Britain the ‘main conflict protagonist’ in the Troubles

Sinn Féin said Britain has always sought to ‘conceal and deny’ its role in the Troubles

Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin. Photograph : Niall Carson/PA Wire

Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin. Photograph : Niall Carson/PA Wire


Sinn Féin has described the British government as the “main conflict protagonist” during the Troubles.

Sinn Féin in its 30-page submission to the British government’s consultation on how to address the legacy of the Troubles said the British state has “always sought to conceal, deny and cover up its central role in the Irish conflict”.

“Fulfilling legacy obligations will require a step change in the British governments approach to engaging with the past. To date the British government’s approach has been to deny and cover up its own role and culpability as the main conflict protagonist,” it stated in its paper published on Wednesday.

Justifying the claim Sinn Féin referred to a number of issues including alleged British collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, Bloody Sunday, the alleged RUC “shoot-to-kill” operations in north Armagh in the 1980s, the UDA murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and the “sabotage” and “suppression” of investigations into collusion allegations.

IRA responsibility

The Irish Times put it to Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill that the contention that the British government was the main protagonist hardly stood up when the IRA was responsible for some half of the killings of the Troubles, about 1,800 killings.

It was also put to her that during the Troubles the IRA fought a campaign under the slogan “Brits out” and that its policy, as described by its opponent during that time, was to try to “bomb a million unionists into a united Ireland”.

Ms O’Neill said Sinn Féin could stand over the entire document. “It’s a piece of work that has been brought about with extensive engagement,” she said, before asking Sinn Féin North Belfast Assembly member and former IRA prisoner Gerry Kelly to more fully address the question.

Mr Kelly said it was not true that there was an attempt to bomb a million people into a united Ireland. He said “propaganda” was being applied in the question.

He said the IRA reference to “Brits Out” during the Troubles was getting the British army out of Northern Ireland.

Mr Kelly said the British government had 31,000 troops in Northern Ireland at one stage. “They were set against republicanism and nationalism. There was a conflict on. Nationalists fought that conflict as other combatant forces did,” he said.

“What we have now is a political way forward. That is what all of the negotiations are about. That is what we are doing today, and that is what we will continue to do,” added Mr Kelly.

When further pressed on how Sinn Féin could stand over describing the British government as the main conflict protagonist he replied, “They were the main protagonists. They are a government. They had 31,000 troops here, they had a standing army of some 150,000. So it is not unreasonable to say that they were the main protagonist,” he said.


Mr Kelly added that the statement was further justified when the “suffering within nationalism” was considered and when you went further back into history to consider “partition and all that”.

When asked about the casualties caused by the IRA Ms O’Neill interjected to say people “could spend all day getting into the conversation you want to have” or they could engage in building bridges and healing the wounds of the past.

“That is what we are about,” she added. “This is about trying to move this forward, about trying to give families access to mechanisms that they have been demanding time and time again.”

“When we look at the conflict there are very many different narratives of the past,” she continued. “The first step in reconciliation and moving forward is actually recognising that to be the fact. So, we stand over the words in this document, we stand over the proposals in this document.

“We have taken this work seriously and gone through it with a fine tooth comb with victims, not just nationalists and republicans but right across the whole spectrum because that is the way to move society forward.

“I choose to try and build a better future. I choose to recognise the problems of the past but I choose to try and help heal the wounds and actually bring us into a much better space that allows all victims to have some sort of closure.”

Ms O’Neill said she did not accept that the statement that the British were the “main conflict protagonist” would anger or make some people uneasy. “There are different narratives of the past but there are some things that are for certain. And I think that what we need to do is to try to take it out of the language of division, to try and bring us into the space where we actually recognise that; that we all maybe do have a different take - and we all do have a different take on the past.”

“We should not be creating a space today where people are fighting the battles of the past. We should not be allowing the young people of today to be drawn into the Orange and Green constantly.”

Said Ms O’Neill, “I am determined to hold the British government to account in terms of their role as protagonists to make sure they do everything they can also to bring us into this new era where we are at. We need to bring closure to those people that are seeking closure,” she said.