The Ulsterisation of the Conflict
‘Christ, I remember the day we arrived in Ulster.
Nigel Benn, boxer and Northern Ireland veteran.
The 2nd World War had marked the beginning of the end for European empires, with Britain, Portugal, Holland and France subsequently becoming involved in colonial conflicts in various parts of the world. After being forced to withdraw from Vietnam in 1954, France, determined not to suffer another humiliation, concentrated its forces in Algeria. Frantz Fanon was sent to the war zone as a doctor, but his experiences led him to join the FLN which was fighting to end French rule. Fanon saw how establishments back home in the metropolitan countries used subtle methods to maintain their rule, as opposed to the more direct measures used in the colonies. In his book, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote: ‘The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.’ Fanon continued:
Back home in France, Jean-Paul Sartre was a critic of the war who was hated by the pro-war lobby because of his descriptions highlighting the contradictions of the conflict. Sartre explained that when the revolt started in Algeria the fighting followed an inevitable pattern: ‘Our Army is scattered all over Algeria. We have the men, the money and the arms. The rebels have nothing but the confidence and support of a large part of the population. It is we, in spite of ourselves, who have imposed this type of war - terrorism in the towns and ambushes in the country. With the disequilibrium in the forces, the FLN has no other means of action.’ Sartre continued:
While every colonial war has different circumstances and characteristics, Fanon’s and Sartre’s descriptions will find echoes in most other conflicts of this nature. Since 1945, in numerous parts of empire like Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, British governments have sent their troops to confront nationalist movements, who often came from the most marginalized sections of the native population. These were ordinary people, motivated by the injustice of their situation, and alienated from the state because they had experienced its methods at first hand. Westminster found, that unlike most conventional politicians, they could not be bought, cajoled, flattered or frightened off.
1: The Wretched of the Earth,
2: From Jean-Paul Sartre ’ s preface to The Question,
Unwelcome Foreign Oppressors
In the north of Ireland, the cartoonist Cormac reflected life as he saw it on the streets of his native West Belfast. In one cartoon he drew a street scene with an Army helicopter in the sky and a soldier - a tail-end Charlie covering the rear of a patrol - walking backwards along the street. Cormac depicted the helicopter as an UFO (Unwelcome Foreign Oppressor) and the soldier as a strange alien. The North had became a world cut in two, the frontiers marked by the barracks and forts built across nationalist areas. The only representatives of Britain that many nationalists and republicans met were the armed soldiers on their streets. Not surprisingly, that contact was usually bitter and often violent.
While the long term roots of the conflict in the north of Ireland goes back to partition and the creation of a sectarian 6 county statelet, the events that led to the crisis in the 60s occurred when the priorities of big business changed. With the traditional industries in the North in decline, there was a convergence of the economic interests between the dominant capitalist forces in Britain and the South of Ireland - which became apparent when they both applied to join the EEC. To facilitate a possible new economic union between Southern Ireland and Britain, the Labour government then pressurised the Unionist government at Stormont to modify the discrimination against the Catholic population in the North. But this plan failed when the immovable object of a monolithic Unionist bloc crashed against the irresistible force of Nationalist’ aspirations, as embodied in the Civil Rights Movement – culminating with the battle of the Bogside and a start to the conflict.
By the end of August 1969 the British Army was once again in Ireland in force and has remain so ever since. Westminster had only wanted to modify Northern Ireland, not destroy it, and they now found, that with the RUC and B-Specials defeated and demoralised, only troops from Britain could uphold the existence of the statelet. The initial policing operation of the soldiers, aimed at containing the growing rebellion of the Catholic ghettoes, inevitably brought the army into increasing conflict with the nationalist population – and led to the IRA, which had effectively been reborn as a local defence force against loyalist attacks, to launch offensive guerrilla actions against the state forces.
In the early 70s the army had embarked on a number of counter-revolutionary actions against the IRA and the nationalist areas that supported them. While this drastically increased the military repression - with constant house searches, repeated intimidation and arrests - the troops operations, like internment, Bloody Sunday and Motorman, only alienated nationalists and strengthened IRA resistance. At the same time Westminster was trying to win-over ‘moderate’ nationalist opinion and, after Bloody Sunday, the then Conservative Government, under pressure from widespread protests, made a major policy-switch - abolishing the Stormont Parliament and introducing Direct Rule. Loyalists, who until then had been content to sit back and watch the army repress nationalists, now began to increasingly oppose some aspects of Direct Rule – which in turn caused a measure of disintegration in the formerly monolithic Unionist alliance.
In 1973 the Conservative government also launched the Sunningdale Agreement, which was designed to split nationalists by drawing the ‘moderate’ SDLP into a ‘power-sharing’ government in the North. Westminster also wanted to draw the South into an alliance against ‘terrorist violence’; therefore a proposed ‘Council of Ireland’ was also part of the Agreement - the details of which were arranged between the British and Dublin governments, as well as representatives from the Unionist Party, Alliance Party and the SDLP. Sunningdale was immediately attacked by loyalists and ultra-unionists, who wanted their old Stormont back and who totally rejected ‘power-sharing’ and the ‘Council of Ireland’. Protests against the Agreement were then organised across the North.
The Sunningdale Agreement
The 60s had proved a testing time for Western establishments, with their motives questioned and authority challenged. In the US the Vietnam War threatened to split the country in two and in Europe workers’ struggles and student’ protests were repulsed by state repression. In the early 70s the ruling class in Britain were still beset by doubts and fears, especially after the Heath Conservative government was defeated by the miners in 1972 – which in turn led to other industrial disputes and the ‘three day week’. The opposition Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, appeared to be moving to the left and in right-wing circles there was talk about the need to change the ‘wet’ Conservative leadership – as well as paranoia about the ‘dangers’ of a Labour government.
In later years, Harold Wilson’s former Press Secretary, Joe Haines, told how Labour’s leaders had secretly considered a radical change of policy on Ireland: ‘There were times ... especially in the Opposition years from 1970 to 1974, when I believed that the next Labour Government would take its courage to Parliament and announce that an orderly, but irrevocable, withdrawal was to take place. Courage it would certainly have needed, for withdrawal ... was as unmentionable in Whitehall and Westminster as devaluation had been ... (even when we did mention it privately, in the irresponsibility of Opposition, we only did so under the code-name of “Algeria”).’ 
Army and intelligence officers, who tended to be strongly influenced by right-wing thinking back in Britain, were already upset by the Conservative government – and Labour in opposition – arranging meetings with the IRA, at a time when that organisation had launched a major new offensive and was killing a lot of their fellow soldiers. Many also felt that the politicians were placing too many constraints on the army’s counter-revolutionary operations against the ‘terrorists’ and they were lukewarm about Sunningdale, which they – like the loyalists - saw as an appeasement to Irish nationalist interests. The military were also unhappy with the Agreement because the army was now trained, tactically and psychologically, for a war against republicans / nationalists and they did not now want to find themselves fighting both sections of the North’s population.
Facing a second minors’ strike in early 1974, the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, called a snap election on the issue: ‘Who runs Britain – the Government or the miners?’ When Labour won the February election and immediately ended the miner’s strike by conceding nearly all their demands, right-wing paranoia deepened and some extreme elements even discussed organising a coup d’Ètat. When Labour also proceeded with Sunningdale, the hostility of some of the military towards the Agreement changed to outright opposition, with some army and intelligence officers even seeking common cause with the loyalists to bring it down.
Direct Rule had caused a deep division in Unionism, between those whose priority was to maintain the Union with Britain and those who wished to preserve the Protestant Ascendancy - even if it meant breaking the link with Britain. Westminster had set up a power-sharing executive at Stormont to facilitate the Sunningdale Agreement, but the majority of Protestants voted for anti-Sunningdale candidates at the February election. Subsequently, loyalist protests against the Agreement increased and a Co-ordinating Committee was set up to run them. Representatives on the committee included: the UVF, UDA, the Red Hand Commando, Down Orange Welfare, Ian Paisley representing the Democratic Unionist Party and William Craig, the ex-Stormont Minister for Home Affairs who had been instrumental in removing O’Neill, from the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.
3: The Politics of Power,
Sunningdale Brought Down
While it was militant loyalists who were determined to bring down Sunningdale, working class nationalist were also opposed to the Agreement - because it offered no hope of ending internment, British soldiers on their streets and no possibility of attaining their right, as part of the majority Irish people, to self-determination. The sectarian structure of employment in the North had given Protestants the more highly paid skilled jobs in the key industries. The loyalists’ committee decided to utilise this and organise an Ulster Worker’s Council (UWC) ‘strike’, which they threatened would shutdown most of the North’s infrastructure and industry. First they tried to win the workers support, so in the Harland and Wolff’s shipyard the UWC called a mass meeting - but only 1,000 of the 10,000 workforce attended. They were not asked to vote for or against the stoppage, but to indicate support for a demonstration – only 50 hands were raised in support. The loyalists, however, were not put off by this lack of backing - they just resorted to force and intimidation:
At Mackies engineering factory, where 25% of the labour force had gone to work, a group of armed and masked men ordered them out at gun-point. Masked UDA men wearing camouflage jackets also systematically went round commercial premises, including shops, and ordered them to close down. They then erected barricades on roads and streets across the North, halting - and often burning - business vehicles and forcibly stopping anyone thought to be going to work. Loyalist paramilitaries had also launched a spate of sectarian attacks on nationalists. On the 2nd of May a bomb exploded at the Rose and Crown bar in Belfast killing six Catholics, and in gun attacks during the next week - at Donaghmore, Newtownabbey and Glengormley - six more nationalists were murdered.
William Craig, a member of the loyalists’ committee, spoke on Dublin’s RTE radio and said that the loyalist assassination campaign, although ‘unfortunate’ was ‘understandable’ and ‘excusable’. Five days later, on the 17th of May, four car bombs exploded on crowded streets in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 people and wounding nearly 300 more. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings were carried out by loyalists, but facilitated - with planning, information and sophisticated bombs - by sections of the British military and intelligence machine.
Initially, the Labour government had drawn up plans to use troops to run the power stations and other essential services in the North and they arranged, with the TUC, 'return-to-work’ marches, including one to the Harland and Wolff’s shipyard. But the military High Command were reluctant to contemplate this use of troops, so they tended to ignore, or disobey, the orders from Labour politicians to move against the loyalists’ actions. Soldiers were seen fraternizing with loyalist protesters and propaganda designed to discredit Wilson and his government was covertly issued by sections of MI5 and military intelligence in the North. The army also failed to give adequate protection to the 'return-to-work’ marches, which subsequently saw the TUC’s General Secretary, Len Murray, being pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes in Belfast.
The crucial turning-point came when it became clear that the British Army was not going to intervene against the loyalists’ stoppage and Protestant support subsequently became overwhelming. Merlyn Rees, Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary, who had to face this mass opposition - not only from the loyalists but also from sections of his own military – wanted Labour to abandon Sunningdale. Wilson insisted on carrying on and made a broadcast to the nation about the crisis – angrily attacking the UWC ‘strike’ - on the 25 th of May:
Eleven days after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and three days after Wilson’s speech, the power-sharing executive collapsed and Sunningdale was brought down. Militant loyalists had destroyed the Agreement, but only with the support of sections of MI5, the army officer class and other right-wingers in Britain. As Direct Rule was resumed from Westminster, loyalists held a victory rally at Stormont and celebrated with street parties throughout the North – some pinned sponges to their lapels, as their way of putting-up two fingers to Wilson and the Labour government.
4: The Point of No Return –
After the fall of Sunningdale, calls for ‘withdrawal’ were increasingly heard back home. Opinion polls were clearly showing that over half the British population favoured this option and on June 3rd 1974, the Daily Mirror, which claimed ‘Europe’s biggest daily sale’, started to campaign for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, saying: that: ‘Britain must face the most sombre option of all - to pull out the troops and abandon sovereignty.’ A few days previously the London Evening Standard had carried the headline, ‘Ulster: Back-bencher makes a startling claim - HALF LABOUR MPs ‘WANT TO PULL OUT’.
In the face of mounting casualties, it was also evident that many of the soldiers were fed up with their role in Northern Ireland. In April 1974, Christopher Dobson - ‘With the troops in Ulster’s ugly world of terrorism’ - had filed this report in the Sunday Telegraph; ‘To walk along Belfast’s Royal Avenue today is like walking in the past - along Ledra Street in Nicosia when Eoka’s murderers were at work. Venturing into the Bogside in Derry is like taking a patrol into Aden’s Crater district, and dropping by helicopter into a border fort is like visiting a fire-base in Vietnam’. Under the heading - ANGER OF ARMY THAT FEELS BETRAYED - Dobson continued:
In July 1974, the British Government published their latest White Paper on Northern Ireland: ‘In the past five years over 1,000 people - men, women and children; soldiers, policemen and civilians - have died by violent means. There has been great continuous and widespread suffering and destruction. ... In August 1969 there were only 2,500 (troops) stationed in Northern Ireland. This figure rose to 22,500 by the end of July 1972 and has never been fewer than 14,500 since that time.’  As the pressure for troop withdrawal mounted and soldiers’ disaffection increased, a search was put in motion for a new political and military strategy:
5: Sunday Telegraph,
6: Government White Paper:
7: Pig in the Middle - The Army in Northern Ireland,
The Labour Government, faced with mounting troop casualties in Northern Ireland, the subsequent low levels of soldiers’ morale and increasing domestic opposition to the war, now put in motion the ‘Ulsterisation’ programme. The ideas behind Ulsterisation, which was adopted for use in Northern Ireland from the mid-70s, were taken from the policy used by the US during the Vietnam war. Vietnamization had been suggested to the Americans by Sir Robert Thompson, who became a world-renowned counter-insurgency expert after his involvement in the Malaya ‘Emergency’: ‘Sir Robert Thompson, a trusted adviser of Mr. Nixon and a renowned expert on counter-insurgency, is one of the architects of Vietnamization, which he describes as a ‘long-haul, low-cost’ strategy. His optimistic evaluation of Vietnamization was cited in the President’s policy statement as proof of its success.’  From 1961 to 1965 Thompson headed the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and consequently became a consultant to the United States National Security Council and the White House:
Vietnamization ultimately failed, but as TV viewers in the UK watched the last US soldiers being helicoptered out of Saigon and North Vietnamese troops entering the city, a similar policy was now being instated in the north of Ireland. After the Sunningdale Agreement was brought down by loyalists, army officers and right-wing elements in Britain, Westminster had given up on political initiatives and trying to deal with loyalist bigotry and bias. Instead, successive British governments would now concentrated all their efforts in a war against ‘terrorism’ - harnessing the discredited forces of unionism in an onslaught against the IRA.
For some time many British politicians at Westminster had thought that the use of soldiers could only stabilise the situation, but not provide a solution. As early as December 1971 Reginald Maudling, the Tory Home Secretary, at the end of a visit to Belfast had said: ‘I don’t think one can speak of defeating the IRA, of eliminating them completely, but it is the design of the security forces to reduce their level of violence to something like an acceptable level.’  (No one seemed to ask the question: ‘To whom was it acceptable?’) Under Ulsterisation, it was hoped that an extensive, but better trained and more integrated, security force apparatus would now be able to keep all dissent and armed insurgency within nationalist areas - but also try to dominate and intimidate that opposition, to keep it to ‘acceptable levels’.
While the idea of Ulsterisation had been taken from the strategy of counter-revolutionary warfare, its implementation had to take account of the limitations that its application in the north of Ireland would place on it. In a part of Europe and the UK, the full extent of the military operations undertaken in places like Malaya and Kenya were politically untenable. So, conscious that past army operations had alienated nationalists en masse, a hybrid strategy – part internal-security and part counter-revolutionary - was devised. It was hoped that this would lead to less, but better targeted security forces’ operations - and with a re-trained RUC taking an increasingly dominant role that it would be easier to criminalise IRA actions. If the media then gave little, or better still no, coverage to the struggle in the Catholic ghettos, Westminster could then claim that there was now a normal, or almost normal, situation.
8: Revolutionary War - Western Response,
9: Ibid - Revolutionary War - Western Response,
10: Irish Times,
In the north of Ireland the British state was to draw on and develop the experiences of the previous colonial wars. But here it was subject to new constraints, because the anti-colonial population were white, spoke the same language and were a part of Western Europe. The state forces experienced a greater tension than before, between the repressive methods they wished to use and what they could get away with - without outraging international and domestic opinion. Psychological warfare techniques and manipulation of the media assumed an even greater importance.
In the early days of the conflict British media coverage was often sympathetic to nationalist views and fears, with the problem being perceived as unionist / loyalist bullying and intransigence. As the Army’s counter-revolutionary operations increased, a stream of ‘black propaganda’ stories were released, aimed at criminalising the IRA and identifying them as the only reason why goodness and democracy could not return to Northern Ireland. With chapters on ‘The Threat’ and ‘Principles for the Conduct of Counter Revolutionary Operations’, the army’s secret Land Operations training manual detailed how psychological operations, military actions and political initiatives must be co-ordinated:
A component part of Ulsterisation was the Criminalisation policy. With the RUC now playing a leading role, Irish opposition to British rule could once again be categorised as ‘crime’, and the problem defined in terms of how to deal with ‘criminals’. The RUC were now trained in interrogation techniques by British soldiers, who had applied these methods during internment and in previous colonial wars. The RUC interrogation centre at Castlereagh became notorious throughout the north of Ireland, because of the systematic brutality and torture used there - which was exposed in the Amnesty report of 1978 and the Bennett report a year later.
Under legislation, like the Emergency Provisions Act of 1973 and The Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, extensive powers of stop and search had been introduced and the onus of proof shifted onto the accused during trials. Special non-jury Diplock Courts were then introduced. Over which presided the Northern Ireland judiciary, most of whom were unionists - who had a vested interest in upholding the state. In the Diplock Courts, which had extremely high conviction rates, the vast majority of convictions were based wholly or mainly on confessions obtained under interrogation. This process became a conveyor belt system for incarcerating ‘suspect’ members of the public.
In 1980, the Guardian newspaper pointed out: ‘Before the troubles Northern Ireland had one of the lowest prison populations in Europe. Now its prisons are bursting. There must be at least some truth in the argument that most of the prisoners would not be there but for crimes deriving from the political situation in which they find themselves.’  The war was carried on in the prisons by the IRA prisoners, who refused to wear prison clothes or be classified as common criminals. This led to the ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protests, which finally escalated into the tragic hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.
11: Land Operations Volume III - Counter Revolutionary Operations,
Local State Forces
Under Ullsterisation, the RUC was reorganised, rearmed with automatic weapons and thrust into the front line. The RUC’s reorganisation had its roots in the recommendations contained in the Hunt Advisory Committee’s report on the Northern Ireland police of October 1969. Also contained in the Hunt Report was the idea to disband the Ulster Special Constabulary (the B-Specials), and replace them with a force that would do basically the same job, but with an acceptable new face. Already formed, the build-up of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) was accelerated. In an attempt to allay nationalist fears about its formation, the UDR had been made a part of the British Army and it now rapidly became the largest, as well as the youngest, infantry regiment.
Unionists / loyalists were at first upset and angry about losing ‘their’ B-Specials and police. However, they quickly saw the potential of the ‘new’ RUC and UDR, which were being equipped with modern weapons and receiving military training. The UDR had been approved at Westminster as far back as 18th December 1969, when an Act of Parliament authorising its formation was passed. Seven battalions of the UDR were raised and operational by 1st April 1970 and a further four battalions were formed over the next two years. Loyalist paramilitary groups like the UDA and the UVF began openly encouraging their members to join. It was then that the true intentions of the British administration in creating the UDR were shown:
After Ulsterisation, the UDR and RUC began to patrol in nationalist areas and, while this reduced the casualty figures for British soldiers, it was in effect - by using local unionist forces - turning the conflict back to the early 20s when the Specials and RIC had attempted to repress the nationalist population. Increasingly, reports of anti-Catholic abuse and harassment began to appear in the Irish papers:
The RUC and UDR were trained for Ulsterisation to be classical colonial-style police and militia forces. However, the British government’s hopes that these units would show more allegiance to Westminster than to Ulster would only be partly realised – as over the decades a steady stream of UDR members were convicted of various sectarian crimes against Catholics.
14: Ibid - Hibernia,
From Algeria to Northern Ireland
During the French / Algerian war of 1954-62, many of the police - who were predominately ‘colons’ (descendants of white settlers) - had suffered mental problems. Frantz Fanon, as a doctor who specialised in psychiatry, was assigned to a hospital in Algeria during the rising against the French. Fanon describes how, one day, a police inspector came to consult him:
Often it seems to be part of the ethos of colonial forces that they will ritually humiliate the native peoples - both verbally and physically - every chance they get. In Northern Ireland since 1969 papers like the Irish Press have contained a litany of complaints about the sectarian abuse and violent attacks that nationalists have been subjected to from the security forces. In Algeria, many of the ‘colons’ had racist attitudes that were similar to those of loyalists in Northern Ireland. As a critic of the French war in Algeria, Jean-Paul Sartre described the problems that the French colonisers brought on themselves because of their racist feelings towards native Algerians:
In Northern Ireland it was after Ulsterisation, when policemen were issued with flak-jackets and armed with automatic weapons and thrust into a front-line role, that signs of the psychological problems that ‘soldiers’ experience in such situations began to show in the RUC. Nationalists in the north of Ireland, like the native people of Algeria, suffered from the actions of sectarian, alienated and dehumanised policemen who were often permanently assigned to dangerous areas and on or off duty had access to legally held weapons. This deadly concoction of military-style training and indoctrination, with guns in easy reach, augmented by alienation, dehumanisation, sectarianism and stress, was a time bomb threatening to explode at any time:
15: The Wretched of the Earth,
16: From Jean-Paul Sartre ’ s preface to The Question,
17: City Limits,
By 1980, the RUC’s combined strength of regulars (7,000) and reserves (4,500) was nearly four times its 1969 strength of 3,000 – over 90% of which were recruited from the Protestant sector of the North’s population. Kathleen Magee, who worked with the RUC for a year while researching a book, stated that: ‘Signs of stress were common among the [RUC] members that I came in contact with. Many would describe entering into dangerous situations while shaking uncontrollably, others admitted to going through periods of drinking too much when working in areas of high terrorist activity. Stress-related illnesses, such as stomach ulcers and nervous rashes, were also common.’  The media then became interested in ‘the pressures’ on the RUC and details of past incidents began to emerge:
In Algeria, when France threw the full weight of its forces against the FLN, some sections of the military and police colluded with colon elements to launch terror attacks on native Algerians. A similar scenario was to unfold in the north of Ireland, with the RUC special branch playing a dominant role. Ulsterisation had thrust the RUC into the forefront of the conflict, with its policy of ‘police primacy’ and soldiers playing the backing role. Policemen, armed with automatic weapons and wearing flak-jackets, increasingly appeared in nationalist areas - although they usually required the protection of numerous British soldiers. Gradually, the RUC began to take back many of the policing roles that British soldiers had been carrying out from the early 70s – except in the most dangerous areas, like South Armagh,.
This front-line role now became reflected in the casualty figures and, by 1980, 135 RUC members had been killed in the conflict and over 1,000 wounded. Over 100 UDR soldiers were killed in the same period - some, who were part-time, were tracked down to their homes, or civilian jobs, and gunned-down. From Westminster’s point of view Ulsterisation was working. The local security forces were now taking the brunt of the casualties and the coffins, instead of coming home, were now being buried in the conflict area. While this saved British governments from pressure inside Britain for the withdrawal of troops, it only added to the bitterness and hatred within the north of Ireland - by increasing the civil war aspect of the conflict.
18: Irish Times,
19: Daily Telegraph,
During the period of conflict in Northern Ireland, Britain’s political parties prided themselves on their ‘bipartisanship’, paralleling the ‘blind eye’ attitude shown towards Northern Ireland after partition - which led to the ‘troubles’ in the first place. Bipartisanship meant supporting and not criticising the ruling party’s policy, leading to the puerile level of discussions about the problem at Westminster. A few brave MPs asked pertinent questions and opposed all, or part of, Government policy. Invariably, they were attacked by their own party bosses, other establishment voices, and were vilified by the media.
Like most colonial style conflicts, Ireland was an undeclared war. Through Ulsterisation, it was hoped to make it a forgotten war. When the war refused to go away, most MPs kept their heads down and toed the Government line. Many of the discussions about this conflict in the British Parliament have been a disgrace. In early 1976, the journalist James Fenton went to report a debate at Westminster:
In the US, Oliver Stone a Vietnam veteran, made a series of films about American involvement in Vietnam. In the Guardian, journalist Martin Woollacott wrote about Stone:
Much of Stone’s view of the American / Vietnam situation would find a echo in Britain’s policy towards the north of Ireland - and especially in the ‘bipartisanship’ of the Westminster politicians.
20: New Statesman,
Voices for Withdrawal
Some in Britain, however, were not deterred by establishment hostility, or media attacks. The Troops Out Movement (TOM) continuing to campaign, and win support, for the withdrawal of troops. TOM also pointed out that the conflict in Ireland, which was always aimed at suppressing the right of the Irish people to self-determination, had contributed to the erosion of democracy inside Britain. From 1969 the Irish community in Britain had also suffered high levels of harassment, especially after the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced - as the first edition of the TOM paper, Troops Out, pointed out:
The Birmingham 6, the Maguire 7 and the Guildford 4 were just some of the innocents arrested under this Act and then wrongfully convicted. The TOM itself was subject to state harassment and infiltration from intelligence agents, especially after it established links with sections of the labour movement. When TOM members were stopped and questioned visiting Ireland, the first question they were usually asked was: ‘How many Labour MPs are supporting you now?’ Thankfully, some in the Labour party were not afraid to speak out. In early 1976, nine Labour MPs: Andrew Bennett, Sydney Bidwell, Maureen Colquhoun, Martin Flannery, Tom Litterick, Eddie Loyden, Joan Maynard, Ron Thomas and Stan Thorne wrote a letter to The Times, proposing ‘Steps to Peace’ on Ireland:
The TOM worked with Labour MP like these, who had the courage to stand against Westminster convention, break with bipartisanship and point out the abnormal situation in Northern Ireland. The movement also provided a platform at meetings, demonstrations and in its Troops Out paper to various voices who were calling for withdrawal.
22: Times, 20th Feb. 1976.
A. J. P. Taylor
During year after year of conflict, British governments and the media claimed that Britain was the ‘honest broker’ in the Northern Ireland situation, ‘with no axe to grind and looking for a solution as much - if not more so - than the next person’. Until, that is, someone did suggest a solution, or a course of action, that did not follow the establishment line. Then all hell broke loose. On 11 April 1976 the late, eminent British historian A. J. P. Taylor was interviewed on Irish radio and casually answered a few questions about Northern Ireland. His pro-withdrawal remarks led to an outraged response in the British press. Afterwards, I contacted him and he readily agreed to allow me to interview him for the TOM paper, Troops Out. This is what he told me:
A. J. P. Taylor was famous for his common sense view of historical events and his ability to unravel the origins of wars. In this capacity, he appeared many times on TV talking about past and present conflict situations throughout the world. But never once was he asked to speak again about Northern Ireland, or even Anglo / Irish relations. At the end of my interview with him, A. J. P. Taylor pointed out to me the real problem that had still to be faced in Ireland:
23: Interview appeared in Troops Out,
24: Ibid - Interview with A. J. P. Taylor,
In Algeria, from 1954 to 1962, France had mobilised its settlers, called ‘colons’, to act as a garrison against Algerian independence. The use of this tactic in colonial situations has a practical as well as a political use. Using locally recruited soldiers and police saves time, money and the lives of soldiers from the metropolitan country. They are usually enlisted from a specific sector of the indigenous population, who often provide administrators as well as soldiers and policemen. With a vested interest in maintaining colonial rule, they become the passionate champions of ensuring the link with the metropolitan country prevails. Subsequent conflict often becomes, at least partially, civil war - allowing the establishment in the colonising country to hide behind a mask of patronising benevolence, while exploiting this tragic situation for propaganda purposes.
Losing Vietnam was a disaster for the French establishment. But to lose Algeria was much worse - because the country, with its large settler population, was claimed to be an integral part of France. It took an intense act of will by the French Premier, Charles de Gaulle, to negotiate and then force through a withdrawal. Ironically, as a great war-hero and noted imperialist, pro-colonialists had thought that de Gaulle would ‘save Algeria’ and not ‘abandon it’. Before finally pulling out, France was brought to the brink of civil war - surviving an attempted coup d’etat - and saw a revolt by some of its local and elite forces in Algeria. A number of attempts were also made to assassinate de Gaulle, as France found out that in colonial conflicts it is sometimes difficult for the metropolitan country to control its security forces. Unlike politicians, who can mentally switch opponents from ‘terrorists’ to ‘statesmen’ without batting an eyelid, front-line forces often prove more intractable.
Back in Britain, in 1924, MI6 had sent the forged ‘Zinoviev letter’ to the Daily Mail; this ‘red scare’ ensured the defeat of Labour in that year’s General Election. Fifty years later, some sections of MI5 were conspiring with right-wingers in Britain against Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Wilson himself, and some of his colleagues, were subject to break-ins, wire-tappings and a hostile media – after allegations of a new ‘red scare’ were leaked by sections of the intelligence-services. Some army officers in the north of Ireland, who thought they had ‘the IRA on the run’, joined the attacks on the Labour government and conspired with loyalists against the Sunningdale Agreement. Wilson resigned as party leader in 1976, at 60-years-of-age, became a Lord and retired from public life. Almost a year before Margaret Thatcher had become the new leader of the opposition Conservative Party; she was backed by many of the right-wing forces that had attacked Wilson.
Five months after Wilson resigned, Roy Mason took over from Merlyn Rees as the Northern Ireland Secretary. Ironically, Mason, a former Defence Secretary who had close links to the MoD, was also an ex-miner still sponsored as an MP by the NUM. He dramatically escalated the most repressive aspects of Ulsterisation - especially SAS covert operations and the criminalisation process - and he subsequently became the most hated Westminster politician to have presided over Northern Ireland.
When Labour lost the next election in 1979, the new Tory Government lost no time in taking on the most militant section of the British working class. The ‘enemy within’, as the Conservative leader, Thatcher, called the miners, were subject to the full force of the state - in an operation that was remarkably like the way the security forces under Mason had dealt with nationalists in Northern Ireland. Culminating with the 1984-5 strike, the Miners’ protests were criminalised and the police used in a paramilitary role to intimidate the strikers. In 1984, The Miner reported:
MI5 was authorised by Downing Street to set up an operation to destroy the NUM and especially its leader Arthur Scargill. The union was then subject to phone-tapping, burglary, infiltration by state-agents, falsification of records and lies in the media – usually from propaganda material released by the intelligence services.
When a small handful of establishment right-wingers had got together in the early 70s, their aims had been to destroy the most militant section of the British working class, the miners - replace the Tory ‘wet’ leadership - and to ensure there would be no more chance of a ‘left’ Labour government. They also thought there should be ‘no surrender to the IRA’ and therefore conspired with loyalists to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement. While all of this is past history, democrats would do well to think a little about how those events of 30 years ago effects our present situation:
If we turn our eyes towards Ireland, we should first remember that in 1912-14 establishment right-wingers in Britain had conspired with army officers at the Curragh Camp and unionists in the North to effectively block the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill. Sixty years later similar elements brought down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. And now, another 30 years on, we see almost exactly these same forces trying to block the current Good Friday Agreement and destroy the Irish Peace Process. It is surely in the interests of British and Irish democracy that we ensure that they do not prevail again – and that we now all work together to consign them to the dustbin of history, where they belong.
25: The Miner,
......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................
Now read chapter ten of Oliver’s Army