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IRA’s Libyan connection: Weapons of death that came in waves

They were the weapons that were meant to change the IRA war — a deadly present from Libya that allowed the republican quartermasters to fill their bunkers not just with Semtex explosive but a wide range of weaponry.

The former RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley detailed the new threat when delivering the Police Foundation Lecture in London in 1992.

“It may be interesting, insofar as firearms and explosives are concerned, to remind you of the scale of the problem,” he said.

“Following the seizure of the Eksund by the French Customs in October 1987 the level of earlier successful shipments from Libya to the Republic of Ireland became clear,” he continued.

And then he gave the figures:

  • Six tons of Semtex;
  • 1500-plus AKM rifles;
  • 1.5 million rounds of ammunition;
  • 20 SAM missiles;
  • 50 RPG7 rocket launchers;
  • 10 flame throwers, and;
  • a quantity of general purpose and heavy machine guns.

“Since then we can account for approximately one third of this equipment, the bulk of which has been recovered by the Garda Siochana.

“But, with so much outstanding, I hardly need to remind you of the continuing capability of PIRA to inflict death, injury and destruction in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Western Europe.”

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The IRA had already launched its Semtex war — and had the wherewithal to fight on many fronts and, in its organisational mind, to fight for as long as was necessary.

Libya had given republicans everything they needed to maintain and sustain the battle. It did not mean the IRA would win, but it meant it could not be defeated.

There may well have been times — particularly in the 1980s when so many soldiers were killed in the IRA bombs at the fun run in Lisburn, on the road at Ballygawley and at the barracks at Deal in Kent — when republicans may have thought of victory.

But by the mid 1990s there was a pause — a ceasefire — and the beginning of a process that was about negotiation, and about a political rather than a military outcome.

The Libyan weapons were used for several years in the pre-ceasefire period and then when that cessation collapsed and the IRA returned to its battlefields in those months stretching from February 1996 to July 1997.

Who knows how many victims can be linked to the Libyan supplies?

Who knows how many bullets were picked from that mountain of 1.5 million rounds of ammunition? Who knows how much Semtex was used and how many rifles were fired?

The Libyan weapons were put beyond use when the IRA formally ended its armed campaign in 2005 — and in that decommissioning process there was no forensic testing. Several years on, we can be more confident that the war is over — but it is not forgotten.

Libya is being pursued for compensation — and others will be asked to pay for their part in what went on here and elsewhere.

Already the question has been asked about loyalist and State killings.

For now the focus is on Libya and on those arms that were smuggled into Ireland more than twenty years ago.

But this is only one chapter in a book of many chapters and in a war of many players and many weapons.

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