In recent days memories have resurfaced for many of ‘Bloody Friday‘ when PIRA exploded around twenty bombs in the centre of Belfast on 21 July 1972 killing nine, including five civilians and injuring 130. It had a profound effect on the wider population of Northern Ireland; in fact on the island of Ireland as a whole because of the manner in which civilians had been targeted.
Looking at this period (late sixties and early seventies) in our history is crucial to understanding all that followed because it was in these vital early years of the ‘Long War’ that the foundations were laid for what transpired over the next three decades and what we live with today, not just in Northern Ireland, but throughout these islands.
What we live with is not just the legacy of years of terrible violence. Though that is bad enough. It is the legacy of a long unseen war where nothing was as it seemed. Where the state not only deliberately prolonged a conflict, but I will contend that they equally deliberately created the conflict in the late sixties and early seventies, aided by many agents on the ground on both sides as a means to hone its skills in civilian control that are used today in an undeclared war on its own people.
Bloody Friday came shortly after the breakdown of a two week IRA ceasefire during which British Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, twice met with representatives of PIRA – once near Derry where he was represented by Tory MP Philip Woodfield and later in London where Whitelaw met with PIRA directly. This was just two months after the Unionist government had been removed from office by the British Government and six months after Bloody Sunday in Derry. Passions on all sides were white hot.
I was seventeen. I had just left school and was working as a joiner’s mate on the construction of the Mountsandel bridge in Coleraine as a summer job before going on to college. So I wasn’t in Belfast that terrible day, but I remember it and all the surrounding events clearly.
To say Bloody Friday hardened unionist attitudes – my own included – already well-hardened after the removal of Stormont, would be an understatement. But then, as we know in the heat of a conflict people’s capacity on all sides for rational thought is, understandably, severely diminished. It was all about ‘them n’ us’.
Bloody Friday is seen by the unionist community as one of the IRA’s most heinous acts. And it was heinous. But it wasn’t the worst civilian bombing in the troubles by that date. The worst bombing was back in December 1971 when the UVF bombed McGurk’s bar in Belfast killing fifteen civilians, all Catholic. At the time the British government insisted the bomb was a premature explosion from an IRA bomb factory located in McGurk’s, even though men driven in a car were seen planting the bomb. It was not until an individual was convicted of the bombing in 1977 that it was accepted as a UVF bomb. But why would the British make such an unfounded allegation? It wasn’t the first time agents of the state had created a climate of fear by staging events and blaming it of republican elements. Why would they do this? It’s almost as if they wanted to see a violent republican campaign.
Unsubstantiated accusations have been made over the years that the notorious British Military Reaction Force, under the command of Col. Frank Kitson, collaborated with the UVF in planting the bomb, allegedly to cause a feud between the Official and Provisional IRA. I mention McGurk’s here not to engage in some perverse ‘whataboutery’. To me, writing in 2020, there was no justification for either Bloody Friday or McGurk’s. But I want to look at the context of these times as they led to the ‘Long War’.
At the time most people were wrapped up in the ‘politics of the latest atrocity’ as driven by the media. We know now with the benefit of hindsight and the separation of many years, that there were wider forces at work playing a long game and nothing happened – no matter how awful – without a reason and a context.
Loyalist bombings and Ian Paisley
Prior to Bloody Sunday in January 1972, the UVF/ UPV were the most prolific bombers, not the IRA. It was the loyalist paramilitaries who were the first to use the bomb as a means of achieving political change during the ‘Troubles’ as far back as 1966.
From 1969 to 1971 they exploded eleven bombs on both sides of the border from Dublin to Donegal and to the Mountains of Mourne. Most of these were directed at water and power installations. The apparent aim being to blame the bombings on the IRA and to weaken confidence in Terence O’Neill’s premiership for his failure to provide proper security against the enemies of the state and to halt reforms he was introducing. They were what we now call ‘false flag’ operations. It worked. O’Neill resigned in April 1969 and plunged unionism into a turmoil that it never recovered from.
But again I ask the question: was there a more sinister reason behind early loyalist violence? Was it to provoke retaliation from republicanism that until August 1969 hadn’t fired a shot in anger since the failed border campaign from 1956 to 1962.
Ian Paisley had already built up a head of steam directed at O’Neill with his demand that ‘O’Neill must go!’ . O’Neill was the first of many Ulster unionist leaders whose careers were ended by Ian Paisley – Chichester-Clark, Faulkner and Trimble to name just some. Ultimately Paisley vanquished the old Ulster Unionist Party and succeeded them into government in Northern Ireland in 2007 along with former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, whose Sinn Fein had also vanquished the ‘constitutional nationalist’ party, the SDLP. The symmetry here is quite noticeable.
It can be argued that the undermining of the unionist government, through the UVF/ UPV bombs during 1969 and Paisley’s ongoing street protests against the unionist leadership and the civil rights movement, made a significant contribution to the removal of the Stormont government in March 1972. Indeed, Paisley and his loyalist supporters can make a much stronger claim to have brought down Stormont than the republican or nationalist movements. A strange credit to be given to an arch-unionist like Paisley, but then Paisley was not what he seemed.
No republican ever toppled a unionist leader. The IRA mayhem did not cause the collapse of the unionist regime. Forces allegedly in support of the union brought down Stormont. So who was controlling them?
What hasn’t been appreciated until recently was Ian Paisley’s role in those early loyalist bombings. According to the BBC Spotlight programme, aired in September 2019, Paisley was not just an evangelical minister and a street demagogue, he financed terrorism. Specifically he financed the bombing of the Silent Valley Reservoir in April 1969. An act carried out by the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), an organisation he helped create. The Village Magazine in Dublin have made the allegation that British intelligence used Paisley’s involvement in financing bombings and his close association with known paedophile William McGrath – a leading Orangeman and house master of the notorious Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast – to blackmail him. The belief in some quarters now is that Paisley was controlled by British intelligence from the early seventies, if not earlier.
So how did Paisley’s behaviour suit the British interest in Ireland?
As I have already mentioned Paisley was a destablising force throughout his political career until he was given the keys to the castle along with Martin McGuinness in 2007, who as an IRA leader had made his own significant contribution to destabilisation.
So why would the British wish to destabilise Northern Ireland?
Many of the atrocities of the seventies, such as Kingsmill and the Miami Showband murders, have highlighted the high probability of British security involvement in either protecting and facilitating the perpetrators or being actually present during the attacks. This collaboration carried on throughout the Troubles as evidenced by the Loughinisland murders in 1994 by the notorious Glenanne Gang. It is now well established that as early as the mid to late seventies the British had effectively infiltrated all the major armed groups in Ireland and that this control increased as time went on. British agents have been outed at senior levels in PIRA such as Denis Donaldson and Freddie Scappaticci. Rumours have circulated for years, both within the republican movement and without it, that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as young men had been turned by the British in the early seventies and were from then on controlled by British intelligence. They certainly seemed to lead charmed lives for thirty years – especially McGuinness.
Former BBC Security Editor, Brian Rowan writes:
‘It has got to the point where collusion is no longer contested. It is a conflict fact, with the only arguments and debates now around the scale and definition of what happened. ……. ‘Nelson, Scappaticci, Haddock and Haggarty merely scratch the surface; they are but corners in a bigger picture….. ‘Agents interrogating and exposing other agents and agents killing other agents became part of the tangled web.’
I have no doubt that just as the armed groups were infiltrated, so were the political parties and remain so today. Why infiltrate armed groups and not their political allies, especially post-ceasefires?
This of course begs the question:
is Northern Ireland a theatre where the British are the stage managers, directors and even scriptwriters and local politicians either merely witting or unwitting actors?
To be fair Adams as a young man actually spent time in British prisons, whereas McGuinness never did. Adams was interned in March 1972, but was released in June and flown to London as part of an IRA negotiating team. He was interned again in 1973 in Long Kesh under the Special Powers act and imprisoned until 1977 for an escape attempt. In 1984 he was seriously injured in an assassination attempt by the UFF. The British saved his life by getting one of their many agents on the loyalist side to change the murder squad’s ammunition for low velocity rounds. The British are magnanimous when it comes to those fighting a war against them.
After the British saved Adams’ life in 1984, the next thirty years of his life was a story of one triumph after another as he grew in political stature, securing – along with McGuinness – the IRA’s ceasefire and disarmament as a champion of the ‘peace process’.
Throughout the ‘Long War’ not a hair on McGuinness’s head was touched. He waged a much publicised twenty-five year war on the British, but was never as much as imprisoned by them. Instead they fined him on several occasions for driving offences and for assaulting the police. (McGuinness, in spite of not recognising the court, must have paid his motoring offences, otherwise the Brits would have had to actually imprison him for non-payment!)
In researching McGuinness’ biography, authors Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston were told by British soldiers, “he was under no circumstances to be shot”, and added that “there was no will to deprive him of his liberty, despite his guiding infulence on an IRA campaign that was claiming thousands of lives” (From guns to government by Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston, 2001).
He died peacefully at home of a mysterious disease in 2017.
Paisley led a similarly charmed existence during those violent decades while several of his fellow unionists and loyalists were attacked and murdered by the IRA.
In spite of setting up three armed groups – the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, the Third Force and Ulster Resistance, organising a failed coup d’etat in 1977 and financing a bombing campaign in 1969, he only ever spent three months in prison in 1966 for riotous assembly. Like Adams and McGuinness, his star continued to rise until he became First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2007 with McGuinness as his partner.
He also died peacefully at home in 2014.
But of course that begs the question: if the British were in such positions of control why did they not use it to bring an end to the violence, instead of allowing it to continue for almost thirty years?
Such a long running conflict is unprecedented in Ireland. The Irish war of Independence lasted less than three years. Similarly the subsequent Irish Civil War lasted less than a year. Both were short and brutal. All subsequent IRA campaigns lasted no more than three to four years – until the so-called ‘Long War’.
I believe this ‘Long War’ was not of the IRA’s choosing, but was imposed on them by the British for their own nefarious reasons. Like many, I believe that the only possible explanation for the British not using their powerful positions within all the armed groups – until the ceasefires of 1994 and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – was a totally callous desire to use this corner of these islands as a test bed for a variety of strategies in state control – such as the use of behavioural science to mould beliefs and attitudes, counter terrorism measures, intelligence gathering, mass surveillance and political control. (see Frank Kitson’s book: Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping) These techniques of military, social and political control have fed into the present day in Britain. During the virus crisis we have the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI–B) a sub-group of the UK Government’s The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) stating the following:
‘A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened. The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.’
British military intelligence now have unprecedented control over the UK government as has come to light during the virus crisis. This approach to population control by the state that we see today was most likely one of the primary outcomes of the ‘Long War’ in Ireland.
So we have seen that loyalists were the first to use bombing as a technique of engineering political change and that those loyalists went on to have close links to British intelligence (if those links did not already exist). Their all-island bombing campaign of 1969 was used to successfully destabilise the Unionist government. But did it also serve a wider purpose in helping to trigger the ‘Long War’?
The bitter truth for unionism is that the chronology of those early years from 1966 up until the end of 1971 shows loyalists setting the pace for violence and republicanism reacting or even failing to react – the IRA were nicknamed ‘I ran away’ by Catholics in West Belfast after they failed to protect them in August 1969.
We have also seen with Bloody Friday, that the IRA’s bombing campaign did not really get going until 1972. To be more precise it did not get going until after Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972. There very quickly followed a spate of deadly IRA bombings – Aldershot, Abercorn restaurant, Lower Donegall street, Limavady and Oxford street bus depot. It was if a switch had been thrown. Who threw that switch? None other than the British Parachute Regiment when their military commanders used them in a crowd control situation. And who was on the ground that day as second-in-command of Derry IRA? None other than future statesman, Martin McGuinness. The scene was set for the blue touch paper to be lit.
Anyone with a limited knowledge of the British Paras knows that they shouldn’t be allowed into crowd control situations unless you actually want to see bodies in the streets. The Paras are trained to kill in battlefield conditions, not to take abuse from angry civilians and not react. Those in charge of security would have known this. Particularly as the Paras had already clearly demonstrated their violent nature by killing eleven civilians in Ballymurphy over three days in the wake of internment in August 1971.
So did the British set out to provoke violence in Northern Ireland and was Bloody Sunday their coup de gras that tipped things over the brink? Did they deliberately light the fuse in Derry to begin the ‘Long War’ with their agents like Paisley and McGuinness ready to play their parts? Was the St Andrews Agreement in 2007 – when the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ came together – the British bringing their most important spies in Ireland in from the cold to take centre stage for the next phase of operations? Perhaps that’s why they got on so well and seemed to be always sharing a private joke?