South Armagh Sniper (1990-1997)

South Armagh Sniper (1990-1997)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = South Armagh Sniper (1990-1997)
partof= The Troubles

caption=Sniper attack aftermath in Crossmaglen, 30 December 1993
date=March 1990 to March 1997
place= South Armagh
result= Mobility of foot patrols further restricted
combatant1=flagicon|Ireland Provisional Irish Republican Army
combatant2=flagicon|UK British Army, RUC
strength1= 2 ASUs
strength2= Several army sections
RUC patrols
1 SAS unit
casualties1= 1 ASU arrested
casualties2= 7 soldiers dead
2 constables dead
1 constable wounded
The South Armagh Sniper is the generic name"At first, we believed it was one unit, one weapon and one trigger man (...) It developed into at least two." A former SAS warrant officer, quoted by Harnden, page 400.] 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.

The campaign is most notable for the snipers' use of .50-caliber Barrett M82 and M90 long-range rifles in some of the shootings.


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'. [Harnden, page 406] The majority of soldiers shot dead in 1972, the bloodiest year of the conflict in Northern Ireland, were, in effect, victims of IRA snipers. ["In 1971, the Provisional IRA shot dead forty-two British soldiers. In 1972, this figure rose to sixty-four, most of them killed by snipers." Taylor, page 132.] .

About 180 British soldiers, RUC and prison staff members were killed in this way from 1971 to 1991. [ [ Sutton index of deaths] ]

The AR-18 "Armalite" rifle became the weapon of choice for IRA members at this time. [Taylor, pp. 108-109]

Meanwhile, the British Army assessment about "Operation Banner" asserts that the IRA sniping skills often didn’t match those expected from a well trained sniper. ["Gunmen were often described as 'snipers' but very rarely did any terrorist display the skills of a properly trained sniper." [ "Operation Banner" official report] , paragraph 527.] 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. [Ibid., paragraphs 527-530]

niper teams in South Armagh

The rifles

During the 1980s, the IRA relied mostly on weaponry smuggled from Libya. [Bowyer Bell, pp. 556-571] ["The Guardian" [ "IRA arms decommissioned"]
September 26 2005. Retrieved: 22 March 2008.
] ["The New York Times" [ "I.R.A. Disarmament Is Complete, Commission Reports"] September 26 2005. Retrieved: 22 March 2008.] 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. [Holland, pp. 93-99] 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. [Holland, page 110]

However, between the mid-1980s and the 1990s there was some small-scale activity, [Harnden, Chapter 10, "Made in USA", pp. 353-386] leading to the purchase of US made Barrett M82 and M90 rifles, [O'Brien, pp. 354-355] 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, [Harnden, page 366] 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. ["One of the items the FBI was unable to seize was a Barrett Light Fifty which letters found in Quigley's apartment indicated had been successfuly shipped to the Irish Republic." Harnden, page 372.] In August 1986, another M82 had been sent in pieces from Chicago to Dublin, where the rifle was re-assembled. ["Another Light Fifty had been pieced together in Dublin's Central Sorting Office in August 1986 after its component parts had been sent in parcels from Chicago to addresses in the Irish capital." Harnden, page 372.] At least two of the M90 rifles were bought as recently as six months after the first IRA ceasefire.Harnden, Toby. (1999) "The Daily Telegraph" [ "IRA killers may be free next year"] 20 March 1999. Retrieved: 22 March 2008.] 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. [Harnden pp. 354-355] 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." [ Harnden, pp. 406-407]
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, page 400 and pp. 502-504 ("Appendix A")] Harnden recalls a Belgian FN FAL rifle recovered by the Gardaí near Inniskeen in 1998 as the possible source of those attacks. [Harnden, page 400]

The shootings

Contrary to the first British army assessment, or the speculations of the press, [Stubblefield, page 232] there was not just a single sniper involved. According to Harnden, there were two different teams, ["Two PIRA ASUs were involved and, although there were some long distance shoots using the Barrett, the majority of engagements were at a range of 200 – 300 m using a 7.62 mm rifle." "Operation Banner" report. Paragraph 529.] one responsible for the east part of South Armagh, around Drumintee, the other for the west, in the area surrounding Cullyhanna. [Harnden, pp 400 & 404] 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. [Harnden, page 404] The ASUs made good use of dead ground in order to conceal themselves from Army observation posts. ["The attacks, which were carefully mounted to use dead ground away from the Army's matrix of observation posts targeted security forces on their likely movement routes near bases and vehicle checkpoints." "Operation Banner" report. Paragraph 529.]

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. [Harnden, page 400] The marksman usually fired from a distance of less than 300 metres, despite the 1 km effective range of the rifles. The sniping skills inspired a degree of admiration even from inside the British army. ["The sniper tactic was clever and the attacks were carried out beautifully. It was a face-to-face contact with superior force all of whom are armed. It was not like parking a mortar baseplate and pissing off. It was actually pointing a weapon at a man who's also got one, who's also got fifteen mates around him and pulling the trigger and then getting away. The snipes started at around convert|600|yd and came down to less than convert|200|yd. That's getting really close, close enough for us to be using SA80s and LMGs quite effectively. That's unbelievably ballsy and to work effectively at that sort of range it takes a lot of guts. To control your breathing and your heart in those sort of circumstances is difficult enough but when you know you're taking on those sort of odds it's even harder. And it's not easy getting away in countryside where there are so many helicopters in the air. I've got a lot of respect for them. It wasn't cowardly in the slightest." Harnden, page 423, quoting an unidentified British Army major.] 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. [Harnden, page 403]

Two different sources include in the campaign two incidents which happened outside South Armagh; one in Fermanagh, ["Over the 15-month period from August 1992 to December 1993, six soldiers and three RUC constables were killed by single shot attacks in South Armagh (often described by the media as 'Bandit Country') and Fermanagh." "Operation Banner" report, paragraph 529.] the other in West Belfast, in June 1993. [Harnden, page 392] An RUC investigation following the latter shooting led to the discovery of one of the Barrett M82 hidden in a derelict house. It was later determined that this rifle was also the weapon responsible for the first soldier killing in 1992. ["The rifle used in the (August 1992) attack was thought to have been one of those made and sold legitimate in Texas by Ron Freshour, a former Barrett employee, and later bought by the IRA. Stamped with the word 'Tejas' –Spanish for Texas- on the butt, it was fired in west Belfast in June 1993 and seized a month later during an RUC search of a vacant house." Harnden, page 392.] The tabloid press of that time starting calling the sniper "Goldfinger" or "Terminator", the nicknames current in Crossmaglen's bars. [Harnden, page 400] The last serviceman killed by snipers at South Armagh, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, was also the last British soldier to die in the conflict, on February 12 1997.

British personnel killed

Caraher team arrested

The ceasefire put in place by the IRA on August 31, 1994, gave an opportunity to the British to collect intelligence from the local community to be used against the snipers. [Harnden, page 411 and 416] The truce was strongly resented by South Armagh IRA members. ["The ceasefires have been humiliating (...) Here in Crossmaglen we had the Army and the police on the run. All you needed to do was shoot one every six months..." Harnden, page 410, quoting a volunteer.] Even when the ceasefire was still 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 [See [ Sutton Index of Deaths (1994), 10 November entry] ] in the course of an armed robbery. [Harnden, pp 410-411] When the IRA broke the cease fire by bombing the London Docklands in February 1996, some volunteers had already abandoned the organisation, while others had given up to criminal activities. ["Some volunteers drifted away from the IRA while even the most experienced became rusty. The Special Branch Officer said: 'Micksey Martin is a case point. He is an absolute rascal who has been stealing and smoking cigarettes since he was eight years old. But he has tremendous organisational ability and was superb in a war situation. Once the ceasefire came, his criminality, his "homers" -raking off money for himself- drinking and womanising meant that he lost a lot of respect from people.' " Harnden, page 411.] ["During the previous 21 months (before June 1996), there had been seven Post Office robberies in South Armagh and the security forces believed they had identified the IRA team responsible." Harnden, page 412.] Indeed, the period after the ceasefire shows little IRA activity in South Armagh. ["After the Docklands bomb brought the ceasefire to an end, there were remarkably few IRA attacks in South Armagh." Harnden, page 411.]

Following two successful attacks in 1997, an SAS unit arrested the ASU based in the west of the region and 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 by the SAS. The British troops were under strict orders to avoid IRA casualties. A Barrett M90 rifle was seized, [Harnden, pp. 420-422] which forensic and intelligence reports linked only to the 1997 shootings. ["16.9 Based on the findings of the investigation concluding that the Barrett .50 calibre rifle used on 12 February 1997 was not the same weapon used in sniper shootings in South Armagh between 1990 and 1994..." [ Police Ombudsman report, 13 December 2006] .] It was hinted that there was an informer, a suggestion dismissed by the Ombudsman report. [ [ The Times, 06/20/2004] ]

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. [ [ Sutton index of deaths] ] Michael, also shot and wounded, had lost a lung in the aftermath. [ [ Irish Examiner, 2000/07/29] ] Despite some witnesses claims that the shooting was unprovoked, the Marines involved were acquitted by Lord Chief Justice Hutton. [Geraghty, pp. 102-103] Caraher was thought to be the shooter in several attacks, [Harnden, page 408] 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. [Geraghty, page 377] . The other three ASU's men were convicted in 1999 for six killings, two of them unrelated to the sniping operations, that 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. [Harnden, 424] The Drumintee sniper party was never caught. [Logic conclusion of Harnden and "Operation Banner" report assertion about two different sniper teams.]


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 defensive measures the Army was forced to take meant that its operations were more constrained than at any time since 1970s... By 1997, troops were being issued with body armour containing a ceramic plate made from boron carbide, which could protect the trunk from a .50 calibre round; Kevlar flak jacket had proved useless against such a bullet. But a set of boron carbide body armour not only cost £4,000 but weighed convert|32|lb|abbr=on., making it too heavy to be worn on patrol; even soldiers at static checkpoints could only wear it for two hours at a time." Harnden, page 405.] 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. [Harnden, page 401] 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." [Harnden, page 406]

The IRA strategy also diverted a large amount of British security resources from routine operations to tackle the threat. ["Extra measures were taken to safeguard patrols against sniper fire, particularly expanding the use of air cover. These sniper attacks diverted large amounts of men, and scarce resources from the larger campaign in Northern Ireland. Instead of tackling the IRA infrastructure and larger units, the manpower and flight hours were used in an effort to track down the ambush menace behind the telescopic sights." Stubblefield, page 232.] 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. [Harnden, page 411] This led to the later success against the Caraher team. [Harnden, pp. 416-417] 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. [Harnden, page 418]

Nevertheless, by the second IRA ceasefire, another team was still on the run, and two Barrett rifles remained unaccounted for. [Harnden, page 425] The campaign is viewed as the most efficient overall IRA operation in Northern Ireland for this period. [Horgan, page 15, citing a Fergal Keane article in the Sunday Tribune.] The Highway Code style sign "Sniper at work", mounted by the IRA near Crossmaglen became an icon of the Republican cause. [Horgan, pp. 12-13]



*Harnden, Toby: "Bandit Country:The IRA and South Armagh". Coronet Books, 2000. ISBN 0340717378.
*Taylor, Peter: "Behind the Mask:The IRA and Sinn Féin". TV Books, 1999. ISBN 157500061X.
*Bowyer Bell, J. (1997):"The Secret Army: The IRA". Transaction Publishers.ISBN 1560009012.
*O'Brien, Brendan (1999):"The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin". O'Brien Press. ISBN 0-86278-606-1.
*Mac Stíofáin, Seán: "Memoirs of a Revolutionary", London (Gordon Cremonesi), 1975. Also published as "Revolutionary in Ireland" ISBN 0-86033-031-1.
*Geraghty, Tony: "The Irish War". Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. ISBN 0002556170.
*Holland, Jack:"The American connection". Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1999. ISBN 1570982619.
*Horgan, John:"The Psychology of terrorism". Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0714652628.
*Stubblefield, Gary: "Killing zone: A professional guide to prepare or prevent ambushes". Paladin Press, 1994. ISBN 0873647866.

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