Belfast Telegraph
The bomb factory under Armagh Cathedral
Sir John Gorman's fascinating life is chronicled in vivid detail in his new autobiography

By Sir John Gorman

Sir John Gorman's fascinating life as decorated war hero, senior Catholic RUC officer, Director of Security for BOAC, Housing Executive chief and Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly is chronicled in vivid detail in his new autobiography, The Times of My Life. In this extract, Sir John tells of his efforts to combat the growing IRA threat in the 1950s and how an informer - whose identity he still protects - helped prevent carnage on the streets of Armagh

THERE WAS, in the mid and late fifties, a real threat from the IRA - nothing like what occurred from 1970 onwards, but enough to worry peace-loving people. Several RUC men were murdered and there was a pitched battle at Brookeborough, which resulted in a number of IRA being killed and the sergeant, Cordner, one of my men in Middletown earlier, being decorated.

The differences between the 50s campaign and the later one were that the Catholic people were not in support of terrorism, even glorified as the "armed struggle". The IRA had quite limited objectives and saw Northern Ireland as a battleground stepping-stone which would soon be developed into the Republic, which they viewed with almost as much antipathy as Ulster.

They were a threat, a serious threat, to Eire, but had not reckoned with De Valera, their progenitor, being utterly hostile to their all-Ireland plan. In great secrecy, and with only those "with a need to know", we developed the internment schedule.

At that time the intelligence function of the RUC and the Gardai was highly developed. The records going back to the beginning of the century were shared between the two Forces. I showed my files to the Chief Superintendent in Monaghan and he shared his with me, when it related to what we called "Crime Special" matters. The internment plan was not something we discussed.

The day arrived, one Sunday, when we "lifted" about 30 men in the Armagh area, about whom we had built up a prima facie case for believing that they were Republican activists, prepared for the "armed struggle". I was astonished to hear on the radio that across the border precisely the same operation, on the same premise, was being carried out by the Gardai.

Predictably, there was a huge outcry. Nationalist politicians naturally saw this as draconian law. Many were the interviews which claimed that we had got it wrong, that there was no question of their friends or family members being involved in the IRA. Because of the closeness of our relationship with the Gardai, we were now able to share the reasons why we had chosen the internees. The IRA campaign, which had begun to become very nasty, started to wind down. There were still bombings and shootings, but at longer intervals.

I was in a rather useful position to help the British Intelligence Services. Then, and for all I know, now, the Secret Intelligence Service had MI6 operating in the Republic, whilst MI5 did this in Northern Ireland, as part of the UK. Clearly there was a need for a liaison interface and Dick Pim (the Inspector General of the RUC) volunteered me for this.

Even at this length of time, I prefer not to mention names, but people of great courage, integrity and love for Ireland were working on both sides of the border to rid us of the IRA.

A period of quite exhausting travel all over Ireland followed. My English accent and a fly-rod or a shotgun in its case gave me quite a convincing alias as a visiting Englishman, to meet MI6 contacts and to explain what MI5 in the North was about. The family, Heather particularly, were wonderfully tolerant of my sudden absences, which I could not, of course, explain.

Head Constable Alec Sterritt was in charge of intelligence for Co Armagh. A mild, quiet, friendly man, he had the ability to understand the mentality of the IRA (Loyalist paramilitaries were unknown then). He was aware of my links with SIS and greatly encouraged me.

Late one night he appeared at my door with a young man and asked me to talk to him. It seemed that Liam (not his real name) had been approached by the IRA and a mixture of blandishments and threats had been used to get him to join and to go to a training camp in Donegal.

He said he was prepared to work for us. He did not ask for money. It is a familiar dilemma for policemen all over the world. Information is the lifeblood of police work, in both the anticipation and detection of crime; informers can do their work for money or for idealistic motives. They can also be extremely dangerous, leading police into traps, operating as 'double agents' and, having obtained police trust, compromising the operational and moral integrity which must buttress law enforcement. Fortunately in Ireland a great deal of experience of the pluses and minuses of the informers' role existed on both sides of the border.

Alec and I were convinced that we could trust Liam and told him so. Weeks passed and again late at night, Alex and he appeared at my door in Armagh. We got into my car and drove to St Patrick's Cathedral. Liam took us to a shrubbery and we went through the tangled mass of brambles and laurels to a little clearing. Under a carpet of leaves he revealed a trap-door, which, when raised, had a crude ladder below, which he went down, followed by us with torches.

A corridor ran to the centre of the Cathedral and into a large chamber which had at one time housed the heating system, now long replaced by more modern technology. Here were bunk beds, papers of all sorts and some bomb-making equipment - fuse wire, detonators and primers. As we were examining this a loud whirring scared us until, in a few seconds, the great clock struck midnight.

A TYPICAL DILEMMA faced us. Liam explained that when his training in Donegal, and later in Sligo, finished, his IRA Controller told him of the existence of the Cathedral hideout, that he was the only one to know of it, and that he was to return to his home and await orders to receive and help an Active Service Unit, who were to carry out an operation in Armagh city, which would require him to lead them to the Cathedral hiding-place, where they were to lie low until the hunt for the ASU died down. Liam was to lay in food for the unit and to help them in any way they requested.

To raid the underground room, or to alert the clergy to its presence, and the use it was being put to, would have condemned him probably, to a death sentence, so the only thing to do was nothing, so far as the Cathedral was concerned, but to step up security at Gough Barracks and at the two Armagh RUC stations, Russell Street and Irish Street. I instituted patrolling of RUC men in plain clothes and the Special Constabulary mobilised Constables, who carried Sterling sub-machine guns beneath their raincoats. We tried to use men whose faces were not familiar to Armagh citizens, but I underestimated the powers of observation of the public in what was in fact, though described as a city because of its heritage, a medium-sized town.

It was an eerie experience to attend Mass every Sunday, with our two elder children, Angela and Johnny, knowing that below us was a chamber which by now might be filled with explosives. After a couple of weeks, early one Monday morning I had a phone call from Sergeant JJ Smyth, Station Sergeant at Russell Street. For a calm, indeed rather phlegmatic, man he sounded unusually excited and I went at once. The sergeant was waiting in my office with three revolvers hooked on his forefinger.

He had been riding to Russell Street on his bicycle before 9am when three young men ran across the road to the Cathedral, which he was passing, and up the 100 or more steps to the Cathedral. As he rode on he reflected on the unusual piety which would make three youths run up the Cathedral steps on a Monday morning. Putting down his bicycle, he climbed the steps and entered the Cathedral. He could not see the young men but drew his revolver, as he thought he had seen movement in a confessional at the end of the left-hand aisle. As he approached the Confessional, the curtain of the priest's booth opened and a revolver was pointed at him; there was a loud click and a young man fell out of the booth. Smyth went quickly to the other two booths and found two more young men, also with revolvers. Seizing the revolvers, but not opening them, he ordered the three to walk in front of him to Russell Street half a mile away, where he handed them over to Head Constable Isaac Keightley.

The Cardinal of All Ireland was then Cardinal D'Alton, whom I had got to know and respect. Telling Sergeant Smyth not to open the revolvers, I phoned His Eminence, who was at breakfast, and said I wanted to see him urgently. When we got there I asked Smyth for the first time to open the revolver which had been pointed at him through the Confessional curtain. There at 12 o'clock, the firing position, was a bullet which had got stuck and which had not gone off - an extremely rare event, one which I had never seen throughout my wartime service.

Cardinal D'Alton did not hesitate. "There will be outcries now about the RUC violating the 'sanctuary' of my Cathedral; that the Church should give harbour to fleeing 'freedom fighters'. As far as I am concerned the hand of God has prevented murder in the Cathedral today. Please arrange for me to go on the media at once deprecating this dreadful act."

RETURNING TO Russell Street, I found the Irish Street Sergeant, James Nethercott, "The Baa" to his friends, because of his rather high-pitched voice. It was through him that the ASU action was revealed to me. Outside this rather ancient barracks we had erected a sandbagged emplacement, manned by an armed constable all night but at dawn the cold and weary man was relieved and the emplacement manned from time to time only.

Irish Street was then one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city - small poorly built houses, crowded together, close to the walls of the Church of Ireland Cathedral, and with a high population density. There always seemed to be crowds of children about. The police "party" was at breakfast at 8.30, the sentry among them, when they heard a sharp "crack" at the door, went out and found a large suitcase inside the emplacement, (the detonator having gone off outside the body of the bomb). Electric fuse wires ran round the corner of the building. The Baa, who loved children and was very popular with all the inhabitants of Irish Street, was beside himself at the thought of what would have happened if the bomb had gone off. Minutes after the small explosion, Sgt Harry McCullagh, who lived outside, came on the suitcase and, believing it to be a bomb awaiting detonation, picked it up and carried it to a nearby field. He was later decorated for this brave action.

Back now at Russell Street, it was essential to interrogate all three men independently. Liam told me that they had arrived from the Republic the previous day, Sunday, with a suitcase full of explosives. That night they had gone to the Cathedral underground chamber, where they had made up the bomb which was to be detonated by an electric firing mechanism. He had volunteered to place it in the sandbagged post and to return to where the other two men were waiting, when they would use the mechanism's plunger to explode the deadly case.

When he got to the door of the barracks he managed, with some difficulty because it was securely taped in, to pull out the detonator. The fact that children were in the streets going to school had been disregarded by his two companions. The plunger was pressed, but only the detonator went off and the gunmen ran off. They had seen Sergeant Smyth bicycling past the Cathedral and had run into it hoping that he would not follow. Then, after a while, they would have used the underground chamber for a day or two.

It was clear they had a lot more information. They had the locations of the two training grounds, and names and descriptions, not only of those they had met, but others about whom they had been told. They had managed to catch snatches of conversations and little bits of evidence which they were able to convey graphically. I had the luck to have a clerk who was a fast, accurate shorthand typist. Over 30 pages of detailed information were the result.

All three were indicted and, refusing to recognize the court, sentenced to fourteen years' imprisonment.

Extracted from 'The Times of My Life', by Sir John Gorman, published by Pen & Sword Books, price £19.95.


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