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An IRA 'propaganda victory': US embassy was asked not to issue travel advice after 1980s rail bombings

The Irish and UK governments expressed their concern at a travel advisory being issued to US travellers, confidential documents show.

The railway line to Belfast at Connolly Station, Dublin. File photo from 2002.
The railway line to Belfast at Connolly Station, Dublin. File photo from 2002.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IRELAND AND THE UK had expressed their opposition to the US issuing a travel advisory following several bomb threats on the Dublin-Belfast line in 1989, arguing that it would represent a “propaganda victory” for the IRA.

An Irish government briefing document sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the British Embassy had been informed that the US State Department would be issuing a travel advisory note about IRA bombs on the Dublin-Belfast railway line. 

The documents were released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

Dated 18 August, it says that “our Minister” (presumably Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerry Collins) had called the Irish ambassador to the US Margaret Heckler to express concern about the advisory note. 

A British embassy official was quoted in the document as saying that “the British view was that issuing the advisory would be ‘a pity’ but it must be for the US to make their own judgement on these matters”.

Further on in the confidential document, it said that the US had decided to issue a travel advisory note to its citizens on 22 August, even though “the Irish and British sides had argued against” one, and asked that the Minister be informed “at lunch in Iveagh House today”. 

In a separate document sent from Washington and marked as “confidential”, it says that the US “recognise the validity of the Minister’s concerns”.

“However, the US believe that an announcement to travellers is necessary and in this context refer to the Pan Am 103 incident. The US understand that the incidents on the Dublin-Belfast rail line are not aimed at Americans.

The US have taken into account the concerns about affording a propaganda victory to terrorists.

The wording of the advisory was:

Travellers to Northern Ireland should be aware that frequent bomb threats and small explosions by the Provisional Irish Republican Army have interrupted rail service, especially on the Belfast-Dublin line. 
Since the explosives have been placed on the tracks and not on the trains and authorities have received warnings, there have been no injuries or deaths to date. Authorities have responded by closing the tracks and providing alternative transportation by bus: travellers should be prepared for delays and should follow the advice of the authorities.

The document said that the advisory “was a mild one” and added that “the British had been concerned at the prospect of a stronger advisory”. 

20191204_152907 Source: The National Archive/State Papers

A number of bomb threats to the Dublin-Belfast railway line took place in the 1980s: the line was closed for 40 days from mid-December 1988 and March 1989. These attacks were condemned by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Lenihan on 13 March 1989 when he condemned the attacks on the North-South line, and called the IRA attacks “ironic”:

“What do those who conduct this campaign expect to gain from a bombing campaign against a railway line which brings passengers and freight to and from both parts of our island? 

“It is ironic that, as we approach 1992 and the progressive elimination of barriers between north and south, the continuing campaign of violence… are deepening the division between the two parts of the island and seriously damaging on-going business, trade and personal links between North and South, and their further development.”

An internal document showed that the “the local guess” for why the line was targeted was that “the IRA campaign against the line is connected with road haulage”, but another source was “strongly sceptical” of this, “arguing that the main suppliers using the railway, Irish Cement and Guinness, would not be vulnerable to control of any kind by the IRA; they would transport their produce by sea if necessary”.

One example: A close call

On 1 August 1989, a note was sent to the Assistant Secretary General Gallagher stating that on the previous day, the Samaritans received a telephone call at 22.10 giving them a 30-minute warning of a bomb on the Dublin-Belfast line. 

“A search operation was mounted and a package containing the bomb was found on the Southbound track in Lurgan station at 22.38hrs. The line was cleared and at 22.57hrs the bomb was detonated. Fortunately there were no casualties.” 

The briefing note says that the train, which was an NIR Express train, was 35 minutes late, which avoided a greater disaster.

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“The British side say, however, that if the train had been a CIÉ [Córas Iompair Éireann] owned locomotive and had been travelling on time, a potentially disastrous situation would have arisen.”

The train would have been due in Lurgan at 22.10hrs, the precise time at which the warning was received. 

It said that even with a few minutes notice, it would not have been possible to notify the CIE train “because of absence of radio contact with CIE trains” due to a technical issue. 

The bomb had been placed directly on the track and the train itself would have detonated it.

The briefing outlines that CIE trains cannot be contacted north of Tantragee, but because NIR trains had a duel frequency system, they can be contacted “as far south as Malahide”, or anywhere else on the line.

“The potentially disastrous situation that could have arisen last evening adds to considerable urgency to solving this problem,” the briefing note concludes.

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