Monthly Archives: August 2019

This Sort Of British Move More Likely To Re-Ignite Troubles Than A Hard Border

The article below by the News Letter’s Sam McBride which appeared last Thursday illustrates where, in my view, the danger of renewed violence in the North really lies.

Not at a Brexit-bred hard Border but by the British indulging the DUP in order to keep Boris Johnson in Downing Street and in the process abandoning the balance implicit in the Good Friday Agreement.

Now, you could argue that the Northern Ireland Office’s decision to remove the British monarch’s photograph from the walls of Stormont House was a step too far in the direction of Sinn Fein. And you would be right, even though human rights legislation and not just an over-indulgent NIO official could be blamed.

But having taken that decision, a new Northern Secretary reversing it at this sensitive time sends a pretty loud message, particularly since Unionists were outraged at the decision to remove royal portraits and putting them back looks like a climb-down to pressure.

If I was a Shinner or one of their supporters I’d be worried. You can read the full article here:

Me, Peter Taylor And The Provos

Readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive me if I repeat a story I first made public in the introduction to Bob White’s biography of the late IRA leader Ruairi O Bradaigh.

It was the publicity surrounding Peter Taylor’s recent documentary on the IRA, and his admission that he would have enlisted in the Provos’ ranks in the wake of Bloody Sunday had he been a Bogsider, that has prompted me to recall the story.

And that was because what happened to me in my dealings with the Provos also happened to him, though I doubt he ever knew it. If he had known I wonder whether he would have been as quick to admit his post Bloody Sunday sympathies.

Peter Taylor

One of my first assignments as a wet behind the ears reporter for Magill magazine back in 1980 was a lengthy piece on the takeover of the IRA by Gerry Adams and his friends and the threat this posed to the leadership of Sinn Fein, then still in the hands of Ruairi O Bradaigh.

It was, needless to say, a controversial piece because it rehearsed the bitter struggle between the two camps and the role played in it by the 1975 IRA ceasefire crafted by the then leadership, symbolised by O Bradaigh and Daithi O Conaill.

The accusation leveled by the Adams camp was that the O Bradaigh/O Conaill camp had been hoodwinked by the British who had used the ceasefire, not to prepare the way for withdrawal, but to build a brand new prison which would house the victims of a tough new criminalisation policy aimed at extirpating the IRA.

Many years later O Bradaigh told me that the appearance of that edition of Magill was the cause of a particularly rowdy meeting of the Sinn Fein ard-comhairle at which the Adams camp was accused by the O Bradaigh camp of inspiring the Magill article and being its principal source.

The outcome of that meeting, he told me, was an agreement by the Adams’ camp never to speak to me again and, in conjunction with everyone else in Sinn Fein, to shun me and my journalistic endeavours.

I cannot say that I noticed any difference at all in my dealings afterwards with the Provos. That was because I was based in Belfast and the Northern Provos with whom I met carried on as before, as if the ard comhairle edict had never been issued.

It was only when I attended SF events in Dublin, such as the ard-fheis, that I noticed the change. Whenever I made an attempt to speak to O Bradaigh or O Conaill they would turn on their heels and speed away.

Many years later I told this story to a member of the IRA Army Council and he responded with the following. But first a bit of background. The Army Council then was divided into two types. Those who held dual membership of Sinn Fein and those who did not. The latter had next to no time for political activity; they were soldiers first and last.

Anyway at a particular Army Council meeting the subject of Peter Tayor came up raised by, shall we say, elements sympathetic to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, people who held dual membership of both the political and military wings.

The Council’s politicians had a warning to give their soldier colleagues. Peter Taylor’s job at the BBC was just a cover for his real role, which was as a spy for MI5, the British intelligence agency, they announced. No-one should have any dealings with him.

I cannot say with certainty how the Council’s politicians responded but I’d bet the mortgage they behaved exactly like their counterparts on the ard-comhairle had behaved towards me, i.e. they completely ignored the warning and continued to deal with the BBC man, while the soldiers rigorously obeyed the warning and shunned him religiously.

Nor can I say whether Peter Taylor ever learned of this episode or whether he continued to try to speak to the Army Council’s soldiers. I know that in my case normal relations with the other wing of Sinn Fein were eventually restored and I’d like to think that was because my journalism was seen to be even-handed.

But the two episodes do give a revealing insight into the devious ways of that section of the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership which eventually steered both organisations into the peace process.

Martin Dillon On Jeffrey Epstein

Belfast journalist and broadcaster Martin Dillon recalls his effort to probe into the life of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who apparently committed suicide in a New York jail at the weekend as he awaited trial on new charges of sexually abusing minors:

In the wake of the sudden death in custody of the billionaire pedophile, Jeffrey Epstein, whose passing has ominous echoes of the assassination of Robert Maxwell, I reminded myself of my links to both men. I co-authored a book about Maxwell – The Assassination of Robert Maxwell, Israel’s Superspy, but one on Epstein, well that got away.

Back in 2010, I became interested in Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious New York billionaire and pedophile who was also known as a philanthropist and Wall Street wizard. As a reputed Hedge Fund manager, he won the favors and friendships of rich and powerful people across the globe, including Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Donald Trump, Ehud Barak, and the Saudi leader, Mohammed Bin Salman. 
Epstein’s name was familiar to me since it had often appeared in New York’s gossip and high society press columns. Columnists tended to focus on his immense wealth, supposedly accumulated on Wall Street, though without any documentation to prove that was indeed the case. He possessed a small fleet of jets, the biggest Manhattan’s townhouse in the Upper Eastside, an estate in Palm Beach, Florida, a home in Paris, a massive ranch in New Mexico with its own runway for passenger jets, and a private island in the Caribbean.

Martin Dillon

I first heard his name in 2002 after my book, “The Assassination of Robert Maxwell – Israel’s Superspy,” which I co-authored with late Gordon Thomas, hit shelves in Europe and the United States. Maxwell was a larger than life press mogul and Mossad spy who stole and spent the pension funds of his workers in Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper. He was also an international fraudster with secret accounts in Lichtenstein, in Bulgaria, and in off-shore havens such as Cyprus. And to top that he as one of Israel’s most important spies who helped steal America’s nuclear secrets. Under the pretense of opening the Eastern block to democracy, he was embraced by Kremlin leaders and by Bulgaria’s Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov. FBI files from the 1950s note Maxwell’s suspicious travels through the Communist bloc and the unfettered access he had to its leaders.

When my book was published, it received a savage review in the Washington Post by the celebrity lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. That did not come as a shock, but I found it interesting that Dershowitz’s personal client and buddy was Jeffrey Epstein whose claimed lover was the New York socialite, Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the late Robert Maxwell. I knew that Ghislaine and her sister, Isabel, who was based in San Francisco, were enterprising and highly committed to defending their father’s sullied reputation. Prior to my book being published, Isabel had somehow acquired a copy of the manuscript, which had been kept under wraps in New York and London publishers’ offices, and ran with it to Israel to present it to her father’s friend, Shimon Perez, the former Israeli president, as well as to David Kimche, a former head of Mossad. My co-author, Gordon Thomas, received a call from one of his Mossad sources who had been visited by Isabel Maxwell who demanded that he publicly denounce the book. No one she approached took the bait. Nevertheless the pressure on my New York publisher must have been considerable because the book was given almost no publicity when it reached the American market.

I had some uneasy experiences writing the Maxwell book, especially making contact with some unsavory people linked to his unknown activities in Eastern Europe. So, when I began looking closely at Epstein’s life, I had a feeling that I might be wading again in dangerous waters. 
In 2010, as I debated with myself whether I should write a book about Epstein, I knew that two years earlier he had walked out of court with a sweetheart deal even though he pleaded guilty on prostitution charges in Florida court and had to register as sex- offender. Back in New York as a level 3 sex offender he was required by law to show up to court mandated check-ins, but he didn’t do so for 8 years.

Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of Robert Maxwell and Epstein’s alleged procuror

In 2011, the Manhattan district attorney’s office tried to help Epstein by reducing his sex-offender status to the lowest possible classification, which would have restricted his personal information to the public and would have kept him from being listed on the registry of sex offenders for life. This after he had been  proven to be a notorious sexual predator who preyed on underage girls, sexually abusing them in his Florida and New York mansions, on his jets and in homes abroad, including his private island.. He also trafficked girls in and out of the continental USA.

As I looked at his history, I became aware that while he was facing the Florida prosecution, he was surrounded by a powerful team of lawyers, including his friend, Alan Dershowitz. He rented offices opposite the detention c enter where he was being held and spent 15 hours a day in them, supposedly consulting with his lawyers. He would leave his c ell in the morning and return cell at night. He even paid Palm Beach Florida police officers to be his minders and gofers when he was in his offices. That absurd arrangement ran for eighteen months. He hired a team of private detectives who harassed his victims and their families, and finally all he received from the US legal system was a slap on the wrist. He served only 13 months of an 18 months sentence.

His victims were never told about the deal his lawyers struck with the US Federal Prosecutor in charge, Alex Acosta who until recently was Donald Trump’s Labor Secretary, with responsibility for combatting human trafficking. Acosta’s role in Epstein case has been described by a judge as a breach of law. There is little doubt in my mind that Acosta came under considerable pressure from Epstein’s legal team and his powerful friends to deliver a shameful legal outcome.

The scandal that should have arisen in 2008 following this legal travesty, and the fact that victims were kept in the dark, did not happen. The story did not appear to merit widespread coverage because most of the facts were hidden as part of the plea deal signed between Epstein and the Federal Government. No media outlet was anxious to expose how this pedophile who had abused a large number of girls had actually beaten the rap and received a slap on the wrist. No one, with a few exceptions, seemed eager to delve deeper into the evidence and give a voice to the victims, just as no one wanted to examine the origins of his wealth. How did a man who left no trace of his activities on Wall Street become, by his own admission, a billionaire? Who sold him the largest mansion in Manhattan because there was no documentation to show how much he paid for it, or the identity of the seller.

In 2002, The Vanity Fair investigative journalist Vicky Ward still stands out as the one person willing to take on Epstein before anyone did. She wrote a profile of him, delving into his questionable financial operations, and the lavish parties he threw in his Manhattan and Palm Beach residences, where celebrities from the worlds of politics, art, science and business were present. His parties were full of young girls, who were flown sometimes from other cities, or countries, on his private jets. When she subsequently tried to expose his weird sexual appetites and abuse of girls, she said that Graydon Carter, her Vanity Fair boss, killed her story after he met Epstein in one of his homes. The only other publications which it is fair to say kept a close eye on Epstein over the years were Britain’s Daily Mail and the New York Post. The Mail in particular published some shocking material about him, but generally the media on both sides of the Atlantic were content to ignore the story. As for Congress, it was silent.

Epstein was not shy about boasting of his conquests. He once claimed that a world renowned politician sent him at gift from Paris of twin girls to celebrate his birthday. They were flown back to Paris the following day. Those who know the identity of this politician have been wary of naming him. President Trump was a personal friend of Epstein and when asked in an interview what his opinion of him was, he didn’t spare praise, calling him a terrific guy who is a lot of fun to be with. Trump added: It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Video has emerged of Trump joking with Epstein about females dancing at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida home and golf club.
 Epstein operated mainly from his estate in Palm Beach, assisted by Ghislaine Maxwell, who recruited some of the girls, herself. He had special massage tables installed in all his properties and on his private jet. He preferred schoolgirls to “massage” him in the presence of one of his lady recruiters who usually gave instructions to the girls, supervising the action, and sometimes participating. Massages were precursors to other sexual activities.

The girls, often vulnerable and from poor backgrounds were paid hundreds of dollars in cash and promised other favors like college tuition .They were given extra money if they brought their school friends to him.  No one can state exactly how many girls he may have sexually abused over years in and outside the United States. He preferred girls as young as 14, and between 2001 through 2005 he created his own sex ring, a network of girls always at his disposal whenever he was in his Palm Beach and Manhattan residences 

My Epstein odyssey began in early 2010 when I received a call from a Palm Beach socialite who contacted me on advice of her friend. I was, she said, the ideal person to write a book on Epstein’s scandalous past. Her friend had read my book on Robert Maxwell and that spurred her to recommend me. I shall refer to this socialite as Mrs. A, as I do not have permission to reveal her identity. She matter-of-factly told me that she had amassed a lot of materials she could make available to me. She had also had access to a lawyer who represented some of Epstein victims, and to an important law enforcement figure in Palm Beach. She was somewhat vague about her obsession with the Epstein case, but she seemed pretty determined to expose his crimes to the American public. She knew that the real story remained untold.

By this time, the mainstream treated it like it was toxic. Mrs. A had approached a local writer, but soon after the project became known among certain circles in Palm Beach it fell through. She suspected the writer was bought off. 
She arranged to meet me in a luxe apartment that she kept in Manhattan. She was a good looking woman in her early fifties, and at first glance she didn’t differ much from the cliché of a socialite. She even had tiny dogs which socialites treasure as much as their designer bags and jewelry. She was knowledgeable about Epstein, his personality, his legal case, his bizarre sexual behaviors, as well as the complex but unexplained legal aspects connected to his case. She spoke with genuine concern for the girls he had trafficked and the complete lack of compassion and humanity with which the legal system had been treated them.

As we talked, it struck me that she might have been hurt emotionally by him. Had she been romantically connected to him in the past? Had he jilted her? She appeared to admit that she had been linked to him romantically in the past, but she did not feel it had any relevance to the matter in hand, namely me writing a book about him. I chose to leave the matter there. She subsequently refused to discuss the matter in later meetings with me. 
During our first meeting, she provided me with a box of documents, some of which were merely newspaper clippings and of limited value to a writer. Still there were other papers that grabbed my attention, especially victims.’ statements, phone logs from Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse and flight logs. 
After months of poring into documents, trying to connect the dots, making phone calls to lawyers and victims, and linking up with potential sources, I was still not convinced writing a book on Epstein was a good idea. Not that I didn’t like the project, but its realization seemed slim.

Many of the people I spoke about it advised me against going deep into Epstein’s affairs. A colleague whom I trusted said that my chances of publishing such a book were nil. Epstein had powerful and influential friends and best litigation lawyers able to thwart anyone writing negatively about him. I was even told a bizarre story about a well-known magazine editor who found an animal head nailed to the door of his upstate cottage after he launched an investigation into the life of the financier Epstein. I treated this episode as a rumor but I was also concerned that leading media outlets generally ignored Epstein’s pedophile past.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that I was not apprehensive about investigating Epstein. My wife was not keen on me getting into the weeds once again after the serious security issues I had over the years while reporting and writing on the Troubles in Ireland. I was also concerned about the scope of the project, the potential cost of the research, and the real possibility of not finding a publisher. Legal readings alone of such a book I knew would be very costly.

Nevertheless, I decided to do what I do best and continued to pry into Epstein’s past. The victims.’ statements were traumatic and harrowing. They convinced me that anyone other than Epstein would have been sitting in jail for decades. He had proved the maxim that if you are white and extremely wealthy in America the Law cannot touch you. In this case Justice had turned a blind eye to the vulnerable and powerless.
Epstein‘s flight logs intrigued me most. It was like working on a complex puzzle, trying to match the first names of girls on the flights to ones listed in the Palm Beach case files. Actually the logs contained little information about the girls, especially on international flights. Making me wonder if a lax immigration system was in place, or Epstein had paid officials to look the other way.

In early 2011, I received a phone call from a very distressed Mrs. A. She was in her Manhattan apartment alone with her dogs when someone using a powerful laser had projected the image of a penis onto her bedroom ceiling. She claimed it was Epstein’s. His victims had described it as a weird, one comparing it to an egg. I had seen a photo of it that had been presented during the Florida trial and it was indeed most grotesque in shape. Mrs. .A said she was too embarrassed to call the FBI. Perhaps she had a nightmare, I suggested. Absolutely not, she insisted. I believed her because it was just too outrageous a story for her to concoct. I had, however, to convince myself that it was technically feasible for someone to do this. I contacted a military source who confirmed that such a laser only existed within the military – industrial complex. It would have meant someone scoping out her building like a sniper to choose the right point from which to deliver the image. It was technically complex but feasible

“This friend of yours must have some powerful enemies,” my source remarked. 
By this time, I was made aware that Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell knew that I was on their heels. Mrs. A admitted that a friend of hers had revealed to Epstein her link to me. The same friend told Mrs. A that Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were nervous about my interest in them. I decided that it was time to discuss the practicalities of writing the book with Mrs. A. I met her at a home that she and her husband were renting for the summer in the Hamptons.  We talked about the complexity of the project and how it might take more than a year to complete the investigative side of it. It would entail a lot of travel to the places Epstein operated. There would also be legal costs. It was likely no publisher would be eager to finance it, judging from the fact that there was not a single book on Epstein published. I would have to personally finance it.

As she wanted to be part of the project, she needed to talk to her husband and, as a consequence, another meeting took place with him present. He was a very wealthy man. He smoked a Cuban cigar during lunch .Some nervousness was evident in the way his month twitched when he spoke. Like the smart businessman I presumed him to be, he wanted to know the practical hurdles of writing the book, including the eventual blowback that might come from Epstein, or from his powerful team of lawyers and associates. He dwelt on these issues a lot, and it struck me he was not so much worried about my safety as he was about the impact of the book on his social and financial affairs. I told him that it was a book I would not have chosen to write without a publishing contract, but I had amassed enough material to proceed with it. Whether or not he knew, his wife had made clear to me in previous conversations that she wanted the book written on a commission bases. They would finance it and the final product would be theirs. Alternatively, they could act like a publisher and fund the research and writing.

As I was leaving, Mrs. A promised to get back to me within a week with their decision about how they would like to proceed. I had a nagging feeling that her husband was scared of the project and that money would not be a critical element in any decision he might reach. 
A week passed, and then several, without a call from her. I eventually phoned her, and as I had anticipated, they did not wish to be financially involved in the project, but she hoped that I would write the book with her help. It was clear she was committed to the project, but she was not in charge of the purse strings. I believe that her husband was wary of being linked to an expose of Epstein. I gave up the project and returned Mrs. A her box of papers.

The whole experience took up more than a year of my time. By late summer of 2010, I had come to the realization that writing a book on Epstein was a task with too many obstacles. Would I have persisted without being funded properly, I doubt it as I was convinced that I would not have found a willing publisher. Back then, Epstein was Mister Untouchable.
It has taken almost nine years and the tenacity of the journalists at the Miami Herald, especially the excellent reporting of Julie Brown, to tear the cobwebs off the Epstein scandal. The Me Too movement, and the fact that there are more female members of Congress interested in trafficking and sexual abuse of girls and young women, has also helped those investigating Epstein. The public now knows what happened in Palm Beach, Florida and Congress won’t let it be repeated. The fence around J. Epstein is about to come down and some of his associates will seek deals with prosecutors. I am thrilled that the journalists at the Miami Herald proved how important investigative print journalism can be. Such enthusiasm and determination was lacking when I was working alone to expose Epstein’s hideous crimes. His enablers and the powerful friends who knew what he was up didn’t care.

Writers are often asked if they regret not writing a particular book, and whether I should have written the one on Epstein at the time will always trouble me.
There will now be plenty of publishers clamoring for books on Epstein, but I fear he may have taken many of his secrets to the grave. Investigators will be wondering where he hid his personal files, and perhaps videos. If he worked for more than one intelligence agency as some of my sources privately speculate, he will have left little evidence behind of the compromising materials he assembled on some of the world’s most powerful figures. The parallels between his life and Robert Maxwell’s should not be overlooked. There will be many questions asked about his untimely passing and rightly so, just as similar questions were a asked when Maxwell when he vanished off his yacht at night in the middle of the ocean. I suspect that there will be a few scapegoats, too. Ghislaine Maxwell and some of the other insiders in the Epstein fold may well face the rigors of the law as more details emerge of his sexploits across the globe. The big enablers may have the money and the influence to skate freely from the net that will surely close on the weaker fish.

George Mitchell, Good Friday Agreement Hero, Named As Pervert In Epstein Sex Papers

George Mitchell, the US politician widely credited with leading the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, has been named in court papers as being as a confederate of Jeffrey Epstein, and engaging in sex with an underage, 16-year old girl provided to him by Epstein.

The assault is alleged to have happened some three years after Mitchell helped broker the historic 1998 peace settlement in Northern Ireland. He was later asked by President Obama to help settle the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mitchell, a former majority leader in the US Senate, was named alongside Prince Andrew and a host of well known American figures, as having been provided with the 16-year old girl by Epstein, who committed suicide yesterday in a Manhattan federal holding centre.

Epstein’s girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the late, disgraced millionaire British businessman, Robert Maxwell is alleged to have procured the girl for his sex ring.

The then teenager, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who is now in her 30’s, is currently involved in a sensational legal action seeking damages for abuse during her four year ordeal as Epstein’s sex slave. Late last week the first tranche of 2,ooo court documents filed by Giuffre were made public by a US court.

The documents implicate Mitchell and other personalities, including Prince Andrew, in the abuse of Giuffre when she was a sixteen year old working in Donald Trump’s Mar A Lago club in Florida.

She was recruited, allegedly by Ghislaine Maxwell, and spent four years sexually servicing Epstein and his powerful circle of friends before fleeing and hiding out. Mitchell was also named as an Epstein associate by another Epstein employee.

Fox News reported:

In another deposition, Giuffre also reveals that she was “trafficked” to Mitchell, a former Senate Majority leader who represented Maine from 1980-95 and was later named special envoy to the Middle East by President Obama. A sworn affidavit by a former Epstein employee, Juan Alessi, also alleges Mitchell, 85, of having associated with Epstein.

You can read more here.

Here’s The Real Flaw In The ‘Brexit Threatens Good Friday Agreement’ Argument

I have a question to ask of all those who argue that Brexit undermines the Good Friday Agreement because the GFA is ‘predicated’ on an open Border and Brexit creates a hard, i.e. closed Border.

In 1973, the British and Irish governments, along with a majority of the Northern Ireland political parties negotiated and agreed the Sunningdale Agreement which created three institutions: an Assembly, a power-sharing Executive and a Council of Ireland.

Many have argued, including myself, that the Sunningdale Agreement was a more impressive and powerful deal than the Good Friday Agreement and had the potential to move the North towards an all-island settlement of some sort.

The principal reason was this: the creation of a body called the Council of Ireland. It was agreed at a December 1973 conference in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale in England, involving the British and Irish governments and the three parties who would take seats in the Executive, i.e. the Unionists led by Brian Faulkner, the SDLP and the Alliance Party and it had these two key features:

– A Council of Ministers consisting of seven members of the power-sharing Executive and seven members of the Irish government.

– A consultative or advisory Assembly consisting of thirty members of the Irish parliament and thirty members of the NI Assembly.

Both these bodies, the Council of Ireland and the consultative Assembly would have an inbuilt Nationalist majority. The council of Ministers would have had a Nationalist majority, since Nationalist members of the Executive would combine with the Irish government members to carry a majority on the Council and thereby, theoretically at least, outvote the Unionists every time.

The same logic applied to the consultative Assembly, since the thirty Dail members and the SDLP members of the Northern Assembly could combine to outvote the Unionist/Alliance bloc from Belfast.

The Council of Ministers was the more powerful of the two bodies. It would have ‘executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role’, whereas the consultative Assembly would only have ‘advisory and review functions’.

In that Council of Ministers it is possible to glimpse the embryo of an all-Ireland Cabinet. And it was this that helped fuel the Loyalist resistance, which was ultimately successful, to the Sunningdale deal.

Unionists regarded the Sunningdale deal, the Council of Ireland especially, as such a threat to the union with the UK that the Loyalist strike called by the Ulster Workers Council won popular support and drove moderate Unionists out of the Executive, collapsing Sunningdale.

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is, or maybe was, a much more modest arrangement by comparison.

For instance, the 1974 deal stipulated a simple majority for decisions in the Assembly/Executive while the GFA demands mandatory ‘cross-community’ rules for votes on certain key issues in the Assembly and Executive. That was done, inter alia, to win Unionist support.

A watered-down set of North-South bodies with more limited terms of reference than in 1974 provided the second part of the deal and much more modest British-Irish institutions replaced the powerful 1974 Council of Ministers.

In 1974 an SDLP member of the Assembly could describe Sunningdale as ‘the vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland’. In 1974 few, aside from the then isolated Provisional movement, would disagree. No-one has made the same claim for the Good Friday Agreement in 2019. Nor could they.

So, there can be no doubt that Sunningdale was a much more powerful deal than the GFA.

Yet in 1974 the Border was as ‘hard’ as any Border can be, yet no-one singled that out as a threat to the Sunningdale Agreement.

It didn’t matter to the Sunningdale agreement what sort of Border was in place. All that mattered was that Unionists and Nationalists agreed to share power according to the terms of the deal.

In that respect the GFA is no different. All that matters is that the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to make the deal work. Whether the Border is hard, soft or middling matters not a whit.

The claim that the backstop at the Irish Border insisted on by the EU in any Brexit deal had the potential to pitch the North back into violence was first made by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and almost immediately it was accepted unquestioningly by EU member states and even some in the British camp.

I suspect that in his desperation to avoid what could be an economic disaster for the South, Varadkar peddled the hard Border whopper to his EU colleagues and they, eager to embarrass and discomfit the Brits, happily went along.

It helped that it has been more than two decades since the mainstream IRA fired a shot in anger and a whole new generation of journalists and politicians, ignorant of what the Troubles were about, happily accepted Varadkar’s nonsense and so it has taken off and become the accepted wisdom about Brexit.

The failed Sunningdale agreement tells us two things which have passed today’s journalists and politicians by. One is that the nature of the Border played next to no part in its demise; and the second is that the NI problem is not so much defined by the existence of the Border but how society is ordered within its bounds.

So my question is this: Why should the GFA be any different than Sunningdale in this respect?

Go figure.

The IRA And Protestant Loyalists During The Tan War In Co Cork

Few controversies from the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921 have raged with as much vigour, resilience and fury as the late Peter Hart’s 1998 claim that the IRA in Co Cork, especially West Cork, conducted a sectarian murder campaign against Protestants disguised as a war against British spies. In this 2015 paper, Cork historian Barry Keane examines the evidence:

The IRA response to loyalist co-operation in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921.

By Barry Keane

Abstract: The existence of an Anti-Sinn Fein League of local residents in Cork city and county during the Irish War of Independence is controversial among historians. The late Peter Hart initially claimed that the name was really a cover for RIC/British Army death squads and dismissed long stated IRA claims that many of those they killed were spies, informers and spotters for the British government. IRA commander Tom Barry’s biographer Meda Ryan provided copious references to the Anti Sinn Fein League in her replies to, and dismissal, of Hart’s assertion. Hart in turn dismissed Ryan’s claim and almost twenty years later the controversy continues. While many of the sources and assumptions upon which Hart based his theory have been shown to be more nuanced and complex than he suggested, other aspects of his analysis have received less attention. One of these neglected topics is this issue of the extent of loyalist co-operation. While much has been written about this, it is often only part of polemics on either side of the debate and often is not considered on its own merits. This paper examines much of the available British and Irish evidence and invites the reader to consider both the quality of that evidence and how significant this co-operation actually was.


History is difficult: it is always subject to revision as new archives are opened which lead to different interpretations of events. This revisionism is both necessary and welcome provided that the historian remains true to the documents. Difficulties arise when documents are misinterpreted, misread or selectively quoted but often it is the ambiguity of the documents that is the greatest difficulty. These problems increase exponentially when dealing with intelligence or covert warfare where the holders of the information have a vested interest in keeping it secret or actively produce inaccurate information to cloud the actual events. Often it is impossible to make a full judgement in this secret world and historians are only able to analyse what they are allowed to see sometimes centuries after the event. The opacity of this secret world places an extra burden on the historian to verify the facts as much as possible and to be cautious in their analysis.

This article re-examines the question of the existence and make up of a local civilian loyalist Anti-Sinn Fein League working secretly with the British forces in opposition to the IRA in Cork during the Irish War of Independence. This issue is very much part of what might be called the ‘Peter Hart War’ which has raged through Irish historical scholarship since the publication of The IRA and its enemies in 1998. His dismissal of significant loyalist cooperation, combined with his identification of events approaching ‘ethnic cleansing in Southern Ireland and his obvious contempt for West Cork IRA commander General Tom Barry brought his work centre stage in the study of this period. It won him critical acclaim, honours and vilification in almost equal measure. Part 1 of this paper briefly outlines the current position in the discussion about Hart’s theses while Part 2 deals specifically with the evidence of loyalist co-operation with British forces in Cork.

Part 1: The Peter Hart Wars- an end?

In 1998 Peter Hart sparked off controversy among Irish historians when he published The IRA and its enemies about the conduct the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in Cork. He made three controversial claims. The first was that after the Kilmichael ambush on November 28 1920 IRA commander, Tom Barry, invented a ‘false’ surrender to explain why 16 Auxiliary Police were wiped out and no prisoners taken. The second was that a campaign approaching ‘ethnic cleansing’ took place across southern Ireland between 1921 and 1923 and that this resulted ‘in the single greatest movement of a native population within the British Isles since the seventeenth century’. Finally, he stated that the vast majority of individuals shot as ‘informers’ by the IRA were innocent easy targets on the margins of society and that most of the information supplied to the British actually came from within the IRA or their supporters. Hart was inviting the reader to re-imagine ‘the four glorious years’ of the Irish revolution in Cork as a squalid sectarian conflict where a ‘veil of silence was drawn over the continuing persecution and dispossession of the Protestants of West Cork’ as ‘Protestants had become “fair game” because they were seen as outsiders and enemies not just by the IRA but by a large segment of the [Roman] Catholic population as well’. Unsurprisingly, as Hart’s theories struck at the non-sectarian vision of the foundation of the Irish state and the folk memory of the Cork IRA brigades they set off a storm of controversy. Much has been written since about this topic and it is reasonable to look at the current position on all these issues before continuing.

1 The Kilmichael Ambush

While there is ample evidence that the false surrender at Kilmichael was always part of the story this evidence will always be ambiguous at best. Seven months after the ambush, the British magazine Round Table reported that the Auxiliaries were wiped out after ‘a white flag was raised’ and then they ‘recommenced firing’ to explain ‘the unique barbarity of the event’. The Bureau of Military History (BMH) statement of John (Jack) Hennessy, who fought at Kilmichael, states that some Auxiliaries attempted to fire after a ceasefire was called by Barry. The evidence of Hennessy is very clear, but in truth it is impossible to analyse a fire-fight on such limited information. It is also a fact that IRA soldier Pat Deasy was shot in the abdomen and the chest by an Auxiliary after he came down on to the road around the same time that Jack Hennessy took cover and John Lordan, who was next to him was shot in the ear. Two other volunteers lay dead, or dying next to these men before this. It is highly likely that Tom Barry was entirely honest about what he thought he saw (three volunteers stand up and get shot) while at the same time incorrect about what he actually saw. William H. Kautt’s argument that there is no contradiction between Tom Barry’s evidence and the evidence of the other witnesses is convincing.

Secondly, after a bruising, needlessly snide, disparaging and personalised debate it is now accepted by most historians that Hart’s claim that the decline of the native Protestant population in southern Ireland was mostly attributable to IRA violence during the War of Independence and Civil War was incorrect. David Fitzpatrick’s succinct summary of the current position is,‘The spectacular depopulation of Protestants in southern Ireland (1911–26) has led some historians to claim that sectarian elements in the IRA were responsible for forced emigration amounting to ‘ethnic cleansing’. Such theses are difficult to test in the absence of detailed returns of migration giving religious affiliation. This paper presents new evidence from Methodist records to document the trajectories of families who left West Cork between 1920 and 1923, indicating that excess emigration accounted for only a small part of net depopulation. It also records the reactions of Methodist clergy and leaders to the threats posed by revolutionary conflict, confirming the impressive resilience of the community despite murders and intimidation’.

This broadly agrees with the statistical analysis presented separately by both Andy Bielenberg and myself from the published census material. The excess Protestant decline in West Cork, for example, was in the order of 10% between 1911 and 1926, and as this includes other factors then the correct figure for ‘forced’ migration during the short period between 1919 and 1923 is likely to be less than this. It is also notable that the annualised rate of decline in Cork between 1911 and 1926 was only marginally greater than the previous ten years if the departure of the British military and their families is excluded. No reasonable historian would disagree with Fitzpatrick’s observation that ‘the spectre of Protestant extermination has distracted debate about revolutionary Ireland for too long, and should be laid to rest’.

As the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross directly addressed the issue in 1923 (immediately after the war was over) and said that during the war ‘Churchmen [members of the Church of Ireland] had lived in friendliness and good-fellowship with their Roman Catholic neighbours, and Roman Catholics and Churchmen have proved mutually helpful to each other all over the diocese’ this should never have been an issue. This is despite the fact that in 1922 he commented that,

‘During the past two and a half years our population has declined by 8%. It is serious, but does not call for despair. Many of our people have gone. Neither we nor their country could afford to lose them. Their homes have been burned. Destruction has marched through the land. The ruins of Ireland may well make all who love her weep. But notwithstanding all our losses we are not going to be chilled in inactivity, or give way to depression’’

While these words have be seen by some as evidence of sectarianism it may also be observed that the Church figures further contradict the claims of Peter Hart that the majority of the 43% Protestant decline in Cork occurred between 1920 and 1922.

3 Protestant victimisation

However, on the linked topic of deliberately targeting and harassing Protestants as a group, rather than particular individuals over active loyalty to Britain, no such consensus (even on the facts) seems possible. While there is ample evidence of attacks on Protestants from the public record and within the IRA’s own evidence, the difficulty has always been trying to divine a corroborated motive for individual attacks and deaths. The IRA claimed such attacks were political while loyalists suggested they were sectarian. Peter Hart was initially unequivocal in his view that this was a firstly a religious war,
‘Religion may have provided the starting point for the conflict, but class prejudice, patriotism, and personal grudges all fuelled the development and continuation of widespread violence… the book explores the motivation behind such activity. Its conclusions not only reveal a hidden episode of Ireland’s troubled past but provide valuable insights into the operation of similar terrorist groups today’.

While Hart retreated from claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ Professor Fitzpatrick apparently still shares Hart’s belief which he claims was that ‘certain republican activists, at certain times, made a concerted attempt to drive Protestants and “loyalists” out of West Cork’. The problem remains: how can you prove this? Obviously, Fitzpatrick’s interpretation of Hart’s views is much weaker than Hart’s original one of a final reckoning between ‘settler and Gael’, but his comment that ‘Republican terror—venomous, cruel, and brutal though it was—lacked the power to break the spirit of minorities such as the Methodists of West Cork’, is not supported by evidence that this was the intention of the IRA in its campaign against British rule. Equally, his question that ‘ even if Southern Protestants were not subjected to “ethnic cleansing”, is it not credible to apply such a term to the Methodist families actually displaced from revolutionary West Cork?’, can only be answered in the negative.

While there is no doubt that at the time of the Dunmanway killings in April 1922 most locals (and leaders of the nationalist community in the south) believed that they were sectarian attacks in response to the Belfast anti-Roman Catholic ‘pogroms’ of that year, the paltry circumstantial evidence does not actually point in that direction (despite the fact that as all the fatalities were Protestant the outcome was in effect sectarian) when the selective nature of the more than thirty other targets is considered. In reality, as the majority of loyalists in Cork were Protestant then if the IRA attacked loyalists they had to attack some Protestants. The evidence from many of the survivors of the 1922 West Cork attacks (Gilbert Johnston in Bandon, the Bennett brothers in Ballineen, William Jagoe, the Wilson brothers, James McCarthy, Thomas Sullivan and W.H. Fitzmaurice in Dunmanway, Thomas Nagle and R.J. Helen in Clonakilty), for example, shows that they were all targeted as Protestant unionists, loyalists or (in the latter two cases) informants, which suggests that the attackers were at least as interested in their politics as their religion. Much of this will never be resolved because: the evidence is apparently not there, has not been made available to historians or remains undiscovered in family documents and archives. This even extends to the most basic issues. Anyone looking for the gravestone of James Beale, shot in 1921, and his wife Sarah (who lost her father, brother, and husband at the hands of the IRA) in St. Luke’s churchyard in Douglas, Cork will not find it because their names are not on the grave.

There may well have been a sectarian element in the actions of some individuals during the 1922 murders, as Professor Fitzpatrick now suggests, but there is little evidence of a systematic sectarian campaign or that the response of the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership on all sides was anything other than an attempt to protect against, and apologise for, these attacks. It is a fact that what happened during the 1922 murders was by definition not ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even ‘something approaching ethnic cleansing’. Nevertheless, despite a plethora of new research, some scholars seem unwilling to adjust their position.

Overall then, it seems clear ‘there was in Hart’s work a compulsion not only to exaggerate, but also to simplify’ and it is this, combined with an unfortunate habit of selectively quoting the sources that underpinned some of his claims, that led to the difficulty many historians have with his work. The recent research on the topic has clarified much of the true history of the war and there is no doubt that the release of new documents in the seventeen years since the publication of The IRA and its enemies would have caused Hart to substantially modify his opinion. It has always appeared to me that too much focus has been placed on one book and historians of the period have a duty to move on from Hart by returning to their key role of interpreting the sources.

Part 2: Loyalist co-operation and the Anti Sinn Fein League-real or imagined?
The main focus of this paper is on one element of the ‘victimhood by group’ theory: the Anti-Sinn Fein League. This section of the article re-examines the topic and invites the reader to consider how significant loyalist cooperation with the British forces was during the war in Cork. Inevitably, if it can be shown that the individuals shot by the IRA had been providing information to the British then doubt must be cast on the sectarian hypothesis. The reader will have to judge the evidence and decide.

In his autobiographical account of the war, the leader of the 3rd (West Cork) Flying Column, Tom Barry stated that if Protestants and Loyalists remained ‘aloof’ from the struggle they were not harmed by the IRA, but those who actively supported the British could expect no mercy. While the IRA leadership was adamant that there was, historians dispute the existence of local civilian loyalist organisations providing information to the British, and claim that at most only a few loyalist farmers in West Cork or Cork city residents were involved.

Hart and the Anti Sinn Fein League

The ‘non-civilian’ make-up of an Anti-Sinn Fein league or society was an important building block in Hart’s thesis that the IRA had targeted people who were ‘outsiders, undesirables, people living on the margins of the communities and thus very likely considered to be real or imaginary informers and enemies of the Republic: “Freemasons, tramps and tinkers, corner boys, fast women, ex-servicemen, etc” ‘. To underpin his thesis it was necessary to show that the Anti-Sinn Fein League was actually a cover name for RIC/military death squads and that the victims of IRA violence were targeted in error.

Others agree. Gerard Murphy, for example, recently stated that the Anti Sinn Fein League ‘was simply a cover for night-time British death squads’ and that the ‘evidence for this is overwhelming’. Murphy accepts the possibility that some local loyalists assisted the British with intelligence gathering but refuses to include any as part of a league. He may be correct but this does not mean that some local loyalists did not assist these ‘death squads by spotting for them’. The shooters may well have been RIC and military, but, in my opinion, to divorce the intelligence gathering operation from the ‘death squad’ seems extremely tenuous if not entirely illogical. There is no doubt, for example, that George Horgan was shot for spying on the IRA and that his disappearance was the subject of a threat by loyalist forces which was copied on the wires and published in The Mail in Adelaide, South Australia. The threat was to the point,
‘‘LONDON, To-day’ If Horgan is not returned by 4 p.m. on Friday, rebels of Cork, beware, as one man and one shop will disappear for every ‘hour after the given time’.

The Auxiliaries are the most likely source for the notice, but there is equally no doubt that George was local as he was born in Killarney in 1889 to a Cork mixed marriage. His father had died by 1911. Coincidentally, the night after the notice appeared, Saturday 11 December 1920, the centre of Cork city was burned down by Auxiliaries and other British forces as a reprisal for other incidents that day. It seems likely that a long planned reprisal had degenerated into an all-out orgy of drink and looting sparked off by the bombing of an Auxiliary convoy almost at the gates of the British headquarters at Victoria Barracks in the city.

Others dismiss Hart and Murphy and point to the wealth of evidence in IRA documents about the Anti Sinn Fein League. There is no doubt that this IRA evidence is problematic as there are few corroborating documents, but it seems odd that many IRA veterans would all concoct the same lie in different parts of Cork. Possibly, this could be put down to paranoia (or more benignly a willingness to be suspicious and trigger-happy) or possibly they are telling the truth. While no loyalist claimed membership of the league in their compensation claims at the Irish Grants Committee, as the IRA claimed that they wiped out the members of the league by February 1921 this neither proves nor disproves anything as membership of the league was meant to be secret. Much of this has already been covered by John Borgonovo’s Spies, informers, and the Anti Sinn Féin League, Murphy in his book, Peter Hart’s IRA and its enemies and to a lesser extent in Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter, but as new sources have become available it is reasonable to revisit the evidence. Other recent articles have also gone a long way to explaining what happened during the Dunmanway murders of 1922 and these also need to be considered.

In West Cork

In West Cork the claim was that a second RIC/Military murder gang operated in the Bandon area while ‘dressed up as old farmers’ and that this was the ‘real’ Anti Sinn Fein League there. This directly contradicted and dismissed IRA Commander, Liam Deasy’s, comment that the 1921 murder of the Coffey brothers in Enniskeane was carried out by this hit squad guided to the location by two local civilians and that the IRA had discovered the existence of an Anti Sinn Fein League in that part of the Bandon valley. Lest there be any doubt, Deasy accepted the existence of a British Army/Police group who did the actual shooting but stated that they were helped by locals. However, on examination the Hart claim is based on a single source and this therefore demands close scrutiny.

The specific claim about the Bandon ‘murder gang’ refers to the statement by ex-RIC Constable McIvor which was recorded in Brewer’s The Royal Irish Constabulary: an oral history. As he was discussing Cork IRA commander Frank Busteed immediately before moving on to McIvor ‘stationed in Bandon (an area which saw a large number of IRA deaths)’, Hart’s editing (in italics below) gives the impression that the ex-RIC Constable was discussing a special squad stationed in Bandon. The full quote says,

‘We had no truck with the Auxiliaries at all. They were a force unto themselves. I think they were the ones who got the most hatred really. They were tough chaps indeed. I think they made the RIC’s job harder. The Black and Tans they weren’t as bad as the picture that is painted of them. Of course if they were ambushed, and had a lot of them shot, well then they retaliated. One man a Head Constable, he took charge of a squad, he was always in plain clothes, never wore uniform, and they had a big price on his head. He was an ordinary police officer, he was ex-army, and they had a thousand pounds on his head, dead or alive. But they never got him and he went to Canada, I believe after disbandment. Well he was on a special squad, he had his men with him, four or five of them, dressed up like old farmers, they gathered the information. Oh, there was quite a lot of undercover work. There was one man along with me in Bandon at that particular time and he was a sergeant, and he said, ‘I have a sort of a presentment that they’re going to get me’. ‘Ach’, I says ‘sure everybody thinks that at some time or other’. And so they did, they got him whenever he come back to Dublin. They shot him coming out of chapel’.

But what exactly does the source say? Has anyone traced this Head Constable, who should be relatively easy to find? Where was this Head Constable operating? Were the men dressed up as old farmers involved in reprisals? Most importantly did this squad operate in Bandon? Was the Bandon Sergeant a member of the ‘bunch of old farmers’? When did this sergeant move to Dublin and when was he shot? In short, is it evidence of a military/police ‘death squad’ in Bandon? Is it proof that there was no local Anti Sinn Féin League in Cork city or county? Is it proof there was a local Anti-Sinn Fein League in Bandon? Is it proof that the Anti Sinn Fein League was only and exclusively an RIC/Army hit-squad? The reader will have to decide for themselves but it is difficult to see how the quote could support any of these interpretations.

Secondly, while Hart eventually conceded that ‘a few, but not many’ loyalists were providing assistance in West Cork, in 1998 he failed to mention British evidence that loyalist cooperation in the Bandon valley was exceptional and that many loyalist farmers in this valley ‘were murdered while almost all the remainder suffered grave material loss’ for providing information to the British. It might also be observed that ‘a few, but not many’ spies of all religions were killed. Unlike Hart, Murphy accepted that the Record of the Rebellion refers to ‘the half a dozen or so loyalist farmers who were shot by members of Tom Barry’s column, and others who were driven out in fear of their lives’ but categorically denies that this cooperation was significant or ‘widespread’.

Murphy presents a second piece of evidence about a British Army/RIC ‘death-squad’ in West Cork. He states that a local man ‘Dan Leary was caught and nearly flogged to death by masked and armed men, almost certainly RIC men in disguise, or British intelligence men in mufti’. In fact, the Cork Constitution report that Murphy refers to states: Lynch was flogged in Caheragh 30 kilometres to the west of Bandon; the flogging occurred the previous November and not after the shooting of Thomas Bradfield in February 1921 and the man was flogged for non-payment of the IRA arms levy. The perpetrators were unidentified but it is extremely unlikely that they were British forces.

As these are the only pieces of evidence presented in The IRA and its enemies or the The Year of Disappearances about the members of a Bandon ‘murder gang’ Murphy’s claim that he ‘proved pretty much beyond doubt that the members of the so-called Anti-Sinn Fein League were British security operatives and not so called loyalist spies’ seems to be stretching the evidence beyond reason.
There is, of course, other evidence that there was a ‘death squad’ operating in West Cork. The BMH witness statement of Richard Russell, for example, identified retired British Army Lieutenant Colonel Warren Peacocke, who lived in Innishannon, as a guide for the ‘death squad’. Russell states that the squad included Essex regiment members and nobody has ever suggested otherwise. The claim has always been that the squad was being guided around West Cork and assisted with information provided by local spies like Peacock and his neighbour Fred Stenning who was also shot.

Tom Barry’s biographer, Meda Ryan is categorical that an Anti-Sinn Fein League existed in West Cork and has presented a wealth of evidence to support her argument in an article in History. However, when this evidence is examined it does not identify members of the league so it is circumstantial at best, and this is precisely where the difficulty in this debate lies. Equally, as only Ms. Ryan has seen all the documents in question, and some are no longer available to other historians, this has allowed some writers to cast doubt on her research.

The problem with all these versions of the same events told from different perspectives is that the sources are no longer allowed to speak for themselves. In reality the only sources that claim to identify individual members of an Anti-Sinn Fein League in county Cork are Irish (mostly Bureau of Military History witness statements) but these are often questioned or dismissed by historians who believe that the society was a myth, usually without explaining why they should be. David Fitzpatrick alludes to ‘the ubiquity of serious factual errors and self-justifying distortion in much republican testimony such as that collected by the Bureau of Military History’ without further comment but those historians who have examined the BMH in detail have a somewhat less dismissive view of the archive. I have read more than 900 Bureau of Military History statements and cross-referenced them where possible with the other sources. Generally, they are broadly accurate, especially when there is more than one statement discussing the same incident. The least we should do is to invite the reader to consider the evidence in detail and to make up their own mind, but it must be stressed that as many pieces of evidence are frustratingly ambiguous the archives must be treated with reasonable scepticism at all times.

The evidence

The IRA evidence

Patrick Collins lived in later life on College Road in Cork. He was highly respected in the community. College Road had a large Church of Ireland congregation but if there were any residual tensions from his role as an IRA Officer in Cork City they were never evident amongst the close knit community. He often spoke about the ‘troubled time’ and his story was well known in the locality.

In his Bureau of Military History statement Patrick Collins discusses the Anti-Sinn Fein League and says that it was made up of local Freemasons and YMCA members. He says its secretary was [James] Charles Beale who managed Woodford Bourne, wine merchants in Cork. James Beale came from England a few years before the War of Independence and was the brother-in-law of James and Edward Blemens who worked in Woodford Bourne. Suspicion initially fell on these men when an IRA man (Din Din O’Roirdain) who had been passing information to the British was interrogated and then shot by an IRA group at the Chetwynd Viaduct just outside Cork city. Edward and his father James Snr. were kidnapped and killed by the IRA in late November 1920. Senior Cork commander Michael Murphy [who had also interrogated Din Din] recalls in his BMH statement that their ‘names were given to me by Parsons. We also had information about them from letters captured by our lads in raids on postmen for mails’. Michael Murphy spoke in far greater detail to Ernie O’Malley about his investigation into the group and said that he had listened in the backyard of Blemens house while the Anti Sinn Fein society was meeting. He told O’Malley that he ‘saw them and heard them’ and this is why they were shot. James Beale was shot in February 1921. A probable attempt to kill him in late January had been unsuccessful as he had not been at home when the killers called. Referring to Beale Patrick Collins said that papers found on his body identified the other members of the league and these were shot, or ordered out. These papers were thought to be so valuable that they had to be retrieved from under a flowerpot where they had been stashed when Buckley, the IRA member carrying them, had been captured.Mr. Collins is not alone in his recollection. Jeremiah Keating also relates a version of the same story. Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story is equally direct about what happened in its timeline of events which says that ‘a number of civilians organised into a spy ring by the British military authorities were executed’ in November 1920 which does not leave any room for ambiguity on its part.

Another Cork City IRA man, Willam Barry, explains his role in the shooting of Alfred Reilly the manager of Thompson’s Bakery who was picked up outside the building on what is now McCurtain Street and driven in his own pony and trap to the gates of his house in Douglas where he was shot and his body dumped. Barry says that Reilly was the paymaster of the Anti-Sinn Féin League. Cork IRA spymaster Florence O’Donoghue also stated that such a league existed, it was not very successful, and that any people who started to ‘show signs of becoming dangerous were quickly eliminated’. Michael O’Donoghue (later President of the G.A.A.) also discusses the Anti Sinn Fein League and states,

A secret society known as the “Anti-Sinn Fein Society” was formed. Its principal members were wealthy imperialists in Cork – drawn from industrial, commercial and retired British governmental servants, both civil and military. They were almost exclusively non-Catholic; a fact which later gave a curious religions slant to I.R.A. counter-activities to suppress them. This society collected and sifted information, by discreetly using some of their employees as spotters and touts, which they passed on to the Auxiliaries and military. Warning notices and fearsome threats of murder and reprisals were actually published in Cork City newspapers and in posters in the name of the “Anti Sinn Fein Society”. These notices were invariably handed in by armed Auxiliaries who ordered publication at the point of a gun…I.R.A. Intelligence were not long in unmasking three of the A.S.F. principals, two in Cork and one in Youghal. They were promptly executed and this alarmed the rest.’

O’Donoghue confirms Auxiliary involvement in the league but also confirms that local loyalists were shot for their involvement. As we will see O’Donoghue later states bluntly the men shot during the Dunmanway killings in April 1922 were members of this Anti-Sinn Fein League to explain why they were targeted by their killers. Finally, also in West Cork, William Foley of Timoleague stated that loyalists had organised themselves into an Anti-Sinn Fein League as early as 1919 but does not present any further evidence.

The case of T.J Bradfield is of particular significance and needs to be considered in detail. The Cork 3rd Brigade passed through Carhue, 4 kilometres to the west of Bandon, towards the end of January 1921 on their way to attack British forces in Bandon. They came across a man called Michael or Denis Dwyer from Newcestown who mistook them for Auxiliaries. He gave them information about the local IRA. He was ‘tried, convicted of spying’ and shot. His body was left on the road as a trap for the Essex regiment or ‘K’ Company of the Auxiliaries. While they waited they were billeted with local farmers some of whom were loyalist. When they came to the house of T.J. Bradfield, a member of the Cork, Cloyne and Ross Diocesan Synod, he also mistook them for Auxiliaries and also gave them information about the local IRA. According to Denis Lordan Bradfield said, ‘I’m not like the rest of them round here at all. The Reverend Mr Lord is my man, and I give him the information. You fellows should come round at night I’d show you round.”

Lordan’s statement to the Bureau of Military History goes much further and states that ‘he also arranged to give further information [to the Auxliiaries] later on through his local clergyman and pressed very hard for the immediate capture and execution of certain local boys who were members of the IRA’. Bradfield’s clergyman was Lord. Like Dwyer, Bradfield was ‘tried, convicted’ and shot. There is no dispute about this among the sources.

Bradfield had implicated the Reverend John Charles Lord of Bandon. According to IRA Intelligence Officer, Flor Begley, the minister in Bandon was ‘next on the list’ but Major Percival sent word that the ‘PP or a neighbour (or a brother) of the Bishop would be shot’. Even so, according to Begley the minister woke up one night to find men with revolvers at the foot of his bed which can only have been a warning to desist. The problem with this is that with the exception of Denis Lordan’s reported comments there is nothing else to link Lord definitively by name with Bradfield.

The recent publication of The men will talk to me: West Cork Interviews which transcribes Ernie O’Malley’s interviews with some of the most senior IRA veterans including 3rd Brigade intelligence officer Flor Begley, the ‘Piper of Crossbarry’ is an important addition to the source material. Begley’s interview amplifies and corroborates Frank Neville’s statement to the Bureau of Military History that he had been captured by Percival and Lieutenant Hotblack (killed at the Crossbarry ambush in March 1921) at the farm of ‘a Protestant farmer called Jagoe’. Percival listed out all of Neville’s activities over the previous few days and when Neville denied this he simply replied ‘I have my own intelligence service around here and I know everything’. Neville recalled that he was badly beaten and then was to be murdered by the Essex, ‘shot while trying to escape’. Begley confirms that he interviewed J[agoe] and that the man claimed that he had been gossiping at church to account for the information Percival had about Neville. Begley sardonically observed that this ‘did not explain how Percival knew that the rifles had been left in J[agoe]’s shed for a night’. Jagoe left the following day and was not seen again in West Cork according to Begley. Neville pulled no punches and stated, ‘Jagoe was a loyalist and had given information. He left the country shortly after when be found we were on his track’. On the face of it Percival was quite open with Neville about the quality of his information as he knew he was going to be murdered. Once Neville survived and told his story, Jagoe would inevitably have been shot by Begley and it seems he departed.

The ‘Dunmanway’ killings

Thirteen Protestants were killed in West Cork between April 26th and April 29th 1922. Long after the 1922 killings Michael V. O’Donoghue stated that the victims were shot in reprisal for the death of IRA Vice-Commandant Michael O’Neill and that the targets were chosen because of their loyalty to Britain and their membership of the Anti-Sinn Fein League in West Cork.

‘Several prominent loyalists – all active members of the anti-Sinn Féin Society in West Cork, and blacklisted as such in I.R.A. Intelligence Records – in Bandon, Clonakilty, Ballineen and Dunmanway, were seized at night by armed men, taken out and killed. Some were hung, most were shot. All were Protestants. This gave the slaughter a sectarian appearance. Religious animosity had nothing whatever to do with it. These people were done to death as a savage, wholesale, murderous reprisal for the murder of Mick O’Neill. They were doomed to die because they were listed as aiders and abettors of the British Secret Service, one of whom, Captain Woods, had confessed to shooting dead treacherously and in cold blood Vice-Commandant Michael O’Neill that day near Crookstown in May 1922. Fifteen or sixteen loyalists in all went to gory graves in brutal reprisal for O’Neill’s murder’.

O’Donoghue was in no doubt about the existence of the Anti-Sinn Fein league or, in this case, its membership, but as we are not able to interrogate the quality of the information on which he based his claim, given the fact he was in Donegal at the time, then it must be treated with reasonable scepticism.

There is other evidence in various archives which names (or links) the individuals shot in April 1922 as enemy agents, loyalists, and pro-British supporters. W.H. Fitmaurice reported in his compensation claim that both he and his brother Francis, who was shot on April 26th, gave information to the British government forces in Dunmanway during the War of Independence. Thomas Nagle, whose son Robert was shot, and R.J.Helen, who escaped, were named in a 3rd Cork Brigade list of enemy agents in July 1921. The nephew of another victim, James Buttimer, was named in the same list and another nephew was named in the ‘Dunmanway Diary’. [John] Bertie Chinnery, [Robert or William] Howe, [John or James] Buttimer and John Moore are named in the Military Service Pensions Collection claim of Mary Kate (Nyhan) Falvey as spies at Castletown-Kenneigh. She states ‘‘two or three of these were shot’. Ms. Falvey’s statement also confirms her as the source for identifying Michael Dwyer as an enemy agent. As we know Mr. Dwyer was shot in Carhue in 1921 by the 3rd Brigade Column after being interrogated. As Liam Deasy accompanied Ms. Falvey at her interview and Tom Barry wrote she ‘gave information regarding spies’ there can be no doubt that her evidence had the full imprimatur of the leaders of the 3rd Brigade. Barry in another letter to support her appeal stated ‘this is one of our very best women’. In 1949, Risteard Ó Glaisne wrote to Tom Barry stating that John Chinnery had been identified as a British spy when he dropped a letter he was posting to the British. Finally when John Bradfield was shot the killers were actually looking for his brother Henry, who had been passing information to the British. Initial reports stated that a John Shorten, who lived next door, was the victim. All this may explain why these men were picked out for reprisal after the death of Michael O’Neill: it does not excuse the killings nor does it confirm except in a couple of cases that these victims were giving information to the British. There is less substantive evidence about the targeting of the other victims such as Alexander McKinley who was killed in Ballineen or David Gray who was killed in Dunmanway.

This is virtually all the Irish evidence of a Cork based Anti-Sinn Fein League or of loyalist co-operation with the British military in West Cork and the reader will have to decide how honest these men are in the story they tell. Generally the BHM statements tell us who shot whom because in most cases the gunmen say who they shot. Michael O’Donogue, for example, states that he shot a soldier coming out of a sweet shop on St. Patrick’s Street in Cork city during the general attack on British soldiers after the first of the Dripsey Ambush executions and this was Private William Gill of the Hampshire Regiment who was indeed shot coming out of a sweet shop according to the news reports. In my view this points towards their credibility in these statements: others may believe differently. However, for the sake of argument, let us reject this evidence in its entirety.

The British evidence

If the IRA evidence is rejected then we must look elsewhere for the existence of an Anti-Sinn Fein League and for significant loyalist cooperation with the British. The obvious place to look is in British records. First and foremost there is no doubt that only a small percentage of local loyalists assisted the British which is hardly surprising given the risk to life and property if locals were suspected. While the British claimed that only one of the people shot in 1921 was an informant, in West Cork the existence of an organised Anti Sinn Féin League is actually irrelevant as there is direct British evidence that some loyalists were supplying information to Essex Regiment Intelligence Officer Major Arthur Percival who was stationed at Bandon. His post war lectures to Staff College were published by Cork historian William Sheehan in 2005. For some reason while most subsequent scholars refer to Sheehan few seem to have actually read all of what Percival said. And what he said about his methods of obtaining information is very important,

‘The most profitable methods [my emphasis] were as follows:
(i) Most important of all, an I.O. must move about the country and hunt for information. It will not come to him if he sits in his office all day.
(ii) He must keep in close touch with the loyalists- especially those who are not afraid to tell them what they know.

This is not always an easy thing to do, as if the IRA suspected a Loyalist of giving information or being too friendly with the Crown Forces, it meant certain death for him. It was our usual practice therefore to approach their houses after dark and very long night journeys had to be made in order to do this.’

Undoubtedly, Percival says that some loyalists in West Cork were actively providing him information and he believed that it was valuable enough to undertake long night journeys to get it. We already know that according to the ‘extremely experienced intelligence officer’ many farmers in the Bandon valley provided information, some were shot, and others suffered grave material loss. Eve Morrison recently questioned whether loyalists were the main source of information for Percival but ‘most profitable’ cannot be ignored. The Record of the Rebellion continues that the intelligence branch had, ‘been considerably developed and better able to deal with any information which came to hand and that ‘at the same time the proclamation of Martial Law had undoubtedly frightened a large number of civilians and made them more willing to give information to the Crown forces. This fact, apparently, was realised by the rebel leaders as, commencing in February, a regular murder campaign was instituted against Protestant Loyalists and anybody who might be suspected of being an ‘informer’, quite irrespective of whether he really was or not. This campaign was intensified as time went on, and it had the result of making information very hard to obtain.’

At least six of the Cork Protestant loyalists who were shot in 1921 had provided information which was damaging to the IRA. These were Mathew Sweetnam, William Connell, Mrs. Mary Lindsay, James Clarke, T.J. Bradfield, and Thomas Bradfield. As has been stated Francis Fitzmaurice, who was the first person murdered during the Dunmanway killings in April 1922, had providing information during the War of Independence because his brother mentions it in his statement of claim to the Irish Grants Committee. In these cases it appears the IRA was correct. In fact, Colonel Ormonde Winter, the head of British Intelligence in Ireland specifically mentioned Mrs. Lindsay in his final report when he said that some loyalists ‘like the notorious case of Mrs. Lindsay, have paid for their loyalty’. Whether these killings were moral is another matter, but the effect of all these shooting was that the supply of information to the British became ‘very hard to obtain’. In pure military terms it was a successful tactic.
The District Commissioner at Bandon reported on 2 February 1921 that John Dwyer and Thomas (T.J) Bradfield who had been shot a few days before had been ‘suspected of giving the information to the Crown forces’. He further commented while ‘the murders were most cold-blooded and revolting, there [stems] from them the conclusion that the IRA fear civilian information being given & it is being given freely and it is believed it will be still given [my emphasis]’.

A month later on 3 March 1921 he discusses the February attacks and says that ‘The war against loyalist civilians has also resulted in the death of five, while three others have been shot. The motive in the civilian murders is to intimidate loyalist opinion, which was asserting itself, out of existence’. He then lists the incidents including the murders of Thomas Bradfield (Methodist) and Robert Eady (Roman Catholic) for ‘giving information’ and the shooting of Gilbert Fenton (Methodist) ‘for being a loyalist’. However, it must also be noted that the District Commissioner states throughout his reports that Protestant loyalists were being attacked and intimidated in West Cork and that many were selling up and leaving because they had given up hope of getting any protection from the Government, a point echoed by Percival in his review of the war.

A few weeks earlier, in December 1920, Major Holmes in Cork City unequivocally told Mark Sturgis about the Anti-Sinn Fein League . He said ‘The Anti-Sinn Féin League does exist and is not a myth to cover the “Armed Forces of the Crown”’. Again Murphy and Hart claim that Holmes ‘was simply defending his men in the wake of the burning of Cork’ so he presumably invented the civilian league for consumption by Sturgis. There is no doubt that Holmes was trying to push blame away from any official involvement when he says the Cork fires were, ‘almost certainly started not by any organised body but by single individuals who got together casually, as it were, for mischief- An odd subaltern perhaps, a policeman, an odd Auxiliary doubtless, some civilians, and after the start many real hooligans out for real loot’,but as he admits military, police and Auxiliary involvement it is not much of a defence.

Equally important are comments by the British Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready. On February 19 1921 General Macready reported to the British Cabinet that, ‘Information continues to come in more freely and the murder lately of several men believed by the IRA to be informants points to the feeling of insecurity existing amongst them’.

The essential point is that Macready states that information is coming in freely and, while the IRA may or may not have been correct in shooting these men, the report clearly refers in part to the Cork shootings.

Again at a very detailed meeting with a delegation of eminent British ‘peaceniks’ in April 1921 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead replied,

‘Question 26: Does this mean that you are getting support from the population?
Answer: Generally speaking, it cannot be said that we are getting support from the population. We are undoubtedly getting more information than we were, and the large increase in Sinn Fein murders of those whom they think to be informers and label “Convicted Spy” shows that they are alive to the fact and uneasy about it’.

And there is indeed evidence from within the regimental histories of the troops stationed in Cork city and county Cork that there was widespread co-operation with, and assistance from, local loyalists. The second battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckingham Light Infantry was stationed in Victoria Barracks in Cork city in 1919 before moving to Buttevant in north Cork in December 1919. The first battalion replaced them in Victoria Barracks. The regimental records of their time in Cork and Limerick are fulsome in their praise of the loyalist community but it will also be noted that the soldiers recognised how irrelevant and precarious their position was.

‘For their hospitality and kindness we cannot thank them enough. Consisting as they did of people with everything to gain and nothing to lose by preserving an attitude of neutrality; in constant danger of seeing their houses burned and their motor cars purloined, even if they escaped actual physical violence; they continued to invite us to dances and tennis parties, and do everything possible for our entertainment. Their courage was undoubted, but for any influence they had on the opinions and actions of the population as a whole (even their own employees) they might just as well have been living in another country. Indeed their absence would have made our task more easy. Their number and situation made the provision of any kind of protection extremely difficult. They were hostages in the hands of the enemy, a fact the Sinn Feiners were quick to realise’.

In many ways Colonel Winter deserves the final British word. Looking at all the evidence his summation of what happened is not too far off the mark,
‘…in the rest of Ireland, the Protestant, both laymen and clergy, did little to assist the forces of the Crown. The majority of loyalists remained inarticulate. There have been, however, a few notable exceptions, and to these persons all credit is due…Had it been possible to provide protection for more of the loyalists, it is possible that more assistance might have been obtained.’

The reader will again have to weigh up and decide whether they believe these British officers but whatever about members of the IRA possibly getting things wrong thirty years after the event most of the British evidence is contemporary, or written with a year or two, when events were still fresh in the officers’ minds. There is a clear chain of command in the British evidence stretching from the District Commissioner of the RIC and the Essex Regiment’s Intelligence Officer in Bandon through Strickland the Officer Commanding in Cork to Macready the Officer Commanding in Ireland and on into the British cabinet in the form of the Lord Chancellor. Each in his turn accepted the accuracy of the information presented to them. Why, then, should it be rejected?


As has been stated there is little doubt that T.J. Bradfield, who was shot by the Flying Column in late January 1921 when he mistook them for Auxiliaries was passing information via Rev. Charles Lord in Bandon to the Auxiliaries. The evidence for what happened to Bradfield does not come from the IRA alone and T.J. Bradfield’s family complained bitterly about the impossible position in which they had been placed by the British Commander in Cork, General Strickland’s, order of early January 1921 to provide evidence or face prosecution.

However, there are many other cases. We have, for example, not examined the shooting of his cousin Thomas Bradfield a week later who also believed Tom Barry was a British Officer and started to give him information about the Flying Column. Neither have we discussed the IRA shooting of Thomas Bradfield’s brother-in-law John Good on March 10th 1921 who was also shot as a spy. Equally, Innishannon Protestants Warren Peacocke and Fred Stennings, who were shot by the IRA in the first half of 1921, are clearly identified in British archives as ‘loyalists’ as opposed to ‘probable loyalists’. In an era when ‘loyalty’ was the trigger for compensation then the British would not identify these men as their own active supporters without reason as to do so would cost money. It each of these samples it appears that the IRA was correct.

It is wise to accept whatever evidence is presented with a large amount of scepticism unless it can be corroborated and it should always be approached with an open mind. Yet there also has to be some evidence to persuade the reader that someone is not telling the truth. What does all this evidence tell us? The Anti-Sinn Féin League of local loyalists in Cork City might well be a myth but for this to be the case we must reject the detailed and specific evidence of Patrick Collins and the others on the Irish side. Should we? Are they liars?

Equally, in West Cork does the existence of a formal Anti Sinn Fein League really matter? While it certainly mattered to Michael O’Donoghue, when he was commenting in 1952 that the men shot in 1922 were members, the fact is that Major Percival (who should know) says that the British were actively seeking and getting information from local loyalists. Should we also ignore or dismiss Major Percival and the other British evidence? Are they also lying? It is after all the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland which both praises Major Percival for his exceptional efforts in the Bandon valley and states of the ‘many Protestant farmers who gave information…it proved almost impossible to protect those brave men, many of whom were murdered’.

Of course, none of this proves beyond doubt that any of the people shot in 1921, or in 1922, were members of anything. Tom Barry was happy that the shooting of thirteen spies in February and March 1921 ended local loyalist cooperation with the British and this fact was confirmed by the British at the end of March 1921.

There is no doubt that the British believed that around Bandon loyalist cooperation was exceptional. There are also claims on all sides that a local Anti-Sinn Fein League existed with the express purpose of assisting in reprisals against the IRA. The Anti Sinn Fein League was responsible for the murder of the Coffey brothers at Desertserges in February 1921. What is not absolutely certain is whether the membership was exclusively police and military or whether local civilians were involved. The IRA said they were (Warren Peacocke, for example), but the British for the most part denied this. Based on the available evidence it seems illogical to claim that an Anti-Sinn Féin League of local unionists assisting the British forces did not exist in County Cork but neither can anyone prove beyond all reasonable doubt (which is not the standard required) that it did. The evidence shows that an increase in information in 1921 resulted in an IRA response that stopped the flow of information by the end of March that year. The more recent evidence available, particularly in the Bureau of Military History and the Military Pensions collection, also clears up many of the ambiguities about how the victims of the April 1922 massacre came to be chosen. Most of those killed (bar two- McKInley and Grey) had been identified before their murder as ‘enemy agents’ by the 3rd Cork IRA intelligence service. The other victims were close relatives of suspected agents. This should no longer be in dispute. Ultimately, the reader must decide for themselves what happened depending on how much ‘faith’ they place in the evidence.

Barry Keane © October 2015

Putting A Border Poll On Irish Unity Into Proper Context

Now that Boris Johnson is running 10 Downing Street and appears determined to impose a no-deal Brexit, it was inevitable that speculation about a Border poll on Irish unity would soon follow. And it has.

So, it is time to remind people of an article in the Belfast Telegraph that an old friend, Paul Nolan, wrote in mid-June which subjects the matter to the sort of tough scrutiny it really deserves.

His conclusion? That we are a long way off from a point where a British Secretary of State could credibly call for a Border poll, and that even if he or she did order one, those who think the outcome, a united Ireland, is almost a certainty – thanks to an inevitable Catholic demographic advantage – may have got it badly wrong.

Journalists reporting on the North should be required by their editors to keep a copy on their person, to consult whenever the feverish impulse to forecast impending Irish unity – backstop or no backstop – threatens to overcome them.

Here it is:

A referendum on Irish unity may appear more likely now than ever, but that doesn’t make it inevitable, writes Paul Nolan

The border is a huge issue in the Brexit debate
The border is a huge issue in the Brexit debate

By Paul Nolan

It is becoming hard to keep up with the opinion polls on the prospects for a border poll. An exit poll conducted by RTE/TG4 on May 25 showed 65% of voters in the south would now support a united Ireland.

This followed on from the annual Red C poll on May 2, which showed an increase in the percentage of southern voters who feel that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely – up from 44% in March 2018 to 50% in this year’s survey.

The debate has been further amplified by the publication of Seamus Mallon’s memoir A Shared Home Place, which warns of the dangers of a border poll conducted on a winner-takes-all basis, and argues instead for the necessity of winning “parallel consent” from unionists and nationalists for any form of united Ireland.

Whether one likes it or not, a border poll, in whatever form, is now on the agenda. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The frequency with which the idea is now discussed can sometimes make it appear to be an inevitability, but the reality is more complex.

In the provisions for a referendum on Irish unity as set out first in the Good Friday Agreement and then given legislative form in the Northern Ireland Act (1998), it is the Secretary of State who decides when a border poll is to be called.

Now that it is being talked up as an imminent reality, it is worth looking at the actual wording in the Agreement, because what appears at first sight to be a simple statement of fact leaves much open to interpretation.

In Schedule 1 of the 1998 Act, it is stated that: “… the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him (sic) that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

Let’s look more closely at that key phrase “(if) it appears likely to him”. What does that mean? How would he or she know if it was likely or not? There are three possible grounds for making the call, but all three are deeply problematic.

The first and most obvious way to find out if people want a united Ireland is to ask them. The standard way to do that is through an opinion poll, but unfortunately opinion polls have developed a credibility problem.

If they were to be believed, the UK would have rejected the Leave campaigners in 2016 and remained in the EU.

What’s more, Hillary Clinton would be President of the United States.

In fact the day before the US presidential election the most authoritative polling predictions, from the New York Times to Nate Silver, put her chances of victory at between 70% and 99%.

These examples don’t mean opinion polls have lost their usefulness; they do mean that most people will factor in a higher margin of error than they might have done previously.

So, what margin would be required, and in how many polls, and over what duration, before it could be considered “likely” that voters in a real voting situation would choose a united Ireland? This is a point that has not yet been debated let alone resolved.

But if anything can be considered likely, it is that the first poll to show a majority of 50% plus one will result in calls for the border poll to be run immediately – and any caution on the part of the Secretary of State will be decried as a broken promise.

The Secretary of State could, of course, insist on using a different measure, and the second option would be to wait until demographic trends show a Catholic majority.

The most recent figures, published in the Labour Force Religion Survey on January 31 this year, show that the Protestant/Catholic seesaw is continuing to tilt towards Catholics.

In the period between 1990 and 2017 the percentage of Protestants aged 16 and over dropped from 56% to 42%, while the proportion of Catholics in the same age group increased by three percentage points from 38% to 41%. That’s close.

It now looks like the Catholic community will be the larger community by the time of the next census, but that’s not the same as being a majority, if by majority we mean over 50%.

A closer look at the age cohorts in the Labour Force Religion Survey shows the growth momentum of the Catholic community is slowing and, furthermore, the real growth has been in another category – those who do not self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant.

The proportion of the population classified as “other/non-determined” has more than doubled (from 6% to 17%) over this period (and in the 16-24 cohort it has more than trebled, from 7% to 22%).

If this trend were to continue, it may block the Catholic community from crossing the 50% line. Catholics may emerge as the largest of the three main population groups, but still not be a majority.

And, of course, not all Catholics are nationalists, a point that is generally accepted but frequently forgotten when forecasts are made.

There have been many such forecasts recently, conjuring up a nationalist majority, a prediction that relies upon a dangerous elision of the terms “Catholic” and “nationalist”.

If past voting patterns provide any guide to future electoral behaviour, then despite the increased number of Catholics, a nationalist majority is very far off indeed.

The long-term trend shows little or no growth. In June 1998, in that optimistic period immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the combined nationalist vote (that is the SDLP vote and the Sinn Fein vote taken together) stood at 39.7%.

In the most recent Assembly elections, in March 2017, that percentage had remained more or less static at 39.8%, and in the local government elections earlier this month the total nationalist vote, including both the new Aontu party and independent nationalist candidates, dipped to 37.7%.

In fact, over the past 21 years the nationalist vote has only occasionally tipped over the 40% line and seems unlikely to exceed the magical 50% in the foreseeable future.

As we move towards the Brexit endgame, we can expect the demands for a border poll to increase in frequency and volume.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. There’s trouble ahead.

  • Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher who writes on the Northern Ireland peace process and post-conflict societies

Belfast Telegraph