How the empire struck back: MRF and the dirty war in Northern Ireland

Maurice Punch

Troubles 3We only know a fraction of what really went on in the British counter-insurgency campaign against republican activists in Northern Ireland during the Troubles (1968-1998). There was a covert, dirty war within that campaign which is still clouded in myth, rumour and government dissimulation. Much is hidden as records have been destroyed, archive material embargoed, whistle-blowers intimidated and many of the surviving actors in the drama are not talking. For instance, it took forty years to arrive at a credible report on Bloody Sunday: but while this was one of the most appalling incidents of the Troubles, many other serious cases – including a raft of unsolved murders – remain to be investigated. Those who have written on the Troubles, including its covert component, have used published or leaked material and have relied largely on anonymous sources. It was of some interest, then, that BBC’s Panorama (21st November) provided a glimpse of that dirty war, through the role of the undercover and “invisible” Military Reaction Force / MRF – which formally did not exist – using interviews with some of its operatives.

Punch T02427To place that programme and the MRF in context I shall take a broader view. States, including liberal states, tend to over-react when faced by a serious insurgency threat. Those representing the state simply have to be seen to be doing something decisive – and in Northern Ireland the threat was significant: but  some further see this as an opportunity to prove their mettle and enhance their reputation (as with the implacable “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher). There is, then, a rush to emergency legislation and harsh measures. This typically has two debilitating side-effects. It can lead to pushing the boundary of legality in such a way that, if exposed, would damage the legitimacy of the democratic state which loudly claims to be operating to preserve that very democratic legitimacy. And it makes it increasingly difficult to seek a political solution with insurgents who are being demonized, hunted and attacked by illegal means.

In the case of Northern Ireland the British government made disastrous miscalculations which dragged the Province and the rest of the UK into thirty years of bombing and killing and which postponed a solution for years. Faced by inter-community violence in Northern Ireland – which had its own one-party “state” and police force (Royal Ulster Constabulary / RUC) – the government sent in a contingent of soldiers in 1969 to come between the warring factions. The British Army was initially welcomed and behaved impartially at first but was gradually drawn into the sectarian conflict. The problem was that the loyalist / protestant administration of Northern Ireland was petrified of a resurgence of republican violence and proved incapable of bending to the legitimate demands for social and political change. By backing that unrepresentative regime, which spoke of being at “war” with the IRA,  the British government was drawn into the conflict on the side of the loyalist / protestant community and became trapped in it for three decades, within which some 3600 people died.

There developed a negative spiral in which the British Army, highly reliant on information from a deeply biased RUC, became increasingly focused on IRA insurgency but also became a target for retaliatory violence from republican activists. The answer was to send in more troops and to make the Army responsible for law and order. But armies are a crude instrument in maintaining order and tend to seek confrontation through conventional military means with large, heavily armed, regular units mounting blockades and searches and engaging in shoot-outs. These tactics are not only ineffective but also alienate the wider population. Sending in battle-trained units with an assertive style into a situation where an insurgent movement was backed by wide public support, led almost inevitably to Bloody Sunday when 13 unarmed demonstrators at a peaceful demonstration were shot dead by paratroopers (one died later). This signified the inability of the British Army to forge a political solution by military muscle – which is almost always the case – and to win the “war” against the insurgents by conventional means. Next to this conventional campaign there also emerged a covert campaign which is the focus of my book.

In essence, the security establishment sought ways of taking the fight to the IRA and in retrospect it is possible to see that moving through various phases with both a legal and an illicit component. For example, the secret, undercover MRF functioned in the early phase but it proved rather crude in its methods and was soon wound up. There followed a progression of proactive counter-insurgency units – within the RUC, the Army (14th Intelligence and the SAS) and finally the Force Research Unit / FRU (which like the MRF “didn’t exist”). The latter used loyalist militants as proxy killers for the security establishment and, with British collusion, they eliminated alleged republican activists and sympathisers. In each phase, as damaging evidence began to emerge of the unit`s covert activities, the establishment moved to a new approach. I am not suggesting there was some grand strategy behind this and the pattern was doubtless dictated by a reaction to unfolding events.

Standard counter-insurgency within the boundaries of law is based on gathering intelligence, preventing insurgent operations and arresting insurgents to be brought to trial. What tends to happen, however, is that under pressure for results the whole gamut of surveillance and running informants becomes geared to a murky, grey area of locating and “taking out” the main enemy agents. This mission creep is typical of almost all intelligence agencies and counter insurgency campaigns and it takes them into a devious John Le Carré world of deceit, dissimulation, black propaganda and dirty tricks where the ends justify the means under the protective blanket of national security.

In Northern Ireland this could lead to legal arrests but it could also foster operations were active insurgents were led into an ambush situation where they were considered to be on “active service” and “legitimate targets” and were shot. This could have been when they were handling weapons or explosives and following a perfunctory challenge which simply allowed the waiting unit to open fire. There is very convincing evidence, however, that some insurgents were unarmed, that there was no warning, no attempt at arrest and that the amount of firepower could only prove fatal. On occasion people with no involvement in republican activism were killed while there could be “collateral damage” with innocent bystanders as victims. In strict legal terms this was murder.

But it it’s clear from the Panorama interviews with MRF operatives that they were geared to locating insurgents and intimidating or killing them. This is classical illicit counter-insurgency tactics and those interviewed felt justified – and even proud – about what they had done. The mind-set is to maintain that they are in a war, that dangerous enemy operatives have been located and need to be taken out of play to prevent further bombings and shootings. In the early days with often poor if not inaccurate information, there was a tendency to associate guilt by location or association – or by the likeness or someone to a suspect – as grounds to open fire.

Loyalist banner and graffiti on a building in a side street off the Shankill Road, Belfast, 1970In formal war situations the military have immunity for using legitimate  violence under the laws of war. But this did not apply in Northern Ireland meaning soldiers and intelligence agents could potentially be held to account in court for criminal offences, and some were. What emerged was a form of implicit immunity. In practice what developed was the construction of accounts that justified the shooting in law. Formulaic phrases were adopted with the aid of military lawyers which provided all involved with justification within the rules of engagement on the lines of – “a weapon was seen”, “shots were fired first” or the suspect “spun around holding what looked like a weapon and aimed it”. Furthermore, many crime scenes involving members of the security services were not investigated properly; shootings under suspicious circumstances were not pursued adequately; inquests were ineffective and those cases which did reach court were usually treated leniently with no convictions or soft sanctions. Justice was seen not to be done which was grist to the publicity mill of the republicans.

Three factors of importance emerge from this.

–      Firstly, almost everyone in the British military-security complex passed through the Province at some stage during those 30 years. It was the perfect setting for practising undercover operations, running informants including active informants, surveillance, infiltration and disinformation. How deeply were some middle-ranking and senior figures in the security establishment involved in or aware of practices which bent and broke the law?

–      Secondly, how high did it go politically? This is clearly an intriguing question as the strategy for the campaign was coordinated from Whitehall in the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) which the all Prime Ministers of that period regularly attended (but is never mentioned in Thatcher`s memoirs). It is unlikely that there was some explicit conspiracy spanning 30 years and involving a shifting cast of characters of different persuasions. What is most likely is that the members of the JIC felt that there had to be a forceful reaction to a grave situation – say leading to public outrage and media demands for action – which meant pushing the legal boundaries with the justification that this is an exceptional challenge requiring extraordinary measures. Almost certainly no-one would ever have given an explicit direction to do something illegal. More likely is that the JIC would transmit a strong message that assertive action with swift results was desired and this would filter down the hierarchy to the proactive units. These would operate legally in some circumstances but their modus operandi was primarily to push the envelope of legality through murky operations with devious means leading to “results”, meaning hitting the IRA hard by taking out its operatives.

–      Thirdly, and finally, both previous points indicate that there is a long line of accountability stretching back from the front-line units right up the military, security and political ladders. This probably explains why there has not been a truth and reconciliation commission in Northern Ireland. It would be political dynamite to pursue the implications of widespread accountability (which is not equivalent to active involvement) for the dirty war is while it might once more ignite inter-community violence in the Province.

Troubles 2But there has been a call recently for a general amnesty. This raises understandably strong emotions among the victims’ families and friends. There is legacy of some 1500 unsolved murders which leaves relatives in uncertainty. And at a conference on the Troubles in Brighton in 2012 there were harrowing tales from people who had lost loved ones in the Troubles and who would like justice to be done to provide some degree of closure. But at the same conference there was the daughter of a victim of the Brighton bomb – at a hotel close to the conference site – when the IRA almost eliminated the British Prime Minister and members of her government (five people died in the explosion). Yet she remarkably shares a platform with the man who planted the bomb: and both now plead together for reconciliation and the rejection of violence. It is also the case that other activists from both sides have rejected violence and entered politics and public life: this is typical of many post-colonial regime changes. Mandela is one of the most respected statesmen of his era but narrowly escaped execution as a “terrorist”. Furthermore, most of those jailed for offences during the Troubles were granted amnesty as part of the peace process. If charges are now laid after 40 years against low-level operatives then it would be unjust scapegoating with those responsible or accountable in the hierarchy probably evading investigation and prosecution.

It could, then, be time for an amnesty leading to anonymous information that helps to provide clarity for unsolved crimes. The legal technicalities of this are complex and daunting but in some way there has to be a process of healing and closure for the people of Northern Ireland and for those who were affected by the Troubles.

Maurice Punch

Amstelveen, 25th November, 2013.

Maurice Punch is the author of State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles: Counter Insurgency, Government Deviance and Northern Ireland (Pluto, 2012). You can buy his book for just £17 with free UK P&P from our website. Click here for more info.

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