Is Britain the master of the new dogs of war?

[Originally published in the Irish World]

Derry-based human rights group, the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) launched another phase of its campaign for justice for the family of Belfast teenager Peter McBride at the weekend.

In an action alert issued to its supporters on Sunday, the group called for protests over a conference at Oxford university, to discuss private military companies, a respectable term for mercenaries.

One of the key speakers at the conference, which was due to take place this Monday, was Tim Spicer, Britain’s most notorious mercenary and a man who has been heavily criticised by the PFC because of his role as commander of the Scots Guards in Belfast in 1992.

“Two soldiers under his command, Mark Wright and James Fisher, were convicted of the murder of Peter Mc Bride in Belfast in 1992,” the PFC said at the weekend.

“Following the murder and the convictions Spicer sought to argue that his soldiers did no wrong and should never have been convicted. This is despite the accepted evidence at trial that they had shot and injured the 18 year old knowing him to be unarmed and then shot him dead as he attempted to pull himself upright.“

Ironically, the Oxford Conference, intended to burnish the image of private military companies, comes in the midst of new revelations about Spicer.

Much of Spicer’s reputation derives from the Arms to Africa affair in 1998 when his former company Sandline International illegally supplied weapons to Sierra Leone.

Among Spicer’s colleagues in Sandline was another former Scots Guards officer, Simon Mann. Bizarrely, Mann would go on to be an extra on Paul Greengrass’s film Bloody Sunday.

In March this year, Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe while en route to attempt a coup in the oil-rich African state of Equatorial Guinea.

There have been suspicions ever since about how much the British Government knew of the planned attack.

On Sunday, the Foreign Office was forced to admit it had discussed rumours of the impending coup with Spicer in February. Spicer denied all knowledge of the plans.

According to accounts in the British press, the Foreign Office relied on Spicer to warn Simon Mann of the British Government’s disapproval.

That seems an extraordinary degree of trust to place in the man at the centre of the Arms to Africa Affair. Not least because of the dramatic impact that the failed coup has had on British prestige in Africa.

“One would have expected, that the British government, hearing who wants to do what  in Equatorial Guinea and what damage these Sandline figures had done in the past to British interests, all alarm bells would be ringing in the Foreign Office,” said Dr Alexander Von Paleske, a Botswana-based German journalist who has followed the role of mercenaries in Africa.

“One would have expected, that the British Government would have done everything to stop the adventure of these soldiers of fortune. Nothing was done and yet again the political and diplomatic fallout of this new failed adventure is massive. [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe is now again the hero in Africa. He is getting massive financial support from Equatorial Guinea and the dictator Obiang Ngumea of Equatorial Guinea is now taking Britain and British individuals to court. He, who was a disgrace to other African leaders is now a respected statesman.”

“Blunder follows blunder,” Dr Von Paleske concluded.

While his former colleague is rotting in a Zimbabwean jail, Tim Spicer is prospering with his new company Aegis Defence Services, which has been awarded a $293 million dollar security contract in Iraq by the US Government.

Irish-Americans have so far been unsuccessful in their attempts to have the contract cancelled because of Spicer’s role in the McBride case and his subsequent mercenary record. 

Senators sympathetic to the campaign were told by the Pentagon that it had consulted the British Government about the deal and that they had no objections.

Along with the February revelations, that suggests that years after the Arms to Africa Affair, the British Government continues to maintain cordial relationships with some of those who were at the centre of the scandal.

As long as that is the case, many will suspect that the activities of such mercenaries represent the covert underside of British foreign policy. 



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