CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland--Welcome to South Armagh, front line of the Troubles and the Provisional IRA’s home field.
The British army has never publicly conceded being put on the defensive by the Irish Republican Army, but it comes closest to that here in the rolling boglands of South Armagh, the quintessentially Irish-Catholic “bandit country.”
The border of independent Ireland winds its way along 370 miles of brooks, hedge rows and pastureland. It cuts through church parishes, villages and even individual homes (one family sleeps in the Irish Republic but watches TV in the United Kingdom).
Most families do not accept their official status as British subjects and want the soldiers out. Republicanism runs through veins here like a religion.
“The border’s a sad joke,” said Jim McAllister, an elected councilor for Sinn Fein, the legal political party of the IRA, which attracts about 35% of the vote here.
McAllister stood on one bank of a stream spanned by one of the many illegal roads built and kept open by locals: “That’s County Monaghan, in the Republic,” he said, flicking a spent cigarette toward the far side. “What we’re standing on here is the north, County Armagh.”
“Passports, please!” he said with a smile.
This porous border, however, is no joke. It’s deadly business. About 170 such “unapproved” crossings provide access from South Armagh into the Republic; the army has tried to close them with tank obstacles and explosive charges, but crews of determined civilians have cleared them time and again.
The provincial center, Crossmaglen, has about 1,500 people, a modern church, a new community center, a dozen pubs and practically no above-the-table employment. From the center of town the Irish Republic is less than two minutes’ drive--to the south, east or west.
The half-dozen Protestant families who still call the border area home have learned to keep their mouths shut about any pro-British view they may hold. Said one father, who requested anonymity: “You can never be too sure who’s listening.”
Just about everyone can point out the few Protestant homes, but there’s little sense of the sectarian “them” and “us,” most likely because the relationship is so one-sided. Also, the tension between the “haves” and “have-nots” that plagues other parts of Northern Ireland is missing from South Armagh.
“None of us is rich here,” said one Catholic farmer. “The Prods have as bad a land as we do, so they’re not viewed as any sort of elitist group.” And the land is poor in South Armagh. It’s rocky in the high spots and soggy in the low.
More than three-fourths of the people are dependent on welfare benefits or government job schemes, sheltered in subsidized housing--supported, in other words, by the government they say they despise.
Many collect welfare illegally and earn money on the side, usually across the border in the market towns of Castleblayney, Carrick Macross and Dundalk.
This is called “doing the double.” Nobody expresses shame over beating the system. As one Crossmaglener who works illegally on Blayney construction sites put it, “We’d cheat on our taxes, too--if we paid any.”
A surprising number of people, among them some community leaders, admit to supplementing their incomes by smuggling goods into the south, where some things cost 30% more than in Northern Ireland. Perhaps one in five households at least casually sneaks out items such as liquor, television sets, videotape recorders and gasoline, according to informed estimates.
“You get a certain amount of enjoyment outta beating the customs. It gets the adrenaline going,” said one full-time smuggler. He lives out of a false-bottomed van with his wife and seven children (ages 5 to 15), and had just completed a run south with a case of whiskey and three VCRs. He said he made 95 pounds (about $190) on the deal.
Shouting over the roar of an army helicopter passing overhead, the man said he wasn’t worried about getting caught by northern security forces, which are preoccupied by the IRA, or by the Irish police, called the Gardai.
“The Gardai are some of my best customers,” he said, winking. “Sure hope the border always stays here, else I’ll lose my livelihood,” he added.
Crossmaglen residents are quick to tell you how calm the place really is from day to day: traditional music on Thursday nights, snooker and darts all week, across the border to a disco on the weekend, Gaelic football matches on the field beside the army’s helipad, Mass at St. Patrick’s on Sundays.
In the next sentence they’ll give you the lowdown on the most recent shooting or bombing.
This border area is a closed society that knows its friends, shuns its enemies and casts suspicious stares at strangers. The roads are so narrow that eye contact with the passing motorist or farmhand is obligatory, yet people here do their best to stare straight through the soldiers who patrol the streets.
The troops live in a mortar-proof barracks that dominates the town’s broad square--a square nicknamed “the killing field” because 17 soldiers have been shot to death or blown up there. An ordinary police officer is a rare sight.
The soldiers go in and out of South Armagh by helicopter. In the 1970s, scores of them were maimed or killed by the Provos’ roadside booby traps. The IRA has been gunning for the helicopters with M-60 heavy machine guns, often fired from across the border.
At least five helicopters have been forced down by gunfire, including two such attacks last month. The IRA is believed to have SAM-7 antiaircraft missiles smuggled from Libya in 1985, but has yet to use one.
The movements of every truck and tractor can be monitored from watchtowers on the hilltops. The Special Air Service, the elite army counterterrorism unit, for 15 years has mounted border surveillance of suspected IRA members’ homes and weapons dumps.
One thing the army cannot alter is the border itself.
In the past five years, improved cooperation between republic police and the army has made it harder for the IRA to use the south as a sanctuary. Nonetheless, the army still has to deal with the specter of fleeing gunmen who can thumb their noses at soldiers once they cross the border.
Said one army officer who recently completed a six-month tour in South Armagh: “The IRA down there are probably the best that the Provisionals have got. They are bloody imaginative and cover their tracks well. They are slippery bastards. . . . As opponents, you have to respect them.”
Soldiers do not mingle with the locals here. The last one known to have tried it, a charming intelligence officer named Capt. Robert Nairac, reportedly was pulled out of a pub, tortured and murdered by a few of “the lads” in 1976. His body was never found.
Over a sweet pint of Guinness stout, locals relate that incident as though it happened yesterday. The Sinn Feiners and the many supporters of the Social Democratic and Labour Party--which wants the British out of Northern Ireland but is opposed to IRA violence--sound a lot alike when they talk about what happened to Nairac. “That English bloke thought he could get away with spying,” said one. “He was naive, a damned fool.”
The people of South Armagh may seem to speak with one voice on such matters, but that appearance belies the tremendous level of IRA intimidation against its own.
“There isn’t a majority here for violence. The problem is, in this country the entire community is pushed and punished by the activities of 5%,” said Jerry Murray, who runs the Community Center, a facility funded thanks to the local SDLP’s ability to attract international aid.
The SDLP gets many more votes than Sinn Fein, even in Crossmaglen. Seamus Mallon, the party’s deputy leader, represents the area in Parliament. Away from the privacy of the ballot box, however, IRA supporters make sure theirs is the dominant presence.
A sign nailed to a post on the main road into Crossmaglen tells the story: “Warning, Seamus Mallon is an informer.” No one so far has dared to take it down.
Up that road last December, men in ski masks staged a “checkpoint” on a main road, stopping each passing motorist to hand out a leaflet from the “2nd Battalion” of the Crossmaglen IRA “Brigade.” It warned that any local business that served members of the southern security forces would be punished.
The risks to those who challenge Sinn Fein and the IRA in bandit country are obvious.
“In this area four or five people have been assassinated because they supposedly were informers,” said Pat Toner, an SDLP councilor for 18 years and through the worst of the Troubles. In the last killing, a local businessman’s body was left by the roadside as an example of what happens to a “tout,” or spy.
The pub next door to Toner’s home in Forkhill, a tiny village less than a minute from the border, was torched because it allegedly poured pints for the local soldiers. Toner’s efforts to develop businesses along the Concession Road--which weaves back and forth across the border so much that the army has given up policing it--were stopped cold when the IRA told his builders to abandon the site or be shot.
“The IRA said they didn’t want more traffic on the road, as it was a major center for their military operations,” Toner said. He added that armed men collect “protection” from some shops and pubs. “There’s a Mafia-style operation coming out of Crossmaglen,” he said.
John Fee, another SDLP councilor, said that since his election in 1989 he has been beaten up twice at local pubs--the apparent price for siding with the moderate majority.
Toner received death threats while campaigning. His car has been forced off the road by local republicans. On one occasion, an empty pistol was held to his head and fired.
“Of course I’m afraid of the Provos,” he said, “but you can’t show it. If you did, they’d walk all over you.”
It is hard for an outsider to understand why this intimidation doesn’t translate into rejection of the gunmen by the community that harbors them.
There is a traditional ambivalence here toward the IRA. At times, one cannot be sure whom should be feared more, the soldier on the street or the IRA militant next door.
At an army checkpoint last December in the village of Cullyhanna, soldiers of the British Royal Commandos provided the latest answer to that question.
Two local brothers, Fergal and Michael Caraher, were driving to Dundalk for a drink. The Royal Commandos’ checkpoint was near where a soldier was shot to death last year. By all accounts, the Caraher brothers stopped, showed their identification and said where they were going. The troops waved them on.
A minute later, a third patrol of soldiers riddled their car with bullets. Fergal was killed, his brother severely wounded.
The army maintains that the Carahers’ car hit two soldiers “at speed,” forcing them to open fire to defend themselves. Several witnesses at the checkpoint said the brothers had already stopped at a nearby pub when the soldiers, unprovoked, began shooting.
More than a thousand people turned out for Fergal’s funeral, the largest display of community grief in a decade. Among the mourners were rivals Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, and the SDLP’s Mallon.
The community’s verdict: Murder.
“They kill us just for being Catholic,” said McAllister, the Sinn Fein councilor, who was a neighbor of Fergal Caraher’s. “We kill them for being in our country for 800 years. We--that is, the IRA--kills because we are being ruled by people who don’t give a damn about Ireland.”
Rightly or wrongly, these are the lessons that Crossmaglen has taught its people.
Northern Ireland’s Porous Border
The loyalties of many people in Northern Ireland’s South Armagh are with the neighboring Irish republic. Although the British army has tried to block the region’s 370-mile border with Ireland, civilians still cross over. Some even work there or smuggle goods back.
A British soldier in Crossmaglen, top, and a message from South Armagh republicans.
A VIOLENT TOLL Hundreds of people have died since 1969 in the fighting over Northern Ireland. The Ulster Defense Regiment is the British army’s locally recruited, mostly Protestant auxiliary. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is Northern Ireland’s police force.