Thatcher was scathing over Garda 'failure' to combat IRA activity

State Papers 1988: British PM complained to taoiseach about force’s lack of professionalism

An Garda Síochána was "not a highly professional police force" and had failed in tackling the Provisional IRA south of the border, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher told taoiseach Charles Haughey 30 years ago.

In one of a series of confrontational meetings she held with the then taoiseach in 1988, Thatcher gave a scathing assessment of the Irish security services and the failure to garner pre-emptive intelligence on the IRA.

She implied that the IRA was planning all its activities from five or six locations in the Republic with near impunity.

In a meeting with the taoiseach on the margins of a European Council meeting in Hanover in June 1988, records of which have been released under the 30-year rule, Thatcher described the killing of two corporals by a republican mob during a funeral in Belfast earlier that year as “among the worst things in my life”.


She observed the harshest battles were between people who are like each other and live beside each other.

“The Arabs and the Israelis. They are both Semitic people. They keep their hatreds alive.”

Referring to the killing of Derek Wood and David Howe on March 19th 1988, Thatcher said: “Those two corporals were among the worst things in my life. The savagery was unbelievable. And I don’t think the people who did it were contrite – not the least bit.”

Thatcher again raised the issue of the killings at her subsequent meeting with Haughey on the margins of a European Council meeting in Rhodes, Greece on December 3rd.

“I will never forget receiving the bodies of those two soldiers murdered in Belfast before the television cameras.

“Those films were seen by their relatives. That was a terrible experience. I have ensured that these people will not be allowed to appear on TV in future,” she added, in a reference to the British government’s ban – introduced in October 1988 – on the broadcast of interviews with IRA members.

The two corporals were attacked and shot dead after they drove into the funeral procession of IRA member Kevin Brady, who was one of three people killed when loyalist Michael Stone attacked mourners in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery just days earlier. Stone had targeted the funerals of three unarmed IRA members who were killed in Gibraltar on March 6th amid accusations of a British “shoot to kill” policy.

Training courses

At her meeting with Haughey in Hannover, Thatcher returned again and again to what she saw was a lack of professionalism in the Garda. She suggested that Canada and other countries would be willing to offer training courses in intelligence gathering and surveillance.

Later that year, Haughey wrote to Thatcher to say three FBI instructors from Washington had been seconded to run training courses for 30 gardaí in intelligence gathering.

In addition, the Garda had also contacted forces in the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada with a view to getting more specialist training. Two instructors from Templemore College were also to attend a course on special search techniques run by British military personnel in Chatham, England.

The meeting between the two leaders took place some months after a row between them over speeches made by Haughey in the US where he did not specifically condemn violence. It also occurred when it was known the IRA had access to large consignments of arms and explosives smuggled in from Libya.

Haughey challenged the British view that attacks could be prevented if cross-border security was better.

They are using the Border to carry out an effective campaign

“Look at what has been done. As soon as we heard of big shipments of arms we searched 50,000 houses in our State. We have got results. We have found many bunkers.”

Haughey said the government was doing its best on extradition, another bone of contention between both leaders.

“We have a public opinion to deal with. But to be constantly ballyragged [by the British] does no good at all,” he said, according to a record of the meeting taken by government secretary Dermot Nally.

Thatcher replied: “You talk of public opinion but I have to deal with guns, bombs, beating people to death with sticks and many other barbaric acts.

“We would never ourselves have searched 50,000 houses. We know that the people concerned would have gone to ground. We would have used our intelligence service.

“That would be a better use of manpower. And so, yes, I must send more young boys over to their deaths. I ask myself, am I entitled to do it?

“There is a borderline there but it is not an effective border. The IRA plan in five or six different places in the South. They use the border for this purpose. If they go south we lose them at the Border.”

Professional operation

In a despairing tone, she continued: “In recent times, my feelings have run far higher than ever before in my life. I am not a natural hater . . . they are using the Border to carry on an effective campaign.”

Turning discussion to the Garda, Thatcher said: “We do not get intelligence from the gardaí. They are not the most highly professional force. We deal with the Amsterdam and the French police and the Brussels police. Each of them is highly professional. Israel is a small country, yet is has one of the best police forces in the world.”

She offered help in training, saying: “We can give you equipment. It may be difficult for you to take our training but it could be arranged elsewhere if that is really so.”

We have found a large number of bunkers

Thatcher said the IRA was not an amateur operation and it required a professional approach to deal with it.

“Will you not consider better training for your Garda?” she pleaded.

In response, Haughey pointed to 147 punishment shootings in the North, and the atrocities in Enniskillen and Lisburn. He said they were not failures of his government’s making.

Haughey also recalled the Irish authorities had called in the Dutch police in connection with the 1986 Beit art robbery and “they made a complete mess of it”.

However, he make an important concession. “On training and pre-emptive intelligence let me assure you now I will go into this personally.”

Thatcher noted a police officer had told her that Ireland had the biggest concentration of terrorists in the world, apart from the Lebanon.

"The single most important thing in the Anglo-Irish Agreement is security . . . I had hoped the SDLP and John Hume would have been more active . . . It is their duty to let the police know any information that would be of help. They will speak in general terms but do little else. They have the gift of the gab but, no, they won't talk to their own people and tell them to join the RUC."

She said she had also “lost” the unionist community over the agreement.

Mr Haughey said: “I am sorry you are so despondent about things,” and accepted some of the criticism.

“We have found a large number of bunkers,” he said. “We cannot but accept responsibility for that. Neither of us, North or South, knows the full facts. We have always prided ourselves that we knew ever winkle in Ireland – from our police source. But this proves how wrong we were.”

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times