British Actions


We use the term "internment" to mean imprisoning people without trial. So, it's a short cut. It goes by the judicial process. And the government decided in August of 1971 that the IRA campaign was getting out of control, the best way to deal with it was simply to intern the key people--over 350 people were lifted in one swoop, on one morning in August. But it was a disaster.

And the word "disaster" is not mine. That is the word used by the chief of police in Northern Ireland about a policy which his men had to carry out. It was a disaster because they lifted only Republicans when Loyalist violence was going on at the same time. So, it was seen as being against the Catholic community solely. Their intelligence was so out of date that very few of those they lifted had actually been engaged in the present campaign of violence. It was therefore seen as an assault, yet again, on the whole Catholic community. It was followed by allegations of torture, many of which allegations were upheld. And, again, it undermined British rule in Northern Ireland. So, as a result of it, the IRA were able to recruit young men in scores, if not in hundreds.

A number of studies have been done on IRA prisoners and IRA people who have gone to their deaths--whether it's been done by psychologists or others--and one of the things that comes out very clearly is that these people do not, as a class, belong to the criminal class. Their self-perception is that they joined for idealistic motives. It is the only way to defend their community.

If you look at the rate of recidivism among former IRA inmates, you find that very few of them are involved in criminal activity. If you look at their level of education, you find that, for the most part, they have a reasonable level of education. Very few have third level, but most of them have a reasonable level of secondary education.

So, they did not represent an underclass of ill-educated, disenchanted youth. They represented some people, men and women, boys and girls, who believed they had to be part of the struggle because they had to act on behalf of their community.

I would believe that most of the people who joined the Republican movement were idealists. I have had a little experience of going into the prisons and teaching. And when you go into the prisons, you have to teach the separate para-military block, so, therefore, you would teach one group of Loyalists and then another group of Loyalists, and then the two official and provisional Republicans. And I came away overwhelmingly with the sense that if there were psychopaths in there, they were very, very difficult to discover; that they were people who really believed that they, in fact, belonged to a higher moral plane than the rest of us, because they were prepared to lay down their lives and prepare to give up their years of freedom for a cause they thought could not be challenged. That is on both the Catholic and Protestant side.

The Introduction of the Policy of Criminalization

British authorities, I think, realized by the mid-'70s that they were in for a long campaign, and they realized the cost to them on the British mainland. So, they wanted to change the nature of the campaign. And they introduced two concepts. One was Ulsterization, whereby the battle would be fought by people from Northern Ireland; the security forces and the front line would be the police of Northern Ireland rather than the British army. And criminalization was an attempt to try and withdraw the IRA and the Republican movement from the greater Catholic community by saying, "These people are not engaged in political struggle. They are simply criminals."

The result of those two policies were disastrous for the British. In the short term, things seemed to be going their way. The IRA campaign had slowed down considerably. The British believed that they were defeating them. The Protestant community, particularly militant Protestants, were becoming more self-confident, and they believed that it was only a question of time before they went back to the status quo.

But in the longer term, the decision to use criminalization meant that a whole community were being branded. And the IRA turned said, "They are saying that your sons and daughters, who are prepared to lay down their lives, are being treated like ordinary criminals. We cannot have that."

Another aspect of the whole criminalization policy was the authorities' attempt to try and [get many Rupublican leaders into] the judicial system very quickly, either by forcing confessions out of people or by using what were called "super grasses," defectors from the movement who would identify sometimes between 30 and 40 people and say that they were part of the movement. And both of those backfired. There is no doubt that the authorities got very valuable information, with which they were able to lock dangerous men up.

But the means whereby they had got it run against the Western tradition of the rule of law, and, therefore, damaged that particular cause. And, again, in criminalizing people, the British authorities were doing damage to their own system. One of the most serious defects in the whole last 25 years is what the IRA campaign has done to the British sense of justice. So, what they have done, the IRA have done by forcing the British to use these excessive means, is that they have highlighted the extent to which a so-called modern democracy is, itself, flawed.

The whole movement revolted against the notion of criminalization. And the way they did so was through the powerful symbol of just how powerless they were. They refused to wear the prison clothes, and so, therefore, they wrapped themselves in a blanket. Their imagery was the imagery of Christ at Calvary. And it was a very powerful, very emotive, inside the Catholic community.

Ironically, [criminalization] elevates the IRA, but it does so paradoxically, because the people who take up the Republican struggle are the families of IRA prisoners, who are not necessarily part of the Republican movement. And they form an organization, relatives trying to free their sons and daughters. And the IRA realized that they were losing that section of the community. And the IRA also began to realize that the struggle they were involved in was political and military. So, it was the relatives that got them to think politics.

The Failed 1974-75 Cease Fire

During 1974-75, after the failure of power-sharing in 1974, the IRA went into another cease-fire in which they believed that some sort of understanding with the British government that there was going to be disengagement. In retrospect, they believed that what happened was that the British government was trying to divide them, was trying to demoralize them, because the longer there was an absence of violence, the more difficult it was to resurrect a campaign.

As a result of that cease-fire, the old Republican leadership stood aside. And it is then, late 1975, that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness, come into their own, and they come into their own as people who have been against the cease-fire.

I think the real significance of that '74-'75 cease-fire was not that it had failed, but that a generation ... realized that Republicanism failed, and that new generation was represented by Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams. And after '75, they were the people who took over, and they were the people who took over with a very strong belief that you can never trust the Brits.

That new leadership, I think, took at least two lessons ... from the failure of that '74-'75 cease-fire. One was they must always be militarily prepared. They must demonstrate that if they go into negotiations again, they do so from a position of strength and not from weakness. And, secondly, they had to decide on a political strategy whereby they could not be shortchanged by the British. They had to demonstrate that if they went into negotiations, they could bring the whole Republican movement along with them, that Republicanism could not be split.

Unfortunately, I think that the British authorities learned nothing from the failure of that cease-fire. They believed that they had the IRA on the ropes. The politician in charge at the time said the he was squeezing the IRA like he would squeeze a tube of toothpaste, that they were on their last legs. And the more he said it, the more dangerous it became, because the IRA were not prepared to give in to that. And the British government believed it was now simply a question of time before the campaign would come to an end. And they began to treat virtually all Irish-Catholics with great disdain. So, they learned no lessons whatsoever.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement (Nov 15, 1985)

The Anglo-Irish agreement is one of the most significant agreements between the two governments in this century, because it was a recognition by the British government that the Northern Ireland problem was something which it couldn't handle in its own right. It was also recognition that it was paying some attention to international opinion, which had argued for quite awhile, particularly the U.S. administration, that there had to be Irish involvement in it.

But, thirdly, from a British perspective it was about closer security, cooperation. And interestingly, the IRA in its Christmas message in 1985 described the agreement as the most sophisticated, counter-revolutionary strategy ever devised for the British. They saw it as an attempt to destroy them.

The Protestant reaction to the Agreement was one of overwhelming detestation, from all strata in Protestant society. They believed that they'd been sold out in a way that had never happened before partition. They went back to 1912 to find something somewhere.

And, so they united to a man and woman against it, but they couldn't prevent the implementation of the agreement. It was an attempt to say to the Protestant population, "You in fact, are a minority inside the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland makes up less than three percent of the population of the United Kingdom; you make up about two percent of that population. It is what the majority of people in the United Kingdom want, which will be the deciding factor, not what you want."

The 1988 Gibraltar Killings of Three IRA

The killing of three IRA volunteers at Gibraltar in 1988 was something which appeared to be a wonderful coup for the British security services. They had got them as they were about to plant a bomb, or so they said, and they had executed them. Classic example of why the military can operate.

But, again, it was something which went badly awry as far as the authorities were concerned, because evidence started to build up that these people could quite easily have been arrested. And what, in fact, the authorities had done was they made martyrs out of three people.

One of them was a young female graduate who represented the romantic side of Republicanism. And as the British authorities tried to destroy the evidence of some of the witnesses, mutual witnesses from Gibraltar, they compounded their own problem. And then as they tried to destroy attempts made by some of the British media to get to the bottom of it, again they compounded the sense in which democracy was not at work here. So, it became a Republican coup. And they were very good at the propaganda level. They were very good when the authorities had done something wrong.

Gibraltar was a classic example. Mariad Farrell who was quite a striking beauty, they used that very, very successfully. They used it on other occasions. Even during the hunger strikes, the hunger strikers appeared to look like Christ with the long black hair and the dark beards ... all of it was part of war by other means, war by propaganda.

The Birmingham Six

The Birmingham Six is one of the classic cases as to why Britain might want to get out of Ireland, because it showed British justice at its worst. The authorities picked up six innocent men returning to Ireland to a funeral. But they were soft targets, they were obvious people to pick up. They were, for the most part, inarticulate, unemployed, working-class Catholics.

They were nailed for Birmingham. None of them had anything to do with it. For two decades, the British political establishment could not accept that they could have made a mistake. The Lord Chief Justice said it was inconceivable that a mistake could have been made. And the longer they went on denying it, the longer the British political establishment did serious damage to their old case. And at the end, it was Irish Republicanism which was exonerated, even though Irish Republicans had planted the bomb.


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