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Bandit Country author says IRA was ‘very clever’ using ‘machinery of the British state against the British state’

The book about South Armagh is being republished for the first time after 25 years with some minor additions

Twenty-five years ago Toby Harnden sat in a storeroom at the back of the Eason store in Newry signing copies of Bandit Country, the story of the IRA in south Armagh set against the backdrop of the area’s long and conflicted history.

Back then it was decided that it would “not be prudent” to have the chronicler of the local IRA, especially an Englishman to boot, at the front of the shop even though copies were selling briskly. Some were stolen by those who refused to give an Englishman coin.

Published with little furore, it became a quiet sensation, becoming a must-read for IRA volunteers, British soldiers journalists and more. The title still provokes resentment locally even though it was one created by Labour Northern Secretary Merlyn Rees 20 years before.

On Monday the book is being republished for the first time with a few minor additions. Nicknames used in 1999 because of the risk that Harnden might have been sued have been replaced by the real identities of people who have since died.


Researching the book, Harnden became, for locals in a place where people keep their silence, “that strange Brit journalist” who always turned up at historical commemorations, some of them marking Old IRA actions, some dating far back in history.

Once there Harnden often made a point of speaking with the late Sinn Féin councillor Jim McAllister, an action which quickly prompted senior local IRA figures who were present to find out from McAllister who he was.

Being properly identified mattered in South Armagh, even in the late 1990s. If the IRA locally regarded him as odd they did not regard him as a threat. “They’d be like, ‘okay, okay, at least I was obviously not the worst thing’,” said Harnden.

“From their own point of view they’re justifiably proud of what they’ve done and who they were,” Harnden, who insists the book then and now records history rather than making moral judgments upon actions, tells The Irish Times.

“I don’t think anybody sat around saying, ‘oh, we need our story to be told’, but I think that on some psychological level they felt that they had not been given their due. And that they were a big part of the story. In a million years they would never have chosen me, obviously. But I was the person that was there, and no one else was doing it. It’s surprising to me, but I was the first person who saw South Armagh as a place.”

Time has eased the libel threats that existed. One of the most senior local IRA men was dubbed ‘The Undertaker’ in the first edition, but is named now as Patsy O’Callaghan, who died of natural causes in a Drogheda hospital in 2021.

“He was Slab Murphy’s number two,” says Harnden, who finished his time as the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Northern Ireland in 1999 to head to Washington, from where he has since covered conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

O’Callaghan, who was unhappy about the IRA’s ceasefire, the Good Friday Agreement and all that came after, becoming aligned with republican dissidents, “which was significant given how senior he was”.

“He represented a pretty significant strain of people,” says Harnden, adding that O’Callaghan had been “a mentor” for Sean Gerard Hughes, who was identified in the 1999 edition as ‘The Surgeon’, but later named publicly in the House of Commons.

Harnden had been in Crossmaglen in August 1994 when the IRA ceasefire was called, which felt like “a significant moment in history, at the very least, it was”, even if few were absolutely sure that it would hold.

Five years later, with the ceasefire broken by a Canary Wharf bombing but later restored, it still felt like other chapters could have been written – “if the Omagh bomb had played out differently could the Real IRA have supplanted the Provisionals”?

“It didn’t feel like the end then. Still, you know, things don’t end really, they persist and then they fade away. It’s never like a cliff,” says the journalist, adding “it does feel a lot more like history now”.

Nevertheless, the preparations for a new chapter were clear from the time an IRA sniper team was arrested on a farm near Crossmaglen in April 1997, when there were still local voices demanding that the IRA should act.

The circumstances surrounding the arrests remain controversial among republicans since the IRA team had been told not to carry weapons on the way to the farm. Equally, they were arrested by SAS soldiers who surrounded them, not shot.

“I remember Eamon Collins [later brutally murdered with a concrete slab by the IRA] – ‘well, that’s the South Armagh brigade being decommissioned, so’. Which was, you know, a pretty astute comment. It really was,” he says.

Saying that he never described the IRA as terrorists in Bandit Country, “other than in quotes from other people”, Harnden says it “doesn’t serve any purpose to label things, particularly when it’s contentious”.

However, he does believe that the IRA was “very clever, they used the machinery of the British state against the British state, the judicial system, for instance”, yet called their own actions were “acts of war”, while British ones were “shoot to kill”.

“It was sort of a game being played. It suited the British to not call it a conflict, to call it a police action and to portray the Irish, you know, as thugs and murderers and psychopaths who were outside the law.

“Whereas if you call it a war – and most British intelligence people and the military did see it as a war – the other side were competent. But to call it that confers legitimacy on the IRA by the British state, and it didn’t want to do that.”

The IRA was “clever; it were able to have their cake and eat it”. He points out that it coloured coverage of the 1990 killing by Royal Marines of Fergal Caraher by successfully describing him as a Sinn Féin member, not the IRA volunteer he was.

“It didn’t mean that he should have been shot. But for propaganda reasons they didn’t claim him, they said he was in Sinn Féin, which was kind of ridiculous in its way,” says the author.

Today he keeps a long-distance eye on some of the people he researched 25 years ago. Most have moved on, made new lives. Others live with regrets. Most defend what they did and why.

Some are involved in criminality, benefiting from the tight family connections and tighter lips that have long held in South Armagh. A few have turned to drink, especially one man who “looked like a soldier back then, who is now drinking a lot”.

“Again, that’s not surprising. There’s probably a bunch of SAS guys in the pub in Hereford who have taken to the drink too. It’s what happens, often.”