Sunday, 14 November 2010


Sabotage! The Origins, Development and Impact of the
IRA's Infrastructural Bombing Campaigns 1939-1997

Author: Tony Craig
Published in: Intelligence and National Security, Volume 25,
Issue 3 June 2010


At various moments in the twentieth century the Irish
Republican Army (IRA) in its various incarnations have used the
tactic of infrastructural bombing, notably in their 1939 attacks in
England on electricity pylons and in the summer of 1971 in Northern
Ireland on its electrical distribution network. In 1996 the British
Security Service (MI5) foiled an attack by the IRA aimed at causing a
total electrical blackout of the greater London area, a plan that
would have seen major disruption in the capital for many weeks or
months. Using recently declassified material this paper seeks to
re-evaluate the impact of these IRA infrastructural sabotage
campaigns that have until now either been ignored or judged to have
been derisory or incongruous failures. This paper demonstrates the
historical development of this tactic from both the IRA's
perspective, and that of those who were tasked with hindering it,
highlighting the devastating potential of such tactics in the future.

While the Irish Republican Army (IRA) used attacks on electricity
distribution infrastructure throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles,
two particular examples will be highlighted in this paper. The first,
a short campaign in the summer of 1971 against the 275kw main lines
that circled the province almost completely cut Belfast's electricity
supply. A second, in 1996, was an attempt by the IRA to do a similar
job in London, cutting the lines at key points around the M25 that,
had it not been foiled, would have had a profound and crippling
effect on the capital's electricity supply for many weeks. The
attacks would have followed a series of high-profile attacks on
Britain that had included the massive 10 February Docklands bomb
(that had ended the IRA's 1994 ceasefire) and the 15 June Manchester
city centre truck-bomb attack on the Arndale centre. However, just as
1996 did not mark the first time that the IRA had attempted to move
its bombing campaign to Britain, so too was it not the first time
that Irish Republicans had attempted to attack the electricity
infrastructure in an attempt to damage confidence and instil public
antagonism against its government. An IRA bombing campaign that ran
throughout 1939 had begun with attempts to do just this as well, and,
as in 1996, to do so without large amounts of bloodshed. The 1939
campaign has of course largely been forgotten due to the impact of
the Luftwaffe's follow-up after 1940. However, it was a serious
attempt by a terrorist organization to achieve their political
ambitions through the tactical use of violence. This is not always
apparent in the literature and, while the failed 1996 attempts were,
at the time, eulogized by the British press for their
professionalism,1 this is curiously not usually the case with the
1939 campaign.

The S-Plan and the 1939 England Campaign

Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: 'Oh my
God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there's two gentlemen to see

I knew by the screeches of her that these gentlemen were not calling
to enquire about my health, or to know if I'd had a good trip. I
grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlorate, Sulph Ac, gelignite,
detonators, electrical and ignition, and the rest of my Sinn
Feacutein conjuror's outfit, and carried it to the window. Then the
gentlemen arrived.

A young one, with a blonde, Herrenvolk head and a BBC accent shouted,
'I say, greb him, the bestud.'2

The opening lines of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy have, since the
1950s, coloured views toward the IRA's 1939 bombing campaign in
Britain. Carried out by young, idealistic, though hopelessly inept
volunteers with little training and no backup, once they left Ireland
they were easy prey for the British police and arrested - in Behan's
case - within hours of getting off the boat. Leaving Behan aside,
however, the statistics of the 1939 campaign are quite startling by
today's standards. There were 61 separate bombing incidents in
England in the first four months of 1939, and over 150 that year -
equating to a bomb in or around a major British city every other day
in 1939.3

Despite the intensity of the 1939 campaign few historians have given
it more than a cursory glance. Richard English gave 1939 less than
three pages4 and Eunan O'Halpin's recent work5 devotes even less than
this to a topic that cannot have failed to have fuelled British
animosity toward Ireland in the early war years. Only Paul McMahon,
in his recent work6 has provided a worthy historical analysis of the
documents now available from 1939, however he does so exclusively
from the point of view of British Intelligence and their burgeoning
cooperation with their new Irish equivalents immediately before the
war, neither of which, McMahon admits, had more than a very limited
role with regard to the IRA in 1939. The 1939 campaign was, however,
important for its own reasons. First, it demonstrated that violent
Irish republicanism had not gone away and remained focused on pushing
Britain toward a full political and military withdrawal from Ireland.
Second, they showed that they were prepared to consider new tactics
and strategies for the fulfilment of their unchanged aim. Third, they
specifically set out to avoid gratuitous collateral damage to
civilian life and lives, and expressed an aversion to this both in
Britain and Ireland (though this aspiration itself was to be
challenged on the very first day of the campaign when attacks in
Manchester resulted in the death of one man, killed after a bomb
exploded inside a manhole on Princess Street).7

While Behan's portrayal of his young self may or may not be
characteristic of the IRA's 1939 volunteers, certainly in Borstal Boy
he correctly portrays the attitude engendered in the British public
as a result of the IRA's campaign:

Outside as we got in the car, a few people shouted: 'String the
bastard up. Fughing Irish shit-'ouse.' It was an Orange district, but
I think some of them were Liverpool-Irish, trying to prove their
solidarity with the loyal stock.8

The planning for the campaign Behan, and hundreds of others, took
part in began in the autumn of 1938. As Neville Chamberlain met Adolf
Hitler in Munich, the IRA's Seamus O'Donovan began work on a plan to
attack Britain - and specifically England - using a formulated and
measured form of terrorism he described as the 'S-Plan'. Short for
Sabotage, the S-Plan foresaw a campaign of Terrorism with a small
't', foregoing public violence and bloodshed, by deliberately
attacking targets the public would neither see nor hear but all the
same would affect their everyday lives in a way that would attune
them better to the propaganda efforts essential to the success of the
campaign. The bombings were initially to be timed to coincide with
the renewed fear of war with Germany, and the Chamberlain
government's perceived weakness toward Ireland (having just returned
the Treaty Ports of Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly to the Irish
'Free State'9 government).

O'Donovan's S-plan had the support of the IRA's Chief of Staff, Sean
Russell, and the head of the US based fund raising group Clan na
Gael, Sean McGarrity10 and in November of 1938 the IRA began
recalling activists based in England for training in Ireland with a
view to beginning in the following month. O'Donovan took charge of
the training as well, holding sessions at Killiney Castle, in an
affluent suburb of Dublin. In fact, O'Donovan was the perfect
originator of the S-Plan; he was a trained industrial chemist and had
served as Michael Collins' 'Director of Chemicals' (i.e. explosives)
in the War of Independence.11 After the Civil War he had joined the
Irish Free State's Electricity Supply Board, and had spent more than
10 years working for the rural electrification of the country as a
civil engineer.12 This experience gave O'Donovan insight into many
different types of engineering, and his papers include instructions
on how to disable locomotive engines and destroy bridges without the
use of explosives.13 O'Donovan was also in contact with Nazi Germany,
and met with the Abwehr on three occasions in 1939. In 1940 O'Donovan
was to aid among others the German agent Ernst Weber-Drohl before
being interned by the Irish government in 1941. O'Donovan's real
contribution however was his insight into the disruptive effect
damage to electricity distribution lines would have on England's

O'Donovan believed that Northern Ireland could be reunited with the
South if public opinion in England alone could be changed. O'Donovan

The issue is complete national independence … which must be fought
out between the IRA, representing the Irish Nation, and the British.
This effort must have the dignity of a National Struggle and must not
allow itself to be reduced to a local squabble as between the IRA and
the Free State Government or between the IRA and the Northern
Government, for the control of either part of the country … Civil War
must be avoided at all costs.14

O'Donovan's S-Plan thus represented a working-out of the means with
which the Britain could be attacked without the need for the
establishment of vulnerable supply lines from Ireland. In papers
marked, 'IRA Aims' O'Donovan made it clear that IRA units, once
present, would be left on their own to carry out their missions,
'There will be no transport of materials from this country to

Thus the targets in the plan were restricted to the public
infrastructure surrounding the cities of London, Birmingham,
Liverpool and Manchester. Most specifically electricity pylons,
telegraph and telephone cables, post boxes and government offices,
the object was to make life uncomfortable, to inconvenience ordinary
people with the bombing campaign, while at the same time, dazzling
them with a parallel propaganda campaign. The S-Plan ruled out
attacks against vulnerable public amenities such as water and gas -
specifically the pollution of public water supplies were ruled out
because, 'apart altogether from ethical considerations, the Hague
Convention representing civilized international opinion and agreement
condemns all such actions and we should be doing Ireland and our
cause infinite harm by adopting any such means.'16 This principal
applied generally to moving trains, where sabotage could take place
at night, or at electrical junction boxes.17 The S-Plan categorically
stated that rolling passenger trains themselves would also not be

The campaign was delayed however by the death of the IRA's Officer
Commanding England - killed by his own bomb at a border post on the
Tyrone-Donegal border18 and, while McGarrity in New York declared
that the first bombs had exploded in December 1938, in fact it took
until 12 January 1939 for the ultimatum signalling the start of
actions to be sent to the Home Secretary and the bombing did not
begin until the 16 January. Within three days, 14 separate attacks
had been made against power stations, pylons and cables in and around
London, Manchester and Birmingham.

The police response was swift and measured. Metropolitan Police
Special Branch (the Met) called for the immediate arrest of the usual
suspects. This was followed by the successful conviction of 18 in
London, 10 in Manchester and three in Birmingham in the two weeks
following the initial explosions.19 These arrests represented 40% of
IRA members in these cities and 25% of the total number of IRA
members resident in Britain at the time; certainly a satisfactory
figure for a short month's work.20 With these arrests came a copy of
the S-Plan itself and the Home Office informed all the public utility
companies of the situation and advised them to upgrade their
security. With these two measures the IRA were forced to diversify
their tactics prematurely. They had not caused the severe disruption
to the electricity supplies of any city targeted and began instead
targeting tube stations, canals, post offices, bridges and telephone
inspection boxes. With their resident IRA groups gone, the volunteers
being sent from Ireland had no opportunities to store or stockpile
materials and often used contacts they met within the Irish community
itself, or took risks and stored their explosives in their own digs
and bed-sits, much of which was quickly sniffed out by the keen-noses
of England's landladies. The tactical sprawl enforced by the sudden
clampdown by the Met meant that the IRA campaign could no longer have
any coherent effect. And, while in April a conference of Chief
Constables, sought additional powers of arrest and detention from the
Home Office, by this stage the campaign had already become little
more than one of petty vandalism and arson. In March, noting the lack
of attacks made against armaments firms and the armed forces Vernon
Kell of MI5 refused to be drawn into investigating 'these gangsters',
noting that the Security Service 'has had nothing whatever to do with
this illegal organisation for over twenty years.'21

The campaign continued intermittently however throughout the summer
of 1939 and in August a bicycle carrying a bomb exploded in
Birmingham killing five bystanders. The arrest, conviction and
execution of two men linked with the bomb's manufacture aroused
ill-feeling in Ireland and among the Irish in the United States. Clan
na Gael used the Sacco and Vanzetti model of protest in their
attempts to save Peter Barnes and James McCormack22 and Time magazine
even covered their execution.23 While this created something of a
breeze of publicity for the IRA in early 1940, the world's attention
had at this stage moved onto bigger things. The Birmingham bomb was
an exceptional case, and most incidents after March 1939 involved the
use of small incendiaries against post boxes and the release of
tear-gas in cinemas.24 The campaign ended in early 1940 when two
bombs exploded on London's Oxford Street, injuring more than 20
bystanders. Arguably these two bombs - the last of the S-Plan
campaign were designed only as protests against the executions of
Barnes and McCormack. Upon hearing the explosions while drinking in a
bar on Edgware Road two former members of the Irish police had
shouted 'Up the IRA! and 'Up the Republic!' and were quickly

Until now, historians have been content to conclude that the 1939
England campaign was yet another example of the Fenian activist
tradition that has periodically bubbled to the surface since 1798.26
This, and the fact that the campaign was an unmitigated disaster for
the IRA. Both of these arguments are correct in their conceptions. A
republican lineage can be drawn from the 1939 campaign back to 1916
as well forward to the Provisional IRA of the early 1970s. So too can
O'Donovan's own judgment that the campaign 'brought nothing but harm
to Ireland and the IRA'27 be justified by the losses of man-power and
momentum caused by so many IRA volunteers being imprisoned in both
British and Irish jails during the Second World War - a direct result
of the bombing campaign. One can even go further, however, and say
that the campaign, while easily mopped up by the British police,
still resulted in the cornerstone of British counter-terrorist
legislation in the June 1939 Prevention of Violence Act introduced by
Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare.28 This Act, though it was to expire
in 1953, was the direct ancestor of the 1973 Prevention of Terrorism
Act and arguably all proceeding counter-terror legislation in the UK,
thus it had a major impact on how Britain has dealt with terrorism
right up to the present day. Certainly the British government did
not, at the time, treat the 1939 campaign with the same lack of
interest as historians now. Significant steps were taken by the
British in this time to improve security around perceived IRA targets
and, beside the warnings given to the electricity companies, guards
were reinforced around Downing Street and Chequers.29 At Westminster,
all the public galleries were closed by the Speaker despite being
informed that, 'orders had been issued to these terrorists to avoid
taking of human life.'30

A final outcome of the 1939 campaign was in the British public's
perception of the Irish in Britain, illustrated earlier by Brendan
Behan (who was arrested in the weeks following the Birmingham bomb).
It seems that, by veering off O'Donovan's original primary targets
and moving on instead to targets of opportunity like left-luggage
offices, tube stations or cinemas, the campaign began to have exactly
the opposite effect desired, bringing to the fore again old
anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling in parts of England that had not
died out. In fact, British anti-Irish prejudice was far more
commonplace than one might assume; in a children's book of poems
published in 1925 for example was still the verse:

The Irish child can dance a jig,

And share its pillow with a pig,

And where we ask for pie or meat,

The pratie he is glad to eat.31

Immediately following the start of the 1939 campaign there was a
resurgence of supposed Catholic oaths as evidence of conspiracy. One
contemporary note of a 'Hiberian [sic] Oath founded by Rory O'Moore
1565'32 was typically worded; 'I will wade knee-deep in Orangemen's
blood, and do as King James did'33 and vowing 'I will think it no sin
to kill and massacre a Protestant whenever the opportunity serves.'34
This particular publication met with the Home Secretary's personal
response in the midst of the S-Plan campaign that, 'As a matter of
fact I had seen it before. It has been circulated on various
occasions in recent years.'35 The destruction and deaths being caused
by the IRA in Britain was not going to be conducive to ending
Partition in the way O'Donovan had planned so long as British opinion
continued to view Irish Republicanism as Catholic conspiracy.

Thus we can see that O'Donovan's S-plan was not the plan that was
carried out in England in 1939, and the main focus of the plan -
electrical infrastructure -was abandoned due to the arrest of key
figures early in the campaign. The first wave of attacks had not
caused the major blackouts and industrial disruption they had set out
to achieve, was indeed met with a swift and devastating response by
Special Branch that was disheartening for those who remained, and
thus forced a premature re-think as to the S-Plan's effectiveness.
Recent research has pointed out that 'The IRA's British units did not
refer to the S-Plan, rather they improvised with the available
explosives and lowered their sights accordingly … it did not create a
situation that would force the British to negotiate'.36 This aspect
is not apparent in some of the older literature dealing with the 1939
campaign that, as recently as 1970, believed the main primary targets
to be 'obvious military targets, communications centres, BBC
transmitters, aerodromes, bridges and military installations'37 and
has led to some confusion over the objectives of the S-Plan in the
first place. Richard English, for example remarked 'it is unclear
precisely how the IRA anticipated that it would produce the desired
result.'38 In fact the plan was far more subtle than Coogan suggested
back in 1970. O'Donovan had planned to disengage the people and the
economy from the government temporarily in order to allow the
propaganda message to get through. The government, losing its hold
over its own people would quickly move to negotiate directly with the
IRA rather than be embarrassed further. Propaganda would be used in
combination with infrastructural bombing (and later some general
mayhem) to force Britain to cancel its union with Northern Ireland by
force, not of arms, but by removing its ability to govern
effectively. But still, the assumption was that Britain's hand could
be forced through the use of coercive violence in Britain - and of
course this was also a plan that would fail for the Luftwaffe too in
little over a year's time.

This may have been a tall order, but in many instances the basic
assumptions were correct. However, there was no propaganda campaign
in Britain aimed at educating the British public as to the goals of
the IRA's campaign (even had they been prepared to listen), and Sean
Russell left Ireland for the United States in April where his
attempted disruption of King George VI's visit earned him a spell in
US custody before he travelled to Germany via Italy in 1940 to seek
the assistance of the Nazis (he died in July 1941 on a German U-Boat
on its way to Galway). Russell, therefore, was not playing the S-Plan
out in any way close to what O'Donovan (who had himself visited Nazi
Germany) had made clear. Though this would not be the last time that
the IRA would try out this tactic and, when used again with the right
balance of other forms of disorder, infrastructural bombing could
bring a government quite quickly to a state of breakdown.

Northern Ireland 1971

The IRA split in December 1969 created two different factions with
very different ideas as to the types of operations an IRA should
perform. While the 'Officials', became a primarily defensive force,
the 'Provisionals' under RuairiacuteOacute Braacutedaigh, sought to
go on the offensive as quickly as possible and use attacks against
British forces that now included the British Army, to demonstrate the
colonial position of Northern Ireland. This tactic, the Provisionals
hoped, would snowball their support base, forcing the British Army to
identify the Provisional IRA (PIRA) as their primary enemy and move
them away from operations designed to keep Protestants and Catholics
apart and into a counter-productive, counter-insurgency mode.39

The problem was that it had been the Provisionals and not the
Officials who had been the splinter group in late 1969 and the
unevenness of the split meant that most of what remained of the guns,
experience and know-how remained on the side of the Officials and, as
the Provisionals were predominantly a Northern movement, on the wrong
side of the border.

Thus, as northern Provisionals in early 1970 lacked manpower,
expertise and arms, they were forced to improvise with tactics and
materials very early on. Sniper attacks and erratic fire from
Thompson guns on British troops became the hallmark of the early
Provisional IRA and it took them over a year and 100 such attacks to
kill their first British soldier.40 But these public attacks masked
the training in bomb making that was going on behind the scenes, and
a reversion to the type of infrastructural bombing seen in the 1939

Arguably it was loyalists and not republicans who fired the first
shots of the infrastructural campaign in the early Troubles. In April
1969 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) temporarily crippled Belfast's
water supply and the ensuing political fall-out resulted in the
resignation of Terence O'Neill as Northern Ireland Prime Minister. It
was not, however, apparent at the time that these attacks had come
from loyalists rather than republicans and, while tactically well
executed, they were one-off operations and not part of a concerted
campaign (which arguably came later with the largely successful
Ulster Workers' Council Strike of 1974).

The Provisional IRA soon followed the UVF's tactics, initially
bombing electricity pylons sporadically in late 1969 and then
stopping quite quickly and moving onto other targets of perceived
higher political value, burning public buildings, shops, etc and
keeping the security forces spread out. With a mounting campaign the
IRA returned to infrastructural bombing in the summer of 1971 and
within weeks had virtually crippled Northern Ireland's electricity
supply in an offensive that continued despite the introduction of
internment without trial on 8 August 1971.

Historians have thus far failed to describe the attacks on Northern
Ireland's electricity infrastructure in the summer of 1971 as a
concerted campaign.41 Indeed, excepting the statistical data,
histories of this time mostly ignore this aspect of the early
Troubles, preferring to deal with the urban guerrilla war that made
headlines at the time and breaking the IRA's actions into two parts -
against urban military and urban economic targets.42 Richard
English's work on the IRA, for example when dealing with 1971,
focuses mostly on the seething rage felt by many young Catholics that
drove them into the Provisionals and in turn drove the Provisionals
to become more fiercely anti-Army.43Bishop and Mallie, while they
mention an explosion at a substation which killed the man planting
the bomb,44 make no attempt to highlight the idea that this might
have been part of any concerted or separate sphere of IRA action.
Even Thomas Hennessey's otherwise comprehensive new work on The
Evolution of the Troubles makes note only of a bomb in early 1970
outside the Belfast Corporation Electricity Club (one the PIRA's
first ever bombs) and an April 1971 callous attack on the Electricity
Board's head office in Belfast, which injured many young female
office staff.45 However, attacks on infrastructure were neither the
classic military or economic targets (typified by fire-bombs in city
centre shops and businesses which were designed to take security
force pressure away from Catholic areas). Infrastructural attacks had
both different modus operandi (using high-explosives as opposed to
incendiaries) as well as a different operational goal - to further
undermine the Northern Ireland government. Thus Ed Moloney also
misses out on any reference to a 1971 infrastructural campaign when
he writes, 'the targets were not just military and police bases but
increasingly included government and commercial premises.'46
Infrastructural attacks were key as well - as, by the summer of 1971
- this was one of the only areas that the Stormont government
continued to act without British interference.47 The fact that no
mention is made in any recent research to attacks made against
electricity pylons or substations in the weeks before or after
internment, is astonishing considering the impact these attacks had
on Northern Ireland government thinking at the time.

From May to November 1971 there were at least 13 successful attacks
on the main electricity distribution system of Northern Ireland.
Reports of pylon and transformer attacks are made in The Times on 21
May, 19 June, 13 July, 1 August, 13 September and 7 November, the
Northern Ireland government mention additional attacks in June 1971
at Hannahstown and one south of the border severing the North-South
interconnector in July. Additionally, on 8 August the IRA managed to
cripple Ballylumford's B-station, crucial to Belfast's electricity
supply, particularly when faced with attacks being made to the main
distribution lines south that linked Belfast to the province's only
other major power station at Coolkeeragh and the, already damaged,
North-South interconnector. Though most of these attacks failed to
make any headlines, the Northern Ireland government nevertheless took
them very seriously. A Ministry of Commerce memo for the Cabinet
commented, 'While the Ballylumford B station remains out of service
the whole electricity system of NI is at very serious risk.'48 On 23
August, there was the attack on the electricity board's headquarters,
on 29 August, in another calculated attack, unreported in the British
press, the IRA cut the three lines between Ballylumford A and
Belfast; this was followed by an attack on the main Coolkeeragh line
through Co Tyrone as well as other attacks on spur lines in the south
of the Province. For the Northern Ireland Government the
repercussions were very serious. The Minister A.C. Brooke:

We are in a position that any further sabotage could break the
integrated electricity system and we should be dependent on the
engineers to get power from whatever generating stations through
whatever lines are available. … we may find ourselves at any time
having to make power cuts. We may also have to consider whether we
should be ready to declare a state of emergency.49

[image deleted]

The IRA seemed not to have realized how close they had come to
crippling the Northern Ireland government, and after early September,
the attacks subsided quite dramatically. Such was the knife edge on
which supply was now balanced it was estimated that just a few more
cuts in the supply lines would have cut off the entire eastern area
of the province for between an estimated two and 14 days.50 For Sir
Ken Bloomfield, Assistant Cabinet Secretary at the time in Stormont,
'it was rather to our surprise that the thing died out. It was almost
as if it had been the brain child of somebody or another and that
somebody disappeared from the scene.'51 In fact, it is not certain
why the IRA ceased their attacks - whether through arrest, or an
inability to determine exactly how close these tactics were bringing
them to their initial goal of bringing down Stormont by creating 'the
perception of chaos and ungovernability.'52 Certainly, command
structures within the Provisional IRA in 1971 were more fluid than
they were later and it was still then possible for the campaign to
have been conducted without the explicit backing of the Army Council.
Thus, when one or more of the middle-ranking leaders were arrested,
the entire project collapsed.

Of course all this took place within the context of the introduction
of Internment, which must have played a key role. Introduced on 8
August 1971, Internment resulted in a massive increase in republican
activity on all fronts as a knee-jerk, guttural reaction to the
perceived repression of Catholics, and arguably this short campaign
was deemed to be a part of this. The Northern Ireland government
however saw the campaign as a cold, calculated attempt to usurp their
governance, through the crippling of essential infrastructure. When
looking at where and when the attacks were made, it is clear that, in
this case, the Northern Ireland government had escaped by the
narrowest of margins, using the minor and spur lines to divert
supply. In their own words:

A serious threat was posed to the electricity supply by IRA sabotage
of the highest merit [at Ballylumford]… in August 1971, which was
followed by a two month campaign against the transmission system.
Supply was not affected by this largely because it took place when
the demand for electricity was seasonally low.53

So narrow the margins in August 1971 that one of the first priorities
of the British government upon imposing Direct Rule was the
investigation of contingencies in case of further IRA sabotage

It is unclear whether those responsible for the 'skilled sabotage'55
particularly in August and September 1971 were ever caught or
convicted. Research from the IRA's perspective does not suggest there
was any great mastermind behind the campaign or any clear link to
insider knowledge.56 One of a number of possibilities is one John
James Quigley a 30 year old electrician and IRA bomber imprisoned in
October 1971 for the 21 May bombing of an electricity substation and
a later July attack on a branch of BHS57 but the IRA used a number of
electricians as bomb-makers, any one of which, with the necessary
experience, could have masterminded the plan. What is certain is that
the attacks led directly to the abandonment of the North-South
interconnector in 1972, the abandonment of plans for a Northern
Ireland nuclear power station earmarked for the southern shores of
Lough Neagh or at St John's Point near Ardglass, Co Down58 and the
acceptance of the need for an additional, large conventional power
station to ensure the security of supply to Belfast.59 Thus, in real
terms, 1971 represents the most successful IRA infrastructural
campaign, one that seriously shook the Stormont government's grip on
power, although not the last and certainly not the most ambitious of
the IRA's infrastructural campaigns.

London 1996

Although after 1971 and indeed throughout the Troubles the IRA used
sporadic bomb attacks on electricity pylons and substations to spread
the security forces as widely possible, not until 1996 did they
return to the idea of launching a concerted campaign again, this
time, not against Northern Ireland, but, like in 1939, London was to
be the target.

Like in 1971, the campaign seems to have been designed as a short
sharp shock mixing a variety of different tactics but with the
centre-piece being attacks on London's electricity infrastructure,
just like in 1939. Several Active Service Units were involved in
Britain at the time and their operations included theLike in 1971,
the campaign seems to have been designed as a short
sharp shock mixing a variety of different tactics but with the
centre-piece being attacks on London's electricity infrastructure,
just like in 1939. Several Active Service Units were involved in
Britain at the time and their operations included the February 1996
Docklands bomb and the June 1996 Manchester truck bomb - which at
over 3,000 lbs was the largest IRA bomb ever detonated in Britain.
The Docklands bomb had a huge impact on the way in which the capital
was policed. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon warned
Londoners, 'We do our very best to minimise the risk of terrorism,
but we can only ever minimise it, you can never in a large, open,
democratic city guarantee that there will never be a terrorist
incident.'60 Nevertheless, the so-called 'Ring of Steel' placed
around the city of London in the wake of the Bishopsgate bomb in
1993, was reinstated within hours and a similar system was announced
for the Isle of Dogs within weeks of the Docklands bomb.61

Minimizing the risk of further IRA actions in the capital was, by
1996, also the responsibility of MI5 who had been given
responsibility for countering IRA operations in Britain in 1992
following the IRA's near miss on Downing Street's Cabinet Room during
the Gulf War in 1991. MI5, while it had overall responsibility for
'terrorism' generally, when it came to Northern Ireland, it had only
overall responsibility for loyalist activity outside the province,
and Republican activity outside the UK. It was traditionally the
London Metropolitan Police Special Branch who had the lead role when
it came to the IRA in Britain.62 Within months of the Dockland's
bomb, two IRA Active Service Units had been arrested in the capital,
using MI5 led investigations. One had been planning a repeat of the
Manchester bombing in London, the other an S-Plan style concerted
attack on London's electricity infrastructure.

The sabotage group, a five or six man Active Service Unit was brought
together in Ireland at the start of the summer of 1996 and given a
fairly detailed plan for the operation they were to carry out. The
group consisted of experienced IRA men some with long and fairly
distinguished IRA careers. Gerard Hanratty, for example, had been an
IRA member since 1979, and alleged in court that while in prison for
a separate offence he had been in contact on behalf of the IRA with
Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.John Crawley
was another member of the group with a long career in the IRA. A
former US Marine, Crawley had been an instructor in explosives at
Quantico before joining the IRA in the early 1980s and in 1984
participating in the Valhalla/Marita Ann IRA gun-running plot between
Boston and Kerry, intercepted by the Irish Navy using intelligence
from the FBI and SIS. Crawley was sentenced to 10 years by an Irish
court.63 Donal Gannon was also in the group, he was the bomb maker
suspected to have been involved in the earlier Manchester attack. The
group was understandably described by one police officer as 'the
A-team', and by another as, 'some of the most important and
experienced players they have sent over here for some years.'64

Conscious of the increased security in London following the Docklands
bomb the group had moved quietly into London on false passports,
rented houses without outgoing telephone lines, and lived only in
areas they could blend in unnoticed. They were shown initial plans
and carried out dry-runs of the attacks in Ireland, taking elaborate
precautions to ensure they were not followed.65 But further
reconnaissance was required, and the group, while in London, borrowed
the Electricity Supply Handbook from Battersea Library - removing
from it the map of the National Grid - and conducted additional
dry-runs against the six targeted facilities themselves.

Unbeknownst to the group their actions had already made them open to
MI5 and Metropolitan Police Special Branch surveillance and they were
already being tracked down and followed. Peter Rose and David
Williams suggested during the trial that MI5 were alerted exactly
because the IRA had chosen such an experienced team well known among
the IRA and its Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) informants alike.
When they disappeared from their usual locations, British
Intelligence got wind that something major was being planned.66 MI5
acted quickly to mount what became one the largest surveillance
operations of its history, involving 300 detectives and agents under
the name Operation Airlines.67

The carefully chosen locations for the bomb attacks were six
electricity switching stations located around the greater London
area, roughly encircling the M25.68 According to the prosecution, the
group planned to plant 37 devices in total, each packed with 2.5kg of
Semtex, that, had they exploded, would have blacked out London
completely for two days, and led to further disruption for an
additional 35. Obviously this would have caused major disruption for
Londoners, and possibly chaotic scenes creating an energy crisis on a
national scale. Politically the timing was also perfect, the Major
government was not popular (hovering at between 25% and 33% in
opinion polls throughout the year)69 and this would have been a
distinct challenge to its authority. Hanratty, the leader of the
group, claimed the boxes were to be filled with icing sugar rather
than Semtex, though he did not deny the plan was to disrupt
electricity supplies and embarrass the government. Whether explosives
were present or not, the plot would have had roughly the same effect,
closing off substations for many hours while bomb-disposal teams
dealt with the numerous suspect devices. In his defence, Hanratty
argued, 'If the IRA was capable of closing down London without going
into London, it made the Ring of Steel null and void.'70 Certainly no
explosives were actually found in the group's possession. The group
were sentenced to 35 years each, the judge considering the dangers
posed by electricity shortages to the thousands of sick and infirm
living in the capital and those who would have died in accidents
caused by the blackout told them 'You'll find no mercy here!'71

In many ways the 1996 operation, despite its interception by
Britain's security services, showed a practical and professional
approach to IRA operations planning that had been missing in both the
idealistic approach of the 1939 and the seemingly accidental approach
of 1971; the 1996 campaign in Britain (that included bombs at Canary
Wharf, Hammersmith Bridge, the Arndale Centre in Manchester) arguably
demonstrated the maturity and discipline of the Provisional IRA as a
group by the late 1990s. As while due to the critical nature of
electricity in the 1990s as opposed to the 1930s, their attacks would
have caused far greater disruption to ordinary life, so too did they
realize that in and of itself, such bomb attacks, timed between the
1994 and 1997 ceasefires, were not designed any longer to rid Ireland
of the British occupation overnight. The 1996 attacks must be seen as
part of a process and thus we see continuity in the development of
the S-Plan mixed with a lowering of ambitions as to its possible
political effect. The IRA, while they had undoubtedly planned their
1996 attacks while technically on ceasefire, were also planning their
next ceasefire (enacted 19 July 1997) while carrying out their 1996


While attacks against infrastructure are not the monopoly of the IRA
- not even in these islands - their use by Irish republicans since
1939 shows remarkably little change in their modus operandi. While
their substance might not have changed, their proficiency in tactical
planning did. Irish republicans often express great interest in their
own past, often justifying their very existence by the blood
sacrifice made by previous generations. Learning from, and being
conscious of both their mistakes and their successes in the past is
crucial to understanding not only how such a sophisticated plot could
come together in 1996, but also in understanding the movement of the
IRA away from violence. It is doubtful that the IRA's Army Council in
1996 knew precisely how close their infrastructural campaign had come
to success in 1971 (although at this stage, contingencies for the
collapse of Stormont and its replacement by Direct Rule along the
lines established in March 1972 were already clearly defined)73 but
they had also become far more realistic in their ambitions for any
campaign mounted in Britain and no longer expected these attacks to
magically reunite Northern Ireland harmoniously within some new
Republic as in 1939 and 1971. By 1996, bombs in Britain were about
political pressure both within the republican movement itself
(between the Army Council and Sinn Feacutein) and externally between
the Major government (its majority hinging on the votes of Unionist
MPs) and broader Irish nationalism. In both cases they were timely
reminders of the cold ability of the IRA in the 1990s, a
professionalism clearly juxtaposed by the amateurish image of the
young Brendan Behan being arrested off the Liverpool boat with
suitcase full of dynamite. Despite this, as with Behan, the 1996 IRA
unit were captured and arrested before being able to carry out their
planned attacks. The increased technical ability of the IRA was
therefore being at least matched by that of British Intelligence and
Special Branch for them to have staved off so decisively the IRA's
own 'A-Team'.

While the IRA have never been the only guerrilla movement to have
used sabotage, their avoidance of casualties on a truly mass scale do
separate them categorically from groups both preceding and subsequent
who have actively targeted civilians to a much greater extent than
Provisional IRA ever did. Tellingly for the post-9/11 world, in
O'Donovan's S-Plan, besides the ban on poisoning of public water
supplies, so too prohibited were attacks on the fire services, 'for
humanitarian reasons' and against flying aircraft, lest 'delay action
[bombs] … occur during flight'74 options that Al Qaeda, for example,
have never ruled out.


1'They were known as the A-Team, the most powerful squad of IRA bombers ever
assembled.' Peter Rose and David Williams, 'Blackout Bombers sent down for 210
"years" ', Daily Mail, 3 July 1997.

2Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy (London: Hutchinson 1958) p.11.

3Does not include non-bombing incidents. Does include explosives that failed to
go off. Statistics taken from 'List of places in connection with vulnerable
undertakings etc. where outrages have occurred' (1939), Home Office (HO)
144/21357, The National Archives of the UK, Kew (hereinafter TNA).

43 of 450, Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (London: Pan
Macmillan 2004) pp.60-2.

5O'Halpin understandably gives ample treatment to German influence on the IRA in
this time. Eunan O'Halpin, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish
Neutrality during the Second World War (Oxford: University Press 2008) pp.40-1.

6Paul McMahon, British Spies and Irish rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland
1916-45 (Woodbridge: Boydell 2008) pp.262-75.

7The incident included bombs down electrical manholes at Hilton Street,
Whitworth Street and Mosley Street, HO 144/21357, TNA.

8Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy, p.13.

9The Irish Free State was established in 1922 under the terms of the Anglo-Irish
treaty, until 1937 when De Valera's constitution renamed the state Eacuteire.
While the legal and constitutional status changed again in 1948 to the Republic
of Ireland, the IRA, having consistently rejected the authority of the Irish
state since 1921, continued to use the term 'Free State' derisorily.

10Sean Cronin, The McGarrity Papers (Tralee: Anvil 1972).

11Uinseann MacEoin, The IRA in the Twilight Years 1923-48 (Dublin: Argenta,

12Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA (London: Pall Mall, 1970) p.123.

13'Demolition of bridges without explosives - instructions', James L. O'Donovan,
Papers related to the IRA, 1930s and 40s, MS 21,155, Folder 5, National Library
of Ireland, Manuscripts Department.

14'IRA Aims', Folder 4, Ibid.


16London Metropolitan Police captured 'S-Plan', p.8, HO 144/21357, TNA.

17'This form of attack [against the rail network] is most desirable since it can
inflict no personal injury'; Ibid. 11.

18'Two Killed in Irish Explosion', The Times, 30 November 1938.

19Memo for Sir Norman Kendall (Chief Constable) from New Scotland Yard Special
Branch, 13 April 1939, HO 144/21357, TNA.

20Figures based on 1936, not counting IRA non-residents sent over for specific
operations. Sean Cronin, The McGarrity Papers, p.166.

21Kell to Alexander Maxwell (HO), 9 March 1939, HO 144/21357, TNA.

22Peter Barnes and James McCormack (aka James Richards) in memoriam pamphlets
contained in HO 45/25550, TNA.

23'Ultimate Cause', Time Magazine, 19 February 1940,
<,9171,763505,00.html> (accessed 11
November 2008).

24Notably the IRA used women for the operations against cinemas. Tim Pat Coogan,
The IRA, p.127.

25One senior police officer commented, 'the two drunken Irish wasters … ought to
be sent back to Ireland.' Minute Sheet, MEMO 3/1303, TNA.

26Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (London: Pan Macmillan
2004) p.61.

27Stephan Enno, Spies in Ireland (London: McDonald 1963) p.38.

28An act that would eventually evolve into the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974,
and more recently the Terrorism Act 2006.

29Enhanced protective security measures for Chequers and Downing Street during
the IRA's 1939 campaign are described in MEPO 3/1908 and MEPO 3/1910, TNA.

30Metropolitan Police Commissioner, note of meeting with House of Commons
Speaker (E.A. Fitzroy), 4 February 1939, MEPO 3/1909, TNA.

31John Archer Jackson, The Irish in Britain (London: Routledge 1963) p.157.

32'Hiberian Oath', enclosure to letter, Lord Ampthill to Samuel Hoare, 13 May
1939, HO 144/21357, TNA.

33Ibid. A Home Office reader of a very similar text that appeared in 1928, noted
at this point in pencil, 'He ran away, I thought!'


35Samuel Hoare to Lord Ampthill, 16 May 1939, HO 144/21357, TNA.

36Gary McGladdery, The Provisional IRA in England (Dublin: Irish Academic Press
2006) p.45.

37Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, p.123.

38Richard English, Armed Struggle, p.61.

39Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London: Allan Lane 2002) p.100.

40Gunner Curtis, killed by a single bullet from a Thompson gun, 6 February 1971.
Thomas Hennessey, The Evolution of the Troubles 1970-72 (Dublin: Irish Academic
Press 2007) p.66.

41There is no mention of the IRA's bomb attacks on Northern Ireland's
electricity network in the following works, Richard English, Armed Struggle; J.
Bowyer Bell, IRA Tactics and Targets (Dublin: Poolbeg 1997); Martin Dillon, 25
Years of Terror: the IRA's War Against the British (London: Bantam 1996); Tim
Pat Coogan, The IRA (revised edition, Glasgow: Fontana 1987); and J Bowyer Bell,
The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Violence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan 1993).

42Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, p.100, and M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for
Ireland: The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (London:
Routledge 1995) p.96.

43Richard English, Armed Struggle, p.137.

44Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie, The Provisional IRA (London: Heinemann 1987)

45Hennessey, The Evolution of the Troubles 1970-72, p.210.

46Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, p.100.

47Anthony Craig, Intergovernmental Relations between Britain, Ireland and
Northern Ireland 1966-1974 (unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge 2008) pp.162, 184.

48Memo on Electricity situation marked SECRET, 23 August 1971, Com 58/3/1,
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (hereinafter PRONI).

49A. C. Brooke (Perm Sec) Min Commerce NI Memo to Cabinet, 1 September 1971, CAB
9F/227/3, PRONI.

50A.C. Brooke (Perm Sec) Min Commerce NI Memo to Cabinet, 1 September 1971, CAB
9F/227/3, PRONI.

51Author interview, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former Assistant Secretary to the NI
Cabinet, 26 February 2008.

52M.L.R Smith, Fighting for Ireland, p.98.

53Memo on Public Utility Contingencies, Electricity Sabotage, (c.) January 1972,
Com 58/3/1, PRONI.

54Memo J.A.G. Whitlaw, 'Electricity Emergency Planning: Experience of March 27
and 28' 1972, Ibid.

55Memo on Electricity situation marked SECRET, 23 August 1971. Com 58/3/1,

56Gerry Kelly had a very junior position as a 17 year old in the Belfast
Corporation Electricity Department. Although in August 1971 Kelly was arrested
in the Republic for possession of 'Fianna weapons',
<>. Interview with Gerry Kelly in An
Phoblacht, 20 December 2007.

57'Mr Faulkner fails to gain full party support at meeting', The Times, 9
October 1971.

58Cabinet Minutes 24 November 1970, 'The St John's Point site should be acquired
as soon as the need for nuclear plant can be determined; it is expected that
this can be done in 1971.' CAB 9F/227/3, PRONI.

59NI Government Information Service, press release, 'New power station
announced. Kilroot, Co Antrim, Oil Fired, 12,000MW to be commissioned 1978', 6
September 1971. Ibid.

60Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire, BBC News, 10 February 1996,
> (accessed 11 November 2008).

61'Ring of Steel clangs back in to position', The Times, 11 February 1996; 'Ring
of steel will be built to protect the Isle of Dogs', The Times, 11 March 1996.

62Stella Rimmington, Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director
General of MI5 (London: Hutchinson 2001) p.218.

63'Terrorists jailed for Marita Ann Arms Cache', The Times, 12 December 1984.

64'IRA blitz on gas and water plants foiled', The Times, 16 July 1997.

65'IRA man tells court how unit set up London base', The Times, 4 June 1997.

66Peter Rose and David Williams, 'Blackout Bombers sent down for 210 years'.

67Tony Geraghty, The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict between the IRA and British
Intelligence (London: Harper Collins 1998) p.240.

68Ibid. Canterbury-North, West Weybridge, Amersham Main, Waltham Cross, Elstree
and Rayleigh.

69MORI Poll Archive, all published opinion polls, 1996,
> (accessed 16 June 2010).


71Ibid. (Although all of the group were released by 2000 under the Good Friday
Agreement.) Tony Geraghty, The Irish War, p.240.

72For Richard English, citing a statement in An Phoblacht, 27 March 1997, 'The
IRA were prepared to face their responsibilities "in facilitating a process
aimed at securing a lasting resolution" to the conflict', Richard English, Armed
Struggle, p.293.

73Anthony Craig, Intergovernmental Relations between Britain, Ireland and
Northern Ireland 1966-1974, pp.207-9.

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