Friday 19 October 2018

Army on Armageddon alert

James Downey

James Downey

A MILITARY planning board studied the possibility of intervention in the North in October 1969, two months after the outbreak of the Troubles.

This is revealed in secret documents released for publication in the national archives at the end of 2000 under the 30-year rule.

These refer to two meetings of the Council of Defence, held on October 13 and October 15, 1969.

A separate document, handwritten and undated but seemingly written about the same time, describes a "war game" in the military college called 'Exercise Armageddon' to "study, plan for and rehearse in detail the intervention of the Defence Forces in Northern Ireland in order to secure the safety of the minority population."

The military planners warned of uncertainty in political direction, the wretchedly low state of preparedness, and the likelihood of retaliation.

One memorandum suggested that the British might move from Belleek, Co Fermanagh, to seize Ballyshannon, thus cutting off Donegal from the rest of the Republic.

They concluded that intervention would be "militarily unsound" and that "should the operation miscarry, the consequences would be very grave for the State and the people (northern nationalists) it is intended to assist."

The first document on the file, dated October 13 1969, is headed "recommendations of planning board". It lists a number of contingencies, including "supporting the minority in the North by training and by supply of arms and equipment."

On this it comments as follows:

1. The number ... who would be prepared to take an active part against the security forces in Northern Ireland is not known. It may be assumed however that the number is NOT great.

2. Training could be given by their enlistment in the ... FCA. Such training could be given on a full-time basis and for approximately a month to ensure a reasonable standard in elementary subjects. The method of recruiting would have to be studied and effected through Permanent Defence Forces personnel with border units, contact with nationalist leaders and personal contact.

3. Care would have to be exercised to ensure that training would not be given or weapons supplied to members of organisations whose motives would not be in the best interests of the State.

4. The great danger in this course would be the loss of control by the State over the activities of personnel.

Remarkably, the document goes on to say that "the morale of the troops is good". This contradicts the opinion expressed on numerous other occasions, and indeed contradicts a report in the same file. A document dated October 27 is headed "interim report of planning board on Northern Ireland operations".

It gives the object as "to report on the feasibility of the Defence Forces undertaking military combat or support operations in Northern Ireland, including the nature and implications of such operations". The board says that it "would have liked a clearly defined political objective".

In the absence of such an objective the board considered a number of political situations each of which might suggest military intervention. Having stated that "there is no precise knowledge available ... as to what the reaction of public opinion would be either North or South of the border," it considers four possible situations: "attacks on the Catholic minority by Protestant extremists with which the Northern Ireland security forces cannot cope; conflict between the Catholic minority and the Northern Ireland security forces on civil rights issues; conflict between republican-nationalist elements (possibly supported by illegal elements from south of the border) and the Northern Ireland security forces; and conflict between Protestant extremists and Northern Ireland security forces not directly involving the minority."

It asserts bluntly that "the Defence Forces have NO capability of embarking on unilateral military operations, of any kind (conventional or unconventional), from a firm base at home. This means, in effect, that were operations in any form to be launched into Northern Ireland we would be exposed to the threat of retaliatory punitive military action by United Kingdom forces on the Republic.

Therefore any operations undertaken against Northern Ireland would be militarily unsound.

The paper outlines a number of alternatives, such as "a wide range of unconventional operations in any part of Northern Ireland designed to draw forces off from the area of direct combat."

It goes on to note that "a number of the courses suggested would involve support of and co-operation with various movements in Northern Ireland such as civil rights and republican groups.

"This could also lead to co-operation with illegal groups in the Republic. These contacts would have serious political implications on the national and international stage.

It is considered that the support and assistance of a substantial part of the minority would be essential for success in Defence Force operations in Northern Ireland.

The fact that active intervention by us in the North would expose the minority to retaliatory action could limit the amount of overt assistance they would be prepared to give.

"It would be necessary to confine conventional operations to those areas where there is a Catholic/nationalist majority. In minority areas, particularly Belfast, only unconventional operations could be conducted.

"It is considered also that it is to these latter areas that supplies of arms and equipment should be chiefly directed."

The document, like subsequent papers, warns that involvement in Northern Ireland would lessen the Defence Forces' ability to protect vital installations in the Republic.

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