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.

“Vigilantes, whether UDA [Ulster Defence Association] or not,” he wrote to Whitelaw, “should be discreetly encouraged in Protestant areas to reduce the load on the Security Forces.” The phrase “to reduce the load on the Security Forces” suggests much more than turning a blind eye to groups like the UDA and UVF (Ulster Volunteer Fighters). It comes close to regarding the loyalist paramilitaries as allies.

There is nothing in Bennett’s paper or research that he has been able to unearth elsewhere to indicate that either Whitelaw or the Heath cabinet vetoed or even objected to this aspect of the Tuzo plan.

The weeks before the preparation of the Tuzo report are replete with evidence of British ambivalence, to say the least, towards the UDA. In June 1972, Whitelaw held three meetings with the UDA, twice with a delegation that arrived at Stormont Castle wearing hoods and sunglasses. His third meeting was with the entire UDA inner council.

Also in June, up to 8,000 masked UDA men, armed with iron bars and cudgels, confronted British troops in the Shankill Road area. The British commander of land forces, Maj Gen Robert Ford, arrived to negotiate with the UDA in the back of a Saracen; the deal they struck saw the UDA and British army conduct joint patrols of the area.

Mau Mau tactics

In several key ways, the UDA and the British army were already acting as allies when the Tuzo plan arrived on Whitelaw’s desk.

“What seems to be the case to me is that in 1972 the military really took charge of the situation,” Bennett says now. “There doesn’t seem to be that much regular cabinet interference in what they are doing.”

Bennett says he found all this reminiscent of the way the British handled the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in the 1950s. Under the direction of a rising young British military officer named Frank Kitson, the British created countergangs, recruited from rival Kenyan tribes, to fight the Mau Mau. Between 1970 and 1972, the same Frank Kitson, by then a general, headed the British army’s Belfast brigade and was a key figure in the military hierarchy in Northern Ireland.

“As I was writing this,” says Bennett, “it seemed to me an obvious decision by HQNI [British army headquarters] that from a purely objective point of view you could consider the loyalist paramilitaries to be just as significant a threat to security and ordinary people in Northern Ireland. And if they were going to be completely impartial they should have been conducting counterinsurgency against both loyalists and republicans.”

Final, absolute proof of which direction British military policy took in the wake of Tuzo’s paper will have to await the disclosure of even more confidential material.

There is no doubt, however, that 1972, especially the months following the July IRA ceasefire, was the year of huge growth in loyalist paramilitary activity. If the violence of 1972 and what followed was like a stone thrown into the middle of a lake, then the angry flag-waving protests, rioting and now shooting that Northern Ireland has seen in the past six weeks are the ripples still breaking against the shore.

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