NI security forces 'replaced law and order with war', Hume told Prior
SDLP VIEW:SDLP leader John Hume raised the question of the operation of a “shoot to kill” policy by the security forces in the North and voiced grave pessimism at the political and security situation at a meeting with British ministers in late 1982.
At the meeting between Hume and the Northern secretary James Prior and his deputy, Lord Gowrie, at Hillsborough Castle on December 22nd, the SDLP leader said he was very concerned that a political resolution was no nearer than it had been when direct rule began.
“Indeed, the situation was deteriorating and was highly dangerous,” he was reported as saying in a British government account of the meeting released in Belfast through the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland under the 30-year rule.
While some in the SDLP had suggested resigning their seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, he believed the SDLP should not resign. However, some early political movement was essential.
To this end the SDLP was working with the Republic to set up the proposed council for a new Ireland. This would “bring a dose of reality and help to de-sloganise the argument. It could not involve the unionists since its purpose was to put forward a nationalist solution,” he was reported as saying.
The council would examine the economics of a united Ireland (so showing the considerable practical difficulties) and go on to examine constitutional problems and minority rights. The council’s work would last up to 12 months and would provide the SDLP with a tangible sign that they were engaged in political activity.
The note records that Prior felt Hume was dismissing too quickly the opportunities for political progress in Northern Ireland. There was nothing the British government could offer the SDLP to bring it into the Assembly. What was needed was a readiness by both the SDLP and the unionists to reach an accommodation.
The British ministers suggested the SDLP might retain its credibility by taking part in the Assembly departmental committees while still abstaining from plenary sessions.
Hume replied that the Assembly was discredited in the eyes of the nationalist community. “Young people are more inclined to accept the blandishments of paramilitary organisations,” he is recorded as saying.
The SDLP leader expressed concern that “recent police tactics of shooting terrorists had brought the security forces down to the level of the terrorist. They had replaced law and order with war.”
Prior firmly rebutted this allegation, pointing out that while special service units were operating in some areas, notably south Armagh, there had been no change in force orders. The men who had been shot were known terrorists but there would be a full police inquiry.
Allegations of the shoot-to-kill policy followed the shooting by police of three unarmed IRA men – Gervaise McKerr, Seán Burns and Eugene Toman – by the RUC at a checkpoint near Lurgan on November 11th, 1982. These were followed two weeks later by the killing of Michael Tighe by an RUC patrol at a farm near Craigavon. And on December 12th, two INLA men, Séamus Grew and Roddy Carroll, were shot dead by the RUC at a checkpoint near Armagh. The killings were to lead eventually to the Stalker-Sampson inquiry.
Hume said that a decision to release life-sentence prisoners who had been very young at the time of their offence would be effective in discouraging young people from joining paramilitary groups.
Prior said he did not intend moving too quickly in developing better relations with the Republic though he hoped for an improvement. Hume said that FitzGerald – who had just become taoiseach – took the same view. Hume said if the unionists were prepared to work with the SDLP, they should invite the party to talk. “Evidence of a real change of heart was required,” he said, according to the minutes.
Dr Éamon Phoenix is principal lecturer in history at Stranmillis University College (QUB).