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New Myths of the Peace Process No. 3: The 1987 PIRA “Tet Offensive”or ‘one last push’… January 29, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in New Myths of the Troubles.


Here is a myth that has been beloved of dissident Republicans, and I’ve touched on it once or twice before. It runs something along the lines of the following. In 1987 PIRA was well armed, well organised and in a strong position to take on the British security forces. Various sources indicate that there was some thought given to a “Tet Offensive” style operation which would have carved out a ‘liberated’ zone in Armagh free from British Army and security forces control. The nature of this offensive is somewhat unclear, the idea being either to hold territory for its exemplary effect or to make the cost of retaking it so high that the British would be forced to shift towards withdrawal due to public pressure, but dissidents often point to the example of Jim Lynagh (Lynagh was killed in May 1987 with seven other PIRA members during an SAS ambush as he and the others attempted to attack an RUC station in the town of Loughall in Armagh) who proposed, and in some respects was actually involved in nascent, ‘flying columns’. Ed Moloney in A Secret History of the IRA proposes that these would ‘consist of perhaps twenty or thirty trusted activists, which would be based deep in the South, with its own dedicated training facilities. The column would never break camp, in a conscious imitation fo the flying columns that had run the British ragged during the 1919-21 conflict. This was meant to ensure that it would be more secure [from informers]. The column would strike three to five times a year… satellite groups would all the while attack on a harrassment basis…’.

The myth has, in many respects, something close to the Weimar narrative of the ‘stab in the back’. In this case it is those who followed the Peace Process route – Adams and McGuinness who are portrayed as either being corrupted in some sense, unable to see what was going on, or worse. Although a critic of the armed struggle I treat this on the terms with which those who propound it propound it, so to speak. It should not be read in any sense as other than an analysis along utilitarian lines, and in no way represents a justification or apologia for the armed struggle. Indeed, if anything it demonstrates the essential futility of that struggle as time passed.

So…. just how serious was this proposed offensive? Or more importantly, whether serious or not just how feasible was such an offensive?

Firstly the idea has intrigued me since I read about it in The Fight for Peace by Eamon Mallie and David McKittrick. There they wrote that:

… it is now known that the IRA army council seriously considered what senior republicans described among themselves as ‘the Tet offensive’ option. This was a reference to the sudden Vietcong switch of tactics in the Vietnam war from guerrilla hit-and-run actions to standing and fighting in pitched battles. The Americans had been taken by surprise; the IRA wondered if they could surprise the British in the same way.

The era of the hunger strike and the anti-British sentiment which it generated had provided a stream of new recruits to the republican cause. The huge Libyan arsenal then gave the IRA unprecedented potential for wreaking havoc. It had virtually unlimited numbers of rifles; it had heavy machine guns firing armour-piercing rounds which could cut through even protected police vehicles; it had powerful Semtex plastic explosive; it had SAM-7 missiles and anti-aircraft guns capapble of downing helicopters and planes; it even had flame-thrower, which could propel a jet of Napalm like flame up to 80 years…

With such weapons the AC examined the option of … escalating into a more open form of warfare. A republican source said ‘Consideration was given to open confrontation… Ground to air missiles were coming in and there was aview that with all this gear the campaign should be stepped up.

A Tet offensive was a runner. They very seriously tested it – they put different areas on full alert on seek and destroy missions. The idea was to take on the army on roads and at fortifications with fifty to sixty IRA members invovlved at a time and to attack helicopters’. The option was, however, discarded, a senior IRA members explaining; ‘We could do, say, six months’ intense fighting, with heavy casualties on both sides, but the consensus in the IRA is that it wouldn’t work. The big bang wouldn’t do it’.

The key was the arms from Libya. Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find much detail about any of this, perhaps unsurprising due to the fact these were covert actions by an illegal organisation. Which leads us to an unlikely source (well, to my mind, but read on and judge for yourself). For it is -again – Ed Moloney in A Secret History of the IRA (and I have to applaud him for an even more readable updated version, whatever my qualms about his interpretations) who proves to be our most useful commentator on this period, and that’s ironic for two reasons. Firstly because in certain circles his Secret History is taken almost as the Bible of anti-Adams thinking for some of the larger conclusions it appears to draw, and secondly because it appears on close reading to say almost the opposite of what those who invest such faith in it believe.

On the issue of the Libyans Moloney writes:

So it was that as the Libyan venture was being organized, the IRA set about planning a major escalation of violence, something that would jolt Britain into reconsidering its options. The plan was modeled on the Tet offensive launched by the Vietcong in January 1968 when guerilla forces mounted a widespread and unexpected assault on US forces throughout the country. The Tet offensive is credited with beginning the end of American involvement in that part of Southeast Asia by convincing a decisive section of US public opinion that the war against North Vietnam was unwinnable. The IRA hoped to do the same with the British public.

The sense amongst the IRA was that:

‘By inflicting such big casualties, you’d get the support of radical governments elsewhere in the world,’ recalled the same source.

However, with the capture of the Eksund there was a rethink.

The capture of the Eksund changed everything…The more astute of the IRA leaders fully realized the consequences. ‘It was over, and it led directly to a stalemate situation which then fed into the peace process’. The IRA’s grassroots were jubilant over the organizations newfound strength, but even this was illusory. The IRA had lots of weapons, but it was by no means certain that they were the best that could be had. The value of the AK-47s, for example, had been exaggerated. ‘The volunteers thought they could fire round corners,’ remembered the same source. The heavy Soviet machine guns were pretty much useless. ‘They took three men to carry and only fired eighty rounds to a belt; they fired too slow,’ recalled a rural IRA activists. The SAM-7s were virtually obsolete. They dated back to the 1960s, and the batteries and firing mechanisms were dead and useless. Without Libyan assistance, and that was cut off when the Eksund was lost, they could not be replaced , and the SAM-7s stayed in their dumps.

But even this betrays a certain lack of realism. Support might be one thing, note however that the Soviet Union was always remarkably circumspect about PIRA, but tangible assistance would be quite another.
Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the idea was raised and subsequently dismissed in order to demonstrate the paucity of the armed struggle as a means of prosecuting change on the island. What better way to shift the discussion by putting forward an option that was but an exaggeration (at least as Lynagh saw it) of then current tactics in order for it to be – however reluctantly – put aside.
It’s also important to note how the Tet Offensive has become intertwined with the thinking of Lynagh. On the wiki entry of Pádraig McKearney, one of those killed at Loughall with Jim Lynagh, there is an entry:

His views were very close to those of Jim Lynagh, an IRA commander from County Monaghan, who devised a Maoist guerrilla strategy adapted to Irish conditions with the intent of creating liberated zones.

Further in that entry it is noted:


Note 1: The “Third Phase” in Provisional IRA thinking represented an escalation of the conflict in Northern Ireland with eventual aim of using conventional warfare by taking and holding “liberated zones” along the border. Due to a number of factors, including the loss of experienced activists at Loughgall and the interception of 150 tonnes of Libyan weaponry aboard the Eksund ship, this strategy was never carried out. (See also: Provisional IRA arms importation and Provisional IRA campaign 1969-1997)

Peter Taylor in Provos has an interesting point where he also argues that the IRA was energized by the ‘mass break-out of senior IRA prisoners from the Maze on 25 September 1983. The escape was important, not just to fulfill an IRA prisoners first duty (to escape), but to provide experienced men to regenerate the campaign outside’.

He continues…

Amongst them was Padraig McKearney, brother of Tommy McKearney and one of the architects of a new strategy in which police and army bases were to be attacked and destroyed in order to deny the ‘enemy’ the ground, thus forcing them to retreat ever further north. The Vietcong had pursued a similar strategy in Vietnam. As a local man, Francie Molloy understood the strategy and the reasons behind it.

“The Tyrone IRA would have been trying to do in Tyrone what Tom Barry’s Flying Columns did in Cork in 1920-21. They were typical republican guerrilla politics. I think what they were trying to do in a pretty targeted way was to removed what the British and unionists would see as the second line of defence, like the second border”.

Ed Moloney raises an interesting issue. Talking about Lynagh and McKearney he notes that their military critique ‘… opposed two tenets of the Army Council’s strategy as it was developed in the mid-to late 1980s, both closely associated with Adams concept of republican struggle: namely the notion that the IRA’s war was a piece of armed propaganda and that Britain would be forced to move when enough soldiers were killed.’ Now, this seems somewhat contradictory. One can oppose one or other of those contentions, but not both. A war that is in effect ‘armed propaganda’ does not strike one as being the sort of conflict where ‘enough soldiers’ will be killed to prompt a withdrawal. What the Lynagh/McKearney military critique also opposed was the “Long War” strategy, in the sense that it pushed for a shorter much much sharper conclusion to force the conflict to a head. In any event, Moloney quotes a former associate of Lynagh and McKearney as saying that:

[they] didn’t believe sending Brits home in boxes would work, because the British army wasn’t a conscript army…they were working on the basis that a radical departure had to be made. The idea was either total war or no war at all, to force the British out of their bases and make the place ungovernable. They said that either the IRA should take it to that level or finish with the war; killing the odd UDR man did nothing. They believe the “Green Book” was shit, that it was based upon the false idea that the IRA would be able to operate from its home base and at the same time be able to resist interrogation at Castlereagh. Their response was the enemy will not allow you to survive in his bosom. Would Castro have survived if he had been Havana rather than in the mountains? That was the question they asked.

The problem with this approach is self-evident. Conflict, indeed history itself, is shaped by what is possible. The PIRA campaign emerged as it did much because it was possible, possible in the sense that it depended upon a balance between many different forces and dynamics including, but not limited to, the ability of the British state to react, the input of Volunteers, available weaponry and behind it all the passive – or active – support and participation of the wider Republican/Nationalist community. Remove any one of those factors, or add another and the conflict would change its nature. But, it is the comparison between Cuba and the North which is most telling. Accepting that there were complexities on both sides (not least in Cuba being the participation of Communists in earlier Batista governments) an insurgency in the 1950s to overthrow a society without the crucial politico-religious divide in Northern Ireland was a very different insurgency to one conducted in the mid- to late 1980s in a surveillance saturated, divided societal context.
Note that blame in the wiki entry is placed on the ‘loss of experienced activists’. Eight in total. Was it seriously proposed that eight activists could form the nucleus of a force which would create ‘liberated zones’? In the Toby Harnden’s odd and not entirely convincing account of South Armagh, Bandit Country, (which is written from a staunchly British perspective) he notes that:

Lynagh was a great admirer of Tom (Slab) Murphy because he commanded what Lynagh described a ‘liberated zone’ in South Armagh. Having studied Mao’s writings during his five years in Portlaoise and an earlier spell in the Maze Lynagh believed that the IRA’s aims could be achieved through the creation of a series of liberated zones which would be secured by attacking remote security force bases in mainly nationalist areas and then pushing out the few remaining Protestants. Tom Murphy admired Lynagh’s military prowess but had little time for his theorising.

Vincent McKenna said: Lynagh was into Maoism and all that sort of shite because he’d had time to read in jail. The likes of Tom Murphy and Kevin McKenna had probably never read a book in their lives.

Even taking into account the bias that is inherent in the text it is perhaps a fair appraisal by some on the ground of the ‘theorising’.

And here a questions has to be asked. What would it take to take and hold ‘liberated’ zones even for a limited period? For a start one might suggest the necessity to have a neighbouring state willing to resupply and to provide shelter during military counter measures. And go look at a map. The terrain which was to be ‘liberated’ was quite tiny, relatively easy in the eyes of the British to contain.

Now, having said that, if the object of the exercise was to force a response that was disproportionate then, yes, it is possible that under the guise of establishing ‘liberated zones’ it might have been possible to provoke a security/military response of such enormity that it would near-permanently alienate nationalists in that area. Yet, all this was really an attempt to wind the clock back to 1970 – 1973 when the initial stages of the conflict were at their height and when one might argue there was the greatest level of mobilisation. Or wind it back to a completely imaginary period.

But there is a further contradiction. Moloney argues that ‘the offensive was daring and ambitious, but it suffered from a single flaw. Its success hinged on the IRA’s preserving the element of surprise.’ He continues that according to one activist “You were all supposed to wake up one morning, switch on the radio, and discover that mayhem had broken out everywhere…the impact was supposed to have been earth-shattering”.

Moloney suggests that ‘whoever betrayed the Eksund robbed the IRA of a priceless asset… the British soon knew exactly what weapons had been brought in, and they were quickly able to put countermeasures in place’. The SAM-7s intended to down helicopters ‘were rendered useless when the British installed electronic countermeasures on the helicopters [although some sources suggest they were never fit for purpose in the first place being already obsolete]…. the Russian-made DHSK machine guns were far too heavy to be [used against helicopters – although oddly enough they did manage, it is thought, to bring down at least two in the early 1990s] lugged around the countryside, robbing ASUs of vital speed and mobility…’

Moloney also suggests that the ‘SAM-7s were to be used against the helicopters, ideally cutting off South Armagh and leaving it under the effective control of the IRA. The threat against the helicopters would force the British to ground their aircraft and to use armored ground transport which would be vulnerable to heavy machine guns’. Unfortunately that seems to entail a contradiction. It entirely underestimates the resources available to the British in terms of men and material. Is the implication that surprise alone would render the British unable to institute the countermeasures referred to above? Hardly tenable. Or indeed that the British were entirely blind to the prospect of such arms making their way to the North (almost unbelievably a certain M. Gadaffi of Tripoli publicly spoke of his support for PIRA during the period of the shipments).

And this also assumes that PIRA could mount large scale widely dispersed actions simultaneously and successfully. Yet the actual history of the conflict suggests that for various reasons that was far from certain.

And to see how an history where the Eksund made it through, or PIRA ramped up anyhow we should look at the actuality of Tet-lite operations because these were the material upon which the ‘liberated zones’ would depend. Ed Moloney provides cold comfort as regards Loughall which was part of a campaign of attacks on RUC stations which had started in February 1985 with a mortar attack on Newry police station…

Certain features of the Loughall operation suggested the possibility of a more innocent explanation [than the machinations of informers]. Glaring mistakes were made in the planning and execution of the bombing that inadvertently could have put the British on the trail, mistakes that spoke of a reckless overconfidence and carelessness. There were, for instance, no probes made around Loughall before the attack. This was routine practice in South Armagh, where, before ambushes or other operations, sheepdogs were sent into adjoining fields to flush out undercover soldiers. Nor was there any effort to give the attackers the protection of covering fire just in case something went wrong. Such sloppiness at this late stage possibly indicated that other lapses had occurred earlier in the preparatory work and it is conceivable that this is how the British learned of the plan.

While this at least partially skewers the idea that Loughall was some sort of demonstration of the unfeasibility of a serious armed offensive (by betraying it and therefore undercutting the exercise), it also implicitly points to a serious problem as regards ramping up the armed struggle. Simply put Lynagh and his unit, whatever their individual bravery, were simply not equipped to prosecute a serious war against hardened soldiers. And that is not to buy into some mythos about the capabilities of the British Army, but simply to suggest that the war that Lynagh was fighting was one which had been played out in the Border Campaign (which in itself was hardly a resounding military success), not the one they were actually engaged in against a technologically superior, better supplied, better quartered military formation with the political will to engage right back (particularly during the Thatcher era).

And as Brendan O Boyle has noted in The Long War the response by the British Army at Loughall represents an ‘extraordinary hardening’ of the conflict since it underscored that PIRA members would be shot without warning in the course of their activities.

Even within PIRA it appears that there were those who were dubious whether with or without the Eksund weaponry it was possible to mount such a campaign. Ed Moloney relates that:

The Army Council may have miscalculated the IRA’s ability to use the Libyan weaponry to best advantage. Not everyone in the IRA was convinced that the organisation had the wherewithal to deliver such an ambitious enterprise, as one middle-ranking commander recalled. “The strategy was to mount a massive campaign, but I had been going around the units and I was not convinced it would work,” he said. “We weren’t capable of that. There hadn’t been enough organization, and our security and training weren’t good enough. We didn’t have enough intelligence work done either. If we had tried to mount it, I think it would have been a disaster. I believed we needed a lot more time, but people had got carried away with all the heavy gear.” In a sense that did not matter, for the purpose of the Tet Offensive was, like that of its Vietnamese original, to show the world how deep and violent the opposition in Ireland was. After all, the Vietnamese had been given a bloody nose during their offensive, yet the violence had helped transform American public opinion.

That’s an interesting idea at the end of the quote, that any such offensive was to be demonstrative. But if so, then it was – arguably – as cynical as the idea that the war was continued while politically moves were made that would undercut it, which is the charge leveled at Adams and McGuinness, since those who proposed it then and still support it seem to believe it was a feasible option. And beyond that, when one considers that the RIRA appears to have been comprehensively penetrated by various security forces (including the FBI) the idea that a more overt or strengthened campaign by PIRA would have fared significantly better seems remote. Moreover, unlike the Vietnamese comparison where one saw an entire society mobilised against the United States the much more marginal position of the IRA within the Six Counties predicated against the levels of support that provided the foundation for the original ‘Tet Offensive’.

But let’s draw back a bit further. The main source here for the Tet Offensive option is Ed Moloney, and as I’ve pointed out, in certain circles his thoughts on the Peace Process are regarded as near incontrovertible.

But in page after page a close reading indicates – as with the helicopters, Loughall and indeed more importantly again the lack of security within PIRA – that there was never an option for total war along the lines of a Tet campaign. And why should this be a surprise? Because PIRA was not a traditional army – per se – but an entity that contained within itself aspects of an army and aspects of an insurgent grouping. Even the best weaponry and (as importantly) the best training would have been insufficient to leverage PIRA into a force capable of taking on and besting the British Army and certainly not in the absence of a largescale mobilisation of the Nationalist population. Across the three decades the only times such a mobilisation was seen was in the very early years and then in the early 1980s. The former mobilisation a troubling example because while it probably saw the largest numbers deployed by PIRA it also saw a huge attrition of numbers through actions and external pressures (a charge that the Northern leadership would make strongly against the former Southern based one when they took the helm). That latter mobilisation was conversely a political, not a military, mobilisation. And without the means to transmute that political mobilisation it was impossible for an armed campaign to sustain itself much beyond what was already happening on the ground. Nor is it tenable, even if we suppose that the ‘liberated zones’ idea was intended to be an exemplary rather than a sustained strategy, that conflict on the lines attributed to Lynagh would have necessarily drawn the response he sought from the Nationalist community if only because there was no clear political strategy to capitalise upon the establishment of these zones, zones that would be beaten back, it would appear, relatively quickly by the British. At best what political strategy there was seemed to be along the lines of seeking the reintroduction of internment in order to radicalise Nationalist opinion, or that the process of retaking those zones would so outrage Nationalists opinion that British rule would be undermined, and hoping that would open the North to complete chaos. But would that have happened? The Sinn Féin vote, an admittedly imprecise yardstick by which to measure Nationalist sentiment, had been in slow decline from 1984 through to 1992 which suggests that the hard edged face presented by the IRA was far from self-evidently a means of increasing support and that the response by the British didn’t of itself necessitate any positive political outcome. Nationalist opinion was already somewhat mollified by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the remarkable sight of a Unionism seemingly unable to respond to the new rapprochement between London and Dublin. It might be slight progress forward – but even the minimal involvement of the Maryfield Secretariat suggested a very different context evolving from that previously. And on a practical level the attrition rate of IRA volunteers in this phase of the conflict was high. What would have been left of an organisation to actually put some shape on the chaos?

And this too is to completely ignore the political and physical environment beyond the limited and constrained discussions within the Army Council and the IRA itself.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, while but a pale shadow of a serious contribution to the process of developing a peaceful and wholly political context on the island, did signal a renewed interest on the part of the British state in reaching some sort of accommodation with the Republic of Ireland as regards the North. Indeed it’s hardly overly cynical to suggest that the British government played a twin-track approach of talking with Dublin while prosecuting a very hard edged war in order to in part assuage some Unionist concerns both before and after the AIA, particularly in the context of essentially ignoring those self-same Unionists during the negotiations that led to the AIA. Thatcher might well have been equally deaf to the pleas of Dublin in the early 1980s, but by 1985-7 it is clear that she was aware of the potential for disruption that a purely security solution would engender or one which did not gift Dublin some overt expression of interest. And most intriguingly was the development of something akin to a dismissal of Unionist opinion by her following the implementation of the AIA. Quite a turn around.

The British Army and security services were becoming increasingly adept at managing the security aspects of the conflict, containing them largely within the six counties and year by year increasing the levels of surveillance and intelligence operating both within the general environment and within the paramilitary group. Taylor notes that ‘…by the mid-eighties, the intelligence on which interceptions and ambushes were mounted was far more precise, with sophisticated electronic surveillance supplementing the information supplied by agents and informers within the IRA’s ranks’… Taylor posits that ‘the SAS went for, and largely achieved, ‘clean kills’ – the victims were armed – with the notable exception of the shooting of the three unarmed IRA Volunteers in Gibralter in 1988′.

Taylor also makes a crucial point. He argues that in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s the SAS ‘devastated the Provisional IRA in Tyrone in a manner unlike anywhere else in the province’. He continues, ‘… such operations were on the whole difficult to carry out in urban areas like Belfast and Derry because of the risk to civilians and extremely difficult in South Armagh where the locals knew every suspicious-looking hedge, barn and ditch. Under the right circumstances rural areas like Tyrone offered a perfect killing field’.

Is it unreasonable to posit that those ‘circumstances’ would proliferate across the Six Counties, and in particular in ‘liberated zones’ in a Tet style scenario?

None of this is to suggest that even a minimal Tet offensive using the weapons then available prior to the Eksund wouldn’t have assisted an increase in violence and wouldn’t have resulted in a higher profile for PIRA. It would have been a publicity coup at the very least to down a large number of helicopters (incidentally 3 or 4 helicopters were brought down subsequent to 1988). But in the actual history there was an increase in violence and as we’ve seen it was met with a heightened security response. Such an offensive would not have made the role of the British easier, but with Dublin onside the idea of covert bases ‘deep in the South’ seems like so much whistling in the dark, as does any thought that the southern side of a ‘liberated zone’ would afford refuge for any serious length of time. We’ve seen, unfortunately, in the more recent era how it is all too easy for groups to prosecute more minimal campaigns. But their scale, from the fire-bombing of shops to very sporadic bombings or attacks indicates the difficulties implicit in such activities and also their effective political paucity. Furthermore they do suggest that there was a self-limiting factor to any such campaign and one which was containable by the British state even before it set to working on more imaginative solutions in tandem with the Republic that could lead to its effective removal.

And success? Well that would have required a different, better prepared PIRA and perhaps a different Nationalist/Republican people. A people willing to gift that PIRA more in terms of blood and sweat. One or other. One or other, which, when all was said and done, simply did not exist. And ironically the analysis Lynagh and McKearney are credited with leads to one inescapable conclusion. They were correct. Total war or no war at all.

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