Northern Ireland - The terrorist methods of the British state

May/June 2003

When the London Evening Standard front page announced in large bold letters that "we" have "Blood on our hands", on the 17 April, it was not talking about Iraq. No, this was the day of publication of a very abbreviated part - just 15 pages - of the 14-year long, 30,000 page Stevens Enquiry into the murder of civilians in Northern Ireland by terrorist hit-squads, under the direction and control of British security forces.

It is probably a coincidence that the Stevens Report has been published at this time. But perhaps, if the British commander in Iraq had known that Stevens was about to expose the real nature of the British army's "valuable experience" in Northern Ireland, he would not have been so quick to boast about how this gave his troops an advantage over their US counterparts as they moved in to occupy the zone around Basra and "control" its population.

The one example the media seemed so impressed by - squaddies swopping their hard hats for soft berets - may be ludicrous, especially to Irish people living in the Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry, who have been on the receiving end of their "sensitivity to the locals" for so many years. But it is certainly true that the older hands among the officers know all about conducting house-to-house searches, setting up road blocks or getting "co-operation" from a hostile population. After all, the 34 year long covert and repressive war waged by the British state in Ireland has primarily been a war against the section of the population which opposed British occupation in the North.

Above all, just when Blair was boasting of his part in the "victory" against Iraq, justified to the world as so vital for the so-called "war on terrorism", the Stevens report has revealed how the British state itself has been up to its neck in terrorism in Northern Ireland. It presents evidence of how it used illegal, terrorist, loyalist paramilitary organisations - and consciously adopted their methods - both to get rid of targeted individuals who were opposed to the British occupation of Northern Ireland and to whip up sectarian tensions. Indeed, this report has finally exposed as false, the claim of successive British governments - we should not forget that policy on Northern Ireland has always been "bipartisan" - that their aim was always to protect the population against "terrorists".

Of course these few pages of the Stevens Enquiry, which relate entirely to the circumstances surrounding the murder of the Belfast solicitor, Patrick Finucane and student Brian Lambert, give only a very small glimpse of the extent of the sordid web woven by British Intelligence, the armed forces and the RUC to cover their lethal operations. But it is certainly an instructive reminder of the tried, tested (and on-going) methods used by the "democratic" state of the British capitalist class, when it comes to enforcing its rule, as well as a reminder that in the final analysis, the state of the exploiting class is nothing but armed gangs of men, to paraphrase Frederick Engels.

The tradition of cover-up

Ever since the most recent phase of Britain's occupation of Northern Ireland began, in 1969, there have been instances of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. However, initially at least, these were probably not formally organised. So when, in 1974, for instance, the Republican Press Office claimed that the loyalist UFF (the Ulster Freedom Fighters, linked to the Ulster Defence Association - UDA) provided murder squads for the British army, this was dismissed at the time as highly unlikely.

However there was a series of assassinations in 1980 and 1981 which did seem to have involved British intelligence. First, there was the brutal killing by the UDA of former SDLP member, Larne councillor and founder of the Irish Independence Party, John Turnly, a Protestant who had "crossed the sectarian divide". Then Miriam Daly and her husband James, both members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and prominent activists in the H-Block Prison campaign, were killed by multiple gunshot wounds by the UFF. A few months later Ronnie Bunting (from a leading Protestant family) and Noel Little, both also IRSP members active in the H-Block Committtee were killed by the UFF, while Bunting's wife Suzanne was seriously wounded. In January 1981, the UFF attempted to assassinate one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement, Bernadette McAliskey and her husband, who both survived their multiple gunshot wounds.

Robert McConnell, the UDA man who was sentenced for the killing of Turnly, gave evidence in court that he had been meeting with the SAS on a regular basis and had been supplied with weapons, uniforms and with intelligence on Turnly, Miriam Daly and Bernadette McAliskey. Whether McConnell was merely trying to save his own neck or not, the fact remains that the Forces Research Unit - the secret British army intelligence unit now implicated by the Stevens Enquiry - first set up a proper shop in Northern Ireland that same year. And anyway it is beyond doubt that the army turned a blind eye to many loyalist operations. It goes without saying that the political sympathies of those in the army and the RUC were more than likely to be with the loyalists.

The use of "double agents" who operated inside paramilitary organisations on both sides was already going on in this period, although it was claimed that their role was merely to provide "information". The army and its political minders in London used every trick to avoid admitting to manipulation of loyalist gangs - something which would have blown up the hypocritical claim that the army remained in Northern Ireland as "peace-keepers" between warring "Catholic and Protestant" sides.

Of course, ministers could always claim to have been kept in the dark as to the exact facts, thus excusing themselves from actually having to tell lies publicly. Peter Brooke, a former Northern Ireland Secretary under Major, has suitably just voiced his "astonishment" at the revelations of the Stevens Enquiry. But it was politicians like him who gave a free hand to the continued use of covert terrorist methods by British forces, even if nothing can be traced back to them. The chain of command and the autonomy of the security forces in Northern Ireland was designed precisely for this purpose. So the Home Office and Northern Ireland Office de facto gave a blank cheque to the forces involved in imposing the state's "law and order" i.e. British Intelligence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British Army. Their activity was carried out in ways which left no traces - to avoid the identification of any chain of responsibility. If there were relevant files or other pieces of evidence, these usually disappeared and anyone responsible for conducting an enquiry found a brick wall when it came to "sensitive" information which might incriminate one of the pillars of British law and order.

When there have been "official enquiries" into incidents where "unjustified force" was used, they were either left unpublished (as with the Stalker and Sampson Reports) or an effective cover-up was conducted.

One such notable cover-up was the Widgery Report, following the fatal shooting of 13 unarmed demonstrators by British paratroopers in Derry on Sunday 30 January 1972, known as "Bloody Sunday". In this case, the soldiers, who had been under instruction to shoot only if they came under fire themselves, claimed therefore, that it was shots fired at them by the IRA which had provoked their 20-minute barrage of bullets, into the crowd, some of which hit fleeing demonstrators in the back. Lord Widgery exonerated the paras' commanding officer, saying he had made the decision to open fire "in good faith". Today, 30 years after the event, and after many campaigns, books and films have exposed the fact that this was an entirely unprovoked attack and that no IRA shots had been fired, a kind of "truth and reconciliation" commission is being conducted into the event. But it is doubtful that there will ever be admission of guilt from the (now mostly retired or deceased) British officers concerned. As to the politicians, both Tory and Labour, who have been involved in this 30-year long cover-up, they can rest assured that their role will never be exposed - at least not by such enquiries.

Terrorism in uniform - "shoot-to-kill"

For the perpetrators of "unlawful killings", especially when it came to the RUC or the armed forces, when they have unusually, been put on trial, convictions have usually succumbed to "lack of sufficient evidence".

Such was the case when a RUC officer, Constable John Robinson was prosecuted for murder and "conspiracy to pervert the course of justice" in 1982, after a series of killings of unarmed IRA suspects - a "shoot-to-kill" policy on the part of the police.

This particular spate of "shoot-to-kill" incidents began with the murder of three suspected IRA members, Sean Burns, Eugene Toman and Gervaise McKerr, who were shot dead in their Ford Escort car in November 1982. The official version of events was that they had been instructed to stop for a routine police check, had instead accelerated and that police in a patrol car which happened to be nearby had given chase, been fired upon, returned fire and killed all three occupants of the car.

Two weeks later, a 17 year old, Michael Tighe had been shot dead and his friend, Martin McCauley, seriously wounded, on a farm outside Lurgan by the same RUC anti-terrorist unit. Three weeks later, suspected INLA members, Seamus Grew and Roddy Carroll were shot dead in their car also after allegedly not stopping at a police road check, and again by officers of this same unit.

All these shootings had been investigated by other members of the RUC and files sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Barry Shaw. Robinson was the first policeman to be prosecuted, but only for the murder of Seamus Grew. No-one was prosecuted for the murder of Roddy Carroll, who was shot dead in the car with Grew. But what Robinson, (who turned out to belong to a special RUC intelligence unit or "Special Branch" - the SB), revealed in his evidence, was that these two men had been shot after a long police surveillance operation. He admitted that he had been told to lie in his official statement by senior police officers to protect the Special Branch's "counter-terrorist" operations. Nevertheless, he was acquitted.

The strength of the public outcry caused by this case in the end forced the Home Office, to resort to damage limitation. So John Stalker, the Greater Manchester Deputy Chief Constable, was brought in to look into the operation of the RUC unit concerned, ostensibly at the "request" of Sir John Hermon, the RUC's Chief Constable, even if he was personally vehemently opposed to such scrutiny.

Stalker found that these killings were in fact all connected. The first three men had been chosen for execution by the SB in revenge for the blowing up of three RUC officers by the IRA in October 1982. The explosives used in this attack had been stored on the farm where the two youths were later shot.

However, it was only after months of painstaking reconstruction of the incidents, interviews and tracking down "lost files", that Stalker even found out about the existence of a tape recording made by an army bugging device that had been in the shed when the two boys, Tighe and McCauley had been shot. This tape would have incriminated beyond doubt, the RUC officers involved. But he was denied access to this crucial evidence by the RUC chief, Sir John Hermon. In fact the tape and transcript were quickly destroyed by the SB, but Stalker was kept in the dark for months in the expectation that they would eventually be made available to his investigation.

Stalker 's investigation carried on for two years. At every point he was obstructed by the RUC, and in particular by Sir John Hermon himself. Hermon even at one point made a veiled threat against Stalker's family, after handing him a sketch of his family tree and observing that Stalker had "Catholic" ancestry on his mother's side.

In his account of his scuppered investigation, published by Penguin in 1988, Stalker justifies his attempt to get to the bottom of the whole affair and in particular to find the missing tape as follows: "I could accept that war - especially an anti-terrorist campaign would throw up an occasional civilian casualty, or I could pursue the tape vigorously because of the higher principles involved. ...As an individual, I also passionately believe that if a police force of the United Kingdom could, in cold blood, kill a seventeen-year-old youth with no terrorist or criminal convictions, and then plot to hide the evidence from a senior policeman deputed to investigate it, then the shame belongs to us all. This is the act of a Central American assassination squad - truly of a police force out of control... The cover stories, the lies, the obstruction were insignificant when placed alongside possible State murder. I expected others to think the same. I was mistaken."

From Stalker to Stevens

Stalker had turned out to have been a very bad choice on the part of the Home Office. Within weeks of completion of his investigation and, as he thought, just before he was finally going to lay his hands on the missing tape, Stalker was suspended from his investigation and from his job as Manchester deputy police chief. He was put under investigation himself by Colin Sampson, Chief of the West Yorkshire Police, for a disciplinary offence, the nature of which he was not initially even aware of. He first read about it in the Daily Mail newspaper in fact, which revealed that he was accused of "association" with an unnamed criminal.

The "unnamed" criminal turned out to be a Manchester businessman who was alleged to have committed fraud. This was later exposed as a fabrication in court and the police finally paid this man £1.4m in an out-of-court settlement for malicious prosecution, but this only came out 12 years later, in 1998!

Stalker was eventually cleared of the charge of improper associations and reinstated, while his findings were corroborated by Colin Sampson, who completed the "shoot-to-kill" enquiry in 1987. However, in January 1988, Sir Patrick Mayhew, then the Tory government's Attorney General told the House of Commons there would be no prosecutions of police officers or MI5 agents "in the public interest". Sampson's report was never published. Tom King, secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time stated that "on balance... a prosecution would be undesirable."

Of course it was (and is) "undesirable" for the British State to be exposed as responsible for presiding over "illegal executions" of unarmed civilians. Indeed, just as undesirable as the exposure that yes, as Stalker put it, the security forces ran assassination squads with the full knowledge of their top command and the responsible politicians. So, "shoot-to-kill" carried on. In March 1988, undercover members of the SAS shot and killed three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar who were suspected of handling explosives. This precipitated a series of brutal reprisal killings in Northern Ireland. Seven years later, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Gibraltar killings were "unlawful" and the families of the victims were paid legal costs by the British government.

However, King did open two further enquiries in February 1988, over whether disciplinary charges could be brought against any of the RUC. 18 officers ended up with a "reprimand". Following this, an inquest into the deaths of Burns, Toman and McKerr (the first three victims of the "shoot-to-kill" policy) was reopened by the Coroner, with solicitor Pat Finucane acting for McKerr's widow. It was adjourned nine times. Before a final attempt by Finucane to get the RUC officers to be summoned to the hearings, he was shot dead by masked gunmen. This latest murder was obviously part of the cover-up of the "shoot-to-kill" policy.

By then, the army had taken measures to ensure that its covert operations would be more effectively concealed. Most of the operations of the RUC's "Special Branch" had become the remit of the British army's "Force Research Unit" (FRU), under the command of Colonel Gordon Kerr. Soon, however, more suspicious killings of unarmed Catholics attracted attention. The FRU became the target of the Stevens Enquiry. Stevens was asked to investigate killings which had occurred between 1987 and 1989 in the context of "allegations of collusion" between the British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

Army terrorism by proxy

Although the murder of Pat Finucane had taken place in the 1987-89 period covered by the Stevens enquiry and had been claimed by the UFF, it was not included in his investigation until May 1999, ten years after the event. But already at this point it was emerging that the FRU was now using a far more effective means of killing their targets than the crude RUC SB's "shoot -to-kill" and-bury-the-evidence method.

The FRU had not only "institutionalised collusion" with loyalist paramilitaries but systematically got these thugs to carry out murder "by proxy". And the "beauty" of it was that they could even allow the murderers to be caught and prosecuted. After all, loyalist paramilitaries were known to carry out sectarian "tit-for-tat" killings from time to time, so "the rule of law" could be seen to be upheld by making them pay the price - even if they had been set up to carry out these murders by FRU double agents in their ranks, without actually realising it.

Brian Nelson, who set Pat Finucane up to be killed by doing the reconnaissance work with his army handler in the car, is probably the most notorious of these double agents. He had a background in the army and the loyalist UDA and had been jailed for his part in the kidnapping and torture of a Catholic in the 1970s. After his release, in 1983 he returned to the UDA and became an army informer until 1985, when he left and went to live in Germany. It was Colonel Kerr, then head of the FRU, who got him to return to Belfast and rejoin the UDA, but this time as a paid FRU agent, known as Agent 6137. The army obtained for him a car, house and job as a taxi driver. He got himself appointed head of UDA intelligence gathering - getting his information on "targets" from the FRU and passing it on to the UDA's hit squads to do the dirty work. The chain of command apparently went as follows. Nelson's handlers reported to Kerr directly, he reported to the military top brass in Ulster, who reported to the MOD Chiefs of Staff, who reported to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who reproted to the Prime Minister. At the time of Finicane's death, Tom King was Northern Ireland Secretary, and Thatcher was Prime Minister. FRU sources are quoted as saying that "it is rubbish to suggest that we were mavericks... What was happening may have been occurring outside the law, but the establishment knew what was happening".

The official version of Nelson's role was that he would deflect the paramilitaries away from "innocent" targets and towards "guilty" ones. The 29 murders to which he is directly linked are probably an underestimate. But, said one FRU officer ..."if we were running the UDA's chief intelligence officer as an agent, could we really be expected not to have some "collateral damage?".

Nelson's role in "professionalising" the UDA's terrorist operations, courtesy of the FRU, is however, in little doubt. One ex-FRU officer interviewed by the Stevens Enquiry explained his role as follows: "The loyalists were amateurs before Nelson came along. They were not organised like the Provisional IRA. They weren't the same calibre at all. In many ways they were hopeless. Yet in a period of two to three years, several key men were killed. The loyalists were not capable of that on their own".

Stevens' "fact-finding" eventually overcame at least some of the evidence destruction and obstruction placed in his way by the FRU and MI5 and he caught up with Nelson in 1990. On the night before the arrest the FRU told Nelson to leave home. Stevens' Belfast office mysteriously then burnt down. When Nelson was eventually put on trial on charges of conspiracy to murder, he was jailed for only 4 of the 12 year sentence, and then given a false identity and secret new address on release, in 1996. Just one week before the (timely?) release of the 20-page summary of Stevens' Enquiry, Nelson died of a brain haemorrhage.

William Stobie, quartermaster for the UDA, admitted that he supplied the weapons to the UFF for the murder of Finucane. At the time he was also a "double agent" and was being "handled" by the RUC Special Branch. He informed his RUC handlers that he had been asked for suitable guns for an assassination, giving time and place of delivery, thus allowing them to intervene if they so desired. They did nothing. Possibly they already knew about the planned murder, through contacts with the FRU whose "star agent", Nelson was, after all, one of the instigators. This was usually the case for such operations as the RUC and FRU "had" to co-operate with each other in order to allow the hit squads a clear run - with no road blocks - to and from the location of their murders.

Stobie was used as the fall-guy and was the only person ever charged with the murder of Pat Finucane - and for good measure, he was also charged with the murder of the student Brian Lambert since one of the guns he had been holding for the UDA in his capacity as quartermaster was used for both murders.

But strangely enough, at the last minute a key witness refused to testify and Stobie was released without charge, only to be silenced forever, two weeks later, by the loyalist Red Hand Defenders - a label occasionnally used by UDA gangs.

Stevens concludes: "The unlawful involvement of agents in murder implies that the security forces sanction killings" - a polite way to say that security forces actually organised terrorist killings! And not just those of political opponents such as Pat Finucane. Give the position Nelson held at the top of the UDA, how many "blind" sectarian killings did he organise? And to what extent did this fit into London's policy to build up a wall of blood between Catholics and Protestants? It is worth mentioning that outside the period that Stevens covers, between March 1990 and September 1994 "loyalists" killed 185 people - and in 105 of these there is evidence that British intelligence was involved. The FRU supposedly disbanded in 1991, but in fact it was just relaunched as the Forces' Reconnaisance Unit.

If Stevens has eventually managed to unearth evidence which exposed the FRU's use of paramilitaries to do their dirty work, it is largely thanks to ex-FRU officers who were finally disgusted by what they were doing. As one of them, who uses the alias Martin Ingram, said of Kerr: "I was told on more than one occasion the ends justified the means' and the right' people were always allowed to live and the wrong' people were not. The practice of presiding as a judge, jury and executioner is wrong."

The end of state terrorism? Not likely!

FRU boss, Colonel Kerr, who at Nelson's trial praised him as a "courageous man", rather than a ruthless bigot who provided loyalist thugs with information which led to at least 29 murders, was afterwards promoted to Brigadier and is at present Britain's Military Attache to Beijing. Obviously he is not going to face any "charges" for being the UDA's Svengali between 1987 and 1990.

Neither will the FRU's political masters at Westminster face any charges despite having blood on their hands. Certainly not the junior Home Minister Douglas Hogg, who, just weeks before Pat Finucane was killed, told the House of Commons that "some solicitors were unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA", thereby providing an implicit justification for the subsequent events.

Nor is the Blair government innocent. Blair rejected a call by the UN in 1998 for an independent enquiry into the Finucane murder - the same Tony Blair who is at such pains to "comply" with the UN that he just had to bomb Iraq under the pretext of implementing UN Resolution 1441... against the UN. As to the Stevens Enquiry, his government has chosen to deny the public access to all but 15 pages of it. Clearly Blair is just as determined as his predecessors in office to prevent too much light being shed on the terrorist methods used by the British state in Northern Ireland - which, in passing, makes his endless demands for the IRA to commit itself to "renounce violence" something of a farce.

So what will Stevens' intervention actually change? 144 arrests have been made in the lower ranks of the security forces and 94 persons convicted on minor charges such as concealing information. The Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland has 57 separate reports to "look into". The FRU has been renamed, for the second time, as the "Joint Services Group" and is now, allegedly, "on a much tighter leash" while the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the rebranded RUC) is now meant to copy the British mainland model of "intelligence gathering" - although this is hardly reassuring given the mainland police's record of corruption, among other things.

But so what? The terrorist methods of the British state in Northern Ireland have never been merely a matter of technical organisation. They were part of the repressive arsenal chosen by Britain to enforce its continuing domination over the province at a time when it was fiercely opposed by a large fraction of its population.

And what has changed in this respect? Is the British occupation of the province more acceptable today than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, in the poorest ghettoes of Belfast and Derry? Of course, despite his on-going politicking against the IRA, Blair can rely today on the goodwill of the Republican leaders and, therefore, on their ability to police the Catholic ghettoes. But whipping up sectarian hatred can still play some role in weakening the potential fighting capacity of the Northern Irish working class at a time when London is forcing drastic austerity measures down its throat. And it is highly unlikely that there are no longer any links between the loyalist gangs - who both feed on and deepen the sectarian divide in Belfast - and the security forces?

In any case, whether dormant or active, the dirty tricks department of the state machinery of the capitalist class is always there, ready to break its own laws in order to protect the interests of the ruling class. The state permanently maintains a host of such "gangs of armed men" for this particular purpose - whether called MI5, Special Branch or Joint Services Group. But even the regular army and police can, if need be, be used against the populations as well, and not just in Iraq and Northern Ireland but also in Britain, as was shown during the miners' strike of the 1980s. This is precisely where, underneath the thin veil of "democracy" one can catch a glimpse of the ugly face of the dictatorship of capital.

3 May 2003