240. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford1


  • Northern Ireland—Gun-Running and Other Foreign Support for the IRA

A terrorist incident in Northern Ireland on January 5, 1976 in which ten Protestants were killed provoked renewed British and Irish criticism of illicit American support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). According to police reports, American Armalite rifles and M–1 carbines were used in the January 5 attack, weapons the police charge are bought in the United States with money provided by sympathizers of the IRA. Only two weeks before the attack, Prime Minister Wilson delivered a particularly harsh speech to the Association of American Correspondents in London, charging that most of the modern weapons now reaching the terrorists in Northern Ireland are of American origin—“possibly as much as 85 percent of them.”

The following paragraphs summarize the investigations of both CIA and Justice and conclude that most weapons used by the IRA are obtained either in the UK, the Republic of Ireland or Ulster. As a result of Justice Department prosecutions, instances of American gun-running have declined, although the considerable funds collected in the U.S. by IRA sympathizers apparently are being used to purchase weapons elsewhere.

Despite the impression created by the frequency of incidents, terrorism in Northern Ireland involves relatively few people and modest amounts of matériel. The British suspect that small quantities of arms and explosives are regularly taken into Northern Ireland from Britain and the continent by private pleasure craft and airplane. Passengers on ferries plying the Irish Sea between England and the Republic of Ulster can bring in guns and ammunition in their luggage or hidden in their [Page 763] cars. With the exception of the north-south border, customs are relatively relaxed.

The British claim that 32 percent of the IRA’s weapons come from the UK, 26 percent from the US, 9 percent from West Germany, 5.4 percent from Canada and lesser amounts from other countries. Less than one percent come from the USSR and China. The high percentage of American weapons alluded to by Prime Minister Wilson in his December speech actually refers only to “modern” weapons, a distinction the British occasionally blur.

The support arm of the IRA in the U.S. is the Irish Northern Aid Committee, registered here under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as an agent of the Northern Aid Committee, Belfast. According to required registration statements, the Committee has raised almost $1.5 million, ostensibly for the relief of suffering in Northern Ireland.

U.S. Steps to Curb Gun-Running. In late 1971, a task force of officials from the Departments of Justice and Treasury was formed to supervise and coordinate all investigations and cases involving weapons violations by persons apparently acting to support the terrorism in Northern Ireland. Close liaison was established with the British Government. As of early this year, 12 indictments involving twenty-two individuals have been returned and one complaint filed as a result of these investigations. Two of the cases have resulted in convictions or pleas of guilty and two are pending trial. The charges in these prosecutions have primarily involved violations of the Gun Control Act of 1968, although in four cases the defendants were charged with the export of implements of war without the approval of the Secretary of State. Collectively, almost 700 weapons are involved in these cases. Additionally, investigations have been conducted in a number of cities but failed to produce sufficient evidence to warrant a grand jury investigation.

The Attorney General advises that the prosecutions undertaken by Justice have had a deterrent effect on American participation in supplying weapons to the terrorists in Northern Ireland. The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports that there is no evidence that large numbers of weapons for the IRA are currently being purchased in the U.S.—although the large scale of fund-raising activities probably provides money for the purchase of weapons and explosives both here and abroad.

This status report on U.S. and other foreign support for the IRA and efforts underway to combat American gun-running is provided for your information. Appropriate talking points will be included in the briefing paper for your meeting with Irish Prime Minister Cosgrave on March 17.

  1. Summary: Scowcroft discussed gun-running and other foreign support for the IRA.

    Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for Europe and Canada, Box 7, Ireland (2). Secret. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it; Ford also initialed the memorandum. The January 22 CIA report on “Sources of Support for Dissidents in Ulster” and Attorney General Edward Levi’s February 27 letter to Scowcroft reviewing the status of Northern Ireland gun-running investigations are both ibid. On March 20, UK official John Moreton thanked Scowcroft for “the forthright terms in which the President and the Prime Minister of Ireland condemned support for violent organizations operating in Northern Ireland in the joint communiqué which they issued on 18 March.” (Ibid., Kissinger-Scowcroft West Wing Office Files, Box 25, UK (21)) The memorandum of conversation of Ford’s March 17 meeting with Cosgrave is ibid., Memoranda of Conversation, Box 18.