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Adventures in British Imperialism

Books by Margaret Urwin, Ann Cadwallader and Ian Cobain illuminate the viciousness of end-of-Empire Britain from Ireland to Kenya

Some say soil never rests easy on a troubled grave. In late November came news of two long-delayed ‘legacy inquests’ in Northern Ireland. The remains of Daniel Rooney were exhumed in Belfast by the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch, overseen by a forensic anthropologist engaged by his family. Back in 1972, Daniel was with a friend at a street corner, watching odd traffic behaviour, when a car tore back past and sprayed the pair with rapid gunfire. Rooney (18) had been shot dead by a British Army maverick undercover Military Reaction Force (MRF) unit. The ‘good news’ is that “an object of interest” has been found in the coffin, a bullet. The family is now engaging a ballistics expert to check its provenance.

Another inquest concerned Manus Deery (15), shot by a British soldier from Derry’s walls in May 1972. The army version was that the soldier had fired a single shot at a “gunman”, or that Deery had been gesturing with a stick at the observation post. Now, a Ministry of Defence barrister has admitted that Welsh Fusilier Private. William Glasgow (now deceased) acted in breach of Yellow Card rules, and that young Manus was going about his lawful business. You might think this scant comfort after 44 years of grief; but the vindication was not lost on Deery’s long-suffering sister, Helen.

The Deery family’s solicitor, Richard Campbell, is also acting for the upcoming inquest for unarmed teenage IRA volunteer Seamus Bradley (19), shot dead (in the back) in 1972 during Operation Motorman, the outlandishly vast British military operation to bulldoze into ‘no-go’ Republican areas in Belfast, Derry and border towns, involving over 20,000 troops. Among thousands of disclosed documents, Campbell found the minutes of a Stormont security meeting on 10 July, 1972, between NI Secretary of State William Whitelaw, the head of the British Army (GOC), RUC, MI6, senior politicians and civil servants. Article J of the minutes stated: “The Army should not be inhibited in its campaign by the threat of Court proceedings and should therefore be suitably indemnified” – just three weeks before Operation Motorman.

This shocking document is one of many, mostly freshly declassified papers from the UK National Archives at Kew, and elsewhere, which historian Margaret Urwin marshals for her new book, ‘A State in Denial’: a darkly powerful examination of British policy from the beginning of the Troubles to 1983. It traces an inevitably fragmentary arc, as most relevant British papers have not been released, and all files on the UDR may remain closed for 50, 80, 100 years; perhaps forever. Urwin’s is a sectional, but not partisan, history which starkly records the frightful death tally attributable to the IRA and the British army; and the more sectarian preferences of paramilitary loyalists like the UVF and the UDA – a perfectly legal (until 1992), violent mass movement throughout the Troubles. Quite openly in these papers, British or Northern Ireland Office (NIO) bureaucrats discuss with military brass and MI5 how, rather than open up a war on two fronts, the British and Ulster elite were keen to keep loyalists onside, the UDA patrolling nationalist areas beside the Army like an auxiliary force. The enemy is very much the IRA and the Catholic minority – despite the headaches of UDA weapons raids on UDR barracks, intimidatory “shows of strength” and regular outbreaks of sectarian killing.

In these early troubled years, one discerns a set of complex but ultimately asymmetric relationships bedding down across Ulster, and between the British and Irish governments. Urwin incontrovertibly puts the lie to official denials of collusion between violent loyalism and state forces as diplomats and high-level civil servants discuss strategy, memos of meetings or briefing documents for Ministers, all the way to Downing Street.

There were high-level meetings with the IRA and Sinn Féin – MI6 representative Frank Steele met two IRA men outside Derry on 20 June 1972. On the back of it, the IRA called a ceasefire on 26 June. 10 days later, on 7 July, a larger IRA delegation, led by Seán MacStíofáin, met Whitelaw in London – but the positions were polarised, and two days later the détente broke down in Belfast.

This document mentioned above reflects General Harry Tuzo’s elaborate 28-page game-plan, which he sent to Whitelaw the previous day, 9 July, the day the truce broke down. Tuzo recommended all-out, maximum-force war against the IRA. While serious consideration was given to this, the government retreated by 20 July when, at a meeting between the PM, the NI Secretary of State and the General Chief of Staff, a decision was taken not to proceed. However, the following day, ‘Bloody Friday’, the IRA detonated 26 bombs in Belfast within an hour, killing nine and injuring 130. This presented the British Army with the justification for Operation Motorman. The decision to proceed was taken by ministers on 27 July.

Tuzo turned a blind eye to the source of UDA arms (regular mass weapons thefts from UDR barracks), Tuzo wished to up the ante, and “take the war to the IRA”. He recommended the reinforcement of the MRF, or replacing them with the SAS. By any measure, this was a war on a whole community, exemplified by the use of screening – arbitrary arrests of nationalists and their removal to barracks for interrogation, to help in the mapping out estates and homes and households. Highly discriminatory, this was never deployed in loyalist areas, and was declared illegal in 1981.

This was an information war too, steered by MI5 and the Information Policy Unit (IPU) at British Army HQ in Lisburn, with its SyOps.and black propaganda – but the streets had their own reality. To bring down the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement, the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) staged their vast, province-wide shut-down of factories and utilities.from 15 May, 1974, with the UVF playing a big role in the intimidation, having killed 24 people that year. Meanwhile, friendly discussions with the NIO’s James Allan continued about the UVF’s de-proscription (re-legalisation), with the call to Allan from UVF leader Ken Gibson on 17 May, the morning of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. In the aftershock, Garda and Irish diplomatic requests for intelligence-sharing were rebuffed, and the UVF was, incredibly, de-proscribed on 23 May. Urwin notes Allan requesting the “opportunity to comment on possible arrest lists”, suggesting any proper investigation of the massacre was doomed from the start.

Throughout the strike, the gingerness of the northern authorities in dealing with their belligerent loyalist allies is striking – even as the UWC blocked off all roads in and out of Stormont, forcing the Secretary of State and Brian Faulkner to be helicoptered in, thanks to police and military reluctance to remove the barricades.

Citing Colin Wallace, Urwin argues that the authorities quickly learned who perpetrated the bombings in the South. Later known as the Glenanne gang, it was a loose well-trained paramilitary group combining mid-Ulster UVF, RUC, UDR and intelligence elements, operating out of James Mitchell’s farm buildings in rural Armagh and now credited with 120 murders on both sides of the border.

The mind still shimmers at some of the notes of meetings back at Stormont: UDA man David Payne “hovered in a rather crazy way by Mr Allan”, or “ribald discussions of [UVF killer John] McKeague’s proclivities” (paedophilia). And the loyalists seemed to get what they wanted. Sunningdale collapsed on 28 May, and in August 1974 various organisations that had formed the UWC met Merlyn Rees and senior NIO officials to demand a “Third Force” that would deliver control over all security to “Ulstermen”. Within a month, Rees announced the expansion of the RUC (from 4,500 to 6,000 members) and RUC Reserve (from 2,000 to 4,000, with educational entry-qualifications lowered) and two full-time UDR batallions were formed less than 18 months later.

Urwin’s final ‘case-history’ is the RUC raid which found a substantial little arms cache at the UDA HQ in Belfast on 26 May, 1981, at the height of the IRA/INLA hungerstrikes. She pores through the “flurry of internal memos” between NIO civil servants: the usual denials and downplaying of UDA murders, as Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins fretted over the failure to make arrests, in light of UDA commander Andy Tyrie’s public admissions of terrorism. RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon stiffly resisted suggestions he proscribe the UDA, until at least the hungerstrikes had blown over and the UDA had developed a political wing, to hive off the “rump of hard men”, ie the UFF, so authorities could open up political contacts with the UDA. Hermon feared that government failure to recognise the UDA as a political organisation could meant more violence against ‘republicans’, while local MI5 head Harold Doyne-Ditmas worried more about the optics of “encouraging” the UDA than the realities of their murderous campaigns. Not one recommended the UDA’s proscription.

In April 1982, a further RUC raid on UDA HQ unearthed a vast tranche of intelligence files/ photographs of IRA suspects, magistrates and RUC. Six men were arrested and charged with holding information useful to terrorists and, finally, with possession of firearms with intent to endanger life: they all pleaded “not guilty”. Then it emerged that an earlier raid in 1977 had found documents relating to lawyers and prison wardens, police/army lists, PIRA, Official IRA and UVF members; even “moderate Protestants”; maps of Republican areas and bomb-making manuals. Despite the arms find, the RUC soon realised that the thousands of documents seized had been entirely updated since 1977, most likely by intelligence services. In April 1983 charges were dropped against all except Tyrie. When tried in 1986, he was acquitted within an hour. Urwin notes that the relevant declassified file at Kew contains only one official document which passingly refers to the arrests; the rest have been retained by the censor.

Urwin is a long-time researcher and campaigner for the Dublin and Monaghan bombing victims and families; and in 1996 she co-founded Justice for the Forgotten (JFF) to also represent those who suffered from other such outrages such as at Dublin, Dundalk, Castleblayney and Belturbet. JFF merged in 2010 with the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), and the latter’s offices in Derry and Armagh.

Urwin’s Armagh colleague, Ann Cadwallader, began building on the research into collusion between security services and loyalists by her co-worker there, Alan Brecknell whose father Trevor was killed in the Glennane gang’s attack on Donnelly’s Bar. The family took a successful case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2007, asserting that the inadequate RUC investigation of collusion by security forces in the attack contravened the European Convention’s Article 2 – the right to life clause. The result was Cadwallader’s best-selling, unchallenged 2013 book, ‘Lethal Allies’, which is pretty much all about the Glenanne gang.

Cadwallader, a former BBC journalist and Northern editor for the Irish Press and INN, quit journalism for PFC to research the book, which takes one by the ear into the careers of serial killers like Robin Jackson, and his links to the Glenanne gang and patterned attacks, never properly investigated or brought to justice, of seed-and-breed sectarian slaughters of young couples – as in the case of the pregnant Marian Bowen, slain with her two brothers. A gripping if horrific book it plots a maze of connections between the murders, as UVF paramilitaries worked hand-in-glove with serving RUC and UDR officers. In one shocking chapter, she tracks their involvement in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
Excavating old cases from witness statements, pathologists’ records and recent Historical Enquiries Team (HET) reports, she singles out HET’s conclusion in the case of Sean Farmer and Colm McCartney, two Catholic men murdered in August 1975. In 2011 the HET team found that “indisputable evidence of security forces’ involvement with loyalist paramilitaries in one case, followed by significant evidence of further co-operation just weeks later, should have run alarm bells all the way to the top of government; nothing was done; the murderous cycle continued”.

In 2013, Urwin wrote an extraordinary (online) Spinwatch paper, ‘Counter-gangs: a history of undercover military units in Northern Ireland 1971-76’ which prefaced by outlining how, after WWII, the British state fought up to 50 major colonial counter-insurgency campaigns, battling with rebels using covert, undercover methods of “low intensity operations”. These theatres of war, often against non-state actors and subversive groups, included in Palestine and Cyprus, as well as in little-reported wars in Malaya, Oman and Aden and in particular in Kenya where General Sir Frank Kitson won a Military Cross for his innovatively divisive and slaughterous campaign against the Mau Mau. Kitson was posted to Northern Ireland as commander of 39 Brigade in Belfast in 1970, importing techniques he perfected in Kenya and Malaya: psychological warfare as introduced in Lisburn by the IPU; and pseudo-gangs, first as joint RUC/Army patrols, before the hand-picked MRF teams began their 18-month campaign. They ‘turned’ IRA defectors into useful ‘Freds’ before the PR disaster of the bogus mobile Four Square Laundry and the Gemini Massage Parlour closed them down. Again, Urwin plots a clear evidential trail.

Cadwallader amplified this imperial angle in her ‘From Dhofar to Armagh’ chapter of ‘Lethal Allies’, which expands on British post-WWII counterinsurgency campaigns, citing the Army’s own classification of them as successful (7), draws (1) or failures (5) with the rest either “ongoing or uncategorisable”. She also explores the careers of a number of senior military officers who graduated from such campaigns to Northern Ireland, and the limitations of operating in that fashion in what was, after all, the United Kingdom (as Michael Mates, former Tory Minister of State at the NIO has admitted).

Such cordite-scented memories of “end-of-Empire” days are taken up in another new book ‘The History Thieves’ by the conscientious, investigative Guardian author and journalist, Ian Cobain, who rebuts David Cameron’s 2014 characterisation of the British as “a peaceful people”, as Cameron prepared for yet another military action in Iraq, this time against ISIS. Cobain reminds us that for over 100 years, not one has passed without British military operations somewhere in the world – something which cannot be said for the Americans, Russians, French or anyone else. “Between 1918 and 1939, British forces were fighting in Iraq, Sudan, Ireland, Palestine and Aden”; and after WWII “in Eritrea, Palestine, French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Egypt, China and Oman. Between 1949 and 1970, the British initiated 34 foreign military interventions. Later came the Falklands, Iraq – four times – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Libya and, of course, Operation Banner, the 38-year military deployment to Northern Ireland”.

Fittingly, Cobain’s prism is the deep British culture of secrecy, from the thirteenth-century Privy Council to the first Official Secrets Act in 1889 and the explosion of legislation since. Perhaps necessary due to the obsessive imperial habit of record-keeping, it reaches its peak in Cobain’s account of bonfires of colonial records from the rapid evacuation of Delhi in 1947, through Malayan independence in 1957 (a large truckload driven from Kuala Lumpur to “the navy’s splendid incinerator” in Singapore). In 1961, the colonial office laid down rules that no documents should be given to successor regimes that might embarrass HMG or compromise its intelligence sources. Operation Legacy devised a “parallel registry” system, whereby only British civil servants “of European descent” would collect all “sensitive” documents so that when independence came, they could be destroyed or “migrated” to the UK. Any documents left behind would have to give the impression of completeness, either by creating false documents or making sure no references to them remained in the other files.

This purging continued virtually worldwide: in British Guiana, Aden, Malta, North Borneo, Belize, the West Indies, Kenya and Uganda; involving colonial officials, MI5, Special Branch, the army, navy and air force. Officials in Kenya were told documents could be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free waters at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.

Most of these “migrated archives” returned to Hanslope Park, a country estate the UK, where the Foreign Office’s ‘Special Collections’ occupy 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving, groaning with records from the 1600s to the northern Troubles – which files, Cobain claims, officially don’t exist. Cobain rightly asserts that Operation Legacy was a deliberate attempt to distort future history.

But that is the inevitable future of the colonialist.

By Mic Moroney