the night of May 5 - 6th exactly thirty years ago in 1976 a
was on duty at a remote checkpoint at Flagstaff on an unapproved
road which overlooked Omeath.
was a routine vigil on a lonely hilltop, the boredom only
interrupted by the odd approaching vehicle or a stray sheep
crossing the road for better grazing.
checkpoint was deemed essential by the Irish Government because
of the volatile situation in the north, and the fear of
incursions into the Republic by Loyalists terror gangs, one of
whom, only four days previously had brutally murdered
46-year-old Seamus Ludlow having picked him up as he hitched a
lift out of Dundalk and dumped his body near his home.
after 10.30 on the night of May 5th / 6th the Garda stepped onto
the road to stop an approaching car. The two occupants initially
obeyed the signal to stop but when asked about their destination
and the contents of their car they started to supply the Garda
with smart aleck responses.
Garda, who incidentally is still serving in Dundalk, asked the
men to step out of the car. He had observed that the passenger
in the front seat had a large map on his lap and had what
appeared to be a gun under the map.
alert Garda, in compliance with his duty, ordered the men to
step out of the car. They were very reluctant until, unknown to
the men, members of the Irish Army, rifles at the ready, stepped
out of the bushes when they realised that the Garda’s
instructions were not being obeyed.
in their car by Irish soldiers pointing rifles at them, the
men’s attitude dramatically changed. They stepped out of the
car and meekly submitted. When the Garda searched their vehicle
they were surprised to discover two sub machine guns, pump
action shotguns and a number of hand guns.
Garda, with the assistance of the Irish soldiers, arrested the
pair and brought them to Omeath Garda station.
so doing the Garda unwittingly stirred up one of the biggest
hornet’s nests ever uncovered during the entire conflict with
reverberations that echoed across the Irish sea not just in the
day after the incident, but for months on end.
reason for the political storm that blew up between Britain and
Ireland was that the two men in the car, both in civilian
attire, were later identified as members of the elite undercover
British Army unit, the SAS, operating, it was claimed in the
Dail days afterwards, “on a search and destroy mission” in
only that but about 20 minutes after the first two men were
arrested and taken under escort to Omeath station a second
vehicle, containing six men drove up to the checkpoint. They too
were armed and claimed that they were searching for the first
six were members of the same SAS unit and the bewildered
under-strength Garda unit in Omeath, under the command of Sergt.
Pat McLoughlin, who was subsequently shot in Dunboyne in 1986,
had to quickly take instructions on what they should do with the
men in their custody. The pump action shotguns found in
possession of the men caused an obvious problem for the
suspicion was that a weapon of similar type was used in the
killings in this area previously.
in command of the Omeath station were instructed to keep the men
in custody until their political masters tried to find a way out
of this particular minefield.
it was decided that the eight men should be taken under heavy
armed escort to Dundalk as Omeath was not suitable to contain
them. The armed escort delivered the eight to Dundalk during the
night, but it was almost twelve hours later at lunch time on
Thursday, May 6th that news first leaked out in Dublin that the
Gardai, with the assistance of the Army, had arrested a
fully-armed SAS unit in civilian clothing near Omeath.
the world’s media decesended on Dundalk and camped outside of
Coalition Government of Liam Cosgrove was in a spin, with
Foreign Minister, Garret FitzGerald unable to handle the hottest
political potato that had landed in his lap. It was a real
Ponchus Pilot dilemma for the Minister. If he released the eight
without charge he was giving a licence to others to behave in
the same lawless fashion, and if he processed them through the
courts and they were found guilty, relationships with the
British would plummet.
of the arrests spread like wild fire round Dundalk, the presence
of TV cameras outside the Barracks an obvious indicator of the
unfolding drama. Soon a large crowd gathered adding to the
concern that the Barracks could be attacked in the volatile
situation and suspicion that existed after the murder of Seamus
the eight were oblivious to the unfolding drama. When many
suspected that they were being grilled about their movements,
the eight, who refused to speak only to confirm their identity
were, it can now be revealed, playing pool in the Garda
six o’clock and with the tension mounting it was decided that
it was unsafe to detain the men in Dundalk. They were moved,
again under heavy armed escort to Dublin. As they were smuggled
out of Dundalk Barracks, there were jeers and boos from the
men were driven straight to the Special Criminal Court where,
before Mr. Justice Pringle, they were charged with possession of
firearms with intent to endanger life and for carrying firearms
without a certificate. They were released on bail of £5,000
each and driven from the courthouse to be helicoptered out of
British Army in the North issued a statement indicating that the
men in the first car crossed the Border by mistake and the
second car was searching for them when they too were arrested.
the British House of Commons the Army Minister, Bob Brown
apologised to the Irish Government, but said that there was no
doubt that the incursion was a mistake.
did not placate an angry Dail as the political fall out
scattered over the chamber in the weeks following.
FitzGerald was asked that in light of the assurance given by the
British Government that their forces would not operate in
civilian attire what now was the Government’s response.
“Troops in uniform are clearly identifiable, but this SAS unit
was not and the men were carrying guns (pump action shotguns)
not used by any army in the world but by thugs and criminals”.
were, the Dail was told by Deputy Dowling, operating on what was
termed “a search and destroy mission”.
Dr. FitzGerald refused to answer any specific questions on the
incursion and hid behind the reply “that the matter was sub
judice” since it was before the courts.
was where it remained until the heat ebbed out of situation,
even though Jack Lynch, then leader of the opposition told the
Minister that “people are genuinely apprehensive about army
personnel travelling on our side of the Border in unconventional
garb carrying unconventional weapons”.
was a day, and a time, unlike few others in Dundalk.