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The Clontibret affair

The night Peter Robinson and a gang of masked loyalists invaded a Co Monaghan village

The incursion terrorised a village – and later criminal charges threatened to derail the future first minister’s career.

EVENTS OF THE past few weeks have done little to change the widely-held impression that politics in Northern Ireland seems to do little else but lurch from crisis to crisis – with the two sides retreating to their entrenched, tribal positions whenever disputes flare up.

But a look-back at a bizarre event that kicked off months of controversy some thirty years ago underscores just how far politics in the North has come in the last few decades.

The ‘Clontibret Affair’, as it came to be known, came to an end thirty years ago this month with a final appearance before the Special Criminal Court by Peter Robinson.

The DUP politician accepted a charge of ‘unlawful assembly’ for his part in an incursion by some 150 loyalists into the Co Monaghan village the previous summer, along with a hefty fine.

Robinson’s decision to take part in the invasion, during which gardaí were attacked and missiles thrown at buildings, almost derailed his political career.

And although his boss and political mentor, Ian Paisley, gave full-throated support to his then-deputy throughout the controversy, the events of Clontibret became a bone of contention between the two men in later years – with Robinson challenging Paisley’s recollection of events just months before the latter’s death.

What happened? 

The 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which for the first time gave Dublin an advisory role in the North, had been met with fury by the unionists (Paisley gave his famous “never, never, never…” speech to rally protesting the deal, attending by hundreds of thousands of people).

Politics - Northern Ireland - Anglo-Irish Deal - Belfast Paisley addresses a rally at Belfast City Hall. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

After almost a year of unrest, more protests and demonstrations had been called for the evening of 6-7 August 1986: one, it turned out, wasn’t scheduled to begin until the early hours of the morning, just a few miles from the border – on the southern side. An official’s note to the British ambassador, released years later, described how 150 loyalists, “some wearing paramilitary uniforms and carrying cudgels,” invaded Clontibret in the dead of night.

Garda Frank Gallagher, recalling the events in court later, said he was woken by noise at around 1.35am, looked out his window and saw several cars, accompanied by people walking on both sides of the road.

“They were lined up in fours out in the middle of the road there,” another garda, Jim Curran, told a reporter the next day.

Someone was in command and they gave a command of ‘quick march’. They marched down the village and came back up again and stopped up at the cross here – and that’s when the patrol car and the army arrived.

It later transpired that the RUC had tipped off gardaí about the expected events of the night – and armed Garda reinforcements arrived from Monaghan town within half an hour.

Journalist Ed Moloney recounted what happened next in his biography of Ian Paisley: three Special Branch officers, armed with revolvers and Uzi submachine guns, arrived in an unmarked car – to find a line of men blocking the village’s main street.

They reversed, before approaching again slowly – joined this time by two officers from a uniformed police patrol who drove their marked car ahead of the gardaí dispatched from Monaghan.

As they approached the line of loyalists, Garda Leo O’Hara got out of his car – but almost instantly, the crowd moved forward and started shouting. The garda was struck in the back, and later recounted:

The crowd then grabbed me and pulled me on the road. I struck out with my fists but was overwhelmed by the numbers of the crowd. I was thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten repeatedly with an iron bar. I heard shouts of ‘get the bastard, kill him’ and I screamed and screamed.

A series of warning shots discharged by the Garda Special Branch officers dispersed the crowd – who fled to their cars and back across the border.

clon12 RTÉ News / screengrab RTÉ News / screengrab / screengrab

As gardaí gave chase, one invader was apprehended at random. As the dust settled, it later became clear that the man, detained under the Offences Against the State Act, was Peter Robinson MP – already a well-known figure in Northern politics, and the deputy leader of the DUP.

The extent of the damage emerged as the village awoke the next day. Slogans had been painted on several buildings, including the garda station. Stones and small trees, which had been uprooted from a garden next-door, were also thrown at the station. Windows and lights had been broken on the main street – and locals gave multiple accounts of masked men marching through the town, carrying bars and other basic weapons.

“It was terrifying – we were all shaking in bed,” one woman told RTÉ the next day.

Court drama 

The loyalists insisted that the incursion had proved the lack of security along the border – and speaking to the media from his police cell in Monaghan the following day, Robinson was unrepentant.

“I confess that I could have run away if I had sought to run away,” the MP for Belfast East told Downtown Radio.

“But I was there to observe security and I saw no reason, as I had done nothing wrong, as to why I should run away.

I can tell you this – that as far as security along the border is concerned we have the worst area of South Armagh with a gaping hole in it without any sign of security forces on either side of the border.

If hundreds of men could walk around in what was supposed to be bandit country, Robinson asked, “how much easier must it be for the IRA going in ones and twos?”.

90437419_90437419 Paisley and Robinson at Dundalk Courthouse in August 1986. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

The incident was condemned by both the British and Irish governments. The official Northern Ireland Office report noted that Robinson appeared to have lingered behind deliberately. He had been held in custody for 32 hours, the report added, during which time “he refused all sustenance provided by the gardaí, preferring the wholesome Ulster food brought to him by his wife”.

Robinson was later charged with four offences, the report said, “including assaulting gardaí and causing willful damage”. Bail was set at IR£10,000 in court the following day – double the amount expected by his lawyers.

“The court sitting was timed to take place after the banks had shut and the judge then raised the bail,” Ian Paisley contended in a complaint later made to the British foreign office.

“Dr Paisley claimed that this was a deliberate attempt to prevent Mr Robinson’s release from custody,” an official report on Paisley’s complaint said.
He also pointed out that £10,000 sterling had been handed over and alleged that the Irish authorities had failed to keep their promise to repay the difference between the Sterling and Punt values.

90172082_90172082 Peter and Iris Robinson arrive in Dundalk with Ian Paisley and supporters. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

After a later court appearance, in Dundalk, Robinson’s supporters were chased out of town. News footage from the time shows stones and petrol bombs being thrown as the loyalists were pursued back their cars.

Paisley complained to foreign office officials that he and Robinson had been afforded “totally inadequate protection” and had “narrowly escaped with their lives”.

“The DUP leader claimed that £100,000 worth of damage had been done to cars belonging to Mr Robinson’s lawyer and supporters because of the Garda’s failure to protect them,” the foreign office report, released in 2014, said.

Robinson, speaking to the same officials, “expressed grave concern about his safety should he appear in court again, as required, on October 2nd”.

Threat to career 

The saga eventually came to an end in January of the following year – but only after another dramatic turn of events.

At that October court appearance, Robinson learned that he would be served with seven further charges – including that of assaulting a garda in the course of duty.

If found guilty, the MP could face up to two years in prison. While such a penalty, in and of itself, clearly presented a significant concern – as a result of laws brought in during the republican hunger strikes, it also it also meant that Robinson could be barred from standing from future elections in Westminster.

A deal that would save his career was eventually agreed: in return for the more serious charges being dropped, Robinson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful assembly.

After a night a Limerick Prison, he appeared before the Special Criminal Court for sentencing on 17 January 1987, and was set free after being fined IR£17,500.

00008921_8921 Paisley and Robinson canvass in 1996. JOHN McAVINEY / JOHN McAVINEY / /

Leadership challenge

There was speculation at the time that Robinson had planned to use his arrest as a springboard to take over the leadership of the DUP – intending to burnish his reputation among hardliners by spending jail time in the Republic.

Speaking in 2014, in what turned out to be his final interview, Paisley said that the cross-border incursion “”shouldn’t have been done”.

Asked whether there was a feeling in his family that Robinson was making a challenge for the party leadership he said: “Everybody has a right to decide for themselves what their answer to that is.”

Paisley added:

I think he (Robinson) thought that there was going to be a tremendous uprising as a result of all that, and that didn’t happen.

In a stinging public criticism of his mentor, Robinson responded by contending that Paisley, then aged 87, had had “a failure of recollection” about the incident.

Paisley “was the one who had agreed to go to Clontibret,” the then-first minister insisted.

He had to leave to go to a funeral in the US and I stepped in as his deputy into the Clontibret arrangement.

bbc Ian Paisley speaks to the BBC in a documentary aired in January 2014.

Political historian at Stranmillis University College in Belfast Dr Eamon Phoenix said that official files from the 1980s released in recent years contained speculation about tensions between Paisley and Robinson.

“He had been the loyal lieutenant since the 1970s but now was beginning to chafe at the bit somewhat at this stage, certainly,” Phoenix said.

Paisley was out of the country at the time and certainly did not authorise Clontibret, there’s no question about that – and the files would give the impression that he was actually quite cold or perhaps privately critical of Robinson’s histrionics.

There were indications the two men’s relationship had become “tetchy” by the 1980s as Robinson became increasingly frustrated that power was eluding him, Phoenix said.

It was also clear that Paisley regarded Clontibret as an attempt to gazump his leadership and to really propel Robinson to the forefront during one of his regular absences.

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