Could The IRA’s ‘Tet Offensive’ Have Worked?

This intriguing question arises from a fascinating analysis in yesterday’s Irish Times by John Bowman, of British political opinion in the wake of the Unionist campaign against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a compact which, as Peter Robinson put it, seemingly placed Northern Ireland on the window ledge of the union but which was regarded by many British leaders as a sensible way to defang the IRA.

Christening the effect Unionist protest and intransigence in the wake of the Agreement, also known as the Hillsborough deal, had on a British establishment weary of the Troubles and IRA violence and anxious for a way to end a seemingly interminable conflict a ‘churning’ effect, Bowman concludes that the consequence was to weaken British affection for, and fealty to the Union.

So much so, and so widespread was the aversion to post-Hillsborough Unionism, that Margaret Thatcher’s then deputy chief whip in the House of Commons opined to an Irish diplomat, according to Bowman’s reading of Irish government papers from 1986 and recently released under the 30 year rule, that if the IRA managed to assassinate a member of the British Royal family it ‘would put the prospect of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland on the political agenda here’.

Well, maybe not a Royal assassination, but the IRA in 1986 was in the midst of organising a military venture which, if successful, might have had as much a sickening effect on British public opinion.

By 1986 the IRA was well advanced in planning and organising a massive military offensive, nicknamed an IRA ‘Tet’ by some, using Libyan-supplied weapons and explosives as well as cash. Like the effect of the Vietcong’s ‘Tet offensive’ of January 1968 on American public opinion, the IRA’s campaign was intended to weaken British resolve to continue fighting in a war it no longer had belief in winning or ending.

By the end of 1986 several boatloads of Libyan weaponry had successfully evaded British and Irish government monitoring and their cargoes of AK47’s and tons of Semtex explosives had been hidden away in dumps as a reserve for action after the major offensive.

The largest cargo, bringing even more sophisticated weaponry, was due to come to Ireland in the Spring of 1987 and it was this shipment that would be deployed for the IRA’s ‘Tet’.

But just as the cargo, on board the Eksund, was due to sail from the Libyan capital Tripoli, IRA intelligence learned that the Irish Army had been put on alert, from Carlingford Lough to Cork, in expectation of an arms shipment arriving.

The Eksund’s voyage was quickly cancelled.

What happened next and what was subsequently learned about the background to the Libyan shipments, would fuel the bitterness, doubts and suspicions that would eventually erupt in the split between the Adams/McGuinness Northern leadership and the Southern IRA in the form of the Engineering Department, led by Frank McGuinness, and the Quarter Master’s Dep’t led by Micky McKevitt.

The details can be found in the second edition of my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’, but suffice it to say that the suspicion surfaced internally that a) the Adams/McGuinness faction had so widely briefed the IRA’s upper echelons about the Libyan shipments before they had happened that a leak to British intelligence was considered by their opponents inevitable and b) a decision was made, backed by the Adams/McGuinness faction but opposed by Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy and Micky McKevitt, the principal actors in the Libyan shipments, to try a second time sending the cargo once again on the Eksund. Others on the Army Council had urged sending a smaller cargo to test whether there was indeed a leak but were overruled. So the Eksund sailed and was captured in the autumn of 1987. And so died the IRA’s ‘Tet’ offensive.

The suspicions thus engendered fatally poisoned relations at the top of the IRA.

The intriguing question raised by John Bowman is simple: if the Eksund had got through safely, its cargo unloaded without detection and distributed to active service units and if British intelligence had failed to detect the plans, would the resulting ‘Tet’ offensive have had the same effect as the Royal assassination contemplated in Margaret Thatcher’s whip’s office?

Who knows, but an awful lot of ‘if’s’ there, if you ask me?

Anyway, here is what John Bowman writes about the churning effect Unionist antics, post the Hillsborough deal, had on the British political establishment. File it under, ‘What Might Have Been’. If he is right, and the IRA forfeited an opportunity to win its war, then the implications for what came next, the peace process, are pretty obvious. Either that or by the mid-1980’s the IRA had been so infiltrated by British intelligence that the game was up no matter what happened:

The scale of that churn only becomes evident when the detailed notes of Department of Foreign Affairs mandarins are studied. Through the assiduous work of the Irish embassy in London, the Anglo-Irish desk at Iveagh House learned during the year that many of the best-informed players in Westminster believed the union was itself being weakened by the behaviour of unionist politicians.

That these views came from figures as diverse as Conservative MP Ian Gow and Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock is testimony to the extent to which the unionist response to Hillsborough had been counterproductive.

Indeed John Cope, Thatcher’s deputy chief whip, had suggested at a lunch with Richard Ryan of the Irish embassy that the unionists were “shooting themselves in the feet, but with cannon!” He added that “the oft-cited man on the Clapham omnibus” was now “quite fed up with the whole Irish business and that something like a royal assassination would put the prospect of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland on the political agenda here”.

Dublin would have listened with particular attention to the opinions of Gow, whose advice on Northern Ireland Thatcher trusted, although not sufficiently to stay her hand before signing the agreement. Her very signature triggered his resignation that day from her government.

However, Gow remained deeply engaged on Northern Ireland, confiding to Ryan his belief that the unionists were “stretching Westminster’s patience dangerously” and it could have “real implications for the union”.

Kinnock, as Labour leader – and at the time a possible future prime minister – talked of “a growing view” in London that the union was “beginning to rock seriously”, with the shifting of opinion among Tory backbenchers “the most significant thing of all”. Moreover, given “the sort of bloody mood” that they were now in, it might not be “more than a further short step to seriously questioning the union.”

Northern Ireland minister Nicholas Scott was reported as characterising the Anglo-Irish Agreement as “an historical watershed” which was now recognised by the unionists who know “that things will never be the same again and that it is their fault”.

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