By Andrew Bushe
The Irish army’s top brass starkly warned the government in 1970 of "disastrous consequences" if soldiers were sent North to protect Catholics in a doomsday situation, according to a previously secret military briefing paper recently made public.
The paper starkly outlines the likelihood of a counterstrike south by forces from the North and how ill-prepared the Republic’s Defense Forces were in comparison to what they would meet over the border — Irish troops would have ended up being outnumbered by at least 16 to one.
The "estimate of the situation" paper was drawn up after a directive from the Cabinet following a Feb. 6 meeting, according to an accompanying hand-written note stamped "Top Secret."
Defense Minister Jim Gibbons told the Army’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Sean MacEoin, and the director of intelligence, Col. Michael Hefferon, he had been instructed to order them to "prepare and train the army for incursions in Northern Ireland if and when such a course became necessary."
This would be in circumstances where there was a complete breakdown of law and order in the North and the security forces there were "unable or unwilling to protect the minority."
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The minister explained that then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch and other ministers had met delegations from the North.
At the meetings, urgent demands were made by the Northerners for respirators, weapons and ammunition, "the provision of which the government agreed as and when necessary."
"Accordingly, the chief of staff was instructed to put truckloads of these items at readiness so that they could be available in a matter of hours if required."
On April 2, 500 rifles were moved to Dundalk Barracks after Gibbons rang the chief of staff from Naas and said that the agriculture minister, Neil Blaney, had informed him attacks were planned on Catholic areas in the North and British security force protection would be withdrawn.
Two days later, the arms were withdrawn from Dundalk for security reasons and military intelligence later said the information given to Blaney was "without foundation."
In their assessment, the army’s general staff said the "execution of a directive to mount incursions in Northern Ireland would undoubtedly have the most serious military implications even when adequate strength and equipment could be made available."
The appraisal was dated April 6 and such was the sensitivity of the assessment that copies were numbered one to 13.
The appraisal says the Defense Forces strength was 8,860, but this included the Air Corps, Navy, troops overseas and back-up units.
"Excluding these elements, there would not be more than 2,500 line troops available to be mustered, organized into units and trained preparatory to undertaking incursions."
The general staff said 1,700 personnel are over 40 and a high proportion would be unfit for combat and 560 soldiers were in medical category "C" and unfit for combat duty.
Available soldiers who need to be trained for combat were scattered throughout various barracks and border posts and had received no team training.
In contrast, they would face a 13,000-strong military force in the North as well as 3,500 RUC men trained to use arms and 5,000 Ulster Special Constabulary.
This 21,500 strong force could be immediately reinforced from Britain by another 20,000 troops with air and naval support.
"The armed opposition likely to be encountered by incursions into Northern Ireland is vastly superior in strength, organization, combat training and equipment to those elements of the Defense Forces which could be mustered for such operations," the officers said.
Their assessment warns that if they invaded the North there were likely to be counter-actions such as retaliatory raids across the border against towns in the South, vital installations and military installations and possible reprisals against minority areas in the North that could not be reached by troops from the Republic.