By Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell
UPDATES – There are two updates. Thanks to Cormac Lucey who worked out the exact location of the address, Four Ashes Green, Clones, where Garda Sgt McArdle was allegedly meeting IRA members. I was able to track it on Google maps and have posted a screen grab further down the post. I have not included the house as this would help identify the precise location but do show a scene of the roadway nearby which looks as if it could be nearly anywhere in rural Ireland. All I can say is that the address is on the outskirts of Clones.
The other update relates to a British official mentioned in the letter from Colonel Huxtable, a man by the name of Mark Coe. It seems possible that this is the same Mark Coe who was shot dead by the IRA in West Germany in 1980. His British Army records say that he was a staff officer attached to the Ministry of Defence in 1973. Here is his death notice on the official Operation Banner website.
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British Foreign Office and British Army documents recently uncovered at the National Archive at Kew, Surrey in southern England, demonstrate that the recent controversy over whether the IRA had a mole inside Dundalk Gardai station was not the first or only time that the authorities on the Northern side of the Border had alleged that Provo sympathisers lurked in the ranks of the Irish police force.
Last week three retired Garda Chief Superintendents issued a 33-page rebuttal of the Smithwick Tribunal report’s conclusion that on the balance of probabilities a police spy was at work in the Dundalk station and had assisted the IRA in the assassination of two senior RUC officers, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in South Armagh in 1989.
For understandable reasons the three former Gardai officers recoiled at the idea that one of their junior colleagues could have been subverted by the IRA and helped them commit the most serious offence in the book. Instead they claimed that the IRA’s assertion that they had killed the two Northern policemen without any assistance was more credible than Smithwick’s conclusion that collusion had occurred.
There is though something of a history of allegations of IRA sympathisers in the Gardai and a history of British complaints to the government in Dublin about individuals so accused. The newly discovered Kew documents lift one corner of the story and as time passes it will be interesting to see if evidence of other similar controversies surfaces. Given Ireland’s troubled history with its neighbor to the east, this would be less than surprising.
The new Kew documents reveal that back in the early 1970’s Anglo-Irish relations were roiled by claims from the British Army and Foreign Office, backed up by the RUC, that the senior sergeant at Clones Gardai station in Co. Monaghan actively sympathised and consorted with the IRA, was a close ally of former Fianna Fail minister and independent Donegal TD, Neil Blaney and had been posted to Clones by the Fianna Fail government with the task of spying on the British Army in Northern Ireland.
The documents also cast some intriguing light on the extent of cross-Border security co-operation at this very early stage of the Troubles. Have a look, for example, at this British Army map which details the senior personnel – from sergeant to Chief Superintendent – in every Irish police station around the Border in December 1973. Sgt McArdle tops the list at Clones, suggesting he’s the man who runs the place, but the reader is bound to ask the question, where did the British get this information?
Was it their own detective work or did some obliging agreement at the level of Department of Justice, Department of Foreign Affairs and Taoiseach’s office with their opposite numbers in London provide the intelligence which then made its way via the British Embassy to the military top brass in Lisburn? Or is this the sort of detail that Garda Detective cum British spy, Patrick Crinion passed on to John Wyman, his MI6 handler? Unfortunately the documents don’t say.
Although it appears from a reading of the documents that the British military complaints about Sgt McArdle had a longish history, it seems that the policeman’s behavior was not seriously raised with the government in Dublin until May-November 1973.
It may or may not be coincidental that in February 1973 the Fianna Fail government of Jack Lynch was voted out of office and replaced by a Fine Gael-Labour party coalition which developed a name fairly soon of being tougher in its opposition to the Provisional IRA than Fianna Fail had been, although some might take issue with that interpretation, not least this writer. Anyhow it is not beyond possibility that the British believed they might get a more sympathetic hearing from a government that had the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien in its ranks.
The document trail begins with a letter, dated November 16th, 1973, from a Kelvin White at the Irish desk in the Foreign Office to a Col. Huxtable in the Ministry of Defence which draws attention to a diplomatic telegram sent from the British ambassador in Dublin, Arthur Galsworthy highlighting a military “Border report” of August 1973 in which “3 Brigade” (3rd Brigade, headquartered in Portadown, Co Armagh covered the Co Armagh/Fermanagh/Down border with the Irish republic) was “still fuming about Sergeant McArdle”.
White tells his MoD colleague that there was no point in complaining about Sgt McArdle without providing specific examples “which point either to active co-operation between Sergeant McArdle and the IRA, or to an unconvincingly passive attitude to the IRA…” He urges Huxtable to order a search of 3 Brigade records adding, “We would be glad to have as thick a dossier as can be produced”.
In his reply six days later, Huxtable reveals that the British Army is seeking Sgt McArdle’s removal from Clones Gardai station and that government officials have visited the area and impressed upon the regiment based on the Border, 1st Batt Royal Tank Regiment, that “….we require evidence of specific incidents if we are to have any chance of achieving Sgt McArdle’s removal….It may well be that after our previous complaints Sgt McArdle was informed of our attitude and is now taking care not to appear overtly sympathetic to the IRA.”
A handwritten note at the top of Huxtable’s reply says: “I think we must try to rub Irish noses in the problems Sgt. McArdle creates for his parishioners, as opportunity presents.” It is not clear who the author is.
The two letters can be read here (click to expand):
Hardly had Huxtable’s letter arrived on the Foreign Office’s desk than a telegram from British military intelligence to the Dublin embassy provided two examples of Sgt McArdle’s alleged IRA sympathies.
The first occurred in the wake of premature IRA landmine explosion near Roslea, Co Fermanagh, close to the Co Monaghan border on May 10th 1973. The explosion killed a 17-year old IRA Volunteer, Anthony Ahern from Cork, the first southern member of the organisation to be killed on active service. The RUC initially stayed away from the area out of fear of further devices but eventually discovered command wires leading into Co. Monaghan. From the contents of the British report it appears that Sgt McArdle did turn up at the scene, suggesting he knew there were no other bombs, and tried to recover Ahern’s body.
The British intelligence report read: “McArdle met up with Chief Inspector Currie, RUC by arrangement and gave the impression that he was in possession of detailed information concerning the background of the incident which he was not prepared to divulge, RUC and 16/5 L (16/5 Lancers) representatives formed impression that in spite of RUC suspicions that further booby traps might still be deployed indicated that his information came from those involved in the explosion i.e. the Provisional IRA. His efforts to take away the body that he found gave RUC impression that he was acting on behalf of Provisional IRA comrades of the deceased.”
The second part of the report reads: “Following information passed to him by the RUC that Four Ash Trees Houses near Clones was being used as an HQ by local Provisionals, McArdle seen to visit Four Ash Trees frequently but when pressed always replied that there was nothing of interest there. It should be remembered that a well known Provisional Thornberry was caught in that house by so called Loyalists on 10 Nov 73. McArdle has earned the reputation of being the most uncooperative Gardai officer along the length of our border. RUC ‘M’ Div Comd believes that he was employed on special duties for the Fianna Fail government and has close links with Neil Blaney.”
Google and other searches on the web have failed to find any mention of “Thornberry” or “Four Ash Trees” in Clones or “Four Ashes Green”.
That document can be read here in two parts (click to expand):
A separate unheaded and undated document, which might well be an intelligence summary, spells out in greater detail Sgt McArdle’s alleged Fianna Fail connections. It is worth pointing out that in his letter to the Foreign Office, Colonel Huxtable of the Ministry of Defence had a very different version of McArdle’s past: “It appears that the basic problem in Clones”, he wrote, “is that Sgt McArdle has served there for 16 or 17 years. His position can be likened more to that of the ‘village copper’ with an intimate relationship to his parishioners than to the young, ambitious police officer keen to enforce law and order in a situation of terrorism which we would prefer. If this information is true his sympathy could well be to his ‘local friends’ rather than to the ‘IRA cause’.”
It is also worth remembering that the conflicting information, that Sgt McArdle was a recent arrival at Clones and was in effect an agent of Fianna Fail/Neil Blaney, came from the Chief Superintendent of the RUC’s ‘M’ Division.
Anyway here is what that document has to say: “It is understood that (McArdle) was posted to this station on orders of the Fianna Fail administration of Premier Jack Lynch. In particular he is a close associate of the well known Mr Neil Blaney. Fianna Fail posted McARDLE to Clones with the object of his making out a report on the border situation and it is believed that they also tasked him to travel privately into Ulster and assess the situation there. Whilst carrying out the latter task he developed considerable antipathy for the British Army.”
It went on: “Whilst at Clones, McARDLE developed a close association with PIRA activists, and in particular befriended Kevin McCOOEY at Four Ashes Green, Clones, GR 525273. This is a well known PIRA meeting house. Regularly he visited this location and stayed for considerable periods of time. His cooperation with the Security Forces after border incursions by the PIRA is not good. There have been several instances when he could have apprehended the insurgents as a result of information passed to him by the Security Forces but he has always failed to carry out any action or pass on any useful information. This is not the case with most of the other Border Garda representatives.”
In May 1973 the local British Army commander wrote to the Brigadier heading 3 Brigade asking that efforts be made to remove Sgt McArdle from Clones.
How the saga of Sgt McArdle and the British Army’s little war against him ended, the documents do not say. The last reference in the documents is a telegram dated November 28th, 1973 from the Northern Ireland Office advising the British embassy in Dublin not to raise the McArdle case with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs as the head of the RUC Special Branch and his deputy were to be in Dublin, presumably visiting their opposite numbers in the Gardai, and “…they may well be able to make the point which will be more effective coming from RUC”. Whether Sgt McArdle survived all this is not known.