As the verdict from the Ballymurphy Massacre Inquest deems all victims were innocent when murdered by British soldiers, Mike Milotte’s account of the transgressions of the British state during the troubles is a clear argument against Boris’ amnesty
Boris Johnson and his Tory henchmen in Westminster want to ban all future prosecutions of army veterans for crimes committed during the ‘troubles’. They want to replace legal processes – which can result in guilty verdicts and long jail terms – with a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission of the kind seen in South Africa after the ending of Apartheid.
The Tories, of course, would like us to think that their priority here is humane – concern for the veterans, the now elderly squaddies who ‘gave their all’ and ‘sacrificed much’ on the streets of Northern Ireland and who now face the dreadful ordeal of being put on trial for actions that happened as long as fifty years ago.
But concern for the welfare of old soldiers is probably the last thing on Tory minds. After all, according to the British Legion, 6,000 former members of the armed services can be found among Britain’s homeless population. Hundreds are living rough on the streets and thousands more depend on food-bank handouts just to survive. According to information released in response to parliamentary questions at Westminster, another 10,000 ex-service personnel are currently in jail or on probation, reduced to the status of common criminals. As many as 50,000, who suffer mental health problems, have been left struggling to cope, dependent on state services that have been run down year after year by successive Tory governments.
The very fact that tens of thousands of Britain’s armed forces veterans are now dependent on charitable handouts – one step up from begging – tells us all we need to know.
These veterans’ charities have linked their clients’ miserable lives to the so-called ‘8 Ds’ of: debt, drink, drugs, depression, divorce, domestic abuse, dependency, and living in ‘digs’.
This is the thanks they get for doing the dirty work of their political masters, so don’t be fooled into thinking the Tories’ proposals for replacing trials with ‘truth and reconciliation’ has anything to do with looking after the army’s clapped-out cannon fodder.
The Tories’ agenda is very different.
It is reckoned that as many as 200 former soldiers could face prosecution for alleged crimes committed between 1969 and 1998, and if the recent trial of the two soldiers, known as A and C, who killed Official IRA man Joe McCann in 1972, and the findings of the Ballymurphy Massacre inquest are anything to go by, the British establishment has a lot to fear from letting these veterans testify.
The establishment hit it lucky in the case of A and C as they were found not guilty on a technicality before they had the chance to present their defence.
The two soldiers had actually confessed to shooting Joe McCann in the back as he ran away from them, unarmed, and posing no threat to anyone. But the judge, Mr ‘Justice’ O’Hara, said he had no alternative but to let them go.
In reporting the not guilty verdict, the mainstream media focused exclusively on the fact that the two soldiers’ admissions were deemed inadmissible in evidence because they had been made to the Historical Enquiries Team rather than to investigating police officers who would have cautioned A and C that anything they said could be used in evidence, a caution that might have encouraged them to keep schtum rather than fessing up.
But the real story here, one that the British media studiously ignored, was the fact that A and C had a fully prepared defence that they would have presented had their confessions been admitted in evidence and had their trial proceeded. Their confessions, they were going to argue, did not amount to an admission of murder because when they shot an unarmed man in the back as he ran away, they had been acting in accordance with the British Army’s rules of engagement, and therefore they killed with official sanction and proper authority.
Such a claim, if aired and proven in an open court of law, would undermine completely the entire edifice of lies and deception the British authorities have so painstakingly constructed in an effort to camouflage the real nature of their involvement in the Northern Ireland conflict.
Britain has long sought to depict its role as that of a neutral peacekeeper, protecting lives by holding the line between two ethnic tribes, hellbent on murdering each other. It goes like this; unlike the homicidal natives, Britain stood for all the decent values that make civilised life possible. Above all, Britain stood for the rule of law against those who sought to subvert and destroy it.
This is precisely the root of the lies surrounding Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, and other events whereby the British claimed to have taken fire at ‘gunmen’. As was proven by the Ballymurphy inquest last week, all ten were innocent of that charge, yet were murdered in cold blood by the Parachute Regiment.
The legal context here is critical. When the British army came onto the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 they came in defence of the ‘civil power’ – the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Although the troops arrived dressed in ludicrously incongruous jungle-style camouflage – with twigs and leaves stuck to their helmets – Northern Ireland was not, officially, a war zone.
At no point did Britain declare war in Northern Ireland, and even though the IRA may have considered themselves at war with ‘the Brits’, it was the British State that defined the nature of the conflict, not its opponents, and Britain considered its opponents to be criminals, not combatants.
The rules of engagement that might apply in a war zone did not apply in Northern Ireland. The British army was – or so we were led to believe – subject to ordinary civilian law, as well as to the European Convention on Human Rights which Britain signed up to as long ago as 1953.
Under ordinary civilian law, lethal force is permissible only to safeguard life and property from immediate threat. At the same time, Article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights compels signatories, like Britain, to actively protect the right to life. The only permissible derogation from this requirement is where a lawful act of war results in death.
But war was the very thing Britain denied waging in Northern Ireland. It was the ‘peacekeeper’, remember, not a belligerent power. Hence it couldn’t (and hasn’t) claimed the benefit of any such derogation from the Human Rights Convention.
But if soldiers A and C had been given a chance to defend themselves by proving that the British Army’s rules of engagement permitted the killing of unarmed citizens like Joe McCann, they would have done us all a great service by exposing – straight from the horse’s mouth as it were – the hypocrisy of Britain’s claim to have been a neutral and benign peacekeeper. Instead, Britain would have been seen for what it really was – a fully engaged participant in a very dirty war where the rule of law could be, and frequently was dispensed with, but never acknowledged or admitted to.
And if Britain was a combatant rather than a peacekeeper, what of the second main plank in its self-exculpatory narrative – that it was neutral between republicans and loyalists, the supposed warring ethnic tribes?
In the summer of 1971, very early in the conflict, the British Army set up the Military Reconnaissance Force, later described by one of its own members as ‘a legalised death squad’. In 2013, former MRF members told a BBC Panorama programme that they were provided with lists of suspected republicans who could be shot dead on sight. They were given no comparable lists of loyalists. The MRF also killed uninvolved civilians in an attempt to draw the IRA into gun battles with the UDA and UVF, so as to give the army a breather. British cynicism knew no bounds.
And this was the pattern for the duration of the conflict when dozens of republicans were killed by members of the security forces – and their surrogates – in highly questionable circumstances, many executed when they could have been arrested, and many of these entirely unarmed.
It was after a secretive unit from the RUC shot and killed six unarmed IRA suspects in Co Armagh over a few weeks in 1982 that the Stalker inquiry was established to investigate whether the RUC was operating an illegal shoot-to-kill policy against republicans. Separate from Stalker, the RUC men who delivered the fatal shots were put on trial but all were acquitted. In one case the judge actually thanked the RUC killers for bringing their unarmed victims to ‘the final court of justice.’
Stalker, a senior British police officer with no apparent axe to grind, was close to uncovering the unpalatable truth when he was suddenly sacked. Another British police officer completed the investigation, even though his offices had been mysteriously gutted by fire. But the investigations’ findings were never made public.
Stalker, however, revealed subsequently that he had indeed uncovered a shoot-too-kill policy – not one that had ever been committed to paper, but those involved, he said, had a ‘clear understanding’ of what was required of them. They had acted accordingly, and the bodies of dead republicans piled up.
In his memoirs, Stalker also revealed that the many official investigations and reports into the various RUC killings of unarmed republicans were botched from beginning to end. ‘We had expected a particularly high level of inquiry in view of the nature of the deaths,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘but this was shamefully absent… I could see clearly why the prosecutions had failed.’
The circle was complete: one arm of the state carried out the killings, another saw to it that the perpetrators were never brought to justice. Those charged with investigating deaths caused by state agents were complicit in concealing the facts. Thus the fiction of a society governed under the ‘rule of law’ was maintained because the truth of what was happening was resolutely hidden and doggedly denied.
Failure to adequately investigate deaths at the hands of state forces – or their surrogates – is a serious breach of the European Convention of Human Rights which insists on independent and exhaustive inquiries into all such deaths. And this is a failure that is common to every recorded shoot-to-kill case.
Ultimately, this failure too lay behind the acquittal of soldiers A and C in the McCann murder case. Apart from their inadmissible confessions to the killing, there was no evidence on which to prosecute because the RUC/PSNI never investigated the killing. After the shooting, A and C were simply debriefed by members of the Royal Military Police in what has been described as ‘a tea and sandwiches’ encounter.
And it wasn’t just the RUC. The British army, long after the days of the MRF, also stands accused of operating a shoot-to-kill policy against IRA members in circumstances where alternatives seem to have been available and, under Human Rights law if nothing else, should have been availed of.
- February 1985: British soldiers ambushed three IRA volunteers as they were returning weapons to an arms dump in Strabane, killing all three without any attempt to arrest them.
- May 1987: At Loughgall, Co Armagh, SAS soldiers lay in wait for an IRA unit who planned to attack the RUC station. Rather than intercepting or arresting the IRA team, who had been under military surveillance for weeks beforehand, the SAS waited for the attack to commence then fired over 600 bullets at the attackers, killing all eight of them, as well as an innocent man who was seen some distance away wearing work overalls that resembled the outfits worn by the IRA men. This unfortunate man was summarily executed.
- March 1988: In ‘Operation Flavius’, SAS soldiers, dressed as civilians, approached and shot dead three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar. The European Court of Human Rights found that these killings breached Article 2 of the Convention because ‘the operation could have been controlled and organised without it being necessary to kill the suspects.’ The Court pointed out that upholding the right to life was ‘one of the most fundamental provisions’ of the Convention, ‘one which in peacetime admitted of no derogation’.
- August 1988: At Drumnakilly, Co Tyrone, SAS men lay in wait for a car of IRA men on a mission to kill a UDR soldier. The SAS had set up a decoy that looked like the UDR man changing a tyre of his lorry, and as the IRA car approached, the SAS soldiers opened fire, pumping 220 bullets into the vehicle and killing its three occupants.
- January 1990: British soldiers operating undercover shot and killed three petty criminals who were trying to rob a shop. They thought they had bagged three more IRA men.
- June 1991: The SAS carried out a similar attack to that at Drumnakilly, using a ‘decoy’ to lure 3 IRA volunteers in the village of Coagh, Co Tyrone, into a carefully constructed ambush. The SAS fired over 200 bullets and killed the three republicans, although there was evidence that two of the dead men may have initially escaped before being captured and executed by the SAS, their bodies then being put back into the bullet riddled vehicle.
- February 1992: At Clonoe, Co Tyrone, the SAS lay in wait for an IRA unit returning to their getaway vehicles after ineffectively shooting-up Coalisland RUC station. The soldiers strafed the group of republicans with sustained automatic fire, killing four.
In comparison with the fate of so many republicans, only one loyalist has ever been officially identified as a victim of a British shoot-to-kill policy. Brian Robinson was a UVF volunteer whose motorbike was rammed by an unmarked car full of SAS soldiers after he had shot and killed Paddy McKenna, an uninvolved Catholic civilian. As Robinson lay on the ground, a female SAS soldier stood over him and put two bullets in his head, execution-style.
Brian Robinson’s ‘elimination’ by the SAS occurred in 1989, 23 years after the UVF commenced its campaign of killing Catholics.
For much of that quarter century – and well beyond it – agents of the British state were engaged in a policy of collusion with UVF and UDA gangs, providing them with ‘intelligence’ on republican suspects, allowing them to acquire and store weapons, creating opportunities for them to carry out killings, failing to investigate such killings when they happened, on occasions even destroying the evidence, while at every turn protecting the killers from arrest, interrogation and prosecution.
Scores of deaths – many of them involving entirely innocent and misidentified victims – resulted from such collusion for which no-one has ever been held to account.
Of course there are those who believe the army and RUC were fully justified in shooting to kill the ‘enemies of Ulster’ regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what the law allowed, and regardless of what liberals, do-gooders and other brands of politically correct observers may say or think.
One of those who fits this profile to a tee is retired army colonel, Richard Kemp. A regular contributor to Tory rags like the Sun and Telegraph, Kemp responded to the acquittal of soldiers A and C by directly telling Joe McCann’s family to stop whining about justice because justice for their loved one was delivered long ago – the day he was shot in the back.
And this man commanded hundreds of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland during his seven tours of duty, and was even questioned at one point in connection with the illegal killing of a prominent Belfast republican – a crime he denies being involved in.
Kemp, who went on to command British troops in Afghanistan, is an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump as well as of Israel’s policy of repression against Palestinians. The much-decorated colonel also participated in a deeply Islamaphobic podcast alongside British fascist, Tommy Robinson.
Kemp boasts about his hatred of political correctness, and he’s all up for abandoning the prosecution of veterans in favour of ‘truth and reconciliation’.
But does anyone seriously think that if criminal trials of former soldiers are scrapped in favour of a truth and reconciliation commission, the British establishment – Kemp’s home turf – will put its hands up to the murder and mayhem it unleashed in Northern Ireland? Does anyone believe that Britain’s ruling class will admit to a policy of extrajudicial killings? To full-on collusion with loyalist killer squads? To methodically subverting domestic law when deemed expedient? To the wilful abandonment of solemn obligations entered into under international human rights law? Or to covering up the murderous activities of its agents by ensuring proper investigations could never take place?
Somehow I don’t think so.
Anyway, the South African experience is not a model to look to. In South Africa, ‘reconciliation’ has been promoted as an alternative to justice when in fact justice is a precondition for reconciliation. And behind all the South African chatter, the bottom line is that those responsible for some of the worst abuses of human rights in recent history have avoided any meaningful sanction for their blood-soaked actions.
The result is neither truth nor reconciliation but an enduring, and entirely justified sense of victimhood on one side and barely disguised glee that they ‘got away with it’ on the other.
Is it any wonder that Britain’s top brass – political and military – see this as an ideal model to hide behind?
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