Are RAF fighters set to protect the Republic of Ireland from hijacked airliners?

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Over the past week, the Irish media have circulated reports that a secret agreement exists between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom that permits Royal Air Force fighter aircraft to enter Irish airspace in order to shoot down hijacked airliners in a 9/11-type scenario. The story broke on Monday when The Irish Examiner claimed that it had five credible sources within the Irish government and one close to the UK government that the agreement does exist although the Irish Department of Defence refused to answer questions on the topic.

The Irish Examiner claims that the agreement was reached between the Irish departments of defence, foreign affairs and the Irish Aviation Authority and their UK counterparts. As part of the agreement to protect Ireland from such a scenario as the 9/11 attacks, the RAF could also operate in Irish airspace if it was suspected that the hijacked aircraft was to be used against the UK.

Typhoon and bearAt present the Irish Air Corps has no fast-jet combat aircraft of its own. It does have a number of Pilatus PC-9 intermediate trainers that provide air policing duties but these are prop-driven aircraft that lack the speed or firepower of an air superiority fighter such as the RAF’s Typhoon FGR.4. Some sources have suggested that the agreement may also concern the problem of Russian bombers operating close to Irish airspace which have caused major problems for the Irish air traffic control gird and to which the Irish have been unable to counter themselves.

Responding to The Irish Eaxminer’s claims, the Irish Department of Defence reiterated that;

Primary responsibility for the internal security of the State rests with the Department of Justice and Equality and the gardaí, and that it is the long-standing practice of the department not to make any comment on operational or security matters that may affect the State.

The Republic of Ireland has long held a militarily neutral stance on the world stage and is not a member of NATO. Earlier this year the British and Irish governments signed an historic military cooperation agreement but this primarily concerned training.

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Operation: Condor (1966) – Argentina Invades Stanley Racecourse

DC-4 Condor

It was supposed to be just a regular flight for the crew of the Aerolineas Argentina DC-4 airliner. On the morning of the 28th September 1966 at Buenos Aires airport the pilots worked through their checklist as the thirty five passengers boarded. Among them were eighteen members of a scrap metal union and a journalist named Dardo Cabo. The flight took off as scheduled and the passengers and crew seemed to settle in for their flight to Rio Gallegos.

However, shortly after take off the metal workers and Cabo rose up and took control of the aircraft in what was one of the first major hijackings in South America. The other passengers and crew expected to find themselves being held hostage but were astounded (some even joyous) when they found out that the hijackers planned to fly the DC-4 to Los Malvinas but known in the English speaking world as the Falkland Islands.

Their plan was simple; to “liberate” them from the British.

This bizarre incident took place during one of the most volatile times in Anglo-Argentine relations over the islands. Over the previous year the Argentinians had stepped up their efforts to reclaim the islands through an extremely aggressive diplomatic program. The British government actually seemed to be supporting the idea of handing them over preferring to promote good relations with Argentina who was a major trade partner in the region over retaining the windswept islands that seemed to have little strategic or economic importance anymore.

DC-4 Condor 3The island’s population however had other ideas and lobbied the British government to retain the islands. The islanders had tended to their land for generations and weren’t just about to give it up because Whitehall said so. As political support for the islanders grew in the UK the government was forced to accept the islanders’ wishes. It became such a sore subject that when the England football team beat Argentina during the World Cup that year Argentine television claimed that first the English had stolen the Malvinas and now they had stolen their World Cup aspirations. This prompted the metal workers and Cabo to take action and to do that they needed a plane to get to the islands.

As the DC-4 approached the islands the pilots were becoming increasingly concerned. They knew that there was no airfield on the islands (Stanley Airport was opened a few years later) with which they could land on but the hijackers/liberators had already thought of that and told the pilots to head for Stanley racecourse; the flattest and firmest terrain near the capital of the islands. The islanders’ sleepy lives were shattered by the drone of the aircraft as it swooped low over their homes with its landing gear down. The Argentine markings caused panic as they rightly believed that an invasion was taking place.

The islanders weren’t exactly defenceless. The Falkland Island Defence Force could trace its origins back to the Falklands Volunteers founded during the Crimean War in 1854 to protect against Russian warships. In 1966 it comprised of a handful of local volunteers and six full-time Royal Marines who provided training. They were lightly armed with rifles, pistols and shotguns and were no match for the well equipped Argentine military. Nevertheless the volunteers and the Marines mobilised supported by local residents who were determined that if their islands were to fall then they weren’t going down without a fight.

They marched on the racecourse where the aircraft had touched down digging a long trench in the grass as it’s wheels struggled to bring it to a stop. The Royal Marines immediately took command of the situation and decided to contain the Argentine “paratroopers” in their aircraft. What they saw however was anything but a highly trained military force. Instead they saw a rough looking, disorganized mob emerge from the aircraft and plant an Argentine flag in the racecourse. It would have almost seemed comical had it not been for the fact that before the aircraft could be secured the Argentinians captured three curious locals.

DC-4 Condor 2From here however their plan seemed to be collapsing around them. They realized that they were vastly outnumbered by the frightened locals lead by the competent Royal Marines who had them completely surrounded and any chance of fighting their way out would be almost impossible. However news of what was happening was already reaching back to the mainland and crowds gathered in the capital demanding that the Argentine military follow the hijackers/liberator’s lead.

Argentinian and British diplomats began a frantic round of negotiations as the scene on Stanley racecourse remained stagnant save for a few crude exchanges of words. The hours passed and the brutally cold night set in. The Royal Marines and the islanders seemed to receive a never-ending supply of warm food, drinks and clothes from a grateful population while the Argentinians shivered under the wings of the airliner. A Catholic priest was sent out to them and gave mass before convincing them to surrender 36 hours after the aircraft landed.

Over the next day the Argentinians were repatriated to face charges in Argentina. However only three of them would actually be prosecuted for the hijacking such was the popular support for their action. One of them was the journalist Dardo Cabo who was expecting to write the story of the liberation of the Malvinas. The incident not only failed to succeed but actually forced the British government to reinforce its position on the islands by increasing the permanent military presence there in the form of around 20 Royal Marines. The incident destroyed any political hope for the Argentinians gaining control of the islands but the will remained.

Thus the scene was set for the 1982 invasion.

The story was all but forgotten about until the current Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in her seemingly ceaseless efforts to rouse her country in to a blind frenzy over the islands, put the flag carried by the Argentinians on display to celebrate the incident. Furthermore she gave all the surviving members extremely generous pensions claiming them to be heroes despite the fact that they hijacked an Argentine airliner.