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The inside story of British death squads in Northern Ireland

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British military operations have ended in Northern Ireland. Simon Basketter reveals how a campaign to terrorise Catholics was orchestrated by military intelligence
Issue 2063
McGurk’s bar lies in ruins

McGurk’s bar lies in ruins

Operation Banner: An Analysis Of Military Operations In Northern Ireland is the official history of an occupation that started in 1969 and formally ended on 31 July this year.

The book is co-written by General Mike Jackson, who was second in command of the Parachute Regiment when they shot dead 14 unarmed people after a civil rights march in Derry. He was later to command British forces during the invasion of Iraq.

According to the official history, the conflict in Northern Ireland was about two warring tribes, the Catholics and Protestants, who had to be kept apart for their own sakes by British soldiers.

But in reality the occupation of Northern Ireland was brutal, repressive and murderous. Far from keeping “warring tribes” apart, military intelligence recruited, trained and armed Loyalist murder gangs in Northern Ireland, ordering them to carry out a series of assassinations.

The latest source to shed light on the death squads run by the British army in Northern Ireland is known only as “John Black”. He is a convicted Loyalist terrorist.

Black alleges that he – along with dozens of other members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a Loyalist terror organisation – were trained and armed by British military intelligence.

“Military intelligence trained, armed and moulded squads of Loyalists to put pressure on the IRA,” he says.

He also claims UVF members were ordered by military intelligence to carry out assassinations in order to sow terror among the Catholic population and undermine the Republican movement.

Black was convicted twice of terrorist offences, in the 1970s and in the early 1990s. He says he carried out some 50 UVF operations sanctioned by the army’s secret Force Research Unit (FRU). He became a “killer, bomber, arsonist and robber”, he says.

Black was a UVF member in the early 1970s when he was first approached. As well as being trained in firearms at army barracks and firing ranges around Northern Ireland – primarily at Palace Barracks near Holywood in County Down – Loyalists were given intelligence on potential targets and details about which targets to attack.

As many as 120 people could have been trained by military intelligence. At times they were given uniforms to provide cover while they were with their handlers. Black even drank with his handlers in the bars on military bases.

While the army-backed murder squads were active, military intelligence would impose an Out Of Bounds (OOB) order on the area in which the attack was about to take place. A OOB means an intelligence operation is under way – so police and army stay out of the area. This gave Loyalist murder gangs the freedom to operate with impunity.

Black says he was trained by the army in how to use a variety of handguns, machine guns and rifles, as well as in bomb making techniques. He claims his handlers gave the UVF consignments of guns and ammunition.

Loyalists were given classes on how to avoid leaving incriminating evidence at the scene of crimes and how to steal cars for use in assassination operations.

Black says he was told, “We don’t expect that active service units of the UVF will kill somebody every time they go out. The mere fact that an attempt has been made and shots fired – even if they wound or miss altogether – is all part of the terror tactics.” The policy was meant to “scare the shit” out of Catholics.

McGurk’s Bar

A bomb was planted in McGurk’s Bar – a predominantly Catholic bar on North Queen Street in Belfast – on 4 December 1971. It exploded, killing 15 men, women and children.

In the immediate aftermath of the McGurk’s Bar bombing, the army told the media that the bomb had belonged to the IRA. It had been inside the bar waiting to be transported when it exploded, they said.

This was a lie. Seven years later a UVF man received 15 life sentences for the bombing. For years, the families of the victims have been lobbying for the bombing to be reinvestigated. They argue it was the result of collusion between the UVF and the army.

Black says he was told about the planned bombing two weeks before the attack and was with his handler at the time it happened. He also claims he saw his handler take pot shots at Catholic teenagers on the streets of Belfast.

Pat Irvine, whose mother Kitty was killed in the McGurk’s bombing, told Socialist Worker, ‘‘It is clear that the attack took place in collusion with the state. We are concerned with ensuring that Black’s paymasters, and those who took the decisions at the highest levels of the establishment, are exposed for their role in collusion.

“The family of Kitty Irvine knows this for certain. No doubt, the source will be accused of fantasy or profiteering, as with any other whistleblower on the dirty war in the north east of Ireland.

“The British authorities will try to stymie any further investigation into their own government’s and army’s felonies. The government and military are guilty of war crimes against Irish men, women and children.”

A Republican mural in North Belfast

A Republican mural in North Belfast

Bloody Sunday

In the weeks leading up to Bloody Sunday in Derry, on 30 January 1972, in which the Parachute Regiment killed 14 people, Black claims he was informed by his handlers that the army had been ordered by the cabinet “to use whatever force and tactics necessary to put these troublemakers down”.

“The Bloody Sunday massacre was sanctioned by the government and top military chiefs,” he believes.

The day before Bloody Sunday, Black says he was taken for a training session at Palace Barracks, where he was given a pep talk by a major who praised him for “having the courage and loyalty to participate in covert actions against the common enemy”.

The major told Black, “We are hoping to provoke a confrontation with the IRA in Derry – and give them an example of what to expect in future attacks.”

Black was provided with a uniform, a gas mask, camouflage face paint and a rifle as cover for the time he would spend in Derry with his handler. Black says he watched from a military intelligence observation post as soldiers opened fire on civilians. He claims to have seen members of military intelligence shooting at – and hitting – unarmed civilians from the gun nest in the observation post.

New Lodge Six

In 1973, handlers organised and took part in a gun attack in Belfast that left six Catholic men dead. The killings took place within hours of each other on the night of 3 February and early hours of 4 February in the New Lodge area in the north of the city.

The army claimed all six were shot dead during a gun battle with the IRA. But no gun battle took place – and none of the six dead men was armed.

Locals and a number of the victims’ families have always alleged the killings took place as a result of collusion between paramilitaries and the army. Black claims he was one of a team of four gunmen led by an FRU member who opened fire in the New Lodge area that night.

Black said his handler phoned him on the day: ‘‘He rang and told me that something was planned for that night – and that our role in it was to create the impression that the New Lodge was under attack from Loyalists.

‘‘Later I listened with him to the military radio until a code came over it, which was the cue for us to start shooting. Me and two other UVF men were positioned in an entry close to Edlingham Street beside the New Lodge.

“The four of us fired shots for around 15 minutes, then we went to a different point at Edlingham Street where British soldiers were firing into the area.”

Black said that the attack was designed to draw the local IRA into a gun battle with the troops.

John Loughran, a spokesperson for the victims’ families, told Socialist Worker that he is hopeful that Black’s claims will help uncover the truth about what happened that night.

‘‘It is the families’ view that these killings were sanctioned at the highest political levels in Whitehall,” he says.

“Now that this has been acknowledged by someone involved in the murky underworld of British military intelligence, this must be considered as new evidence. This is the basis for a new investigation into the killings of six innocent men.”

Counter gangs

In 1971 British army brigadier Frank Kitson proposed establishing ‘‘counter gangs’’ to defeat the rapidly developing ‘‘insurgency’’ in the north of Ireland.

The philosophy was simple and brutal – terrorise Catholics through the use of Loyalist gangs that were controlled by the security forces, but whose activities could not be traced back to the British government.

From the late 1970s onwards, both Labour and Tory governments backed the Force Research Unit which supplied names, addresses and photographs of targets to paramilitaries. During this time the FRU worked alongside the Special Branch of Northern Ireland’s police force.

In the 1980s, the FRU was led by Colonel Gordon Kerr. He now heads British intelligence in Iraq.

The key person supplying the information was British army agent Brian Nelson. He infiltrated the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a Loyalist paramilitary group. His information was responsible for the murder of at least 30 Catholics, including solicitor Pat Finucane.

Jack Grantham, a former FRU handler, described Nelson’s role “as an extension of the operational capability of the British army”.

“By that I mean refining their targeting, increasing their operational efficiency by re-arming them and using them to target known subversives which fitted the criteria and other type of person that the FRU wanted eliminating.”

In January this year the Northern Ireland police ombudsman’s report concluded that one UVF unit in the Mount Vernon area of north Belfast was run by Northern Ireland Special Branch. That unit carried out up to 16 murders.

Earlier this month the Department of Public Prosecutions said there would be no prosecution of police or soldiers over the death of Pat Finucane.

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