Wednesday 29 January 2020

A legacy of terror persists beyond politics

IRA tactics have been copied all around the world, says Jim Cusack

Pall bearers carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Co Derry, Northern
Ireland, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Pall bearers carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Co Derry, Northern Ireland, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Jim Cusack

Martin McGuinness's career as the late 20th century's most inventive and influential terrorist leader will be studied in military colleges around the world long after his contribution to political life in Ireland is forgotten.

Under his direction, the Provisional IRA developed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been copied and used around the world, most significantly against the US and its allied forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Tactics adopted by the IRA under Mr McGuinness's leadership were originally dubbed 'low intensity warfare' by the British army and are now known as 'asymmetric warfare'. All major armies have adapted to dealing with threats based on the IRA's campaign.

The pressure plate detonator used by the Taliban is a copy of an IRA invention. Garda Michael Clerkin was one of the victims of this device when he was killed by an IRA IED in October 1976 in Co Laois.

The multiple mortar launcher used against the Colombian government by the Medellin Cartel, under its Farc guise, was sold directly to it by the IRA. Hezbollah in Lebanon shared a research and development unit with the IRA and this strange Shia-Catholic alliance perfected roadside bombs and horizontal mortars, copied from World War II Soviet and German devices.

The IRA achieved the biggest single blow against the British army since World War II at Warrenpoint in August 1979 when it killed 18 members of the parachute regiment, the same day Lord Louis Mountbatten, two teenage boys and the Dowager Brabourne were killed by another IRA bomb in Sligo. More British soldiers (503) were killed by the IRA than total British casualties in Afghanistan (454).

The biggest bombs to go off in Europe since World War II were detonated by the IRA in Northern Ireland, London and Manchester in the later stages of its campaign.

Intelligence service documentation, which currently remain secret, may some day reveal details of how the IRA consorted with America's terrorist enemies while simultaneously building a fundraising arm via Irish-American gangsters such as James 'Whitey' Bulger during the Ronald Reagan presidential era. Some former intelligence figures say Mr Reagan's secret security advisers negotiated a deal with the IRA, allowing them to raise money in the US in return for not attacking the US or its citizens.

Mr McGuinness also reputedly kept up contact with Britain's secret intelligence agency MI6 from the early 1970s onward, according to the former British army intelligence officer known as 'Martin Ingram'.

From being an apprentice butcher, Mr McGuinness rose rapidly up the ranks of the IRA after joining in the heat and violence of the 1969-1971 riots in Derry. By 1972, at the age of 21, he was officially titled 'second in command' of the Derry Brigade, one of the deadliest elements of the IRA in the first five years of the Troubles. He became a member of the Army Council in his 20s and held the title chief of staff for four years from 1978.

The provisionals' campaign reached its high point in 1981 during the Maze hunger strike when, under Mr McGuinness's direction, a massive mob was assembled in Dublin's Ballsbridge area to storm and burn the British Embassy. It was repelled by the literal thin line of gardaí under the direction of chief superintendent John Robinson. This assault on the Republic rebounded in the form of increasingly successful policing successes against the IRA by An Garda Síochána. The force lost 12 of its members murdered by the IRA or its affiliates.

Mr McGuinness's tactics made the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary adapt their 'counter terrorism' tactics and strategies and through the use of special branch agents, wear down and defeat the IRA. The RUC special branch infiltrated and virtually controlled the Derry IRA right up to Mr McGuinness's successor as '2IC' by the late 1970s.

The IRA's response was to avoid risky confrontations with the military and concentrate on the assassinations of off-duty mainly Protestant members of the security forces and civilians.

In Derry this led to the forced movement of Protestants from the west bank (Cityside) of Derry.

It is a mark of Mr McGuinness's subsequent conversion to politics that he is not dismissed as simply a terrorist by some of the same Protestant community in Derry that suffered at the hands of the IRA.

The Peace Process marked a capitulation for the IRA and its campaign to drive 'the British' out of Ireland but it was good for the leadership, and set Sinn Féin on its upward electoral trajectory.

If Mr McGuinness had led a Serbian militia which killed or forced into exile 83pc of his local Muslim population in former Yugoslavia, he would possibly have stood trial in the Hague for war crimes.

Instead, he became part of the process of winding down the IRA military campaign and the expansion of its political campaign for power in Ireland from 1997 onward.

This allowed it to devote its energies to full-time organised criminality as it kept tight control of the traditional poor nationalist areas of Northern Ireland and the Border counties of the Republic. In doing this he accepted the role as junior partner in the Stormont Assembly for Sinn Féin. His own localised political ambition to become MP for the Foyle constituency was stymied in election after election through the 1980s and 1990s as John Hume's SDLP held tenaciously onto the seat.

Mr McGuinness's personal political ambitions received a further setback in 2011 when Sinn Féin ran him as its candidate in the Republic's presidential election. His campaign came to a dead halt when he was confronted in front of news cameras by David Kelly, whose father Private Patrick Kelly was murdered alongside student Garda Gary Sheehan in Co Leitrim in December 1983. Sinn Féin could manage only third place in the election after the confrontation.

It was only in the event of his terminal illness and the snap election called on his resignation as deputy first minister that his party was, finally, able to eclipse the SDLP, surpassing its vote in Foyle for the first time - and also in the other remaining SDLP stronghold of South Down.

Mr McGuinness's legacy as a terrorist is marked by the global spread of the IRA handbook for death cults, currently in use by groups like Isil.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss