“In taking on the might of the state, the powerless challenged the way things had always been and dared to dream a different world where justice, equality and freedom were the entitlement of all.”

Introduction to the Museum of Free Derry

Investigations by journalists, a major BBC series and a multi-million pound inquiry by the ex-chief constable of Bedfordshire Jon Boutcher have revealed secrets the British state would rather you didn’t know about. 

Saracen on the streets of Derry

They have uncovered evidence of collusion between the British state and at least one double-agent within the IRA during the most violent period of “The Troubles”, during which some 3,500 people lost their lives throughout Ireland, north and south.

So much so that Boutcher is understood to be recommending the prosecution of British senior security personnel as well as former IRA members.

“The Troubles” – as the long and bloody conflict in northern Ireland became known – continues to haunt people on both sides of the Irish border and sea, not least the relatives of those who lost their lives.

The war of attrition between the British army and the IRA waged between 1972 and 1994 escalated dramatically after Bloody Sunday, when 14 men – mostly teenagers – were killed by British troops in the town of Derry.

Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History, a seven-part TV series by a team of Northern Irish journalists, is currently screening on BBC.  Earlier this year, on the 50th anniversary of the British troops entering Northern Ireland, My Journey Through the Troubles, an account by journalist Peter Taylor was shown on television in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

These in-depth efforts to share knowledge – whatever their limitations and political perspective might be and we have yet to see the last few episodes –  are raising spectres of the past. Long-standing myths are being put to rest and lies are being nailed.

Many of secret operations carried out by the British state and its collaborators are at last coming to light. More and more it is clear that many levels of the state were involved and that they were often in direct conflict with each other.

Museum of Free Derry posters
A wall of posters at the Museum of Free Derry

More than that, it was the 1971 re-introduction of Internment (the special powers enacted after division of Ireland in 1922) and the presence of British armed forces – official and secret – that provoked, exacerbated and prolonged the bloodshed.

Derry Courthouse is within the imposing walls for which the city is famed. Outside,  a short walk away in the Bogside, is the Museum of Free Derry. To reach it you pass a stark epitaph to the 13 men – mostly teenagers – who were shot by British paratroops on Sunday 30 January 1972, plus a 14th man who died later of injuries sustained during the shootings. Nearby is the side of a house painted in huge letters:  “You are now entering Free Derry”.

The small but incredibly poignant Museum of Free Derry provides an account of how the Bogside came to figure so hugely in the imagination of not only the citizens of Northern Ireland but of the wider  world. Now in its 12th year, the museum  was named winner of the Authentic NI Experience at the NI Tourism Awards in 2018.

Rather than focusing on the religious divide, as most accounts tend to do,  by means of artefacts, photographs, eyewitness testimony and film, the Museum tells the story of the people of the Bogside. It reveals how the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association campaigned for social and democratic rights which cut across the Catholic-Protestant divide.  Highlights include the powerful connection between the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and that in United States, led by Martin Luther King. 

16 November 1968 march for civil right in Derry (Courtesy of Derry Journal)

The journalists who made the BBC programmes unearthed and pored over official archives and tracked down individuals directly involved in key events over the three decade conflict in the north and south of Ireland.  In My Journey Taylor reveals the secret operations by the SAS forces in tracking down and killing suspects, not only in the north of Ireland but in the republic.

Taylor, along with journalists in Northern Ireland, has documented direct collaboration of the British security forces with the Ulster Defence Association. Secret meetings between IRA officials and people acting on behalf of the British government – always denied – clearly took place, making a mockery of recent tabloid and Tory accusations against Jeremy Corbyn that he “sat down with terrorists”.

John Kelly, education officer for the Museum of Free Derry and former chair of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, has welcomed the Spotlight series. “I think it has been very informative so far, and that it is bringing back a lot of memories for me personally. The series highlights a lot of archive footage that we had never seen before, which is an eye-opener in terms of what was going on behind the scenes throughout the years of the conflict. It’s a real education for those who want to know more about what happened here,” he says.

Recent research in the UK national archives by Rita O’Reilly and Brídóg Ní Bhuachalla has helped force a re-examination of what really happened in the Troubles, in particular the role of the British state.  In late September of this year the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled that there must be an investigation into British security forces’ torture of 14 men in August 1971.  

“The Hooded Men”, as they became known, were Catholic workers who were arrested and interned under the N Ireland Special Powers Act in August 1971. 

Thus, after 48 years, a court is corroborating the testimonies in a pioneering booklet written in October 1971 after the incarceration of Catholic workers by the British army and the RUC under the Ulster Special Powers Act.  The Ulster Dossier brought together interviews collected by The Sunday Times and the Belfast-based Association for Legal Justice and appealed for unity between British and Irish workers. It made clear that torture was carried out on defenceless internees. It warned that “imperialist oppression in N. Ireland is fed through roots embedded in Westminster” and called for unity between British and Irish workers. The Ulster Dossier: Tory Torture in Ulster.

Torture Casebook - The Ulster dossier

The booklet was prophetic. Internment without trial meant that the British Army was free to arrest some 340 people who were from Catholic and nationalist backgrounds, many of whom were unconnected with the IRA.  As the Irish Times notes, the years between 1971 and 1972 were the “worst years of the troubles”. By the time internment ended in December 1975, almost 2,000 people had been locked up in camps and prisons.

It was also internment that brought the Catholic population of Derry’s Bogside onto the streets on 30 January 1972. What followed was the killing of 13 innocent people by British troops.

The Saville Inquiry report into the events of that day, published in 2010 after 12 years of hearing evidence, stated:

 “The firing by soldiers of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.” None of the victims had been carrying or using weapons. Firing by 1 Para regiment  had caused their deaths and was “unjustifiable”, the Inquiry found.

Relatives celebrate outcome of Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday
Relatives celebrate outcome of Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday

The inquiry’s findings eventually made possible the prosecution of “Soldier F”, the only paratrooper to face trial for his role in Bloody Sunday. The case is due to resume in Derry Magistrates Court later this year.

The initial hearing took place 18 September. That day, the families of those killed walked together to Derry’s courthouse for the hearing. Afterwards, Mickey McKinney, whose brother Willie, aged 27 was shot dead in the back, read out a statement:

“This is a very significant event for us on the journey towards achieving the third and final demand of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign – the prosecution of a soldier for murder and attempted murder on Bloody Sunday. We recognise that Soldier F, as he is presently known, will not appear in court today but we expect that the court will timetable the full hearing of the committal in this case, which will require his presence at this courthouse as expeditiously as possible, given the time that has passed since Bloody Sunday. We are very grateful for the support and solidarity from the other families and wounded who were disappointed by decisions not to prosecute those who murdered their loved ones.”

It has taken nearly half a century for the truth of Bloody Sunday to reach the light of day and completely exonerate the murdered innocents and many others injured.  The British state only relinquished its secrets under huge pressure. Even today, there are  reactionary forces who condemn the Saville Inquiry as a waste of money and dispute its findings and it is significant that the commanding officers are not being prosecuted. 

With the UK in the midst of an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis over Brexit, we will ignore the role of the state at our peril. Its purpose is to defend the status quo , whatever it takes. What took place in Northern Ireland proved that and it would be foolish to think that the British state has changed its spots.

The Troubles: key dates

1967 Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) formed in Belfast to fight discrimination against Catholics. Initially Unionists are involved

1968 October 5: Royal Ulster Constabulary attacks a peaceful demonstration in Derry

1968 November: Some 15,000 march through Derry in support of the civil rights movement

1969 January People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by RUC and other Ulster loyalists 

1969 April Bernadette Devlin takes her seat in Westminster parliament as an independent socialist

1969 August:  Battle of Bogside

1969 August: Labour Home Secretary Callaghan sends British troops into Northern Ireland

1971 August 9-10: Internment (imprisonment without trial) re-introduced by Northern Irish government and approved by the British government. Armed soldiers carry out dawn raids which include no Loyalists until 1973.

1971 August 9: Arrest and torture of Hooded Men begins. Interrogators include Special Branch operatives

1972 January 30: Bloody Sunday massacre.  The people of Derry protest against internment without trial. As 15,000 leave the Creggan estate, the British Army erects barricades around the Bogside to stop the March reaching Derry’s Guildhall. 13 men shot by British paratrooper. A 14th dies of his wounds later

1972 December 1: Car bombs in Dublin facilitate passage of Offences against the State Act in the  Dáil (Irish parliament)

1972 April: Widgery Tribunal Report whitewashes the British Army Paras

1973 August: The Littlejohn Affair shows connivance between British state and agents provocateurs

1974 May 15-28 Ulster Workers Council (UWC) 2-week strike organised by the loyalist UWC and Ulster Army Council opposing the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement

1974 May 17:  Dublin and Monaghan bombings kill 33 civilians. A May 2019 Irish documentary claims they were carried out by Loyalists under orders from the British Army

1989 February. Human rights lawyer Pat Finucane is murdered by Ulster loyalists in collusion with MI5

1998 Saville Inquiry begins

1998 April: Good Friday peace agreement signed between UK and Irish governments. Referenda held in north and south approve with large majorities

2007 End of British troop deployment in Northern Ireland

2007 Museum of Free Derry opens in the Bogside

2010 Saville inquiry reports. Prime Minister David Cameron apologises

2017 Northern Ireland Executive collapses

Wall mural with Derry Girls

2018 January Derry Girls sitcom screened by Channel 4 opening a new spirit of optimism

2018 April 18: Journalist Lyra McKee gunned down in Derry.  At the time of her death she was researching unsolved killings in The Troubles

2019 September-December: Prosecution of Soldier F in Derry court