Orange Bantustan like, well… a Bantustan.
    Or a particularly backward bit of the USA’s old Southland.


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