• October 16, 2021

MUNNELLY ANOTHER ‘BRIDGE TOO FAR’ FOR THE BRITISH ARMY(Fifty years ago this month British troops tried to blow up a bridge on the Fermanagh-Monaghan border)

I referred in an earlier post to the Flagstaff Hill incident in which British special forces were arrested inside the 26 Counties and which caused a major diplomatic incident when the men were later tried in Dublin. However there were frequent and seemingly more mundane incidents which occurred much earlier.

In Oct. 28 1971 British soldiers and members of the Irish Defence Forces faced each other across the six counties border before the British withdrew, defeated in an argument about which side of the frontier a bridge was on.

The British were about to blow up the bridge on a road near Newtownbutler, in County Fermanagh, as part of what they claimed was an attempt to destroy possible Irish Republican Army supply lines from south to north. Gardai arrived and told them it spanned the border and effectively they were about to blow a bridge half of which was in the 26 counties. The British Army became abusive but the Gardai stood their ground, eventually reinforced by a 27‐man platoon of the Irish Defence Forces from the 27th infantry battalion based in Dundalk and Castleblayney.

The Irish troops, with rifles, machine guns and a bazooka, manned high ground overlooking the bridge about 800 yards away while an Irish and a British officer argued on the bridge. Maps were consulted and the British force seemed adamant but the IDF stood their ground and the Brits eventually withdrew.

Gelignite that had already been placed under the bridge was removed by an ordnance unit of the Irish Defence Forces.

There was great resentment in border communities over the destruction of bridges and the cratering of roads. Crossings were used daily by villagers and farmers and it was hugely isolating, disruptive and inconvenient especially where a farmer for example had land on both sides of the six county border.

Ironically the British Army’s strategy to try and seal the border was a failure and created long term resentment in border communities.The UK media often tried to highlight the ‘security cooperation’ between North and South however the reality at the time could be somewhat different. Speaking in a BBC TV interview around the time of the Munnelly Bridge incident a CO of an Irish Defence Force units in the border area was quite candid saying:

“I don’t see the point of it (cooperation with the British Army); we have a mission to perform and presumably they have a mission to perform as well. I don’t know what their mission is, nor do I wish to know. We have a job to do and we do it in our own way, and as far as I’m concerned, we do it effectively.”

Footnote: A consequence of the Munnelly stand-off was that rather than blow bridges themselves sometimes the British Army cooperated with Loyalist paramilitaries as happened a year later (1972) when Aghalane bridge between Cavan and Fermanagh was bombed by loyalists. In 2005 a Commander of British Forces in the area at the time (Major Vernon Rees) admitted the cooperation in an oral history interview for the Imperial War Museum. A temporary replacement for Aghalane bridge (bailey bridge) was erected by Irish Army engineers (1972).

Image: Garda supported by Irish troops at a border checkpoint – Inset: Aghalane bridge damaged by loyalists a year after the unsuccessful attempt by the British army to destroy Munnelly bridge.

Bernard Moffatt

AGS Celtic League (11th October 2021)

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