10.40pm on May 5 1976 SAS soldiers Illisoni Ligairi and John Lawson
were stopped at an Irish army/Garda checkpoint on the Flagstaff Road
between Newry and Omeath.
SAS men, driving a Triumph 2000 and in civilian clothes, were armed
with two Browning pistols and two Sterling submachine guns.
claimed they had strayed 700 yards into the Republic after
misreading a map. They admitted being soldiers but denied being SAS
and said they were off-duty test-driving a car.
when arrested Ligairi said: "I cannot tell you the mission we
hours later six more SAS men in two cars were arrested at the same
checkpoint after also "misreading" their maps.
six were heavily armed, the weaponry including a pump-action shotgun
and a dagger. They refused to hand over their weapons until their
cars were surrounded by Irish soldiers.
next day all eight appeared at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin
on charges of possession of fire-arms without certificates with
intent to endanger life.
charges carried a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.
man was released on £5,000 bail and allowed to leave the state.
arrests came at a time when allegations of security force
involvement in attacks in the Republic were at an all-time high.
British army intelligence officer Fred Holroyd would later claim
that Captain Robert Nairac, who operated undercover, had admitted
taking part in the murder of IRA man John Green at a farm in
Castleblaney in the Republic in January 1975.
government papers now reveal that the SAS soldiers were questioned
about three people found murdered in suspicious circumstances in the
Republic at that time.
those was forestry worker Seamus Ludlow, whose body had been found
near Dundalk four days before the SAS arrests.
report recently published by Mr Justice Henry Barron confirms that
the SAS soldiers were also questioned about the Dublin Monaghan
bombings that killed 33 people in 1974.
the actions which the British government took to avoid its soldiers
being imprisoned during the three weeks that followed their arrest
can only now be revealed.
new information is contained in previously unseen official British
documents which had been kept from public view for 30 years.
telex message to the Foreign Office in London on May 7 British
ambassador in Ireland Sir Arthur Galsworthy wrote: "One aspect
of the defence that will need careful handling is the inclusion of a
shotgun and what has been described as a dagger among the weapons
was picked on by the minister for foreign affairs (Garret
FitzGerald) and tends to be highlighted in the press here in an
emotive way: And at some point we shall probably need to brief the
defence lawyers very carefully about the use of these weapons.
understanding was that the DPP had felt compelled to institute court
action because of the very unconventional nature of some of the
weapons found (daggers and a sawn-off shotgun) and the fact that six
of them were in civilian clothes; and the suspicions inevitably
around the fact that the two groups had told different stories and
that both differed from the preliminary account I had given to
Keating (Irish Foreign Affairs official) that morning based on the
information available to us at that time."
as it became clearer that the SAS men were now likely to stand trial
attitudes in the British establishment hardened.
minutes of a May 12 meeting in London involving senior Foreign
Office, Ministry of Defence and Northern Ireland Office officials,
report Galsworthy as stating: "There was only one thing he
could think of which would impress the Irish government.
would be for [Her Majesty's Government] to suggest that all British
security forces be withdrawn to a line, say, 10 miles from the
buffer zone thus created would become a no-man's land in which the
terrorists could do what they would."
days later Galsworthy reported that he had warned Mr FitzGerald of
the "appalling consequences that would follow if the case
resulted in prison sentences".
that he had met Irish minister for justice Patrick Cooney that
morning to discuss the charges against the SAS men, Gals-worthy
stated: "When I laid on thick what an appalling effect a prison
sentence would have, Cooney said that this was about the last thing
in the world he as minister for justice would want.
my time with Cooney was very limited (he had to leave for a
government meeting) I was unable to probe him about his remark that
the matter of the prosecution is now out of the government's hands
and to explore with him whether the attorney general can in practice
lean on the DPP, eg to drop the first charge."
the lengths which the British government was prepared to go to so as
to ensure the SAS soldiers did not stand trial were revealed in a
letter to TF Brenchley in the Cabinet Office, dated May 18, from
senior Foreign Office official GW Harding.
will know that the prime minister has said that, if the SAS men
facing trial in Dublin receive prison sentences, he will wish to
consider what we can do to bring home our displeasure to the Irish
government and that he has asked for a contingency plan to be
prepared setting out possible courses of action in this event,"
is a considerable range of more or less drastic sanctions which
could be taken against the Republic.
include an embargo on trade, a ban on remittance, withdrawal of
social security benefits from Irish citizens, prohibition or
limitation of Irish immigration and the ending of the voting rights
of Irish citizens in this country."
that the sanctions would be subject to the possibility of
"retaliatory action", Harding wrote: "There are some
more modest steps which might fit the contingency more
include a sustained campaign in the media against Irish 'failures'
in security matters (eg extradition), a suspension of ministerial
and/or official contacts with the Irish on Northern Ireland matters
and a refusal of training and other facilities to the Irish security
again warned that such measures would "put at risk our security
cooperation with the Irish".
concluded that Britain's response to the SAS men being jailed
"must be both firm enough to satisfy public opinion in this
country and yet tempered by the need to limit the consequent damage
to North/South security co-operation.
may point to a short, sharp reprimand, rather than a more protracted
in a hardening of positions, a senior MoD official wrote to the
secretary of state, Merlyn Rees, on May 25 stating: "I feel it
would be naive to believe that in effect a prison sentence would not
be something approaching a death sentence.
the extent to which the Irish believe their own propaganda, and the
mythology surrounding the SAS in the Republic, I can see little
chance that the soldiers, were they convicted and sentenced to
imprisonment, would escape uninjured."
interesting reference to the fact that the British establishment was
already fully aware of attacks on six Irishmen wrongly convicted of
the Birmingham pub bombings the previous year, he wrote: "One
has only to think of the incident in this country in which those
responsible for the Birmingham bombing were assaulted by prison
officers to realise how much more likely a similar, or probably more
serious occurrence would be in this case.
we must give full weight to our relationship with the Republic of
Ireland, but I cannot help feeling that the Foreign Office have been
concentrating on this to the exclusion of common sense.
is not purely a matter of international relations; it could have
serious domestic repercussions, and I am naturally inclined to
attach greater significance to these, particularly in so far as they
affect the army itself."
of the most serious incidents the Northern Ireland Office discussed
an app-arent attempt to coerce the Republic's DPP into dropping the
confidential memo written by NIO officials, dated May 24, said the
DPP "might be susceptible to covert persuasion by the Irish
government but since he is newly appointed and this may be seen as a
test case of his independence the chances are slight and certainly
nil if there is any overt indication that he is giving way to
should certainly be advantage in bringing the Irish government to
seek to apply effective persuasion to the DPP but there is some risk
that they might mishandle the matter."
that it would be "counter productive" for the British to
be publicly exposed to have pressured their Irish counterparts into
"leaning on" the Republic's DPP, the NIO memo stated:
"We must be extremely careful not to appear to be pressing the
Irish government to influence the DPP.
should however, impress upon them that HMG is not prepared to run
any risk of its soldiers going to jail for map reading errors
particularly when their safety cannot be guaranteed.
full consequences for the political and security situation, north
and south, must be spelled out to the Irish since, unless the direct
embarrassment to them of their actions is clearly shown, they are
unlikely to act to safeguard the UK interest alone."
that the Irish government needed to be "disabused" of the
belief that reducing the charges to a fine would be acceptable to
the British, it stated: "If we fail to persuade the DPP to
offer no evidence then we should immediately press the Irish
government for the guarantee in advance of a free pardon by the
president or at least full remission of penalties."
24 briefing notes drawn up for secretary of state Merlyn Rees for a
meeting with British prime minister James Callaghan and the Labour
cabinet warned of the potential for loyalist violence if the charges
against the SAS were not dropped: "In Northern Ireland it could
provide the catalyst that would bring the loyalist groups together
and create a situation of considerable instability.
could also be a strong and violent reaction by loyalist
for the British to resist any extradition request from the Irish if
the SAS did not turn up for trial, it stated: "It would be
possible to give the men immunity from this process by means of
legislation in the shape of a one clause bill.
the attempted use of such questionable powers by the army
authorities to send soldiers back to face prison sentence would have
such bad effect on discipline and morale as to render it
notes state that in the event of the Republic's DPP pushing the case
to trial "ways must be found of avoiding the men appearing in
court at all, and that contingency plans should be drawn up to
provide immunity from any warrants issued by the Republic for the
when the eight stood trial in March 1977 they were cleared of the
charge of possession with intent to endanger life and were each
fined £100 on the lesser charge.
after the court hearing British ambassador Robert Haydon said:
"We are very satisfied that the men have been acquitted of any
ill-intent in the Irish Republic.
imagine that the fine was more or less mandatory and the Ministry of
Defence will pay."
Foreign Office spokesman was quoted as saying it was "very
satisfied" with the outcome.
following year the Irish government agreed that the British army
could fly into the Republic if in pursuit of gunmen.
present Co Louth Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan said the new
information on the arrests and release of the SAS raised
"fundamental questions" about the incident.
this time at least four people were murdered in mysterious
circumstances in the border area, including Seamus Ludlow and Peter
Clancy in Louth," he said.
was ever charged with these killings, although loyalists or elements
of the British state were always suspected."
Morgan said that he was alarmed at the apparent attempts to secure
cooperation from the Fine Gael-Labour Irish government of the time
to influence the case.
believe that these revelations will be the tip of the iceberg,"