A batch of British state files relating to the build-up to a Provisional IRA (PIRA) ceasefire in July, 1972 have revealed the thinking of the British establishment in the countdownto talks between both sides in that summer 43-years ago.
The files have been released in relation to the killing of 19-year-old IRA man Seamus Bradley during Operation Motorman on July 31, 1972. The 40 page-long batch of documents are categorised as containing the conclusions of discussions involving the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the General Officer in Command (GOC) of the British Army and the Chief Constable of the RUC.
Whilst the conclusions of these meetings, ranging from June 12 through to November 22, 1972, have been withheld by the Crown, they do reveal that the British side was anxious to quell propaganda moves by the republican side to continue to gather support for the physical force campaign. There were also heavy discussions to ‘dispel the myth’ that undercover British assassination squads, namely the Military Reaction Force (MRF) were operating at that time. It since of course has been proven that MRF were indeed operating, most notably in Belfast.
What has been established is that on Tuesday, June 20, 1972 a secret meeting took place at Ballyarnett on the outskirts of Derry between representatives of the PIRA and representatives of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw. Those acting on behalf of Whitelaw were PJ Woodfield and Frank Steele who was an MI6 operative. Both Woodfield and Steele are named in this batch of documents as having participated in the listed discussions at various times, held at Stormont Castle.
As ever in this period the primary location of concern for the British in the wake of Bloody Sunday was Derry. On June 5, a discussion between William Whitelaw, GOC Sir Harry Tuzo and RUC Chief Constable, Sir Graham Shillington, it was noted that: “The scope for increased activity by the security forces on the Border near Londonderry was limited but would be considered by the GOC: The area of IRA influence in Londonderry was spreading. The Londonderry traders whom the Secretary of State was meeting this afternoon were becoming increasingly concerned:The possibility should be considered of “sealing off” the ‘No Go’ areas in Londonderry.”
At the Secretary of State’s daily meeting on June 14, 1972 the papers claim that the approach for talks came from the PIRA. William Whitelaw appeared to be in favour of rejecting the idea of talks, but instead a Mr Howard Smith was asked to “enquire through such people as Mr (John) Hume and Mr (Frank) Laggan (head of the RUC in Derry) the reactions of the people in Londonderry to the latest developments. Mr Smith also agreed to look into the possibility that the request for talks by the IRA without preconditions about internment might be made towards some formal talks with the SDLP.”
The papers also state: “The Secretary of State referred to the growing necessity to consider further firm action in relation to Londonderry ‘No Go’ areas. It was possible that a decision to mount a new containment operation in Londonderry might take place within the next couple of weeks. This was to be discussed later in the day with the Army and the effects of such an operation in the Bogside and Creggan would have to be carefully examined.”
A long-term appraisal of the overall situation by the British showed that the military at least, were treating the situation in Northern Ireland no differently than any other ‘colonial difficulties’ they had faced before.
The papers state: “In the present period the GOC said that the Army was suffering casualties which compared unfavourably with other internal security operations as those in Borneo and Kenya but without the special processes of law which had enabled effective action to be taken against terrorists in those theatres. Accurate sniper fire was particularly worrying as his troops felt that they were presenting sitting targets without the will on the part of the authorities to retaliate against the known enemy.”
On entering Northern Ireland in August 1969, the British military were insistent that they were there to act as neutrals between sectarian factions. By late 1972 however, the ‘honeymoon period’ was well and truly over and the following summation by GOC Sir Harry Tuzo is quite astonishing.
In expressing his disgust at the discrediting of the Army by the IRA he employs a quote from Honor Tracy, a British novelist who for a period was a lover of Seán Ó Faoláin. Tuzo quoted her as saying: “The charitable might say that the Irish tend not to minimise their sufferings; the candid that they are shocking old cry babies. If anyone lays a finger on them the world must hear of it with embellishment. And like children they believe in their own fantasies....Furthermore, nothing that happens, no action of troops or police, relates in anyway to anything done by themselves. Nothing is ever their fault, nor do they ever do wrong.”
Tuzo said: “The discrediting of the Army, along with the RUC and all concerned in maintaining law and order, has been a prime aim of Republican propaganda since about mid-1971. We refer loosely to such a campaign as ‘IRA propaganda’ because the only people who stand to gain by it are the IRA.
“Because the world at large is unaccustomed to this style of behaviour, complaints and allegations by Irishmen against the Army are apt to shock and disturb and even the most outrageous stories such as the activities of ‘Army assassination squads’ create doubts and unease amongst those brought up in the belief that ‘there is no smoke without fire’.
These words from Sir Harry Tuzo were written in November, 1972. It has long since been established that the MRF was formed in the summer of 1971. is is feasible to expect that the General Officer in Command in Northern Ireland knew nothing of their existence over a year later?
In 1972, MRF teams carried out a number of drive-by shootings in Catholic and Irish nationalist areas of Belfast, some of which had been attributed to Ulster loyalist paramilitaries.
At least fifteen civilians were shot. MRF members have affirmed the unit’s involvement in most of these attacks. There are also allegations that the unit helped loyalists to carry out attacks.
Another part of the long-term appraisal of the situation was recorded in these minutes and said: “The meeting went on to consider the embarrassment caused by Magistrates who granted bail against police advice-indeed a case was cited from that day’s local paper of bail being granted to a resident of the Republic-and discussions centred round ways and means of ensuring a more realistic approach by Resident Magistrates without prejudice to their independence. Mr Trevelyn was to let the Lord Chancellor’s department know that the Secretary of State wanted to speak personally to the Lord Chancellor on this matter in the course of the next few days.”
Tuzo’s notes of November, 1972 continue: “The IRA are aware that their stock is low, even amongst their erstwhile supporters, and propaganda overtly supporting terrorism or directly attributable to the organisation has small impact.
“Consequently they attach greater importance to front organisations like Sinn Fein and Republican clubs, whose statements on news events are, however, mainly directed at Republican audiences and fuel Catholic grievances. The greatest importance is attached to organisations which claim to be fighting for justice and civil rights. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the Association for Legal Justice are particularly active, the latter being a propaganda/pressure group that has made effective use of its ‘justice’ cover to inject stories alleging brutality, etc into the British and foreign media.
“Throughout the three months following Operation Motorman-August, September and October-the IRA’s attempts to generate public pressure for the removal of the Army from West Belfast achieved little. People in these areas had remembered too vividly how unpleasant life was under Provisional IRA domination; they appreciated the reduction in the level of violence; and as our intelligence improved and we arrested many of the men who intimidated and bullied, they acknowledged that our methods were evidently effective. Three factors seem to have combined during November to resurrect the full-scale campaign of anti-Army propaganda rule that has been muted since the introduction of Direct Rule.
“The first factor is the law of diminishing returns, which dictates that once the Security Forces have picked up the worst and the majority of the terrorists, the effort necessary to arrest the remainder increases, with fewer successes to show for it. The second is the instinctive fear amongst many Catholics of seeing the IRA decisively beaten, a fear that effects many who were glad to have them off their backs after Motorman. The third is the near desperate attempt by the IRA and their supporters to find ways of applying pressure on authority for the ending of effective counter-terrorist tactics; as the efforts of NICRA, PD (People’s Democracy)and other committed groups had failed, the need arose to find uncommitted and influential people who might convince that the Army was misbehaving.”
In this instance General Tuzo is directly referring to a press conference called by Catholic priests-Fr Brian Brady, Fr Desmond Wilson and Fr Alex Reid on November 20, 1972.
The top ranking British officer avoids calling the clergymen IRA sympathisers but is clear in his assertion that they were being used for propaganda purposes.
“We do not of course suggest that any of the priests concerned with the press conference intended to assist Republican propaganda, let alone the IRA. What does seem possible is that, in a sincere effort to demonstrate their concern at the plight of people in Catholic areas, the priests allowed themselves to be used by others with more sinister motives.”
He also noted: “Selected journalists only were invited but others who got to hear about and turned up were welcomed.
“Only ten priests besides the three named above were present. At one stage a sheet of paper was waved on which signatures were visible. So far as we are aware, these 65 names (of priests) have not been made public, which may be thought strange.
“Fr Wilson’s views on the Army are not new.”
A further assessment of the statement from the 65 priests, which is marked as ‘secret’, baulked at the decried Army actions and reasserted the Army’s primary objectives. So, despite the publicising of wrong doing by the clergymen it was apparently business as usual for the British Army.
Tuzo stated: “The Army’s agreed primary task was to pursue the IRA, whose activities remained at the root of the violence in the province. Searches for arms, ammunition and explosives were essential if this objective was to be fulfilled.
“Substantial successes had been achieved against IRA leaders, but the approved detention policy did not permit the security forces to reduce the numbers of the lower ranks of the organisation.
“Many of those firing at the security forces and responsible for explosives were in the 15-17 age group: there was little chance of dealing with these young offenders unless they were actually found in possession of weapons and explosives.
“Screening of suspects by identification and questioning was essential if the Army was to carry out its task. Some suspects made matters more difficult by giving false information and by other means.
“There was other evidence that a concerted propaganda campaign was being mounted against the Army. This had happened before when the IRA found it was loosing ground. The incident in which a picture of the Sacred Heart had been placed on a Saladin was evidence of the lengths to which those responsible were prepared to go.
“One object of the campaign was to implant the notion that the Army were initiating violence rather than curbing it.
“While there had been a few accidents, which were greatly regretted, there was no foundation whatsoever for the allegation that the Army were guilty of indiscriminate shooting of civilians.”
“One difficulty which the Army faced was that they could make no comment while complaints were under investigation or while proceedings were pending. This was frequently misunderstood.
“Relations in at unit level with Catholic communities were in many cases good.Priests were sometimes prepared to admit this in private conversations, but it would not say so publicly.
“Obviously there were occasional lapses by soldiers. Many of these were dealt with summarily under the Army Act without publicity. but the general level of the troops behaviour was very good indeed. The officers were generally of a very high calibre.
“All complaints about Army behaviour were carefully investigated.”
In response to Tuzo’s assertions, MI6 officer Frank Steele, whilst welcoming his comments, stipulated that there were more “moderate Catholics, anxious to see the IRA defeated, who were genuinely concerned that there was unjustified harassment in certain areas.”
“Some units, for example the Scots Guards in Londonderry, were highly regarded by most of the local Catholic community, and the problem would be largely solved if all units could win the same degree of confidence,” Steele continued.
It is worth noting at this point that it was members of the Scots Guards who shot dead 19-year-old Seamus Bradley and 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty in Creggan in the early hours of July 31, 1972 as they commenced Operation Motorman.
As the documents proceed to a conclusion more possibilities of countering the Republican propaganda campaign are discussed.
They state: “Allegations were made that Protestant extremists were not pursued with the same vigour. The possibility of interim custody orders and reference to the Commissioners would be borne in mind, but it would be important not to bring cases of Protestants which in event might be rejected.
“Suggestions that complaints were not pursued to a conclusion might be rebutted by reference to figures of cases which had been passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions after investigation. There were 46 such cases; in 7 he had directed prosecution, in some of the cases proceedings had been completed and in others were still pending.
“All cases where the was a possibility of criminal proceedings against members of the security forces were referred to the Director for a decision. None were decided by the Chief Constable.
“The GOC was fully conscious of the need to strike a balance between diligent pursuit of those concerned with terrorism and the evidence of actions which might appear to amount to unjustified harassment and possibly be unproductive in security terms.”