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Former Real IRA commander: Even cameras on masts would be seen as 'spy posts' in border regions

John Connolly, the group’s leader in prison in the 2000s, says things would change dramatically in the event of a hard border.

A FORMER COMMANDER of the Real IRA has said that life around the border would change “dramatically” in the short-term in the event of a hard Brexit. 

Even basic infrastructure like a camera on a mast would be attacked and removed and resurgent armed republican groups would stage a massive recruitment drive, John Connolly, a former officer commanding of the Real IRA’s prisoners, said in an interview with TheJournal.ie

Connolly, who was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in jail after being caught with a large ‘barrack buster’ mortar bomb in Fermanagh in 2000, stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of any group or organisation and did not wish to see a return to violence, but was offering an analysis of the situation based on his experience. 

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, he said, any form of physical infrastructure imposed by the British government would be seen as the manifestation of “a foreign occupying military force”. 

The Good Friday Agreement would be dead and buried.

20190213_143539 John Connolly, a former senior figure in the Real IRA, at a bridge on the Fermanagh-Monaghan border. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Cameras would be regarded as “spy posts” and removed by the local population in border areas, he said. 

“The British government don’t seem to have learned from the past. From oppression grows resistance. It definitely does. We’re living in peaceful times at the minute and no-one wants to go back to the war years.”

Customs posts would not stop smuggling either, he said. “It never stopped it in the past.” 

He said he didn’t believe European Union cameras or border infrastructure would be attacked, but warned that any EU posts or masts that were erected would soon be mirrored by the British government on the other side of the border and that the situation would then “escalate in a big, big way”. 

Connolly stressed several times in the course of the interview that his war was over and that he did not represent any republican armed or political entity. He said he cut all ties with armed groups after being released from prison in 2007.

His analysis that border posts would become a target is in line with views expressed by a range of security experts and senior politicians, including PSNI chief constable George Hamilton who said they would be regarded as “fair game” by violent dissident republicans. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, speaking at Davos last month, said that if things went very wrong in Brexit negotiations it could result in the need for “cameras, physical infrastructure, possibly a police presence, or an army presence to back it up”. 

Security analyst and former Defence Forces officer Tom Clonan, who served at the border during The Troubles, said he also agreed with Connolly’s assessment – but that he believed EU border posts would also be attacked.

“There are elements within the border area that do not want normal policing. So anything like that would be very, very provocative in the border areas – masts, aerials, sensors, or cameras would be seen as very provocative. I believe that that type of infrastructure would be attacked and would be destroyed.

“He and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I was a member of Oglaigh Na hÉireann. We were there to uphold law and order in the State and he’s a person right at the other end of the spectrum who took matters into his own hands, but I would agree completely with his analysis.

The only thing is I would go further in saying that you could put the European Union flag on it, you could but the Red Cross on it, you could put the Starship Federation markings on it, it will be taken down and destroyed. 
It would be felt that the information gathered and data gathered by those EU systems would be shared with the British government and particularly with the HM Revenue and Customs service.

Brexit A mock customs post erected by anti-Brexit campaigners in Co Louth. Source: Niall Carson

Border violence

The first roads along the 500km border began to be closed in response to the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s. Even harsher restrictions and increased fortification was introduced as violence in the North spiralled out of control in the early 1970s.

At the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and early 80s most smaller border roads around the Fermanagh-Monaghan border, where Connolly is from, were spiked, blocked with large concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army. Traffic crossing the border along main routes had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays. 

Attacks on British Army troops and positions were frequent. Connolly, who was born in the mid-70s, said he remembers “explosions going off. There was gunfire, gun battles.” 

There was a lot of gun battles in my area with the British Army and the Irish Republican Army, an awful lot of gun battles at the border posts.

Sectarian killings had sparked an upsurge in those army road closures in the area after the start of the Troubles – including the 1972 murders, within the space of 24 hours, of an off-duty member of the UDR by the IRA, and the killing of two Catholic farmers the following day by members of the British Army.

Connolly said he remembered being taken off his school bus, as children were made to line up on the road to show their schoolbags to British soldiers. 

“If we didn’t do it they were physically taken off us and you would get pushed on the ground and all. You know, they were like animals.

“They were very jumpy you see. They were very jumpy [because] they were waiting to be fired on.

I can understand… they were in a war zone. There was a war back then. There’s no war now. That was a war back then because I’ve seen it.

Accounts from the time tell how an atmosphere of tension and mistrust became entrenched in the area. The IRA regarded members of the security forces as legitimate targets. The Protestant farming community had become deeply suspicious of Catholics – any of whom, they believed, could have been part of the IRA’s information network.

Said Connolly: “You have Catholic farmers and Protestant farmers – everyone’s all friendly now. Back at the time of the Troubles they wouldn’t look at each other, there would be hatred. You don’t realise the hatred there would have been back then. 

“But now everyone is talking, everyone is getting on. Neighbours, both Catholic and protestant, doing things for each other that back in the war years, when things were bad, they wouldn’t even look at each other.” 

A return to those days is “the last thing I want to see and it’s the last thing that people in my area want to see, and that is a hard border coming back”. 

Ulster Talks Tower British Army watch towers on the border in South Armagh in the early 2000s. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Real IRA 

Connolly said that British military checkpoints were being attacked on a daily basis at the height of the conflict. In contrast, he said there was “no appetite” for armed conflict now.

“I was part of the provisional movement myself. I was caught and charged and done for intelligence gathering and I did time for that as a young man, for collecting intelligence for the Provisional IRA.” 

Connolly was sentenced to a five-year term in prison in the early 90s. As the peace process gathered pace, later that decade, he was part of the group that broke away from the Provisional IRA at the time of the 1997 ceasefire and did not sign up to the provisions of the following year’s Good Friday Agreement. 

He was jailed for 14 years alongside two other men for possession of the mortar bomb at a crossroads in Co Fermanagh on Armistice Day in November 2000, and was the leader of the Real IRA’s prisoners in Antrim’s Maghaberry Prison until his release in 2007.

Said Connolly: “I did not agree with the decommissioning of IRA weapons. That’s why I broke all contact with the provisional movement. I would have left that movement very disoriented and felt very let down that they would go and decommission weapons that were needed to fight an occupying force.” 

Connolly said he regarded the breakaway group to be the true IRA. Speaking about current armed groups he said he did not use the term “dissident” to describe them. 

Regarding their ongoing activities, he said: “You do have armed groups out there that are continuing the struggle. But I am not in support of armed struggle myself. I’ll not condemn people who are, okay? Because I would be a hypocrite if I did, especially with my past of being involved in armed actions myself.”

Asked about the recent car bomb attack in Derry, which the PSNI says was carried out by the dissident New IRA, he said: ”I have no comment on that.”

Army presence 

The need for customs posts along the border ended as the Troubles were still ongoing when the EU single market came into effect in 1993. 

As the peace process continued in the 2000s in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the Sinn Féin leadership made the demilitarisation of the border, particularly in South Armagh, one of its key demands in the negotiations leading to the establishment of a stable Northern Assembly. 

Britain removed the last of its armoured towers at Crossmaglen police station in February of 2007. The British Army formally ended its long-running Operation Banner later the same year, as its presence along the border was no longer deemed necessary. 

Increasing numbers of specialist troops have, however, been deployed to the North in recent years in response to a resurgent dissident threat under a new strategy known as Operation Helvetic. 

Clonan, the security analyst, explained that these troops include highly trained explosive ordnance disposal officers and the Special Reconnaissance Squadron of the SAS, which acts in support of MI5 and the PSNI in countering the threat posed by dissident republicans, in particular the New IRA. 

Said Clonan: “All of the political discussion has been about law-abiding people, people exporting and importing. But Brexit would create a huge opportunity for non-law abiding people, for criminal elements. Because if we become a European Union frontier then there will be opportunities there for the movement of illegal goods, contraband goods, illegal substances, drugs, people… It will open up all sorts of stuff and the organised criminal elements on this island are very organised and they are very well armed.

“Groups like that have very, very close links to both dissident armed loyalists and republicans – those links are already there and they’re well documented. So the criminal element will use nationalist and loyalist rhetoric to ramp up the tension.”

Acts of violence, Clonan said, “will have the effect of disrupting normal policing and normal monitoring of the border in the name of republican rhetoric and loyalist rhetoric. But really a lot of it will be fuelled by criminality. That border – a value exchange on the island, a change of jurisdiction – that doesn’t exist now because we’re all in the European union … so that will pour petrol on that particular fire.”

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