Dáil Éireann - Volume 441 - 12 April, 1994

Adjournment Debate. - Crossmaglen, Armagh, Security.

Mr. D. Ahern: I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue this evening. I also thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs for coming into the House to hear what I have to say on this matter which I raised with him last evening. This matter was brought to my attention by a number of people who live on the northern side of the Border and, indeed, by people living on the southern side.

Some weeks ago I had occasion to highlight incidents which had happened in the Crossmaglen area and caused a number of locals grave difficulty. Those incidents [260] gave an indication of some of the increased security presence with which locals have had to contend. That was before the horrific attack on the British Army base by terrorists which I condemn unreservedly. Subsequently that incident was condemned by local councillor, John Fee, who as we all know was later beaten up, albeit in relation to that incident.

These incidents took place over the past two or three months, that area having been relatively quiet before that. The reason I am making representations about incidents which took place outside my constituency on the other side of the Border is because on Sunday night a considerable number of British Army and RUC personnel descended on Crossmaglen and began to dig in in and around private property. They took over people's gardens, yards and, in some cases, fields adjacent to the four access roads to Crossmaglen. In recent days they have been digging in, literally sealing off the town. They worked throughout last night. They have erected concrete bollards in such a manner as to stagger all the traffic coming in and out of Crossmaglen. They also erected concrete pillboxes on each of the roads. It would appear the intention is to have permanent checkpoints at Crossmaglen, in other words, to completely seal off the town.

The RUC distributed leaflets to the town's inhabitants the day before yesterday, saying that they would be engaging in this exercise for the next three months, that they were repairing the security installation in Crossmaglen and were sorry for the inconvenience being caused to locals. In effect Crossmaglen has been turned into a ghost town for the past two days. Crossmaglen has been given a bad name, but there have been tremendous efforts by locals to regenerate the south Armagh area. For example, a very active voluntary group, ROSA, in conjunction with the International Fund for Ireland, Co-operation North and a number of other organisations, [261] has been trying to regenerate some economic growth into the area.

What has happened over the past few days is extremely worrying in that regard. There is a feeling in the area that this is a response to recent incidents, that the security forces are making the people pay for what happened. This appears to be giving all the wrong signals bearing in mind the efforts the two Governments have been making following the Downing Street Joint Declaration. There was wholehearted condemnation by locals of the savage attack on Councillor Fee. There was a feeling that perhaps latent support for any terrorism would have vanished following that incident but the exercise instigated by the British Army and the RUC in recent days in effect has jeopardised any goodwill. The British authorities are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut in this regard and what they are doing will prove totally counterproductive. It appears they will be erecting not only permanent checkpoints but also permanent look-out towers on all the approach roads to Crossmaglen.

I ask the Tánaiste to raise this matter with the British authorities. He may say that he is concerned about it — I accept that he and the Government are concerned — but our security forces are mirroring some of the checkpoints on the northern side of the Border in Crossmaglen. That is causing locals difficulty in that, quite apart from diverting Garda resources from other areas in County Louth, to a certain extent it is putting it up to them. There is some resentment at the manner in which this has taken place. I ask the Tánaiste to raise this matter with the British authorities. I understand that my counterpart, Mr. Séamus Mallon, has been in contact with the Department and I ask the Tánaiste to take what I said into account.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Spring): I am grateful to Deputy Dermot Ahern for raising this important matter on the adjournment. [262] Crossmaglen and the surrounding area in south Armagh have suffered greatly from the violence that has affected Northern Ireland over the past 25 years. More than most areas along the Border, Crossmaglen has been caught in a spiral of paramilitary violence which has been going on for far too long and has cost too many lives. This is turn has resulted in the deployment of large numbers of the security forces in the area, thus inevitably creating further strains and increasing the dislocation suffered by the local community. It is in this context that there is understandably a great deal of concern among the people of Crossmaglen at the impact locally of the building works on which the British authorities have now embarked.

I have made known to the British authorities my concern at these developments. I fear that they may serve to heighten tensions and inflame local opinion. I am aware from contacts which my Department has had with representative figures and with people living in the area how widespread and genuinely felt are the concerns of the local community. I know, for example, that the local GAA Club in Crossmaglen is understandably concerned about the likely impact on the use of its playing fields, at what would normally be a very busy time for the club. We have on previous occasions intervened through the Anglo-Irish Secretariat to seek to minimise the disruption caused to the Crossmaglen club, whose premises are adjacent to the base. It would be regrettable if the situation at the club, which it was hoped had been eased, if not totally resolved, should again become a source of controversy.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that the security forces have to take reasonable measures to protect members of the police and the British Army. The question about which the Deputy, and I know others both inside and outside the House are concerned, is whether in deciding to go ahead with these works [263] sufficient attention was paid to the likely overall effect on the local community. There is a very real concern that the primary beneficiaries of this exercise will be the paramilitaries, who are of course poised to exploit any increase in tension for their own propaganda purposes. I am concerned that the decision comes at a sensitive time when there may be elements in Northern Ireland who would seek to capitalise on any increase in tensions to further complicate the search for a lasting peace.

Constitutional politicians like Séamús Mallon, and Crossmaglen councillor John Fee, who was recently beaten up for daring to oppose IRA mortar attacks that endangered the lives of ordinary people in the town, have courageously stood against paramilitary violence over the years. It is only right that we should listen carefully to what they and others have to say about this development. Séamus Mallon has expressed the view that this operation plays straight into the hands of the IRA. Many will be inclined to agree with him. I note that a thoughtful editorial in this morning's edition of the Irish News, while rightly emphasising the importance of ensuring that the lives of members of the security forces were not put at risk, has emphasised the likelihood that measures of this kind are seriously counterproductive, even in purely security terms. We have made known our views in this regard to the British authorities on many previous occasions and will continue to do so.

As regards the situation in Crossmaglen I can assure the House that I will continue to monitor closely developments in and around the town. As previously indicated we have taken steps to bring home to the British authorities our concern at the inconvenience, disruption and general worsening of relations between the local community and the security forces which is likely to follow.

For our part, the Government will remain active within the framework of [264] the Anglo-Irish Agreement in emphasising to the British authorities the need to take all possible measures, and to exercise maximum restraint, so as to limit as far as possible the negative impact on the local community. We will press that any inconvenience should be kept to an absolute minimum, and that the people of Crossmaglen should be allowed to go about their business with the least possible disruption. Where particular difficulties arise we will be ready to pursue them with the British authorities and to seek whatever remedial action is possible.

The House will also wish to know that I will be availing of the next meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to review all matters arising from the present situation in Crossmaglen.