From Joy To Despair

From Mark Rainey @ The News Letter, an interview with Anthony McIntyre about Loughgall.

Loughgall: IRA inmates’ joy turned to despair as news of SAS ambush reached Maze prison

Anthony McIntyre @ the H-Blocks Prison hospital with his son, 2006

Former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre said news of the IRA’s encounter with the SAS at Loughgall left a dark cloud over the republican wings in the Maze prison.

I was in the prison at the time. It was a Friday night, and we had just been locked up, and the news came through about heavy casualties at a police or security forces base in Armagh. Immediately the doors started to bang and there was cheering.

I remember calling across to one of my friends who was shouting and cheering, ‘be careful, it just said heavy casualties and it could be a bad one for us.’ Some others were taking that view too, then as the news started to filter in it wasn’t a good feeling. The next morning when we got up the wing was a sombre, sombre place. There was a real sense of despondency, despair, grief and anger.

Danny Morrison later said that his head ‘almost exploded’ that night. That phrase probably sums up how many of us felt. It did come out of the blue and we were shocked. But myself and others on the wing, who weren’t cheering or banging, were concerned because there was nothing on the news that said it was a successful IRA attack - and shortly before it [RUC chief constable] Jack Hermon had promised that there would be serious action planned to deal with the attacks that had been taking place in Tyrone.

One of the Henry [Brothers] people (Harold Henry who lived near Magherfelt) had been shot dead. He had been brought out of his house and he asked if he could put on his shoes, but was told that he wouldn’t need them where he was going. That conveys a callousness and I can remember Hermon coming on TV saying there would be action taken, that there would be serious consequences.

In later years [IRA commander] Brendan Hughes had said he had warned against this type of operation taking place. He was very, very concerned about it. There was an apprehension on the part of leadership at the time that people in that area were not buying into the leadership line and were suspicious of that leadership.

That [East Tyrone] unit and the units in south Armagh, in that period, always went beyond what was sometimes called the ‘acceptable level of violence’. I think had the British been able to penetrate south Armagh they would have carried out the same type of IRA operation [as Loughgall]. I think the British were sending a very strong message to the IRA at that time...’we are not taking prisoners and we will wipe you out if you continue with this.’

The British were also aware of the messages being transmitted to them [by the IRA] so they would have been trying to send a message to the IRA that the military option is no longer viable - they were going to have look for another way, and the other way was the peace process.

In terms of an operation having an impact in a way that would have dissuaded those thinking about a [IRA] military option, it was the operation at the end of the year and that was in Fermanagh, where they killed the people [at the Remembrance service] in Enniskillen. I would say that was a more significant operation.

If we look at the IRA operations after Loughgall, there were operations on the continent, there were still IRA volunteers going out in Tyrone. There was an upsurge in IRA activity in 1988 ... so it didn’t deter the IRA volunteers. It maybe made them more angry.

The British were determined to say to the IRA ‘the military option is out and this is what we will do to you if you pursue the military option,’ but it took a while longer for that to sink in. That is why I’m saying Enniskillen had more of an impact and you could see a change in the discourse. The IRA operations in Fermanagh after that led to the comments from [Gerry] Adams that ‘the IRA must be careful and careful again.’ Then you had [Martin] McGuinness saying that the unit that killed [former RUC reservist] Harry Keys and then [Belleek shop worker] Gillian Johnston should be stood down.

You could see how IRA operations began to have less impact in terms of security force killings. The IRA were less able to kill the security forces and therefore you had the big operation at Teebane in 1992 where they killed eight workmen who were working in an army base. The IRA was now killing the least valuable targets in terms of how it was organising its targeting strategy - which was normally British Army, RUC, UDR, then the loyalist paramilitaries.  And the very lowest level of prestigious target would have been the workman. So they were reduced to that.

But overall, the Loughgall [SAS] operation didn’t impact on the willpower of the IRA volunteers, but it made some people who think strategically to consider a different option.

The defeat of the IRA was inevitable given they had an impossible goal, but I suppose the way it happened, and the [agent] penetration, always queers the pitch (spoils the illusion) in terms of looking back and thinking of the romantic IRA.

• Anthony McIntyre left the republican movement when it endorsed the Good Friday Agreement. On leaving prison he completed a PhD and became a journalist.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

28 comments to ''From Joy To Despair"

  1. I like AM have contested for some time now that "The defeat of the IRA was inevitable given they had an impossible goal".

    The Remembrance Day attacks in Pettigo and Enniskillen in '87 following six months after Loughgall were reckless operations.

    I remember conversations with a trusted friend who was active in Fermanagh through the 70's and she told me that she and a comrade, on the instructions of the then IO had reconnoitred the Enniskillen event with the view to attack Crown Forces parading for the ceremony. Discussion took place based on their report but viability was quashed because of the inevitable risk of injury to civilians if explosives were to be used. She also commented that where the charge was located was probably the stupidest spot possible. It was the location where spectators sheltered from the November chill and was well removed from the Cenotaph where the military lined out (along with the military were ex-servicemen and women pensioners, Boys Brigade and Girl Guides).

    It seems that this level of responsible caution was dispensed with in '87.

  2. Henry Joy

    The La Mon and mass civilian killings in bomb attacks in one day in Belfast in the 70s never put the brakes on anything. I suspect the undermining of Volunteers by Adams and MMcG in the late 80s early 90s fitted in with their electoral ambitions. Libyan weapons simply became a juicy bargaining chip rather than an asset. The 'assets' were in SF calling the shots.

  3. AM, can you relay any of Brendan Hughes specific reservations about this type of operation?
    ps 'queers the pitch' is a memorable phrase,it's a shame it wasn't the title of a less serious article.

  4. Absolutely Larry,

    collateral damage throughout the seventies and into the early and mid-eighties didn't appear to put the brakes on anything. Yet even the most hawkish elements of the movement understood at some level the PR aspects of waging war ... few wanted to be considered terrorists, most I'd contend, would still have aspired to the label freedom fighter. That aside though, to equate collateral damage tolerance pre and post '86 is to mix up apples and oranges. The Mansion House decision was a seminal one. Military operations that produced excessive and unnecessary loss of life would have to be curtailed if SF were to make electoral advances in the 26.

    At the time of the Remembrance Day bombing SF had eight County Councillors on Fermanagh Council. Paul Corrigan the head of that grouping had a very hard time from the world's media as he held to his pledge to be 'unequivocal in his support of the armed struggle'.
    At the next local elections in 1989 the SDLP took four of those seats from SF.
    These hard-learned lessons about managing and balancing between electoral successes and military excesses were not to be lost on the leadership of SF/IRA. AM's commentary about the impact of Enniskillen on the direction of the campaign over and above that of the Loughgall ambush is well made.

    (another possible connection/influencer between Loughgall and Enniskillen which escaped me at the time of my previous post: The Operational Director for the area which included Enniskillen was a Tyrone man originally, or so I've been told . He was longtime based in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim where the bomb originated from. If indeed the decision ultimately was his, one can only speculate as to what degree or way his input may have skewed the imprudent and callous choice to go ahead with the Remembrance Day attack.)

  5. Just a question, Teebane is seen as nothing else but a blatant sectarian attack by my community, would the religion of the workmen have been seen as a 'motivating' factor or a discouraging one? Would the volunteer in command not have the power of veto for PR reasons at least?

  6. Oh come on Steve, this is East Tyrone we are talking about. The religion of those massacred was very much a motivating factor. Interestingly, given the strength of the UFF/UVF at that time, they would also have known that a load of innocent catholics would get stiffed in retaliation but they still went ahead with the op anyway.

  7. Steve R

    I remember that attack very well, it was during the 'big-bomb' phase in the early 90s in the run up to the IRA capitulation. The sense republicans at the time as reports came in was if this had zero security force connection and was another mistake then the show was probably over. The connection to a security firm working on a military base was a relief though it was an awful head count to be exacted from mere construction workers. Religion hardly came into it, though with the Mid Ulster UVF and collusion in full swing killing RCs I am sure there were few who gave a fuck about that angle at the time. No sleep lost. However I think there was a sense things were on their last legs although the IRA 'brass' were denying it to the grunts. BASTARDS.

  8. Steve,

    Patsy Gillespie was not a Protestant and he suffered a similar fate in an operation considered even more callous.

    They were not targeted because they were Protestants but because they worked in a security force base.

    But had there being 8 Catholics in the van who worked in the same base would it have been targeted? I very much doubt it. That is I think where the sectarian element comes in.

  9. DaithiD,

    I think you will find he mentions it in an interview with Rogelio Alonso in his book The IRA And Armed Struggle. He said he had warned that the IRA was not ready for that type of operation.

  10. Steve,

    its not difficult to understand that those in the PUL communities would primarily see these operations solely as sectarian attacks. A sizeable proportion of CRN's though would have seen them as attacks on the British imperialist war machine. Religion was unlikely to have been a determining factor when selecting targets.

    Yet its legitimate to ponder whether the same decision would have been made to proceed if the attackers had been told there were 14 Catholic/Nationalists aboard. Whatever the result of such musings it also has to be factored in that such attacks inevitably led to tit-for-tat retaliation. Less than three weeks later the UFF claimed responsibility for the Sean Graham Bookmakers attack were five innocents were gunned to death, closing their statement of responsibility with the words "Remember Teebane".

  11. AM, Im stuck between getting new books and re-reading the old ones im forgetting, and doing neither particularly well.But that one is one mentioned often as being good, another thing to procrastinate on doing perhaps.

  12. Henry Joy

    Acting as apologist for the huns again I see. Loyalism never needed any pretext for murdering Catholics. However the downward spiral of sectarianism if unleashed could have ended up like Palestinian Israeli attacks where their intensity and frequency made it impossible to figure out what was retaliation and for what previous attack exactly. It was like everyone was trying to get their retaliation in 'first'.

  13. Yeah Larry

    if only one of the fourteen had been a 'Taig' we could definitely have said their motives were totally devoid of sectarianism.

  14. Henry Joy

    I think the way easy target RCs in uniform were taken out there would have been zero hesitation had all 14 been RCs, in fact possibly even more anger towards them. So the sectarian argument holds no water with me either way.

  15. The Provies taking out fourteen Taigs in '92 Larry?

    Not a chance man.

    The leadership may have sanctioned the taking out of a bunch of Catholic collaborators if they could have taken a Brit or two with them. Otherwise the scenario you propose is a figment of your wild imagination.

    In the end of the day such targeting must be considered the picking of the lowest hanging fruit of 'legitimate targets'. It didn't garner much respect for armed struggle save but from the most obsessed of die-hard followers... for in truth there was nothing gallant or bold about such ops.

  16. HJ, when did sectarian become a pejorative term? Is the opposite of it 'indiscriminate'? Neither side were members of sects, so i take to mean simply an opponent. Maybe im wrong.

  17. AM,

    All the passed actions seem callous to my mind but hindsight is always and annoyingly 20/20.


    That's my point, they would have known a response was inevitable and went ahead but nobody in charge went 'Hang on a sec and think about this'?


    "It was like everyone was trying to get their retaliation in 'first'."

    Ad infinitum!


    That's why I am wondering if anybody on the ground had power of veto. Once it happened the immediate pressure was on the loyalists from within their own community for a response. I remember it well, it was palpable.

    But at the same time I remember many people saying quite literally "It had to get worse before it gets better". Makes me wonder if people 'higher up' had already worked that out and set upon a series of 'sickeners'.

  18. Steve R

    Omagh was the ultimate sickener and I think the spooks would have seen it as exactly that and enhancing/cementing the piss-process. Adams and Co. also. It gave a taste of the alternative.

  19. Henry Joy

    There is no doubt that the bottom of the barrel was being scraped re targets. Sure they killed that many of the construction firm Henry Bros. the name had to be changed to Henry sisters.

    Daithi D

    The non sectarian propaganda by the provos was simply that. Propaganda. Also it was a refusal to face up to the reality and the nature of the conflict being waged by loyalists and Brits. I wonder would those who Steve R tells us wanted retaliation against RCs have been so pushy had a 2000lb van bomb been left in the housing estate where the get away vehicle of such loyalist murder attacks were abandoned after the events? 60 minute warning to book the ferry ticket to Scotland.

  20. DD,

    the sectarian label became disparaging only when applied to the Loyalist/Brit strategy of attempting to alienate the Provisionals from their support base within Nationalism. That Brit/Loyalist strategy of 'Any Taig Will Do' was both indiscriminate and sectarian in its execution. Republican violence was rationalised as legitimate when directed against Sate apparatus and its ancillary servants. Of course there were occasions when republican ops were sectarian and indiscriminate too. The Kingsmill and Darkley massacre are notable examples of such.


    to assume that individuals on the ground had power of veto or that they had an informed position on the consequences of their interventions is to confer upon them the status of rational actors. Most of the combatants weren't rational actors nor were the majorities in their communities who offered them succour. Some like myself would argue that that situation still pertains in certain quarters but thankfully to a much lesser extent. Northern society can only change to the degree that it can of itself encourage and help those cohorts who remain emotionally, intellectually or economically deprived to overcome those deficits. If communities are to survive and thrive the obligations and responsibilities of the social contract need to be recognised and taken on.

  21. HJ, it was put to me (by AM of course) when I thought the attempted bombing UFF meeting on the Shankill had little sectarian element: would it of happened in a Nationalist area. I really couldnt answer with certainty, but its an interesting thought. I think targetting is a clear signal, different risk metrics for different communities is another.

  22. Larry, I think Pat Sheehan made a similar remark to much consternation but its true, the Provo's could of left 1000lbs bombs on the Shankill if they wanted to target civilians. It would of be counterproductive if nothing else to their aims. The Government wouldnt care how many were killed, but neither do they care about their soldiers, so the bodybags theory America tended in Vietnam would likely not apply to the British in the North. The American public (at least pre-Iraq) are generally shocked when their troops arent greeted as liberators in foreign countries, the British are under no such illusions after centuries of foreign adventures.

  23. Larry,

    The lowest prestige target for revenge by the loyalists would have been been civilian RC's, but the sectarian element was obviously very much to the fore. The loyalists found it too difficult to hit the Provo's so decided on a murderous campaign of 'getting the taigs to squeal enough to tell the provos to stop'. Brutal but effective?


    Hence why I'm a socialist!

  24. Steve R, it sounds like you're trying to imply a justification for the loyalist campaign of sectarian killings. That the end justifies the means. However nothing can excuse sectarian killing whether by Republicans at Kingsmills or Loyalists at Loughinisland.

    Also, Loyalists are clutching at straws to excuse their focus on civilians. If killings of what Loyalists perceive as sectarian targets in the security forces etc only spurred them on why did they think their sectarian campaign would have an opposite effect on Republicans?

  25. Steve R

    I think the loyalists could have been a lot more effective had they chosen to do so. Considering the level and depth of collusion going on. They probably had order not to shoot IRA people in case they shot too many informers lol. The Provo leadership / agents were under orders from the RUC not to permit their Volunteers to attack innocent prods. A severe dose of their own medicine would have been hard for them to swallow.

    Daithi D

    I wasn't suggesting mass murder I was saying thousands of homeless families in estates harbouring Loyalist death squads would have had a sobering effect. Provos leadership were not being politically sensitive, they were being controlled and guided by the Brits/RUC. When the Labour Party UK write your speeches during the GFA "negotiations" and nobody bats an eye-lid, what more do we need to know?

  26. Simon,

    Absolutely not! In no way am I making excuse for mass murder by anyone and horrified you thought that. Just trying to convey the insane mindset of some in my community at the time and as you pointed out, the exact same in reverse is true.


    I remember a cop saying "You had to beat the taigs to get them to talk and you had to beat the prods to get them to shut up" so you may be on to something lol.

    Get rid of one problem by creating an entirely new problem, dump ten thousand Syrian refugees in the interface areas!

  27. Steve R

    I think that is unfair to loyalists. They thought those interrogating them were on the same side. Taigs had a natural resistance to those same interrogators. The IRA leadership on the other hand never required arresting or questioning lol As for Syrians, no ta....we still haven't gotten used to your lot being dumped here.

  28. Steve R, my mistake. I see that argument rolled out every time comparisons between the sectarian nature of Loyalism and Republicanism are discussed. It is a common theme amongst Loyalists.

    For example some maintain that the increase in killings by Loyalists in the 1990s led to an IRA ceasefire when the discussions for the ceasefire started in earnest in 1986.

    Or when Loyalists say they were unhappy when the IRA called a ceasefire as they were just about to call one. They say the killings were taking place to force an IRA ceasefire and if so why call a ceasefire first? It's hogwash. Also, the possibility for a ceasefire might have been discussed by Loyalists but there were no signs they had agreed to call one or discussed it in any depth. If they were just about to call one why carry on killing after the IRA ceasefire was in place?

    They really need to work on their PR DEPT. Practically nothing they said can be evidenced. Do they believe the waffle themselves?

    I knew it would have been an unusual statement for yourself to make above but I only read what was written. Apologies.


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