The rough and mountainous countryside of South Armagh has a wild loveliness all its own. But the beauty belies the area’s history, one of the bloodiest in Northern Ireland. With the highest death toll of any area outside Belfast, South Armagh was rarely out of the news during the 30 years of the Troubles. Even today, signs erected by the local Irish Republican Army along country roads warn of “snipers at work” and show pictures of hooded men brandishing guns.
It's little wonder South Armagh is known by the British security forces as “Bandit Country.” Of the some 400 people killed in this area over the past three decades, around half were members of the British army, the police or the Ulster Defense Regiment — a group of part-time soldiers drawn mainly from the Protestant farming community. The last British soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland, 23-year-old Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, was cut down by a sniper in South Armagh in 1997.
South Armagh is overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist — in many villages, Catholics account for more than 90 percent of the population.
Many bitterly resented the decision to keep South Armagh in Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, leading to broad support for one of the most formidable IRA units on the island.
Seventy-five years after the border was drawn, the tiny Protestant minority fears that the removal of British army watchtowers and other security installations will leave them vulnerable to attack.
A vote for security
Willy Frazer, development officer with the South Armagh victims’ group FAIR, or Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, is based in the village of Markethill. Frazer owns a pub and is a prominent member of the small Protestant minority in South Armagh. He has seen five family members, including his father, killed by pro-Catholic paramilitaries.
Like many Protestant men in this area, Frazer’s father was a part-time member of the Ulster Defense Regiment. As such, the IRA considered him a legitimate target. Frazer’s group wants the border security posts to stay, despite the relative peace in Northern Ireland.
Frazer says he has little faith in the IRA cease-fire and believes pro-Catholic paramilitaries could resume their campaign of violence at any time because they retain a secret arsenal of firearms and explosives. Frazer also wants the 1976 Kingsmill massacre, in which 10 Protestant workmen were killed and one injured by the South Armagh Republican Action Force — regarded as a cover name for the IRA — to be recognized as a war crime. The massacre was one of the most shocking incidents of the Troubles, and left the Protestant community deeply traumatized.
“They took 11 people out of a minibus, Protestants, lined them up against the side of the minibus and they stood here, there wasn’t 5 feet between them, and they fired something like 200 rounds into them people,” Frazer recalls. “It was like a firing squad.”