IRA Bombings Heighten Border Tensions : Strife: British soldiers, engineers revamp vulnerable network of checkpoints in effort to head off terrorist attacks.

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In an era of fading European boundaries, British soldiers are busy fortifying the Irish border against the “human bombs” of the IRA.

For months, an extra battalion of troops, engineers and civilian workers have been revamping the army’s vulnerable network of checkpoints, which screen road traffic between the British-ruled north and the independent south.

The border forts have come under incessant bomb attacks from the Irish Republican Army.

In this soggy stretch of County Fermanagh, the border follows a twisting path and the IRA exploits its confusing contours, using the south as an arms dump and launching pad for operations against the British forces.


“The border constitutes a 300-mile difficulty. There are something like 300 crossings,” says Brian Mawhinney, Northern Ireland’s security minister.

The IRA has killed eight soldiers in three attacks on border posts in the past two years.

Last year, the IRA tried to destroy the Annaghmartin checkpoint in South Fermanagh using an 8,000-pound bomb, the largest ever seen in Northern Ireland. The elaborate scheme involved 20 gunmen, some of whom blocked traffic in the south while others held three households at gunpoint. They intended to force a Protestant farmer to drive an explosives-packed trailer across a field toward the base. The attack foundered when the trailer became mired in bog land within a few feet of the border.

The army’s six already well-armored checkpoints in South Fermanagh are being outfitted with a varying combination of watchtowers, underground barracks, surveillance gear and remote-controlled gates. They will be covered by increased foot patrols in surrounding hills.

A key objective is to distance the troops’ quarters from the road and checkpoint, so that huge bombs cannot threaten the bulk of soldiers housed in barracks there.

Lt. Gen. Sir John Wilsey, commander of the British army in Northern Ireland, says the checkpoints “are largely there for reassurance purposes. The isolated Protestant community living behind the border feel protected by knowing there’s a thumping great building there blocking the road with soldiers in it.”

Nationalist politicians and their Catholic constituents in border areas long have argued that the road checks are dangerous nuisances.


“Each of these static checkpoints is supposedly situated to protect the public against terrorism. But the great bulk of the British army’s efforts is spent protecting the static checkpoint against terrorism,” says Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The party, which represents most Catholic voters, wants to end British rule in Northern Ireland but rejects violence.

“Two things are certain,” Mallon says. “No. 1, the people who are there, be they soldiers, policemen or the general public going through, are sitting ducks in the event of an attack on those checkpoints. And No. 2, the terrorists simply do not use the roads on which they are on, for their own nefarious reasons.”

Soldiers along Fermanagh’s front line--some newly armed with antitank rockets that protrude from the snouts of their submachine guns--seem edgy and aggressive, treating each motorist as a potential bomber.

When a stranger asked about the surrounding construction work, a lance corporal standing outside the Annaghmartin post joked: “I could tell you about it--but then I’m afraid I’d have to kill you.”

An attempt to take a photograph of the nearby Killyvilly checkpoint resulted in a clatter of army boots, confiscated film, half an hour of questioning, and the warning: “This isn’t hassle, mate. We just want to get out of here alive.”


Most of the area’s Irish Catholic residents bitterly resent the British presence, and some despairingly see the construction work as a sign that the “Brits” are digging in to stay.

Efforts by local Catholics to reopen secondary border crossings have been met determinedly by army engineers, who in places have left a cratered moonscape in place of pasture.

British and Irish authorities agree that combating IRA activity on the border will require broader cooperation between their two armies.

None of the 16 British posts is actually on the border. They sit one to five miles within Northern Ireland in an effort to put them out of range of IRA bullets and mortars fired from the south.

British ground forces are not allowed to operate on the southern side, despite British commanders who want the right of limited “hot pursuit.”

In a situation typical of the status quo, on March 15 two British helicopters came under heavy machine-gun fire near Rosslea, but kept flying. The IRA claimed it fired more than 1,000 rounds from three tripod-mounted heavy guns positioned about a hundred yards across the border.


Last fall the IRA reportedly fired a SAM 7 anti-aircraft missile from the south at helicopters, the first use of its much-rumored gift from Libya. Whatever the weapon was, it missed.

Such incidents underscore the fears of the Protestant minority in South Fermanagh, who place little faith in the Irish Republic’s police and army.

Unionist leaders who campaigned hard in the early 1980s to gain the British checkpoints are producing pamphlets outlining their renewed fears.

One distributed to British legislators argued that Irish security forces “have achieved no success in apprehending IRA gangs escaping across the frontier.” It closed simply: “Please help us.”

The Irish, who say they are doing as much as limited resources permit, have increased police road checks and army patrols on the County Monaghan side of the boundary in recent weeks.

Irish authorities discovered an IRA weapons factory on March 10 in County Donegal. They seized guns, mortar-making gear and a 3,500-pound bomb ready for use. Later they discovered more arms bunkers.


Those operations followed the seizure of an armored truck designed to tow an explosives-packed trailer into a checkpoint and escape unharmed. The cabin, heavily armored on the back, had controls allowing the driver to prime the bomb, release the trailer and speed off toward the border.

Ken Maginnis, the unionist member of Parliament for Fermanagh and a former major in the army’s Ulster Defense Regiment, said the British posts “serve my constituents by placing themselves squarely between the terrorist and the law-abiding community.”

He said, however, the posts could work only if used less as vehicle checkpoints and more as permanent patrol bases to stage in-depth reconnaissance of the countryside.

On recent visits British soldiers could be seen on patrol, weighed down with rations and their faces streaked with camouflage paint, or being dropped by helicopter onto distant hillsides. Security sources say such patrols keep silent watch on the rolling bog land for up to three days.

Local unionists, who have received IRA phone threats and did not want to be identified, said they believe their agitation for fixed checkpoints keeps a reluctant army command committed to the border.

“The country is really saturated with British troops at the moment,” says Canon Edwy Kille, the area’s lone Church of Ireland (Anglican) minister.


“You just don’t know where they’re going to pop up. On the roads you never know where or when you’re going to be stopped--and that is the sort of protection that my people would like to see continually.”

Kille lives in a house whose former owner, a Protestant, was shot to death behind the counter of his Rosslea shop.

“There is no doubt that the checkpoints, for all their faults, have been effective,” he says. “They were put in in 1980. Immediately before that there was a murder every six weeks in this district on average. After the checkpoints went in there wasn’t another murder in South Fermanagh for six years.”

Construction of the expanding forts has brought distress, even to those few who support the political link with Britain.

One farmer who had some of his land confiscated is a prominent Protestant unionist. He considers the troops his only protection against IRA banditry.

Yet soldiers detained him twice for questioning--once as he walked his cattle fields beside the base, and again when he protested the army’s taking his few most level acres.


He considered suing but his lawyer advised that he would lose.

“You don’t argue with the Brits,” said one of his Catholic neighbors, who also lost land and is resigned to await eventual compensation.

“They can cause you trouble. They got the guns, you don’t,” he says. “The only ones who fight back ‘round here is the IRA.”