“What it points to is that the police and the British Army in Northern Ireland, from the start of the Troubles onwards, operated – or collaborated with loyalist sectarians in operating – a murderous policy not just against suspected Irish republicans, but against the Catholic community in general.”
By Geoff Bell
As the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday is marked, new evidence has emerged showing British state collusion in murders in Northern Ireland. And these were well after that afternoon in January 1972 when British paratroopers killed thirteen people on the streets of Derry’s Bogside. A fourteenth died later of wounds received. They were shot after they had assembled to march against internment without trial.
It is well known that Bloody Sunday was not exceptional. Six weeks before, the same parachute regiment shot dead nine people in Belfast’s Catholic district of Ballymurphy simply because – it appears – they had dared to walk on their own streets at a time when protests against internment without trial in Northern Ireland were rife. A 2021 coroner’s report found that all those killed had been innocent of any criminal action or intent, and that the killings were “without justification”. Similarly, of course, the 2010 Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday found those victims were also innocent of any crimes, and they were shot without warning, running away, while lying on the road wounded or when going to the help of others.
Now, at the start of January, another official report has further evidenced the practice of state crimes against the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. This is in the form of a police ombudsman report into killings committed by loyalist paramilitaries in the northwest of Northern Ireland between1989 and 1993. The deaths of nineteen people were investigated and again the pattern is the same: they were murdered not because of any alleged crimes, but simply because they were Catholics.
The most notorious of these killings was in October 1993 in a public house in Greysteel, County Derry, when the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, opened fire on civilians, killing eight and wounding nineteen. The pub was targeted because it was popular with Catholics, though two of the victims were Protestant. But the UDA did not act alone, they and another loyalist group, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, were aided and abetted by the security forces, both in Greysteel and in the other similar sectarian murders examined by the ombudsman.
What the ombudsman has reported is various degrees and forms of “collusive behaviour” by members of the then Northern Ireland police (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in these deaths. The UDR was a full-time and part-time regiment of the British Army, with a Northern Ireland and overwhelmingly Protestant membership.
The ombudsman has reported that: UDA/UFF were supplied with military assault rifles; that the police did not act on intelligence about planned attacks; that they did not warn individuals who they knew were targets; that the UDR officers passed on information on targets to the paramilitaries; that the police did not act on information they received after the attacks; that they collaborated with informants who they suspected of sectarian killings; and that they deliberately destroyed records of the crimes of informants.
Some of this, especially collusion in the Greysteel murders, was already known. But again, what it points to is that the police and the British Army in Northern Ireland, from the start of the Troubles onwards, operated – or collaborated with loyalist sectarians in operating – a murderous policy not just against suspected Irish republicans, but against the Catholic community in general. It was, at its most extreme, a policy of reprisals, first practiced by the British in the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, and subsequently operated by the British army in many of its colonial operations. The theory is if you punish the community sufficiently, it will stop those from within it fighting back. The UDA and other loyalist gangs announced the same operating principle.
When British state policy makers are confronted with these crimes, they often blame “rotten apples” in their ranks. This is nonsense. For example, The whole reprisals and collusion practice was outlined in a book, Low Intensity Operations by Frank Kitson in 1971, who, for a while, ran the Army’s operations in Northern Ireland that year and, because of it, was promoted until he became Commander-in-Chief of UK Land Forces from 1982 to 1985. Supporting Kitson’s theories, according to evidence given to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, was prime minister Edward Heath, who shortly before the Derry killings voiced support for a “military solution” in Northern Ireland.
All of this helps to explain why today the cover-ups continue. The current government is pressing ahead with plans to legislate for an amnesty for any crimes committed by members of the various security forces committed in Northern Ireland. This also prohibits the type of coroner’s report which pronounced on Ballymurphy, the type of investigation conducted by Saville, and the type of Police Ombudsman report which has just been published. But it is not so much individual soldiers the Tories are intent on protecting. Rather, they are determined to avoid the scrutiny and exposure of the whole state apparatus which controlled and instructed these soldiers. In brief, when we say, “No More Bloody Sundays” they say, “No More Bloody Sunday Inquiries”. To ensure this does not happen would be a good way to remember those victims of fifty years ago.
Geoff Bell is an executive member of Labour For Irish Unity. His next book, The Twilight of Ulster Unionism, will be published later this year by Verso.
- Geoff Bell, is the Author of “Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution & the British Labour Movement,” and an activist for Labour for Irish Unity.