'He fell beneath a northern sky'
Sean South was killed on New Year's day during the most famous raid of the IRA's Border Campaign. That offensive is underestimated in terms of its impact on subsequent events in the North, says Ruan O'Donnell
On New Year's Day 1957, 14 IRA Volunteers took part in an assault on an RUC barracks in Brookeborough, Fermanagh. The attack had been anticipated and two raiders, Sean South from Limerick and Fergal O'Hanlon from Monaghan, were mortally wounded by intense defensive fire. Vincent Conlon, an Armagh native who had returned from Philadelphia to participate in the campaign, drove the group to safety despite being wounded. The damaged state of the commandeered truck, however, necessitated a difficult retreat on foot along a smugglers' track into Monaghan. South and O'Hanlon were left at Baxter's Cross where they were found dead in follow-up searches by the RUC and British Army. The attack created a sensation and quickly inspired two popular rebel songs: ‘Sean South of Garryowen' and ‘The Patriot Game'.
The Brookeborough raid is the best-known incident of the Border Campaign which began 50 years ago in December 1956. This remains one of the least documented IRA offensives, dwarfed in scale by the most recent ‘armed struggle' and the reactionary political climate of the 1970s. A cursory examination of the period reveals that the experience of the republican movement between December 1956 and February 1962 has been underestimated in terms of its inherent significance and impact on subsequent events in the North. The communiqué issued by IRA general headquarters on 12 December 1956 declared that a “decisive stage” had been reached in the “age-old struggle of the Irish people versus British aggression”. While this optimism was misplaced, it was not as bizarre as it appeared in hindsight. From 1948, the IRA had undergone one of the most extensive re-organisations in its turbulent history. Sinn Féin, after a decade of estrangement from the IRA, was adopted as its ally in a bid to counter political isolation.
The United Irishman newspaper was founded to propagate the republican line and communications were re-established with North American groups capable of supplying moral, financial and materiel support. Communists were barred from IRA membership to lessen the prospect of left-wing infiltration and General Army Order No 8 prohibited violent clashes with the security forces of the Republic. For the first time since the civil war, the IRA posed no direct subversive threat to the state. John A Costello's Fine Gael-led coalition government, dependent on Sean McBride's semi-constitutional Clann na Poblachta party, was disinclined to suppress the resurgent militants.Under the direction of Tony Magan, Thomas MacCurtain and Paddy McLogan, a tightly-disciplined ‘new' IRA was recruited and trained.
The more mature ‘40s men' and others were pressed into supporting roles and one veteran Cork republican was turned away on the grounds that the IRA “did not want gunmen”. Instead the IRA secured the services of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Sean Garland, Seamus Costello, Kevin Mallon and JB O'Hagan, men who resurfaced in prominent positions in the 1970s.Sean Cronin, future chief of staff, revolutionised IRA training techniques in 1955-56 using skills learned while an Irish army officer in the 1940s. Weaponry was stolen from British military bases in the North, most notably from Gough Barracks, Armagh, in June 1954. An unsuccessful raid on Omagh Barracks in October 1954 created high-profile political prisoners whose defiant conduct when on trial received international press. One of them, Phil Clarke, was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, a precedent followed by Bobby Sands in the same constituency in 1981. Clarke and fellow IRA prisoner Tom Mitchell, MP for Mid-Ulster, helped garner 152,310 votes for Sinn Féin in May 1955. This suggested widespread sympathy for the republican position. More than ever before, Sinn Féin grasped the utility of tactical interventions in Westminster elections. Hopes were entertained that Ireland's admission to the UN in 1955 would provide a platform where the injustice of partition could be addressed.
The IRA, therefore, had reason to believe it could place the issue of partition on the international agenda. The Border Campaign was no romantic whim.Impatience within the Dublin Unit of the IRA led to a damaging split in the summer of 1956. Joe Christle's faction broke away and formed an alliance with Liam Kelly's Saor Uladh group in mid-Ulster. Kelly, a Clann na Poblachta appointee to the Seanad, had masterminded attacks on customs posts and RUC barracks from late-1955. Several key men were lost to the IRA forcing its ruling army council to postpone Operation Harvest until December 1956. ‘Organisers' were sent into the North to liaise with local units which often lacked equipment and personnel. Problems with the transport and munitions earmarked for ‘active service' volunteers caused further delays and reduced the scope of planned actions. Nevertheless, in the early hours of 12 December, a spate of attacks resulted in the destruction of a BBC transmitter in Derry, Magherafelt courthouse and a Territorial Army facility in Enniskillen. The element of surprise was lost in Armagh city where a gun battle took place and another IRA party was ambushed en route to destroy the radar station at Torr Head, north Antrim. Raiders heading for military installations in Omagh, Tyrone and Bishopscourt, Down, were obliged to turn back. The authorities in Dublin, Belfast and London were initially surprised by the scale of the offensive which eventually caused several million pounds worth of damage.
The violence attracted much media attention but the dynamism necessary to form durable bridgeheads within the North did not materialise. This was partly owing to the restrictions placed on IRA rules of engagement. B-Specials, perceived as unionist paramilitary auxiliaries, were off-limits and IRA units were required to seek the surrender of RUC men before opening fire or detonating mines. This was consistent with the plan to use sabotage to destabilise Stormont without triggering Loyalist excesses. A ‘clean' campaign, it was hoped, would galvanise national support and pressurise the government into raising partition in New York. This did not occur. The lack of opportunity severely curtailed the potential for successful IRA operations and a chronic shortage of heavy weapons complicated the task of directly confronting the British Army in Ireland. Nationalist communities in the North realised that the long-promised “decisive” campaign still lay in the future. Blasting transformers, power lines and customs huts would not suffice, although attacks on economic targets in Newry were sufficient to elicit a declaration of martial law.
IRA assaults on Derrylin, Lisnaskea, Roslea and Brookeborough barracks met with mixed results and three controversial fatalities. IRA men South and O'Hanlon were killed in Brookeborough on 1 January 1957 and the impressive size of their funerals and votes of sympathy from several county councils unnerved the government. When the death of RUC man John Scally at Derrylin was followed by that of Constable Cecil Gregg near Forkhill, Armagh, on 4 July 1957, the Dáil moved to stifle the campaign with the blunt tool of internment. The majority of the IRA command structure and Sinn Féin leadership was soon behind the wire in the Curragh where internal tensions festered.McBride's dissatisfaction with Coalition had hastened the return of Eamon de Valera as a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach on 20 March 1957. Whereas Costello could not have acted decisively against republicans without losing power, de Valera's recourse to emergency legislation mirrored the alacrity of Stormont. McBride, ironically, advised on an anti-internment test case taken to the European Commission of Human Rights in 1957.
By the time the last internees had been released in March 1959, the Irish government was being subjected to unprecedented scrutiny in Europe. This gained significance in the 1970s when the Dáil was obliged to discount internment as a possible weapon against the Provisional IRA. Several major IRA attacks and a host of minor incidents did nothing to improve the negotiating position of Sinn Féin which steadily lost voter support. The increased use of the Special Criminal Court in late 1961 and public apathy in a time of deep economic crisis, hastened the IRA cessation of 26 February 1962. Chief of Staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh drafted the requisite “dump arms” order which pledged another campaign when circumstances permitted. The experience of the IRA during the Border Campaign enabled Cathal Goulding and others to shift the political core of the movement firmly to the left. In the mid-1960s the IRA was run down and Sinn Féin built up. Ultimately, when the Northern crisis re-erupted in 1969-70, the legacy of the previous campaign was studied in a manner that all but guaranteed a far more intense form of “armed struggle”. Substantial commemorations of the Brookeborough Raid are being held in Limerick, Fermanagh and Monaghan in coming weeks. Ruan O'Donnell is a professor of History at the University of Limerick