Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for The Advertiser
On the 12th of February 1997, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was shot dead by the bullet of a Barrett M90 sniper rifle. His body slumped to the ground where he died moments after impact. He was in full British Army uniform. This made him very conspicuous. He was fulfilling his duties by manning a checkpoint in Bessbrook, County Armagh. He had moments before asked a lady to produce her identification in order to pass through the checkpoint. She did so and when he leaned into the car to converse, he turned his back which in turn presented an enormous target for the waiting sniper. The sniper lying in wait, performing his duties was Bernard McGinn. The shot was fired from distance by an extremely diligent, very organised and highly trained Mr. McGinn. It was a military style professional killing. Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was 23-years-old. He was five months into his second tour of duty when he died. He has the tragic distinction of being the last British soldier to die on active duty in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was this death that made the British government sit down at the negotiating table with the IRA and is credited with being the single most provocative act that led to the Good Friday Agreement being implemented one year later in 1998.
Bessbrook is a village in South Armagh. South Armagh was the engine room for the IRA during the Troubles. It was the single most dangerous posting for a British Army soldier in the world. There were two sniper teams in operation in South Armagh. Bernard McGinn was integral to one. McGinn’s team shot dead at least 9 British Army soldiers. His weapon of choice was a Barrett M90 high powered rifle. What set the Barrett rifle apart from other weapons was that it had an enormous amount of kinetic energy. Its bullet could enter and exit a flak jacket like a rock thrown through a window, even from enormous distances. South Armagh as a location was the perfect fit for its use because of the huge availability of British soldiers. They were fish in a barrel. While manning checkpoints they unknowingly at first, became ducks lining up in a row. The soldiers came to dread the Barrett M90 gun because they soon became acutely aware of its effectiveness. Between 1990-1997 twenty-four shots were fired at British Soldiers from a sniper’s rifle. Bernard McGinn pulled the trigger on many.
In the 1990s the IRA relied on Libya for their weaponry but due to increased security checks the availability of weaponry became restricted. The IRA had to become more resourceful and increase their ingenuity. They did so. They learned that they could buy the American made Barrett M82 and M90 rifles in the USA, dis-assemble them and post the parts separately to Dublin. The rifles, ammunition and telescopic sights would be sent separately to Dublin in packages to post-offices. They would then be collected and re-assembled for use. This is how IRA acquired much of their weaponry during the Troubles along with help from Colonel Gaddafi who was sympathetic to the cause.
Crossmaglen in South Armagh became a nest for the IRA. It was alive with IRA activity during the Troubles. Both Sniper teams would have frequented Crossmaglen which became infamous, as the local GAA pitch was taken over by the British Army as a helicopter landing pad. The IRA would have had a vast amout of support here and to counteract the effectiveness of the sniper, the Ministry of Defense issued new body armour to the British soldiers. The armour was very expensive and it was extremely heavy. The jackets cost £4,000 each and weighed 14.5kg. The morale of the troops was so low that some servicemen had to be disciplined for remaining under shelter while under orders to check vehicles. The soldiers were too frightened to fulfil their duties outside of their shelter due to the intense fear of being the next soldier to venture into the cross hairs off the sniper.
The IRA had succeeded in getting British troops off the ground which in turn meant that their helicopters had become more vulnerable. They now had less troops on the ground and had to restrict their use of helicopter surveillance. The IRA were winning every battle in South Armagh. A Highway style ‘SNIPER AT WORK’ sign was mounted in Crossmaglen to portray their superiority and goad the British Army, this became an iconic symbol of the republican cause.
After shooting Lance Bombardier Restorick, McGinn and his team went on the run. They were eventually arrested in a farmhouse in Crossmaglen. During a week of questioning McGinn eventually confessed to his role in an IRA bombing campaign as well as being one of the South Armagh Snipers. He also turned informant and implicated more than twenty members of the South Armagh Brigade in attacks in Northern Ireland and England. He confessed to manufacturing explosives ranging from 200lbs to 10 tonnes in weight. On March 19th 1999, Bernard Mcginn was sentenced to 490 years imprisonment for 34 different separate offenses. These offesnses Included the killing of Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick as well as two other British soldiers. He was also convicted of involvement in the 1992 bombing of the Baltic Exchange, the 1996 Docklands bombing and the bombing of Hammersmith bridge. When he was sentenced, he laughed. He knew that he would soon be released under the Good Friday Agreement. He was right. He served 16 months of a 490-year sentence. On the 28th of July 2000 he was released from the Maze Prison under the agreement that his Barrett M90 sniper rifle helped to create. He died on 21st of December 2013 aged 56-years-old.