Bombs, Bullets and the Border

Christopher Owens reviews a book on the Northern conflict.

Bombs, Bullets and the Border

It's strange that I find myself reading this book as the arguments/lack of knowledge about the border surface in mainstream media.

And, after reading this, it seems that both governments both overestimated and underestimated the importance of the border in the 1970's as well. Whenever Marx made his infamous claim about history repeating itself, it's hard to escape the notion that he had this island in mind when writing that!

Patrick Mulroe deserves credit for the research and craft that has gone into this book. What could have been a dry, academic exercise in statistics is brought to life by the various tales, antics and perspectives from contemporary and retrospective reports.

What is evident throughout is that the approach taken by the various incarnations of the Dail in this time could be described as 'haphazard', made worse by the underfunded, overstretched Gardai and Irish Army. Not only does that give a comical underlying to Jack Lynch's infamous "we cannot stand by" speech, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the book. 

Mulroe examines the various claims of IRA/Garda collusion that have been levelled over the years by various parties and concludes that, while there was undoubted collusion in certain circumstances (he quotes one IRA Director of Intelligence who claims that meetings were abandoned due to a tip off about Special Branch raiding the meeting), most of the time it seems that mixed messages from the Garda's political masters (destroy the IRA, but be circumspect in dealings with the RUC/UDR/Army) led to the average Garda adopting their own take on how to deal with such matters.

Interestingly, he deals with the Garda McArdle affair in one paragraph (and without mentioning his name). Considering Ed Moloney has written an extensive blog post dealing with the case, it's disappointing that Mulroe didn't use this as a starting point to delve further.

Obviously, with the book stopping in 1978, he doesn't go into the allegations about Mountbatten and the Smithwick Tribunal, so a follow up with extensive research would be necessary.

Throughout, there are moments of unintentional hilarity: Mulroe offers the reader excerpts from a discussion between a British commander and a Garda. It ends with the following lines:

"Patrol commander: If I came under fire and I needed assistance how long would it take you to arrive?

Sergeant Newell: If you were under fire we would not come anywhere near you until the firing had stopped."

The image of Blackadder Goes Forth and the quip about General Melchett being 35 miles behind the troops springs to mind!

Another example is a report which compares and contrasts reported events (such as shootings) from both the British and Irish perspective. This section is magical:

"Date/Location      British version                             Irish version

18 April,                60-70 high velocity shots            Irish forces on scene promptly but

Lisnaskea               fired at UDR from two               confused IRA members in full

                               firing positions in south              battle dress for UDR patrol. IRA

                                                                                   members made their escape due to

                                                                                   this confusion"

Aside from the comical material, what this demonstrates is that the perceptions that the British had of the Irish Army and Gardai as being a) armed and equipped to deal with republicans but b) sympathetic and more often working with them were far removed from reality. Mulroe repeatedly cites internal reports from the Department of Justice and the Gardai oral history project as evidence that both were undermanned and overworked, with too much emphasis on dealing with republicans instead of focusing on ordinary crime.

As a result, and already demonstrated by others, this diversion of attention leading to an explosion of crime that gave birth to the professional criminal underground. Families like the Dunnes and the Cahills prospered in these circumstances, and to the detriment of their own communities, neglected by the local councils. 

It seems the threat of loyalist attacks were swept under the carpet by the Dail. Once again, Mulroe doesn't spend a lot of time on the issue, but it seems that the idea of attacks from a section of the North's community that TD's knew nothing about seemed to fill them with existentialist dread, leading them to almost lie to themselves about the stark realities of Dublin and Monaghan. Whether this is gross incompetence on the part of the Dail, or a lasting legacy of partition is up for interpretation. Either way, it's a disturbing facet of the Dail's collective psyche in this period. 

As part of a welcome spate of books dealing with the conflict, all with their origins in academia, Bombs, Bullets... does an excellent job of focusing on an aspect of the conflict that is often verbalised, but rarely analysed. Although certain aspects could have been explored in more depth, Mulroe has done an excellent job here.

Patrick Mulroe 2017 Bombs, Bullets and the Border - Policing Ireland's Frontier: Irish Security Policy, 1969-78 Irish Academic Press ISBN-13: 978-1911024491/

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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