Truth, Peace & Freedom

Towards a Democratic Solution of Ireland's English Problem


‘When these clay bodies are in grave,

and children stand in place,

This shewes we stood for truth

and peace and freedom in our days’

Gerrard Winstanley - a leader of the
Diggers (a radical offshoot of the Levellers).


Down through the ages successive soldiers - flying the flag of British rule and peering out over hostile territory from their forts - have served in Ireland. Their presence and actions were aimed at suppressing the right of the Irish people to self-determination, but also contributed to the erosion of democracy inside Britain. In the 19th century Karl Marx had said that ‘a nation which enslaves another can never itself be free,’ and noted that ‘the English republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland’. He also warned that Ireland was being used as a training ground and that the repressive measures implemented there would eventually be used at home. Two centuries before Marx, a Leveller, John Harris, had expressed similar views about Cromwell’s war in Ireland: ‘How contrary this is to the common interest of mankind let all the world judge, for a people that desire to live free, must almost equally with themselves, defend others from subjection...’ [1]

During the English Civil War, after the defeat of the King, thousands of Leveller soldiers protested against Cromwell’s orders to embark for Ireland. The suppression of this revolt culminated with the executions of Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church at Burford and led to the halting of the English revolution – as well as to the bloody repression in Ireland. Revolutionary zeal was submerged beneath the hunger for overseas possessions and the New Model Army was gradually transformed into the prototype for the later army of empire. We are still ruled by the establishment successors of the accommodation that emerged after Cromwell’s death, an amalgamation of the drivers of capitalism with the restored monarchy and the landed gentry.

Today, with New Labour the main supporter of the US led ‘New World Order’, there have been attempts lately in Britain to resurrect old attitudes about the Empire - in order to justify not only the old, but also the new imperialism. There is a direct link between the New Model Army after Cromwell’s purge and the British military forces currently deployed, not only in the north of Ireland, but also in Iraq. In 1649 many of Cromwell’s soldiers had deserted rather than serve in a colonial war and some Leveller troopers in the New Model Army wrote The Soldier’s Demand, which stated about serving in Ireland: ‘Fellow soldiers... Oh! the ocean of blood that we are guilty of! Oh! how these deadly sins of ours do torment our consciences! What have we to do in Ireland, to fight and murder a people and a nation which have done us no harm...? We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent and Christian blood.’

For all soldiers, past and present, a tour of duty in Ireland could cause much heart searching. and like troops in the past many of today’s soldiers became fed-up with the seemingly intractable situation into which they were regularly sent. Even for those who served with elite units like the Royal Marines, like ex-commando Brian Moran, who deserted and sought sanctuary in Sweden : ‘ I wanted a bit of adventure and travel and I decided I stood a better chance in the commandos. I like the life and I liked being a soldier. But on my last tour of duty in Northern Ireland in 1976 my eyes were opened.’ Moran continued:

We were supposed to be there to keep the peace, but I found a lot of prejudice in the Marines against ordinary Catholics. They gave people a lot of public abuse on the streets. It was always covert - when there weren’t any newspaper reporters about. There was one particular incident, when I was part of a snatch squad sent in to quell a riot. It was in April, 1976, the anniversary of the 1916 uprising. The attitude was that you went in and hit anyone in sight. A woman was hit over the head by a so-called friend of mine. I know the difference between right and wrong and that was wrong. That shouldn’t be part of the job.

I still think I made the right decision. They are being sympathetic to me here. They offered to pay for my hotel accommodation and one Customs officer said I could stay at his home. I am in no way political but I should like to see a united Ireland where people can live in peace.[2]

1: Mercurius Militaris,
24th April 1649.

2: Guardian, 28th Feb. 1978,
statement from Brian Moran
of 42nd Royal Marine Commando.



Imposing a Military Solution

In 1876 the Staffordshire Regiment had been sent to Belfast to face the threat of the United Irishmen. One hundred years later, in 1976, the 1st Battalion was once again back in Belfast and the unit magazine, The Stafford Knot, reported on their 4-month tour of duty: ‘Our “patch” in Belfast comprised, in the north, the hard Republican area of Divis flats, traditionally a trouble spot through the present emergency and sandwiched between the Lower Falls and the city centre. This eerie, huge, concrete “terrorist paradise” (as it has been described) dominates the local skyline and is filled with a generally unpleasant, mainly evil and hostile population of approximately 7,000 ... South of the city centre was the Protestant working-class area of Sandy Row. Here a maze of small terraced houses and a generally more friendly atmosphere greeted the patrolling Stafford soldier… [3]

From 1969 until the present peace process, with the exception of the Sunningdale initiative in 1974, the policy of successive Westminster governments was to defeat the IRA and impose a military solution by forcing nationalists to live under the unionist status quo. During this period there was three main phases of British Army operations in the north of Ireland:

  • Firstly, Policing; the preservation of Unionist ‘law and order’, which had broken down because of the clashes and mutual animosity between the local security forces - the RUC and B-Specials - and the nationalist community. This situation clearly pointed to Northern Ireland being a failed entity. But Westminster refused to face up to this and, rather than search for a political solution, kept trying to shore up the status quo, using British soldiers to hold the line.

  • Secondly, Counter-Insurgency; as Kitson and other counter-revolutionary war theorists were given their head and the Army went on the offensive against the IRA. During this period the Falls Curfew, Internment, Bloody Sunday and other operations like Motorman alienated the nationalist population, creating the conditions conducive to reorganising and building the IRA. It also saw the start of ‘psyops’, ‘shoot-to-kill’ and ‘counter-gangs’.

  • Thirdly, Ulsterisation; as primacy went to the RUC, in came ‘Criminalisation’ and ‘Normalisation’. State-terrorism became systematic, while the main security forces were geared to a long war strategy. Large numbers of troops and police were concentrated in barracks and forts in nationalist working class ghetto areas, whilst remaining almost unseen by the world outside. Those areas, like the black townships in apartheid South Africa, became pressure pots for political discontent.

During the years of conflict British Government policy was always support for the status quo and defeating the IRA. When that proved impossible they settled for containment - limiting IRA actions and nationalist dissent to ‘acceptable levels’. All this was accompanied with a subtle, but all pervasive, programme of media manipulation. The writer Eamonn McCann lives in a nationalist area of Derry and gives us an Irish view of the conflict. He is critical of the British media: ‘The real, sustained and systematic distortion began when British soldiers came on to the streets, and by the middle of 1970 when the troops were in almost constant conflict with Catholic working-class neighbourhoods most papers had in effect stopped carrying the news. They were vehicles for propaganda.’ McCann continued:

Some incidents were ignored. Others were invented. Half-truths were presented as hard fact. ... Once ‘the IRA’ had been identified as the main enemy all concern for fact melted marvellously away. The stories of IRA mass murders, IRA extortion and intimidation, IRA men training children to kill, etc., served to justify increasing repressive measures to the British public. It was on this basis that The Guardian, self-appointed keeper of the British liberal conscience, was able to plausibly support internment. It was as a result of such stories that politically the British government could operate the policy.[4]

Meanwhile, for the British taxpayer, the monetary costs of prolonging Partition and a unionist-dominated Northern Ireland was steadily increasing: ‘Northern Ireland is now a serious economic liability for the British Exchequer. The annual subvention or subsidy from Britain has been approaching £4 billion in recent years - on average Northern Ireland has been costing each taxpayer in Britain over £100 a year.’ [5]

In 1979, on the 10th anniversary of troops going out onto the streets in Northern Ireland, ex-captain Mike Biggs, who left the Army as a conscientious objector, told listeners on BRM Radio: ‘An army is an instrument of government, and I see the army going back into Northern Ireland, and its presence there, as allaying a political embarrassment for successive governments in this country. Northern Ireland is a problem, a problem that we started, and a problem that we’d like to go away, but it’s not going away. And the idea of having the troops out there to allay that problem hasn’t worked, because we’ve come no further towards any kind of peaceful solution.’ [6]

3: The Stafford Knot,
magazine of the 1st Battalion of the Stafford Regiment,
Oct. 1976.

4: The British Press and Northern Ireland,
by Eamonn McCann,
Northern Ireland Socialist Research Centre 1971.

5: Submission from James Anderson,
in Northern Ireland: What next? - Conference Report,
editor Mary J Hickman,
University of North London Press 1995.

6: BRM Radio, Birmingham.
The interview was broadcast on 9th Aug. 1979 -
the tenth anniversary of the conflict.



The ‘Pitchfork Murders’

While serving tours of duty, most soldiers preferred to turn a blind eye to the obvious brutality that often went hand-in-glove with British rule. Sometimes, however, veterans in civvy street felt compelled by circumstances to tell about state-violence they had taken part in, or witnessed. In 1978, a Northern Ireland veteran attended a Troops Out Movement public meeting in Bristol and stated:

When soldiers are on rifle ranges in Germany or England, it is normal practice to keep a couple of clips of ammunition for the paddies. This is illegal, but the NCOs turn a blind eye. These spare rounds can be used to replace any used rounds in Ireland when on patrol. Baton rounds are doctored with bits of metal and razor blades to cause even worse injury. Uniformed patrols hang around school gates for the aggro...

Most soldiers are not sadists when they join up. Most are unemployed lads attracted by three cooked meals a day and the adventure. Soldiers have no rights. The officers come from a different class. Constant drill orders and brainwashing, coupled with constantly carrying a loaded rifle, leads to frustration. This comes out in the violent behaviour in the ghettos of Ireland.[7]

Another veteran was responsible for bringing to justice the perpetrators of one of the most brutal murder cases of the ‘troubles’. In 1972 two Catholic men, 31-year-old Michael Naan and 23-year-old Andrew Murray, had been found murdered at isolated farm buildings in County Fermanagh. Murray had been stabbed 13 times and Naan 19 times through the heart and chest. Michael Naan had been a prominent member of the Civil Rights Association and had taken part in a number of protest marches. The pathologist said Naan’s wounds were ‘consistent with an attack by someone who had gone berserk’. A sectarian motive was attributed to the killings and loyalists were suspected of carrying out the crime - that became known as the ‘pitchfork murders’, after the supposed murder weapon.

Later in the 1970s Britain was horrified by a series of brutal murders of young women, many picked up from ‘red light’ areas in northern cities. Reading about the latest ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murder in 1978 had a profound affect on a Scottish ex-soldier. The lurid accounts of the multiple stabbings of the latest victim had evoked memories of a night, six years before, when he had been a member of an army patrol in County Fermanagh. The veteran knew who had really carried out those killings of Naan and Murray in 1972 and the similarity between those and the Yorkshire Ripper murders began to prey on his mind. Convinced that the killings must have been carried out by the same people, he went to the police and gave them full details of those killings in Ireland.

In reality there was no link between the two crimes. But the police were under intense public pressure to catch the ‘Ripper’, so began to investigate the ex-soldier’s allegations. In 1980, two former compatriots of the ex-soldier, a staff-sergeant and a sergeant, were tried and jailed for life for the murder of the two farm workers. When the staff-sergeant confessed to the police he broke down in tears and said: ‘I did it. I did the killings. I killed them and they just wouldn’t stop screaming. Oh my god - I have been having bloody nightmares about it’.

Other members of the patrol, including the officer in charge, received lesser sentences for aiding and abetting or withholding information. It come out during the trial that the murder weapon was not a pitchfork as first thought, but the stabbings were in fact carried out with a bowie knife which one of the soldiers possessed. It subsequently emerged that many of the troops in Ireland carried ‘personal weapons’, to which those in authority turned a blind eye.

7: Troops Out, July 1978,
statement made by an ex-soldier
at a TOM public meeting in Bristol in June 1978.



Murder in Aden

The story did not end there, because the ex-soldier had received several death threats during the trial, which he believed had come from members of his former unit. So, upset and angry, he handed over to the Scottish Sunday Mail a dossier containing information on up to forty killings carried out by fellow soldiers in Aden fourteen years previously. Some of these were printed by the paper in early 1981 and a controversy ensued, with the Sunday Mail being inundated with letters. [8] Serving soldiers complained bitterly about former mates telling tales out of school and attacked the paper for printing material detrimental to the honour of the regiment. Others, mainly ex-soldiers, wrote in telling how the terrible events in Aden had been on their minds. Unable to forget, they welcomed the opportunity to unburden themselves and wrote of their experiences, telling how:

  1. The Yellow Card instructions - which laid out the circumstances in which soldiers could open fire - were abused. To detain an Arab, soldiers were taught to shout ‘waqaf ’ - pronounced ‘wakeef ’ - meaning halt. If three warnings were ignored soldiers were then entitled to shoot, but some treated this as a joke and shouted ‘fuck off ’ or ‘corned beef ’ instead. Not surprisingly, most Arabs did not understand this and several were just gunned down.

  2. The army had set-up machine gun emplacements overlooking the Crater district and each night - after attacks on soldiers - those heavy guns were fired into this deprived area as a punishment. The heavy velocity bullets ripping through the thin walls causing untold death and destruction.

  3. The bodies of Arabs killed by soldiers were taken in a three-ton truck and dumped off a bridge into the bay, some of the dead were suspects who had been arrested, or wounded Arabs who had been taken to the army medical centre. A soldier who had carried out the ‘dumping’ of the bodies stated: ‘ Some of the prisoners’ bodies had gunshot wounds, but some had been given injections.’

  4. The officers had initiated inter-platoon rivalry by awarding Robertson’s Jam golliwog stickers to units for each killing of an Arab. An ex-soldier recollected: ‘ At one stage my platoon had notched up 13 kills and another platoon were one kill behind. Their corporal even told the privates to use their bayonets, for it was to be that sort of killing. They went into an alley and killed a young Arab who was out after curfew’.

The Sunday Mail passed the dossier to the Scottish Lord Advocate who promised an investigation. But this time there was no pressing reason to examine these events. Two years later the Sunday Mail printed a tiny article saying the Lord Advocate had decided no proceedings should be instituted in this case. The military unit involved in those incidents in County Fermanagh and Aden was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment with a history as ‘proud and honourable’ as any in the British army. They were led in Aden by Lt-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, a British ‘war hero’ who became a right-wing Tory MP after leaving the army.

8: Sunday Mail [Scotland] 17th Dec. 1978;
also the editions of the paper
on 26th April, 3rd May, 10th May and 17th May 1981.



The Fag End of Empire

In 1977 a British officer serving in Northern Ireland wrote about his view of British Army involvement in the Irish Press. He could not speak openly, so his words were published under the pseudonym, John England, in an article entitled The Fag End of Empire: ‘In Major Gen. Frank Kitson’s book, Low Intensity Operations, there is one illuminating passage: When the Regular Army was first raised in the 17th century, “Suppression of the Irish” was coupled with the “Defence of the Protestant Religion” as one of the two main reasons for its existence.’ John England continued:

The wheel has come full circle since those observations were officially proclaimed by Cromwell’s Parliament. The British Empire has emerged, triumphed and crashed since those first burgeonings of English military power. Trade may well have fallen off of late, but the British army is still there, albeit one step behind the currents of contemporary history. Today, the momentum of our Imperial conquest is back to its original starting point, Ireland is still there. And the problems of yesteryear are once again being played out in the North against the familiar backdrop of indifference and contempt which has always characterised our handling of Irish affairs.

The big guns are back in force, against a seemingly intractable opponent. Perhaps, after three centuries of colonial experiences, throughout which Ireland has remained as a constantly unravelling thread, we can legitimately ask ourselves, ‘What have we learnt from it all?’ If General Sir Walter Walker - the doyen of the fighting soldier and late Deputy Commander of NATO - is to be believed, then the answer is depressingly nothing. As he himself said: ‘I have engaged in campaigns against blacks, yellows and slant eyes. Why should we have one rule for whites and one for coloureds? We have to decide if Northern Ireland is part of Britain or not - and if so, act accordingly.’

... In some curious way, it is still a struggle being fought out under the last gleam of an Imperial sun, where the shadows of the past linger across the accents of the officers and dull the sensibilities of the generals. Might is still right. To the army, the solution of the Irish Problem is the same as it always was. It is identical to the approach we adopted in Cyprus and employed again in Aden. A man who should know, Lieut. Col. Colin Mitchell, put it very succinctly when he said: ‘What I’d like to do is to have a machine gun built into every television camera and then say to the IRA, come out and let’s talk ... and then shoot the lot.’

... For despite all our protests to the contrary, the war we are fighting in the North is essentially a colonial one. Successive army commanders and Secretaries of State have refused to admit this. And yet, the comparison with de Gaulle’s Algeria is all too clear: we have settlers, natives and now of course, the army. Sadly, the campaign in the North is also one which is becoming increasingly racialist in character, the longer it goes on. In fairness, this sense of frustration towards an enemy who just won’t admit defeat is not confined to the army. For the past few years, the English mainland has been swamped with a deluge of ‘Irish’ jokes, all of which are designed to show the stupidity of the native. It has been an almost national exercise of mind: a therapeutic attempt to exorcise a bogey-man by yells, book and candle.

The campaign in the North must be one of the few we have fought in which there has been no grudging admiration given to our opponent. After all, we’ve paid tribute to the Pathan, the Sikhs, Fuzzy Wuzzy of the Sudan and latterly even Jerry - now that he’s so obviously one of us. But Paddy remains obstinately beyond the Pale. It can’t be that the weapons he chooses to fight with are all that repugnant to us. Didn’t we train and subsequently glory in the guerrilla tactics of the Chindits: didn’t we help the French Maquis, who were none too scrupulous in the methods they used? Isn’t the SAS trained for equally ruthless work? No! It goes much deeper than this. It is a dark animal hatred within us, nurtured over hundreds of years of fear, superiority and contempt towards the race across the water

... How, then, does all this affect the British army in Northern Ireland? In the days when we had a proper Empire, the army saw to it that when the lesser breeds were revolting, they were summarily dealt with. The world has changed since then. And yet, after all these years of colonial withdrawal, we don’t seem to have learnt anything from the recent past. Our approach is as uncompromisingly arrogant as it ever was ... We complain about the obsession the Irish have with history, forgetting that in 1912 our own army threatened mutiny at the Curragh. And all the time, the loyalist hero, Sir Edward Carson, flagrantly brought in German guns and munitions as physical proof of Protestant Ulster’s determination to stay ‘loyal’.

... And like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the words of Maj. Gen. Kitson drift through at each turn of the plot: ‘When the Regular Army was first raised in the 17th century, “Suppression of the Irish” was coupled with the “Defence of the Protestant Religion” as one of the two main reasons for its existence’. [9]

9: Irish Press,
24th and 25th Jan. 1977.



Like the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

From the mid-70s, after Ulsterisation, a reorganised, retrained and rearmed RUC was pushed into the front-line in many nationalist areas. In early 1992 an off-duty RUC constable, Allen Moore, attacked a Sinn Féin Advice Centre in Sevastopol Street on the Lower Falls in Belfast and shot dead 61-year-old Paddy Loughran, 40-year-old Pat McBride and 24-year-old Michael O’Dwyer. Moore then drove off and his body was found some time later after apparently committing suicide. At the inquest over a year later many strange facts were revealed. Just before his killing spree, Moore’s best friend, another policeman, had been killed in a violent domestic incident. After his friend’s funeral, Moore had returned to the graveyard and about midnight fired a volley of six shots over the grave. Taken to a RUC station after this incident, Moore was examined by a doctor and found to be in a ‘highly intoxicated state’. His issue Ruger revolver was taken from him and he was driven to the home of a fellow officer to sleep it off.

The next day Moore phoned a colleague saying that because of the cemetery incident he ‘had lost his job’, but the colleague was to ‘watch the news’ because Moore was going to shoot republicans. He then made remarks implying he would not be around to face the consequences. Moore collected his licensed pump-action shotgun, visited an RUC station, then made his way to West Belfast and carried out the killings. The shotgun cartridges had been packed with broken glass, which made them more lethal by increasing the internal bleeding of the victims. Andersonstown News, the local paper of the area where RUC man Allen Moore carried out his killings, commented:

Ninety-four per cent of RUC members are drawn from the unionist side of the population and as such carry all the prejudices and antipathy towards nationalism that is inherent in their political and religious peers. To the vast majority of RUC members, what is going on here is not a question of law and order, but an attack on their way of life, their religious liberty and their political allegiance. When those heady elements are introduced into the security sphere then all sorts of nasty things happen and we have seen many examples of it in the past. The surprising thing about the gunning down of three people in a Sinn Féin Office by a serving RUC officer is not that it happened, but that it doesn’t happen more often given the background and attitude of the whole police establishment. Every time a heavily fortified police Land Rover with its military escort makes a foray into the back streets and alleyways of nationalist West Belfast, it has more in common with the Israeli - Palestinian conflict on the West Bank and the South African conflict in Johannesburg squatter camps, than it has to do with law and order.[10]

Hours after the shooting an anonymous caller had given Andersonstown News precise details of Moore’s movements on the day of the shooting. The caller also claimed that Moore and his friend, over whose coffin he had fired the shots, had been clandestine members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a loyalist paramilitary organisation that has killed many Catholics. This story was given credence when it was revealed at the inquest that bomb-making equipment had been found in Moore’s bedroom. A forensics expert testified that similar devices had been found in various locations in Northern Ireland, but no more appeared after Moore’s death.

10: Andersonstown News,
12th June 1993.



Colonial-style Policing

The RUC had inherited its colonial-style policing role from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Subsequently, in the north of Ireland after 1969, many British soldiers, who themselves had little love for nationalists, were surprised and shocked by the anti-Catholic attitude of many of the Protestants they encountered – including those in the security-forces:

Another Scot with commissioned rank who did three tours of duty between 1972 and 1975 still has uncompromising views about the Unionist community. ‘In my time in the army, I’ve served with Americans from the deep South and Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, but I believe that there is not a more bigoted, unreasoning population anywhere than the Ulster Protestants. I say this knowing the many reasons and historical justifications for it, based on fear and now desperation or something close to it, and I know too that there are many individual and honourable exceptions. Outside Ulster, I have many Catholic friends from the province, but no Protestant ones as far as I know - terrible, isn’t it?’[11]

Throughout the years of conflict all RUC members swore an oath of office which dated back to 1836 - when it was introduced by the RIC - pledging to ‘well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady the Queen’ and not ‘belong to any association, society or confederacy formed for or engaged in any seditious purpose ... or in any way disloyal to our Sovereign Lady the Queen.’ Every 12th of July, to celebrate the victory of King William at the battle of the Boyne in 1690, a Union Jack was hoisted over the nearly 200 RUC buildings throughout Northern Ireland: ‘That day, according to the RUC Code, was designated as one of 19 (four more than in Britain) when the flag must be flown from sunrise to sunset...’ [12]

There has never been any democratic control over the police in Northern Ireland, especially the Special Branch and other ‘counter-terrorism’ units. This, if anything, increased when the RUC was brought into the counter-revolutionary fold during Ulsterisation. In an early attempt to allay nationalist’ fears, the authorities stated that the RUC would be made accountable and the Northern Ireland Police Authority was set up in 1970. But, while this gave an illusion of some sort of public involvement in the running of the RUC, the Authority’s members were appointed and met in secret. In 1996, two Authority members, Chris Ryder and David Cook, suggested that changing some of the traditional practices of the RUC might help to recruit more Catholics to the force. In seeking to debate these issues, with a view to making a few minor changes, Ryder and Cook came up against opposition from other Authority members and the RUC hierarchy. Shortly afterwards Ryder and Cook - who was then the Authority chairman - were axed from the Northern Ireland Police Authority by Sir Patrick Mayhew.

As part of the Peace Process the name of the RUC was changed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), just like the UDR’s name had changed to the Royal Irish Rifles (RIR) previously. However, nationalist’s enmity towards the indigenous state forces will be slow to dissipate, because they know ‘the Peelers’ (RUC / PSNI) and the UDR / RIR have never protected ordinary Catholics and believe that their main function - rather than policing agreed laws - is still to maintain unionist power and privilege. While this is the case these sectarian colonial-style forces cannot be part of any solution - but instead remain part of the problem.

11: Thin Red Line - from Scotland and Ulster,
edited by Ian S Wood,
Mercat Press 1994. 

12: Observer,
10th March 1996,
by Chris Ryder.



The Loyal Garrison

A vast security apparatus has been built up in Northern Ireland since 1969, including local units like the RUC / PSNI, UDR / RIR and prison officers. Many civilian security personnel were also used for guarding shops and buildings and searching shoppers and passers-by. Almost all come from the unionist population, with vast amounts of taxpayers’ money going into the pockets of these locally recruited forces: ‘Northern Ireland is now heavily dependent on direct British subsidy for its employment, with an extraordinary high proportion of jobs being in security fields like prisons, probation, the police etc. One in ten Protestant men now works in these fields.’ [13] This creates an economic ‘troubles dependency’ in this sector of the population. In a depressed area like Northern Ireland these high earners have a real and vested interest in ensuring that the conflict continues.

Ex-para Michael Asher served in Northern Ireland as a soldier. After leaving the Army he spent some time at university, then went to Belfast and joined the RUC. In his book Shoot to Kill he describes going on patrol with a Special Patrol Group, moving past the end of the Shankill and then into Divis Street:

The high-rise monstrosities of Divis Flats towered above us. In those flats lived 6,000 Catholics, almost half of them unemployed. ‘Did you ever go in that place?’ Keating asked me. ‘Disgusting so it is. They’ve got rats in there. The Taigs are filthy swine. You could give ’em a mansion and it’d be filthy tomorrow. They all sleep together in the same bed and piss on the floor and throw their rubbish out of the windows! Filthy swine!’ ‘Isn’t it just the design of the place?’ I asked him. ‘Ach, you don’t understand because you’re a Brit.,’ Keating said. ‘Ye’ll never understand, ye weren’t brought up here,’ Spencer added. ‘These people are stinkers, so they are!’[14]

While Asher was upset by the amount of anti-Catholic bigotry expressed in the RUC, there were, however, some exceptions. Asher was surprised when a sergeant he had worked under, and whom he respected, told him one day: ‘The only solution to the Troubles I can see is a united Ireland. You’re a Brit, but I’m Irish. I may be a Prod, but then so was Wolfe Tone. I’m proud to be an Ulsterman, but I’m not British.’ [15] Two centuries before, Theobald Wolfe Tone had outlined the radical history of some of the Protestants in Ireland, and expressed the dilemma felt by the descendants of the settlers:

The dissenters are, from the genius of their religion and the spirit of enquiry which it produces, sincere and enlightened Republicans: they have ever, in a degree, opposed the usurpation of England ... Still however in all civil wars of Ireland, they still ranged themselves under the standard of England and were most formidable enemies to the Catholic natives, whom they detested as Papists, and despised as slaves ... [Under the influence of the French Revolution] they saw that, whilst they thought they were masters of the Catholics, they were in fact their jailers, and that instead of enjoying liberty in their own country, they served as a garrison to keep it in subjection to England ... Catholics and Dissenters, the two great sects whose mutual animosities have been the radical weakness of their country, are at length reconciled, and the arms which have so often been imbued in the blood of each other, are ready for the first time to be turned in concert against the common enemy.

Sadly, Tone’s great ideal was crushed along with the United Irishmen. Tragically for the Protestant people this tradition, of which they should be justly proud, has become submerged and almost forgotten because it does not accord with their status as Britain’s loyal garrison in Ireland. Instead, a siege mentality has developed, where ancient victories with religious connotations have become modern day rallying cries, and ‘no surrender!’ is always the answer to any prospect of progress.

In 1992, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), because of the numbers of its members convicted of serious offences and the widespread allegations against it, was amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). It soon became clear that this switch could not hide the nature of the force or the levels of sectarianism and bigotry among its members. At the end of the 90s the Irish Post described what happened to a Catholic recruit to the RIR: ‘In 1997 a number of his fellow soldiers, disguised in respirator masks, punched and kicked him. Then they wrapped him in a William of Orange flag and forced him to take the Orange Order oath of allegiance.’ [16] A little later a group photo of an RIR unit appeared. They were in uniform and armed - and in their midst was a large banner expressing support for the Orange Order at Drumcree.

Ulsterisation saw the RUC and UDR become the front line of Britain’s war in Ireland and these units were indoctrinated and given intense training for that role. During the IRA ceasefires there have been many instances of soldiers and policemen trying to extract revenge, or deliver some retribution, and assert their authority over nationalist areas - which they could not subdue during the conflict. At a higher level there are elements in the civil service, military, police and intelligence services who, like their predecessors in 1974 who opposed the Sunningdale Agreement, are antagonistic to the peace process.

13: Northern Ireland: The Political Economy of Conflict,
by Bob Rowthorn and Naomi Wayne,
Polity 1988. 

14: Shoot to Kill,
by Michael Asher,
Penguin Books 1990. 

15: Ibid - Shoot to Kill,
by Michael Asher,
Penguin Books 1990. 

16: Irish Post,
27th Nov. 1999.



The Blank Wall

At Westminster, after the Partition of Ireland, the convention was to ignore the happenings in Northern Ireland. In 1965, four members of the Labour Party, Bill O’Shaughnessy (who died in 1985), Michael Melly (who died in 2003), Paddy Byrne and Oliver Donohue, joined forces with Paul Rose, a young Labour MP, to attempt to break that custom by forming the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU). The Campaign quickly attracted 110 parliamentary sponsors - both Lords and MPs - and became the largest lobby group, up to that date, in the history of the House of Commons. The CDU worked with other organisations in Britain, especially the Connolly Association, to support the Civil Rights Movement in the North and adopted three basic aims: 1) To call for a public enquiry into the administration of government in Northern Ireland; 2) To outlaw discrimination in the fields of housing and employment; 3) To have included in the Race Relations Act a religious discrimination remit that would apply to Northern Ireland. Later, Rose wrote about the attempts to raise these questions in the House of Commons and his book, Backbencher’s Dilemma, was reviewed in the Irish Post:

When this newspaper began publishing in February 1970, Paul Rose, the Labour MP for Blackley, near Manchester, was a man of stature in Anglo-Irish affairs ... He was the first British MP to go to Northern Ireland in the sixties and see for himself the injustices which were coming to the boil. He came back to Britain and spoke out, not once but frequently. Soon he was chairman of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, a parliamentary group comprising almost 100 MPs. ... It is significant to recall that a Labour government was then in office. So what was then happening wasn’t something being done during Labour’s freedom in opposition.

“Our main problem was to penetrate the blank wall of incomprehension and ignorance about Ulster”, Rose writes. “Members who knew about Saigon [Vietnam] or Salisbury [Rhodesia / Zimbabwe] seemed to know nothing of Stormont. Others were worried at the delicate problem of religious controversy in their own constituencies ... The fact was there was a parliamentary convention, erected in holy writ by Speaker after Speaker, that prevented us raising matters of real substance on the floor of the House without being ruled out of order”.[17]

If Labour had listened to the CDU and Paul Rose, things might have turned out differently. As it was, dissent was met by force and turned into conflict - during which, tragic happenings were thrown up constantly. Later, ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris wrote about his time in Westminster during the conflict, in the magazine Spectator : ‘In seven years as a government backbencher I do not think I encountered more than a handful of MPs on either side who cared much what happened to Ulster ... Most of the rest of us went along, more or less, with the policy of Her Majesty’s Government, whatever that was - ‘not giving in to the men of violence’ or something. But we tended to find, when Ireland was debated, that we had other things to do’. Parris went on to explain:

Plainly there was something amiss, not in Ireland - we knew something was amiss there - but here on the mainland. Here was a problem towards whose solution we were voting enormous sums and sending soldiers to die, and somehow we couldn’t focus on it ... I came to the view that if our Leader, Mrs. Thatcher, had announced it as her opinion that Ulster must make its own way, there were around 50 colleagues who would protest, 50 who would bite their lips, and more than 200 who would confess it was what they had always thought but never liked to say.

I stick to that assessment now. I also concluded that nobody, including me, was going to be the first to voice such thoughts. And so it was that, though from the day I entered Parliament I never had the slightest doubt that Britain both must and eventually will disengage from Ulster, I never said so.[18]

In Backbencher’s Dilemma, Paul Rose said that Labour’s principles were ‘sacrificed on the altar of expediency’ - so in the end Labour finished up ‘involved in a shabby little deal to give more representation to Northern Ireland in exchange for Unionist votes to keep Jim Callaghan at Number 10.’ Rose also looked at why Labour kept resorting to supporting the status-quo in Northern Ireland:

To the average Englishman, Irishmen are good entertainers and sportsmen and literary figures, but they are often regarded patronisingly where politics is concerned. The sectarian bitterness in Northern Ireland is not seen as a legacy of past British policies but as evidence that Irishmen of whatever persuasion are congenitally unreasonable and should be left to knock hell out of one another.

The more sophisticated view, espoused by the bipartisan policy of the front bench, is that an English presence is necessary for basically the same reason - to prevent such bloodletting. The paucity of initiatives, with the sole exception of the abortive attempt at power-sharing, reflects the fear of getting too involved. The truth, however, is that Ireland suffers from an English problem [my emphasis].[19]

17: Irish Post, 4th April 1981,
review by John Kavanagh.
Paul Rose’s book, Backbencher's Dilemma
was published by Frederick Muller Ltd. 

18: Spectator,
25th Jan. 1992.

 19: Irish Post, 4th April 1981,
review by John Kavanagh.
Paul Rose’s book, Backbencher’s Dilemma
was published by Frederick Muller Ltd.



Public Opinion

Many brave and honest Labour Party members and MPs, before and since, have also had the courage to stand against Westminster convention to point out the abnormal situation in Northern Ireland. Acknowledgement of the truth is one of the keys to a lasting solution. For Britain’s part, this means accepting responsibility for the setting-up and maintenance of Northern Ireland. Since 1969 over 3,600 people have been killed and 40,000 maimed, but we should remember that almost as much blood was spilt upholding Northern Ireland as was shed trying to overturn it.

In the early 1980s an army sergeant serving in Northern Ireland said: ‘I mean what are we doing here? The Northern Irish are saying “Never” to the unification of Ireland: and if they mean that, then the way I see it is that we’ve either got to stay here for ever, or we’ve got to withdraw and let them sort it out. The mistake was made in the 1920s when they decided on partition. For ever afterwards there’ve been only the shouts of the Ulstermen, “No compromise” “No surrender” and all the rest of it. It seems to me we’re left in the middle to take the brickbats.’ [20] This was similar to the views of many of the civilian population back home. Throughout the times of greatest conflict, opinion polls consistently showed a majority of British people wanting to see the withdrawal of their troops from the north of Ireland:

  • Sept. 1971, MORI poll - 59% for withdrawal
  • Dec. 1975, Gallup poll - 64% for withdrawal
  • Feb. 1977, Gallup poll - 53% for withdrawal
  • May 1978, Gallup poll - 53% for withdrawal
  • Sept. 1978, Gallup poll - 55% for withdrawal
  • Nov. 1980, Weekend World poll - 50% for withdrawal
  • April 1981, Marplan poll - 58% for withdrawal
  • May 1981, MORI poll - 59% for withdrawal
  • Aug. 1981, Gallup poll - 54% for withdrawal
  • May 1984, MORI poll - 53% for withdrawal
  • Jan. 1987, MORI poll - 61% for withdrawal
  • Nov. 1987, Marplan poll - 40% for withdrawal (after Enniskillen bombing)
  • March 1988, MORI poll - 50% for withdrawal
  • Dec. 1989, Harris poll - 51% for withdrawal

The most interesting poll results came from British tabloid newspapers, that were often rabidly anti-Irish in their coverage of events and which strongly supported the establishment view on Ireland. In 1981 the Daily Star, published the results of its poll under the headline ‘Pull out’ call is shock for hardline Tories. The Star then stated that: ‘The majority of Labour voters in favour of pulling out the troops was no surprise. But the 49 per cent of Tories who supported withdrawal was more than many party leaders expected.’ [21] Similarly, the Daily Express in 1987, under the headline Pull our troops out of Ulster say 61% stated:

Nearly two thirds of people living in mainland Britain would like to see British troops pulled out of Northern Ireland, an exclusive Daily Express-MORI poll reveals today. And more than half think Britain spends too much money trying to keep the peace between the warring factions ... Although the number who would like to see the Army withdrawn immediately (22 per cent) has stayed the same, those who would like to see a phased withdrawal increased by eight per cent from 31 per cent in May, 1984, to 39 per cent now.[22]

In 1988 the Sun, which had recently reported the killings of three IRA members in Gibraltar by the SAS under the headline, ‘WHY THE DOGS HAD TO DIE’, covered the ‘LYNCHINGS’ of the two army corporals, during an IRA funeral in Belfast shortly afterwards, in a similarly lurid two-page spread. The Sun then invited its readers to vote on ‘the big question over Ulster - should British troops be pulled out?’ Probably the Sun thought that the circumstances of the corporals’ deaths would rally support behind the establishment position for the continued use of troops. While the question was featured prominently, the result was printed in a few lines, tucked away in the next day’s paper at the bottom of page two; ‘A massive 45,435 Sun readers yesterday voted in favour of pulling British troops out of Ulster. Only 10,450 in the phone poll wanted them to stay.’ [23]

During the next year, 1989 ‘on the 20th anniversary of British troops in Ulster’, the News of the World stated the conclusion of its poll: ‘BRING our soldiers home! That’s the verdict of our You The Jury phone-in. 7,905 readers voted to pull British troops out of Ulster and 3,223 voted against.’ [24] While it is probable that a number of people will have expressed support for troop withdrawal through frustration or on negative grounds, some more comprehensive polls showed that many people had a rational view and supported withdrawal for progressive reasons.

In 1984, a report on British Social Attitudes was published by the independent academic institute, Social and Community Planning Research. It stated: ‘On Northern Ireland, only 28% think the best long-term policy is for it to remain part of the United Kingdom, against 58% who favour the reunification of Ireland. A majority want the government to withdraw British troops from the north.’ [25] That same year, the Irish Post reported on a phone poll carried out by the radio station LBC:

Fewer than two in every ten Londoners believe that Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom, according to a survey conducted by the independent radio station LBC. Almost three in every four people in London think that the North should become part of the Republic, but fewer than one in four think that Northern Ireland should become an independent state, the survey found.

Conducted over thirty hours on three successive days, the survey was based on telephone calls invited during the Brian Hayes Show, which has an estimated daily audience of a quarter of a million people. Almost 9,000 people telephoned the station to vote.[26]

20: Soldier, Soldier,
Sergeant Harry N., interviewed by Tony Parker,
William Heinemann Ltd 1985.

21: Daily Star,
15th May 1981.

22: Daily Express,
10th Feb. 1987.

23: Question in the Sun,
22nd March
and result in the Sun,
23rd March 1988.

24: News of the World,
20th Aug. 1989.

25: Sunday Times,
27th May 1984.

26: Irish Post,
7th April 1984.



Futility and Pointlessness

While the majority of the British people, despite decades of propaganda about Northern Ireland, wanted to see the withdrawal of their soldiers, the inability of Westminster politicians to break from a Unionist agenda meant continuing to send their young troops out onto the streets of Belfast, Derry and country areas like Crossmaglen. In the mid-80s, Tony Parker interviewed a number of serving soldiers for his book Soldier Soldier. A young 2nd-lieutenant, then on a tour of duty in Derry, told Parker:

I’ve only just come to Londonderry and I think it really is, it’s a really shitty job like sewer cleaning. I think about my own home town, and try to imagine myself going round with a platoon in the streets at night, knocking on the doors of people’s houses and demanding to be let in to search them. I can’t imagine doing that with people in my own home town. I can’t imagine living in my own home town and people coming and doing that to us. I reckon it’s a pretty shitty job, I really do.[27]

Later on, a more senior officer, a major, said to Parker: ‘Last week I had to write to the parents of one of my lads and tell them he’d been killed. I told them he was a soldier, he died for his country, and he died in a most honourable situation as a member of a peace-keeping force, doing his best for all the people of this country. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to say in letters like that, what I’m supposed to write. We all know there’s no solution to this fucking problem and the best thing we can do is go away.’ [28] Even officers from some of the most prestigious regiments became disillusioned. Like ex-Captain Morgan-Grenville who retired from the British Army after a five-year career with the Coldstream Guards. Acting as his unit’s operations officer he completed a tour of duty stationed in the South Armagh village of Forkhill:

The former captain is adamant that half or more officers share his view that a planned withdrawal of troops should be carried out. ‘Fifty or sixty per cent of serving officers thought along the same lines,’ he told me. ‘I don’t think you would find a brigadier or a general who would publicly say that - it would be more than his career was worth. But you would certainly find many junior officers of that opinion’. ‘When they get back to England they tend to forget about the problem, so the numbers for withdrawal would drop slightly. But while we were over there, even the most conservative minded officer - and I belonged to a conservative-minded regiment - could be heard muttering “What the hell are we doing here, let’s get out”.’

‘From junior lieutenants aged 19 and fresh out of Sandhurst to grizzled lieutenant-colonels, they thought likewise’. Mr. Morgan-Grenville said his regiment was very concerned to ensure that its soldiers should not feel their job in the North was pointless. ‘We spent a lot of time trying to explain the history of Ireland to the men, trying to dress up our own role so it looked as though they weren’t risking their lives for a futile cause. But among thinking officers there was a very strong sense of futility and pointlessness, and a lack of positive morale’.[29]

It had become clear, to anyone who was prepared to take the trouble to look, that the conflict was a stalemate and change would have to happen. Sometimes this view came from surprising quarters. In 1992 Colonel Derek Wilford, who twenty years earlier had been the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Bloody Sunday in Derry, said:

It’s an event (Bloody Sunday) which is in my subconscious all the time, and occasionally it comes to the surface. If anything, I suppose it’s made me anti-war. But it’s also made me anti-politician and anti a hierarchy that allows the situation to go on. I’d like to think that out of that tragedy - which it was, however you look at it - something more positive could have happened. Instead it just became something that went into the history books.

I’m sure I’d be censored for saying so if it came into the open, but I really believe that we should find a more positive solution than hyperbole to a situation which has gone on for 20 years and will go on for another 30 - because there is no desire from either side to end it. I hear people saying, ‘Troops out of Ireland’. It’s like ‘Troops out of Aden’. There we did make a positive decision and I think we need to make a positive decision now about ending the war in Northern Ireland.[30]

27: Soldier Soldier,
by Tony Parker,
interview with second lieutenant Paul K.,
Heinemann 1985. 

28; Soldier Soldier,
by Tony Parker,
interview with major Eric C.,
Heinemann 1985. 

29: Irish Times, 8th March 1984,
ex-captain Morgan-Grenville
interviewed by David McKittrick (then London editor).

 30: Remember Bloody Sunday, BBC TV documentary, 28th Jan. 1992,
Wilford was interviewed by Peter Taylor.
Also 8 page article in The Sunday Times Magazine,
26th Jan. 1992.



The Establishment Elite

Even with the majority of British people, and even many MPs and soldiers, wanting to see a political solution and a British withdrawal, the establishment continued to support the unionist status quo in the north of Ireland. Right-wing ruling class elements in Britain have continually conspired to defeat the democratic wish of the British and Irish people. In 1912-14, the Tories successfully thwarted the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill, which led directly to a galvanised unionist resistance in the north of Ireland and eventually to partition. In 1974, similar establishment forces, frightened by the prospect of a ‘left Labour’ government, conspired to move the political agenda in Britain over to the right, defeat the ‘enemy within’ – the miners, and destroy the Sunningdale Agreement.

From the early days of empire the ruling class had introduced the ‘old-boy’ system to help perpetuate their power and control – it is still alive and well today. In 1970-71, as Kitson organised counter-insurgency operations in Belfast and just before Bloody Sunday in Derry, a survey of the establishment elite in Britain found that the following percentages had attended ‘public’ (i.e. private) schools:

  • Army - 86% of officers of the rank of major-general and above.
  • City - 79.9% of directors of clearing banks.
  • Church of England - 67.4% of assistant bishops and above.
  • Judiciary - 80.2% of high court judges and above.
  • Ambassadors - 82.5% of heads of embassies and legations.
  • Civil Service - 61.7% of under secretary level and above. [31]

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher, who at the time was still calling Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’, formed a government that on Northern Ireland would ‘stand firm against the men of violence’. It maintained a hard-line stance during the prison protests, which led to the IRA hunger strikes and the tragic deaths of 10 prisoners. Almost all her Government were from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds:

The Conservative Cabinet of Margaret Thatcher formed in May 1979 contained sixteen Oxbridge graduates out of twenty-one ministerial appointments; six of them had been educated at Eton before going to university, nineteen at public schools of one kind or another. In all respects these figures showed no real change from a typical Conservative Cabinet fifty years ago. Much the same observation could be made about the background characteristics of the several hundred Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.[32]

There are two main reasons why Britain occupied Ireland: for economic exploitation and for strategic military considerations. Many observers agree that both reasons are now largely irrelevant and there is no great popular identification among British people with the Unionist community in the north of Ireland. But the countries are separated only by a narrow strip of water and, for many people in the British establishment, Ireland - the first colony - has a much greater significance than other subsequent parts of the Empire. There is, therefore, still strong support for the Union among major elements of the ruling class, who have used British troops to ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. This however, is for their own reasons:

England would probably be content to be rid of the Ulster Protestants if the departure were to be wrapped properly in triumph and praise. Then again while England may have no selfish interest in Ireland, the establishment, those in the clubs and the City, those in power, all have an enormous psychological investment in Ireland: for eight hundred years the Irish have refused to be English, to admire the civility of the other society, and so stand as affront. No arrangement that can be shaped as Irish triumph rather than English magnanimity will sell.[33]

While ‘Ulster Unionism’ presents a hurdle to progress, the real barrier to peace and a political solution is the latent unionism of right-wing sections of the British establishment - who continually emerge from the woodwork to block any moves towards a progressive solution. This commitment of some of today’s establishment to maintain Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom mirrors that shown by the Tories and officer class during the Curragh mutiny in 1914 and similar forces who opposed the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement. Tragically, even today, establishment unionism still works to this old reactionary agenda. But we should remember that the forces who want to stifle progress, although powerful, are still a small minority of the people of these islands - who can be faced down and defeated by the democratic will of the majority.

Seventy years after the defeat of Home Rule and ten years after Sunningdale, a young British Army lieutenant serving in Northern Ireland said:

We’re told we’re buying time for the politicians, but we’re not: there’s no more time left to buy. Because of British politicians who’re now dead, and what they did all those years ago to preserve their own self-esteem and power, innocent people are being killed all the time - soldiers who weren’t even born then, and civilians the same. It’s absolutely ludicrous.[34]

31; Life in Public Schools,
by Geoffrey Walford,
Methuen and Co. Ltd 1986.

32; Rule Britannia,
by James Bellini,
Jonathan Cape 1986.

33: Back to the Future - the Protestants and a United Ireland,
by J Bowyer Bell,
Poolbeg Press Ltd 1996.

34: Soldier, Soldier,
Lieutenant Alan D., interviewed by Tony Parker,
William Heinemann Ltd 1985.



The Border

During Partition, the border which was to divide Ireland was drawn around six of the nine original counties of Ulster. It was drawn by British civil servants and was not based on considerations of history, geography or population. It instead enclosed an area in which there would be a permanent majority of unionists, while being large enough to be economically viable. Ireland’s most industrialised areas were thus retained within the United Kingdom, whilst many border towns were isolated from their natural hinterland. Some farms - and even buildings - were divided: ‘The meandering 280-mile boundary confirmed in 1925 cross-cut 1,400 agricultural holdings, approximately 180 roads and 20 railway lines. It bisected villages and, in some cases, private houses. It is this boundary which still divides the border region today...’ [35]

The effects of partition were disastrous. Far from resolving the problems between natives and settlers - nationalists and unionists - these were now concentrated explosively within, and at, the boundaries of the new entity. Within Northern Ireland, over a third of the population identified with the aspiration for a united Ireland. They considered themselves part of the native Irish majority in Ireland as a whole, and resented partition. Trapped inside an artificially created Northern Ireland they felt apprehensive and isolated, and no effort was made to win their loyalty. Instead, nationalists were subjected to bigotry, discrimination and coercion from the Unionist state.

In 1972, the Sunday Times Insight Team wrote: ‘The border was itself the first and biggest gerrymander: the six counties it enclosed, the new province of Ulster, had no point or meaning except as the largest area which the Protestant tribe could hold against the Catholic. Protestant supremacy was the only reason why the State existed.’ The Insight Team continued:

As such, the State was an immoral concept. It therefore had to be maintained from the first by immoral means - the fiddling of internal boundaries too, the steady pressure on Catholics to emigrate by making it hard for them to live and work, the police bullying ... And in the end the Army on the streets, internment, ‘deep interrogation’. For the British, the tragedy was that - through historical obligation, and then through sloth and lack of perception - they became involved in the defence of a morally indefensible entity. For the Northern Ireland Catholics, the tragedy was that the British defence prolonged that entity’s existence a few more [sic], painful years. Nothing was more certain than that Catholics would continue to struggle against the State. They knew the evil in which it had been born and reared. And since evil begets evil, they were prepared to see their own struggle carried on by evil means.[36]

During the conflict army certainties about ‘the enemy’ often become blurred once the troops were on tours of duty. Soldiers knew that the IRA ‘terrorists’ they faced were regarded as ‘freedom fighters’ in nationalist areas. Some soldiers, like this Welsh Guards corporal, could understand this attitude and see a rationale for IRA actions:

At times, I can see the IRA’s point of view. If I’d been born in the Falls Road I know I’d be in the IRA. They want a free Ireland. They see the British Army as oppressors, and back home if I was a Welsh Nationalist and Wales wasn’t part of Britain and English troops came in, I’d throw bricks, stones and petrol bombs. Most times out there I was dedicated to my job, stopping these terrorists, and that’s why I enjoyed it so much. But other days I could see those IRA guys are really dedicated to their cause, prepared to die for it, and I respect them for that.[37]

35: Whither the Irish Border?
Sovereignty, Democracy and Economic Integration in Ireland
by Liam O’Dowd,
Centre for Research and Documentation 1994.

36: Ulster,
by The Sunday Times Insight Team,
a Penguin Special 1972.

37: Northern Ireland - Soldiers Talking,
by Max Arthur, interview with a Welsh Guards corporal,
Sidgwick and Jackson 1987.




British soldiers became the direct upholders of Northern Ireland after 1969. Even after Ulsterisation, many places along the border were too dangerous for the RUC to patrol, and soldiers remained the front line. In 1973, an Irish journalist described a visit to Crossmaglen, a town close to the border: ‘This is a town of about 1,400 inhabitants, where a soldier wouldn’t get a drink in any of the twelve pubs, a cup of water from any house, or a light for a cigarette from people in the street. There are no stones pelted at them - just the sound of silence.’ The journalist continued:

There is only one Protestant business in the town and only three non-Catholic families in the immediate area. There has been no sectarian troubles here; and the only riots took place on the night Harry Thornton [a local man] was killed by soldiers in Belfast [his van backfired as it passed an army fort and he was shot by a sentry] and on the night of internment. High over the courthouse, on the town square, the Tricolour unfurls in a gentle breeze. Army helicopters hover over the flagpole, at times, and lasso the emblem from its position. Next morning another Tricolour is put in its place. The forces have dropped some acid substance on the flag on occasions. It disintegrates into ribbons. Next morning, another Tricolour is hoisted. And so on.

No soldiers patrolled the streets of the town while we were there. The people said they rarely came out from the heavily fortified police barracks. One woman in a shop said that all troop movements were by helicopter now. ‘It’s like Heathrow airport here’, she said. ‘The copters fly in and out from five in the morning till about midnight - non stop’. The RUC barracks was turned over to the military in 1920. There has not been a policeman on patrol in the town since.[38]

Seven years later, a British journalist visited the same town with an Army unit: ‘Flying low over the hills of South Armagh, the helicopter sheers upwards to avoid some electricity pylons and then drops like a stone the other side. The squaddie I’m lurching back and forth next to is from Liverpool. He must have been about eight when the first troops arrived on the streets of Derry in August 1969. Now he’s on his way back to base in Crossmaglen - XMG as they call it in the acronym-crazy army.’ [39] All movements of men and equipment to the base was by helicopter, because of the high attrition rate of Army vehicles to mines and ambushes. The heliport at Bessbrook, that supplied ‘XMG’ and other forts along the border, was now one of the most heavily used in Western Europe:

You run off the helipad at Crossmaglen. Helicopters are flying in and out 24 hours a day, but they never stop longer than the twenty seconds it takes for one cargo of soldiers to run off and another lot to run on. They have to fly the rubbish out by helicopter here ... From up in the watch-tower you can see some of the bullet holes in the 20 foot corrugated iron which rings this tiny base. ‘That’s where everyone gets shot’, Lieutenant Sexton says, pointing to the main square of Crossmaglen, 150 yards down the street. The Saturday before, Private John Bateman of the King’s Own Border Regiment was shot dead there, by a sniper hidden in the graveyard of St Patrick’s church. Bateman was 18 from Cumbria, one of the 100 infantrymen here.[40]

Crossmaglen has a large square in the centre of which stands a statue, like the war monuments in many British towns and cities. Local people raised the money to purchase the memorial which depicts a figure rising phoenix-like from flames. Underneath is written in Irish and English, ‘For those who have suffered for Irish Freedom’.

38: Sunday Press, 17th June 1973,
by Michael Hand.

39: New Society, 24th April 1980,
by Ian Walker.

40: Ibid - New Society, 24th April 1980,
by Ian Walker.



Rats the Dog Soldier

In Crossmaglen the Westminster politicians could not claim that the Army was keeping the peace between rival factions, since the population is overwhelmingly nationalist. In a scene reminiscent of past days of Empire, the soldiers in their fort kept the Union Jack flying over hostile territory. The colonial role of British troops was starkly obvious, but the British mass media was unable, or unwilling, to explain the contradictions inherent in this situation. Thus they concentrated, almost exclusively, on ‘Rats - the dog soldier’ - one of the most bizarre ‘heroes’ that the present conflict has thrown up:

The army’s biggest PR coup of the seventies was undoubtedly Rats, described by one pro-military author as ‘the dog star’ of BBC television’s Nationwide. Given the famous British predilection for animals, Rats was an army propagandist’s dream. A Crossmaglen stray who had been adopted by the military, Rats first starred on Nationwide in 1979 ... Rats, Nationwide reporter Glyn Worsnip solemnly explained, ‘as number D7/777 is the longest serving member of the British army in South Armagh.’

... A ceremony to honour Rats was arranged for Nationwide’s cameras. As bagpipes wailed and Rats howled along with them, an NCO presented him with a medal with the words, ‘we are gathered here this afternoon to pay homage and tribute to this small mighty dog, our one and only friend in the Crossmaglen area’. An officer gave the game away to the perspicacious by saying that among the soldiers ‘you’ll see a certain amount of friendship towards this animal, when there isn’t that sort of friendship towards the local inhabitants of the town’.[41]

Soon, other articles about Rats began to appear in the media, as stories about the dog became an easy way to introduce a pro-British angle. In her book, Ireland: The Propaganda War, Liz Curtis wrote: ‘The Rats story ran and ran. The Daily Express featured him as “DOG OF WAR”, running gallantly alongside a foot patrol, with a text that began, “EYES BRIGHT! Here comes action dog with a regulation shine to his nose after breakfasting in the officers’ mess”.’ Curtis continued:

The Express told its readers that Rats, ‘twice wounded in action’, was soon to be awarded a gold medal by the canine charity Pro Dogs. The award ceremony provided an excuse for another appearance on Nationwide. That the publicity had struck a chord in the British psyche was demonstrated at Christmas 1979, when thousands of letters addressed to the dog, along with food parcels and toys, arrived at the Crossmaglen barracks: so many that a special department had to be set up to deal with them ... October 1981 saw the publication of a biography, illustrated with pictures provided by Express Newspapers, titled Rats: The Story of a Dog Soldier.[42]

While the media wallowed in the Rats fantasy, the local people and the British troops had to face the reality - sixty-three soldiers were killed while serving at the base. As tours of duty come around again and again, many squaddies become cynical and alienated about the war - that couldn't even be called a war - and where ‘Rats the dog soldier’ became a hero, but dead squaddies’ names were quickly forgotten. For soldiers a tour of duty in Crossmaglen, or any of the bases along the border area, was regarded as the toughest and most dangerous – as veteran Dave Roche explained:

Almost all transport to camp is made by helicopter, morale is a big problem there. Crossmaglen was the most miserable and depressing part of my life. Overcrowded quarters, damp, suffocating, artificial bunker light, living underground in steel armoured concrete holes. The smell of wet clothes and cooking. Never any let up; 24 hour border patrol, four hours rest, four hour village patrol, eight hours rest, and up again for patrol. My mind and body were wrecked, I would shake uncontrollably, and everyone drinks. The stress is incredible, some mates were wounded, two were killed. South Armagh is bomb and booby-trap country. The thought of walking past a car and getting blasted to bits was terrifying, worse than bullets in Belfast or Derry. There were days when you only had one thing on your mind - ‘Not today! Shoot me next week, or next month, but not today. Please give me these last three days before I can leave for home’...

Some people go mad. Some pretend to go mad just to get out. One time we were landing by helicopter, it was freezing with snow on the ground. We saw one of our men running naked around the field. We thought it was a crazy bet of some sort. We waved and he waved back, ‘All right lads’, he shouted. But later he took his clothes and a gun and made for the village. We were sent out to search for him, we had orders to shoot him if he caused any trouble. Luckily, he was found sleeping in an empty house. Another soldier started shooting sheep while out on patrol. He was locked up. We all thought he was just pretending to be crazy, but they weren’t taking any risks.

I never felt like I was going mad, but we all felt exhausted. After 14 hours in a damp wet ditch; and nobody knows how much longer it is going to take, you have to bite your lips to prevent yourself from crying. You knew tomorrow and the next day would be just the same. It was a tunnel with no light, but you knew you had to go through it. Moaning did not help. I was not sitting at home on my settee, I was here in this mess and nothing or nobody could change that. That’s the way I spoke to myself, it was no solution, but the thoughts did help. Of course, I also thought of the day I would be sitting in the pub with a pint. The only thing the army offers you is a Padre, who would pass through once a month and say ‘Everything all right boys?’ Any tour in Northern Ireland is mentally and physically exhausting. That’s why they don’t exceed 4 to 5 months and then they leave you for a couple of years.[43]

At border posts, travellers were met by British troops with guns at the ready, overlooked by other soldiers manning heavy machine guns from slits in concrete block-houses. These fortifications, reminiscent of the 1st World War, were covered in corrugated iron, barbed wire and draped with camouflage and anti-mortar nets. Enormous sums of money have been spent trying to make the border ‘terrorist proof’, including the construction of a new series of high-tech watch-towers along the high ground overlooking the border. At the same time we all lived in a Europe with increasing moves towards unity and the subsequent lessening of borders between nations. The artificially created border between the two parts of Ireland stood out as a stark exception – and even today Northern Ireland remains one of the most militarised area of the European Union.

41; Ireland: The Propaganda War,
by Liz Curtis,
Pluto Press 1984.

42; Ibid - Ireland: The Propaganda War,
by Liz Curtis,
Pluto Press 1984.

43; Humo, 10th Aug. and 17th Aug. 1989,
ex-soldier Dave Roche interviewed by Jan Hertoghs.



The Unionist Veto

In 1976 the Troops Out Movement organised a large delegation, mainly from the British labour movement, to visit both parts of Ireland. In Belfast, Father Desmond Wilson, a community worker in the west of the city, spoke to the delegation and said: ‘I started out a number of years ago with the idea basically that those who looked after our affairs were trustworthy or at least to be negotiated with. But over the years my opinion has changed. I came to understand that such negotiation was practically impossible, and that what was happening was that police, and later troops, were being used to prevent any negotiation between the people at large and those who control their resources.’ Fr Wilson continued:

The things that I have seen that have been committed by the troops have been quite appalling. I am being very simple when I say that the poor in the north of Ireland need help and they need protection. They are not getting that protection from the troops and in my opinion they never will ... I do not believe that we can afford to keep a military movement here on the grounds that if they are taken away worse things will happen. I always remember the words of Hilaire Belloc: ‘Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of catching something worse’.

We just cannot allow the lives of people to be fooled with in this way ... All I can say is that I have been horrified by the excesses of those who are supposed to keep the peace ... I cannot find this situation tolerable. What I can find is that every day that a military solution is imposed upon people, it becomes more and more difficult for people who have adopted a pacifist policy and philosophy to hold their position. Don’t, for God’s sake, allow these poor people to be driven too far.[44]

Two years later, in 1978, the British Army, in its secret Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends document, admitted that a military victory could not be achieved. It was in fact glaringly obvious that the conflict had become a stalemate. While British politicians, in conjunction with the unionists, were content to carry on with the struggle to maintain the status quo, hope of another way to resolve the conflict was to come from Sinn Féin and the IRA. At the end of August 1994, 25 years after the present conflict had started, the IRA announced a cessation of armed actions. It would be a grave mistake to think that this ceasefire indicated demoralisation or a weakening of resolve within the Republican movement. On the contrary, it was clear that the IRA remained strong and undefeated and the ceasefire came after a long and thorough period of discussion within the movement. Knowing that they could have maintained the conflict for future decades, republicans had nevertheless decided to give peace a chance and looked towards arrangements that would allow them to pursue their aims by political means only.

Unfortunately, the Tory government of John Major and the unionists proved incapable of responding to the ceasefire in a manner that could bring peace closer. They made it difficult for Sinn Féin to participate in talks and put barrier after barrier in the way of progress. After a year of the ‘peace process’ - but no tangible progress towards a political solution - the IRA ended their ceasefire with the bombing at Canary Wharf in London’s docklands. In 1997, after the Labour landslide election victory, the IRA announced a new ceasefire and called for talks to start again. This led in turn to the Good Friday Agreement and the setting up of an elected Northern Ireland Assembly. Unionists, as always unhappy at any signs of political change, demanded that the IRA decommission their arms or they would withdraw. Faced with this unionist ultimatum Labour’s Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, suspended the Assembly - once again handing unionism a veto on any chance of progress. Eventually, the Assembly was restored - but only for a period – and now we wait for it to be brought back again.

Sinn Féin have taken a lot of flack for their involvement in the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly - and some critics have even suggested that the party is now propping up the unionist state. But, up until now, the party’s participation has sustained the Northern Ireland state only in the same way as an executioner’s rope supports a hanged man - and suggests that a continued involvement can bring about its eventual demise. Certainly, the ballot-box has led to a greater fragmentation of unionism/loyalism than the years of the Armalite. Of course there will be pitfalls in the political path and the movement needs to insure that the compromises, necessary for progress, do not then become future policy. If the hope for peace is not to be lost, then all participants must be prepared to acknowledge their culpability in the limited war since 1969, and be prepared to countenance the changes that will be required to produce a genuine and lasting peace – as well as pursuing their own interests.

For decades British troops and the RUC / PSNI and UDR/RIR have been the front line of Britain’s war in Ireland and were indoctrinated and given intense training for that role. During the IRA ceasefires there have been many instances of soldiers and policemen trying to exact revenge, or deliver some retribution and assert their authority over nationalist areas - which they could not subdue during the conflict. At a higher level there are elements in the civil service, military, police and intelligence services who, like their predecessors in 1974 who opposed the Sunningdale Agreement, are antagonistic to the peace process. At the same time, nationalists have been subjected to a sustained hate and intimidation campaign by loyalist paramilitaries - with disturbing signs of continuing collusion by sections of the security forces - in which a number of Catholics have been murdered by pipe-bombs and bullets. The main block to the peace process and political progress is still unionist / loyalist extremism and only with the ending of the unionist veto will the first steps towards a lasting solution be made.

44: Full text in Ireland - Voices for Withdrawal,
Information on Ireland 1980.



For Truth, Peace & Freedom

Throughout the twelve chapters of Oliver’s Army British soldiers and ex-soldiers have told of their experiences and expressed their views about their Government’s policy on Ireland. In seeking a solution to Ireland’s English problem we need to turn to the vision of another ex-soldier - James Connolly. In 1882 Connolly, who had been born and raised in Edinburgh by working class Irish parents, joined a regiment of the British Army. Soon afterwards, his unit was posted to Ireland and he spent most of his seven years army service in his parents’ native land.

Later, he returned to Ireland as a civilian and became a worker's leader, organising trade unions in Dublin and Belfast. In 1916 for the Easter Rising, Connolly’s workers militia, the Irish Citizen Army, merged with the Irish Volunteers on the streets of Dublin – creating what was to become the IRA and injecting radical socialism into the democratic tradition initiated by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. Afterwards, already badly wounded, he was taken from a hospital bed, tied to a chair as he could not stand, and shot by a British Army firing squad. Connolly was executed before Ireland was split in two, but he had recognised the dangers that partition would pose for the people:

All hope of uniting the workers, irrespective of religion or old political battle cries, will be shattered, and through north and south the issue of home rule will still be used to cover the iniquities of the capitalist and landlord classes. I am not speaking without due knowledge of the sentiments of the organised labour movement in Ireland when I say that we would rather see the home rule bill defeated than see it carried with Ulster or any part of Ulster left out.

Connolly had also warned, prophetically, that partition:

  • Would mean a carnival of reaction in both parts of Ireland.
  • Would set back the wheels of progress North and South.
  • Would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.

Through hundreds of years of conquest and occupation, over 80 years of partition and for 3 decades of the recent conflict the English / British establishment have been the major part of the problem. From 1969, successive British Governments had used their troops to attempt to shore up the Northern Ireland status quo. Westminster now wants peace, but shows little interest in justice or a British withdrawal. So pressure will have to be exerted on Westminster to ensure that we keep moving towards a progressive solution.

Just as repression in Ireland was often followed by similar acts in Britain - so support for Irish self-determination assists democracy in both countries. On Ireland, down through the years, the voice of reaction has sounded loud. Potentially, the voice of progress can be greater, but only if we all play our part. Only then will we be able to say that - just like the radical voices from our past - we stood for truth, peace and freedom in our day.

In 1916, ex-soldier James Connolly had been shot by a British Army firing squad for fighting for the freedom and unity of Irish working class people. Two years before, after the Curragh mutiny of British Army officers, Connolly had issued this manifesto:

In this great crises of Ireland, I desire to appeal to the working class ... to take action to prevent the betrayal of their interests by those who have planned the exclusion of part of Ulster from the Home Rule Bill ... As the officers of the Curragh have stood by their class, so let the working class democracy stand by its class ... Let it be heard and understood that Labour stands for the unity of Ireland - and Ireland united in the name of progress...

Courage and vision will be required to end Ireland’s English problem, together with the will to rationalise the relationship between the people of these islands. So now, as never before, progressive voices are needed :

  1. To advocate Connolly’s great goal of ‘an Ireland united in the name of progress’.
  2. To achieve a new secular Ireland, free from outside interference, where all the Irish people can live in peace and working class unity can again be forged.
  3. To rid Ireland of partition and the border, which, like an open wound that refuses to heal, continues to blight the lives of all of us to this day.

Only then will we have a political solution that ensures that never again will British soldiers be sent across the sea to kill and die in Ireland.



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


This was the last chapter of Oliver’s Army.
If you found this history thought-provoking,
please send us your comments.