Northern Ireland, 1972: a British army-loyalist paramilitary alliance
The protests of the past six weeks have their roots in a policy established in the early days of the Troubles
As security chiefs and political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London anxiously watch the Union flag protests deteriorate into greater violence, they could do worse than reflect on one uncomfortable reality: the strength and endurance of groups such as the UVF and UDA in the years of the peace process in no small way derives from a crucial ambivalence towards such groups shown by Britain’s top generals in Northern Ireland, almost from the outset of the Troubles.
Damning evidence that the higher echelons of the British military advocated a counterinsurgency strategy that would encourage the growth of loyalist paramilitary groups in the early 1970s has emerged in documents from the Northern Ireland Office released in the past decade or so.
Ignored or unnoticed by all but a handful of academics, the papers suggest that as early as 1972 British generals effectively championed a strategy of countergangs drawn from the ranks of loyalism to fight the IRA, an idea apparently borrowed from the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya.
While the documents do not say whether the military won the support of the British cabinet for such proposals, there is no record of any opposition to them, and according to one academic who has studied the issue, Dr Huw Bennett of the department of international politics at the University of Wales, in Aberystwyth, it is “very likely” the military got its way in this regard.
The evidence for all this emerges in documentation produced in the wake of the IRA’s first ceasefire, in 1972. On July 9th that year, the same day that short-lived ceasefire ended in a riot and gun battle at the Lenadoon estate, in west Belfast, the British army’s general officer commander, Gen Harry Tuzo, dispatched a paper to Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw. The paper, apparently prepared in anticipation of the ceasefire’s breaking down, outlined security options in the next phase of the war against the IRA.
The paper was prepared with the approval of the British army’s chief of general staff, Field Marshall Michael Carver, and therefore reflected the view of Britain’s military establishment on how best to conduct operations against the IRA.
One recommendation, according to Bennett in a paper written for Studies in Conflict Terrorism, in 2010, was to flood IRA strongholds such as west Belfast and Derry with troops to force the IRA into firefights, which would then allow the army not just to kill and arrest IRA suspects but to conduct widespread searches and gather intelligence. Tuzo also sought legal indemnity for the troops involved in this exercise.
A second front
According to Bennett’s paper, the cabinet of the then prime minister, Ted Heath, refused to grant the army indemnity and had qualms about the proposed military occupation of Catholic areas, although the IRA bombings of Bloody Friday, later, in July 1972, created the political circumstances for just such an operation, which became known as Motorman.
Tuzo then made a proposal to Whitelaw that the growth of loyalists paramilitaries should be quietly promoted. The wording of Tuzo’s idea strongly implies the creation of a second front that the Provisional IRA would be forced to fight on.