State papers: Government official considered putting armed military on Dublin-Belfast train

Frequent bomb attacks on the railway line during the Troubles caused severe damage and disrupted services

The regular targeting of the Dublin-Belfast railway line during the Troubles led one Government official to wonder if armed military should be placed on these trains.

Writing in the aftermath of the hijacking and blowing-up of a goods train south of Newry in 1979, the Department of the Taoiseach official said this was the latest of many such incidents in which trains had been destroyed or severely damaged and the operation of the railway disrupted.

“I had considered taking up with the Department of Justice the question as to whether any examination had been made of the pros and cons of having an armed military party on all cross-border trains,” he said.

"There are obvious difficulties about this, for example it would probably be necessary that the trains halt at the border to let off, say an Irish Army party and to take on a British army party – otherwise one might run into all the legal problems that could flow from persons being injured or killed within this jurisdiction by shots fired by British soldiers."


Lives put at risk

He said passengers’ lives could also be put at risk in exchanges of fire between military parties and terrorists attempting to hijack or disrupt trains. On the other hand, the damage being done was making a mockery of the efforts of the security forces to control terrorism.

The official said he had decided not to suggest to the Department of Justice that armed military should police trains, on the grounds that it should be the subject of joint consideration by the gardaí and the RUC. “However, in the light of the continuing incidence of such hijackings, you may consider it worth raising at the Inter-departmental Committee on National Security,” he told a colleague in the Department of the Taoiseach’s office.

Bomb attacks and hoax warnings caused severe damage to rail services in Northern Ireland and border areas during the Troubles. The Dublin-Belfast line through south Armagh was particularly affected, with freight trains blown up and derailed on several occasions.

The department official pointed to British army policy of keeping uniformed soldiers about 10 miles north of the border for normal operations. This practice “as we have pointed out to the British authorities on numerous occasions, gives the Provisional IRA almost unrestricted freedom of action in the area of south Armagh immediately north of the Border – an area which of course includes the section of the railway on which the train was blown up last Monday”, he wrote.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times