OLIVER'S ARMY

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Cromwell's Men are Here Again

Counter-revolutionary Operations

 

‘Round the world the truth will echo
Cromwell’s men are here again
England’s name again is sullied
In the eyes of honest men’

From The Men Behind the Wire,
by internee Pat McGuigan,
recorded by the Barleycorn.

 

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:

Call out the instigators
Because there’s something in the air
We’ve got to get it together sooner or later
Because the revolutions here

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:

To give general guidance on the conduct of counter-revolutionary operations, whether they are concerned with civil disturbances, terrorism or insurgency in the pattern of revolutionary war. It examines the methods most likely to be used by the instigators of disorders, revolts and insurgency, be they nationalist or communist inspired or based within or outside the territory concerned, and it sets out the general principles on which the security forces, working in close concert with the appropriate civil power, should base their operations.[1]

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

 

 

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:

The nature of the support the book received indicated that it was not merely an expression of one person’s views, but represented widespread Army opinion. The foreword was written by General Sir Michael Carver, then Chief of the General Staff. The book was defended in the House of Commons by the Tory Minister of State for Defence, Lord Balneil, who maintained: ‘This book is written by a most experienced officer in counter-insurgency, and it is regarded as being of valuable assistance to troops who will have to operate in the field’.[2]

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:

We have recently looked at a copy of the Army Land Operations manual ... The manual, a loose-leaf text of over 300 pages outlines the attitude of the British Army towards social unrest and in minute detail describes the Army’s choice of responses to it. The manual is marked restricted and as such covered by the Official Secrets Act. But since that Act is now so discredited and since the information contained in the manual can be of no military aid to any enemy, we have decided to publish parts of it, believing it vital that the political issues it raises are open to public debate.

The manual shows clearly that the Army regards its operations in Ireland as counter-revolutionary [my emphasis] ... This will come as no surprise to Ireland watchers, but is contrary to the Army’s press-handout image which portrays its role in Ireland as that of keeping the peace between two bigoted factions.[3]

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:

Between the end of World War II and 1st January 1969, Britain’s forces have had to undertake a wide variety of military commitments and only in Europe, after the formation of NATO, has there been any real stability. Fifty-three of these commitments have been of the counter-revolutionary type, with only Korea and the short Suez campaign falling outside this category.’[4]

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,
by Carol Ackroyd, Karen Margolis, Jonathon Rosenhead and Tim Shallice,
Pluto Press 1980.

3: Time Out,
10-16 Jan. 1975.

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

 

 

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 Army rapidly produced a booklet; called ‘Notes on Northern Ireland’, with the praiseworthy aim of giving its men some idea what the trouble was all about.

... The booklet printed in full what purported to be the oath of the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein. As a case-study in psychosis, it deserves reprinting:

‘I swear by Almighty God ... by the Blessed Virgin Mary ... by her tears and wailings ... by the blessed Rosary and Holy Beads ... to fight until we die, wading in the fields of Red Gore of the Saxon Tyrants and Murderers of the Glorious Cause of Nationality, and if spared, to fight until there is not a single vestige and a space for a footpath left to tell that the Holy Soil of Ireland was trodden on by the Saxon Tyrants and the murderers, and moreover, when the English Protestant Robbers and Beasts in Ireland shall be driven into the sea like the swine that Jesus Christ caused to be drowned, we shall embark for, and take, England, root out every vestige of the accursed Blood of the Heretics, Adulterers and Murderers of Henry VIII and possess ourselves of the treasures of the Beasts that have so long kept our Beloved Isle of Saints ... in bondage ... and we shall not give up the conquest until we have our Holy Father complete ruler of the British Isles ... so help me God’.

The interesting point is that the oath was never taken by members of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein, indeed, had no oath of any kind. The version the Army got dated from 1918, when it was forged by a group of over-heated Unionists. It has since appeared regularly in Loyalist Ulster news-sheets, most recently in Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph. It bears exactly the same relation to reality as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - indeed, in its constant dwelling on blood, it has much in common with the Protocols. As a document, therefore, it tells one nothing about Sinn Fein, though quite a lot about the impulses to violence in Unionism.[5]

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:

My first encounter ... was when a mobile patrol came under nail bomb attack, and the patrol lifted a man who they thought might have been the thrower. I was watching the company TV when he was dragged into the camp. He was shown to all the others in the TV room.

He was then taken into the passageway and was repeatedly hit in the stomach and balls with rifle butts. Then the rest of the soldiers joined in with fists and boots. He then had his fingers broken by a corporal who jumped on them while two others held his arms out. All this happened within about ten minutes of him being dragged in. Another instance was while I was on a foot patrol in the Catholic area of Belfast. We encountered a small group of kids who began to throw bottles and so on ... and as usual the army over-reacted. Before long there was a rather larger crowd. After a while there were a few shots fired at the army and I was ordered to search, with two others, some back alleyways. A boy of about 16 was stopped in an alleyway by an NCO who was pointing his rifle at him and telling the boy that he was going to kill him. He kept asking the boy - who by this time had a dark patch down his jeans and was shaking a lot - what it felt like to know that you’re going to die any moment. The NCO kept this up for about five minutes, then told the boy to go away (in different words, of course).

The boy went to his father, who went to the commanding officer that same day - who instantly denied everything.[6]

5: Ulster,
by the Sunday Times Insight Team,
Penguin Special 1972.

6: Socialist Worker,
14th Aug. 1976.

 

 

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.’[7]

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.’[8]

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:

During early 1972 I was posted away from my battalion to a unit in Ireland called a military reconnaissance force, or MRF. I was based at the army HQ, 39th Infantry Brigade Group, Lisburn. We operated in plain clothes, in civilian vehicles, in teams of from two to four members, each with a senior NCO or subaltern. Although it is not normal practice for members of the WRAC to even do weapon training, some women worked with us. We were instructed in the use of the Russian AK47 assault rifle, the Armalite, and a Thompson submachine gun. All these weapons are favoured by the provos. I will leave it to your imagination why Brigadier Kitson thought this was necessary, as these weapons are not standard issue for the British army. We used the Browning pistol and the Sterling submachine gun only.

One day in April 1972 I was on plain-clothes surveillance duties with two other soldiers. We drove along the Whiterock Road, Upper Falls. We had a death list with names and photos, with the orders, ‘Shoot on sight’. One of the soldiers saw James - a man on the list, and another whose name I forget. We swerved our car in front of them, by some school gates, and leapt out, drawing our pistols, and opened fire. They tried to run down an alley. We ran down it after them and the patrol commander gave the order ‘bullets’. I scored several hits myself; both men were severely wounded. We radioed for a uniformed patrol. When it turned up their commander said to ours, ‘you stupid bastards, you’ve shot the wrong fuckers’. The army issued a press statement alleging that the men had shot at us and that the army had a pistol to prove it. This was a lie. Both men were brothers on their way to work - innocent men going about their lawful business.

In May 72 another MRF patrol assassinated a man called McVeigh, with the intention of blaming the Protestants and taking the heat off the army. A month later the MRF shot three taxi drivers in Andersonstown. A Thompson was used.[9]

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,
by Frank Kitson,
Faber and Faber 1971.

8: Sunday Mail (Scotland),
8th Oct. 1972.

9: Troops Out, July 1978,
statement made by a Northern Ireland veteran
at a TOM public meeting, the previous month, in Bristol.

 

 

Internment

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:

22 people died in the riots of the next four days. In Derry, the Bogside and the Creggan became ‘No-Go’ areas, and a huge rent and rate strike was called by Republican families in protest.

Within 48 hours of the initial arrests, 116 men had been released. They told stories of having been beaten up, thrown backwards out of helicopters they believed to be high in the air, forced to run barefoot between rows of baton-wielding soldiers and across broken glass and barbed wire. In 1975, the Home Secretary, Merlin Rees, told Parliament in a written answer that over £300,000 compensation had been paid in 473 cases of detainees and ex-internees claiming redress for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery.[10]

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:

Through the little streets of Belfast
In the dark of early morn
British soldiers came marauding
Wrecking little homes with scorn.
Heedless of the crying children
Dragging fathers from their beds
Beating sons while helpless mothers
Watched the blood pour from their heads.

Not for them a judge and jury
Nor indeed a crime at all
Being Irish means they’re guilty
So we’re guilty one and all.
Round the world the truth will echo
Cromwell’s men are here again
England’s name again is sullied
In the eyes of honest men.[11]

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’:

It was the experience of a further twelve detainees (and two more a month later) who became known as the ‘guinea-pigs’ that focused world attention on Northern Ireland and resulted in Britain being taken to the court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, charged with torture, but found guilty of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’.

... Each man was hooded, made to wear loose-fitting overalls, kept in isolation, and put in a fixed position against the wall, with arms and legs spread out. Any movement attracted beating or kicking from the guards. They were deprived of sleep and food and subject to a constant background noise (known as ‘white noise’), that cut out any other sound. In between these extended periods of standing at the wall, the men were subject to prolonged bouts of interrogation. This treatment continued for up to six days.[12]

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,
Thames TV Ltd. and MacDonald Futura Publishers Ltd. 1980.

11: Written by Pat McGuigan while he was interned,
recorded by the Barleycorn.

12: The Troubles,
Thames TV Ltd. and MacDonald Futura Publishers Ltd. 1980.

 

 

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 British Army, as the instrument of internment, has become the object of Catholic animosity. Since that day the street battles, countless explosions, migrations from mixed areas and cold-blooded killings have done little to reassure us that internment would, by the removal of the gunner, provide a return to a semblance of law and order, a basis for a political solution to Ulster’s problems. Ironically it appears to have produced the opposite effect … the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is now even more alienated and hope that Catholics and Protestants could live in harmony is even more remote…

Fortunately 45’s stay in this depressing and unhappy country is a short one. The recent shootings of British soldiers during the past week and the continuing explosions make it evident that internment was quite inefficacious. It has, in fact, increased terrorist activity, perhaps boosted IRA recruitment, polarised further the Catholic and Protestant communities and reduced the ranks of the much needed Catholic moderates. In a worsening situation it is difficult to imagine a solution.[13]

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:

During my six years in the Army 18 months of my service was spent in Northern Ireland; from February 1971 until July 1972. One of the first things I remember is when the present troubles first began, and British troops were sent over to Northern Ireland. I was placed on a standby list ready to fly there from Germany at 72 hours notice. Then, without reason, I was taken off this list, and upon inquiring why was told that due to my parents coming from the South of Ireland and myself being a Catholic, it would be better if I was not sent.

Then, after a while, when the troubles escalated I was sent over there in February 1971. Obviously the army, being pushed for man-power, were not particular this time. Once over there we were given a half hour lecture to try to understand what had been going on for 800 years, so you can work out your own conclusions from this.

Whilst there I saw a lot of what was going on, and after a few months I realised the pointless efforts of the British Army. What popularity they had had in Catholic areas, slowly deteriorated, and the biggest crunch to show whose side the Army was on came when internment was introduced. Hundreds of men interned for their beliefs and opinions, homes wrecked and innocent people shot dead.

I saw plenty of deaths, but none struck me more than the body of a young girl shot dead in a gun-battle, and knowing that if the Army wasn’t there this girl would most probably be alive today.

One must understand the average soldier in an infantry battalion who is sent to Ireland. The large majority of them do not realise that they are there to carry out a peace-keeping role; they think that the Catholic community is the enemy and should be treated as such. How often I have heard the remarks from troops, ‘Fenian bastards’ and ‘Papist bastards’, never would one hear anything about ‘Prod bastards’.

Same if there was any trouble in the Catholic areas. I know from experience because I have been ordered to go in there and see how the local population react to our presence - it amazes me that Higher Command should have to ask, but on another occasion when there was a small barricade on the Shankill Road I was ordered not to drive through it as it may antagonise the local population.

Part of my duties consisted of being at the Reception Centres at Holywood and Curdwood barracks. Here I saw many young men brought in by the Army, frightened and bewildered, and as far as I could see, their only crime being that they were males aged between 15 and 50, lived in a certain area and were of a certain religion.

I saw a lot of injustice and discrimination, but I was unable to do anything about it. I could only help where it wasn’t noticed and eventually, as a submission to my feelings, I went absent to Dublin for several days and returned of my own accord. I was posted immediately to England to finish my remaining year off there.[14]

13: Reprinted in Pig in the Middle,
by Desmond Hamill,
Methuen London Ltd 1985.

14: From a speech given at the TOM’s first public meeting,
in Fulham Town Hall - Oct. 1973.
Details in West London Observer, 2nd Nov. 1973.

 

 

Bloody Sunday

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 [1921], 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.’[15]

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:

They had been told to expect IRA-inspired violence during the civil rights march.
But they were in no mood to talk to me. There was a sense of heightened anticipation among them.

They were tense and hyped-up to a degree I still recall clearly today.

I hung around while they piled into their armoured personnel carriers, known as Pigs.
As they moved off, boots and weapons drummed the metal floors as if they could not wait for the action to begin.

As far as the Paras were concerned, there would be no “no-go areas” that afternoon.[16]

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...’[17]

15: The Troubles,
Thames TV Ltd. and MacDonald Futura Publishers Ltd. 1980.

16: Sunday Mail (Scotland),
1st. Feb. 1998.

17: Northern Ireland - Soldiers Talking,
by Max Arthur,
interview with a Warrant Officer from the Royal Green Jackets,
Sidgwick and Jackson 1987.

 

 

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.’[18]

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:

Some or all have played an important part in counter insurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus and more recently in the British Cameroons (1960-61), Brunei(1963), British Guiana (1964), Aden (1964-7), Borneo/Malaysia (1965-6), the Persian Gulf [i.e. Oman] (1970-71) and in Northern Ireland (1970-71).’[19]

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:

It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a parade that was banned, but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer unadulterated murder. It was murder [my emphasis].[20]

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:

The people of Derry have always known that Bloody Sunday was more than a ‘scoop-up operation’ by 1 Para which went wrong. We have always suspected that it was planned and premeditated and that Lord Widgery was employed to do some legal cosmetics on the ugly face of hard-core political and military decisions. The decision to reward Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, the commander of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday, with an OBE later that year not only threw salt on the wounds, but confirmed our suspicions that we were dealing with very sinister and powerful forces.[21]

18: The Times,
26th Nov. 1971.

19: The Guineapigs,
by John McGuffin,
a Penguin Special 1974.

20: The Irish Times,
22nd Aug. 1973.

21: Eyewitness Bloody Sunday,
by Don Mullan,
Wolfhound Press 1997.

 

 

Operation Motorman

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.’[22]

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 grey of the high corrugated iron which fences in Support Company of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, is only marginally lighter in shade than the grey of the rendered walls of the houses outside in the dank gloom of a winter Sunday morning on Belfast’s outskirts. The modern counterpart of a Wild West stockade, the ‘wriggly tin’ fortress is surrounded by the ‘Indian country’ of the notorious Ballymurphy estate with its fervent Republican sympathies.[23]

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:

As time drags on, the whole camp is praying for a contact. For an opportunity to shoot at anything on the street, pump lead into any living thing and watch the blood flow. Toms [soldiers] sitting in their overcrowded rooms putting more powder into baton rounds to give them more poke; some insert pins and broken razor blades into the rubber rounds. Buckshee rounds have the heads filed down for a dum-dum effect, naughty, naughty, but who’s to know when there are so many spare rounds of ammunition floating about. Lead-filled truncheons, magnum revolvers, one bloke has even got a Bowie knife. Most of the NCOs and officers are aware that these things are around and if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be doing the job. We have spent months and years training, learning from pamphlets called Shoot to Kill, Fighting in Built-up Areas and others. So now, we’re let loose on the streets trained to the eyeballs, waiting for a suitable opportunity to let everything rip.[24]

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:

An 18-year-old youth from Ballymurphy Crescent, who was stopped along with his girl-friend at the Bullring, was spreadeagled against a wall for 20 minutes while the soldiers twisted and squeezed his testicles, goading the young woman with lewd remarks about her boyfriend’s future virility. Another youth was forced to go on his hands and knees in a patch of mud with the Paras calling him a dog and ordering him to bark at his girl-friend. Resistance of any form to this treatment would have resulted in beatings and arrest – and a charge of assault from which there would be no escape in the courts.[25]

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,
by Max Arthur,
interview with a marine of 42 Commando,
Sidgwick and Jackson 1987.

23: Soldier,
April 1977.

24: Contact,
by A. F. N. Clarke,
Pan Books 1984.

25: BALLYMURPHY and the Irish War,
by Ciarán de Baróid,
Pluto Press 1990.

 

 

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:

Although many men join the Army for defensible aims, such as preservation of one version of civilisation, or the defence of our society against attack, many join to obtain a legal licence for thuggery. These people, in Northern Ireland, take a delight in ‘Paddy-bashing’.

It is the simple things that upset people most. Like the landrover patrol that takes an air rifle and fires pellets at people in Catholic areas deliberately to provoke an angry response. Or the house search where furniture is deliberately wrecked, ‘to teach these micks a lesson’, the householder being forced to sign a disclaimer saying that the troops have been courteous and polite - on pain of the home being wrecked again. Or the spot vehicle search, in which a car’s tyres are let down miles from anywhere in the dead of night with the owner left to cope as best he can.[26]

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:

I was sent to the North the day after my 18th birthday ... I was stationed in Tactical HQ as an orderly for a period. Anyone arrested and all suspects were brought in there for screening. My room where I slept was right next door to the interrogation room and every night you’d hear people coming in and getting roughed up, their heads being banged against the walls, screaming and everything. I was more annoyed at losing my sleep than anything else at the time...

I saw lots of blokes who had been given a real hammering. One of the first things I saw when I arrived there was a little room called ‘The Box’. It was about 10 feet by 10 feet with a table and chair in it - and it was covered in blood. Other blokes said - ‘It’s just from blokes who get a working over’. There were pictures in the Intelligence Room of blokes propped up between two marines, really smashed to pulp...

When I was there I didn’t understand the situation, but I tried to keep my mind open. I was willing to listen. I used to read the Irish News. I was one of the few people who read it. Then the CO banned it because it started reporting incidents of my unit beating people up. I complained and then people began to accuse me of being a sympathiser - in a joking way - but on occasions people got a bit serious. At times I was threatened physically by people who were frustrated with it all and saw me as a bit sympathetic to the other side. But I wasn’t - I was just against killing from any quarter.[27]

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:

Ed Doolan: Former army captain Mike Biggs caused quite a stir when he wanted to leave the army. I’m going to ask Mike to give us his story. Mike, now you went over to Ireland when?
Mike Biggs: Back in June 1973 and I stayed until September 1973.

Ed Doolan: Take me through those months and what happened to you as a person and what you decided to do.
Mike Biggs: Perhaps I should say that I went out there feeling I was a peace-keeper, I was part of a peace-keeping force. Through my own experience, through the patrolling on the streets, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t see myself as a peace-keeper - just through the reaction from the community and the way we were patrolling a certain area.

Ed Doolan: Now you’d better expand on that reaction from the community.
Mike Biggs: I said I thought I was a peace-keeper and I approached members of the community - basically people of my own age, who I thought might have a similar interest - and the suspicion and antagonism with which they greeted me, because I was there in army uniform and with a weapon - there was no way that they could believe me when I said, ‘Look, I really do want to know what you’re at.’ The uniform and the weapon told them something otherwise.

Ed Doolan: Was that irrespective of the religion and background of the people you were talking to?
Mike Biggs: Well, in Newry where I was, it’s a predominantly Roman Catholic area, so you have to say that most of the people I came into contact with would have been Catholics. In Newry I also saw that rather than peace-keeping between the Catholics and the small Protestant community, we were pushing a wedge through, which was furthering the division between the two communities. I could see that we were actually polarising them.

Ed Doolan: How were you doing that?
Mike Biggs: The Protestants certainly associated strongly with the army. They gave us all the goodies, they came to us, they saw us quite often. A patrol in a Protestant estate was always a vehicle one and was always considered an easy ride. Whereas in the Catholic estates, in particular in Derrybeg - we were there very frequently on foot and on patrol, and certainly the attitude adopted by the patrol was a far more no-nonsense attitude, a very hard-line one, which reflected once again the attitude that was instilled into us - to be very suspicious of the Catholics because they are the people who are likely to harbour the IRA, and they are the people who are likely to give you trouble. I went out to Northern Ireland thinking that would be the case. What I gained from my experience there was that I questioned whether their antagonism was because we were patrolling their areas so frequently, because we certainly were. We were there day and night incessantly.

Ed Doolan: What about the attitude of you and your mates when you were patrolling? You have been quoted as saying that you didn’t think that you as the army behaved particularly well towards the population.
Mike Biggs: Once again it’s this peace-keeping myth. I saw us as occupying an area and I think our presence there, without naming specific incidents, was a harassing one. Because the local populace could be searched, they could have their houses searched at any time. And so there was the physical presence of us being there, being occupied physically, and also psychologically, so that people wouldn’t do certain things because of the army’s presence there. Quite often there was no real concrete evidence that the houses we searched, or the people we searched, were harbourers of the IRA people or of any kind of information. We were seeking out information on anybody, on as many people as possible.

Ed Doolan: At random?
Mike Biggs: No systematically. Going through streets so that we’d know which houses we’d checked recently, the details of the people, how many people there were in the family, where they worked, what they were doing ... and each battalion that goes out there builds up a very systematic checkout on all the people.[28]

26: Y Saeth,
Spring 1977,
by a Welsh ex-officer.

27: Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine,
British Soldiers Speak Out On Ireland,
Information On Ireland 1978.

28: Full text in Voices For Withdrawal,
Information On Ireland 1980.

 

 

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.’[29]

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:

Colonial wars were fought in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus and many other places. In each case the troops were told they were keeping the peace, and in each case their presence was disastrous...

This war is much closer to home. The people are white, and cannot be dismissed in the shameful way we dismissed our other victims as coons, ayrabs or wogs. Their towns look just like Cardiff or Glasgow, not some pathetic collection of shanty huts that we can arrogantly despise. Their language is the same as ours, and they can tell us exactly what they think of us instead of babbling away in some incomprehensible native lingo while they lined up like sheep for the slaughter.[30]

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:

In September 1971, soon after the start of internment, the army reorganised its information service in the North, setting up an ‘Information Policy’ department. This was initially headed by paratroop Colonel Maurice Tugwell, whose title was Colonel General Staff (Information Policy). Tugwell had previously been an intelligence officer in Palestine, and had also served in Malaya, Cyprus, Arabia and Kenya.

... Tugwell’s job as ‘Information Policy’ chief was, ... described [as] ... ‘not merely to react to the media - or to events - but to take a positive initiative in presenting the news to the best advantage for the security forces’.

... The army began training officers in how to be interviewed on television, and by the end of 1971 more than 200 officers had been through courses at the Army School of Instructional Technology at Beaconsfield. Here they were taught basic lore, such as always to look at the interviewer to give the impression of sincerity, and told how to answer ‘typical’ TV questions.[31]

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:

a. The requirement to provide information for national and world-wide publication, to convince national and world opinion that the cause to which the army is committed is a good one.
b. The importance of fostering good relations with the local community.
c. The need to preserve and improve the image of the army.[32]

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,
Ministry of Defence 29th Aug. 1969
(Revised in 1971 and 1973 and at regular intervals afterwards).

30: Y Saeth,
Spring 1977,
article by a Welsh ex-officer.

31: Ireland: The Propaganda War,
by Liz Curtis,
Pluto Press 1984 - updated edition published in Belfast by Sásta 1998.

32: Ibid - Ireland: The Propaganda War,
by Liz Curtis.

 

 

Back Home

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:

If you’re at an army recruiting centre and thinking of joining the British army, think again. This may be a tough time when there’s so much unemployment, but the real question is, Why is there so much unemployment? It is time that the system that maintains injustice and poverty is ended.

If you are a member of the British Army, you too can help by making your views known, and talking over the situation among yourselves ... Other actions may be extremely difficult; we are not in your position and can only raise questions and make suggestions. If you are going to be posted to Northern Ireland we ask you to consider objecting to this and trying to find ways of avoiding being sent there. If you are already stationed in Northern Ireland we appeal to you not to carry out inhuman orders...

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:

Well it was Sunday bloody Sunday
When they shot the people there
The cries of thirteen martyrs
Filled the free Derry air.
Is there any one amongst you
Dare to blame it on the kids?
Not a soldier boy was bleeding
When they nailed the coffin lids![33]

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.’[34]

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:

Great Britain you are tremendous, nobody knows like me,
But really what are you doing in the land across the sea?
Tell me, how would you like it if on your way to work
You were stopped by Irish soldiers,
Would you lie down, do nothing?
Would you give in, who can say?

Chorus:
Give Ireland back to the Irish,
Don’t make them have to take it away.
Give Ireland back to the Irish,
Make Ireland Irish today.

33: On LP, Some Time In New York City,
Lennon / Ono 1972.

34: The British Media and Ireland,
Information On Ireland, 1979.

 

 

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:

I was stopped by a soldier,
said he, ‘you are a swine’,
He beat me with his baton
and he kicked me in the groin,
I bowed and I scraped,
sure me manners were polite
But all the time I’m thinking
of me little Armalite.

Chorus:
And it’s down in the Bogside [or any local area]
that’s where I long to be,
Lying in the dark
with a Provo company,
A comrade on me left
and another on me right,
And a clip of ammunition
for me 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.’[35] 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:

At 15 it seemed to appeal to me - it seemed to offer more and regular pocket-money and when I rejoined for a further six years I was still hung up on money and I hadn’t given any serious thought to whether the army was the right place for me.

... In the army I was trained to kill and to cope with riots. About 8 or 9 weeks into your training you’re shown human targets on the rifle range and you’re told to shoot for the centre of the target to achieve maximum damage. You’re not taught to injure someone so they can’t escape arrest - you’re just taught to kill. ... Any non-essential violence I disagree with completely and I call the army’s violence in Ireland non-essential....

Since I deserted I’ve been worried and depressed because the army gets you into their routine, so you don’t have to think for yourself. I’m used to walking into the mess hall, for example, getting a meal, eating it and leaving the plates and cutlery for someone else to wash. The army tells you to stop thinking for yourself. They don’t like people thinking for themselves - that’s why they lay everything on for you. The only thing a soldier does for himself is once a month wash his civvies at the launderette.

I want to say the best of British luck to any army deserter who may read this. Second, to those people thinking of joining - don’t do it. My message to anyone already a soldier is that I am a lot happier out of it.[36]

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:

Years ago when the ‘troubles’ first started soldiers viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland as an opportunity to get some active service in. To many young soldiers who had not served in Aden and Malaya, despite the dangers, Northern Ireland seemed very exciting, it was the real thing, something to boast about back home.

However, the novelty wore off. By 1975 when I was discharged a tour of Northern Ireland was the worst thing that could happen. The number of soldiers deserting or going AWOL would increase, alcoholism and violence was prevalent, and the cost to family relationships was immeasurable. Apart from very new recruits who had never been there the attitude of most soldiers is that we should get out - though it is usually expressed by saying that we should let them fight it out.[37]

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 [1976]; 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.’[38]

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:

Opposition MPs at Westminster have been talking for months about the growing resentment in the country against the rising death toll of British soldiers in Ulster, but it has taken a housewife to present the feeling in concrete terms.

... With a minimum of national publicity, she has secured in four weeks more than 42,000 signatures for the petition.... Mr. William Whitelaw and other political leaders have warned Mrs. Chaston that her campaign can only have the result of encouraging the IRA.

... She steadfastly refuses to listen to criticisms about the effect her campaign could have on the ordinary civilians of Ulster. ‘This is their struggle, and British people should not be made to die for it’, she said. ‘Neither should their wives and mothers be forced into nervous breakdowns’.[39]

35: Peace News,
8th June 1973.

36: Time Out,
7th to 13th April 1972.

37: Chris Byrne, ex-Royal Marine,
British Soldiers Speak Out On Ireland,
Information On Ireland 1978.

38: Hansard,
2nd May 1977.

39: The Times,
2nd July 1973.

 

 

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.’[40]

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,
7th to 13th April 1972.

 

 

Déja-vu

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:

The other side, ‘the rioters’, got different treatment. They were represented as vicious and cowardly, almost depraved in their bloodlust.

To say that the press distorted the situation beyond all recognition is not to say that those who came on to the streets to fight British soldiers behaved in a manner which liberal opinion would find admirable. Of course not. Riots are not like that. In the average Northern Ireland riot neither side gives much quarter. Verbal and physical abuse is fairly unrestrained. There are teenagers in the Bogside who, obscenity for obscenity, could match the best, or the worst the British Army could put up. A soldier seized by a rioting crowd would receive much the same treatment as arrested rioters experience at the hands of the army. But the great majority of the British people, dependent on the press to tell them what is happening in the North of Ireland, are by now incapable of forming a judgment about it, so one-sided has the reporting been.[41]

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:

This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
In the roadside, and over in the trees

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
And it was déja-vu, some film made
Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again

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:

  1. To stop the increasing political agitation [demonstrations etc] of the re-formed Civil Rights Movement – turning the conflict into a mainly military one.
  2. To attempt to draw the IRA [not just on the day but also in general] into open confrontations with the army on the streets.

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,
by Eamonn McCann,
Northern Ireland Socialist Research Centre 1971.

 

 

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

 

Now read chapter nine of Oliver’s Army
Acceptable Levels

The Ulsterisation of the Conflict