R.W. Johnson writes about a national disgrace

  • Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot
    Macmillan, 306 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 333 47008 7

Paul Foot has a shocking story to tell, the story of Colin Wallace. It is, quite literally, a story of gunpowder, treason and plot. The fact that Foot’s publishers have had to rush the book out in weeks in order to beat the deadline of the new Official Secrets Act, and have deliberately forsaken all advance publicity for fear of pre-emptive action against the book, says something rather disgraceful about the difficulty of getting a fair hearing in this country. And Wallace deserves, at the least, a fair hearing.

Colin Wallace, as a young Ulster Protestant, was infatuated with the symbols of the Union – the flag, the Crown, the Presbyterian Church, and the Army. He became a school cadet, a B Special, an Army marksman and parachutist, showing such outstanding energy and commitment that by the age of 29 he had become the youngest man in the British Army to attain the rank of lieutenant-colonel and routinely acted as assistant and guide to British ministers (and prime ministers) visiting Ulster. Recruited into Information Policy, an undercover psychological warfare unit working closely with MI6, Wallace was put in charge of black propaganda operations. These consisted in feeding a host of alarmist stories about the IRA to the British press – wading through them, one begins to wonder, glumly, how far one can trust anything the British press writes about Ireland.

In 1972 Harold Wilson met with IRA leaders in Dublin, and the next year the Northern Ireland Minister, Willie Whitelaw, made similar contacts. This utterly shocked opinion in every officers’ mess in Ulster – and in MI5, who took over intelligence operations there from MI6 in 1973. Exactly like the French Army before it in Algeria, these key circles within the British Army now decided that in order to prevent a sell-out of the imperial position in the overseas province by leftists (Guy Mollet/Harold Wilson) or weak-minded centrists (Pierre Pflimlin/Edward Heath), the military must ensure that the right sort of government came to power in the metropole. Operation Clockwork Orange was precisely this: an attempt to smear and undermine Labour leaders and Tory wets alike, the short-term aim being to prevent Labour being elected in February 1974 or re-elected in October 1974 and to depose the likes of Heath and Whitelaw from the Tory leadership. Anyone – including Ian Paisley – who helped maintain the minority Labour government in power was fair game. Thanks to Peter Wright’s revelations we are more or less familiar with what went on in this period, though it is important to say that Wallace was the first to make public admission of these campaigns, well before Wright.

Homosexual smears were directed against Edward Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Norman St John Stevas and Humphrey Berkeley; bogus bank accounts (showing corrupt earnings) were contrived for Edward Short and Ian Paisley; Wilson was seen as the beneficiary of, and a possible participant in, the assassination of Hugh Gaitskell; lists were drawn up of such notorious Communists or Communist sympathisers as Brian Walden, David Owen, Robert Mellish, John Stonehouse, Roy Hattersley and Reg Prentice; and even a bogus pamphlet on ‘revolutionary strategy’ for the installation of socialism in Britain was contrived for off-the-record briefing of American journalists, the joint ‘authors’ being Tony Benn, Stan Orme and Denis Healey. One is tempted to say that even in the MI5 officers’ mess, the idea of Denis Healey collaborating with Messrs Benn and Orme on anything at all must surely have required the assistance of a few double whiskies. The unhappier truth is that the minds that made such things up were quite possibly stone-cold sober.

Colin Wallace excelled at these black propaganda operations and for several years enjoyed his work. Gradually, though, he became uneasy at the extent to which his job seemed to be mainly about smearing and undermining British politicians rather than combating terrorism in Ireland. Moreover, the Army was now making its own Northern Ireland policy in a breathtakingly independent way. When the Heath Government brought in a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland with the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973, many within the Army seem to have seen this as the beginning of the end: before long a wet Tory or Labour government would sell out to the IRA completely. Accordingly, when the Ulster Workers’ Council decided to launch a general strike to bring down the power-sharing executive, not only did it receive sympathetic backing from the Army but there is even evidence that the strike was planned and encouraged by MI5 and its adjutants in Army Intelligence and Information Policy. To mask what was being prepared and to create an emotional following wind in Britain, it was decided to launch a publicity blitz about an IRA ‘Doomsday Plot’ – a plan for the evacuation of 100,000 Catholics to the South and a scorched earth policy in the North.

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