'In Dubious Battle - The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings 1972-1974', by J. Bowyer Bell
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Text: J. Bowyer Bell ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
The following text has been contributed by the author, J. Bowyer Bell, with the permission of the publishers, Poolbeg Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
In Dubious Battle
Cover Photograph by Irish Independent Newspapers
This material is copyright J. Bowyer Bell, 1996, and is included on the
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The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings 1972-1974 By
J. Bowyer Bell
There would never be any perpetrators caught and sentenced for most of the violence in the Republic. There would rarely indeed be any suspects as certain as the bombers from the mid-Ulster UVF in 1974 nor as likely as those who drove the cars south in 1972. Most of the other bombs had no suspects, some had no rationale, just bombs without specific cause and without discernible effect, signs of the times. And there would be killings without bombs, murder using the Republic as arena.
A man would be killed in an attempt to bomb Official Sinn Fein's hired train on the way to Bodenstown. The Wolfe Tone monument at the north-east corner of St Stephen's Green, Dublin, no aesthetic joy, would survive a loyalist explosive device. Dublin would pass uneasily through a spate of small bombs, though not so small in that the foyer of the Shelbourne Hotel was turned into rubble on 13 February 1976. These were planted by Belfast rogue Provos, without warning and without authority and certainly without rationale beyond ill-directed spite and malice. There would be other mini-bombs and arson devices in the city. The loyalist paramilitaries from time to time, without great planning and with limited explanations, would penetrate into alien territory to deposit their primitive fireworks, a sporting event for the bored defenders.
The most provocative intrusions were, as the authorities had always feared, those of the republicans. The Provisional IRA Army Council could always find compelling reasons to ignore Army Order no. 8 and authorise operations in the twenty-six counties. It was war, and sometimes the target was too tempting, or money was needed, or the locals acted spontaneously. On 21 July 1976 the British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, was assassinated with a mine in a culvert that detonated under his car just beyond his residence in Sandyford, County Dublin. The IRA operations officer had noted the ambassador's intelligence background - and his vulnerability - and the chief of staff had authorised a special active service unit. When the INLA emerged, they had no compunction about operating in the Republic. It was easy to bring the war into the Republic, and difficult to keep it out for everyone involved.
Over the years the more obvious republican operations tended to be armed bank raids by the Provisionals, by the supposedly defunct Officials, and by the INLA. The Provos were supposedly limited to attempts that would return substantial sums, but these often turned out to be smash-and-grab raids by armed men with limited vision and capacity breaking into a rural post office. There were authorised IRA kidnappings - one that led to the murder of a Garda. Some even suspected, not without reason, that the loss of the racehorse Shergar, snatched and hidden and never found, could be laid at the door of a prominent, almost retired IRA man with experience in the horse trade.
And there were those with almost no political connections who used the republican banner as a flag of convenience for armed robberies or kidnapping or whatever offered a profit and could be claimed a political deed, steal for the republic and spend the returns. And this led to shoot-outs at roadblocks or in the middle of towns.
It was this creeping violence that alarmed many in Dublin who wanted the Republic to be, as far as possible, isolated from the Provos' armed struggle, who wanted as many of the Provos as possible behind bars. Everyone was still fearful too that the loyalists would be provoked and come south again into Dublin, as they had in 1972 and 1974. In fact this response continued to give the loyalists the rationale for just such intrusions: Dublin claimed the Provos provoked trouble, and so too did the loyalists; Dublin would only get what Dublin deserved.
It was as much as anything the loyalist perception of Dublin as centre of their own troubles that worried the authorities, for they realised that the UVF and UDA saw no difference between the IRA and themselves, the Government, the Irish establishment, nationalists, everyone in the Republic. What tended to protect the Republic in general and Dublin in particular from the loyalist paramilitaries was not governmental attitudes or statements or restraint by the IRA, or even events in Northern Ireland, but loyalist perceptions. The defenders felt that the Dublin centre was far away, alien and strange, protected by Rome and distance and hostile nationalists.
It was this conviction of the fundamentalists, men of limited education and narrow perspectives, that tended to protect Dublin. The city, so different from Belfast, was embedded in a countryside that to loyalist eyes was enemy territory, so strange as to be rarely even tempting. The loyalist paramilitary was a defender, not a rebel, a man for the system, not one to go far to find targets. Thus, for the loyalist paramilitaries, if they were involved in 1972 and as they most certainly were in 1974, the most significant ingredient for a Dublin operation was not the infusion of skill and talent, training or detonators, plans and options, but the very idea of such an intrusion. The Dublin bombs required a stretch of imagination by those not noted for imagination, highly conservative killers who targeted tomorrow the same prey that had served yesterday. This is why the bombs in Dublin were so special.
The IRA planned as easily for Gibraltar or the Netherlands as for Belfast; after all, a century earlier the Fenians had invaded Canada several times, and England was always a potential battle arena. Their target was the power of the Crown, the forces that oppressed Ireland. The loyalists sought rather to hold their territory, so hard won in blood, so long defended against internal and external enemies, so long at risk of betrayal. They feared not only the dream of the republicans but also the limits of their own dream, a matter of tactic, not an inch, the past as the future, and the potential for betrayal of the union by its very advocates in London.
Unattractive in theory, unappealing in explanation and posture, denied by the contemporary world, isolated, misunderstood, object of media scorn and international calumny, the loyalists hunkered down in the redoubt of their traditions, amid the safety found along the Shankill Road or the hill farms of Antrim or Armagh. There they lived with like, and the Union Jack flew. There the patriotic commemorations were marked, the symbols revered, and the rituals kept. This that they held they would defend. They sought not the whole country, not a nation, but a security too often denied a chosen people.
The UVF had no compunction about killing the Miami Showband - Irish, Catholic, and so up to no good. The very presence in Armagh of the minibus was ample provocation. To go south across the border, to move among others was another matter. Such ventures were not often on an agenda. To bomb Dublin required an adjustment of perception, not an easy matter for defenders, parochial and strong in habits; that sort of march could not easily be set to Lambeg drums.
Such an operation, a 1972 or a 1974 bombing, had its attraction, of course, but only if construed as appropriate. This could most easily be accomplished by suggestion from the articulate. Defenders might thus be co-opted by those with longer views or might even be inspired by the example of the bold, as may well have happened with the January 1973 bomb. Thus the first penetration, the first expedition, had to be more closely shaped by those with a greater purpose and experience with tactical flexibility as well as familiarity with organisation, even with access to material: those within the security forces at some level, at various levels, who in discussion and surely in deeds in 1972 shaped an operation that could be swiftly mounted, that could be easily denied, and - given the assumptions of the involved and the spirit of the time - that would be highly effective for political purposes.
The logic of the 1972 bombs in November and December was not that of the defenders, but the January 1973 Dublin bomb and those of 1974 had a certain follow-on loyalist logic. All it would really take was a few conversations over a pint and at most a box or two of gear along with the nod of authorisation from a treasured ally; mind you, I've said nothing.
The UVF might undertake such an operation with less guidance and more enthusiasm, second time easy; but the very idea of penetration into the nationalist heartland before 1972 seldom lasted beyond the pub. And if less true after the Dublin bombs of 1972, still operations in the Republic - except along the border, in close association with covert operators - remained for a generation rare and so problematical. The assumption is that any spectacular or effective effort arose not from the councils of the UVF in Portadown or the Shankill, both content to operate within the murder triangle or along the Belfast fault lines, but from the perceived needs and fantasies of some in the security forces.
The loyalists might later bomb symbols at Bodenstown or in St Stephen's Green or leave devices in department stores. Such incidents could be organised quickly by two or three defenders without great risk or resources. The need to retaliate in response to Provo or INLA provocation and the pressure to take action against the blatant nationalists could best and most swiftly be answered within Northern Ireland. There at home there was less need for skill and talent, less need even for daring. There the will and the capacity to rationalise sectarian murder as a legitimate defence for a generation proved ample, and so cross-border operations, large or small, were rare.
If cross-border operations by loyalists were rare, if the technical and managerial talents for undertaking such operations were scanty in loyalist circles, then, many observers agree, the British must have played a decisive role, however that role was structured. No-one can see the RUC so involved, and nearly everyone imagines that those attached to the vague intelligence-military groups hidden away off the bureaucratic chart must be the key.
Yet there is a lack of hard data. The 1972 bombs appeared to lead to names associated with the British security forces; even this was lacking in the 1974 bombs. And the operations of 1972 and 1974 that have seemed so elaborate to the military mind were not beyond loyalist capacities. Regular soldiers are prone to forget the blunders of battle, the haphazard nature of war, and the ingenuity of those without training in military academies. Part of the time the Provisional IRA are regarded as bumbling Paddies but at other times are transmuted into professional terrorists, if for no other reason than to give rationale for security failures and security budgets. That the British army would require time, planning, a great many people and the exchange of considerable paper to set the Dublin bombs does not mean that others would be so constrained: the IRA managed to mortar Downing Street and to put the entire British government at risk in Brighton without moving paper or attending mid-career seminars. The loyalists might be crude of nature, ruthless and without educational certification, but their unconventional general strike brought down the new Executive, and so why could those less dedicated to political action not bring a few car bombs to Dublin?
Simply because those car bombs in 1972 and 1974 were so lethal, so effective, and because no one was caught, there was among professionals and observers the feeling that someone with qualifications must be involved, someone with conventional skills. There were, therefore, rumours, asides to published revelations, hints and guesses about who the puppet-master might be; but most of the "evidence" arose from logical arguments and reasonable assumptions, not from data, not from the eye-witnesses of 1974 or the car hire records of 1972.
The lack of very much hard data about British covert actions in Ireland is hardly a matter of chance. A great deal of care, trouble, intimidation and influence has been expended to keep British secrets secret. In this the British intelligence establishment and their political associates are hardly alone: state secrets must be kept, if not at all costs then at great cost. Only when the cover is lifted by violence or by error are operations revealed; and even then it is rare to discover what went before or after. Even long afterwards, those who keep the secrets do not want scholars rummaging through fifty-year-old files or elderly officers writing their memoirs. Only the collapse of all order, the disappearance of a regime and so of the guardians of the files leads to extensive revelations, as with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and more recently to a degree with the members of the Warsaw Pact; and even there files were closed again as fast as possible to keep potential assets in place for the next generation.
In Northern Ireland during the last twenty-five years a single constant has been the enormous effort the British have put into maintaining cover, regularly discounting or discrediting revelations: even those by minor figures. even those on the margins of events. The tribulations of Fred Holroyd and Colin Wallace, once involved in intelligence and dirty tricks and later in revealing the details, were not all imagined. There were also the highly public efforts to prevent the publication of.Peter Wright's Spycatcher, efforts far out of proportion to the revelations of an embittered crank living out retirement in the outback. The pressures, often in public, exerted by the British establishment on the media or on anyone probing intelligence matters have seldom been subtle.
Most of the revelations on Ireland have come from the left or from those easily categorised as nationalists - both suspect, both out to damage the system. Only a few from within the system have emerged. And neither the extensive trials nor the experience of the co-opted and intimidated have produced much of a body of evidence. The resources of the British government to restrict revelation have been available across an entire spectrum of assets: money, force, loyalty, greed, disinformation, the law, patriotism, fear all have been deployed for the Crown. All at one time or another have been used to protect the covert, to punish investigation, to maintain plausible denial, and often long past reason: the Gibraltar case, the Stalker case, any case focused on the covert. And if in the end nothing works, then firm denial, regardless of the evidence. And for a generation the British security forces have largely kept their secrets, given the nature of an open society, a curious press, and, in Ireland, a suspicious arena.
It is thus no great surprise that the responsibility for the Dublin bombs has had to remain speculative. There was limited if real initial assistance from the authorities in Northern Ireland, or at least from the RUC. Once secrets were suspected within the security establishment, such co-operation ended; the RUC had to give up any pretence of disinterested concern. Nothing was to be gained by saying anything, and so cover was maintained. Perhaps there was nothing to cover, but who wanted to discover this was not the case?
What is also covered, hidden by denial or evasion, is the little-understood fact that such special operations, successful or not, often remain elusive. These affairs rarely have a neat beginning or an easily-discovered end. They are cut by need to know, hidden by self-denial, clouded by perception and perspective, and blurred during the building of plausible denial. In many such operations no one is ever responsible: no Soldier B with a smoking gun who has made a decision with all the facts. No one even has all the facts - certainly not Soldier B with the gun and so no one has responsibility for the result. There is no single guiding hand, no guilty ministers in Westminster or responsible secretary in Whitehall. Yet no captain operating along the border can run free for long, kill for pleasure or profit or political purpose, without those in distant offices playing some part. Gibraltar led to Downing Street, and, many felt, so must the Dublin bombs, no matter than Downing Street knew nothing.
The orders and understandings passed down to that Soldier B are gradually shaped to murder within the rules, murder denied, murder equipped with explanation, and no one person to blame, certainly not Soldier B who pulled the trigger. Downing Street, Westminster, Whitehall, the Northern Ireland Office, the British army and the RUC are all permeated with attitudes and assumptions and so acquiescence. Everyone is responsible, and no one: not a godfather of violence but an extended family.
That is the nature of dirty tricks in Ireland, at best acts of war in peace and at worst criminal folly disguised as military action. Such operations must always be deniable, ever secret, and are often lethal as well as foolish. But most important of all, they are immune to orderly analysis.
Those who would have the plain tale of events in 1974 have most often suspected that the British in some manner directed the operation for limited political purpose at a time of great tension - a rerun of 1972. And they have suspected that at worst the Irish Government tolerated the exercise if it did not collude in the cover-up. Everyone accepted without much data the fact that the loyalists were the actual perpetrators; in 1972 some felt that those directly involved were in or attached to British intelligence. All the hard data there is is what came from the Garda leak in the Evening Herald in 1973. As for 1974, in twenty years, as a result of the Yorkshire Television investigation, the only convincing hard information that has been uncovered is the UVF mid-Ulster connection. All else related to 1974 is speculation, circumstantial, unproved, and to those who require convincing, unconvincing.
Certainly in retrospect the most curious aspect of the May 1974 bombs was the apparent lack of official urgency at the higher levels of government. The Dublin and Monaghan spectacular was the greatest, most lethal crime in the history of Ireland and Britain, and yet those in London, Belfast and Dublin showed a remarkable lack of curiosity about the perpetrators. There were then and later ample explanations for the lack of concern and so lack of involvement In the developing case, for the lack of pressure in Dublin. There was a similar lack of interest in Northern Ireland and Britain, but for other reasons.
Responses to such matters as the 1974 bombs always follow certain bureaucratic courses in Ireland. Such events were handled properly at each level. Such crimes were not the currency of Government discussion or even ministerial management. Matters had been pursued properly and judiciously and had not led then or since to a conclusion that would require further involvement.
All this was true. Yet after the greatest crime in the history of the state, after the bodies were strewn on the Dublin and Monaghan streets, the country appalled, the people devastated, none within the central circle seemed to have asked formally who was responsible. None pursued the matter with the Gardaí, formally or informally. Ireland is a small country and the Dublin establishment smaller yet. The Gardaí felt that the higher they went with their findings and suspicions the less enthusiasm there was. Yet those at the higher levels insisted that the findings were inadequate to require further action, and at the top no one asked who was suspected, who was thought responsible, what the investigators knew. The Gardaí involved in the investigation knew that further aid from the RUC was dependent upon formal channels being opened within the Dublin establishment, and somewhere between the evidence about the UVF and the decision to seek higher authority the case evaporated.
There are always good bureaucratic and procedural reasons for doing nothing, letting matters take their course. And the Government had many pressing priorities. There was no standard operating procedure in such matters, no recognised duty to be done. There were certainly political reasons for not pursuing matters if the British intelligence agencies, the British army or the RUC were to be found to be involved. It was, the Government felt, bad enough that the Northern Ireland Office in the midst of the general strike was willing to talk to loyalist leaders whose organisations must have been involved in the bombing. None in the Government, however, had officially asked the Gardaí if this indeed was the case. And so they had not been told.
Even in 1974 some thought that, as in 1972, the bombers had not acted alone. It was not be the first time such suspicions had arisen in public from data that could not convince a court. In 1974 as the months passed, no one of prominence suggested that this might be the case for the Dublin and Monaghan bombs and nearly twenty years later those who had said nothing then still felt that there was nothing to say: there was no evidence that the British were involved, only the loyalists; and Yorkshire Television had not proved otherwise.
Perhaps no one in Dublin wanted to discover British involvement in 1974. If this were the case, all sorts of matters might surface. The Gardaí had contacts with both the RUC and the British army, and both the RUC and British army had been involved in dubious pursuits, pursuits that those in authority in Belfast and London might disclaim but if proved would greatly complicate any future political accommodation. None in Dublin would collude at hiding evidence, but few in the Government wanted to believe, then or later, that the British could have been involved. The informed knew that British intelligence was deeply involved in loyalist paramilitary activities. It was hardly impossible that some of these handlers had been privy to the operation if not the guiding force.
If the British had allowed their agents such free play, they were fools or at least foolish; but then, the British had often been foolish in Irish matters. And perhaps those in charge at the Northern Ireland Office knew as little as the Irish Government certainly wanted to find no evidence of scandal, so also asked no questions. Another scandal would be to no one's advantage. So why seek evidence, cause trouble, complicate a future that would depend on Anglo-Irish amity?
The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and so the Council of Ireland, the best feasible accommodation Dublin could imagine, could not be repaired by building on an accusation from Dublin of authorised murder. No one in authority in Ireland need articulate such considerations. Perhaps no one did. Perhaps no one considered the possibility. In any case no one said anything, then or later, but waited for the system to run its course. So the investigation wound its way through channels, found indicators but not evidence, data but not proof. Unless there was real proof no one need take action, and in the meantime no one need ask anything.
All could be assured, if thought were given, that in such matters real evidence rarely appears and so rarely need be found on a ministerial desk. None would hinder the investigation of murder, and all wanted justice done; but if this were not possible, then no purpose could be served by giving the authority of the state to unwarranted suspicions. What purpose would such suspicion serve but to be divisive? Those at the top of the Gardaí hardly expected the RUC or the British army to be more co-operative. To pursue the matter once the sources had dried up would be to cause trouble unnecessarily. Justice would be no better served and the necessary accommodation in the North delayed.
So sensible men did no more than their duty. The system ran by the book, and the case was unresolved, the suspects' guilt not proved. The Gardaí involved were moved on to other matters, some bitter, some with resignation. And the passage of time eroded the last bit of urgency and finally even much of the memory of the bombs.
The victims and the survivors were forgotten. The bombs of 1974, like those of 1972 and 1973, became part of a past filled with horrors best forgotten.
When Yorkshire Television arrived, members of the Gardaí broke the long silence and, on a case still technically open, read details of the UVF involvement - names, dates, places, eyewitnesses - to the English producers. It was a one-time affair, and subsequent requests were denied. In fact the case was reactivated as a result of the television programme, although no progress was reported, no task force named, no further statement given. Only the most cynical, however, suspect that there was any Irish collusion, any Government or Garda cover-up, but rather at most a certain lethargy that allowed political matters to proceed without scandal - hardly a crime and hardly even a conscious decision.
Over the years much of the country grew cynical about the covert activities of the British security forces, which at times seemed to have authority on the highest level to wage secret war. Certainly the covert operators were not always so covert, were repeatedly caught or involved in the more unsavoury aspects of the dirty war. These intrusions into the underground at least had a certain legitimacy; the failings and horrors of the paramilitaries, the intentional sectarian murders of the loyalists, the blunders by bombers and marksmen that contaminated the Provos' crusade, the rationalisations and recrimination of invisible gunmen, did not. They were the sordid underside of self-proclaimed defenders and liberators. All these secret armies and covert defenders were unofficial, illicit, killed for a cause; if one imperfectly understood and often badly served. The forces of the Crown, however, were held to other standards. Their dirty tricks seemed especially unpleasant because they were deployed by the legitimate.
If the security forces were legitimate, they at times still acted in alignment with their loyalist associates. Dublin might not be involved in collusion, but the British were another matter. What was legitimate was no longer quite clear. Running a killer was much the same as killing.
Simply because the British were legitimate, they had many defenders, could count on excuses, toleration, and the cover of the system. And, most important, the no-warning killings, the corruption of justice, the bizarre special operations, the public lies and private brutality could be excused by damning the critics as traditional enemies: republican apologists, leftist loonies, Irish nationalists. So no matter how blatant the violation of the rules, the critics were discounted by the British establishment. Such critics were involved in propaganda exercises about events that if real were in any case necessary, reactions that were provoked by the far greater horrors visited by the IRA. If the critics arose from within the system they were damned as unstable and disgruntled, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And so too the media, only eager for scandal and novelty, not part of the team, also a comfort to the enemy.
The main enemy, and for good reason, was always the IRA. And those who would restrict the security forces, insist on peace rules even during the war against terrorism, were apologists for the murder of innocents, advocates of subversion, weak and impractical, treasonous more likely. The British people did not want their army slandered, abhorred the IRA who set no-warning bombs in English cities, were, Labour or Conservative, more often delighted at effective military response than alarmed at civil rights violations.
And in Dublin there was no official sympathy for many of the victims of such British actions. Increasingly the Provos were seen as mad dogs, subversives who should be put down, gunmen who tainted the image of the new Ireland. Even the rituals and displays of nationalism became muted, past gunmen no longer such heroes, old grievances no longer so pressing, a united Ireland no longer a desirable necessity. All Dublin wanted was an end to the Troubles, an end to the Provos' campaign. The establishment simply wanted the British authorities to use discretion and to deny themselves if possible recourse to the unconventional so that the sleeping resentments of Irish nationalism would not be awakened. Surely the British, so powerful, so publicly dedicated to law and fair play, might deny recourse to the illicit and covert?
Several factors over the years made such a denial unappealing to those involved. First there was pressure for action from those at risk - and these targets ran from the part-time police constable to the Prime Minister and included at times even those who had said the harsh word about the Provos or the wrong one to the authorities. Those in the firing line had a toleration of hard but effective methods. Second, those who sought a mandate for such methods often were not so much authorised as tolerated: plausible denial did not become hard-edged at one point in the bureaucratic chain, but responsibility eroded in proportion to the distance from the act. A shoot-to-kill policy that murdered suspects, too often the wrong suspects, too often publicly, was not decided around a table and noted in minutes but evolved from the pressures in the field. What was needed was a sense of the possible and the enthusiasm for action by those at the point. Things that could be done were often done because they could be done. There were nods and winks and assumptions made about the removal of troublesome gunmen or arrogant subversives.
The British government's unconventional operations were often not so much unorthodox in practice as in authorisation: no one was responsible. And over time the nature of British dirty tricks became far more a given than had been the case in 1974 or 1972. The system was addicted to the covert, unashamed of the illicit.
And so for the critics, everyone in the system, in the chain of command, was responsible: Margaret Thatcher was as guilty of the shooting of the three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar in March 1988 as were those who stalled the investigation, those who adjusted the rules to secrecy's advantage, those who lied in public, not to mention those who on someone's orders were allowed to pull the trigger, were prepared for the kill by standard orders and so did kill. Few critics understood the system, the codes and texts of authority or the sophistication of evasion that a special language and special practice permits, encourages. Everyone understood that dirty tricks had become endemic in Irish matters.
Books were written heaping all operations on the heads of the SAS or depicting a vast, mechanical bureaucracy of highly trained operatives eager to adjust the rules to the needs of the moment. Even when the evidence proved convincing to the disinterested, the tone of the accusation, the politics of the accuser, the defence by the British government and its friends tended to deflect the attack. Despite all this, despite all the advantages of the state and the blunders of the Provos and the loyalists, as the years passed and the Troubles ground on in a lethal stalemate, the evidence of British dirty tricks accumulated, could not be wished away.
A dirty war had - and had from the first - lured the authorities into special operations. Some operations, of course, went as planned, stayed secret, and encouraged the rest. Yet when revealed, these operations almost always embarrassed the government and amazed observers at the folly of those involved: the arrogance, the assumption that cover is inviolate, that to be ruthless is to be pragmatic, that terror can without cost be deployed against terrorists, even against their advocates.
All the British intelligence agencies had run those without qualification or skills, only the capacity for the main chance. All the special units, under varying names, had tolerated or encouraged individuals to take risks, violate norms, handle the unsavoury, even kill without guidelines or supervision. Relations with the loyalist paramilitaries were ambivalent: the UVF or the UDA saw themselves as always in alliance with their army, as they pursued mutual goals. They felt they were allies, not creatures, even when paid. The British tended to assume such a defender to be a malleable instrument of his handler, a paid pawn. For the British the subtleties of Ireland had to be learned and relearned as tours ended and the actors changed, and many so involved brought only bias and ambition to the task. If, as time passed, those involved grew more subtle, so did their opponents, and the real world of Ireland more complex. All the blunders could not be buried, the scandals hidden, the loyalist connections convincingly denied, the lethal operations kept covered.
What was impressive over a generation was that so much was hidden, so much kept beyond the media or the public, so much not lied away but never revealed. At times over the years nothing helped those who would keep the secret war a secret, and so the watchers accumulated a dossier on British covert acts beyond easy rationalisation. The bounds of British unconventional forays proved porous, flexible, hardly a restraint.
The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), eager to compete with the Security Service (MI5), despatched as agents not only their own but also often anyone passably plausible. MI5 competed not only with MI6 but also with British army intelligence, in turn often compartmentalised into competing units. None of the British quite trusted the Irish, no matter how loyal, and so mistrusted the RUC, while the RUC in turn often found their British colleagues as troublesome as the opposition. All of this added to the very nature of covert operations, and produced almost routinely the scandals that so enraged observers and victims.
What the British were soon caught at in Northern Ireland was regular recourse to irregular tactics, in violation of the norms of Britain, the Northern Ireland Office, and the security forces. There were trap ambushes, provocateurs, purchased terrorists, toleration and encouragement of crime and criminals, and, if all else failed, the deployment of their own for illicit operations. It was possible to believe the worst. No one could prove, for example, that a bomb placed near the Alliance Party's office in Belfast during the election campaign in February 1974 was intended to bring them a sympathy vote and had been detonated by a special unit for that purpose. Everyone believed it: the unionists, the nationalists, the Irish to the south, and many of those in Britain, even those who defended their army. Many believed that the British army had set up the killing of the IRSP political leaders after the INLA murdered Airey Neave on 31 March 1979.
Even more believed that the security forces had not only failed to protect republicans but had furnished the loyalists with targets and intelligence. Certainly the potential targets assumed that the Ulster Defence Regiment was filled with those friendly to the loyalist paramilitaries, were themselves in proven instances loyalist paramilitaries as well. The subsequent investigations, like that of Stalker, often attracted more attention as evidence surfaced of a continuing cover-up and so generated still more publicity.
Those who supported the security forces either did not believe the evidence or did not care, favoured a policy of shoot-to-kill or co-opting the loyalist gunmen. Such enthusiasm for pragmatic and successful covert operations was nowhere more easily found than in Westminster. Those who detested the Irish in general and the IRA in particular - no small population once the Provo bombs began going off in England - liked to assume that the dirty tricks were working. For a great many, Gibraltar was a success, greeted with enthusiasm rather than dismay.
As well as the increasing hard evidence of bodies scattered on the ground there were the revelations from inside the security forces. Books appeared, often issued in the midst of considerable controversy that engendered still more publicity and further accusations. Each of the authors gave a special inside perspective on the covert. Wright's Spycatcher gave an insight not so much into the details of dirty tricks in Ireland but rather into the limited and peculiarly myopic view of his colleagues: Harold Wilson was a red, and many "wets" in London were equally suspect, not aware of the needs of those in the field. Colin Wallace's and Fred Holroyd's books were discounted in part because of effective attacks on the credibility of the authors. Wallace had been accused and convicted of murder; Holroyd, who had been stashed in a mental hospital by the British army, had his stability and recollections regularly questioned in public forums without the opportunity to reply. Those who wanted to believe them did so, and those who did not did not. All these works were flawed, but all indicated the nature of the official toleration of intelligence adventures in disinformation, special operations and dirty tricks that could not be adequately discounted. More to the point, great effort was expended by someone in proving their revelations flawed, their stability doubtful.
Their evidence, like that of the critics, entered the analytical vernacular: the Littlejohns and other freelance agents; the adventures of Robert Nairac in south Armagh; the shoot-to-kill policy of the RUC and SAS; the intrusions across the border; the ambushes and tolerated murders; the disinformation coming out of British army headquarters at Lisburn; the special units that shifted name and location but not mission; the involvement of the security forces with the loyalists. All these dirty tricks were taken as given as the years passed. All were, therefore, indicators that there might be more to the Dublin bombs than an almost spontaneous loyalist incursion with limited rationalisation.
The British authorities, long possessed of high marks, often self-awarded, in intelligence matters - despite Philby and company - had certainly not produced a distinguished Irish record with their special operations. There were ludicrous failures, like the Littlejohn escapade or the rogue agents who, like Nairac, often brought disaster on themselves - singing rebel songs in a recently acquired Belfast accent in a pub in south Armagh. And such operators brought also ignominy on their masters. There was the obvious hypocrisy that extended all the way up the judicial ladder from the arrest on the street or the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to harass anyone, any of the Irish, on through ploys like the coroner's inquest in Gibraltar. The failures of the British system culminated in the scandals surrounding the Irish bombing convictions and appeals. This tended to indicate that anything was possible, that the system was without shame.
Lord Denning defended the system over justice, in public and without qualms. Everywhere the system had been defended, the cover maintained, no matter how illogical or how great the cost. Secrets were secrets, and so in Ireland it was possible to believe anything. And some did.
Anything was indeed possible, except absolute proof; and so the system could evade responsibility or at least delay retribution. And this was true with the Dublin bombings of the early seventies: lots of circumstantial evidence, lots of details that could not be used in court, ample indicators and compelling logic, but never the tangibles needed in a court of law, by a disinterested historian, or by those who would otherwise be driven to respond officially to what remained speculation. In fact it was not until July 1993, when Yorkshire Television broadcast its investigation of the 1974 bombs, that the UVF took responsibility. Even then few could trust such spokesmen not after twenty years of evasions and lies and when most of the suspects were long dead or in exile.
Not even then, after over two years' work by Yorkshire Television, was there a single shred of official evidence on British involvement in the 1974 bombs. And there had been nothing to add from inside the security forces, nothing from the supergrass trials, nothing really from Colin Wallace and Fred Holroyd, nothing tangible from anyone, only speculation. After twenty years no agent of the Crown, no soldier or constable, no official, no one had come forth to admit guilty knowledge, to admit anything. The UVF claimed to have been working alone, and the usable material released by the Gardaí to Yorkshire Television could not carry the story further except by interpolation.
So the Dublin bombs had generated all sorts of compelling analysis and circumstantial evidence, often convincing data, but evidence that could not be used in court. The Garda Síochána's dictation from their book of evidence remains the bedrock of any speculation. All else is derived from projections and possibilities.
What the Yorkshire producers combined for an hour of compelling television was the reality of 1974, the evidence of the Gardaí, the record of the British security forces, the logic of the operation, and so a possible scenario. What they could not make was a certain case against the British security forces, and most certainly not a case that would require official British investigation. No one who mattered had talked, then or before. No new data could be taken alone as absolutely convincing.
The assumption that the incident was a military operation and that the UVF lacked the talent and capacity to act alone is still an assumption, not proof. Those who had long assumed that the loyalists were involved had the Garda data on the mid-Ulster UVF at one remove. Those who did not want to contemplate such matters did not. There, once more, the matter rested.
In the end the specifics of the bombing operations, the degree of involvement of the security forces in Northern Ireland and the precise bureaucratic fate of the investigation remain vague and unsatisfactory. In part this is obviously because all is not known, but in part all such operations remain vague. Doing nothing is hard to document. There is no evidence of a wink or a failure to ask. What is relevant - and remains so - is the public record that indicates the reality of the times, the ambiguity of the attitudes of those involved, and the reticence of all at the time and later to delve too deeply into matters that might only indicate past actions best neglected.
Someone planted the bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1972-74 and for both general and specific purpose. The chosen candidates have always been the loyalist paramilitaries, even if some wistfully hoped the IRA might have been responsible, at least for the December 1972 explosions. And in the case of May 1974 the specific involvement of the mid-Ulster UVF can be taken as actual, though not a matter of law. Far more interesting has been the almost universal assumption of most actors and nearly all observers in Ireland that the British in some manner were involved, certainly in 1972 and almost certainly in 1974, whether directly or indirectly, by rogue elements in the field or through special groups operating independently of higher command. The very fact that neither the RUC nor the British army undertook serious investigation is an indicator that the possibility was quite real north of the border, within the security establishment as well as in the Republic.
The British were then and are now considered by most people in Ireland guilty by association with the illegal loyalist paramilitaries, who have often been on their payroll, regularly considered their creatures. How could the UVF operate at such a level in 1974 without the authorities knowing - at least knowing afterwards? The UVF had always been carefully monitored, some bought and paid for, including at least two involved in the 1974 incident. Thus the British have been judged by the Irish public as guilty by implication, guilty out of arrogance, guilty on an operational level or carelessness further up the chain of command, but guilty. Jack Lynch said so for 1972. Yorkshire Television said so for 1974. In fact nearly everyone except those with obvious reasons to declare otherwise felt then and still feel that the British were involved somehow. There is almost but not quite evidence, almost but not quite a case made.
Many - not all - have come away from the chronicle of those bombs a generation ago with an abiding suspicion not simply of British propriety and innocence but also of the enormous risks of the covert and illicit deployed by the irresponsible for state purpose. Such adventures have been cloaked with a flag of patriotism and rationalised as pragmatism by other democracies. National security unleashed a French attack on the protest boat Rainbow Warrior in the Pacific, and the adventures of the American colonel Oliver North in Iran and Nicaragua were excused by pleading the needs of national security. National security for the pragmatic patriot seemingly permits murder as a policy option and shapes atrocity so that in the end no one is responsible, except those caught holding the smoking gun.
In Northern Ireland such matters of evasion and denial have become institutionalised. Since none can be found guilty, the observer is apt to assume that all are guilty. Those in London or the Northern Ireland Office who abhorred such deeds are also British and in responsible positions. Those who would never condone and who even oppose such acts often hold positions of trust under the Crown. Most important, an establishment's attitudes make the distant responsible as well. Even Soldier B learns of speeches made in Parliament about "swift justice" in Gibraltar or Armagh. Such attitudes about Irish matters led in no small way to the involvement of those whose careers flourished on the covert edge, for they acted not only as individuals but also as agents of the nation.
It is this assumption that "the British" are guilty in some degree that matters more than the details of the involvement. The accumulated evasion and hypocrisy on Irish matters has eroded faith in British integrity. This is, of course, especially true in Ireland, where British integrity and disinterest often wore thin. There is a reluctance on the part of much of the Dublin establishment to accept this judgement. To do so would largely ruin necessary and useful contact with those so involved, at no matter how many removes, with dirty tricks. As always, the British have given little thought to the dilemma of the Irish Government: let Dublin do as London wants, knows is best; let Dublin get on with what is needed and give up whingeing. And all Dublin wants is a little British discretion: no more dirty tricks, or at least no more revelations of dirty tricks.
The assumption within the London establishment has always been that propriety, honour, justice and common decency are a special local specie coined over time by a grand tradition that would not be frittered away in the unsavoury aspects of war and politics. In Ireland, not unexpectedly, the assumptions of the British have long been sold at discount. This is especially so because British spokesmen regularly seem not so much content as delighted with many of the dirty tricks. The authorities were often so determined to support their own in the field that they in fact only recognised the validity of criticism by recourse to cover-up at great cost. Thus in London it was assumed that no honour was lost. If honour is lost it is because it is perceived to be lost; and unconventional wars, dirty wars, are focused on perceptions, not tangibles. arrect
Neither the IRA-loyalist ceasefires nor the uncertain peace process that has eroded the need for special operations and intrusive intelligence can easily allow the British to regain the assets of legitimacy and civility damaged during the Troubles. The costs are not swiftly recouped - suspicions are long-lived, presumptions of guilty not readily discarded. Long after the details of the Dublin bombs are forgotten the residue of general and particular distaste will remain: decency lost swiftly regained.
In the end the murders in the street, the grief and horror, arose
from the corruption of the unionist tradition and, more important,
from the nature of the British involved with the Irish Troubles.
Some who came to Ireland were decent, some not, but all to some
degree became engaged in a nasty, brutal campaign in an arena
that was alien. And these, the responsible, operated in the name
of virtues often long lost, often corrupted, too often inapplicable
in Ireland. Those who in dubious battle seek recourse to terror,
to murder the monster, may find themselves judged monster, fairly
or not - for there is little justice in a dirty war, in the waging
of battles in violation of the ideals of the nation, ideals long
in the winning and easily lost, and long lost for many in Ireland.
There are no conventional sources for the Dublin bombs, not even any very useful speculative or secondary sources. The governments involved, like all governments when concerned with national security matters, special operations, or intelligence, especially when such matters have contemporary political consequences, are inevitably mute. Even when the facts in such cases are public and patent, governments prefer to deny comment or to deny reality if need be - even after generations, in the more sensitive cases. The operational individuals involved in all the bomb cases have said nothing, even after a generation, either in public or in private, that has had more general currency.
For a generation no one has said anything, except for the Gardai. The individuals within the Gardai who have commented did so for a special purpose, now served, and, as they indicated for example in August 1993, have no interest in elaboration. Even now some of the Garda information remains with Yorkshire Television, unbroadcast, too sensitive for various reasons to make public. So there can be no official sources, no individuals directly concerned who might be forthcoming, only the speculative and conventional.
Most of those concerned with special operations and dirty tricks have focused on Northern Ireland and on events there, not in Dublin or Monaghan; even the Nairac intrusions are shaped to a Northern arena. Thus Mark Urban's Big Boys' Rules: the Secret Struggle against the IRA on one side and those works more critical of the security forces - for example Patsy McArdle, The Secret War, Martin Dillon, The Dirty War, Anthony Bradley, Requiem for a Spy: the Killing of Robert Nairac, and Mícheál Ó Cuinneagáin, The Nairac Affair - are not concerned with the bombs except in passing.
Those works by Dillon and others, and especially Steven Bruce's The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, add nothing new on the bombs. Bruce simply notes in passing that the 1974 bombings, for example, were probably by the loyalist paramilitaries. Any of the various works on the "supergrass" trials and especially on the Stalker affair - John Stalker, Stalker, and Peter Taylor, Stalker: the Search for the Truth -indicate the investment the British government will make in seeing that special operations remain special and secret, just as the Gibraltar case was to prove once again.
Those who do seek to reveal the nature of British intelligence at play in Ireland treat the bombs, if at all, as an aside, for example Peter Wright, Spycatcher, Fred Holroyd, War Without Honour, and Paul Foot, Who Framed Colin Wallace? The material arising from these revelations - usually found in the newspapers and reviews of the times - merely adds to the general rather than particular knowledge.
The views of the Dublin establishment are best found at some length
in Garret FitzGerald's All in a Life: an Autobiography, which
offers nothing novel on the bombs, as was the case with those
who commented on the Yorkshire Television programme, the consensus
being that those in the Government knew nothing and most of those
involved had doubts about any British involvement. Those who did
assume such an involvement rested their case not on sources but
on assumptions and speculations that fall outside conventional
sources. The plain tale is to be found in the newspapers of the
day, in the Garda revelations, in the limited comments of the
involved; and this clearly leaves more than adequate room for
conspiracy theories and logical projects - speculation.
Anthony Bradley, Requiem for a Spy: the Killing of Robert Nairac (Mercier, Cork and Dublin, 1993).
Steven Bruce, The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992).
Martin Dillon, The Dirty War (Hutchinson, London, 1990).
Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life: an Autobiography (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1991).
Paul Foot, Who Framed Colin Wallace? (Macmillan, London, 1989).
Fred Holroyd with Nick Burbridge, War Without Honour (Medium, Hull, 1989).
Patsy McArdle, The Secret War (Mercier, Cork, 1984).
Raymond Murray, The SAS in Ireland (Mercier, Cork and Dublin, 1990).
Micheal Ó Cuinneagáin, The Nairac Affair (Tanatallon, Donegal, 1981).
John Stalker, Stalker (Harrap, London, 1988).
Peter Taylor, Stalker: the Search for the Truth (Faber and Faber, London, 1987).
Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules: the Secret Struggle against the IRA (Faber and Faber, London, 1992).
Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, Spycatcher (Viking,
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
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