- The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland by Steve Bruce
Oxford, 326 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 215961 5
In a world where people have become almost blasé over the scale of the communal violence in Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom’s internal war in Northern Ireland may at times appear trivial. At plenty of other times, however, it can appear that factional hatreds have locked the Province into a cycle of violence equal in ferocity to anything experienced in Sarajevo. Over the past two decades terrorists have murdered more than three thousand citizens and have provided the British democratic system with one of its most serious challenges. And yet, for all the media coverage they have received, these atrocities have never mobilised the national conscience; nor has the Ulster situation been an issue in any general election since the Seventies.
Steve Bruce says he decided to write The Red Hand because, while there is an extensive literature on the IRA, very little has been written about the Loyalist paramilitaries, who have been responsible for just under half of the civilian deaths caused by terrorism in the Province since 1969. The Government’s recent decision to ban the Ulster Defence Association has done something to restore the balance here by focusing attention on the violence claimed by its perpetrators to be ‘for God and Ulster’. Bruce begins by highlighting the difficulty faced by any writer who tries to research terrorist organisations. As he himself puts it, ‘this is an area of lies, deception and self-deception,’ with the inherent and ever-present personal danger of having to ask too many uncomfortable questions of those whose life’s work is to kill people. I recall a comment made by a member of a Loyalist paramilitary group to a journalist friend of mine when I was with the Army in Ulster in the mid-Seventies: ‘Sure, I’m a terrorist – that’s what they call me. I’ll fight to the death for a Protestant Ulster. I’m a working man, see. I’m not one of those clever fellows that got an education. But you write the wrong thing about me and I’ll get you, I will. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’
Bruce’s book is presented as the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon of prostate terrorism, the kind that seeks to maintain, rather than overturn, state power – and the author is a professor of sociology who has spent some thirteen years working at Queen’s University, Belfast: despite this, and despite his claim to have interviewed ‘a large number of Loyalist paramilitaries (retired and still active)’, there is nothing new here. The book reads like a rushed synopsis of press cuttings, and it rates as a poor third to Martin Dillon’s two excellent accounts, Political Murder in Northern Ireland and The Shankill Butchers. There are many irritating factual errors. Bruce refers to off-duty soldiers from the ‘Royal Irish Rifles’ shooting at members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1989: the Royal Irish Rifles ceased to exist as a regiment in 1921.
The OED defines a Loyalist as ‘one who is loyal, one who adheres to his Sovereign or to constituted authority, especially in times of revolt: one who supports the existing form of government’. Most Ulster Protestants would probably agree that this definition described their position until Direct Rule was declared in 1972. Since then, they have shown little enthusiasm for the ‘existing form of government’: their government has not been elected by them, and has not been answerable to them through the normal democratic processes. Bruce seems to have had some difficulty in articulating the complex emotions of a community which sees itself as ‘more British than the British’ – a community prepared to fight and kill to maintain values which disappeared from other parts of the United Kingdom some time before the Second World War. Prejudice is endemic in Ireland as a whole, but the siege mentality at the core of the Ulster Protestant psyche has frequently led to Loyalists being dismissed as the ‘voice of unreason’. A ripe sense of being misrepresented and misunderstood has been a feature of Ulster Protestantism since the Sixties.
Although I grew up in a Loyalist community in Northern Ireland as the son of Ulster-Scots Presbyterian parents, I still found that reading this book was like struggling to listen to a badly-tuned radio. At times, the messages were very clear and easy to understand; at other times communication was so distorted that the information was meaningless. It is a pity, for instance, that the author devotes little more than a page to the paramilitary group Tara, best-known for the links between its founder, William McGrath, and the notorious Kincora child abuse scandal. Although Tara has not been held responsible for terrorist outrages, many of the people who later became key figures in both the UDA and the UVF began their paramilitary careers there. The organisation is of particular interest because of McGrath’s close links with the British Israelites and because it was used by the Intelligence services as a conduit for disseminating disinformation about alleged Communist infiltration of Loyalist groups, particularly the UVF.
An effective litmus test for any book about Northern Ireland violence is to examine how the author deals with contentious incidents which have already been reported by well-informed writers. It is not a test which Bruce can be said to pass: he largely ignores material which conflicts with his own hypotheses. One of the most controversial issues in this area is the question of whether or not elements of the security forces have at times colluded with Loyalist paramilitary groups in carrying out acts of terrorism. Having been a member of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the B Specials), a captain in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and the Senior Information Officer at Army Headquarters in the Province, I have no doubt that since as far back as the early Seventies, Loyalist paramilitary groups have been manipulated by the Intelligence services. I recall the serious concern some of my colleagues at Army Headquarters in Lisburn and I felt in 1973 following the confession made by a soldier who had operated as part of what was known as the UDA’s No I Assassination Team. The soldier, Albert Baker, was later sentenced to life imprisonment on specimen charges involving four murders and 11 robberies. There was no doubt that he had been working for the Intelligence services during the time when he was a member of the UDA assassination squad. And there was no doubt about the panic that seized the Intelligence community.
I also remember that worries about Intelligence involvement with paramilitary groups grew during 1974, when it became clear that some individuals were orchestrating sectarian violence at the end of that year in order to wreck the cease-fire talks which were men taking place. Throughout 1974 the average monthly number of assassinations had been six, but in November, when the two sides were engaged in negotiations, the number rose to 26. In 1975, the Irish Press spoke about collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces to effect assassinations, and quoted a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force: ‘I can guarantee that with 90 per cent of the people we have taken action against, we have an Army photograph to go along with the obituary. We must face it: there are security forces personnel who agree with our standpoints. Let us say there is a thin line between UVF membership and security forces membership in certain cases.’
The dilemma facing indigenous members of the security forces is well described by Michael Asher, a former soldier in the Parachute Regiment who also served in the SASTA and in the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Patrol Group. In his book Shoot to kill he explains the motivation of RUC officers:
Most RUC men were scrupulously honest. They were the bravest men I have ever met. But most of them had been reared in the strong Loyalist culture which had also bred paramilitaries like the UDA and the UVF. Sometimes they were required to go against ‘their own people’, but they could never forget where they came from.
The bravery of individual members of the RUC and UDR is truly remarkable and must be very hard for anyone outside Northern Ireland to understand. The tragedy is that their courage has often been squandered as a result of machinations and intrigue on the part of unaccountable individuals in the Intelligence community. The recent acquittal on appeal of three UDR soldiers convicted of murder demonstrates that it is not just members of the Catholic community who are victims of fabricated evidence. The UDR, now amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment, formed what was then the largest regiment in the Regular Army. Some UDR soldiers were also members of Loyalist paramilitary groups, however, and took part in a number of notorious sectarian killings. It is estimated that some two hundred members or ex-members of the regiment were convicted of criminal offences during its first ten years.
At the centre of the debate about paramilitary collusion with the security forces is the belief held by both Catholics and Protestants that the law is not enforced when the Intelligence services are involved in criminal activities. Perhaps the best example of this is the investigation carried out by Manchester Deputy Chief Constable, John Stalker, into an alleged ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in Northern Ireland. In January 1988, the then Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, told the Commons that, given certain ‘considerations of national security’, no charges would be brought against eight named RUC officers for various offences including conspiracy to murder, nor against certain MI5 officers involved in conspiracy charges. Revealing his ‘deep anxiety’, Mayhew added: ‘I have had to balance one harm to national security against another.’
The current debate surrounding the case of a former soldier, Brian Nelson, jailed earlier this year for offences committed during his time as an Army Intelligence agent inside the UDA, and the High Court action taken by the Chief Constable of the RUC against Channel 4 over allegations of a murder squad within the RUC, are enough to make clear some of the pit-falls that attend the reporting of such issues. The action against Channel 4 is of particular interest because the RUC selected a case which it was almost impossible for them to lose. And by winning their action, the Police made it much less likely that any TV producer or journalist would be foolish enough to contemplate investigating collusion between the security forces and the paramilitary groups. Steve Bruce claims that the main source of information for his book has been ‘interviews with a large number of Loyalist paramilitaries (retired and still active)’: is it significant that the security authorities have not taken similar action against him in order to get him to reveal the identity of his sources?
A good example of Bruce’s failure to provide a balanced account of sensitive cases is his coverage of the allegations made by Captain Fred Holroyd concerning links between the Intelligence services and Loyalist paramilitaries. A former member of the Army’s Special Military Intelligence Unit, Holroyd was attached to the RUC Special Branch in the mid-Seventies and was familiar with the membership and activities of the Mid-Ulster UVF. One of his most contentious allegations has been that Captain Robert Nairac, who was murdered by the IRA in 1977, told him in 1975 that on one occasion he had crossed the Border into the Republic of Ireland and shot dead a well-known member of the IRA, John Francis Green, at a remote farmhouse. Holroyd also said that Nairac had backed up his claim by giving him a colour Polaroid photograph of Green’s body taken very soon after the killing. In 1982, Holroyd presented his claims to the RUC and supported them with tape-recordings, photographs and other items of evidence which he had kept in his possession from his time in Ulster. Holroyd’s allegations were important because, if correct, they demonstrated that elements of the security forces had collaborated with the Mid-Ulster UVF and other Loyalist paramilitaries in order to carry out assassinations, kidnappings and bombings, in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Two years later the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions said that the RUC investigation into the affair did not ‘warrant the initiation of criminal proceedings against any person’. The RUC refused, however, to return any of the evidence which Holroyd had given to them.
In 1987, the Independent published a long article by its Northern Ireland correspondent, David McKittrick, rubbishing Fred Holroyd’s claims, and saying: ‘We have established that it’ – the photograph – ‘was taken by the Garda Technical Bureau, which circulated it.’ Bruce pays tribute to McKittrick as one of his sources of information, but it is odd that he fails to record or explain another very different account of the Holroyd photograph which McKittrick contributed to the Irish Times in 1984: ‘RUC sources say that the photograph may have come from the Garda, but Garda sources deny this.’ In attempting to dismiss Holroyd’s allegations, Bruce also makes no mention of the extensive investigations carried out by Duncan Campbell of the New Statesman, or by Channel 4’s Diverse Reports. Writing in May 1984, Campbell said: ‘A very senior Garda source says that no Garda officer in the area had either the equipment or any official reason to take such a picture. He said that the morning after the crime, a fully equipped Garda photographic team travelled from Dublin, and took standard (black and white) film.’ Similarly, Bruce omits to mention the lengthy investigation into Holroyd’s allegations carried out in 1987 by the Irish national TV network RTE. RTE’s findings not only supported those of Campbell and Channel 4, but went much further. In July 1987 Time Out interviewed one of RTE’s researchers, who said: ‘It is impossible to separate Nairac’s activities from the killings in the “Murder Triangle” – an area of Armagh linking the towns of Dungannon, Portadown and Armagh City. Forty-six Catholics died there at the hands of the UVF and Ulster Defence Association assassination squads between 1972 and 1977.’
The point of this analysis is to establish, not whether Captain Nairac and other members of the security forces colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries, but that Bruce has been very selective in the evidence he provides. I worked with Robert Nairac in Northern Ireland and have nothing but admiration for him as a soldier: but I am convinced that his bravery, endless enthusiasm and dedication to the Army were exploited by his Intelligence masters and led ultimately to his murder by the IRA.
There is little doubt that the RUC are very sensitive about allegations of collusion between their officers and the Mid-Ulster UVF. Despite the fact that evidence supplied to the RUC by Captain Holroyd was subsequently leaked to the Independent to discredit his allegations, no investigation has ever been carried out into that leak, nor has any officer been disciplined for it. This indicates that the ‘leak’ was sanctioned at a very high level and was designed to defuse demands for a proper independent investigation into the allegations. The same information had been offered to other British newspapers some weeks earlier, but they had refused to publish it.
In attempting to play down the Holroyd allegations, Bruce writes: ‘For obvious reasons I cannot be more specific, but my own information about the Mid-Ulster UVF of this period reveals no strong links with the British Army or British Intelligence.’ A quick run-through of Northern Ireland newspapers reveals a very different story. In May 1984, Belfast’s Sunday News reported how one of its own journalists, who had been investigating links between the Intelligence services and the Mid-Ulster UVF in sectarian assassinations, had been seriously wounded by a Loyalist gunman. The Sunday News said that Police sources had revealed that a prominent Loyalist terrorist, known as ‘the Jackal’, who had been involved in sectarian killings for a number of years, was in fact an Army Intelligence agent. The Sunday News reported:
At one stage his Intelligence control was code-named ‘Stingray’ and the project in which he was involved was known as ‘Operation Pinehurst’, police sources said ... The Army planned to use ‘the Jackal’ in a number of sectarian murder operations in a bid to flush the Provos into the open, revealing their new structures and enabling the Army to recruit informers ... But the price paid tor this coup in terms of the lives of local people was high. ‘The Jackal’ organised a killer squad, numbering several serving UDR men in its ranks, and organised at least twenty sectarian assassinations. In many cases he had Army undercover support to keep other security forces out of the area, police sources claim.
It is interesting to note that, although the Mid-Ulster UVF was involved in the Dublin bombings, the Miami Showband massacre and the shooting of John Francis Green, the Jackal retained close links with the RUC Special Branch, with Robert Nairac and with a Loyalist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was never charged in connection with any of the above offences.
So why should Bruce have failed to find the links which RUC sources and members of the Mid-Ulster UVF have already admitted to other journalists? Perhaps it was for the same reason that he also avoids dealing with the murder of William Strathearn, a Catholic shopkeeper shot dead by a member of the Mid-Ulster UVF in 1977. Two members of the RUC were later jailed for life for their involvement in Strathearn’s murder, but the Loyalist who pulled the trigger was never charged. At the trial of the two RUC officers, a senior police officer told the court that the decision not to charge the killer was taken for reasons of ‘operational strategy’.
Similarly, Bruce asserts that the bombings which killed 33 people and injured 100 in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 were the work of the Mid-Ulster UVF. But he does not explain why, despite the amount of information available to him and to other journalists, not to mention the Intelligence services in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, no one has ever been charged in connection with those outrages. Another surprising omission from his book is all reference to James Miller, a former UDA Intelligence Officer who was also a British Intelligence agent. Bearing in mind that two of the UDA’s senior intelligence officers have now been identified as long-term British agents, Bruce does not explain why, despite all the information which the Intelligence services obtained from the two agents, they failed to prevent the numerous assassinations and bombings carried out by the UDA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters during that period.
As with their Republican opponents, the fears which Loyalist violence expresses run deep. These are people who fundamentally believe in their ‘no surrender’, in clinging to their way of life. No Loyalist will ever feel secure so long as he or she believes that there is a possibility of being outvoted into an Irish Republic. The violence will not go away until their values are accommodated within suitable political institutions.