PIRA and the British Government’s Response
The war between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the British State from 1969 to 1998 was a complex situation in which various entities pursued similar and dissimilar aims through various channels (political as well as militaristic/terroristic). Even in the midst of the most violent clashes, secret talks were held between leaders of the PIRA and the British State, with the political face of Republican beliefs (Sinn Fein) gaining popular support over the years and to some degree undermining the aims, objectives and capacity of the PIRA to operate effectively (O’Brien, 1999; Tonge, 2002). The PIRA’s strategic effectiveness, however, was also complicated by its own inability to overcome specific problematic features of its own organization — such as the factors of security and territoriality. Likewise, the British State had enacted a program of using informants and infiltrators to undermine the PIRA from within. The tension between engaging in peace talks with the PIRA and refusing demands, such as withdrawal and the denial of Special Category Status for “political” prisoners, stemmed from the dramatic history of repression and resistance that had characterized the relationship between Ireland and Britain since the 1500s. Making sense of that tension and exploiting weaknesses within the Republican movement as a whole (via legal, political, police, intelligence, and collusion) allowed the British State to meet and overcome certain challenges faced throughout this ordeal.
Since the 16th century when the Catholic King of England Henry VIII separated from the Roman Pontiff and declared himself head of the Church in England, there had been, by extension, tension and conflict in Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants. For more than four hundred years, this tension brewed and simmered, boiled over and burst into fits of violence and war. There was the hanging and quartering of Thomas FitzGerald who had publicly repudiated his loyalty to the English monarch in 1534, following Henry’s infamous Act of Succession; the rebellion against Elizabeth in 1594 and the commencement of the Nine Years’ War in Ulster; the Irish Rebellion in 1641; the Confederate Wars; the Rebellions and Battles of 1798.
In spite of these decades of fighting, the Acts of Union in 1800 bound the two islands together in one United Kingdom with Catholic Emancipation permitting Catholics the right to hold seats in Parliament. For a century, union was the order of the day, until in 1916 the Easter Rising led to the establishment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin, where the Irish Republic as a single, self-governing entity was proclaimed. This was the seed that sprouted into Ireland’s Declaration of Independence in 1919 and the Irish War of Independence, which ended in 1921 and culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the partitioning of Ireland, with Britain acknowledging the Irish Free State while reserving Northern Ireland for itself.
In 1969, the Troubles began (also known as the Northern Ireland Conflict). This was the continuation of the war between Irish nationalists (mostly Catholics) and the unionists or loyalists (Protestants/British). Prejudice and discrimination against the nationalists had taken place in Northern Ireland where unionists were the majority, prompting “a wave of sectarian violence” to break out (Bamford, 2005, p. 582). The Provisional Irish Republican Army split from the Irish Republican Army in order to carry out its own violent protest against the systematic marginalization of the Catholic nationalists in the North. At the same time, British intelligence was determined to crush the PIRA and put an end to the threat of its rule on the island just as it had done in centuries past.
The PIRA waged a destructive and oftentimes brutal war of retaliation against the British state, attacking the British economic infrastructure within Northern Ireland and undermining the political-social order through targeted assassinations. So successful was the PIRA that in its early days, victory and the aim of a British-free Ireland seemed not only possible but within the group’s grasp. However, the British state did not relent. In early 1972 it doubled down on the dissenters and demonstrators when British soldiers fired upon protestors in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The war intensified and on both sides efforts were made towards better security and the organization and protection of intelligence.
In 1977, the PIRA changed itself in terms of organization, transitioning from the model of a British army brigade system to the cell structured system more suitable to guerrilla style warfare. This transition facilitated the need to avoid infiltration from security agents/informants working for the British state and to lessen the risk of capture as group. Up till then, the British had been able to arrest a great many volunteers within PIRA, including founding member Sean MacStiofain. Following the changes in the organizational structure of the PIRA, the British essentially now had to develop a new method of countering the PIRA and attenuating its aims.
The questions posed in this study are the following: How did the British government respond to these new ways of terrorism of the Provisional Irish Republic Army? What were the measures used in combating these waves of violence against the British State from 1977 to 1998 when the settlement was negotiated? This study will answer these questions by concentrating on the following areas in the subsequent chapters.
Chapter One will provide the historical context of Northern Irish terrorism (the Troubles in Northern Ireland) and examine how the Troubles began with a discussion of what led to Bloody Friday, which touched off the campaign. Chapter Two will examine how the PIRA operated and discuss its method of terrorism within the British State. Chapter Three will show what processes the British Government used to combat Irish terrorism, such as legislation, intelligence (the use of informants within the IRA), the use of special branches with special attention on counter-terrorist intelligence in Northern Ireland, surveillance, interrogation, etc. Chapter Four will illustrate the difficulties encountered by the British State while combating the PIRA and what it did to overcome these difficulties. Chapter Five will focus on the control, accountability, the unmeasured actions of the security forces and collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.
Chapter One: The Troubles
Discrimination against the Catholic nationalist minority had been brewing for years in Northern Ireland. A number of non-violent groups had organized to protest job, housing, and voting discrimination. In areas where Catholic nationalists were a majority in Northern Ireland, electoral boundaries had been devised in such a way as to limit the power of the nationalists — another bone of contention among the civil rights advocacy groups. The police of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were essentially completely Protestant unionist and had authorization under the Special Powers Act to perform search and seizures without warrant, to imprison without due process, and to prevent public demonstrations — all of which were exercised against the Catholic nationalists leading up to the Troubles (Tonge, 2002).
At the same time, a growing Republican faction within the IRA promoted a “more extreme militant” viewpoint in which violence served as the viable means of establishing a solution to the discrimination in Northern Ireland, with the ultimate aim being the total reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic (essentially a repudiation of the British mandate in the province) (Bamford, 2005, p. 582). PIRA embodied this militancy and their actions demonstrated their belief. Out of revenge for Bloody Sunday (January 1972), in which British soldiers fired upon and killed 13 unarmed civilian demonstrators, PIRA set off 40 bombs in a single afternoon (car bombs timed to explode within minutes of one another and designed as an attack on the British economic infrastructure in Northern Ireland) — this was Bloody Friday (July 1972). The British response to this terrorist attack, which killed seven, was Operation Motorman — a strategy designed to give control of Catholic centers in Belfast and Londonderry back to the British (Bamford, 2005, p. 583). Thus, while Bloody Friday delivered a blow to the Crown, it also angered British forces in the process and provoked a fight with a much bigger opponent. The deed, however, was already done and the PIRA had left an indelible mark in the history of Northern Ireland. The response was predictably aggressive, as blowback aimed at Catholic civilians was delivered by Protestant unionist militants, and the British crackdown began in force.
Bloody Friday was also a concentrated (and violent) effort to ignite the stalled talks between the IRA and the British. The IRA had been in negotiations with William Whitelaw of the British delegation in charge of hammering out a truce in the wake of Bloody Sunday. The IRA wanted the British to agree to leave Northern Ireland entirely within three years and it wanted republican prisoners to be freed as well. A ceasefire between the British and the IRA had been in effect but when Whitelaw’s delegation refused to meet the conditions offered, the negotiation process came to a halt. The response of the PIRA was to launch an all-out assault on the British commercial centers in Belfast, crippling its ability to function economically (Maloney, 2010).
The attack on Belfast was, additionally, a direct assault on the words of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, who stated in conjunction with the plan to “introduce internment” on 9 August 1971, “If Northern Ireland is to survive and prosper, two things are essential. We must sustain a continuing program of economic and social development, and we must find the means to create a more united society here” (Compton, 1971, p. iv). The call for stability and economic sustainability was meant to justify the Special Powers Act that allowed for 342 men to be arrested on 9 August 1971 (and nearly 1000 total one month later). These individuals were suspected of “having acted or being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or the maintenance of order” in Northern Ireland (Compton, 1971, p. iii). In other words, they were affiliates of the IRA, which Parliament noted had begun “to increase the ferocity of their well-established campaign of violence” that same year (Compton, 1971, p. iii). The implementation of the decades old Special Powers Act was meant to curb the support given the IRA: Parliament cited “over 1,000 incidents involving explosives” and the deaths of more than a hundred civilians, 12 service members of the RUC and nearly 40 servicemen in the Armed Forces since 1969 (Copmton, 1971, p. iii). The PIRA’s retaliation for discrimination shown Catholic nationalists in the North was thus met by British retaliation by way of internment. The IRA would counter with more demonstrations in the following months leading up to Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when the British Army would fire upon Irish civilians. Bloody Friday would serve as the reprisal half a year later in Belfast.
Terrorism had been the modus operandi of the PIRA after the official IRA had preferred to seek a political solution to the problem of discrimination and the fact of partition in Northern Ireland. The PIRA’s paramilitary style of organization essentially saw itself as the real or authentic Irish Republican Army and referred to itself as such. It established itself in 1969 in the face of RUC aggression during the non-violent Catholic demonstrations for civil rights. Riots in August of that year had followed RUC attacks and the Battle of Bogside inspired other riots, demonstrations and protests by Catholics and nationalists throughout Northern Ireland. In Belfast, the oppression was most severe, as homes and businesses owned by Catholics were torched and destroyed and thousands of nationalist/Catholic families cast out of communities. The obvious support of unionist Protestants by the RUC gave rise to the notion of these attacks being like a pogrom aimed at suppressing the Catholics (Shanahan, 2008).
The PIRA was thus born out of an intense desire to fight back against the Protestant aggressions in the North as well as to “spoil” any attempt made to “obtain a political settlement” (Tuck, 2007, p. 168). As Sean MacStiofain, one of the founding leaders of the PIRA stated, the intent was to achieve victory through arms: “You’ve got to have military victory first and then politicize the people afterwards. To say you’ve got to unite the Catholic and Protestant working class is just utter rubbish” (Shanahn, 2008, p. 1). The official IRA had wanted just that — therefore the PIRA, appealing to Old World sentiment and the violent militarism of the early 20th century Catholic forces, set about arming the Northern Ireland Catholics and nationalists who saw the conflict as both an ideological one and a physical one, with the outcome of the physical conflict determining the establishment of the ideology. The PIRA aimed to assault and destabilize the unionist forces that were wreaking havoc on their Catholic/nationalist brethren: terrorist tactics, bombings, shootings, and assassinations were their “way forward” to the envisioned prize: “a united, independent, all-island Irish state” (Shanahan, 2008, p. 1).
The PIRA acted: in January 1971, it detonated sixteen bombs; in February, thirty-eight; and from then on out was averaging 40 per month, not counting the nearly one hundred detonations in July (Shanahan, 2008, p. 2). In the early summer months of 1971, it looked like victory was at hand. Those expectations dissipated and by 1975, secret talks between the PIRA and the British State were conducted in order to bring about a solution to the conflict. A cease-fire was called as PIRA leaders O Bradaigh and McKee met with Merlyn Rees of the Northern Ireland British government. While the PIRA leaders anticipated a full British withdrawal, Rees aimed more at a political truce. The divergence of aims brought new division to the PIRA, which resulted in a collapse of the cease-fire and the overhaul in 1977. The cease-fire had allowed British agents, moreover, to gain access into the PIRA and the overall hierarchical structure became compromised. Both sides returned to fighting in 1976 and the PIRA’s shift to a cell structure in the following year was meant to address the British State’s infiltration (Taylor, 2001).
What had appeared to be a quick war based on an overwhelming wave of violence aimed at the British infrastructure now looked to be a “long war” and the need to divvy up the activities of the PIRA to individualized, tight-knit cells meant that the group would now be relying on a tremendous “spirit of mission” to drive the overall operations (Samaan, Verneuil, 2009). This meant that a new alliance between the PIRA and Sinn Fein, acting as a political voice of the Republic, came into being as the two outlets of nationalist outrage pursued the same end through different channels. The British were not open to any more talks of a cease-fire. Sinn Fein won more support after the Hunger Strike in 1981 related to the fact that Irish prisoners were not given Special Category Status. By the 1990s Sinn Fein was confident that a political solution could be reached and set about distancing itself from the PIRA.
In 2005 the IRA announced a call to peace and soon thereafter the 1998 Good Friday Agreement began to be fulfilled with a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland going into effect in 2007.
All told, more than 3,500 people died as a result of the Troubles and approximately 30,000 were injured. While these numbers may seem comparatively small, what is not small is “the number of deaths associated with political violence … [which] was greater than that in all other European Community countries combined” (Shanahan, 2008, p. 3). The tense and violent situation in Northern Ireland lasted half a lifetime, underscoring the determination of both sides to see an end to the conflict that would support their respective aims. To the British and much of the outside world, the PIRA was a terrorist organization. To the PIRA and its supporters, it was an armed uprising. The difference in characterizations may be incidental. The response of the British to the change in military tactics of the PIRA beginning in 1977 was not.
Chapter Two: How the PIRA Operated and Its Method of Terrorism
The PIRA operated according to a strategy, the objective of which aimed at devastating the ranks of British forces and British infrastructure in Northern Ireland to such an extent that the country would relent in the face of popular opinion (or the withdrawal of public support). Removal of the British and all manifestations of the Crown (from the RUC to the governmental structure) was the goal. The PIRA utilized all manner of forces — volunteers (a great deal of whom joined following Bloody Sunday), paramilitary, foreign supporters, local gangs, etc. (Bell, 2008).
The initial organizational structure of the PIRA was based on the British military hierarchical system. Because the PIRA was unofficial and considered an uprising, its character changed over time, especially from 1977 on. Before 1969, the IRA was headed by the Army Council and the Chief of Staff. Every level from the bottom up was able to send representatives to the IRA’s General Army Conventions (GAC), which met consistently (O’Brien, 1999). Following the split in the IRA and the formation of the PIRA, the GAC convened only three times over the next four decades — once in 1970, again in 1986, and finally in 2005.
The GAC voted on the IRA Executive, consisting of twelve members who chose the individuals who would make up the Army Council. The Army Council acted as oversight for daily affairs and also oversaw policy decisions, tactical maneuverings and the election of the Chief of Staff. Thus a tight-knit team at the top of the organization was responsible for steering the overall movement. Departments within the PIRA consisted of Finance, Training, Arms, Intelligence, Operations, Security and more. The PIRA’s headquarters were situated in Dublin, but in 1977 the reorganization of the PIRA situated authority in the Ulster counties where the Northern Command of the PIRA oversaw the area within the Troubles (Moloney, 2010).
The PIRA’s soldiers were called “volunteers” and prior to the 1977 restructuring they were formed as parts of units according to the British military style of organization, with companies covering a specific area within a much larger zone overseen by a battalion, itself typically a part of a larger brigade. The five main brigades of the PIRA were situated in Belfast, Londonderry, Donegal, Tyrone/Monaghan and Armagh. The Belfast Brigade grew exponentially in the early years of the PIRA, consisting of more than a thousand volunteers just prior to Bloody Sunday after starting with no more than a few dozen at the time of the August Riots (Moloney, 2010). Bloody Sunday served to fuel even greater numbers to join the PIRA, especially in Derry where the incident occurred. Each brigade had its own battalions and each battalion and company had its own commander and officers.
As the 1970s wore on, however, and the British were able to arrest more and more members of the PIRA, a new structure was eventually adopted which essentially did away with the battalion order. While regular companies continued to exist for the sake of monitoring regions held by Catholic nationalists, obtaining intelligence and storing arms, the actual coordination of attacks was coordinated by an active service unit — essentially consisting of cells and sleeper cells of no more than half a dozen to a dozen individuals. A quartermaster still oversaw the control and flow of arms and ammunitions. By the 1980s, there were anywhere between 50 and 100 active service units operating in Northern Ireland (O’Brien, 1999). The main reason for this reorganization was the collapse of security within the PIRA.
With the arrest of founding leader Sean MacStiofain, for instance, a major change came to the Belfast Brigade. The large military units were done away with and in their place small cells that acted independently of one another were created — the primary reason being to boost security as well as “operational capacity” (Bell, 2008, p. 437). The issue of security, however, would never really be resolved: as would later be revealed, the British had their own moles in the PIRA — like Frank Scappaticci, “the deputy head of the PIRA’s internal security section” (Charters, 2013, p. 203). Likewise, the organizational structure of the PIRA by the late 1970s resembled a loose-knit, secretive, highly territorial group of street gangs, with each one typically isolated from the other. The cell structure did not resolve this issue of isolation either (Bell, 2008, p. 437). At the same time, the PIRA was not unaware of informers within their ranks, as over the course of three decades, the group killed 71 individuals “alleged” to be informants (Sarma, 2005, p. 167). Thus the issues of organization and security were complicated by several factors, needs and aims within the PIRA itself.
On the one hand, the PIRA wanted to remain autonomous yet effective with a measure of discipline and organization that could hold individuals accountable within a larger system of hierarchy. On the other hand, the need to remain fluid and free of British intelligence agents and double-agents attempting to infiltrate the PIRA caused the organization to break itself into smaller parts that could be more independently structured so as to impede any possible collusion. This, however, had its own drawbacks as trust and secrecy led to territoriality, suspicion and an even more dangerous climate in which violence threatened to overwhelm and consume the very aims and objectives (the maintaining of a nationalist society in Northern Ireland) that the group sought to achieve/protect.
The Method of Terrorism
The method of terrorism that the PIRA employed within the British state was not viewed as terrorism, of course, by the members of the PIRA but rather as paramilitary activities in the order of an uprising, or of a guerilla force. Guerilla tactics, in other words, is the method that the PIRA would have identified them as (Shanahan, 2008). The terms color the actions and depending upon where one’s sympathies lie, whether on the side of the loyalists or the nationalists, with the Protestants or with the Catholics, the usage of terms can be more than suggestive. Therefore, it is helpful to simply examine the method of acting to achieve the aims set forth by the PIRA in order to understand its operations and what the British faced in attempting to thwart the group and stem the tide of violence.
The origination of the PIRA’s activities can be located in the August Riots, when the protestors in Derry hurled rocks and petrol bombs and the RUC, who used CS gas. The burning of Catholic homes and forced emigration from Belfast was a final straw: the violence aimed at Catholic nationalists compelled the PIRA to act in kind. MacStiofain who had been Director of Intelligence for the IRA connected with other Republicans disenchanted with the Dublin office’s leadership and in Belfast the majority of IRA units joined the PIRA.
The PIRA did not trust that a political solution could be effected, which is why though it supported Sinn Fein it did not view the political party as a viable way forward and the two entities harbored a degree of misgiving towards one another. The Irish government gave money to the PIRA in its early days (English, 2005) but the advent of a “long war” caused support to move away from the paramilitary organization to the political expression of Republicanism with a view towards peaceful resolution. The PIRA identified British rule in Ireland as invalid and had refused to accept it, but the reality of a protracted war did little to provide legitimacy to the concept of a “long war.” Within the first two years of the August Riots, the PIRA had armed and mobilized volunteers within Catholic areas in an effort to guard against loyalist assault and had appeared relatively confident of an immediate and favorable response from the British State. As the PIRA had also begun coordinating its attacks on the infrastructure of the occupiers, British capitulation seemed imminent. It was not, and the PIRA would be obliged to restructure its operations following the collapse of the 1975 cease-fire and the infiltration of the PIRA by British agents.
The restructuring from battalion to cell operational activities gave the PIRA a much more secretive and “gang”-style of operations and tactics. It issued in 1977 a new edition to its training manual, called the Green Book, which illustrated the strategic methodology of the PIRA by outlining its aims and techniques. The war against the British State was viewed as an attritional war with the object being to inflict enough punishment that the British public would call for withdrawal. The Green Book also highlighted the nature of this campaign, which would be violent (via the bombing of British financial institutions and interests to eliminate the prospect of any monetary/commercial advantage to Britain’s continued presence in Northern Ireland). The PIRA also aimed to destabilize the counties of Northern Ireland to such an extent that they could only be managed by the paramilitary forces. To support this war (which at this point it knew would be much longer than originally anticipated), PIRA appealed to both national and international interests, using (later) remarks from individuals like Bobby Sands (who led the Hunger Strike) as a means of culling support. The final method of controlling the war was PIRA’s intention to act swiftly and mercilessly with individuals found to be colluding with the British (whether criminally, collaboratively or as an informant) (O’Brien, 1999).
As Rogers (2000) notes, the “use of economic targeting by PIRA did not take place in isolation” (p. 2). Such a strategy was traditionally associated with guerilla/terrorist forces aiming to undermine a colonizing enemy force. Thus both PIRA and the British State had international examples from which to draw of paramilitary action and how to deal with that action.
Throughout the Troubles, the PIRA launched several large-scale attacks, such as Black Friday (which killed a dozen and injured 100). In 1974, PIRA bombed public houses and a department store (one in London on the British mainland, which took 5 lives and injured 80). In 1976 the British Ambassador to Ireland was assassinated; the Queen’s own cousin was killed in 1979; Margaret Thatcher was targeted in 1984; Ian Gow MP was killed in 1990 and the Cabinet on Downing Street was targeted in a mortar attack attempt the following year (Rogers, 2000, p. 3). Thus the method throughout the conflict was consistent, targeting economic and politically or socially significant persons within the British State. The method was terroristic — bombings aiming to drive a wedge between the British public and the British State so that the former would inevitably urge the latter to stand down.
The best way to understand the methods of the PIRA is to understand the Green Book. The 1977 edition of the Green Book of the PIRA essentially called for total fidelity, loyalty and allegiance from its volunteers, putting the PIRA first, family and friends second. It was in many ways like a secret fraternity, a violent Irish Republican version of a boy scout’s manual. Tactics, the manual asserted “are dictated by the existing conditions” — in other words, this was a piece-meal, make-shift war, in which conducted operations were determined by the availability of supplies and by the presenting conditions imposed upon the volunteers by the enemy. The Green Book, for instance, noted that prior to 1969 “Brits were not to be shot, but after the Falls curfew all Brits were to the people acceptable targets. The existing conditions had been changed” (IRA Green Book, 1977, p. 6).
The cover of the Green Book depicts a black cloaked PIRA volunteer, face masked, holding an automatic weapon with a large round clip in its load. In bold print are the words: “Loose-talk costs lives” and below is the sub-text: “In taxis / On the phone / In clubs and bars / At football matches / At home with friends / Anywhere!” and again in bold beneath: “Whatever you say — say nothing” and the grim stare of the black-masked figure with the automatic weapon adds to the emphasis given the text. Indeed, the first line of the book describes the main rule of the PIRA: “The most important thing is security!” This secrecy on the level of a Masonic order: the Green Book stipulated further: “That means you: [again in bold and all caps] DON’T TALK IN PUBLIC PLACES: YOU DON’T TELL YOUR FAMILY, FRIENDS, GIRLFRIENDS OR WORKMATES THAT YOU ARE A MEMBER OF THE I.R.A. DON’T EXPRESS VIEWS ABOUT MILITARY MATTERS, IN OTHER WORDS YOU SAY NOTHING TO ANY PERSON” (IRA Green Book, 1977, p. 2).
The manual went on to describe the dangers of drinking and over-drinking, which could result in loose lips: “Volunteers are warned that drink-induced loose talk is the MOST POTENTIAL DANGER” to the PIRA’s survival. It described its guerilla style tactics as well as how to resist talking under torture if captured. Thus the most important aspect of the PIRA following its 1977 restructuring was the maintaining of secrecy of its members at all times. As for tactics — the Green Book made clear that it was “a war of attrition” and that “a bombing campaign” was the primary method of operations (IRA Green Book, 1977, p. 8).
What processes the British Government used to combat Irish terrorism, such as legislation, intelligence (the use of informants within the IRA), the use of special branches with special attention on counter-terrorist intelligence in Northern Ireland, surveillance, interrogation, etc.
Lord Diplock proposed a legal approach to the problem of PIRA’s terrorist tactics prior to the 1977 restructuring of the PIRA. The system was implemented in 1973 in the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act which saw a “draconian” policy of “jury-less courts” aka Diplock Courts in the trial of accused terrorists — a measure designed to reduce the alleged threat of jury intimidation (Bamford, 2005, p. 584). The RUC was given total control of the security forces of Northern Ireland.
Likewise, internment was conducted. The implementation of internment did not prove to be a successful method of controlling and reducing resistance in Northern Ireland (Beggan, 2009, p. 709). Just as the violent aims of the PIRA aroused the ire of the unionists, so too did internment arouse the ire of the nationalists. In the 1950s, internment had been a more successful measure because of mutual support from both British and Irish governments; by the 1970s, there was no such mutual support (Beggan, 2009). Another factor in the failure of internment, however, was the lack of solid intelligence on the part of the British. Many of those arrested were “innocent Catholics having nothing to do with the violence” (Beggan, 2009, p. 710). Thus, unjust arrests simply fueled the opposition.
“Ulsterization” commenced in the 1970s, which was essentially a policy in which police received full authority to combat the PIRA. The volunteers of the PIRA were to be seen as criminals, violating criminal law rather than as militarists, guerillas, or soldiers of the Republican Army, i.e., enemy combatants to be given the rights of soldiers. By viewing the Republican militants as petty criminals rather than as military equals, the British State was able to “localize the conflict” and take away the prestige from the PIRA that it sought to propagate in order to garner support from both the national and international community (Tuck, 2007, p. 169). As the PIRA itself individualized and broke up into smaller cell operations, it unwittingly played into the hands of the “criminalization” policy of the State: by taking on the attributes of local, territorial gangs committing random acts of violence and terrorism against the British State, they could be viewed and treated as a menace to society without being given any of the dignity deserving an enemy of war. In this sense, the PIRA was held as a menace, the aggressors in a conflict that was wholly one-sided. It was a way in which the British State could deftly turn the tables on the PIRA in more ways than one: it diminished their aspect by viewing the group as illegitimate and nothing other than a band of local gangs causing violent mischief; it allowed the local police an extraordinary capacity to engage in crackdowns; and it invalidated the PIRA’s efforts to view the conflict as a war, as in the old days of the early 20th century. The British State was not about to allow the Troubles to escalate into something resembling a major conflict. The fact that the PIRA resorted to mainly guerillas style tactics allowed the State to adopt this condescending attitude in official policy (Tuck, 2007).
At the same time, the British State yearned to achieve a political peace — just not at the demands of the PIRA. Peace talks continued off and on in secret throughout the decades but so too did the sensationalist tactics of Republicans, both those volunteering in the military cells and those partaking in the Hunger Strike in the prison cells. By the end of the 1970s, the security policy of the British State had become more effective through the empowerment of the local police and the use of the Special Patrol Groups of the RUC, trained by the British Army, serving as an anti-paramilitary group (Ellison, Smyth, 2000). There was also the Ulster Defense Regiment, established in 1970, in order to support the security apparatus. Though it was almost completely Protestant in make-up it was effective in the State’s policy, partly because it, along with the anti-paramilitary forces, viewed any political truce as favorable to the nationalists to be an affront and thus they provided the “hard line” response to the PIRA while the politicos attempted a “soft line.” In this manner, the State mirrored the Republicans’ own military-political structure, to some extent.
It also attempted to achieve a better footing on the intelligence front but in-fighting between the RUC Special Branch and the SAS caused intelligence sharing operations to be dismal at best.
At the same time it had to contend with the fact that the PIRA at least had effectively administered at a social level over the Catholic areas it had controlled through policing measures as well as social guidance (Tuck, 2007, p. 171). At any rate, the divide between Catholic and Protestant areas ran deep and the police admittedly had little to do with executing the law or overseeing its policing as there existed a “virtual separation” between the “normal” unionist Northern Ireland and the “Republican counter culture” that had blossomed under the influence of the PIRA (Tuck, 2007, p. 171).
Tactical flexibility remained a key issue with the British following the restructuring of the PIRA in 1977. The British State remained open to any and all avenues of action, so long as they combated the aggressive takeover plotted by the PIRA. Thus, “the British state did not officially sanction the systematic mass killing of Catholics as a plank of policy” but that did not mean that it was not a plank unofficially (Tuck, 2007, p. 172). In order to downplay the effect of violence on the already violent situation, the British state resorted to a legal policy that reduced the PIRA volunteer soldier to the status of a mere civilian. This was meant to reinforce a policy of minimum force so as not to exacerbate the situation, but the situation was exacerbated nonetheless as “minimum force” was a subjective term that was open to interpretation in many eyes, and the Falls Road curfew, which Green Book of 1977 cited as a major turning point in the way the Republican was to view the “Brit” served as an example of just how loosely “minimum” could be interpreted (Tuck, 2007, p. 172). The curfew and the air of repression that the Protestants effected led to “a process of brutalization on both sides” and it was clear that no matter how the British attempted to spin the situation in order to reduce the image of the PIRA in the public light, the two sides were at war in Northern Ireland, as indicated by the soldiers themselves in their own depictions of the front in Northern Ireland’s counties (Tuck, 2007).
Thus on the surface, the conflict was not to be seen in the classical dichotomous sense — of two opposing entities waging war in public. The PIRA was viewed as an illegitimate force that did not represent any existing government. This did not alter the underlying reality. The British State in order to succeed against the PIRA had to improve its intelligence operations in order to steer the PIRA away from the successful achievement of its aims. To this end, British intelligence ultimately achieved its aim, but only by “employing some highly dubious methods” (Bamford, 2005, p. 581). Indeed, the Stevens Enquiry showed just how dubious these means were: his report was based on “three Enquiries into allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland” and it highlighted “the willful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, and the extreme of agents being involved in murder” (Stevens, 2003, p. 3). The findings of the Stevens Enquiry and the involvement of William Stobie, a quartermaster of the Ulster Defense Association and a RUC Special Branch informer, will be discussed more fully in Chapter Five. For now it is sufficient to note that Stevens (2003) cited the murders of Patrick Finucane (a Northern Irish human rights lawyer) and Protestant student Brian Adam Lambert (mistakenly targeted as a Catholic in an act of reprisal for the PIRA bombing on Remembrance Day in 1987) and the subsequent cover-up of the facts surrounding the case as evidence of collusion.
In short, the British State allowed for a high degree of “tactical flexibility” in order to facilitate its own ends, whether that required looking the other way when acts of reprisal were made by the RUC and anti-paramilitary forces or required to utilization of intelligence gathering operators, agents, informants and moles.
Intelligence gathering was also an important aspect in the mission of the British State, and as the 1977 Green Book indicated, a large part of the process of intelligence was drive through the exercise of interrogations. Interrogations were a primary way in which the State achieved its end, and these were conducted in any number of ways with the same goal always in mind: to get individuals to talk.
Informants were some of the most hated people in Northern Ireland because they were viewed as undermining the entire enterprises on both sides (each side of the conflict exercised a degree of secrecy, as will be seen more clearly in Chapter Five). Moran (2010) notes that the British State routinely protected informants, to the point where it would overlook crimes committed by these assets. While this may appear sensational to some, it was simply standard operating procedure then as now and does not necessarily indicate any moral lapse on the part of the State, unless one wishes to call into question the entire artifice and structure of the State apparatus.
What passed for intelligence gathering, however, was “limited” in the early part of the Troubles (Moran, 2010, p. 3). Intelligence depended upon the RUC Special Branch in the early days which was sectarian (Protestant) and more caught up in the violent divide/conflict between loyalist and nationalist than in the actual identification and knowledge of nationalist supporters and PIRA activists/volunteers. An inspection by MI5 of the Branch divisions in the early part of the Troubles revealed that “the police were themselves seen as partial and were left behind by the polarization and violence which saw the development or regeneration of republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations” (Moran, 2010, p. 2). The RUC had no sense of who was perpetuating the violence in Northern Ireland and was viewed with suspicion on both sides and as largely ineffective in the control of the conflict.
Before the British State enacted Direct Rule in 1972, the RUC Special Branch essentially had the unenviable task of emerging from its shell to gather intelligence on the paramilitary forces acting out reprisals for perceived acts of aggression. Its lack of informants moreover made for a nearly impossible task of knowing ahead of time what particular groups were going to do. One of the main causes of this intelligence gap early on in the Troubles was the “lack of liaison between the Army and police” (Moran, 2010, p. 4). This intelligence gap will be described in more detail in the next chapter. Here it is enough to point out that steps were taken to bridge this gap through the centralization of counter-terrorist intelligence units in both the Army and the RUC Special Branch. These units were established in the later half of the 1970s and continued to develop over the years in order to become better equipped through surveillance and the use of informants on the movements of the PIRA.
The Special Branch oversaw the coordination of intelligence and the use of informants following restructuring in 1976 (during and after the cease-fire secret talks between the PIRA and the British State), and by the 1980s the Branch was most effective in controlling the flow of intelligence information (even if the intelligence sharing between Regional offices of the Branch and the Army were mediocre at best).
Even though the PIRA volunteers were viewed as “criminals” and not as soldiers by the British State, according to their doctrine of delegitimizing the oppositional force, the fact remained that when it came to intelligence gathering, the State recognized the difference immensely. Thus Criminal Investigation Departments (CID) oversaw the recruitment and coordination of “criminals as informants” while the PIRA volunteers or “terrorist informants” were “left to the Special Branch” (Moran, 2010, p. 6).
Following the “super-grass” trials in which paramilitary forces on both sides of the conflict “spoke” on their brothers in arms in exchange for leniency, the using informants became obvious to all and though the “evidence” gathered through the confessions of these individuals was not used in the trials, it served another purpose, as the RUC identified: it served to thoroughly disrupt and destabilize the opposition (Moran, 2010, p. 7). Thus, by 1977 it was clear that secrecy was of the highest importance to the PIRA, as the Green Book publication of that year illustrated emphatically.
Under Chief Constable Hermon, who succeeded Slevin, the Special Branch and the CID were “cross fertilized” in order to boost the intelligence departments’ strategy and effectiveness in order to avoid any more controversies like the McCormack controversy. (Charles McCormack was a Special Branch detective who formed too close of an alliance with Anthony O’Doherty, a PIRA informant: “both ended up charged with criminal offences in 1984”) (Moran, 2010, p. 7). Giving clarity to the field was essential in controlling the outcome. During this time, there were at least “50 active PIRA individuals” serving as informants in the decade following PIRA’s obsession with the secrecy and restructuring of 1977 (Moran, 2010, p. 8). Some estimates put the number of infiltrators higher — for instance, in Derry it is estimated that “one in six IRA volunteers worked for the FRU,” the Force Research Unit of the British Army (Moran, 2010, p. 8). Depending solely upon secrecy as its main cohesive and organizational binder, the PIRA had painted itself into a corner and was forced to accept such a high number of questionable recruits or to keep so many informants within its ranks because it had no sufficient way of really checking up on them. Secrecy was the watchword and few were talking — other than those informing to the other side. In this manner, the British State took advantage of an organizational weakness in the PIRA’s 1977 restructuring and exploited that which the group saw as its most vital strength: secrecy.
Hermon also helped to guide the RUC through 1980s and build upon the efforts of Slevin, resulting in what became known as the “Hermonization” of the Constabulary. What Hermon emphasized and brought to fruition during his tenure were “three main trends in security policy: Ulsterization, professionalization, and the de-politicization of the force” — with the third trend being perhaps the most important (Jeffery, 1990, p. 21). One of the main problems of the State in the 1970s had been that its own forces were too politicized to objectively and cunningly deal with the situation. By simply monitoring and guiding the PIRA through the use of moles and informants, the RUC could leave the political side of the conflict to the politicians.
By the 1990s, however, the Special Branch had essentially been eclipsed by MI5 due to the rise of Sinn Fein in terms of importance and persuasive power within Northern Ireland and the aim of ending the violence through political pact. Moreover, the view was held that Special Branch was no longer able to be trusted on the level that MI5 could be, due to “local operational decisions” and “local security interests” (Elliott, Flackes, 1999, p. 656). In other words, the local direction of intelligence had served its purpose throughout the 1980s and in the 1990s the new political winds were changing and another restructuring of power was wanted in order to facilitate the new political aims of the State. If the 1980s had focused on containment of the PIRA, the 1990s focused on resolution.
Surveillance and interrogation methods were also important aspects of the State’s control of the opposition. Army surveillance, for instance, did not necessarily lead to many prosecutions, but it did serve a substantial function in terms of policing and providing the case for putting pressure on areas in which prosecutorial outcomes could not be effected. The 14th Intelligence Department, to this end, contributed vastly to the impact of the Army on the overall developing mood of the public throughout the 1980s, as it began to shift away from the PIRA to the political aims of Sinn Fein. The Army’s surveillance assisted this shift by serving as the all-seeing eyes which, for want of substantial evidence that could be used in courts, could at least show that the oppositional forces and their individual cells were clearly in the sights of the State and the secrecy so desired by the PIRA was not nearly as complete as it would have liked.
Indeed, part of surveillance was the tactic of maintaining informants — of policing rather than prosecuting. Had the RUC attempted to prosecute everyone with whom it came into contact in terms of being part of the opposition, it would have had an extremely difficult case of “recruiting any further informants”: the relationship between intelligence gathering and prosecuting was not always tangible in this sense (Moran, 2010, p. 16). On some level the surveillance-informant aspects of the State’s operations were designed to simply allow the State to be in the “know” and to have some sense of what the PIRA was doing on the other side. Had there been too great an incentive to imprison or punish the opposition, the risk of having new units and cells brought into being complete with “new members not under police surveillance” would have caught up with State in a way that would prove counter-effective (Moran, 2010, p. 16). Surveillance and the use of informants was mainly about knowing the players of the other side and controlling their movement. Eradication was not possible, due to the regenerative aspect of the PIRA and its captivating hold on the Northern Irish youth (through propaganda like and manuals like the Green Book). Therefore, attempting to reduce the numbers through internment did not make tactical sense. Instead, controlling the opposition through infiltration while a political resolution could be affected through the interaction of other ministries within the State over time became the most suitable course of action.
The difficulties encountered by the British State while combating the PIRA and what it did to overcome these difficulties
It was the PIRA’s strategy of silence and secrecy that the British State had to cut through in order to bring about the end to the conflict on its own terms. As was the case in the PIRA with two opposing courses of action (violent and political) being sought alternately among leaders of the PIRA (via secret peace talks), the directed courses of action within the British alternated between aggressive military action and aggressive political action designed to lure the opposing side to the table for talks (Tuck, 2007, p. 170). Early on there was no precise or concise method of action on the behalf of the British State that was cohesive enough to guarantee success or that was efficiently or sufficiently supported all the way through to conclusion. By the 1980s, this had changed as the State underwent its own reorganization.
For the most part, it was, however, a reactionary policy. For example, internment was utilized until the Hunger Strikes brought so much negative attention to the practice that the British State did away with it. At the same time, policy primacy was used as a way to circumvent the cell structure of the PIRA but when two British soldiers were seized and shot by the PIRA in 1988, “Margaret Thatcher argued for a security policy review that would consider ending Police primacy, reintroducing internment, banning Sinn Fein, relaxing security force rules of engagement, and the banning of media broadcasts” (Tuck, 2007, p. 170). In short, the State under Thatcher had no idea how to proceed effectively. Essentially, it was primarily thanks to the politicking of Sinn Fein that the IRA was finally disbanded as the nexus of Republican support was thrown behind the political power rather than the PIRA, after two decades of a bombing campaign had failed to rid the North of the “Brits.”
One of the biggest difficulties initially faced by the British State was that its intelligence was faulty. Acting on that intelligence, in the case of arrests and internments, for example, added fuel to the spree of violent retaliation on the part of the PIRA. Thus, appreciating the ways in which intelligence could be effectively gathered and then concomitantly effectively utilized was something the State had to grow to appreciate over time. Acting on intelligence (even good intelligence) did not always mean preventing the PIRA from exercising its violent campaigns. Sometimes simply knowing and then exploiting the actions of PIRA to redirect public sentiment away from the organization’s violent methods towards the support of a peace process (that would, in effect, allow the British to remain in Northern Ireland) became a primary aim. Understanding the ways in the State’s own violent reprisals through its own paramilitary outfits only caused support for PIRA to increase allowed the British to rethink how intelligence could be more effectively used, not as proponent of deterrence in every case, but in every case as a method of controlling the outcome so as to reduce the significance and support of PIRA in the long-term.
This understanding came about through a series of mental connections made by the State in the 1970s and 1980s. The events of Bloody Sunday had touched off a fierce campaign of reprisal from the PIRA while the cease-fire talks of the mid-1970s had shown the possibility of a political break through should the right balance of pressure, policing, and politicking be utilized over the next several years. Direct recourse to further repression was ineffective as an approach to countering PIRA, as the research indicates. Beggan (2009) shows a direct connection between the legal and enforcement approach and the increase of violence in the 1970s. The use of violence on the part of the British State as in Bloody Sunday was also an obstacle, as it equally served to inspire the opposition and create substantial blowback: this was known as the Bloody Sunday Variable (Beggan, 2009, p. 710). Essentially, the British State was impairing its own ability to confront the PIRA by acting in the same violent and repressive manner. It stimulated a vicious cycle of violence that went unchecked for years until both sides were sufficiently wearied by the unending and perpetual state of warfare, exhausting both sides and adding to a layer of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the expectation of achieving the desired aims. What it needed was a more subtle method — one that could use the resources gathered through good intelligence and informants yet prevent PIRA from feeling pushed or inspired to lash out with worse attacks than before. It was a delicate balance of attempting to control, prevent, and enforce that could only be kept with the utmost care and coordination of the different agencies and special branches involved — and this care and coordination was not always possible as the State’s paramilitary loyalist divisions were just as a violent and terroristic in their reprisals against PIRA as PIRA was against the State.
Crackdowns and arrests did help to limit the abilities of the PIRA but with its reorganization in 1977, the British State faced a new hurdle — gathering better intelligence and placing agents in a position whereby they might be acting as effective deterrents of the aims of the PIRA (which did not always mean more arrests and internments as it did building trust within the cells and monitoring them over time in order to develop a better sense of the character and movement of the situation).
However, there were also economic obstacles to consider in the midst of all this fighting, spying, and infiltrating. The British State bound itself to compensating “bombed out businesses up to 100% of their losses” (Beggan, 2009, p. 714), which benefited Northern Ireland’s construction industry — at the cost of British taxpayers. The stations of the RUC and the barracks of the Army were routinely bombed by the PIRA and the cost to “maintain and build” was extremely high as a result of the tense and unstable nature of the conflict. The British State also had to allocate a great deal of physical resources in the form of police and Army units in Northern Ireland, all of whom received high wages that included a “danger money clause” (Beggan, 2009, p. 714). All of these costs were a weight on the State as well as on the public which, although it viewed unfavorably the actions of the PIRA, ultimately felt the impact of the attacks on their own pocketbook — which was one aim of the PIRA and a main reason for resorting to such guerilla style assaults.
Yet even as the cost of waging war against the uprising played a part in an eventual peace process beginning in the 1990s, the biggest obstacle faced by the British State ultimately stemmed from its own policy of repression: as Beggan (2009) notes, “the application of repression in a democracy over long periods of time is positively associated with more insurgent violence” (p. 722). The use of “moles,” intelligence, laws, officers, agents and collusion played a role in both the ebb and flow of violence in Northern Ireland. Thus finding a way out of the retaliatory mentality that underscored the British State’s approach to the demands of the PIRA was the overall obstacle faced by the State in terms of ending the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland (Beggan, 2009, p. 723).
Kirk-Smith and Dingley (2009), however, assert that intelligence was and is the main challenge in controlling any war (p. 551). The RUC’s Special Branch served a significant role in assisting the State to overcome the obstacle of knowing who, where and what the PIRA was targeting, who its volunteers were, and what they were coordinating. The method of intelligence utilized by the Special Branch and the State was best characterized by the use of “agents, informers and good old fashioned ‘coppers’ who knew their patch” (Kirk-Smith, Dingley, 2009, p. 551) — in other words, on the ground intelligence gathered by agents and officers working hands-on in the field, either in the capacity as a member of RUC, as an informant, or as a mole.
Special interrogation techniques were utilized as a method of gathering intelligence but were in the end “ineffective” in achieving any kind of decisive counter-strike initiative (Moran, 2010, p. 4). When RUC Special Branch was given control of security operations in 1976, a transformation occurred within the intelligence gathering department. Under Chief Constable Slevin, the importance given to intelligence and the role of informants was moved front and center. Tasking and Coordination Groups (TCG) were developed in order to facilitate lines of communication between the police and the Army. The TCG consisted of RUC Special Branch, Army intel, MI5 and SAS (Special Air Service). RUC controlled three TCGs — one in Belfast, one in the north and one in the south. The basis of anti-terrorist operations was built here, in this new reorganization of data under the direct control of the RUC. Special Branch Regional Heads “organized and ran police informants and Army intelligence centralized its own running of informants under the Force Research Unit” (FSU) thus moving the localized informant processing out of the hands of inept, inexperienced and inefficient hands into more professional hands (Moran, 2010, p. 5). Greater control over the flow of information thus allowed the British State to better understand the opposition and to infiltrate its narrowing bases of operations. Essentially the “ends-means relationship” was more closely examined under this reorganization process on the part of the British state, and just as the PIRA restructured itself to better adjust to the activities of the opposition, so too did the State realize that it needed to realign its means with the ends it wished to achieve (Bennett, 2010, p. 513).
However, this restructuring on the part of the State was not without its own difficulties as various agencies now had to overcome their own misgivings and unwillingness to share information. For instance, MI5 and the Army were not completely open to the concept of working with the RUC Special Branch in coordinating “the use of informants” — mainly because they did not trust the police and also because on the British mainland the opinion was popular that the Special Branch “was too sympathetic to informants, particularly in loyalist paramilitary organizations” (Moran, 2010, p. 5). Nonetheless, the RUC emerged in the 1980s as having more credibility in the department of managing intelligence than it had in the early 1970s and one main reason for this was that “the Army could not match the permanence of RUC officers or their opportunities to recruit informants” (Moran, 2010, p. 6). This allowed the State to effectively develop and “introduce a strong element of predictability into the IRA’s decision-making process” (Ilardi, 2010, p. 331). Thus, by steering the opposition, the State had a better grasp on the overall movement and mechanics of the enemy.
The one advantage that the RUC enjoyed over the Army was precisely what the mainland public viewed as disadvantageous. The fact remained, nonetheless, that the RUC’s officers could cultivate closer ties with the PIRA’s volunteers because of its presence in the streets and its knowledge of local custom and culture, people and places — which made it most effective in bringing the State a more sustainable bearing on the Troubles following the PIRA’s reorganization in 1977. Throughout the 1980s this intelligence apparatus overseen by the RUC’s Special Branch served not always to prevent attacks but often to understand how the PIRA operated and how it could be undermined from within by guiding possible recruits and new members away from the organization’s violent aims towards a more practical and peaceful political solution, such as that proffered by Sinn Fein. In the 1990s, this end appeared more possible, thanks to careful intelligence gathering and utilization under the RUC in the 1980s. With the transition of power from the Special Branch to MI5 with the end goal being political truce with Sinn Fein and the ultimate marginalization and eradiation of the PIRA through public censure on the part of Ireland’s own leading Republicans, the State could bring about what it most desired — the end of the PIRA and the return of Protestant-Catholic co-existence in Northern Ireland. In short, the State went from attempting to kill the opposition to attempting to convert it.
The control, accountability, the unmeasured actions of the security forces and collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries
The attempt to kill, however, died hard for some — especially within the ranks of the paramilitary forces on the side of the Protestant loyalists. As the Special Branch also sought to cultivate relationships with its members, who often resorted to reprisal following an attack by the PIRA, much went unreported and unprosecuted. William Stobie, was a perfect example of the collusion, lack of accountability and illegality that existed in the relationship between State security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. The loyalists resorted to vigilantism in the same character as the PIRA, which often confused the issues at hand, causing some to see no difference between the RUC and the PIRA. And men like Stobie who were in a position to monitor and report on the terroristic acts of reprisal on the part of paramilitary forces, failed to deliver, as noted in the Stevens Enquiry (2003).
The Stevens Enquiry concluded clearly that collusion existed in the murders of Finucane and Lambert and that the RUC failed to deliver the killers to justice in a reasonable amount of time. Stevens (2003) held that “the failure to keep records or the existence of contradictory accounts can often be perceived as evidence of concealment or malpractice. It limits the opportunity to rebut serious allegations. The absence of accountability allows the acts or omissions of individuals to go undetected. The withholding of information impedes the prevention of crime and the arrest of suspects. The unlawful involvement of agents in murder implies that the security forces sanction killings” (p. 16). All of the above was true in the case of Stobie.
As quartermaster of the UDA and a Special Branch informer, Stobie had been connected to the murders of both Lambert and Finucane in 1989. Stobie had been a lifelong loyalist in Belfast, who, much like the young nationalists who wanted to join the only acting organization to push for an aggressive response to the tensions in Northern Ireland, joined a paramilitary organization of loyalist roots — the UDA. From there, Stobie entered the British Army before returning to the UDA. Stobie had attempted to join the Ulster Volunteer Force, but the UVF suspected that he was a government mole (as he had been in the Army). Thus both sides of the conflict were wary of infiltrators as both sides resorted to acts of violent aggression condemned by the State. The acts of aggression on the side of the loyalists, however, were often overlooked by the RUC, as Stevens (2003) and others observed (McDonald, Cusack, 2004).
When the PIRA bombed the Remembrance Day ceremony in 1987, the UDA retaliated by killing Lambert in Belfast. It was believed at the time that Lambert was a Catholic, but he was not. Thus a bad situation was made worse as the UDA had failed to retaliate in even the most basic eye-for-an-eye manner by killing one of its “own” instead of one of “theirs.” Stobie confessed to his role in the slaying as getaway driver and arms supplier for the shooter at the Stevens Enquiry. From the point on he was marked as an informer and later killed by the UDA.
Stevens’ enquiry into Stobie’s role in the murders of Finucane and Lambert came about as a result of “allegations of collusion raised by British Irish RIGHTS WATCH” (Stevens, 2003, p. 3). Stobie, known as an RUC informant, shed a light on the complex situation regarding the “task of preventing terrorist attacks by paramilitary groups from either side of the community in Northern Ireland” (Stevens, 2003, p. 4). The complexity was underscored by the fact that of the 3,000 deaths handled by the RUC between 1987 and 1989 stemming from “terrorist related incidents,” more than 250 killings were connected to the “security situation” (Stevens, 2003, p. 4). This meant that the Special Branch, which should have been acting as a pacific stabilizer in the community, was falling down in terms of doing its job.
The murder of the solicitor Patrick Finucane in his home in front of his wife and children in 1989 had proved too sensational to ignore and the claim of responsibility by the Ulster Freedom Fighters illustrated how willing the Protestant paramilitary forces were to engage in the same tactics as the PIRA. The problem was that the RUC appeared only to wink at such tactics. Finucane’s murderers were not found and the case “effectively ceased” by year’s end (Stevens, 2003, p. 7).
However, after Stobie confessed to journalist Neil Mulholland about his role in the Finucane and Lambert murders as well as his connections to the UDA and the RUC, the case was suddenly thrust back into the public spotlight. It came to light that Stobie had been recruited by the Special Branch in 1987 after the murder of Lambert had resulted in his arrest (never charged, Stobie had kept his silence and was thus rewarded by the RUC with a role in its Special Branch). Following Mulholland’s identification of Stobie, the RUC arrested Stobie, though Mulholland in exchange for Stobie’s confession had promised not to accuse and thus he “refused to sign a statement” (Stevens, 2003, p. 8). What Stevens uncovered was that Stobie, even after the murder of Finucane, “continued to be involved in the storage and supply of weapons” (Stevens, 2003, p. 8). Most alarmingly was the finding of Stevens’ Enquiry Team once it “examined the role of agents, now known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS)” (Stevens, 2003, p. 9). One such CHIS was Brian Nelson, an Army agent, who “was charged with thirty-five serious terrorist offences and later convicted” (Stevens, 2003, p. 9). Nelson had been part of the FRU, the Army’s intelligence unit. Examining more deeply the activities of the FRU revealed “widespread collusion between the loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC and Army” (Stevens, 2003, p. 11). In short, the control of the war against the PIRA was in the hands of individuals just as terroristic as the enemy it sought to defeat.
The actions of security forces therefore must come under scrutiny regarding their role in the conflict. The complex and often contradictory aims of the British State throughout the Troubles allowed for the unmeasured actions of security forces to allow reprisals to take place in a spirit of vengeance counter to the overall “spirit of mission” that others within the State wished to cultivate. A complete view of the Troubles and the desire by both sides to harm the other, at the same time that individuals within both sides sought to work towards a peaceful resolution, reveals no easy answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this study. The fact is that the aims and operations of the British State included diverse tactics and transformations over a number of years, included various interrelated activities on the part of the Special Branch and various paramilitary/terrorist cells on the side of the unionists, “combating” (in a tit-for-tat manner) the terrorist cells of the PIRA. The question of how accountable the RUC was for the activities of the loyalists is difficult to answer as well: on the one hand, the situation was the same as in the case of overseeing the actions of the PIRA. Even with the infiltrator Frank Scappaticci acting as deputy head of Security in the PIRA, the RUC had to look the other way when certain plots were carried out in order to keep from blowing the cover of their mole (Charters, 2013). This could be viewed simply as a necessary evil and as part of the gray-zone of war. Indeed, cloak and dagger tactics involving moles, fronts, double-agents, etc., were matters of course throughout the Troubles.
As Charters (2009) indicates, the British State was well into covert actions from the beginning. The Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF), for instance, has used “turned IRA members” to run “a series of ‘front’ companies that collected intelligence while operating in the guise of regular businesses” (Charters, 2009, p. 57). When the cover of one such business, Four Square Laundry, “was blown by a double agent,” the mole was executed. Such incidents were common throughout the Troubles and simply serve to expose the muddied aspect of counter-insurgency methods used by the British to oppose what the Republicans viewed as a counter-colonialist war on its own part. In reality, there was little difference in terms of conduct throughout the war by either side: the gray-scales color the whole.
Collusion, therefore, could be viewed in any number of way: it could be assessed as simply a matter of course — the practical method of operating on several levels and layers at once; the outcome of having to manipulate various threads and ideological approaches to a complex issue that had simmered for hundreds of years and now was exploding at an unpredictable and ungovernable clip. On the one hand, collusion could be seen as making the best of a bad situation, in spite of the obvious illegality and immorality of certain actions, such as the murder of Finucane and Lambert. On the other hand, it could be attributed to the fact that the casualties of war come in all shapes and sizes and are not always produced at the end of a bomb: sometimes they come from retaliatory practices from one’s own side of the war and must be accepted while thoroughly deplored. The line of justice does not always run straight through in war time, because if pursued strictly it could lead to a place where few are willing to look — such as the justification of British rule in Northern Ireland and whether or not the demands of the Republicans had any validity, considering the repression that the Catholic nationalists had experienced at the hands of the unionists leading up to the Troubles and the sudden explosive waves of violence.
Such a line would surely cause some to question the overall aspect of the conflict and not just whether collusion in and of itself is wrong or justified or accepted in certain cases. Street justice, as in the case of Stobie, and matters of loyalty and secrecy exist in society, whether one likes it or not — and maintaining control can be a difficult combination of exerting too little pressure or too much pressure, of letting some get by and others holding accountable. Oftentimes, the winds of political change bear some impact on how the line is followed, as the case of Thatcher and her insistence on modifications to the war shows.
The response of the British government to the actions of the PIRA, therefore, cannot be conceived simply: it consists of a complex combination legal approaches, policing, infiltration, repression, terrorism, murder, politicking, peace talks, negotiations, restructuring, refining, and a willingness to cease fighting in favor of political truce. Years of changes and rearrangements were involved in the British state’s response. It ranged from bloody and violent (as on Bloody Sunday) to repressive and demeaning (prompting the Hunger Strikes) to positive and practical (regarding the political negotiations with Sinn Fein). Consequently, one could assert that the British response was made up of components that were part immoral and unlawful and part lawful and honest. Considering the number and range of men involved in the conflict, such should come as no surprise. There is never a clear line of action or of justice in any conflict between individuals acting from different ideological backgrounds and beliefs, where passions run high and outrage is a driving sentiment and considerable factor in acts of retaliation and murder. The fact is that the British response to the changes of the PIRA’s organizational structure adopted in 1977 showed a willingness both to confront the new cell system with cells of its own (like the UDA) an also to use a political strategy after infiltrating the PIRA and exploiting its own weaknesses in terms of structure and morality to inspire a different movement of support away from violent Republicanism towards a more political and peaceful expression of the Republican ideals held by the Irish nationalists.
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