This website is a forum for political debate and the exchange of ideas. Unless indicated, the opinions expressed in any article, commentary, argument or review is solely that of the author and not necessarily that of the publisher.

 Home Page Reviews Ulster comment  Archives  International issues   Links   Conversation with Rabbi Schiller  FAQs   Open Forum  For Sale  Obituaries   Culture and Identity

Bandit Country: the IRA and South Armaghbandit country.jpg (20063 bytes) Amazon Co UK

Toby Harnden.  Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2000. ISBN 0 340 71737 8. £6.99

THROUGHOUT the recent armed conflict, the South Armagh area had been the one sure stronghold of the Provisional IRA. South Armagh has always been a law unto itself. “Proximity to the border, the absence of a Protestant community, the undulating terrain and the powerful sense of rebellion throughout history have all combined to make South Armagh the ideal operating ground for the IRA.” 

Here the Provos enjoyed a large degree of popular support from a largely sympathetic local population. Many of the IRA’s ‘spectaculars’ have been planned here. The massive bombs at the Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate in London, which finally persuaded the British to seek a deal with the Provisionals, were carried out IRA volunteers from the area. Given its history, it is no surprise that South Armagh is fast becoming the main haven for the dissident ‘physical force’ republican factions.

This is a source of strength for such groups, as many of the key activists tend to come from a relatively small network of republican families. They know one-another intimately and have a high degree of trust between them. One example quoted is the Caraher family. Peter John was a veteran of the IRA’s border campaign of the late 1950s. He still speaks at republican rallies. One of his sons, Micheál, was the notorious ‘Sniper at Work’ in the 1990s. Fergal, another son, was a Sinn Féin -and suspected IRA – member who was shot dead in disputed circumstances at an army checkpoint by Royal Marines in 1990. A daughter, Maria, is an elected Sinn Féin representative.

Such a dynastic structure can, however, be a source of weakness. Commander John Grieve from Scotland Yard was able to focus in on such family networks to narrow down suspects for the London docklands bombing.

The first hardback edition of Bandit Country caused a stir in November 1999 when Harnden claimed that an IRA mole in the Garda Síochána supplied the information that lead to the deaths of two unarmed senior RUC officers. Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were responsible for cross-border co-operation with their Gardai opposite numbers in Dundalk. An IRA death squad ambushed Breen and Buchanan as they returned from a liaison meeting in Dundalk. The same mole gave information on the movements of Sir Maurice Gibson, a senior Ulster judge, and his wife Lady Gibson, as they travelled northwards from the Dun Laoghaire ferryport after a holiday in Devon. A massive landmine on the border road at Killeen destroyed the Gibsons’ car shortly after their gardai escort car turned back home. Toby Harnden claims that two moles, Garda X and Garda Y were responsible for the deaths of at least twelve people.

Harnden has interviewed quite a few current and former IRA activists as well as victims of IRA atrocities, former and serving RUC constables, Army officers and squaddies to put together this reasonably well-balanced account of South Armagh’s role in the troubles.

This well indexed book also has three interesting appendices. The first appendix lists all the victims and the circumstances of their deaths at the hands of the South Armagh PIRA during the past three decades. The second is an astoundingly naive guide to talking to people in South Armagh written by SAS Captain Robert Nairac, who was later killed by republicans. The third is the text of Francie Molloy’s notorious address to Cullyhanna republicans in which he declared that, ‘negotiations is simply another phase in that [republican] struggle’ and that if negotiations did not succeed, that ‘we simply go back to what we know best’.

Harnden is a journalist, not a historian, but he avoids the sensationalism that spoils the work of some of the journalists who write about the Ulster situation.

David Kerr


Home Page


Copyright © 1990 - 2007 Third Way Publications. All rights reserved.