There is a huge pile of background reading on Northern Ireland sitting on my hard drive and on the shelf in my small writing den. The task of combing through it in a search for interesting fragments that could be incorporated into a fictional story has been fascinating, and the list below represents only a small sample of the whole.
I really need to start with a huge thank you, but also an apology, to one writer in particular—Toby Harnden, currently the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. He wrote a seminal non-fiction book in 1999—the original Bandit Country— on the conflict in Northern Ireland, and south Armagh in particular, built around his experiences and research as a correspondent in the region.
I spent quite some time trying to locate a copy of Toby’s book, but failed, and ended up emailing him and asking for help. He very kindly let me see a copy and I quickly realized why it is held in such high regard.
It is immensely well-researched, written in Toby’s usual engaging style, and is packed full of colorful material about some of the IRA’s most notorious leadership figures in south Armagh, such as Thomas “Slab” Murphy, as well as facts and analysis. It proved an invaluable source of background information and ideas for me as I battled to construct my plot.
Hopefully he will see it as a huge compliment that I’ve also stolen his title. Bandit Country was a tag coined in November 1975 by the then British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees to describe south Armagh, and has been widely used ever since.
I struggled for a long time to think of a good alternative for this book, and despite toying with several options, I just couldn’t come up with anything that matched the stark Wild West imagery conjured up by the original tag. Given that Toby’s book is non-fiction, and was written a long time ago, and is not available as an e-book, I hope he will forgive me for my lack of original thinking. I certainly have a very long way to go to match the 100,000 worldwide sales that his book achieved—if anyone wants to drill much deeper into the history and background of the conflict in Ulster, I would thoroughly recommend it as a starting point. It is possible to find copies of the paperback edition at the Bookfinder website,
It is also possible to read the full text of the book at Toby’s own website, http://www.tobyharnden.com/
Apart from that, there were several other excellent books which also provided me with a deep seam of background material and ideas.
Mark Urban’s book, Big Boys’ Rules, gives a detailed account of struggles by British security forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary to combat IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland. It examines in particular the tactics employed by undercover units within the Special Air Service (SAS) and 14 Intelligence Company. Operations mounted by these small, specialist units resulted in the deaths of thirty IRA terrorists between 1976 and 1987, according to Urban, some of them in planned ambushes. During the same period the regular army killed nine IRA men.
Charlie One, by Sean Hartnett, is a first-hand account of counter-terrorism operations run by 14 Intelligence Company. Hartnett gives a fascinating insight into intelligence gathering, decision-making processes, and tactics employed to combat IRA operatives across Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
There is a graphic account within Iain Cobain’s book, The History Thieves, about attempts to sabotage inquiries by Lord Stevens into the killings of various IRA terrorists and the role played in these deaths by British army intelligence officers in the Force Research Unit and the RUC’s special branch. Cobain also details the extent of collusion between certain members of the army’s Ulster Defence Regiment and loyalist, or unionist, terrorist groups, in mounting lethal operations against republican terrorists.
Stakeknife, written by former army intelligence officer, and Force Research Unit member Ian Hurst under the pseudonym Martin Ingram, gives a detailed account of life running agents inside the IRA and the life-and-death decisions that had to be made daily in order to protect those sources. As Hurst spells out, sometimes there were very stark, dark, choices to be made—literally allowing some informers to be killed in order to protect others who were seen as more valuable. I tried to reflect a little of this in Bandit Country, but for anyone who wants to know more, Stakeknife is available on Amazon. This book also details how British security forces colluded with loyalist terrorist units.
In terms of fundraising by republican forces, a House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report in 2012, Fuel Laundering and Smuggling in Northern Ireland, is enlightening. Its focus is on the extent of cross-border tobacco and fuel smuggling between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Miami New Times website carried a graphic account of how one tobacco smuggling gang was caught as they transported millions of cigarettes from Miami to Dublin as part of an IRA fundraising operation.
There is much material available about British security forces’ tactics in combating IRA sniper gangs. For example, the UK Elite Forces website details the operation by the SAS in 1997 that resulted in the capture of one gang at a farm complex near Crossmaglen. The gang had been responsible for the deaths of seven soldiers and two policemen.
The ongoing catalogue of violent dissident republican attacks on British security targets, particularly policemen and police stations, is well documented by the BBC, which maintains a timeline of incidents dating back to 2009.
Efforts by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle the problem have been outlined by media, including The Belfast Telegraph, who ran this article about the PSNI’s anti-terror unit.
The formation of the New IRA in 2012 as a fresh grouping of republican organizations was widely documented, but was reported initially in an article in The Guardian newspaper.
I have centered my story around a meeting of leaders of the G8 group of industrialized countries in Belfast. There actually was a G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in 2013, at the Lough Erne golf resort, but it took place in June of that year, not January, as portrayed in my book. Barack Obama did attend, along with David Cameron, and they both visited a school, but it was in Enniskillen, not the fictional Belfast school depicted in my book. The BBC has an account of Obama’s visit to Northern Ireland here.
I hope all that is of use and of interest. Please e-mail me if you have any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by Andrew Turpin