William Gladstone is said to have remarked that, whenever a solution to the ‘Irish Question’ was found, the Irish secretly changed the question. Historian Piers Brendon provided an equally droll rebuttal: “The trouble was that the Irish question remained the same – how to get rid of the Union?”
A generation after Gladstone’s death, the Anglo-Irish Treaty cemented the partition of Ireland following the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The sectarian underpinning of partition ensured towns and villages were cut off from hinterlands, farms were split, and local businesses suffered.
This land border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK extends over 300 miles. Crossing points range from motorways and dual carriageways to secondary roads and dirt tracks, many known only to locals. As the ‘Troubles’ escalated from 1970 onwards, IRA arms and explosives sourced in the Republic or smuggled there from abroad were often transported over the border into Northern Ireland. In 1971, Ulster Unionist MP William Stratton Mills referred to this as a “gelignite trail across the border”, drawing parallels with the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
That August, the Stormont government’s decision to introduce internment without trial, directed solely at the nationalist population, led to a sharp increase in violence. In response, the government announced that all “unapproved” border crossings were to be cratered and made impassable. Ostensibly, this initiative – along with increased military security on the “approved” roads – would reduce the violence by starving Northern IRA units of supplies. Some suspected, however, that hardline members of the Ulster Unionist Party, such as John Taylor (now Baron Kilclooney), were using the opportunity to hermetically seal their state off from the Republic once and for all. The decision to close “unapproved” border roads was taken unilaterally: the government of the Irish Republic were not consulted.
Both Official and Provisional wings of the IRA issued warnings to the British Army about cratering operations. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association also warned of its alienating effect on locals, pointing out that
“anybody determined to take arms or explosives into the North would not be deterred by holes in the road. The only people to suffer would be members of the local community, farmers, housewives and schoolchildren who had to make long detours as they went about their daily business. The total effect iss to bring about the resentment of the army.”
The Irish-American journalist, P. Michael O’Sullivan, witnessed a full-scale border riot in County Tyrone, between locals and British soldiers during a cratering operation in late 1971. This was not atypical. Republican militants, many of whom were part of these border communities, were quick to see the strategic advantage in targeting British Army cratering operations. Following an Official IRA gun attack on a British Army squad engaged in cratering operations, that organisation released a statement referring to cratering as
“an act calculated to disrupt the lives of many people who depend upon the roads for their day-to-day travel… We wish to thank all the people of the area for the support they gave to our units and for their prompt action in filling the road. We pledge ourselves to defend their rights whenever similar acts of aggression are carried out by the British Army under instructions from Faulkner’s bully boys like John Taylor.”
The following year, the Official IRA unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Taylor, grievously wounding him in a shooting. The organisation’s statement following the attack noted: “Mr Taylor was the main advocate of the policy of cratering Border roads. This policy was designed to heighten tension along the Border.”
Numerous newspaper reports from Northern Ireland in the last quarter of 1971 report locals refilling roads after British Army operations. After just a few weeks of the operation, the cost for supplies – explosives, vehicles – was estimated at £10,000 in the currency of the time.
By the end of the year, a joke was circulating among political circles in Belfast and London regarding the road cratering strategy: Ulster Unionists wanted all the cratered roads on the border to be marked as holes on a map. The map was then to be presented by British officers to Prime Minister Edward Heath with the instructions to tear along the dotted line.
When the British Army sought to blockade roads with anti-tank traps instead of cratering, locals simply used construction machinery to remove the “spikes” as soon as the army left the scene. Sometimes, they did not even wait that long.
With time, the value of this tactic towards reducing violence was bound to be questioned – particularly as Provisional IRA attacks on British Army border operations were becoming increasingly sophisticated and commonplace. On one occasion in December 1971, soldiers came under sustained rifle and machinegun fire from the border, just 150 yards away.
Although the troops succeeded in cratering the road, this was their third time having to do so. On both previous occasions, locals refilled the road as soon as the soldiers had left. A newspaper report of the incident noted that “local residents were last night making plans to fill them again.”
The following month, a British soldier was killed by concealed mines during a cratering operation. Several days earlier, a British Army helicopter was reported to have fired on an IRA unit attempting an ambush of a cratering party. Gunfire from the helicopter was indiscriminate and struck houses on the southern side of the border, causing a diplomatic event.
In January 1972, over 1,000 rounds were fired in an exchange between the British Army and Provisional IRA units on the border. Following the encounter, a claymore-type bomb was found and defused. The command wire from the bomb ran over the border into the South.
The same day, John Taylor claimed that cratering led to “a considerable decline” in the number of hit-and-run attacks along the border. Taylor also acknowledged that nearly half of the 140 roads that were made impassable had been filled in again by locals.
Three days later, the Parachute Regiment indiscriminately fired into a Civil Rights demonstration in the city of Derry, killing thirteen civilians; another man later died of his wounds. Any remaining bonds of support for or tolerance towards the British Army within the nationalist community had been irrevocably broken. The conflict had entered its bloodiest year where, at its height, the Provisional IRA were conducting attacks across the border daily.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee reported on the possible outcomes for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as part of the Brexit strategy:
“33,000 members of the Armed Forces were deployed in Northern Ireland. If you talk to veterans, I do not think you will find a single officer who thought the border was sealed for one hour during that period. All the evidence is that it was not.”
George Hamilton, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, believes that any physical infrastructure along the border would become the subject of “unhelpful attention” from militant Irish republicans. He has emphatically ruled out any border situation which would make his officers into “sitting ducks”.
Any proposal to address the border issue – the new “Irish question” – must be mindful of past and future; potential support for militant Irish republicans today and the inability to police the border with thousands of troops during the three decade-long ‘Troubles’.