As this column goes to print the British Prime Minister has lost two key votes this week in the British Parliament on the Brexit issue. It is pointless speculating at this time on the outcome of these machinations. But there is one certainty. Irish interests will have little influence. When Britain leaves the EU – the North of Ireland will be dragged with them, and no matter about assurances, real or illusory, that is bad for Ireland. So what’s new? British rule has always been bad for Ireland. Take Karen Bradley for example.
Whatever the future holds for Karen Bradley, the British Secretary of State said last week what she and her government really believe. She set out in two short sentences the premise on which the British government’s legacy strategy is built. Bradley said: “The fewer than ten per cent (of deaths) that was at the hands of the military and police were not crimes. They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way.”
The outrage from victims’ families and support groups, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Irish government and a range of media and political commentators, including some in Britain, forced Bradley to apologise. But the fact is that Bradley was expressing British government policy. This policy is about defending members of the British Army, RUC, UDR and the range of British intelligence agencies, and politicians who ran Britain’s dirty war in the North.
A recent example of this policy was the arrest last August of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, two investigative journalists, who were part of the team that produced ‘No Stone Unturned.’ This is a documentary film about RUC collusion and the Loughinisland murders in 1994. They were arrested over the alleged theft from the Police Ombudsman’s office of a confidential document relating to the murder of the six men in the County Down village. The Ombudsman’s office says it never made a complaint of a theft.
This attempt to gag two reporters follows a long tradition of media control and manipulation by British governments and their security agencies. The broadcasting restrictions of the Thatcher years, when my voice and that of other Sinn Féin representatives were banned from the broadcast media, are probably the best known. But censorship existed almost from the time the first British soldier stepped foot on the streets of the North in 1969. In the years that followed, the RUC, British Army and Northern Ireland Office became expert at black propaganda, spinning lines and at covering up the criminal actions of the RUC, British Army, and of their agents operating within the unionist death squads.
There are countless examples of this including media coverage of the Falls Curfew, the introduction of internment, the Ballymurphy Massacre, the McGurk’s Pub bombing, Bloody Sunday, the New Lodge killings, the Springhill murders and many more. British Army and RUC briefings, usually used verbatim by many newspapers and broadcasters, often described innocent victims as ‘gunmen’ ‘gun women’ ‘known terrorists’and ‘bombers.’
This strategy of manipulating elements of the media is a long established part of Britain’s counter-insurgency strategies. It was especially effective in creating distractions, confusion and misunderstanding around British actions, including the deliberate killing of citizens by the British state using agents and informers.
But psyops – psychological warfare - black propaganda - also has an important secondary role. In the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ a key objective is to present the British forces as always operating within the law. This allowed Tory and Labour governments, especially internationally, to pose as ‘working within the law’ and ‘obeying the rule of law’. The fact that they changed the law to suit their needs is often lost.
In this way Britain could claim a dubious and false moral superiority in fighting its war in the North. It also succeeded in frustrating the demands for truth. This strategy is evident in the long delays faced by the Bloody Sunday families, or the families of the Ballymurphy Massacre, or the Springhill families or the McGurk pub bomb families. Almost half a century has passed since these murders occurred.
Delay, delay, delay, has been fundamental to Britain’s strategic approach. Why? Because the direct responsibility for much of British policy, including state collusion, shoot-to-kill and other policies goes right to the top of the British political system. The British government wants to protect former political leaders, the generals and the spooks who authorised state murder.
This is the real context of Karen Bradley’s remarks. Last November she told the ‘Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster’ that, “I think we have got to find a way of getting our soldiers off this hook. I think it's up to political people like ourselves to sort it and change the law if necessary”.
Finally, it should be remembered that the British Army and its counter-insurgency strategy is still at work in other places. According to General Sir Mike Jackson, who was second in command of the Parachute Battalion which killed 14 people on Bloody Sunday, writing in the foreword to‘Operation Banner – An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland 1969-2006’: “The immediate tactical lessons of Operation BANNER have already been exported elsewhere, with considerable success. Operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated both the particular techniques and the levels of expertise learnt through hard experience, both on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland”.
The reality of Jackson’s boast is much different. The myth of British superiority in fighting counter-insurgency wars is just that – a myth. It failed to protect the British Empire. Those who fought for and demanded freedom and independence from Britain didn’t give up. As a consequence, in the 30 years after World War Two, Britain was forced to leave over 20 countries. So Brit Secretaries of State like Ms Bradley’s will come and go. So will Brexit. So we need a long view of history. And the future. That is the real lesson for those seeking Irish freedom and independence – never give up.