IRA leaders' release alarmed Macmillan
By BERNARD PURCELL London Editor THE RELEASE of IRA internees from the Curragh in the 1950s was regarded with grave concern by then British...
THE RELEASE of IRA internees from the Curragh in the 1950s was regarded with grave concern by then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, newly released secret records reveal.
Newly declassified papers from the British War Office show that the British Government feared a huge upsurge in terrorist activity along the border following the release of key IRA men.
Correspondence between the War Office and the Special Branch highlighted the release of Tony McGann, former IRA chief-of-staff and Sean Cronin, a member of the IRA Army Council.
The documents reveal that the two men were reinstated to their senior positions within the organisation as were ``a number of other hardened extremists''.
The files include Security Service (MI5) reports that in 1959, following successful attacks in Northern Ireland, the IRA Army Council had sent Manus Canning to Germany and Austria to obtain arms and ammunition.
On August 26, 1959 an RUC patrol car was overturned by an explosion and the officers were fired on. This incident led to strong exchanges between Whitehall and the British Embassy in Dublin.
This incident was all the more disappointing, the files show, because it followed months of quiet in which the British had begun to hope the Irish Government had quelled the IRA once and for all.
The British Government had been strongly encouraged by Mr Lemass's declaration that it was the duty of the Irish Government to ``prevent the maintenance of an illegal army for any purpose.''
The papers noted also that IRA members and sympathisers were known to have joined the British armed forces in the late 1950s but were not dismissed to save ``embarrassment''.
Many republicans took advantage of the military training provided and gathered information about bases and guards before deserting and returning to Ireland to rejoin their comrades. One IRA member based as a soldier in England even took part in an attack on his own base after abandoning his regiment.
A paper from May, 1957 read: ``There are 14 known IRA members and active sympathisers employed in the military in Northern Ireland.
``The RUC advises the dismissal of these employees on the logical grounds that their presence in military units will make these units more vulnerable to IRA attacks.
``It has been decided that rather than stir up trouble through their dismissal, the risk caused by their presence has to be accepted.''
By October that year, action had been taken against 20 employed republicans, but it was decided others should be left alone.
The briefing read: ``It has been noticeable that there has been positive information that many deserters to Eire are members of the IRA.
``This gives strength to the belief that members of the IRA sometimes join the British Army to gain military training and to be in a position to give information about camps and guards with a view to further attacks.''
The archives also show the paranoia within security circles about the potential sympathies of Irish people serving in British forces and government.
When it was recommended the circulation of the top-secret monthly briefings be increased from 20 people to 150 - all of whom would still be very senior - the RUC warned against it.
A report explained: ``They (the RUC) are well aware that there are many Irishmen in the forces and other Government services.
``They accept as a matter of course the paradox that these people may serve the British Government well and loyally in all respects, except where the interests of Southern Ireland are concerned, if they happen to be Irish nationalists by inclination.''