The South Armagh Sniper is the generic name given to the members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's South Armagh Brigade who conducted a sniping campaign against British security forces from 1990 to 1997.
One of the historical leaders of the group, Seán Mac Stíofáin, supported the use of snipers in his book Memories of a Revolutionary, attracted by the motto 'one shot, one kill'. The majority of soldiers shot dead in 1972, the bloodiest year of the conflict in Northern Ireland, were, in effect, victims of IRA snipers.
Meanwhile, the British Army assessment about Operation Banner asserts that the IRA sniping skills often did not match those expected from a well trained sniper. The report identifies four different patterns of small arms attacks during the IRA campaign, the last being that developed by the South Armagh sniper units.
During the 1980s, the IRA relied mostly on weaponry smuggled from Libya. The regular shipments from America, once the main source of arms for the Republicans through the gun running operations of George Harrison, were disrupted after he was arrested by the FBI in 1981. The smuggling scheme suffered a further blow when the Fenit-based trawler Marita Ann, with a huge arms cache from Boston, was captured by the Irish Naval Service in 1985.
However, between the mid-1980s and the 1990s there was some small-scale activity, leading to the purchase of US made Barrett M82 and M90 rifles, which became usual weapons for the South Armagh snipers. According to letters seized by American federal authorities from a Dundalk IRA member, Martin Quigley, who had travelled to USA to study computing at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the organisation managed to smuggle an M82 to Ireland just before his arrest in 1989. He was part of a bigger plot to import electronic devices to defeat British Army countermeasures. In August 1986, another M82 had been sent in pieces from Chicago to Dublin, where the rifle was re-assembled.
At least two of the M90 rifles were bought as recently as six months after the first IRA ceasefire. It was part of a batch of two sold to Michael Suárez, a Cuban resident of Cleveland on 27 January 1995 by a firearms dealer; Suárez later passed the weapons to an Irishman, who finally shipped the rifles, their ammunition and two telescopic sights to the Republic. An unidentified IRA volunteer, quoted by Toby Harnden, said that:
"What's special about the Barrett is the huge kinetic energy... The bullet can just walk through a flak jacket. South Armagh was the prime place to use such weapon because of the availability of Brits. They came to dread it and that was part of its effectiveness."
Three of the security forces members killed in this campaign were instead the victims of 7.62x51 mm rounds. Five missed shots belonged to the same kind of weapon. Harnden recalls a Belgian FN FAL rifle recovered by the Gardaí near Inniskeen in 1998 as the possible source of those attacks.
Contrary to the first British army assessment, or the speculations of the press, there was not just a single sniper involved. According to Harnden, there were two different teams, one responsible for the east part of South Armagh, around Drumintee, the other for the west, in the area surrounding Cullyhanna. Each team comprised at least four members, not counting those in charge of support activities, such as scouting for targets and driving vehicles. Military officials claim that the Drumintee-based squad deployed up to 20 volunteers in some of the sniping missions. The ASUs made good use of dead ground in order to conceal themselves from Army observation posts.
Between 1990 and 1997, 24 shots were fired at British forces. The first eight operations (1990–1992), ended in misses. In August 1992, the team mortally wounded a Light Infantry soldier. By April 1997, nine servicemen, seven from the Army and two from the RUC, had been killed. An RUC constable almost lost one of his legs in what became the last sniper attack during the Troubles. Another six rounds achieved nothing, albeit two of them near-missed the patrol boat HMS Cygnet, at Carlingford Lough. The marksman usually fired from a distance of less than 300 metres, despite the 1 km effective range of the rifles. Sixteen operations were carried out from the rear of a vehicle, with the sniper protected by an armour plate in case the patrols returned fire.
Two different sources include in the campaign two incidents which happened outside South Armagh; one in Fermanagh, the other in West Belfast, in June 1993. An RUC investigation following the latter shooting led to the discovery of one Barrett M82, hidden in a derelict house. It was later determined that this rifle was the weapon responsible for the first killing in 1992. The tabloid press of that time starting calling the sniper 'Goldfinger' or 'Terminator', the nicknames current in Crossmaglen's bars. The last serviceman killed by snipers at South Armagh, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, was also the last British soldier to die during The Troubles, on 12 February 1997. Restorick's killing resulted in a public outcry; Gerry Adams called his death "tragic" and wrote a letter of condolence to his mother.
|Name and rank||Date||Place||Rifle's calibre|
|Private Paul Turner||28 August 1992||Crossmaglen||.50|
|Constable Jonhathan Reid||25 February 1993||Crossmaglen||7.62 mm|
|Lance Corporal Lawrence Dickson||17 March 1993||Forkhill||7.62 mm|
|Private John Randall||26 June 1993||Newtownhamilton||7.62 mm|
|Lance Corporal Kevin Pullin||17 July 1993||Crossmaglen||.50|
|Reserve Constable Brian Woods||2 November 1993||Newry||.50|
|Lance Bombardier Paul Garret||2 December 1993||Keady||.50|
|Guardsman Daniel Blinco||30 December 1993||Crossmaglen||.50|
|Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick||12 February 1997||Bessbrook||.50|
The ceasefire put in place by the IRA on 31 August 1994, gave an opportunity to the British to collect intelligence from the local community to be used against the snipers. The truce was strongly resented by South Armagh IRA members. Even when the ceasefire was ongoing, an alleged member of the Drumintee squad, Kevin Donegan, was captured by a RUC patrol in relation with the 1994 murder of a postal worker in the course of an armed robbery. When the IRA broke the ceasefire by bombing the London Docklands in February 1996, some volunteers had already abandoned the organisation, while others had turned to criminal activities. The period after the ceasefire shows little IRA activity in South Armagh.
Following two successful attacks in 1997, an SAS unit arrested the ASU based in the west of the region, responsible for several deaths. After a brief fist fight, James McCardle, Michael Caraher, Bernard McGinn and Martin Minnes were arrested in a farm near Freeduff. The British troops were under strict orders to avoid IRA casualties. A Barrett M90 rifle was seized, which forensic and intelligence reports linked only to the 1997 shootings. It was hinted that there was an informer, a suggestion dismissed by the Ombudsman report.
One of the IRA volunteers captured, Michael Caraher, was the brother of Fergal Caraher, a Sinn Féin member killed by Royal Marines at a checkpoint on 30 December 1990 near Cullyhanna. Michael, also shot and wounded, had lost a lung in the aftermath. Despite some witnesses claiming that the shooting was unprovoked, the marines involved were acquitted by Lord Chief Justice Hutton. Caraher was thought to be the shooter in several attacks, but he was only indicted for the case of the maimed constable. He was defended by solicitor Rosemary Nelson, later killed by the loyalist organisation Red Hand Defenders.. The other three men of the ASU were convicted in 1999 for six killings, two of them unrelated to the sniping operations, being the killings when one of the team's members, James McCardle, planted the bomb at Canary Wharf in 1996. The men were set free 18 months later under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The Drumintee sniper party was never caught.
The IRA sniping activities further restricted the freedom of movement of the British Army in South Armagh by hindering their patrols. The MoD issued a new type of body armour, which was both expensive (£4,000) and too heavy (32 lbs) for use on patrol. The morale of the troops was so low that some servicemen had to be disciplined for remaining in shelter while under orders to check vehicles. A British major said that:
"That meant that to some extent the IRA had succeeded in forcing troops off the ground and it made helicopters more vulnerable so we had to guard against using them too much."
The IRA strategy also diverted a large amount of British security resources from routine operations to tackle the threat. Until the 1994 ceasefire, even the SAS was unable to prevent the attacks. However, the truce between 1994 and 1996 made security surveillance easier for the RUC and the Army. This led to the success against the Caraher team. The security forces planned to set the ground for an SAS ambush by deploying a decoy patrol, but this counter-sniper operation failed twice. At the end, the sniper squad was tracked to a farm complex and arrested there.
By the second IRA ceasefire, another team was still on the run, and two Barrett rifles remained unaccounted for. The campaign is viewed as the most efficient overall IRA operation in Northern Ireland for this period.