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The IRA bombing of two ships led to an Irish/British dispute over territorial waters

The border in Lough Foyle caused some serious debate.

PROVISIONAL IRA ATTACKS on British merchant shipping in and around Northern Ireland’s waterways led to a territorial dispute between the Irish and British governments.

Details of the Irish government’s reservations about dealing with their British counterparts over subsequent compensation claims have been revealed in detail.

PastedImage-58802 Lough Foyle with Derry to the east and Donegal to the west. Source: Google Maps

In February 1981, coal ship the Nellie M was making its way from Liverpool to Derry and was anchored in Lough Foyle before the final leg of its journey.

Meanwhile, a team of 12 IRA volunteers had hijacked a pilot boat in the Inishowen coastal village of Moville. They forced the boat’s pilot to take seven of them out to the Nellie M as it was was anchored about 300 yards from the Donegal coast.

After they boarded the Nellie M, they told the ship’s skipper that their plan was to sink it as part of the IRA’s campaign against British shipping in Irish waters. The Nellie M’s crew were put in lifeboats while three of the IRA men planted explosives in the ship’s engine room.

As the crew and the IRA men made their way back to shore the first of the bombs went off, causing a fire that could be seen across the peninsula. A second explosive timed to go off a number of hours later completely scuppered the vessel.

The IRA carried out another very similar attack on the St Bedan coal ship just over a year later.

Aftermath of the Nellie M bombing

It is here that the dispute between the two governments began.

There is no line of demarcation in Lough Foyle’s waters to separate Donegal from Derry and thus the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

When the boat was sunk,  garda divers were sent down to the wreck to check for unexploded charges and the vessel was subsequently salvaged by an Irish company

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The Minister for Foreign Affairs also stated in the Dáil that the ship “was very definitely and certainly within our jurisdiction”.

Nellie_M_sunk The Nellie M was sunk by two IRA explosives placed in the engine room. Source: Wikimedia

Claims for compensation by the boat’s owners, a Liverpoool-registered company, and those who owned cargo on board were submitted to both Donegal County Council and the Northern Ireland Office.

The UK was, however, keen to resolve the matter because they did not want a public dispute over the issue of jurisdiction. They offered to pay half of the costs of the compensation claims without the need for legal proceedings.

But the Irish government didn’t want to go down this road, as recorded by government documents from the time:

Based on the view of their legal adviser, the Department of Foreign Affairs took the view that so to proceed would imply an element of doubt about jurisdiction over the precise area where the ship was bombed, which was without any doubt on the Irish side of the line that might be drawn on any of the bases used internationally for demarcation.

Despite diplomatic wrangling, the UK went ahead and a paid a portion compensation through the Northern Ireland Office.

Read: Martin McGuinness: ‘I never talk about shooting anybody but I was a member of the IRA’ >

Read: Browne on Adams: “He was by far the most important person in the IRA from 1980 onwards.” >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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