The year 2004 marked the 30th anniversary of the Troops Out Movement (TOM), which was started by Irish solidarity activists in West London in late 1973. Its first major event, a large and successful public meeting, took place at Fulham Town Hall in early November of that year and TOM then rapidly expanded with branches being formed, first in other areas of London and then up and down the country. By early 1974 TOM had become a nation-wide movement that has continued to campaign ceaselessly for the withdrawal of British troops from the north of Ireland and on issues concerning truth, peace and justice for the Irish people.
To mark TOM’s 30th anniversary the movement commissioned Aly Renwick, one of TOM’s founders, to write a history about British soldiers’ involvement in Ireland. Renwick, an ex-soldier who had himself served for a short time in Ireland in 1968, drew together material he had been collecting and working on for the past 35 years and produced Oliver’s Army, a major new radical history of, as he states: ‘The armed men who have travelled from Britain across the narrow strip of water called the Irish sea to seek conquest and wage war in Ireland’.
Oliver’s Army offers a compelling alternative view to that found in the mass of books in the ‘military section’ of most bookshops and while clearly detailing the motivations behind the use of troops, also offers a unique insight into their operations. While the military conflict in the north of Ireland has mostly given way to peace, the propaganda war continues apace. Oliver’s Army - which pulls no punches - exposes the lies and hypocrisy of establishment attitudes and points the way to truth, justice and peace.
Oliver’s Army was published - a chapter every month - on the TOM’s Website during 2004 and sparked comment and debate from around the world. So, responding to many requests, TOM have decided to make accessible the complete Oliver’s Army so that it continues to be available for viewing and downloading. TOM, and Aly, welcome all comments (including criticisms) – so please read, digest and tell us what you think of the history.
‘It may be of interest to recall that when the regular army was first raised in the seventeenth century, “Suppression of the Irish” was coupled with “Defence of the Protestant Religion” as one of the two main reasons for its existence.’
From Low Intensity Operations
‘Oliver’s Army is here to stay,
The Normans / The Statutes of Kilkenny / The Tudor Plantations / Justification & Resistance /
‘THE ENEMY WITHIN’
The Rights of Man / The Great Mutiny / The United Irishmen / Repression /
BRITANNIA WAIVES THE RULES
The Hulks / The Victorian Colonial Wars / Jingoism / Racism & Slavery / ‘Scientific’ Racism /
JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND
The Unionists’ Illegal Army / Establishment Pressure / The Officers’ Mutiny /
STRIKING BACK - AT THE EMPIRE
The Fall of Singapore / Vietnam / The Japanese Rearmed / Critical Voices / Indonesia /
THE MYTH OF ‘MAU MAU’
Repression & Resistance / Shooting Orders / State Brutality / Is Your Son a Murderer? /
The Cromwell Clubs / The Cushendall Murders / The RUC / A Police State /
CROMWELL’S MEN ARE HERE AGAIN
Kitson in Belfast / Preparing the Soldiers / The Military Reconnaissance Force / Internment /
Unwelcome Foreign Oppressors / The Sunningdale Agreement / Sunningdale Brought Down /
THE TRAINING GROUND
The Army’s Secret View / ‘The Professionals’ / The Officer Class / Inferiors & Superiors /
THE IRON FIST IN THE VELVET GLOVE
Counter-Revolutionary Operations / The SAS in Aden / Politics by Other Means / The Dirty War /
TRUTH, PEACE AND FREEDOM
Imposing a Military Solution / The ‘Pitchfork’ Murders / Murder in Aden /
About the author:
Alastair (Aly) Renwick was born and brought up in the Scottish Lowlands and in 1960 he joined the British Army at sixteen years of age. He spent the first three years of his service at an army apprentice school and then the next five years in the Royal Engineers. He purchased his discharge from the army in late 1968, just after serving for a short time in the north of Ireland.
Renwick then moved to London and helped organise the anti-Vietnam War protests, whose demonstrations he had attended while still a soldier. When British soldiers were sent out onto the streets of the north of Ireland in late 1969 Renwick helped establish the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign and later the Anti-Internment League.
In late 1973 he was a founding member of the Troops Out Movement and was a national organiser for TOM over the next 4 years.
In 1978 he helped set up Information on Ireland, which produced a series of publications about the north of Ireland over the next 12 years. Recently, he has taken part in peace and reconciliation work in Britain and Ireland and has worked with 'Northern Ireland' veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder - as well as continuing to campaign for the withdrawal of the British administration and troops from the north of Ireland.
Editor of TOM publications from 1974 – 76, editing and publishing: Alternative White Paper on Ireland, TOM TOM bulletins and the Troops Out paper.
Compiled and edited British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, Information on Ireland’s first pamphlet, published in 1978.
A novel, … last night another soldier…, published by Information on Ireland, in 1989. It was acclaimed as one of the five best novels of ‘the Troubles’ in the Irish Post and is now ‘required reading’ for various ‘postcolonial-studies’ university courses in the US.
XMG a short story in Teenage Soldiers – Adult Wars an anthology of soldiers writings from around the world, published in the US by The Rosen Publishing Group, New York, in 1991. It was then translated and published in Denmark as Kanonfode?, in 1992.
Hidden Wounds – the problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street a book published by Barbed Wire, in 1999. Ex-soldiers and veterans’ groups are currently using Hidden Wounds as a campaigning handbook.
(Hidden Wounds and … last night another soldier… can be purchased from the TOM, check out the prices and details in our ‘Shop’ section).
Q: Aly, the title of your book suggests that extensive research work was a prerequisite. How long have you been gathering the necessary information and do you regard the book as an all-embracing result considering the enormity of Britain’s colonial involvement world-wide and of course England's long history in Ireland?
A: Although I was not involved in any conflict situations, my army service - especially in places like West Germany, Cyprus, Kenya, northeast Thailand (during the Vietnam War) and Northern Ireland – forced me to question issues about human and national rights and the role of imperialism. While still a soldier I made a promise that one day I would try to discover and highlight the truth - and since leaving the army, 35 years ago, I have gradually been collecting and working on material that I have now drawn together to produce Oliver’s Army.
The first six chapters of Oliver’s Army covers about 700 years in some 60,000 words so I do not claim to have produced an all-embracing view. However, I have used these chapters to outline the motivations behind British imperialism and the subsequent use of armed force to forge and hold empire. I also show how ordinary people, in Ireland, other colonies and Britain (including the soldiers who were used as cannon-fodder), were affected by the processes of empire building and its run-down. The last six chapters covers the last 35 years in the north of Ireland and these take a more detailed look at aspects of the Northern Ireland statelet, British policy and the use of troops - offering an alternative and unique insight into their military operations during the period of conflict.
Q: You joined the army at a very young age and you have seen quite a lot of the world in the 5 years active service after your apprenticeship. Was there any one experience which may have influenced your decision more than anything else to give up your 'safe' position in the army?
A: When I joined the army at 16 I had fairly conservative attitudes and ideas and these gradually changed. The background and perhaps the most important aspect of this was that I served my time in the army during the 60s, a decade that conservatives now blame for all sorts of thing. But I consider this was a time of liberation, with workers and student struggles, anti-colonial revolts and when individuals embraced change and questioned things they might not have questioned in other times. At the army apprentice school I came into contact with a few of the last of the National Servicemen, who were in the Educational Core and who taught us. Some clearly did not like the army, telling sergeant-major jokes and were irreverent towards many aspects of service life. At first I was a bit shocked by this, but later began to see that a lot of their sarcasm was valid.
I started to develop my own views and to recognize that the army was organised on semi-feudal lines with a rigid hierarchy kept in place by a system of severe discipline and punishments – and I began to question if I wanted to be part of such an organisation. What I experienced later in various parts of the world deepened and made clearer these anti-army views.
Q: Did you experience any repercussions inside the army for taking part in anti-Vietnam War protests?
A: Whenever I came into contact with infantry soldiers, I always thought how brainwashed they were and how difficult it was to have any kind of rational conversation with them. I suppose I was lucky to be in a regiment like the Engineers, with soldiers who were a bit more open to argument and discussion.
From the mid-60s it was common to find some fellow engineers reading libertarian ‘flower power’ type publications. I preferred more political tracts and I even had a regular order for the Morning Star newspaper. I went on the CND Aldermaston anti-nuclear march one Easter as well as going on the Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All this did bring me to the attention of the army authorities and, as I found out later, I was put under surveillance by the SIB (special investigations branch) of the Red Caps, the army police. However, although I was kept away from certain army operations, I was never directly punished for my political activities and I think that had a lot to do with being in the Engineers, rather than an infantry regiment.
Q: After the partition of Ireland was agreed upon on the 6th of December1921 the role of the British army has been to uphold this situation. The army was first redeployed on the streets of Northern Ireland on the 14th of August 1969 in Derry after being in the background and confined to barracks for decades. It is often said the army was redeployed to protect the Catholics in the North from Loyalist pogroms although this was not the case in Derry. Could you explain what situation lead to the intervention of troops in Derry?
A: Britain’s considerations towards Ireland were always political, economic and strategic. Towards the end of the 60s, while strategic considerations were still the same (part of the ‘Cold War’ against Russia), the political and economic considerations started to change as the South became a larger market for British goods and both applied to join the EEC. This put pressure on the unionist government in the North to have a more normal relationship with the South, which in turn provoked a loyalist backlash. All this coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the North, which deepened loyalist reaction – and the unionist state forces, the RUC and B Specials, became increasingly paranoid and began to attack nationalist areas any chance they had.
After an Orange march on August 12th 1969 in Derry, the RUC, backed by B Specials, launched an assault on the nationalist Bogside area, which they had attacked in the past. This time local people were ready and not only stopped the unionist state forces, but also threatened to defeat them. At that moment British troops were sent out onto the streets of Derry ‘to aid the civil power’. Not to protect Catholics, although that would be stated in an effort to dampen nationalist agitation, but to preserve the status quo in the North.
Q: Why did the street deployment in Belfast first take place on the 15th of August 1969 after hundreds of Catholic families had already been burnt or driven out of their homes (1502 Catholic families were affected between July and September 1969) and the Government of the Republic of Ireland had called for a UN military intervention?
A: Similarly, in Belfast troops were deployed, not to protect Catholics, but to stabilize a situation that threatened to get out of (state) control – and the time of the soldier’s deployment was to suit British political and military interests, not the protection of Catholics. Initially, many nationalists welcomed the (belated) arrival of British troops because they regarded this as a victory over the unionist state forces and government.
Q: Could successive British governments have given their army a positive role in Ireland especially after the loyalist pogroms in Belfast 1969?
A: The last attempt by a British government to use troops in a progressive way in Ireland was by the Liberals in 1914, in support of their Home Rule bill. This was defeated by a mutiny of the army officer class, based at the Curragh Camp, and by ultra-unionists within the British establishment who ‘played the Orange Card’. Now these elements, although weaker, are still alive and well within British society and they do, and will, continue to support unionism in the north of Ireland.
The events of 1969 showed that the Northern Ireland statelet was a failed entity and could only exist with continuing ‘troubles’. A progressive government would have taken this onboard, set out to re-structure Britain’s relationship towards all of Ireland and set in place a program of withdrawal - in which the troops could have played a positive role (disarming unionism etc), before they were finally withdrawn for good.
Q: What role did the Dublin and Monaghan bombs in the year 1974 have in shaping future political and military policy in Ireland?
A: After 1969 there was a brief ‘honeymoon’ period between the nationalist community and the British troops. This broke down after it became clear that the soldiers were doing the same job as the hated RUC and B Specials. As the violence escalated counter insurgency experts, like Kitson, were given the go ahead to launch an offensive against the IRA. However, rather than leading to the IRA’s defeat, this led instead to problems for the army - with heavy casualties and many experienced soldiers leaving the armed forces after tours of duty.
With the lack of military success and frightened by the growing ‘troops out’ feeling in Britain, the Conservatives and then Harold Wilson’s Labour government initiated the political ‘Sunningdale Agreement’, that was designed to split nationalists by drawing moderate (SDLP etc) sections into a ‘power-sharing’ government in the north. While this was aimed at isolating republicans (who’s political wing was then very small and weak), Sunningdale was, ironically, attacked by loyalist and ultra-unionists, who in protest led a ‘strike’ that shutdown much of the North’s infrastructure and industry. This was also accompanied by a killing spree against Catholics, which culminated with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. With the subsequent demise of Sunningdale, the Labour government launched Ulsterisation - and the scene was set for decades of conflict.
Q: Until recently it was widely believed that Harold Wilson and the Labour government were victims of right-wing elements in the British army in 1974. What are the known facts today, thirty years later?
A: The 60s had left many in the British establishment worried by the questioning and attacks on the status quo. In the early 70s some, including section of the intelligence services and military, grew paranoid about the workers’ - especially the miners’ - strikes, the weak Tory leadership, the threat of a left-wing Labour government and surrender to the IRA. When the Wilson led Labour Party won the general election in early 1974 and immediately settled with the miners by conceding almost all their demands, the paranoia of the right–wingers deepened and led to some of them plotting against Wilson and the Sunningdale agreement, which the Labour government was now proceeding with.
The military were already unhappy with Sunningdale, because they did not want to have to fight both sections of the North’s population. The army was now trained, tactically and psychologically, for a war against the nationalist population, so officers tended to ignore or disobey orders from Labour politicians to move against loyalist / unionist checkpoints / actions. Soldiers fraternized with loyalist protesters and propaganda designed to discredit Wilson and his government was covertly issued by the intelligence services. Some sections (intelligence and special forces) of the army had also established a close relationship with loyalist para-military organizations, like the UDA and UVF, who they used to target the ‘common enemy’ - the IRA in particular, but also all republicans and nationalists in general. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings was a joint operation, carried out by loyalists, but facilitated with planning, information and sophisticated bombs by sections of the British military and intelligence machine.
Q: It is generally accepted that the loyalist strike which accompanied the Dublin and Monaghan bombs would not have succeeded in bringing down the Sunningdale agreement had the British army not have given the loyalist paramilitaries a free hand. What did the Labour government do to save their own agreement?
A: Initially, the Labour government drew up a plan to use troops to run the power stations and other essential services in the North and they arranged / supported, with the TUC, 'return-to-work’ marches, like the one to the Harland and Wolff shipyard. But the military High Command refused to contemplate this use of troops and they failed to give adequate protection to the 'return-to-work’ marches, which saw the TUC’s General Secretary, Len Murray, being pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes in Belfast. In face of all this opposition, the Labour government started to lose their bottle and began to withdraw their support for Sunningdale – just like the Liberals of 60 years before, after the Curragh mutiny.
Q: Seamus Mallon from the SDLP has called the Good Friday Agreement (GFA): 'Sunningdale for slow learners.' This comparison has always been denied by Republicans, however the comparison having been made: What is the difference between Sunningdale in the year 1974 and the GFA from 1998?
A: Sunningdale happened at a time of heavy conflict between the British Army and the IRA and was a direct attempt to undermine the support and authority of the Republican Movement’s armed struggle - by drawing moderate nationalists (SDLP) into a power-sharing arrangement. Militant unionists brought down Sunningdale, but working class nationalist were also opposed because it offered no hope of ending internment and British soldiers on their streets - and no possibility of attaining their right, as part of the Irish people, to self-determination.
The GFA happened much later after both the British Army and the Republican Movement realised that they were engaged in a military conflict that neither could win. In this stalemate the GFA represents not a solution, but instead is an agreement to create a number of democratic conditions – like power-sharing (this time including SF and not just the SDLP), all Ireland bodies, an acceptable police force and a bill of rights - that can allow republicans to pursue their objectives by political, rather than military, means. Of course ultra-unionists are opposed to the GFA and continually try to negate any forward movement of the Peace Process. It is clear that with Sunningdale and now the GFA, British governments and Unionism view the SDLP as a weak and vacillating organisation - which they can manipulate, to help undermine the resolute stances of the Republican Movement.
Q: Do you see a connection between the present deadlock in the Irish Peace Process and the International anti-terror doctrine being promoted by Bush and Blair?
A: The anti-terror doctrine does strongly suggest that ‘terrorism’ should not be rewarded, by having concessions made to it. Also, in the UK recently we have seen attempts to resurrect old attitudes about the British Empire, suggesting that it was not only good for those who made the profits - but also for its subject peoples. This was done to justify the new imperialism of the US led ‘New World Order’ and has resulted in a strengthening of pro-imperialist attitudes - which includes unionism in the north of Ireland and in Britain. With Blair busy with other problems and Bush showing little interest in Irish affairs, those with an anti-republican agenda have opportunistically latched onto some aspects of the ‘war against terror’ to try and thwart the Irish Peace Process
Q: Is big business involved in this doctrine for example in Iraq?
A: The anti-terror doctrine is part of the new imperialism, which is itself a product of the West’s economic and industrial power - used to exploit resources throughout the world in the interests of big business. Iraq has an oil capacity second only to Saudi Arabia and is in the middle of an area which produces a quarter of the worlds oil and contains over half of the known reserves. The US is the world’s largest importer of oil and the invasion of Iraq has put its oil fields under American control. If Iraq had no natural resources it would have never, despite Saddam, been invaded. The lies about weapons of mass destruction were only stated to fool the gullible.
Q: If so, how does this correspond with their vested interest in a successful conclusion of the GFA?
A: The strategy of big business can change if the circumstances warrant it. For instance if we look at imperialism in Africa, we saw it support and rule through white settler regimes in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. This lasted till black struggles for self-determination made this white minority rule untenable and then big business switched its allegiance – backing black neo-colonial elites and/or using its economic power to pressurise/threaten new governments.
In Europe the drive towards the European Union (EU) is driven by big business, with a lessoning of borders to facilitate trade and the free movement of labour. Britain and Ireland are both an integral part of the EU, but during the conflict the border between the North and South of Ireland was the most restricted and militarised in Europe This and the bombings and shootings made the North an untenable situation. Unable to defeat the IRA, the British government then sought an accommodation (GFA) to end this monetary and political burden.
Q: You mentioned that some sections of the British army intelligence and special forces were engaged in acts of war against the Irish State in the year 1974 eventually leading to the collapse of Sunningdale. Are these same elements working against the GFA today and are they doing it with or against New Labour?
A: After the introduction of the GFA, British politicians and those in the military machine do not want to see those they fought for 3 decades emerge triumphant. However, the politicians have always had a tactical attitude towards those they called ‘terrorists’, while those soldiers in the front line have tended to fully believe the propaganda and therefore have a much more extreme anti-republican attitude and agenda. It is clear that some of the latter elements, who are still part of the North’s security forces, are pursuing a loyalist GFA rejectionist agenda, dispensing propaganda and pushing for actions to destabilize and negate aspects of the agreement. While the politicians do not want to see the GFA brought down, they opportunistically use this attitude and some of these actions to try and curb the rise of Sinn Féin as a political force.
Q: What does all this mean today for the GFA under New Labour?
A: The establishment in Britain is split about the ‘Irish question’, just like they were at the start of the 20th century. The majority (big business) modernising section just want to make money and do not want an anomaly like Northern Ireland, with its conflicts / bombings in the City of London etc, getting in the way of that. They therefore want the problem to go away and will contemplate political change in order to achieve this. At the same time, there is still a pro-unionist minority, who want to retain the status quo. They are vociferous and very anti-republican, with voices in all the political parties, the unions and especially the media.
New Labour is in bed with big business and will therefore pursue the GFA, but in the face of unionist opposition, probably only to keep the North quiet - and certainly not as a way to end partition and bring about self-determination for the Irish people. This means that only republicans, socialists and all those who want to see a progressive solution to Ireland’s English problem can bring about this task, which is a prerequisite for building working class unity in Ireland.
Q: The Irish Sunday Business Post newspaper wrote recently about the Peace Process ‘Ten years on from the first IRA ceasefire (August 31, 1994), the North still awaits a proper human rights and equality regime, a power-sharing government, full policing reform and `normalisation.' My last and probably most challenging question to you Aly is: What way do you think Ireland's English problem will develop in the next ten years?
A: Well, it is one thing to try and interpret history and quite another to try and predict the future. We surely know, however, that we will see a continuation of struggles over issues that have happened many times in the past. First we should remember that in 1914 pro-imperialists in Britain conspired with army officers at the Curragh Camp and ultra-unionists in the North to effectively block the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill. Sixty years later, in 1974, similar elements brought down the Sunningdale Agreement. In both cases vacillating British governments backed down in the face of establishment right-wingers and intransigent unionism.
And now in 2004, another 30 years on, we see almost exactly these same forces trying to destroy the current Good Friday Agreement and halt the Irish Peace Process. And once again the British government – plus the Irish government – appear indecisive and hesitant. Democrats in Britain and Ireland would do well to think a little about how these continually repeating events affect both our countries. It is surely in the interests of all the rest of us that we support the Peace Process and ensure that its enemies – who in both Britain and Ireland are minority reactionary forces - do not prevail again.
Now read chapter one of Oliver’s Army