The Pat Finucane Centre has obtained an FOI copy of the British Army’s own analysis of it’s role during the Troubles, available here.
Loyalist violence and the links between loyalist paramilitaries and
the state has been airbrushed out of this military history, prepared
‘under the Direction of the Chief of the General Staff’. In 2006, when
the document was written, the CGS was General Mike Jackson who drew up
the notorious ‘shot list’ in the hours after Bloody Sunday.
The British Government has long sought to portray its role here as
that of the neutral broker, the referee between two warring factions.
This document, which was not intended to be made public, makes no such
pretence. According to the MoD there was only one war and one enemy –
the IRA. Loyalist paramilitaries on the other hand were ‘respectable’.
This deeply flawed document is powerful evidence of why we need to deal with the past honestly and openly. (PFC statement)
There are a number of key passages in this document that are worth highlighting:
1974 was dominated by the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) Strike. A small hard core of unionists were strongly opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement. A procedural motion in the Assembly on 14 May was the catalyst for a strike across Northern Ireland. Most utilities and essential services were affected, but the Workers Council was careful to ensure that minimum levels of provision were met. On 24 May Brian Faulkner persuaded the new British Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Harold Wilson, to use troops to take over the distribution of fuel from the strikers, contrary to military advice. That was done on 27 May. The UWC responded by intensifying other aspects of the strike. Brian Faulkner resigned on the afternoon of 28 May and the Executive collapsed. The Sunningdale Agreement was largely dead and both the catholics and Dublin had become yet further convinced of the entrenched position of the protestant community.
Sunningdale was the last chance for power-sharing before the 1990s. Observers from the Northern Ireland Office and from the UWC itself have suggested that the strike would have collapsed if the Army had been prepared to confront loyalist intimidation.
The strike took place at the peak of the British establishment’s hostility to Harold Wilson, and this may have shaped the Army and MI5’s response to it. It’s interesting that the Army still stands by its stance then today.
Sectarian killing had become common, but a particularly vicious feud erupted in County Armagh between South Armagh PIRA and North Armagh UVF. The two organisations probably numbered less than 30 terrorists each. Between 19 December 1975 and 12 January 1976 over 40 people were killed and 100 wounded. The main effect of this feud was to raise tension and the perception of the political need to be doing something.
Not surprisingly, there’s no mention here of the North Armagh UVF’s extensive links with military intelligence and the role of the Special Reconnaissance Unit – a covert unit with a base in Co Armagh – in fomenting sectarian violence.
Loyalist paramilitaries continued to operate against the catholic community but on a fairly limited scale. They presented themselves as the protectors of the protestant community but in practice were often little more than a collection of gangsters, a description which could also apply to a number of republican terrorists.
Again, no mention of the role of the Army’s Force Research Unit in directing loyalists through figures such as Brian Nelson and many others.
It was often said that the British did not understand Ireland. In part this may have reflected ignorance and an unwillingness to try to understand. For the many commanders who did attempt to understand the roots of the Troubles any number of perceptive books were available. With hindsight what those books could not easily convey, nor the British easily understand, were the deep-seated beliefs, myths and feelings held by the local population. In some cases the perceived (and perhaps actual) grievances were centuries old. Selectively taught history or partisan use of events provided rallying cries and strong motivators. Such cultural issues tend to be unspoken and even subconscious. They are inherently difficult to comprehend. In the absence of such deep understanding the British tended to underestimate the differences between the Irish and themselves. One commentator observed that Englishmen, especially, tend to view the Irishman as a variant of a Briton rather than as a foreigner.
If you read any British state papers concerned with Irish nationalist thinking, you cannot fail to come across the word ‘myth’ eventually. Perhaps some of those myths are just the facts airbrushed out of documents like this one.