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.