Last month the British government revealed plans to opt out of European convention on human rights. Prime Minister May set it in the context of trying to end what she called the ‘industry of vexatious claims’ against British soldiers in Iraq and in Afghanistan – those she described as the “finest armed forces known to man.”
The real purpose is to protect British soldiers from the legal consequences of breaking international human rights law.
But there is a deeper more self-centred motive for the actions of the British political establishment – it is about protecting itself. If we have learned anything in the decades of conflict in the North and since it is that the security apparatus of the British state, its soldiers, police and intelligence agencies operate according to rules and regulations laid down by the government. In order to defend these and those political leaders who create the legal and strategic framework within which they operate, the state has to ensure that the political establishment is protected.
In this respect successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour governments, have been very successful. How could they not be? British governments create and fund the organisations that are responsible for investigating illegality. They pass the laws that define the powers and limitations of investigations. And as in the current row over money for legacy inquests they can deny investigators and the families of victims access to information and to the funding needed to carry out those investigations.
However, the tenacity of families and of those who support them and the nature of the huge bureaucracy that is needed to run a modern political system means that sometimes the veil is lifted and the extent of political and security corruption is revealed. Margaret Urwin’s, ‘A State in Denial’ is a case in point. Through meticulous research and by combing through huge volumes of British state papers Margaret succeeds in uncovering a murky and duplicitous world in which the British state sanctions murder, and then engages in a political and propaganda strategy to deny it.
In one sense much of what is written of in ‘A State in Denial’ is not new. We have known for decades that the British government used the colonial tactics of counter insurgency and of counter-gangs to create the UDA and then facilitated the actions of that organisation and of the UVF. Collusion was a matter of institutional and administrative practice. The murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane by agents of the British state, using information provided by that state is one example of this. But there are countless others.
‘A State in Denial’, provides overwhelming evidence for this by relying on the words of British civil servants, politicians and soldiers. In countless declassified documents, dated and detailed, the depth of collusion between the British government and its military, policing and judicial system is exposed and the lengths those governments will go to lie about all of this is laid bare for all to read.
This is especially true of the British government’s attitude to the UDA which it refused to ban for 20 years despite a huge volume of evidence of its involvement in sectarian killings. Following its creation the UDA was used as an extension of the British state’s security apparatus. In one document dated October 1971, shortly after internment was introduced, it was decided to allow loyalist ‘vigilantes’ to work with the British Army. In orders from the British Commander of Land Forces British Army units were told to; “effect informal contact with unofficial forces in order that the activities and areas of operation can be co-ordinated and taken in account in the security plans for the areas concerned. The aim will be to effect liaison normally at company or platoon level between the security forces and all unofficial bodies who are seen to be working in the public interest.”
As Margaret Urwin concludes; “All of the evidence from these official documents suggests that by the end of 1971 loyalist paramilitaries were in a favoured position … shielded from internment … and a decision was taken by the army and the British and Northern Ireland governments to adopt loyalists as an auxiliary force.”
This approach extended to British Ministers publicly claiming that the UDA was little more than an ad hoc group of individuals and poorly organised vigilante groups. However, in a letter sent on July 10th 1972 a senior Civil Servant tells the Cabinet Secretary that “these groups are now well-disciplined, centrally co-ordinated”.
The British state bias toward loyalists and especially the UDA, and the role of the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment, is revealed in an internal British Army memo of July 31st 1972. “The UDA is not an illegal organisation and membership of the UDA is not an offence under the military laws; it is also a large organisation not all of whose members can be regarded as dangerous extremists. One important (but unspoken) function of the UDR is to channel into a constructive and disciplined direction Protestant energies which might otherwise become disruptive. For these reasons it is felt that it would be counter-productive to discharge a UDR member on the grounds that he was a member of the UDA.”
This approach facilitated the arming of the UDA. In a document, ‘Subversion in the UDR’ which is dated August 1973 and written by the British Army Military Intelligence and Psychological Operations staff, it is noted that “joint membership of the UDA and the UDR became widespread and at the same time the rate of UDR weapons losses greatly increased.”
Margaret Urwin quotes from a Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report that states that “between October 1970 and March 1973, 222 weapons, including 32 handguns – belonging to the UDR were misplaced, lost or stolen from the homes of soldiers, UDR armouries, duty posts or while in transit.”
At the same time British Ministers were denying that the UDA was involved in sectarian killings. In evidence to the European Commission on Human Rights in February 1975 General Tuzo, a former GOC for the North and former RUC Chief Constable Robert Shillington both denied that the UDA was engaged in a campaign of terror. Tuzo said: “The UDA was not a terrorist organisation … not a terrorist campaign. I would not describe it as terrorist at all, but this does not preclude at all, of course the campaign of murders and things later on, but that cannot necessarily be levelled at the UDA.”
Shillington was even more direct; “The UDA declare themselves, they state who they are, there is no evidence that they engaged systematically in campaigns of terrorism.”
The reality was very different. Between April and December 1972 loyalists groups had killed 101 people. 63 were killed by the UDA.
Despite this British Labour and Conservative governments defended the claim that the UDA was not banned because it did not carry out sectarian assassinations. In private their position was very different. In an internal British briefing paper, ‘A Guide to Paramilitary and Associated Organisations’ dated 2 September 1976 it describes the UDA as “the largest and best organised of the Loyalist paramilitary organisations. It tries to maintain a respectable front and, to this end, either denies responsibility for sectarian murders and terrorist bombings or claims them in the name of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) a proscribed and essential fictitious organisation which is widely known to be a nom de guerre for the UDA.”
Margaret Urwin’s book adds significantly to our understanding of the decades of conflict and in particular the British government’s central role in perpetuating it. During those years and since the British government has dismissed or ignored the concerns raised by individuals and organisations, including the Irish government, surrounding its knowledge of and role in collusion. How often have Irish governments been rebutted when they have asked the British government about the Dublin-Monaghan bombs? Do British governments care that within days of those attacks they legalised the very organisation that along with its double-agents, was responsible for them?
Margaret Urwin’s ‘A State in Denial’ precisely describes the attitude of the British government today. But that denial is not a result of some misplaced sense of loyalty to those state agencies and political leaders that directed and carried out collusion. It is a product of the underlying imperial mind-set that ordered ruthless wars on citizens in Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and the North of Ireland, and engaged in countless other colonial wars, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s the mind-set which believes that the British Empire was decent and good and benign and which was exploited successfully in the immigration arguments heard during the Brexit campaign.
A State in Denial by Margaret Urwin is published by Mercier Press