'Bandit Country': The IRA & South Armagh by Toby Harnden

For nearly three decades, South Armagh has been the most dangerous posting in the world for a British soldier. First described as "Bandit Country" by Merlyn Rees when he was Northen Ireland Secretary in 1974, its undulating terrain and fiercely independent people made it the ideal theatre of war for the Provisional IRA. Resenting the label, Irish nationalists refer to the area, a place of rebellion and lawlessness for centuries past, as "God's Country". Toby Harnden has stripped away the myth and propaganda of both sides to produce one of the most compelling and important books of the Troubles. Drawing on secret documents and an unprecedented range of interviews with members of the Garda Siochana, IRA, SAS, RUC and Metropolitan Police who have been the key protagonists in South Armagh's bloody recent history, he tells the inside story of how Thomas "Slab" Murphy, "the Undertaker", "the Surgeon" and their IRA compatriots came close to bringing the British state to its knees. For the first time, the identities of men behind the Docklands and Manchester bombings of 1996 and the reasons why Captain Robert Nairac met his death are revealed. Packed with new information and previously untold tales from the hidden world of the IRA and anti-terrorist operations, Harnden's controversial first book is a work of both scholarship and gripping intensity. No other author has been able to penetrate both the IRA in South Armagh and the security forces who have battled to control an area which remains part of the United Kingdom in name only. Who are the IRA men who bombed England and forced the British government to the negotiating table? How did they become the elite unit of the world's most sophisticated paramilitary organisation? And what drives them to continue their fight? Harnden's achievement is to answer these and many other questions.

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN: 034071736X

'Bandit Country' is currently out of the bookshops but will hopefully be reprinted in due course - watch this space for details. For those anxious to buy one immediately, there are secondhand copies here. The full text of the book can be read here.

 

BANDIT COUNTRY - PROLOGUE

Codeword Kerrygold

'THERE'S a massive bomb beside South Quay station, Marsh Wall, Isle of Dogs, London,' said the caller in a slow South Armagh brogue. His voice was calm and deliberate; it was not the first time he had delivered such a message. 'Evacuate immediately. Codeword Kerrygold.' Anne Brown, a switchboard operator at the Irish News in Belfast felt her heartbeat quicken as she wrote down the words on the pad in front of her.

Aware that a mistake on her part could lead to the deaths of scores of people, she requested that the caller repeat the details. 'Was the codeword Kerrygold?' she asked. 'Same as the butter,' he answered and hung up. In the decade she had worked at the newspaper, Mrs Brown had dealt with dozens of coded warnings but this was one she had never expected to hear. It was 5.54pm on Friday 9th February 1996 and just over 17 months earlier the IRA had declared a ceasefire; like many in Northern Ireland, she had believed that the Troubles were over.

At 5.28pm, another man had dictated a statement from the IRA's Army Council to John Murray, a reporter with RTÉ, the Irish Republic's state broadcasting corporation. 'It is with great reluctance that the leadership announces that the complete cessation of military operations will end at six o'clock on February 9th,' the statement said. 'The cessation presented a historic challenge for everyone and Óglaigh na hÉireann [the IRA] commends the leadership of nationalist Ireland at home and abroad. They rose to the challenge. The British Prime Minister did not. Instead of embracing the peace process, the British government acted in bad faith, with Mr Major and the Unionist leaders squandering this unprecedented opportunity to resolve the conflict.' The statement was signed 'P. O'Neill', the nom de guerre under which the Provisionals had issued warnings and claimed responsibility for attacks over the previous 25 years.

On both sides of the Irish Sea, few could bring themselves to believe that the statement or the warnings were genuine. When RTE's main evening news began at 6.01pm, there was no mention of the IRA announcement. Fifteen minutes later, an officer from Scotland Yard telephoned the Irish News to ask Anne Brown to go through once more what the South Armagh caller had told her. John Bruton, the Irish premier, went ahead with a 6.30pm engagement at a Dublin art gallery while his aides made desperate attempts to reach Sinn Fein officials. Commander John Grieve, head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist branch, later admitted that when he was paged by detectives with a message to call Sir Paul Condon, the Met's Commissioner, he thought it must be a practical joke.

Four officers had initially been despatched from Limehouse station shortly after 6pm to clear the Docklands Light Railway station. But there was confusion about exactly where the IRA had said the bomb was and over the next hour another 16 officers were sent out to set up cordons and clear the streets. Some buildings were evacuated only for their occupants to be sent back in 10 minutes later; others very close to South Quay station knew nothing about the bomb warnings. At 6.48pm, PC Roger Degraff and another officer spotted a blue car transporter parked outside South Quay Plaza between two office blocks and next to a row of shops.

Inside the lorry was more than 3,000lbs of explosives made up of ammonium nitrate fertiliser mixed with icing sugar in plastic sacks. The sacks were in two compartments in the back of the transporter and packed around 'booster tubes'. Designed to increase the power of the blast, the tubes had been made from parts of scaffolding poles drilled with holes and stuffed with 10lbs of Semtex high explosive. Attached to the booster tubes were lengths of improvised detonating cord made from plastic tubing filled with PETN and RDX, the two constituent elements of Semtex. The bomb was to be set off by a nail attached to a kitchen timer which would complete an electrical circuit, sending power through to two detonators which would activate the detonating cord and, in turn, set off the booster tubes and trigger the main explosive charge. A memo park timer, invented for absent-minded motorists who needed prompting that their meters were about to run out, had been used to 'arm' a mercury tilt switch anti-handling device shortly after the bomb lorry was parked. The kitchen timer had been set for two hours so that it would run out at 7pm.

The two policemen walked around the lorry and quickly concluded that if the IRA warnings were genuine, the bomb was probably inside the vehicle. Degraff went to the cab and was about to look inside when he stopped himself. Had he opened the door, he would have set off the anti-handling device and activated the bomb. Realising he needed to clear the row of shops next to the transporter, Degraff rushed into a newsagent's store at 6.56pm and told Inan Bashir and his assistant, John Jefferies, to evacuate immediately. Bashir, who had been at work at the family business since 5am, said he would first shut up the shop while a sceptical Jefferies observed: 'We are in a ceasefire.'

A minute before 7pm, a blue flash could be seen several miles away as the lorry exploded; Bashir and Jefferies were blown through two walls and their bodies buried by tons of rubble. Degraff, 30 yards from the bomb, felt a deep rumble and a rush of wind as he was blown off his feet. For a fraction of a second, the hundreds of people still working in Canary Wharf, one of Europe's tallest tower blocks, felt that the building was about to collapse. 'I was lying curled up in a ball listening to glass and debris falling from all the buildings,' Degraff said afterwards. 'I lay there for a while, waiting for something big to fall on me.' Barbara Osei, 23, who had been cleaning offices with her brother Isaac was sprayed with hundreds of tiny slivers of glass; she was blinded in one eye and her face, arms and hands were so badly cut she needed 300 stitches. Members of the Berrezag family, Moroccans who worked as cleaners at the Midland Bank branch in South Quay, were even closer to the blast. Their car was virtually destroyed as they sat in it; Zaoui Berrezag, 51, suffered severe head injuries and never fully recovered his memory. Graeme Brown, an advertising designer, was knocked out; he woke a few minutes later surrounded by the water from a burst main. 'It was bizarre,' he said the next day. 'I knew it wasn't a bomb, because we don't get them in London any more, do we?'

Soon, Docklands was echoing to the sound of police and ambulance sirens, wailing alarms and breaking glass as the residents of council flats knocked their shattered windows out into the streets below. Debris had been spread over a radius of 300 yards; where the lorry had been, there was a crater 32ft wide and 10ft deep. The blast had caused an estimated £150 million of damage to property. Its impact was felt world-wide with television bulletins across the globe leading with the news. The IRA had struck another blow at the heart of the British establishment less than three years after devastating the City of London for the second time in 12 months. As the home of merchant banks, television and advertising companies and, in Canary Wharf, the Mirror and Telegraph newspaper groups, Docklands was an ideal prestige target.

While political argument raged during the next few days, two funerals went almost unnoticed. The traditional Islamic colours of gold and green were draped over Inam Bashir's coffin as it was driven from his home in Streatham to Croydon mosque for a private service. His elderly father Shere, who had to be supported by his second son as he went into the mosque, was to die within a year. John Jefferies' father, a widower, was nearly beside himself with grief at the loss of his only son who had still lived with him. White chrysanthemums had been arranged into guitar-shaped bouquets as a tribute to the amateur musician who had often busked at Underground stations. As the mourners gathered at Lewisham crematorium in south London, they listened in silence to a tape of Jefferies' own rendition of a song he had written and recorded for a new girlfriend just a few days before the bomb. He had called it Glad to be Alive.