Policing the Border During the Troubles

Today Arlene Foster, the DUP MLA and Minister, is leading a group to Dublin to call on the Irish government to acknowledge (not apologise for) the failure of successive Irish governments to protect life along the border. A core part of her argument is that many IRA attacks were planned by individuals who lived in the Republic, crossed the border to conduct the attack and then returned to what she views to be a ‘safe haven.’

I’m currently in the process of writing a history of policing in Ireland in the twentieth century and one of the most significant aspects of this is the impact of Troubles of policing in Ireland, something I contend is largely unacknowledged. In relation to this particular point, of securing the border, I’ve interviewed men who served all their careers in border stations (women were rarely sent to the border) and others who were temporarily seconded to the border at various times. I’ve managed to verify any incidents or factual points they refer to through searches of newspaper and Dáil archives (though if anyone knows of additional information or sources I’d be delighted to receive it). I think it’s important to give some context to Minister Foster’s request.

In terms of the border itself we should note that the border is 280 miles long and has 260 crossing points, including private roads and tracks. There are farms and communities that are split by the border meaning that for persons living in border areas crossing it is essential. Practically speaking checkpoints were one of the most demanding aspects of the Troubles for gardaí and the army. Some roads had continual checkpoints, others had checkpoints imposed when there was information or an incident that required it. In 1975 alone over 10,000 checkpoints were established between the gardaí and the army. In the same year those joint forces conducted 5,400 mobile patrols along the border. Searches of houses, fields, outhouses and other building consumed much of the work of police on the border and finds of arms were regular. Gardaí also had to provide cover for the British Army whenever they worked near the border. This became particularly controversial when the British Army decided that border crossing points should be closed, making life difficult for the surrounding communities.

Much of this was unwelcome and dangerous work. Many police were abused by their communities for assisting in what was seen as British work. 12 gardaí were killed by republicans during the course of the Troubles. Data has not been retained by the gardaí on how many were injured but I have found dozens of accounts of assaults or shootings of gardaí engaged in this work. There were also numerous attacks on garda stations (including one led by Minister Foster’s party leader, Peter Robinson in 1986) one of which involved a crowd of thousands attempting to burn down Dundalk Garda Station in 1972. Some gardaí received death threats and had their houses petrol bombed.

At times during the conflict, it has been estimated by Salmon, over 10% of the force was stationed on the border which is particularly significant given that from 1967 to 1983 indictable crime in Ireland increased five-fold. There was also much work to be done away from the border connected with the Troubles. Armed robberies became regular occurrences; high-profile kidnappings occurred; protests were regular and often violent; prisons, quarries and courts all required heightened garda protection not to mention the killings which occurred in the Republic. Mulcahy has determined that 107 people died in Ireland as a result of the Troubles. There were 7 bombings which killed a total of 42 civilians, including the Dublin Monaghan bombings. Should the British government acknowledge its failure to prevent persons from the North travelling to Dublin, Monaghan, Cavan or Dundalk to conduct those bombings?

We should also not forget the massive inroads into human rights which were made in Ireland in the name of dealing with the Troubles: the reintroduction of the Special Criminal Courts, 7 day detention and the broadcasting  ban among many others. We could also point the failure of the government to investigate properly the allegations of a Heavy Gang operating in the gardaí.

Context and information is needed – in my research I’ve found it very difficult to discover information about policing the Troubles, often for justifiable security reasons. But there are a number of things that we can say. The Troubles placed enormous demands on the gardaí, the army, the border communities and the State as a whole. The border itself was exceptionally difficult to police given it’s length, the number of crossings (and lets face it, it was possible for people to run through fields to cross it) and the fact the increased security had negative effects for the local community. Policing of the border was not solely the responsibility of the Irish government and there were large numbers of British Army and RUC operating in those areas. Until the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 cooperation across the border was poor and extradition laws limited. So before we decide whether the government should make the requested acknowledgment, lets first acknowledge the work that was being done by gardaí and army men.

Policing the Border During the Troubles

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