Cromwell's Men are Here Again
‘Round the world the truth will echo
From The Men Behind the Wire,
As Britain entered the 60s, the country was emerging from a long period of rationing and austerity that had lasted from the end of the 2nd Word War - from which the UK had emerged victorious, but also deeply in debt. To preserve their power and wealth post-war, the establishment had then set about squeezing every last drop of profit from the Empire – while using their armed forces to brutally crush anti-colonial revolts in places like Malaya and Kenya.
Nowadays, the 60s is called the time of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll and is blamed, by conservative politicians like Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair, for all manner of problems in modern society. In fact the decade was a contradictory period which saw a dramatic rise in consumerism, after the post-war restrictions, but also a start to the decline of industry. It saw the rise of a counterculture and the spread of soulless high-rise tower blocks and concrete town centres. Gays were still prosecuted, as were the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and anyone else who stepped out of line.
But a better educated generation gradually emerged, after the Education Act reforms of 1944, who were determined to question and contest the values of their ‘elders and betters’. Feminists and Greens appeared with the anti-nuclear peace movement, and most merged to become anti-imperialist in opposition to the US war in Vietnam. As workers and student struggles erupted in Europe and across the world, in Derry and Belfast civil rights protesters were being batoned off their streets by the RUC.
The main reason conservatives still fear the 60’s, is because that was a time when the establishment’s authority was challenged. The Civil Rights Movement in the north of Ireland took its inspiration from the 60’s radical upsurge in general and the black struggle for civil rights in America in particular. In the weeks before British troops were sent out onto the streets of Derry in August 1969 the number one hit in the UK record charts was Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman. This song was to ring out over the barricades in nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry and at student sit-ins and workers struggles in Britain:
In the background, the ruling class struggled to maintain their power and control and, also in August1969, one of the organisations which became a main combatant in the Northern Ireland conflict issued a new training manual to its volunteers. It starts with a quote from Mao Tse Tung: ‘Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun’.
This instruction booklet was not, however, produced by any Irish ‘terrorist’ group, but was in fact, the latest update of the British Army’s secret training manual Land Operations. This 1969 version -Volume III, entitled Counter-Revolutionary Operations - stated its aims as:
1: Land Operations Volume III - Counter Revolutionary Operations,
Kitson in Belfast
In 1970, Brigadier Frank Kitson was posted to Belfast to command the 39th Infantry Brigade. Kitson had joined the British Army as a young officer soon after the end of the 2nd World War and helped sharpen the army’s counter-insurgency techniques in Kenya, Malaya and Oman. In 1971 his first book, Low Intensity Operations, was published and many people believed that the aim of the book was to promote the Army’s ‘new role’ in dealing with internal dissent within the UK:
Kitson’s main experiences had been in former colonial wars and his appointment to Belfast reflected the changing military emphasis from policing to counter-revolutionary operations - and signalled the start of an army offensive against the nationalist community in general and the IRA in particular. This was confirmed when the London listings magazine Time Out obtained a copy of the Army’s Land Operations manual and published extracts in its ‘Seven Days’ section:
A knowledge of Land Operations is crucial to any assessment of the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland, but the top brass and the politicians wanted to keep the contents of the manual secret. Consequently, hidden behind the Official Secrets Act, it was hardly ever mentioned in the British media - denying the British people knowledge of the ideology and strategy behind their soldiers’ training and actions. As stated in its introduction, the manual had drawn on the Army’s experiences in previous campaigns:
In particular, the manual drew on the lessons the army had learned in its colonial wars from 1945 - like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden – and from now on Land Operations was revised regularly to include the lessons learned in Northern Ireland.
2: The Technology of Political Control,
3: Time Out,
4: Land Operations Volume III - Counter Revolutionary Operations,
Preparing The Soldiers
Once the nationalist community and the IRA was identified as the enemy, the army started to prepare its soldiers for this counter-revolutionary task. The minds of the young soldiers were indoctrinated by briefings, both verbal and written. In the early days of the conflict the Sunday Times Insight Team examined a publication given to soldiers just before a tour of duty:
The question might have been asked - how did this piece of blatant unionist propaganda find its way into a British Army publication, issued to young soldiers just before a tour of duty? One can envisage, however, how it would have influenced their outlook and attitude. The troops were also being given an increasingly more intensive period of training before their tours of duty. W. Sellick, a soldier in the first battalion Royal Green Jackets, was among the rising numbers of British troops being sent to Northern Ireland. He remembers arriving at the Belfast Mulhouse barracks in 1971:
6: Socialist Worker,
The Military Reconnaissance Force
The Army knew that the intelligence information from the RUC was totally inadequate and trained its soldiers to systematically gather vast quantities of information on the areas they were sent to dominate. But this was all low grade information and in his book Low Intensity Operations Kitson stated that: ‘In some cases ... groups are formed designed to develop information. By using special skills and equipment or by exploiting the characteristics of special people such as captured agents.’
Mainly using soldiers experienced in counter-insurgency, the Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) was set up in Belfast under Kitson to carry out these tasks. The MRF first came to public notice in October, 1972, when the IRA killed the driver of a Four Square laundry van in the Twinbrook estate area of West Belfast. On the same day the IRA also attacked a massage parlour on the Antrim Road. Both businesses were fronts for British Army intelligence gathering. The Four Square laundry van was used for surveillance work, to gain access to hard-line areas, and forensic tests were carried out on all clothes taken for cleaning. The intimate setting of the Gemini Health Studio, which advertised ‘attractive masseuses’ in the personal columns of the Belfast Telegraph, was used to procure informants. Press reports at the time stated: ‘There are claims that cameras were used by hidden agents to record people in compromising positions, and force them to spy on the IRA.’
Almost a year later ‘Operation Lipstick’ came unstuck when Andersonstown News broke the story that female British Army personnel with Irish backgrounds were carrying out door-to-door sales of cosmetics, and had been running ‘underwear selling parties’ in West Belfast. Allegations were also made that the Army had used the files of the RUC Drug Squad to arrest youngsters on these records and offer drugs and immunity from further arrest in return for information. The use of ‘touts’, ‘informers’ and ‘supergrasses’ became a crucial part of counter-revolutionary strategy over the course of the war, with the intelligence wings of the army and police and MI5 and MI6 becoming involved in their recruitment and running.
Other MRF troops went out armed into hostile areas wearing civilian clothes and using unmarked cars. In 1978, an ex-soldier who had served with the MRF spoke about his experiences in Belfast: ‘I was an infantry NCO. I served in the British Army for 12 years. I have considerable experience of internal security in aid of the civil power, having carried out police actions in six different territories, as well as having served three tours of duty in Ireland.’ He continued:
The two men shot in the first incident were brothers John and Gerard Conway, who ran a street stall selling fruit. They were shot in mistake for IRA men Thomas Tolan and James Bryson - just over a year later Bryson was shot dead by an army sniper firing from a concealed observation post. The two Conways survived the shooting, and the Army still insisted that the brothers had produced a pistol and fired at the soldiers. But this was clearly stated to excuse the soldiers’ actions, because John and Gerard were never charged - neither were any soldiers charged with shooting the brothers.
7: Low Intensity Operations - Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping,
8: Sunday Mail (Scotland),
9: Troops Out, July 1978,
In the early hours of 9th August 1971, British soldiers carried out raids on nationalist houses all over Northern Ireland and snatched 342 people from lists provided by the RUC Special Branch. Internment without trial had been introduced in various periods in the past, but its reintroduction at this delicate time resulted in an immediate and violent response:
Prison camps had been hastily constructed for the internees. Long Kesh, with its Nissen huts and barbed wire fences with lookout towers, resembled a PoW camp from the 2nd World War. A song about internment, written by an internee and called The Men Behind the Wire, became a big local hit in nationalist areas:
International attention focused on the prisoners when it became apparent that some detainees had been subjected to an in-depth interrogation method known as ‘sensory deprivation’:
British military interrogators had learned from the torture techniques used in various parts of the world, but mainly from their own experiences in previous colonial wars in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden etc.
10: The Troubles,
11: Written by Pat McGuigan while he was interned,
12: The Troubles,
Soldiers Question Their Role
Ironically, the army high command had been against the introduction of Internment, but Westminster had ordered it implemented after it had been demanded by the Unionist Government at Stormont. The Army’s opposition had come, not because they were against internment in principal, but because they suspected that the RUC Special Branch lists, handed over to the army for arrests, would be totally inadequate. Many soldiers on the ground had even stronger views, which were outlined in the regimental magazine of the Royal Marines’ 45 Commando:
The magazine’s editor, an officer who believed the article reflected the feelings of many soldiers, was hauled over the coals by the Under-Secretary for the Navy for publishing this view. Most soldiers, however, were too confused by their conflicting orders and the changing situation to articulate any dissent. So, while some soldiers appeared to revel in their new offensive role, others, like this ex-military policeman who had an Irish family background, gradually developed critical views:
13: Reprinted in Pig in the Middle,
14: From a speech given at the TOM’s first public meeting,
In the wake of Internment, besides the rent and rates strike and the creation of ‘No-Go’ areas, some Nationalist councillors and MPs withdrew from councils and from Stormont and formed an alternative assembly at Dungiven. At its first session John Hume said: ‘Today we do not recognise the authority of the Stormont Parliament, and we do not care twopence whether this is treason or not. Ever since then , we have had government without consensus, because the free consensus of all the people has not been given to the system of government, and when you have a situation like that, you have a situation of permanent instability, and when you have permanent instability you have recurring acts of violence, and surely that has been the history of the fifty years of this system of government.’
Towards the end of 1971, the civil resistance campaign found expression in a series of mass civil rights / anti-internment demonstrations. The authorities declared them illegal and gave the British Army the task of stopping them. On the afternoon of Sunday 30th January 1972, the largest march to date was making its way through the Bogside in Derry, when suddenly, units of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment burst into the massed crowd of 20,000 unarmed demonstrators and commenced firing. In the next 18 minutes paratroopers fired over a hundred high-velocity bullets at the demonstrators, killing 13: Patrick Doherty, Gerard Donaghy, Jackie Duddy, Hugh Gilmour, Michael Kelly, Michael McDaid, Kevin McElhinney, Bernard McGuigan, Gerald McKinney, William McKinney, William Nash, James Wray and John Young. Fourteen others were badly wounded, one of whom, John Johnston, died 5 months later. Five of the dead were shot in the back, another was shot while holding his hands above his head.
The Paras were recognised to be one of the Army’s toughest units and belonged to Kitson’s command in Belfast, where they had been used as shock troops to pacify ‘troublesome’ areas. British journalist David Tattersall visited the Paras before they moved off to confront the demonstrators. He said that ‘the newspaper I worked for then had sent me there to write what was intended to be almost a recruiting feature for the Parachute Regiment.’ Tattersall then described what he had observed among the Paras:
The Paras were sent to Derry for the specific task of confronting the demonstrators and then were withdrawn from the city. The Royal Green Jackets, one of the resident Army units in Derry, had policed previous marches without resorting to lethal violence. One of their senior NCOs later told how they were not impressed by the Paras’ actions: ‘I don’t think the Paras did us any favours, did anybody any favours. In our eyes, it was playing into the IRA’s hands. One of the saddest consequences was when a lot of Catholic ex-servicemen who’d served in the Second World War tossed their medals onto the war memorial in the Little Diamond as a protest...’
15: The Troubles,
16: Sunday Mail (Scotland),
17: Northern Ireland - Soldiers Talking,
Compton, Parker & Widgery
In previous colonial wars, when concerns were expressed about aspects of these conflicts, ‘official enquiries’ were set up. Which, while sometimes expressing mild criticism, always excused and justified the excesses. After internment, the Ombudsman, Sir Edmund Compton chaired an enquiry into the interrogation techniques used by British soldiers in Northern Ireland. In his report Compton referred to the army’s actions as ‘deep interrogation’ rather than torture - and stated about the allegation of brutality: ‘We consider that brutality is an inhuman or savage form of cruelty, and that cruelty implies a disposition to inflict suffering, coupled with an indifference to, or pleasure in, the victim’s pain. We do not think that happened here’.
The writer Graham Greene wrote an angry letter to The Times about the findings of the Compton inquiry: ‘“Deep interrogation” - a bureaucratic phrase which takes the place of the simple word “torture” and is worthy of Orwell’s 1984 - is on a different level of immorality than hysterical sadism or the indiscriminate bomb of urban guerrillas. It is something organised with imagination, and a knowledge of psychology, calculated and cold-blooded, and it is only half-condemned by the Compton investigation.’
Later the Parker Commission, an ‘official’ investigation into the use of ‘sensory deprivation’, attempted to justify this torture because it had proved effective in other colonial situations. Lord Parker, referring to the use of hooding, wall standing, white noise and deprivation of food and sleep, wrote:
Now these brutal counter-revolutionary methods of torture, as practised by the British Army in far off places, were being put into use in Northern Ireland - which was claimed by Westminster to be an integral part of the United Kingdom.
After Bloody Sunday, the British Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, was appointed to carry out an ‘independent public inquiry’ into the shootings. Edward Heath, the Tory Prime Minister, had a meeting with Lord Widgery just before he left for Northern Ireland and Heath drew Widgery’s attention to a number of issues, including: ‘It has to be remembered that we are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war.’ Widgery’s subsequent report, produced after just 11 weeks, praised the Paras and suggested that some of the victims had been gunmen and nail-bombers. This was denied by every civilian eye-witness and was clearly invented by the army to try and justify the killings. (To the further grief of their loved ones the victims of Bloody Sunday are still, to this day, being criminalised by ex and serving soldiers, policemen, politicians and members of the judicial system - who are still attempting to justify the killings).
Widgery’s inquiry, which could clearly be seen as a whitewash, showed that once again the old boy network had come together to justify judicial murder, ordered and sanctioned at the highest levels of the military and government. In contrast, Major Hubert O’Neill, the Derry City Coroner and a former British Army officer, said at the inquest in August 1973:
The people of Derry, like the people of Amritsar five decades before, still mourn their dead and seek justice for the killings. Much of what was to come later stemmed from those judicial killings on Derry’s streets:
18: The Times,
19: The Guineapigs,
20: The Irish Times,
21: Eyewitness Bloody Sunday,
Unionists had been continually clamouring for soldiers to be used against nationalists and the Stormont Government, who abhorred civil rights protests and nationalist No-Go areas, had declared the demonstration illegal. After Bloody Sunday the Tory Government at Westminster, faced with world wide protests and a situation rapidly slipping from their control, suspended the Northern Ireland constitution and abolished Stormont. This would, it was thought, remove the contradictions caused by having two governments, and allow for a smoother implementation of British political and military policy. Westminster, however, continued to back the status quo, but now opted to do so by direct rule.
In July 1972, after failing to negotiate the removal of nationalist no-go areas, the British Government ordered the army to terminate them. Using tanks as a spearhead, the Army’s ‘Operation Motorman’ described as ‘the largest military operation since Suez’, cleared the barricades, allowing fully equipped and armed soldiers to retake the ‘No-Go’ areas. A soldier who was part of this operation recalled: ‘We were in Belfast for Operation Motorman and the briefings for it were horrendous. It was going to be machine-guns in windows, people throwing grenades, storm-troop tactics. The operation was supposedly top secret, completely hush-hush, direct from Whitehall. We were to take out the high-rise blocks in the New Lodge ... The aim was to get on the roofs and dominate the town while the rest of the unit sealed the streets and did house-to-house searches.’
After ‘Operation Motorman’ British soldiers forcibly occupied nationalist areas, within which the army had hastily constructed a series of corrugated-iron and barbed-wire ‘Wild West’ style forts. Regiments arriving in Northern Ireland were given these ‘patches’ to control and dominate. Once on a tour of duty, a soldier was liable to find that his home for the next four or six months was one of these military fortresses in a hostile nationalist area. Cramped into these forts, the soldiers - and the local population outside - viewed each other with a deepening mutual animosity. This report appeared in the official Army magazine, Soldier:
The soldiers were increasingly trained for an occupying role, learning from booklets adapted from Land Operations. A. F. N. Clarke served with the Paras as a private, a NCO and as a commissioned officer from 1971 to 1978. In his book, Contact, he described a typical para unit, inside a fort in Ballymurphy in early 1973:
Ciarán de Baróid, in his book BALLYMURPHY and the Irish war, described the experiences of the local people with the soldiers: ‘Greater Ballymurphy was placed under 24-hour military occupation by the paratroopers. Patrols of 15 to 20 soldiers, keeping mainly to back-gardens, would race from one position to the next, so that troops were constantly appearing out of entries to search, question, assault and arrest passers-by. The streets were patrolled by Saracen armoured cars, Browning machine-guns trained on any visible resident, along with smaller Ferrets and the heavy Saladins – small six-wheeled tanks sporting machine-guns and a 76mm cannon. Any male leaving the house now risked beatings and humiliation from the patrols that passed at a daytime average of one every five minutes.’ De Baróid continued:
The reaction of the local people to the soldiers presence and actions was outlined by Gerry Adams, in his book Before the Dawn. Describing the British Army as an ‘oppressive occupying force’ he then went on to state: ‘As military intervention in the neighbourhood increased in frequency and intensity so the local people, out of their own feelings of self-respect, outrage and resistance, organised more and more their own response to the military presence. The attitude and presence of British troops was also a reminder that we were Irish, and there was an instant resurgence of national consciousness and an almost immediate politicisation of the local populace.’
22: Northern Ireland - Soldiers Talking,
25: BALLYMURPHY and the Irish War,
The Conscientious Objector
Most army forts were ugly structures, surrounded by a high corrugated-iron fence, topped with barbed wire, with look-out posts at regular intervals. There was constant danger of attacks, from snipers and petrol and mortar bombs. Inside, the troops were cooped-up in overcrowded and unsanitary living accommodation. In this hostile and alienating situation, the only way for soldiers to relieve their frustrations was to take it out on the ‘enemy’ outside. Some soldiers, who embodied the macho image, glorified in provoking and seeking aggro with the locals:
Soldiers, often situated in increasingly hostile territory, now found themselves in the front line. Some liked this more aggressive role, others just wanted to survive their tour of duty and they kept their heads down, obeyed orders and did not ask awkward questions. A few, like Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was stationed in North Belfast, started to have doubts:
Most soldiers went to Northern Ireland believing they would be doing a worthwhile job, but many became disillusioned by the reality. Captain Mike Biggs, who left the army as a conscientious objector, was interviewed on BRM Radio in Birmingham by presenter Ed Doolan:
26: Y Saeth,
27: Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine,
28: Full text in Voices For Withdrawal,
Truth the First Casualty
In 1917, in the US Senate, Hiram Johnson had said: ‘The first casualty when war comes is the truth.’ In 1969, the British Army’s secret training manual Land Operations stated: ‘The government should permit a free press to exist, as far as this is possible. ... The press, properly handled, is one of the government’s strongest weapons.’
As British soldiers first arrived in Northern Ireland, they found themselves in an environment little different from their hometown areas. Previous ‘Emergencies’ had taken place in far off countries. Northern Ireland was much closer to home, as this ex-officer recalls:
In Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden inquisitive journalists had been kept away from the action, but this was not always possible now. In Northern Ireland, reporters appeared to be everywhere, and the army quickly realised that an ‘information policy’ was required. The writer Liz Curtis, in her book Ireland - The Propaganda War, detailed the build up of Army public relations in Northern Ireland:
British politicians knew they required a compliant public in order for the army to carry out its counter-revolutionary operations. Westminster, therefore, called all army operations ‘Peace Keeping’ and sought to control all media reporting, but their - and the army’s - clear preference was to manipulate the media, rather than suppress it. The British media, in the main, proved acquiescent to the establishment view of the situation. But a few individual journalists refused to dissipate their critical faculties, and the Irish and international press sometimes provided an alternative view. Consequently, at the end of 1971, Land Operations was updated and further public relations aims were added:
Most coverage in Britain continued to faithfully follow the Army line. As a BBC News sub-editor stated, ‘I’ve always assumed the official line is we put the army’s version first and then any other.’ In Britain this state propaganda was largely successful, but wider afield it had less effect. In the North of Ireland it fooled very few, as the conflict continued, not only in the streets and fields, but also for the hearts and minds of the people.
29: Land Operations Volume 111 - Counter Revolutionary Operations,
30: Y Saeth,
31: Ireland: The Propaganda War,
32: Ibid - Ireland: The Propaganda War,
In 1971, a group of British pacifists decided to leaflet British soldiers while they were on patrol in Belfast. The text of their leaflet was based on a statement produced by War Resisters International for American GIs in Britain during the Vietnam War:
The pacifists continued to leaflet soldiers, often at army bases and married quarters in Britain. Usually, they received a friendly, or at least a non-hostile reception from the soldiers, but suffered arrests and prosecution from the authorities. Some, including Pat Arrowsmith, were charged with ‘incitement to disaffection’.
There had been protest demonstrations in Britain since soldiers were sent out onto the streets of Northern Ireland. Often personalities lent their support to such events, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono who, in August 1971, took part in a march through central London against the continued use of British soldiers in Ireland. On the demonstration Lennon displayed a copy of the revolutionary paper Red Mole with its headline: FOR THE IRA - AGAINST BRITISH IMPERIALISM, emblazoned across the front page. He also led demonstrators in chants of: ‘Power to the people!’ After the killings of the 13 civil rights demonstrators in Derry, by British soldiers 5 months later, Lennon wrote the song Sunday Bloody Sunday:
Later that same year Paul McCartney, another ex-Beatle, recorded his protest song about Ireland. Recalling Bloody Sunday and the killings 20 months before in the US of 4 students by National Guard soldiers during a protest against the Vietnam war at Kent State University, McCartney said: ‘Before I did this song, I always used to think, God, John’s crackers, doing all these political songs. I understand he feels really deeply, you know. So do I. I hate all that Nixon bit, all that Ireland bit, and oppression anywhere. I think our generation do hate that and wish it could be changed, but up till the crucial time when the paratroopers went in and killed a few people, a bit like Kent State, the moment when it is actually there on the doorstep, I always used to think it’s still cool not to say anything about it, because it’s not going to sell anyway and no one’s going to be interested.’
Give Ireland back to the Irish was Number One in Ireland and in Spain. In Britain it was immediately banned by the BBC for its political content, but still reached Number 16 in the British charts:
33: On LP, Some Time In New York City,
34: The British Media and Ireland,
Bring our Boys Home
After Internment, Operation Motorman and Bloody Sunday political and military resistance became entrenched in nationalist areas. A huge repertoire of songs and poems, with posters, graffiti and wall paintings, reflected that opposition, including the experiences of locals at the hands of soldiers. In the early 70’s, the IRA received a consignment of Armalite rifles from America. Many British soldiers were killed or wounded by this weapon which became the subject for a song, My Little Armalite:
Chillingly, for British soldiers, graffiti started to appear in nationalist areas, proclaiming: ‘GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS – BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL’. 1972, especially, was a year of extreme violence that claimed 496 lives. 108 soldiers, 26 UDR and 17 RUC members were killed, as were 74 republicans and 11 loyalists. In the mayhem, 258 civilians also died, many caught up in shootings and bombings.
Some soldiers, like Lance Corporal Kevin Cadwallader, deserted to Sweden rather than face another tour of duty. He said: ‘I came to Sweden for asylum because of Northern Ireland. I do not think that what is happening there is very good. As I see it, there must be a simpler way of ending the fight without more people being killed. So I have left rather than fight in something I think is wrong.’ Other soldiers who had fled from the army went on the run in Britain. Terry, a deserter from the Royal Artillery, was interviewed by Time Out magazine:
Of course the great majority of soldiers did not go to these extremes, but the dissatisfaction of British soldiers with tours of duty in Northern Ireland did dramatically increase over the years. An ex-marine recalled this period, when feelings of disaffection and dissatisfaction were building among the troops:
Some soldiers, including many who had - or others who would have - become NCOs, began to leave the army in large numbers – either purchasing their discharge or refusing to re-enlist. New soldiers to fill the gaps proved hard to procure and expensive recruitment campaigns were undertaken. This was still evident in later years as Hansard reported: ‘£26 million was spent on recruitment last year ; during this period there were 40,243 recruits - an average of £654 per recruit was thus spent … Of this £1,050,000 was spent on press ads for officers; 2,135 were recruited in this period, an average of £500 per recruit.’
By the end of 1974, 232 British soldiers had been killed in the conflict and over 2,500 wounded, many seriously. In Britain, disenchantment with the war, due in part to the high level of soldiers’ deaths and injuries, continued to grow. Early in the previous year, 1973, Peggy Chaston, a Reading housewife and a soldier’s relative, had started a public petition calling for ‘our boys to be brought home’ from Northern Ireland:
35: Peace News,
36: Time Out,
37: Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine,
39: The Times,
The Troops Out Movement
The Troops Out Movement (TOM), a British campaign for troop withdrawal, was started in London in late 1973. Supported by a number of Labour MPs, TOM quickly became a nation-wide movement attracting considerable publicity and support among liberal sections of the population. The author of Oliver’s Army was one of the founding members of the TOM and a steady stream of Northern Ireland veterans turned up to support the organisation after they had left the British Army.
During the late 60s the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign had been formed in Britain to campaign on Ireland. Then, as the struggle escalated into open war, the Irish Solidarity Campaign appeared. After internment was introduced the Anti-internment League emerged. While many British radicals helped to form and support these organisations the bulk of their members were Irish. Focused on the tide of struggle in the north of Ireland, the Irish in Britain regularly flooded out onto the streets to create many massive demonstrations and other protests. By the middle of 1973 there occurred a downturn of work on Ireland as the radical groups concentrated on the industrial struggles which were to bring about the ‘three day week’, a miners strike and the end of the Heath Conservative government in early 1974.
In August 1973, a small group of anti-imperialist activists began to meet regularly in West London and planned the forming of a new organisation on Ireland – which would be keyed into the increasing dissent about the aggressive use of British troops and also the concern about their mounting casualties. At the time of the TOM’s inception, the Tory Government was having increasing domestic difficulty. The TOM’s first bulletin, Tom Tom, produced in late 1973, quoted from the NCCL (National Council for Civil Liberties) annual report: ‘Parliament was dissolved, in the midst of a red scare unparalleled in thirty years, with the declaration by the government of a sixth state of emergency, the continuation of a joint police/military operation at Heathrow - despite its doubtful validity - and the admission by the Home Secretary that troops might be used in industrial disputes.’
Kitson, and others, had openly advocated using troops to end strikes and soldiers’ training became increasingly political throughout this period. The ‘enemy’ without and within was equated, as Terry, a deserter from the Royal Artillery, explained: ‘We’ve all been through riot training as part of our normal training - it was a bit of fun at the time. One half of us pretended to be Irish or the miners - or whoever was on strike at the time - and the other half would just charge into them. We’d think, “Today we’ll really get those strikers or those Irish”, we really thought like that.’
In early 1974 the TOM organised a conference in London on; ‘The British Army in Ireland and its Projected Role in Britain.’ The event was a great success, with a capacity audience of over 700 people from all over the UK, who afterwards helped to consolidate the TOM and expand its network of branches throughout the country. TOM has continued to campaign ceaselessly ever since for the withdrawal of British troops from the north of Ireland – and on issues thrown up by the conflict concerning truth, peace and justice.
40: Time Out,
When British troops first appeared on the streets of Derry and Belfast in 1969, the Unionist government of Northern Ireland was discredited in the eyes of the world. The soldiers’ first violent clashes were with loyalist crowds bent on carrying out their version of ethnic cleansing. In those early days, unionists / loyalists received a relatively bad press compared to nationalists / republicans, who were often portrayed as victims. After backing the unionist status quo, the Westminster Government followed by the British media, gradually reversed how these two sectors of the population were seen. It became clear that it was the direction of British Government policy that decided who would be regarded as ‘terrorists’ - or not.
The Irish writer, Eamonn McCann, wrote about the way the British media were covering the increasingly bitter conflict: ‘As far as the British press was concerned the soldiers could do no wrong. Residents of Catholic working-class areas in Belfast and Derry could see rubber bullets being fired at point-blank range, the indiscriminate batoning of bystanders and rioters alike, men being seized and kicked unconscious and then let go. As time went on and the weaponry escalated some witnessed the reckless use of firearms, the casual killing of unarmed people, sometimes at a range of a few yards. They experienced the offensive arrogance of soldiers on patrol, the constant barrage of insult and obscenity, and in the British press they read of Tommy’s endless patience under intense provocation, of his restraint in the face of ferocious attack, his gentlemanly demeanour in most difficult circumstances.’ McCann continued:
Nationalist hopes, engendered by the civil rights campaign, that discrimination and oppression might end, were slowly destroyed by the orders of the politicians and the actions of the army. These lines, from the poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing by Seamus Heaney, expressed the feelings of many:
Using its Land Operations manual as a blueprint, the British Army had attempted to win a military victory, using the tactics of counter-revolutionary war, in the north of Ireland. A primary counter–insurgency technique, developed from times well into the past and used against the United Irishmen in 1798, was to force / draw rebel movements into premature rebellion – and then take-on and destroy them using the superior numbers, professionalism and fire-power of the British forces. This thinking was behind the Paras’ actions on Bloody Sunday in Derry, after being used, with varying degrees of success, during Britain’s colonial wars from 1945. From the army and political establishments point of view their Bloody Sunday operation had two objectives:
While the first objective was largely met, the second turned into a disaster for the establishment. Republicans refused to be drawn into open confrontations and continued their struggle through guerrilla warfare, while the army killings on Bloody Sunday inevitably increased nationalist alienation and hardened resistance - providing a flood of volunteers for the IRA.
While the tactics of counter-revolutionary war had proved successful in many of the conflicts from 1945, there were crucial techniques – like the forced resettlement programmes of Malaya and Kenya – that were politically untenable in Northern Ireland. So, unable to separate the IRA from their supporters, the army instead sent their soldiers into nationalist areas in an attempt to dominate and / or intimidate the population and force the IRA into the open. However, once again in Ireland, aggressive military actions provoked a resistance that the soldiers found impossible to defeat. Certain of victory at the start, but now, with sections of the British population clamouring for withdrawal, the government and the military top brass, as they approached 1974, were apprehensively trying to curb the mounting army casualties and stop the growing disaffection of their soldiers.
41: The British Press and Northern Ireland,
......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................
Now read chapter nine of Oliver’s Army