News Analysis

Wednesday 1 October 2014

The IRA never really had need of its huge arsenal of weapons

Published 02/10/2005 | 00:11

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SENIOR security sources were satisfied last week that the IRA had, as it said and as had been observed by General de Chastelain and the two clergy men, decommissioned the bulk, if not all, of its "military" equipment. As the General said at his press conference at the start of last week the equipment he observed being decommissioned at a secret venue tallied with the estimate

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SENIOR security sources were satisfied last week that the IRA had, as it said and as had been observed by General de Chastelain and the two clergy men, decommissioned the bulk, if not all, of its "military" equipment. As the General said at his press conference at the start of last week the equipment he observed being decommissioned at a secret venue tallied with the estimate inventories of IRA arms supplied to him by both governments.

Those estimates are well known and consist, in the main, of arms imported into the Republic from Libya between 1985 and 1986 and from Norway in 1984. The Norwegian arms consisted of some 40 Heckler and Koch assault rifles stolen from an Army base.

The amount of arms and explosives that remained in the IRA armoury has been deduced by knowledge of exactly what came in from Libya and Norway minus what was subsequently used by the IRA or seized by police on either side of the Border.

Between August 1985 and September 1986 four shipments of arms were landed in the Republic under the noses of the Garda and Customs. Not an inkling had reached the authorities that the IRA had landed somewhere in the region of 114-130 tons of arms and had stashed them in underground bunkers.

The first shipment arrived on August 7, 1985 on board the Casamara a small cargo ship bought and skippered by the bankrupted director of Bray Travel, Adrian Hopkins. On board was around 10 tons of weapons including AK47 rifles, Brazilian-manufactured Tuarus automatic pistols and Bulgarian-manufactured RPG rockets.

The Casamara sailed back to Tunis this time under a new name, the Kula and returned on October 2 with between 10 and 14 tons of weapons. On board this time, along with more rifles and pistols, were the huge, Second World War heavy machine guns known as Dushkas which the IRA hoped to use against British Army helicopters in south Armagh.

The following April the Kula arrived back in Ireland with another shipment of between 14 and 20 tons of weapons including the SAM ground-to-air missile system which was meant to make the skies of Northern Ireland unusable by Army helicopters. (In the event the IRA was never able to master the SAM system. One missile was fired at a helicopter in Co Fermanagh and the crew reported a vapour trial but it exploded harmlessly and a piece of its fin was found in a field). The Kula's second run also brought the IRA the first shipment of a total of six tons of the explosive semtex, which was to revolutionise its terrorist campaign.

In September 1986 the biggest-ever shipment reached the IRA on board a new, larger 'Since September 11 . . . the IRA arsenal was a millstone around Sinn Fein's neck.'

ship, the Villa. There were between 80 and 90 tons of weapons on board including a further 10 SAMs, over 1,000 AK47s, medium machine guns, and more semtex.

Where all this weaponry was landed remains a mystery. It was claimed in statements made by Adrian Hopkins after his arrest that the material was brought ashore in small boats at Clogga Strand in Co Wicklow.

While the Gardai and Government remained oblivious to the smuggling of an arsenal that almost matched that of the Defence Forces, word began to emerge in mid-1986 about big shipments of arms reaching the IRA. Government sources and Sinn Fein dismissed claims at the time even after the gardai found rifles and boxes marked "property of the Libyan Army" in Co Roscommon that year.

There was a stunned reaction at Government level when a French Customs vessel intercepted a small freight ship, the Eksund, off Brest in October 1987. The Government dispatched the head of the Special Branch, Assistant Commissioner Eugene Crowley, who visited the French naval base where the weapons had been unloaded. He telephoned a senior official in the Department of Justice that night from the Ambassador's residence in Paris with the shocking news that the French had intercepted some 150 tons of weapons including 1,000 mortars, a million rounds of ammunition, 20 SAM missile systems, 430 grenades, 120 RPGs and another dozen of the heavy Dushka machine guns.

Even after this, Government and the gardai, it seemed, remained in denial. Senior government sources continued to discount claims that a huge arsenal had reached the IRA. It would not be until 1991 when Col Gaddafi began to resume relations with the West that the full extent of the IRA arsenal emerged. As part of his deal to break the trade embargos which were wrecking the Libyan economy Gaddafi supplied a full inventory of the weapons handed over to the IRA.

Ironically, by that stage clerical intermediaries acting on behalf of Gerry Adams had already initiated the process of secret talks - including meetings at the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey's home at Kinsealy. The IRA leadership under Adams and McGuinness had already dropped the idea of using the Libyan weapons to mount a Viet Cong-type offensive in the North against the security forces. They had opted, instead, for the "unarmed strategy" that subsequently emerged in the ceasefires and peace process. In fact, the bulk of the IRA arsenal lay untouched in the water-proofed underground bunkers where most of it had been deposited and was never used.

Only the semtex was to have a truly major impact. As one of the most easily usable and deadly explosives ever manufactured the IRA bomb- and mortar-makers incorporated it into their own deadly "improvised explosive devices" that have since become the benchmark for terrorist technology across the world.

Despite the amazing damage wrought in the City of London and at Canary Wharf between 1993 and 1996 the IRA was still estimated to have at least four tons of semtex left by the time the final ceasefire was called in July 1997. It is not clear how this has been disposed of as since its probable manufacture in the late Seventies or early Eighties it must have seriously deteriorated.

Senior security sources have confirmed that this arsenal, brought to Ireland on the Casamara and Villa between August 1985 and September 1986, constituted the bulk of the "catalogued" weapons seen being dismantled and rendered useless by Gen de Chastelain along with a few other bits and pieces. The "bits and pieces", however, are thought to involve a small number of powerful sniper rifles which the PSNI and British Army was particularly keen to see out of the way.

Despite the "momentous" and "historic" references to the decommissioning last week the fact is that the IRA had never really any need of the huge arsenal it acquired from Libya. It stood no chance of a full-frontal assault on the security forces in the North. By the time the equipment arrived the British Army and RUC had reached a level of proficiency in dealing with the IRA which meant an open IRA offensive would have been crushed with ease and heavy casualties on the IRA's side. The ageing Soviet-manufactured weapons were more a liability as shown on the small number of occasions they were used. The "Tet Offensive" which hardline IRA figures dreamed off in Northern Ireland was always a pipedream.

Since September 11, 2001 when the United States came under attack and the international war on terror began, the IRA arsenal was a millstone around Sinn Fein's neck. Post 9/11 the IRA would never be able to use its semtex again, let alone the Dushkas, SAMs and RPGs.

Even before 9/11 the IRA realised the only weapons it would need would be handguns and maybe sub-machine guns for conducting its criminal activities, for assassinating anyone who crossed it and for kneecapping Catholic teenagers. An unknown number of these handguns, believe to be at least 200, were sent through the post to safe houses in the Republic between 1998 and 1999. At his press conference last week Gen de Chastelain mentioned weapons before 1996 and it remains unclear whether or not the handguns that came in from the State are among those he witnessed being rendered out of commission.

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