The ghosts of Britain’s dirty war in Northern Ireland

2018 was a year when a number of stories about unfinished business from the so-called ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland as the civil war that engulfed the British run territory from 1969 to 1998, often spilling over into the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, are called.

Perhaps the most prominent of these stories frequently mentioned in the downmarket tabloids was the possibility of British soldiers who took part in ‘Operation Banner’ as the military operation was called being charged with crimes committed during the conflict. However, the specific accusations were unclear and as some commentators have noted families in Northern Ireland need closure. Furthermore, accusations of bias against ex British military forces should be tempered by the fact that the Police Service of Northern Ireland are currently investigating hundreds of killings perpetrated by republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

2018 was also the year when there was finally a development in the controversial death of Sinn Fein activist Aidan McAnespie in 1988. McAnespie was born into a Catholic family in County Tyrone close to the inter Irish border and was subjected to sectarian taunts from the local majority Protestant population. After leaving school, he got a job in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland and was subjected to regular intensive searches from the security forces when going across the border. This intensified as McAnespie became an election worker for Sinn Fein when his sister decided to stand as a candidate for that party in the Tyrone County Council elections. According to the McAnespie family Aidan received death threats from the British Army.

McAnespie was a keen Gaelic Footballer and was travelling to a match when he was fatally wounded at British Army border checkpoint. According to the British Army he was hit by a weapon that accidentally discharged by a solider with wet hands. Although An Garda Síochána(the police force of the Republic of Ireland) investigated the case their report has never been published. At the time the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (predecessor of the PSNI) concluded that the death was an accident. Although a British soldier from the Grenaider Guards was charged with manslaughter charges were dropped before the trial with the solider being fined for negligent discharge of his weapon before being given a medical discharge in 1990. According to McAnespie’s family, this was all part of a cover-up by the British government.

However, things gradually began to change with a 2008 PSNI investigation concluding that the chances of the soldier’s account of events being true as “so remote as to be virtually disregarded”.  This was followed by a statement of regret from the then Northern Ireland secretary of state Shaun Woodward and in 2016 the Public Prosecution service launched a review into the decision not to proceed with manslaughter charges. Last June it was eventually decided to prosecute David Holden the solider in question.

Another historical legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland that came to the fore in September following an explosive Channel 4 documentary and an ongoing inquest was the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre often referred to as ‘Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’. As part of ‘operation Demetrius’ a counter-terrorism operation conducted in Belfast in August 1971 which involved the mass arrest of 342 people supposedly involved with the Provisional Irish Republican Army the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment entered the predominantly nationalist area of Ballymurphy in West Belfast.

Entering the area with orders to detain PIRA members or sympathisers the soldiers claim that they were shot at by republicans and returned fire. What happened over the next three days is disputed but on Monday 9th August six civilians were killed including 19 year old Francis Quinn who was helping an injured man Robert Clarke , Fr Hugh Mullan who was killed when giving the last rites to Clarke  , Daniel Taggert who was shot 14 times,Joseph Murphy  and 50 year Joan Connolly who was killed while protesting about the internment operation. On the 10th August 28 year old Edward Doherty was shot followed by four more civilians on the 11th August including John Laverty, 20 who was shot in the back , Joseph Corr , 43 who was shot multiple times ,Joseph Murphy who allegedly died after being beaten up in custody and Englishman Paddy McCarthy, 44 who got into a confrontation with a group of soldiers and died of a heart amidst allegations that he was subjected to a mock execution.

At the time the British Army claimed that those who had been killed were linked with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. This version of events was put forward but Mike Jackson then a captain in the Parachute Regiment who later rose to be a General and then head of the British Armed Forces. Jackson who at the time was acting as a press officer for the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment claimed his troops came under fire from 20 PIRA gunmen a claim strongly denied by the families of the victims. There was also controversy about the military tactics used by Brigadier (now Sir) Frank Kitson who was in charge of the operation and moulded the Army’s counter terrorism operations in Northern Ireland on the British response to colonial counter insurgencies in Malaya and Kenya which involved the brutal suppression of any dissent.

For many years the massacre was largely ignored in contrast to the more infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ which occurred in Derry in January 1972 (where Mike Jackson , Frank Kitson and the Parachute Regiment were also involved). However in 2016 the Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan recommended an inquest into the killings. However despite attempts by Northern Irish First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster to block funding for the inquiry this was declared unlawful and the inquiry started in September 2018.

Another recent development is the dispute around the Loughinisland massacre and the 2017 film about the incident ‘ No stone unturned’. In June 1994 the Loyalist Paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) ( who have historic links with Theresa May’s current  confidence and supply partner the Democratic Unionist Party) attacked O’Toole’s pub in the small County Down village of Loughisland while regulars were watching the world cup finals match between The Republic of Ireland and Italy. Six men were killed in the pub including 87-year-old Barney Green one of the oldest victims of the troubles. Shortly after the attack, the UVF claimed responsibility claiming a Republican meeting was being held at the pub and that it was revenge for an attack they had suffered at the hands of the Marxist Republican Paramilitary group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

Following the massacre, an abandoned getaway car was discovered and six men were arrested as possible suspects only to be released shortly afterwards due to lack of evidence. However, for many years there were allegations of a cover-up when it was discovered that the car and key evidence had been destroyed by the RUC. In fact, the police investigation has been subject to two Police Ombudsman’s reports in 2011 and 2016 with the first report highlighting severe deficiencies about the investigation but it was the second report that was more damming.

In this report, it was concluded that the rifle used in the attack was smuggled into Northern Ireland by Loyalist Paramilitaries in 1988 something that the RUC ignored in order to not compromise informers and one of the suspects allegedly involved in the 1994 attack was an informer. It was also claimed that the security forces in the area were ‘compromised’ due to their sympathises for Loyalist Paramilitaries including the UVF.  In fact UVF members had relatives who worked in the local RUC station as well as the RUC itself. Perhaps most disturbingly of all allegedly the suspects were given a ‘tip-off’ that they might be arrested.

Oscar winning director Alex Gibney released his film about the massacre ‘ No stone unturned’ in November 2017 which names one of the suspects as a soldier in the British Army as well as reiterating the claim about the involvement of an informer and UVF supporters at the local RUC station.  There is also another claim in the film that Special Branch had prior knowledge of the attack and were ready to arrest the UVF unit. However the informer in the UVF unit told Special Branch that the operation was off, therefore, leading to the cancellation of the arrests, however, the attack went ahead regardless.

However, the most chilling recent event was the arrest in August 2018 of two Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffey who were investigating the massacre by the PSNI. Birney and McCaffey were questioned for 14 hours supposedly on the pretext of an investigation about the theft of confidential documents related to the massacre. However was this an attempt to frighten journalists from investigating the facts of who was behind the attack in 1994. With the Journalists on police bail the BBC refusing to show the film IT does appear that the British state has something to hide.
































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