Category: Archive

Army unready to fight, but the bull is ready

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

Recently released Irish government papers reveal that any attempt by the Irish army to implement a doomsday plan and invade Northern Ireland would be a disaster and result in the destruction, capture or withdrawal of the military forces involved.

The warning came from the country’s military chief 30 years ago during the crisis caused by internment in Northern Ireland.

Failure of an invasion would be a blow to “military and national morale and to national prestige,” the army’s chief of staff, Major-Gen. T.L. O Cearbhaill, said in a top secret 1971 memorandum on the effectiveness of the Defense Forces.

It is published by the National Archive Office for the first time this week. The cabinet papers and departmental records also contain tales of papal bulls, clashes over royal visits, disputes over money for the Irish in Britain and offers to map the Irish coastline from the British government.

Army woes

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The memo from the Irish army’s chief of staff reveals the state of unreadiness of the country’s forces, with only 2,300 of the troops of a total of 8,5000 “capable of combat duty,” and suffering from a critical shortage of officers. It warned that any “incursions” from the south would be an “act of war” against Britain that would provoke counter-measures on the part of British forces.

The most likely responses would be a counter-invasion into the South, occupation of part or all of the country for a limited time, or ‘rial or naval bombardment of selected ports, airfields, industrial or prestige targets.

The memo indicates a huge disparity between forces north and south of the border.

Maj-Gen. O Cearbhaill wrote: “It must also be stated that even the full mobilization of the national resources could not ensure a successful outcome in view of Britain’s air, naval and industrial potential.”

The army’s top brass also paint a gloomy picture of their capabilities should Britain have withdrawn its troops and civil war developed between Catholic and Protestants.

“There are 102,000 licensed weapons in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that about 100,000 militant members of the majority (18 to 30 years of age) would be available for defense”.

To invade the North and face this “highly motivated part-time militia” would involve a full national mobilization.

A royal snub

The documents include secret communications between the Irish government and British Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Tory discouraging a proposed Christmas visit to Irish relatives by Princess Margaret.

Officials were concerned that a royal visit or a courtesy call by a British warship might by exploited by the IRA, which could organize “wild disorder.”

In his dispatch to his superiors in London, Tory said taoiseach Jack Lynch had told him that it would “be nice to think that such a visit could take place without public comment.”

The IRA had cut down trees in her path when the princess had previously visited relatives of her then husband, Lord Snowdon, in County Laois.

A previous visit of the Royal yacht Bloodhound, organized by yacht clubs in the Republic with “Royal” in their title, had not been cleared with the embassy in Dublin, he said, and resulted in an IRA threat to sink it.

The ambassador pointed out 1966 would be a particularly sensitive year because of commemoration ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Papal bull

After top-level consultations between Dublin and Rome in the 1960s, a “good and reliable” papal bull was dispatched from Ireland at the request of the Vatican.

The young bull was sent to inject some new blood into a herd of high quality Aberdeen Angus cattle that had been presented to Pope Paul VI for his farm in Castlegandolfo in 1958.

Monsignor L.G. Ligutti, the permanent observer of the Holy See at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, had written to the then secretary of the department of agriculture, J.C. Nagle, in December 1962 seeking some pre-Christmas advice.

Following consultation with the agriculture minister, Nagle says it would be an honor and a pleasure to present a papal bull.

After finding a suitable bull, Nagle said he could vouch for “our young gentleman.”

“May I say how much I appreciate your consulting me on such as important matter as a Papal bull,” he wrote to Msgr. Ligutti. “Without claiming to be infallible on the subject, we think this animal is a good one.

“We would very much like to hear later how he has turned out. Do you think he could be named ‘Shamrock’?”

The bull was flown out to Italy in 1963, a gift to the pope from the minister on behalf of the people of Ireland.

No cash

Despite appeals from emigrants groups and the Catholic hierarchy, the Irish government stuck firm to its policy in the 1950s and ’60s of not giving any cash support to Irish centers in Britain, the documents reveal.

A memo to Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1961 from the External Affairs Department laid out the policy reasons why Irish taxpayers should not be called upon to support emigrant organizations in Britain.

“Irish people in Britain are at least as well off as the people at home and should, therefore, be in a position to finance their own activities and welfare,” it says.

British map offer

In 1957, at the height of the IRA border campaign, an offer by the British Admiralty to compile new maps of the seabed in coastal waters off Donegal led to big differences among government ministers, the documents reveal.

This would have required landings in the Republic of small shore parties of British naval ratings to take observations.

A government memo from then External Affairs official Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien says widely divergent attitudes had been taken in the past about similar requests.

O’Brien said he thought that the British authorities should be informed that while it was appreciated. “we do not feel at the present time we can avail ourselves of it.”

He cited “the possibility of violence directed against British naval personnel in the 26 Counties,” in the 1957 advice note.

Haughey’s all or nothing

One memo from former Taoiseach Charles Haughey shows a clash with RTE’s bosses about their reporting of his “important” statements, saying they should either carry them in full or not at all.

When he was justice minister in 1963, Haughey said he was referring to a definite, limited category of specially prepared important statements and it was “an appalling state of affairs” that RTE was not prepared to give them the recognition they were entitled.

“They [the statements] can of the most fundamental importance and as you know yourself they are prepared with the utmost care and every word used is weighed and considered.”

Haughey said other ministers had been “enraged” on numerous occasions about RTE coverage.

A ministerial statement on a sub-postmasters strike was an example, Haughey said.

“I think nobody should have dared attempt to edit or condense it, least of all Radio Eireann.”

RTE replied that it reserved the right to condense it as it saw fit.

“To my mind, this is arrant nonsense and is an arrogant assumption of a right by Radio Eireann to which they could not possibly be entitled,” Haughey wrote.


One paper reveals a plan to have a changing of the guard ceremony at Aras an Uachtaran in 1945. The Aras letter says it would remind people that “there is a president who is entitled to certain honors.” But it was rejected by then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera.

Other documents detail plans to expand the Irish navy, put more pop music on Radio Eireann, which was described in 1967 as “too serious,” and demands from the British to act against IRA gangs south of the border. These came in December 1971 after three murders, including that of Unionist Senator Jack Barnhill at his home in Strabane.

British Ambassador Sir John Peck personally delivered a protest letter to Taoiseach Jack Lynch describing it as “intolerable” that the Republic provided a refuge “from which murderers can operate with impunity.”

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