OLIVER'S ARMY

CHAPTER NINE

 

Acceptable Levels

The Ulsterisation of the Conflict

 

‘Christ, I remember the day we arrived in Ulster.
All the Rambos in our regiment [1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers] were loving it - they were crazy - they thought this was all some film, like.
I knew it was no film. For every single moment I was there, for two whole bloody years, I was terrified, man, sheer terrified!
Even today, man, when I hear a click, my ass hits the floor!
I lost four of my best mates there, blown to bits, and I wonder now just what the hell it was all for.
No, man, I have no fears in the ring, absolutely none at all.
After two years crawling around Tyrone and South Armagh, it don’t frighten me none.’

Nigel Benn, boxer and Northern Ireland veteran.

 

The 2nd World War had marked the beginning of the end for European empires, with Britain, Portugal, Holland and France subsequently becoming involved in colonial conflicts in various parts of the world. After being forced to withdraw from Vietnam in 1954, France, determined not to suffer another humiliation, concentrated its forces in Algeria. Frantz Fanon was sent to the war zone as a doctor, but his experiences led him to join the FLN which was fighting to end French rule. Fanon saw how establishments back home in the metropolitan countries used subtle methods to maintain their rule, as opposed to the more direct measures used in the colonies. In his book, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote: ‘The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.’ Fanon continued:

In capitalist societies the educational system, whether lay or clerical, the structure of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary honesty of workers who are given a medal after fifty years of good and loyal service, and the affection which springs from harmonious relations and good behaviour - all these aesthetic expressions of respect for the established order serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably. In the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counsellors and ‘bewilderers’ separate the exploited from those in power.

In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle-butt and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. The intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with a clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native. [1]

Back home in France, Jean-Paul Sartre was a critic of the war who was hated by the pro-war lobby because of his descriptions highlighting the contradictions of the conflict. Sartre explained that when the revolt started in Algeria the fighting followed an inevitable pattern: ‘Our Army is scattered all over Algeria. We have the men, the money and the arms. The rebels have nothing but the confidence and support of a large part of the population. It is we, in spite of ourselves, who have imposed this type of war - terrorism in the towns and ambushes in the country. With the disequilibrium in the forces, the FLN has no other means of action.’ Sartre continued:

The ratio between our forces and theirs give them no option but to attack us by surprise: invisible, ungraspable, unexpected, they must strike and disappear, or be exterminated. The elusiveness of the enemy is the reason for our disquiet; a bomb is thrown in the street: a soldier wounded by a random shot: people rush up and then disperse: later Moslems nearby claim they saw nothing. All this fits into the pattern of a popular war of the poor against the rich, with the rebel units depending on local support. That is why the regular Army and civilian powers have come to regard the destitute swarm of people as their uncountable and constant enemy. The occupying troops are baffled by the silence they themselves created: the rich feel hunted down by the uncommunicative poor. The ‘forces of order’, hindered by their own might, have no defence against guerrillas except punitive expeditions and reprisals, and no defence against terrorism but terror.[2]

While every colonial war has different circumstances and characteristics, Fanon’s and Sartre’s descriptions will find echoes in most other conflicts of this nature. Since 1945, in numerous parts of empire like Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, British governments have sent their troops to confront nationalist movements, who often came from the most marginalized sections of the native population. These were ordinary people, motivated by the injustice of their situation, and alienated from the state because they had experienced its methods at first hand. Westminster found, that unlike most conventional politicians, they could not be bought, cajoled, flattered or frightened off.

1: The Wretched of the Earth,
by Frantz Fanon,
Penguin Books 1967.

2: From Jean-Paul Sartre ’ s preface to The Question,
by Henri Alleg,
John Calder Ltd 1958.

 

 

Unwelcome Foreign Oppressors

In the north of Ireland, the cartoonist Cormac reflected life as he saw it on the streets of his native West Belfast. In one cartoon he drew a street scene with an Army helicopter in the sky and a soldier - a tail-end Charlie covering the rear of a patrol - walking backwards along the street. Cormac depicted the helicopter as an UFO (Unwelcome Foreign Oppressor) and the soldier as a strange alien. The North had became a world cut in two, the frontiers marked by the barracks and forts built across nationalist areas. The only representatives of Britain that many nationalists and republicans met were the armed soldiers on their streets. Not surprisingly, that contact was usually bitter and often violent.

While the long term roots of the conflict in the north of Ireland goes back to partition and the creation of a sectarian 6 county statelet, the events that led to the crisis in the 60s occurred when the priorities of big business changed. With the traditional industries in the North in decline, there was a convergence of the economic interests between the dominant capitalist forces in Britain and the South of Ireland - which became apparent when they both applied to join the EEC. To facilitate a possible new economic union between Southern Ireland and Britain, the Labour government then pressurised the Unionist government at Stormont to modify the discrimination against the Catholic population in the North. But this plan failed when the immovable object of a monolithic Unionist bloc crashed against the irresistible force of Nationalist’ aspirations, as embodied in the Civil Rights Movement – culminating with the battle of the Bogside and a start to the conflict.

By the end of August 1969 the British Army was once again in Ireland in force and has remain so ever since. Westminster had only wanted to modify Northern Ireland, not destroy it, and they now found, that with the RUC and B-Specials defeated and demoralised, only troops from Britain could uphold the existence of the statelet. The initial policing operation of the soldiers, aimed at containing the growing rebellion of the Catholic ghettoes, inevitably brought the army into increasing conflict with the nationalist population – and led to the IRA, which had effectively been reborn as a local defence force against loyalist attacks, to launch offensive guerrilla actions against the state forces.

In the early 70s the army had embarked on a number of counter-revolutionary actions against the IRA and the nationalist areas that supported them. While this drastically increased the military repression - with constant house searches, repeated intimidation and arrests - the troops operations, like internment, Bloody Sunday and Motorman, only alienated nationalists and strengthened IRA resistance. At the same time Westminster was trying to win-over ‘moderate’ nationalist opinion and, after Bloody Sunday, the then Conservative Government, under pressure from widespread protests, made a major policy-switch - abolishing the Stormont Parliament and introducing Direct Rule. Loyalists, who until then had been content to sit back and watch the army repress nationalists, now began to increasingly oppose some aspects of Direct Rule – which in turn caused a measure of disintegration in the formerly monolithic Unionist alliance.

In 1973 the Conservative government also launched the Sunningdale Agreement, which was designed to split nationalists by drawing the ‘moderate’ SDLP into a ‘power-sharing’ government in the North. Westminster also wanted to draw the South into an alliance against ‘terrorist violence’; therefore a proposed ‘Council of Ireland’ was also part of the Agreement - the details of which were arranged between the British and Dublin governments, as well as representatives from the Unionist Party, Alliance Party and the SDLP. Sunningdale was immediately attacked by loyalists and ultra-unionists, who wanted their old Stormont back and who totally rejected ‘power-sharing’ and the ‘Council of Ireland’. Protests against the Agreement were then organised across the North.

 

 

The Sunningdale Agreement

The 60s had proved a testing time for Western establishments, with their motives questioned and authority challenged. In the US the Vietnam War threatened to split the country in two and in Europe workers’ struggles and student’ protests were repulsed by state repression. In the early 70s the ruling class in Britain were still beset by doubts and fears, especially after the Heath Conservative government was defeated by the miners in 1972 – which in turn led to other industrial disputes and the ‘three day week’. The opposition Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, appeared to be moving to the left and in right-wing circles there was talk about the need to change the ‘wet’ Conservative leadership – as well as paranoia about the ‘dangers’ of a Labour government.

In later years, Harold Wilson’s former Press Secretary, Joe Haines, told how Labour’s leaders had secretly considered a radical change of policy on Ireland: ‘There were times ... especially in the Opposition years from 1970 to 1974, when I believed that the next Labour Government would take its courage to Parliament and announce that an orderly, but irrevocable, withdrawal was to take place. Courage it would certainly have needed, for withdrawal ... was as unmentionable in Whitehall and Westminster as devaluation had been ... (even when we did mention it privately, in the irresponsibility of Opposition, we only did so under the code-name of “Algeria”).’ [3]

Army and intelligence officers, who tended to be strongly influenced by right-wing thinking back in Britain, were already upset by the Conservative government – and Labour in opposition – arranging meetings with the IRA, at a time when that organisation had launched a major new offensive and was killing a lot of their fellow soldiers. Many also felt that the politicians were placing too many constraints on the army’s counter-revolutionary operations against the ‘terrorists’ and they were lukewarm about Sunningdale, which they – like the loyalists - saw as an appeasement to Irish nationalist interests. The military were also unhappy with the Agreement because the army was now trained, tactically and psychologically, for a war against republicans / nationalists and they did not now want to find themselves fighting both sections of the North’s population.

Facing a second minors’ strike in early 1974, the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, called a snap election on the issue: ‘Who runs Britain – the Government or the miners?’ When Labour won the February election and immediately ended the miner’s strike by conceding nearly all their demands, right-wing paranoia deepened and some extreme elements even discussed organising a coup d’Ètat. When Labour also proceeded with Sunningdale, the hostility of some of the military towards the Agreement changed to outright opposition, with some army and intelligence officers even seeking common cause with the loyalists to bring it down.

Direct Rule had caused a deep division in Unionism, between those whose priority was to maintain the Union with Britain and those who wished to preserve the Protestant Ascendancy - even if it meant breaking the link with Britain. Westminster had set up a power-sharing executive at Stormont to facilitate the Sunningdale Agreement, but the majority of Protestants voted for anti-Sunningdale candidates at the February election. Subsequently, loyalist protests against the Agreement increased and a Co-ordinating Committee was set up to run them. Representatives on the committee included: the UVF, UDA, the Red Hand Commando, Down Orange Welfare, Ian Paisley representing the Democratic Unionist Party and William Craig, the ex-Stormont Minister for Home Affairs who had been instrumental in removing O’Neill, from the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.

3: The Politics of Power,
by Joe Haines,
Coronet 1977.

 

 

Sunningdale Brought Down

While it was militant loyalists who were determined to bring down Sunningdale, working class nationalist were also opposed to the Agreement - because it offered no hope of ending internment, British soldiers on their streets and no possibility of attaining their right, as part of the majority Irish people, to self-determination. The sectarian structure of employment in the North had given Protestants the more highly paid skilled jobs in the key industries. The loyalists’ committee decided to utilise this and organise an Ulster Worker’s Council (UWC) ‘strike’, which they threatened would shutdown most of the North’s infrastructure and industry. First they tried to win the workers support, so in the Harland and Wolff’s shipyard the UWC called a mass meeting - but only 1,000 of the 10,000 workforce attended. They were not asked to vote for or against the stoppage, but to indicate support for a demonstration – only 50 hands were raised in support. The loyalists, however, were not put off by this lack of backing - they just resorted to force and intimidation:

Perhaps the most spectacular mass intimidation … occurred at Harland and Wolff’s where about 8,000 shipyard manual workers were invited to hear loyalist speeches during their lunch break. They did not get the address they expected, however, because unnamed speakers announced that any cars still in the employees’ car park at two o’clock that afternoon would be burnt. The 8,000 left immediately and the yard closed down. The staff of 3,000 Protestants at the Sirocco engineering works a mile away at Short Strand followed their example.[4]

At Mackies engineering factory, where 25% of the labour force had gone to work, a group of armed and masked men ordered them out at gun-point. Masked UDA men wearing camouflage jackets also systematically went round commercial premises, including shops, and ordered them to close down. They then erected barricades on roads and streets across the North, halting - and often burning - business vehicles and forcibly stopping anyone thought to be going to work. Loyalist paramilitaries had also launched a spate of sectarian attacks on nationalists. On the 2nd of May a bomb exploded at the Rose and Crown bar in Belfast killing six Catholics, and in gun attacks during the next week - at Donaghmore, Newtownabbey and Glengormley - six more nationalists were murdered.

William Craig, a member of the loyalists’ committee, spoke on Dublin’s RTE radio and said that the loyalist assassination campaign, although ‘unfortunate’ was ‘understandable’ and ‘excusable’. Five days later, on the 17th of May, four car bombs exploded on crowded streets in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people and wounding nearly 300 more. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings were carried out by loyalists, but facilitated - with planning, information and sophisticated bombs - by sections of the British military and intelligence machine.

Initially, the Labour government had drawn up plans to use troops to run the power stations and other essential services in the North and they arranged, with the TUC, 'return-to-work’ marches, including one to the Harland and Wolff’s shipyard. But the military High Command were reluctant to contemplate this use of troops, so they tended to ignore, or disobey, the orders from Labour politicians to move against the loyalists’ actions. Soldiers were seen fraternizing with loyalist protesters and propaganda designed to discredit Wilson and his government was covertly issued by sections of MI5 and military intelligence in the North. The army also failed to give adequate protection to the 'return-to-work’ marches, which subsequently saw the TUC’s General Secretary, Len Murray, being pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes in Belfast.

The crucial turning-point came when it became clear that the British Army was not going to intervene against the loyalists’ stoppage and Protestant support subsequently became overwhelming. Merlyn Rees, Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary, who had to face this mass opposition - not only from the loyalists but also from sections of his own military – wanted Labour to abandon Sunningdale. Wilson insisted on carrying on and made a broadcast to the nation about the crisis – angrily attacking the UWC ‘strike’ - on the 25 th of May:

As this holiday weekend begins, Northern Ireland faces the gravest crisis in her history. It is a crisis equally for all of us who live on this side of the water. What we are seeing in Northern Ireland … has nothing to do with wages. It has nothing to do with jobs – except to imperil jobs. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to use every undemocratic and unparliamentary means for the purpose of bringing down the whole constitution of Northern Ireland so as to set up there a sectarian and undemocratic state, from which one third of the people of Northern Ireland will be excluded.

… The people on this side of the water – British parents – have seen their sons vilified and spat upon and murdered. British taxpayers have seen the taxes they have poured out, almost without regard to cost – over £300 million this year with the cost of the Army operations on top of that – going into Northern Ireland. They see property destroyed by evil violence and are asked to pick up the bill for rebuilding it. Yet people who benefit from all this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government; people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?

Eleven days after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and three days after Wilson’s speech, the power-sharing executive collapsed and Sunningdale was brought down. Militant loyalists had destroyed the Agreement, but only with the support of sections of MI5, the army officer class and other right-wingers in Britain. As Direct Rule was resumed from Westminster, loyalists held a victory rally at Stormont and celebrated with street parties throughout the North – some pinned sponges to their lapels, as their way of putting-up two fingers to Wilson and the Labour government.

4: The Point of No Return –
The Strike which broke the British in Ulster
,
by Robert Fisk,
André Deutsch Ltd 1975.

 

 

England’s Vietnam

After the fall of Sunningdale, calls for ‘withdrawal’ were increasingly heard back home. Opinion polls were clearly showing that over half the British population favoured this option and on June 3rd 1974, the Daily Mirror, which claimed ‘Europe’s biggest daily sale’, started to campaign for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, saying: that: ‘Britain must face the most sombre option of all - to pull out the troops and abandon sovereignty.’ A few days previously the London Evening Standard had carried the headline, ‘Ulster: Back-bencher makes a startling claim - HALF LABOUR MPs ‘WANT TO PULL OUT’.

In the face of mounting casualties, it was also evident that many of the soldiers were fed up with their role in Northern Ireland. In April 1974, Christopher Dobson - ‘With the troops in Ulster’s ugly world of terrorism’ - had filed this report in the Sunday Telegraph; ‘To walk along Belfast’s Royal Avenue today is like walking in the past - along Ledra Street in Nicosia when Eoka’s murderers were at work. Venturing into the Bogside in Derry is like taking a patrol into Aden’s Crater district, and dropping by helicopter into a border fort is like visiting a fire-base in Vietnam’. Under the heading - ANGER OF ARMY THAT FEELS BETRAYED - Dobson continued:

So far more than 200 British soldiers have been killed while many more have been maimed. The soldiers’ work is hard, their pay is low and more often than not they receive curses instead of thanks from the people for whom they are dying.

There can be no surprise therefore that the average soldier is thoroughly fed up with Ireland and everything to do with it. But what surprised me was the extent and depth of the bitterness that exists among the troops, some of whom are on their fifth tour of duty in Ulster.

I met a section who had just returned from an ‘Eagle patrol’ - lifted in by helicopter to set a snap road block. They were tired, dirty and remarkably frank. I said to them: ‘Tell me what it is all about’. Their officers were present and I believe that they were also surprised at the depth of feeling that the troops displayed.

Soldiers are expected to grumble, but these men genuinely felt that they were being misused and ill-treated. Their complaints ranged over pay, excessively long hours, of being “forgotten”, and in particular the inability of “the bloody politicians” to settle the appalling mess in which the soldiers found themselves targets of both sides.

... Just as the American soldiers in Vietnam used to divide their existence between ‘the Nam’ and ‘the World’ so do the British soldiers in Ulster, with only the world outside seeming real while they lead a surrealistic existence in an unreal world punctured by the brutal reality of bombs and bullets.

They feel that the people outside cannot understand this strange world of theirs and they feel cut off, forgotten. The impression they have is of people in safe England, so very close, watching their television sets, seeing the explosions and the bodies, saying, ‘How terrible’, and then turning to something really interesting like the price of petrol.[5]

In July 1974, the British Government published their latest White Paper on Northern Ireland: ‘In the past five years over 1,000 people - men, women and children; soldiers, policemen and civilians - have died by violent means. There has been great continuous and widespread suffering and destruction. ... In August 1969 there were only 2,500 (troops) stationed in Northern Ireland. This figure rose to 22,500 by the end of July 1972 and has never been fewer than 14,500 since that time.’ [6] As the pressure for troop withdrawal mounted and soldiers’ disaffection increased, a search was put in motion for a new political and military strategy:

At the Northern Ireland Office Sir Frank Cooper approached a senior civil servant, John Bourne, and asked him to start thinking about what should be done. After the chaos of the past years, with political initiatives and power-sharing executives falling like autumn leaves, it was considered time to take stock.

... On John Bourne’s committee sat Jack Hermon of the RUC; some senior Army officers including the Chief of Staff; various civil servants and a representative from MI5. It did not meet regularly like a normal committee, but all the members had their opinions canvassed, and finally its report appeared, under the title ‘The Way Ahead’. It was never published, but it was mentioned by Merlyn Rees the following year when he announced the new policy of ‘Ulsterisation’ and police primacy.[7]

5: Sunday Telegraph,
7th April 1974.

6: Government White Paper:
The Northern Ireland Constitution
,
July 1974.

7: Pig in the Middle - The Army in Northern Ireland,
by Desmond Hamill,
Methuen London Ltd. 1985.

 

 

Ulsterisation

The Labour Government, faced with mounting troop casualties in Northern Ireland, the subsequent low levels of soldiers’ morale and increasing domestic opposition to the war, now put in motion the ‘Ulsterisation’ programme. The ideas behind Ulsterisation, which was adopted for use in Northern Ireland from the mid-70s, were taken from the policy used by the US during the Vietnam war. Vietnamization had been suggested to the Americans by Sir Robert Thompson, who became a world-renowned counter-insurgency expert after his involvement in the Malaya ‘Emergency’: ‘Sir Robert Thompson, a trusted adviser of Mr. Nixon and a renowned expert on counter-insurgency, is one of the architects of Vietnamization, which he describes as a ‘long-haul, low-cost’ strategy. His optimistic evaluation of Vietnamization was cited in the President’s policy statement as proof of its success.’ [8] From 1961 to 1965 Thompson headed the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and consequently became a consultant to the United States National Security Council and the White House:

It is worth noting a few of the considerations which went into the making of the Vietnamization policy. First, Sir Robert warns that ‘a greater impact is made in a democratic society by the coffins coming home, and by higher taxes’; second, that it ‘will certainly take ten to fifteen years’ to achieve the desired goal, i.e., a politically stable, non-communist, independent state of South Vietnam. Hence, he advises that in order to maintain public acceptance of a protracted involvement, one must show some progress: ‘As soon as progress is visible, even though success may be still many years away, time ceases to be such an important factor. There will be few indeed who are not then prepared to take the extra time required for victory’. Third, Sir Robert thinks that ‘there is nothing new about the horror and tragedy of the Vietnam war except that it has been exposed to the camera and brought into the sitting room’. He notes that ‘... running insurgency sores in some Latin America countries ... have made very little impact outside the area of conflict’.

Making the war domestically acceptable thus involves turning it into a ‘forgotten war’ ... by relegating it to the back pages of the newspapers, and by keeping it a maximum distance from television cameras. It entails stimulating false illusions of progress. Above all, it demands lowering the monetary costs and American casualties. The one requires reduction in the size of the expensive American manpower deployment; the other dictates avoidance of active fighting by US ground forces. Both help to maintain the illusion of progress and to keep the public quiet. As Sir Robert says, ‘In this way the whole cost of the war, in every sense, could be reduced to a level which would be acceptable to the majority in the US, without proving to be an excessive drain on her manpower, money or emotions’.[9]

Vietnamization ultimately failed, but as TV viewers in the UK watched the last US soldiers being helicoptered out of Saigon and North Vietnamese troops entering the city, a similar policy was now being instated in the north of Ireland. After the Sunningdale Agreement was brought down by loyalists, army officers and right-wing elements in Britain, Westminster had given up on political initiatives and trying to deal with loyalist bigotry and bias. Instead, successive British governments would now concentrated all their efforts in a war against ‘terrorism’ - harnessing the discredited forces of unionism in an onslaught against the IRA.

For some time many British politicians at Westminster had thought that the use of soldiers could only stabilise the situation, but not provide a solution. As early as December 1971 Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Secretary, at the end of a visit to Belfast had said: ‘I don’t think one can speak of defeating the IRA, of eliminating them completely, but it is the design of the security forces to reduce their level of violence to something like an acceptable level.’ [10] (No one seemed to ask the question: ‘To whom was it acceptable?’) Under Ulsterisation, it was hoped that an extensive, but better trained and more integrated, security force apparatus would now be able to keep all dissent and armed insurgency within nationalist areas - but also try to dominate and intimidate that opposition, to keep it to ‘acceptable levels’.

While the idea of Ulsterisation had been taken from the strategy of counter-revolutionary warfare, its implementation had to take account of the limitations that its application in the north of Ireland would place on it. In a part of Europe and the UK, the full extent of the military operations undertaken in places like Malaya and Kenya were politically untenable. So, conscious that past army operations had alienated nationalists en masse, a hybrid strategy – part internal-security and part counter-revolutionary - was devised. It was hoped that this would lead to less, but better targeted security forces’ operations - and with a re-trained RUC taking an increasingly dominant role that it would be easier to criminalise IRA actions. If the media then gave little, or better still no, coverage to the struggle in the Catholic ghettos, Westminster could then claim that there was now a normal, or almost normal, situation.

8: Revolutionary War - Western Response,
article by Eqbal Ahmad, Columbia University Press 1971.
Quotes from Sir Robert Thompson’s book,
No Exit From Vietnam.

9: Ibid - Revolutionary War - Western Response,
article by Eqbal Ahmad, Columbia University Press 1971.

10: Irish Times,
18th Dec. 1971.

 

 

Criminalisation

In the north of Ireland the British state was to draw on and develop the experiences of the previous colonial wars. But here it was subject to new constraints, because the anti-colonial population were white, spoke the same language and were a part of Western Europe. The state forces experienced a greater tension than before, between the repressive methods they wished to use and what they could get away with - without outraging international and domestic opinion. Psychological warfare techniques and manipulation of the media assumed an even greater importance.

In the early days of the conflict British media coverage was often sympathetic to nationalist views and fears, with the problem being perceived as unionist / loyalist bullying and intransigence. As the Army’s counter-revolutionary operations increased, a stream of ‘black propaganda’ stories were released, aimed at criminalising the IRA and identifying them as the only reason why goodness and democracy could not return to Northern Ireland. With chapters on ‘The Threat’ and ‘Principles for the Conduct of Counter Revolutionary Operations’, the army’s secret Land Operations training manual detailed how psychological operations, military actions and political initiatives must be co-ordinated:

172. The insurgents must be isolated physically and psychologically from their civilian support ...

173. A defensive attitude in these matters is as useless politically as it is militarily. ... The political attack as well as the military must be pressed with vigour and should be aimed at the basic weakness of an insurgent movement, many of whose members may be selfish, ambitious, or misfits who are maladjusted to normal society. ... There may also be ideological differences between extremists and moderates. ... All these factors can be successfully exploited by military psychological operations in co-ordination with political action.[11]

A component part of Ulsterisation was the Criminalisation policy. With the RUC now playing a leading role, Irish opposition to British rule could once again be categorised as ‘crime’, and the problem defined in terms of how to deal with ‘criminals’. The RUC were now trained in interrogation techniques by British soldiers, who had applied these methods during internment and in previous colonial wars. The RUC interrogation centre at Castlereagh became notorious throughout the north of Ireland, because of the systematic brutality and torture used there - which was exposed in the Amnesty report of 1978 and the Bennett report a year later.

Under legislation, like the Emergency Provisions Act of 1973 and The Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, extensive powers of stop and search had been introduced and the onus of proof shifted onto the accused during trials. Special non-jury Diplock Courts were then introduced. Over which presided the Northern Ireland judiciary, most of whom were unionists - who had a vested interest in upholding the state. In the Diplock Courts, which had extremely high conviction rates, the vast majority of convictions were based wholly or mainly on confessions obtained under interrogation. This process became a conveyor belt system for incarcerating ‘suspect’ members of the public.

In 1980, the Guardian newspaper pointed out: ‘Before the troubles Northern Ireland had one of the lowest prison populations in Europe. Now its prisons are bursting. There must be at least some truth in the argument that most of the prisoners would not be there but for crimes deriving from the political situation in which they find themselves.’ [12] The war was carried on in the prisons by the IRA prisoners, who refused to wear prison clothes or be classified as common criminals. This led to the ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protests, which finally escalated into the tragic hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.

11: Land Operations Volume III - Counter Revolutionary Operations,
Ministry of Defence 29th Aug. 1969,
(Revised in 1971 and 1973 and at regular intervals afterwards).

12: Guardian,
30th Sept. 1980.

 

 

Local State Forces

Under Ullsterisation, the RUC was reorganised, rearmed with automatic weapons and thrust into the front line. The RUC’s reorganisation had its roots in the recommendations contained in the Hunt Advisory Committee’s report on the Northern Ireland police of October 1969. Also contained in the Hunt Report was the idea to disband the Ulster Special Constabulary (the B-Specials), and replace them with a force that would do basically the same job, but with an acceptable new face. Already formed, the build-up of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was accelerated. In an attempt to allay nationalist fears about its formation, the UDR had been made a part of the British Army and it now rapidly became the largest, as well as the youngest, infantry regiment.

Unionists / loyalists were at first upset and angry about losing ‘their’ B-Specials and police. However, they quickly saw the potential of the ‘new’ RUC and UDR, which were being equipped with modern weapons and receiving military training. The UDR had been approved at Westminster as far back as 18th December 1969, when an Act of Parliament authorising its formation was passed. Seven battalions of the UDR were raised and operational by 1st April 1970 and a further four battalions were formed over the next two years. Loyalist paramilitary groups like the UDA and the UVF began openly encouraging their members to join. It was then that the true intentions of the British administration in creating the UDR were shown:

The dilemma facing the authorities then was a familiar one that despite the passing of time seems no nearer a resolution. On the one hand Protestant fears of a sell-out were strong and if, as was threatened at the time, members of the old ‘B’ Specials boycotted the regiment the UDR would be starved of essential political support as well as the trained and experienced manpower of the Specials. On the other hand the UDR needed Catholic recruits if it was to have any credibility as a non-sectarian force.

... The thrust of official efforts was directed at overcoming the former obstacle. The Prime Minister of the day, Major James Chichester-Clark, issued a special appeal at a farewell ceremony for the ‘B’-Specials for members to join up, and the then GOC, General Sir Ian Freeland, lauded the Specials and also urged them to enlist.

... The first Commander of the Ulster Defence Regiment, Brigadier Denis Ormerod, went on television in October 1972 to say that as far as he was concerned the UDR was open to members of the UDA. A few months later, in January 1973, the Conservative Under-Secretary for the Army, Peter Balker, stated in Parliament that ‘there is no obligation on a UDR member to tell us if he belongs to the UDA or not, since this is not an illegal organisation’.[13]

After Ulsterisation, the UDR and RUC began to patrol in nationalist areas and, while this reduced the casualty figures for British soldiers, it was in effect - by using local unionist forces - turning the conflict back to the early 20s when the Specials and RIC had attempted to repress the nationalist population. Increasingly, reports of anti-Catholic abuse and harassment began to appear in the Irish papers:

The revelations last year [1978] that the 5th Battalion of the UDR, based in mid-Derry, had been involved in a bizarre series of murders, bombings, shootings and armed robberies between 1975 and 1976 confirmed the UDR in Catholic eyes, at least, as the old ‘B’ Specials in a different uniform.

While events like these are dramatic enough to capture the headlines, it is the almost continuous procession of UDR men through the courts on a variety of less serious but equally sectarian offences that is as damning. ... Three former members of the regiment admitted that while on patrol they had broken into a Catholic church and defecated on the altar. The suspended sentence they received did nothing to assure Catholics that officialdom viewed their offences with much gravity.[14]

The RUC and UDR were trained for Ulsterisation to be classical colonial-style police and militia forces. However, the British government’s hopes that these units would show more allegiance to Westminster than to Ulster would only be partly realised – as over the decades a steady stream of UDR members were convicted of various sectarian crimes against Catholics.

13: Hibernia,
29th March 1979,
article by Ed Moloney.

14: Ibid - Hibernia,
29th March 1979.

 

 

From Algeria to Northern Ireland

During the French / Algerian war of 1954-62, many of the police - who were predominately ‘colons’ (descendants of white settlers) - had suffered mental problems. Frantz Fanon, as a doctor who specialised in psychiatry, was assigned to a hospital in Algeria during the rising against the French. Fanon describes how, one day, a police inspector came to consult him:

He had lost his appetite and his sleep was frequently disturbed by nightmares.... What bothered him most were what he called ‘fits of madness’ ... The patient dislikes noise. At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact, he does hit his children, even the baby of twenty months, with unaccustomed savagery.

But what really frightened him was one evening when his wife had criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much. (She had even said to him ‘My word, anyone would think you were going mad’). He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself ‘I’ll teach her once and for all that I am master in this house’. Fortunately his children began roaring and crying. He then realised the full gravity of his behaviour, untied his wife and the next day decided to consult a doctor, ‘a nerve specialist’. He stated that ‘before, he wasn’t like that’; he said that he very rarely punished his children and at all events never fought with his wife. The present phenomena had appeared ‘since the troubles’. ‘The fact is’, he said, ‘nowadays we have to work like troopers. Last week, for example, we operated like as if we belonged to the army. Those gentlemen in the government say there’s no war in Algeria and that the arm of the law, that’s to say the police, ought to restore order. But there is a war going on in Algeria, and when they wake up to it it’ll be too late’.[15]

Often it seems to be part of the ethos of colonial forces that they will ritually humiliate the native peoples - both verbally and physically - every chance they get. In Northern Ireland since 1969 papers like the Irish Press have contained a litany of complaints about the sectarian abuse and violent attacks that nationalists have been subjected to from the security forces. In Algeria, many of the ‘colons’ had racist attitudes that were similar to those of loyalists in Northern Ireland. As a critic of the French war in Algeria, Jean-Paul Sartre described the problems that the French colonisers brought on themselves because of their racist feelings towards native Algerians:

Oppression justifies itself through oppression: the oppressors produce and maintain by force the evils that render the oppressed, in their eye, more and more like what they would have to be like to deserve their fate.

... The impossible dehumanisation of the oppressed, on the other side of the coin, becomes the alienation of the oppressor. It is the oppressor himself who restores, with his slightest gesture, the humanity he seeks to destroy; and, since he denies humanity in others, he regards it everywhere as his enemy. To handle this, the coloniser must assume the opaque rigidity and imperviousness of stone. In short, he must dehumanise himself, as well.[16]

In Northern Ireland it was after Ulsterisation, when policemen were issued with flak-jackets and armed with automatic weapons and thrust into a front-line role, that signs of the psychological problems that ‘soldiers’ experience in such situations began to show in the RUC. Nationalists in the north of Ireland, like the native people of Algeria, suffered from the actions of sectarian, alienated and dehumanised policemen who were often permanently assigned to dangerous areas and on or off duty had access to legally held weapons. This deadly concoction of military-style training and indoctrination, with guns in easy reach, augmented by alienation, dehumanisation, sectarianism and stress, was a time bomb threatening to explode at any time:

The Royal Ulster Constabulary police federation (trade union) have recently called in psychiatrists to study the effects of stress on their members. Chairperson Alan Wright says: ‘We have men in their 30s dying from heart attacks. We have young men taking their lives and even some wives of policemen taking their lives’. Wright knows of families ‘who have split up because of the pressure’. ... At least two RUC men have committed suicide so far this year and there are regular reports of RUC fatalities by accidental shootings.[17]

15: The Wretched of the Earth,
by Frantz Fanon,
Penguin Books 1967.

16: From Jean-Paul Sartre ’ s preface to The Question,
by Henri Alleg,
John Calder Ltd 1958.

17: City Limits,
14th to 20th May 1982,
by Philip Sanders.

 

 

Police Primacy

By 1980, the RUC’s combined strength of regulars (7,000) and reserves (4,500) was nearly four times its 1969 strength of 3,000 – over 90% of which were recruited from the Protestant sector of the North’s population. Kathleen Magee, who worked with the RUC for a year while researching a book, stated that: ‘Signs of stress were common among the [RUC] members that I came in contact with. Many would describe entering into dangerous situations while shaking uncontrollably, others admitted to going through periods of drinking too much when working in areas of high terrorist activity. Stress-related illnesses, such as stomach ulcers and nervous rashes, were also common.’ [18] The media then became interested in ‘the pressures’ on the RUC and details of past incidents began to emerge:

The RUC disclosed yesterday [5th Feb ‘92] that 51 officers have killed themselves since 1975, most with pistols issued by the force ... Until a few years ago, senior officers would respond to a shooting or explosion by calling their men into the office and putting a couple of bottles on the table.

Anyone who could not drink and forget his ordeal was judged to have a weakness.
After some 15 years of unremitting pressure on the RUC, it became clear that the legendary drinking bouts were making things worse ... The pressures have erupted on a number of occasions. A young officer shot his girlfriend’s mother after a row and embarked on a 100-mile journey across Northern Ireland having taken a driver hostage. He was shot by his colleagues after he refused to surrender.

Another, who was driving his car in a drunken stupor after a friend’s death, shot a man dead in a street. In yet another case an RUC man kidnapped a Catholic priest, intending to exchange him for a fellow officer, already murdered by the IRA.[19]

In Algeria, when France threw the full weight of its forces against the FLN, some sections of the military and police colluded with colon elements to launch terror attacks on native Algerians. A similar scenario was to unfold in the north of Ireland, with the RUC special branch playing a dominant role. Ulsterisation had thrust the RUC into the forefront of the conflict, with its policy of ‘police primacy’ and soldiers playing the backing role. Policemen, armed with automatic weapons and wearing flak-jackets, increasingly appeared in nationalist areas - although they usually required the protection of numerous British soldiers. Gradually, the RUC began to take back many of the policing roles that British soldiers had been carrying out from the early 70s – except in the most dangerous areas, like South Armagh,.

This front-line role now became reflected in the casualty figures and, by 1980, 135 RUC members had been killed in the conflict and over 1,000 wounded. Over 100 UDR soldiers were killed in the same period - some, who were part-time, were tracked down to their homes, or civilian jobs, and gunned-down. From Westminster’s point of view Ulsterisation was working. The local security forces were now taking the brunt of the casualties and the coffins, instead of coming home, were now being buried in the conflict area. While this saved British governments from pressure inside Britain for the withdrawal of troops, it only added to the bitterness and hatred within the north of Ireland - by increasing the civil war aspect of the conflict.

18: Irish Times,
6th Feb. 1992,
by Kathleen Magee who worked as a researcher
for Professor John Brewer ’ s book,
Inside the RUC , Clarendon Press 1991.

19: Daily Telegraph,
6th Feb. 1992,
by Chris Ryder.

 

 

Bipartisanship

During the period of conflict in Northern Ireland, Britain’s political parties prided themselves on their ‘bipartisanship’, paralleling the ‘blind eye’ attitude shown towards Northern Ireland after partition - which led to the ‘troubles’ in the first place. Bipartisanship meant supporting and not criticising the ruling party’s policy, leading to the puerile level of discussions about the problem at Westminster. A few brave MPs asked pertinent questions and opposed all, or part of, Government policy. Invariably, they were attacked by their own party bosses, other establishment voices, and were vilified by the media.

Like most colonial style conflicts, Ireland was an undeclared war. Through Ulsterisation, it was hoped to make it a forgotten war. When the war refused to go away, most MPs kept their heads down and toed the Government line. Many of the discussions about this conflict in the British Parliament have been a disgrace. In early 1976, the journalist James Fenton went to report a debate at Westminster:

I had been intending to kick off with a description of Monday’s Northern Ireland debate, which I had imagined would be a dramatic affair. It was not a dramatic affair. The heat was off with a vengeance, and the turn out was low. An average of 20 sprawling MPs graced the Labour benches. By the time Sir Nigel Fisher had spoken this number was considerably reduced. Sir Nigel’s analysis will give some idea of the level of political discussion:

‘I cannot help feeling that the basic position of the Ulster Unionists in opposing any coalition is unhelpful and uncompromising. I accept that they have a logical democratic argument, but it has never been possible to apply logic to the reactions of Ireland - or of women! Emotions matter much more. Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady bewailed: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” But they are not. It is just as unreal to demand that the Irish should be treated in the same way as the more logical English. I know this on both counts because I am married to an Ulster woman’.

Shortly afterwards the Liberal spokesman, Mr. Alan Beith, addressed slightly fewer than five inert, somnolent, socialist bodies. ... The debate was a triumph of consensus. There were no shouts of ‘Resign’ or cries of ‘Withdraw’, no wild cheers, no outraged interventions from the back benches. There was no division. From time to time a murmur of ‘Hear, hear’ wafted up to the packed galleries from the sparsely populated floor, but it was not a distinct ‘Hear, hear’, more a sort of ‘Nyurdle, nyurdle’, as if some enormous stomach was dealing with an enormous meal. It was an occasion for congratulations, six and a half hours of monotonous backslapping.[20]

In the US, Oliver Stone a Vietnam veteran, made a series of films about American involvement in Vietnam. In the Guardian, journalist Martin Woollacott wrote about Stone:

... This idea of an America fighting itself is at the heart of his vision of Vietnam. The corruption of American society, in his argument, was such that an immoral government started a bad war and a degenerate middle class pushed the burden of fighting it off on to the poor and the ignorant. They, in turn, filled with anger at the way in which they had been abused, turned their rage on the Vietnamese.[21]

Much of Stone’s view of the American / Vietnam situation would find a echo in Britain’s policy towards the north of Ireland - and especially in the ‘bipartisanship’ of the Westminster politicians.

20: New Statesman,
16th Jan. 1976.

21: Guardian,
18th Jan. 1994.

 

 

Voices for Withdrawal

Some in Britain, however, were not deterred by establishment hostility, or media attacks. The Troops Out Movement (TOM) continuing to campaign, and win support, for the withdrawal of troops. TOM also pointed out that the conflict in Ireland, which was always aimed at suppressing the right of the Irish people to self-determination, had contributed to the erosion of democracy inside Britain. From 1969 the Irish community in Britain had also suffered high levels of harassment, especially after the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced - as the first edition of the TOM paper, Troops Out, pointed out:

... The Act is being used to intimidate and deter people from daring to hold political opinions about Ireland contrary to the policies dictated by the British Government, and to build up a massive intelligence operation. For the Government knows full well how potent the voice of the Irish community could be – witness the tens of thousands who came out onto the streets of London in 1972 to protest about Bloody Sunday.

The Birmingham 6, the Maguire 7 and the Guildford 4 were just some of the innocents arrested under this Act and then wrongfully convicted. The TOM itself was subject to state harassment and infiltration from intelligence agents, especially after it established links with sections of the labour movement. When TOM members were stopped and questioned visiting Ireland, the first question they were usually asked was: ‘How many Labour MPs are supporting you now?’ Thankfully, some in the Labour party were not afraid to speak out. In early 1976, nine Labour MPs: Andrew Bennett, Sydney Bidwell, Maureen Colquhoun, Martin Flannery, Tom Litterick, Eddie Loyden, Joan Maynard, Ron Thomas and Stan Thorne wrote a letter to The Times, proposing ‘Steps to Peace’ on Ireland:

What the Government has done, and continues to do, is to underwrite the perpetuation of the Northern Ireland state as it was set up in 1921. This is the most dangerous of the options open. It offers no solutions. It is not a recipe for peace in Ireland, but for peace between the parties in Westminster.

It should now be clear that bipartisanship over Ireland means that policy is dictated today, as it has been since the end of the last century, by the Tories and the Ulster Unionists.

The violence in Northern Ireland, which has logically spread to Britain, is the result of repression and injustice. In every one of the 55 years since the province was created there has been repressive legislation in force. That cause has not been acknowledged. On the contrary, repressive legislation has been extended into Britain in the form of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

... While sectarianism and privilege are protected by Britain, Ulster Unionists do not have to face the reality - their future depends on finding a political structure that does not depend on British arms and money to hold it together.

We propose an alternative policy.

First: Northern Ireland must again be placed in an all-Irish context. This means that the Unionists have to be understood as being a minority in Ireland. This does not mean that they should have any less rights than the majority, but that the power of veto, which they have under the Constitutional Act of 1973, must be removed. Northern Ireland has to be recognised as a sectarian, unjust, economically exploited and dependent province created by the Partition of Ireland. A new situation must be created. Constitutional changes have to begin to be made, which involve the people of Ireland, and of Britain. Unionists can no longer have exclusive rights in deciding the future of Ulster.

Second: There must be a clear declaration by Britain that it aims to withdraw from Ireland, politically and militarily, within a limited period of time. By this we do not mean a precipitate withdrawal of troops without there being steps of equal importance to end our political responsibilities in Ireland. Negotiations and actions must go side by side. There must be more democracy in Northern Ireland, a repeal of the Emergency Provisions Act and a phasing out of the role of the army.

These are the fundamentals of a new policy on Ireland. The extremely difficult task of working out short, medium and long term actions in the process of transferring power could then begin. In the interim period, immediate action could be taken to make it possible for the two communities in the North to live and work together in peace. The demands of the Civil Rights movement could be met; repressive legislation repealed; sectarianism and discrimination outlawed; harassment of nationalist areas by the British Army ended.

It is Britain’s responsibility to initiate consultations with Southern Ireland and all political organisations involved in Northern Ireland on the process of withdrawal, and on the essential constitutional changes. The Protestant backlash, which so often provides the last ditch argument of those who have no policy, has also to be taken seriously, instead of being used as a reason for doing nothing. The Protestant minority in Ireland has to understand that its future cannot be that of an ascendant oligarchy and has to be reconciled to living in a non-sectarian state, which calls for changes in Southern Ireland as well.

... From its creation Northern Ireland has suffered lower wages, wider unemployment, lower living conditions than any British average. This colonial burden has not been distributed across the one and a half million population of Northern Ireland. The half million nationalist / Republicans trapped inside the partitioned area carry, and have always carried, the full weight of the colonial burden, and the full weight of discrimination in every area of life imposed by a sectarian constitution. Some British interests have benefited from the exploitation of Ireland. We do not represent them.

... The government of Britain has positive instruments to hand if it will only use them. The ultimate solution, as it has been with other nations divided by a colonising power, lies with the people themselves. But for us the only solution lies in going to the root of the problem, which is here in Britain: in our unwillingness to actually get out![22]

The TOM worked with Labour MP like these, who had the courage to stand against Westminster convention, break with bipartisanship and point out the abnormal situation in Northern Ireland. The movement also provided a platform at meetings, demonstrations and in its Troops Out paper to various voices who were calling for withdrawal.

22: Times, 20th Feb. 1976.
Letter signed by Andrew Bennett MP, Sydney Bidwell MP,
Maureen Colquhoun MP, Martin Flannery MP, Tom Litterick MP,
Eddie Loyden MP, Joan Maynard MP, Ron Thomas MP & Stan Thorne MP.

 

 

A. J. P. Taylor

During year after year of conflict, British governments and the media claimed that Britain was the ‘honest broker’ in the Northern Ireland situation, ‘with no axe to grind and looking for a solution as much - if not more so - than the next person’. Until, that is, someone did suggest a solution, or a course of action, that did not follow the establishment line. Then all hell broke loose. On 11 April 1976 the late, eminent British historian A. J. P. Taylor was interviewed on Irish radio and casually answered a few questions about Northern Ireland. His pro-withdrawal remarks led to an outraged response in the British press. Afterwards, I contacted him and he readily agreed to allow me to interview him for the TOM paper, Troops Out. This is what he told me:

The British have always been the root cause of the troubles in Ireland for the past 400 years. … I think the policy of any British government should be withdrawal. Not necessarily at a moment’s notice, but over a period of time. British governments have successively failed to solve the problem of Northern Ireland. They should therefore hand it over to the people to solve.

If before the 1st World War the Home Rule Bill had been carried, in my opinion the unity of Ireland would have continued. After all Ireland has always been a united country. People sometimes go on as if Northern Ireland - or even Ulster - has always been a separate province from the rest of Ireland. This is totally untrue. Until 1922 Ulster was an integral part of Ireland and it was deliberately partitioned because of the Unionist insistence in this country.

Most of the Loyalists are colonists who were brought in 350 years ago. Until partition they thought of themselves as Irish, though they thought of themselves as British as well. None of them contemplated, until the last moment, partition. When Carson raised the cry against Home Rule - ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ - he hoped by this, by the resistance of Ulster, to prevent any Home Rule for any part of Ireland, and he was as disappointed - heartbroken - by the partition as anyone in the south was, because he wanted to maintain the existing position of Protestants everywhere.

Owing to history since 1885, when Randolph Churchill - Winston’s father - first raised the cry - ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’ - the Protestants have been taught to think of themselves as a separate body, almost a separate nationality within Ireland, and have established now a long-term domination of Northern Ireland, partly because of their superior economic strength, partly because of the backing which they have received from the British Government, and partly because they are - or up to now have been - the more determined. For them, Protestant domination is the answer to the situation in Northern Ireland.

Now I do not accept the view that the Protestants in Northern Ireland are a different people from the rest of the community. They are different in certain ways, in their traditions, in their religion and, because of events since partition, in their political outlook. But whatever they may say, you’ve only got to talk to a Protestant in Northern Ireland to appreciate that they are Irish. After all it was the north which produced the first champions of Irish freedom. The Republic was born not in Dublin in 1922 but in Belfast in 1798.

Anybody would like a peaceful unification, reunification of Ireland if they could get it. And I think the presence of the British Army in Ireland prolongs the period of conflict and uncertainty. I think the role of the Army inevitably encourages the growth of extremism on both sides. Because if you fight extremists you produce more extremists. The general lesson of national struggles in Europe in the 19th century, in Africa and Asia in the 20th century, is that the more you resist by force the demands of those who want liberation, the more you strengthen them.[23]

A. J. P. Taylor was famous for his common sense view of historical events and his ability to unravel the origins of wars. In this capacity, he appeared many times on TV talking about past and present conflict situations throughout the world. But never once was he asked to speak again about Northern Ireland, or even Anglo / Irish relations. At the end of my interview with him, A. J. P. Taylor pointed out to me the real problem that had still to be faced in Ireland:

The implication that the only cause of conflict in Northern Ireland is the IRA - isn’t true. The immediate cause of the troubles in Northern Ireland was not nationalist agitation, but Protestant extremism. It provoked a nationalist response in return - the practical resentment of Roman Catholics against the way in which they are treated in Northern Ireland as an inferior part of the community. The practical cause [of the conflict] therefore is simply the continuance of Protestant domination, which is after all still being maintained ...[24]

23: Interview appeared in Troops Out,
Summer 1976.
A transcript and tape-recording
are in Aly Renwick ’ s possession.

24: Ibid - Interview with A. J. P. Taylor,
in Troops Out, Summer 1976.

 

 

Colonial Garrisons

In Algeria, from 1954 to 1962, France had mobilised its settlers, called ‘colons’, to act as a garrison against Algerian independence. The use of this tactic in colonial situations has a practical as well as a political use. Using locally recruited soldiers and police saves time, money and the lives of soldiers from the metropolitan country. They are usually enlisted from a specific sector of the indigenous population, who often provide administrators as well as soldiers and policemen. With a vested interest in maintaining colonial rule, they become the passionate champions of ensuring the link with the metropolitan country prevails. Subsequent conflict often becomes, at least partially, civil war - allowing the establishment in the colonising country to hide behind a mask of patronising benevolence, while exploiting this tragic situation for propaganda purposes.

Losing Vietnam was a disaster for the French establishment. But to lose Algeria was much worse - because the country, with its large settler population, was claimed to be an integral part of France. It took an intense act of will by the French Premier, Charles de Gaulle, to negotiate and then force through a withdrawal. Ironically, as a great war-hero and noted imperialist, pro-colonialists had thought that de Gaulle would ‘save Algeria’ and not ‘abandon it’. Before finally pulling out, France was brought to the brink of civil war - surviving an attempted coup d’etat - and saw a revolt by some of its local and elite forces in Algeria. A number of attempts were also made to assassinate de Gaulle, as France found out that in colonial conflicts it is sometimes difficult for the metropolitan country to control its security forces. Unlike politicians, who can mentally switch opponents from ‘terrorists’ to ‘statesmen’ without batting an eyelid, front-line forces often prove more intractable.

Back in Britain, in 1924, MI6 had sent the forged ‘Zinoviev letter’ to the Daily Mail; this ‘red scare’ ensured the defeat of Labour in that year’s General Election. Fifty years later, some sections of MI5 were conspiring with right-wingers in Britain against Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Wilson himself, and some of his colleagues, were subject to break-ins, wire-tappings and a hostile media – after allegations of a new ‘red scare’ were leaked by sections of the intelligence-services. Some army officers in the north of Ireland, who thought they had ‘the IRA on the run’, joined the attacks on the Labour government and conspired with loyalists against the Sunningdale Agreement. Wilson resigned as party leader in 1976, at 60-years-of-age, became a Lord and retired from public life. Almost a year before Margaret Thatcher had become the new leader of the opposition Conservative Party; she was backed by many of the right-wing forces that had attacked Wilson.

Five months after Wilson resigned, Roy Mason took over from Merlyn Rees as the Northern Ireland Secretary. Ironically, Mason, a former Defence Secretary who had close links to the MoD, was also an ex-miner still sponsored as an MP by the NUM. He dramatically escalated the most repressive aspects of Ulsterisation - especially SAS covert operations and the criminalisation process - and he subsequently became the most hated Westminster politician to have presided over Northern Ireland.

When Labour lost the next election in 1979, the new Tory Government lost no time in taking on the most militant section of the British working class. The ‘enemy within’, as the Conservative leader, Thatcher, called the miners, were subject to the full force of the state - in an operation that was remarkably like the way the security forces under Mason had dealt with nationalists in Northern Ireland. Culminating with the 1984-5 strike, the Miners’ protests were criminalised and the police used in a paramilitary role to intimidate the strikers. In 1984, The Miner reported:

Men in uniform, who go by the name of law-keepers, have run amok, breaking the law at random, physically and verbally abusing inhabitants of a pit village. For a period, Blidworth resembled not a mining village in the heart of Notts, but the bloodied, oppressive and fearful streets of Belfast.

The policemen just turned up and threatened to arrest anyone who left the front garden pathway. They said they were searching for Yorkshire miners. We said where’s your warrant. “We don’t need an effing warrant”, they said.’ But that was only the start of the terror. What followed was three days of intense physical and mental pressure, with police sealing off entire areas of the village and setting up road blocks.

‘At one or two o’clock in the morning the police would deliberately drive up their vans outside our homes. They just sat there revving up their engines. We pleaded with them to stop as they were waking up the children, but they just laughed and gave us a filthy mouthful of abuse.’[25]

MI5 was authorised by Downing Street to set up an operation to destroy the NUM and especially its leader Arthur Scargill. The union was then subject to phone-tapping, burglary, infiltration by state-agents, falsification of records and lies in the media – usually from propaganda material released by the intelligence services.

When a small handful of establishment right-wingers had got together in the early 70s, their aims had been to destroy the most militant section of the British working class, the miners - replace the Tory ‘wet’ leadership - and to ensure there would be no more chance of a ‘left’ Labour government. They also thought there should be ‘no surrender to the IRA’ and therefore conspired with loyalists to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement. While all of this is past history, democrats would do well to think a little about how those events of 30 years ago effects our present situation:

  1. Working class militancy has still not recovered from the miner’s defeat and the labour movement is still struggling to regain its former strength.
  2. Thatcher replaced the ‘wet’ Tory leadership and moved all of British party politics sharply to the right.
  3. While Wilson did give moral support to the US over Vietnam – he still refused to send British troops. We now have a New Labour government that plays a leading role in the US led New World Order - and volunteers British troops for the series of new imperialist adventures, like Iraq.

If we turn our eyes towards Ireland, we should first remember that in 1912-14 establishment right-wingers in Britain had conspired with army officers at the Curragh Camp and unionists in the North to effectively block the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill. Sixty years later similar elements brought down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. And now, another 30 years on, we see almost exactly these same forces trying to block the current Good Friday Agreement and destroy the Irish Peace Process. It is surely in the interests of British and Irish democracy that we ensure that they do not prevail again – and that we now all work together to consign them to the dustbin of history, where they belong.

25: The Miner,
June 1984.

 

 

......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................

 

Now read chapter ten of Oliver’s Army
The Training Ground

The Cost & Profits of the Conflict