The BBC Panorama programme on the Military Reaction Force shines a light on the one aspect of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland. The existence of the MRF has been known for over 30 years but John Ware’s documentary usefully provides new information on a secret British Army unit that operated with impunity in the early 70s.The use of counter-gangs, like the MRF and the Force Reconnaissance Unit (FRU) and others; of agents and informers; and of specialist military units is as old as war itself. The British military establishment has long made use of these tactical tools. I am quite confident it is passing that experience on to its current crop of young officers in Sandhurst.
As used by successive British governments in Ireland this involved reshaping the judiciary, the law, the police and the media to suit the political and military objectives of the generals and the politicians. According to Frank Kitson the British Army’s foremost proponent of counter-insurgency tactics: ‘Everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legitimate. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an emergency as existed before hand. The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, in which case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’That was the job of the MRF. To kill unwanted members of the public. If unarmed republicans or civilians were killed that was acceptable.
In every major conflict in the 20th century and in the colonial struggles for independence – in Algeria and Vietnam, in Kenya and Mozambique, in Aden and Cyprus – the same strategies were employed. The court case taken by Kenyans who were imprisoned and tortured by the British Army in Kenya and which was covered extensively in the Guardian provides one example outside of Ireland of these practices at work.
It is a sad fact that the conflict in Ireland has left thousands of families bereaved and hurting. In the last month there have been anniversaries to mark the Enniskillen bomb, the Greysteel Massacre, the Shankill bomb and other similar events. There has also been the recent publication of ‘Lethal Allies’. Through a detailed examination of the facts this book connects British state forces with 120 deaths of civilians in a five year period in the 1970s. And it reveals the way in which the political and judicial system covered up these actions.This is what happens when politicians surrender their power to the generals. When diplomacy ends and war takes over and generals and their armies do what they have been trained to do, which is defeat the enemy.
I am an Irish republican. British government involvement in Irish affairs and the partition of my country are in my view at the core of the problem but I recognise that others, for example, the unionists, have a different view and their own sense of truth. There will be those in the British system who also have a different analysis. There are many differing narratives. Different perspectives on the causes of the conflict, what happened and who was responsible. All of these narratives have their own truth. There is no single voice for victims. Some want truth. Some want judicial processes. We need to set all of these narratives side by side and respect them all.The war is over. But the legacy of conflict remains with us. The pain from decades of conflict is, for many, as real today as it was when a loved one was killed.
US diplomats Richard Haass and Meghan O Sullivan are currently conducting intensive negotiations to deal with outstanding aspects of the Good Friday and other Agreements. These include the legacy issues. Everyone who has an interest in peace knows that the past cannot be allowed to be an obstacle to building the future. So, there needs to be a measured and inclusive debate on all of the issues involved.
Sinn Féin has proposed that an international, independent truth recovery process underpinned in legislation should be established. Others have different ideas of how this issue should be dealt with and that is fair enough, but we need to take this opportunity to move the process forward in a way that listens to, respects and treats all victims on the basis of equality, and also builds the future for the survivors.