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Hunger strikes, murders, and a war on terror: Ireland in 1976

Eamon Sweeney’s book Down Down Deeper and Down looks at Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s a section from its fifth chapter.

Liam Cosgrove and Garret Fitzgerald
Liam Cosgrove and Garret Fitzgerald
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

TAKING ITS TITLE from a Status Quo lyric, Down Down Deeper and Down focuses on the turbulent events that took place in Ireland in the 70s and 80s. Written by Eamon Sweeney, it tells of postal strikes, rubbish strikes, hostage dramas, a pro-life referendum and when a Taoiseach voted against his own government. Here, we have an extract from the book, which looks at when the Government declared a ‘war on terror’, and the death of Frank Stagg.

Down Down Deeper and Down

1976 was the year of the hijacked hunger-striker, the murdered ambassador and the insulted president; of the great train robbery and the Heavy Gang; of banned parades, censored television and a file on suspect letters to the newspapers. Even at the time it was regarded as ‘a bad year for Irish politics, maybe the worst in decades.’

Above all it was the year in which the Government declared its very own War on Terror. Whether or not the measures taken by the coalition were justified was a subject of much debate; but it is hard to disagree with the argument advanced by Desmond O’Malley during the Dáil debate on the Emergency Powers Bill that the threat to the state had been much greater when he, as Minister for Justice, had brought in the Offences Against the State Act (1972), previously considered to be the last word in draconian legislation.

Referring to the differences between the period of November 28 and 29 1972 and September 1st and 2nd 1976 he said that there were at that time in 1972 6,000 people howling to burn the house [Dáil Éireann] and everyone in it down; there were 1,100 unarmed Gardaí at the front and back gates of the house and 100 armed troops were ready to be called in if the Gardaí had to give way . . . If one went down Molesworth Street today, there were three Gardaí, who were not even needed.

Nevertheless, the Government insisted on the correctness of its stance and, as with the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, was not slow to suggest that those troubled by the legislation were soft on, or even supportive of, the terrorists. In the end there was indeed a constitutional crisis; but it was caused not by subversives but by a Government minister.

Assassination

Christopher Ewart-Biggs Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The year’s watershed is usually held to be the assassination on 21 July of the new British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, by a landmine placed outside his official residence in Sandyford, Co. Dublin.

Liam Cosgrave specifically mentioned this killing, along with an attempted escape by five prisoners from the Special Criminal Court six days earlier, as motivating his Government to declare a state of emergency. Yet there had been signs before then of a hardening in Government policy. This was perhaps most graphically demonstrated by the different attitudes adopted towards the funeral of Michael Gaughan in 1974 and that of his fellow-Mayoman Frank Stagg in 1976.

Stagg was thirty-five years old when he died just after 6am on 12 February, after sixty-one days on hunger strike, in Wakefield Prison, Yorkshire. He had been seeking a transfer to a prison in Northern Ireland, which had been turned down by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, on the grounds that Stagg had no connection with the North. It was his fourth hunger strike in less than two years. He had been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in November 1973 for his involvement in the activities of an IRA unit in Coventry, which also included Father Patrick Fell, a priest born in England, who was sentenced to twelve years.

5th January - On this Day in History - 1976 On 5 January 1976, 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by the IRA in South Armagh. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

A week later, Stagg’s family waited in Dublin Airport for the arrival of the coffin from London, accompanied by Stagg’s brother George. As the plane landed, George Stagg realised that he was not at Dublin Airport. Two members of the Special Detective Unit who had been on the plane but had not previously revealed their identity told him that the flight had been diverted to Shannon, and that they were arresting him under the Offences Against the State Act.

When the family were informed of the diversion they travelled to Shannon, where they found that the coffin had been locked inside the airport mortuary, surrounded by approximately sixty gardaí, supported by a contingent of armed soldiers spread throughout the surrounding area.

There had been some dissension in the family about the funeral arrangements, with Stagg’s wife, Bridie, and his brother Emmet (a Labour Party member who would himself later be a member of a coalition Government) apparently disagreeing with the idea of a republican funeral.

Propaganda exercise

Henry Kissinger meets Garret Fitzgerald U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets Irish Foreign Minister Garret Fitzgerald, left, at the U.S embassy, in Paris on 18 February 1975. Source: AP/Press Association Images

It was this that Garret FitzGerald would later use to explain the Government’s decision to take control of the funeral.

 The IRA wanted to repeat the propaganda exercise of the Gaughan funeral despite the fact that Frank Stagg’s widow, who lived in England, desired a private funeral . . . We were told that the authorities in Britain had refused to accord her a police guard on her home and had entered into a deal under which it was agreed to ignore her right to her husband’s remains and to hand them over to the ira . . . His widow approached me on the matter. I was appalled by the British actions.

Yet the suggestion that the massive security operation was prompted solely by concern that the wishes of the widow be honoured seems somewhat disingenuous.

At the time, the Government justified the decision differently, a spokesman explaining that:

fears for the security of the city had influenced the government’s decision which followed advice by senior Garda officers who had studied the possibility of a funeral through Dublin provoking action that would endanger the lives and property of citizens. Shannon would be secure, viewed by loyalists as the place where the government asserted its will to downface the Provisionals. The whole picture will be one of hostility to the Provos.

Indeed this notion of a Government with eyes firmly fixed on potential loyalist reaction is borne out by FitzGerald’s reply when he was asked why Government policy had changed since the Gaughan funeral.

A lot of people have died in Dublin since as a result of bombs and we have to make our decision based on what information we have and our assessment of the situation. And our assessment was that to allow this funeral to take place in Dublin would have created a danger.

Perhaps, from a practical point of view, the Government’s decision could be construed as being the right one. Yet this does not explain why the family had to be left waiting at Dublin Airport for a coffin that did not turn up, or indeed why Stagg’s mother and brothers were not allowed into the mortuary to sit with the coffin. George Stagg recalled:

We spent the whole night there in parked cars outside the door of the morgue. We pleaded for his mother and one member of the family to be let in to spend the night with the coffin in the old West of Ireland way. But no, no, no, no, under no circumstances. They were vicious about it.

There seemed to be a certain gratuitously punitive element in the behaviour of the authorities, something that would surface again during the year and give 1976 its peculiarly unlovable flavour.

Extracted from Down Down Deeper and Down, published by Gill Books and out now, priced at €16.99

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Eamon Sweeney

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