Declassified Files: Future General Mike Jackson savaged ability to counter IRA propaganda in 1990

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A senior Army officer savaged the propaganda offensive against the IRA in 1990 – but prompted an exasperated response from the NIO’s most senior official who said that the Army expected the government to give them cover for bad behaviour, declassified files reveal.

Brigadier Mike Jackson, who would go on to become chief of the general staff, the most senior Army officer, wrote a blunt three-page letter to John Ledlie, a senior NIO security official, in June 1990.

Mike Jackson was commander of 39th Infantry Brigade at the time

Mike Jackson was commander of 39th Infantry Brigade at the time

Brigadier Jackson, who was at that point commander of 39th Infantry Brigade in Northern Ireland, set out his “thoughts on the defeat of terrorism in general, and on the part to be played by community relations...in particular” in a document released at the Public Record Office.

He said that a successful campaign to defeat terrorism, “not merely to manage or contain it”, required several dimensions – “a sufficient and well-directed security policy which achieves the right balance of, and interaction between, overt and covert operations; an economic policy designed to improve the general standard of prosperity, and particularly that of the deprived areas; a social policy aimed at equal opportunities and the removal of sectarianism; the encouragement and support of a political regime which offers hope to all the community and which devolves as much responsibility as possible on to that community; and a legal framework which achieves a judicious balance between democratic freedoms and the ability to inflict damage on the terrorists”.

It was crucial, he said, to “isolate the terrorist from those on whose behalf he purports to wage the ‘armed struggle’” and for the terrorist to be “spurned by his co-religionists” who “cannot see any future other than failure, death or imprisonment”.

He said that to achieve that aim it was crucial to “change the perceptions...of those who may overtly or tacitly support terrorism”, requiring a “deliberate and carefully designed information offensive to win the bloodless battle for the mind.

“The enemy understands this well enough and displays considerable skill in his campaign. For him this is a propaganda battle, for he is not constrained by concerns of truth or credibility; for us it cannot be propaganda, because we are rightly so constrained...the high ground, including the moral high ground, is the place to be!”

He said that in Belfast that meant that the government’s main target was “clearly the perceptions of the nationalist community of West Belfast.

“Two approaches come to mind: a campaign directed at this community as a whole, and one directed at opinion-formers and leaders.

“Both, but particularly the first, require a public information policy far more robust, timely, responsive and positive than the diffident, unconfident and, frankly, untrusting effort we currently produce.”

Brigadier Jackson went on to set out how to conduct a campaign “directed at the leaders...based on private information” which could be transmitted through individuals in the Roman Catholic Church, business leaders, teachers, lawyers, medics, social workers, housing associations and “one might add the SDLP where possible”.

He said that the Army “has made a conscious, albeit low-key, effort to open channels of communication with the RC Church and, very tentatively, with the SDLP. Any success is better than none, but I would not wish to exaggerate what has been achieved so far.”

He said that “we could, and should, do better” and that “some degree of formality is inevitable, I fear, but no committees, agenda, minutes or whatever!”.

The letter drew a blistering response from NIO permanent secretary Sir John Blelloch. He said to Mr Ledlie: “I hope you will not think it too carping if I say that I find the Brigadier’s letter, in so far as it is stimulating, stimulating in the wrong way.

“That is because, over most of the time that I have been here the Army have seemed, to be frank, sometimes more anxious about what we say than what we do and that, in particular, what we say should always put the best light on the actions of the security forces, whether or not they always equally deserve it.

“Thus I simply do not accept the implication in the second paragraph of the letter that a ‘deliberate and carefully designed information offensive’ is central to changing perceptions. The best information offensive possible will get absolutely nowhere if police and soldiers behave badly and Government responds insensitively and lacking in intelligence.”

Mr Ledlie responded to say: “I hope you will forgive me for saying that I think you are being a little harsh in your interpretation of some of the points Brigadier Mike Jackson makes in his letter.”

Sir John replied: “You may well be right that I was a little harsh – but the Army can be a bore on this subject.”