‘The boy who rules Free Derry’ (a profile of Martin McGuinness from 1972)

Below is the earliest (and perhaps the most illuminating) profile of Martin McGuinness, written by Nell McCafferty and published in The Irish Times on 19th April 1972, within weeks of Bloody Sunday. Entitled, ‘Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo‘. Given all that is being said following his recent death, it is fascinating to read as it gives a sense of what is missing in the overall commentary, namely, what motivated him to join the IRA.

Firstly, though, an earlier mention of Martin McGuinness in the press. Back in October 1969, he was arrested and brought to court following a confrontation with British soldiers in Derry. The Irish Times reported: “Martin McGuinness (19), of Elmwood street, Derry, was fined £50 for disorderly behaviour on last Saturday at Strand road. Head Constable Campbell said the troops had moved a crowd of about 200 along Strand road. A sergeant had noticed four or five youths, including defendant, shouting, abusive remarks. The troops were ordered over the barrier and the sergeant caught McGuinness.”

McG 1969

He first spoke in public as a republican leader in April 1972, which is what prompted Nell McCafferty’s profile of him, which I have reproduced below. If you are unfamiliar with the chronology of events, a useful resource, the Conflict Archive, is here.

Martin McGuinness: Profile of a Provo by Nell McCafferty

You know how much life has changed when you’re having a Republicans tea – a bottle of orange and a bap – in the back of a car, just a few minutes from your own home.” Martin McGuinness, the 21-year-old O.C. of the Derry Provisional I.R.A., may have changed his life-style, but he is acutely embarrassed at popular press descriptions of him as ‘the boy who rules Free Derry’. He was catapulted into the limelight at a press conference in the Creggan estate last week, and since then the English papers have had a hey day writing about his ‘good looks, youth and shy charm.’ An American TV man spent a wistful hour planning the scenario for a colour-film spectacular about him. “Jeez,” he said, “that boy would be hot on the coast. Can you see him, six feet tall in a dinner jacket, raising funds.” His wish will presumably not be granted. The English journalist who romanticised Mr. McGuinness was ordered out of town. He left immediately.

[Elsewhere Nell names that American TV man as New York columnist, Jimmy Breslin – he died two days before Martin, on 19th March 2017]

I don’t feel like a big-shot, travelling around the area in a stolen Ford Avenger,” said Martin. “I have to do what the people want. They don’t treat me like I was something different. In fact one wee woman couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go down the barracks to bail out her son who’d been arrested. I had to take her up to headquarters and arrange for someone else to do it.

He joined the I.R.A. after the Battle of Bogside, 1969. Initially he was with the Official wing. “There was not a Provo unit in Derry then. The Officials approached me and for three months we attended policy and training lectures in a house in the Bogside. But they wouldn’t give us any action. All this time, there was fighting in the streets and things were getting worse in Belfast. You could see the soldiers just settling into Derry, not being too worried about the stone-throwing. Occasionally, the Officials gave out Molotov cocktails, which wouldn’t even go off, and I knew that after 50 years we were more of an occupied country than we ever were.

It seemed to me that behind all the politics and marching, it was plain as daylight that there was an army in our town, in our country and that they weren’t there to give out flowers. Armies should be fought by armies. So one night I piled into a black Austin, me and five mates and we went to see a Provo across the Border. We told him our position and there were several meetings after that. Then we joined. Nothing really happened until Seamus Cusack was killed, and internment came soon after. Then the Provos in Derry were ordered into full-time military action. I gave up my job working in the butcher’s shop.

His mother was panic-stricken, he said, when she found out he was in the IRA. “A few months after I’d joined, she found a belt and beret in my bedroom and there was a big row. She and my father told me to get out of it, and for the sake of peace I said I would and they calmed down. But now they have to accept it. They’ve seen the British Army in action and they know I’d no choice.” His mother, though, had started smoking again, which she hadn’t done in years. “I know her health has failed, and she’s always worrying about me. If I’m not  around to tell her myself, I send her words that I’m alright. I don’t discuss my business with her, and she doesn’t ask.

Martin’s mother was angry at the press reports of him. “You’d think he was running around the area with a gun, telling people what they could and could not do. The only time I saw guns in this house was when the British Army raided it.” She worries about him even more since Joseph McCann was shot in Belfast. “Since Martin’s picture appeared in the papers, every soldier in Derry knows what he looks like.” And when it’s all over – should it ever end – she worries about his job. “His trade’s been interrupted. His father is a welder, his brothers are at the bricklaying and carpentering, but what will become of Martin? That’s why they’ll have to get an amnesty, so’s he can get back to work, and not be always on the run.

Martin himself doesn’t worry too much about what will come after. His aims are devastatingly simple. “I want a United Ireland where everyone has a good job and enough to live on.” He had read a little, he said, since becoming a Republican, and supported Socialist views, “but the Officials are all views and no support. I wish we were getting more press coverage in Derry for our political beliefs but we don’t have the talkers in our ranks. Still, the people support us, and that’s good enough.

He wondered sometimes, he said, if Socialism would ever work out. “I have a lot of respect for Bernadette Devlin, but I think maybe people are too greedy. I’d be willing to sweep the roads in my world and it wouldn’t seem like a bad job if they got the same wages as everybody else, but do you not think now that people are just too greedy. Somebody always wants to make a million. Anyway, before you can try, you have to get this country united.

We’d make sure that Protestants are fairly treated. I don’t accept that we are sectarian. But you have to face facts that it’s the Catholics who’ve been discriminated against. The Officials go on about us all the time, but was them that blew up the Protestant mayor’s house in Derry and shot Barnhill and John Taylor. Mind you, I’ve nothing against the rank-and-file officials. They’re soldiers, just like me, with a job do. That job, as far as I am concerned, is to fight the British Army.

The Provisionals took care, he said, not to harm innocent civilians. “But sometimes mistakes are made. There was an explosion in Derry some time ago and I read afterwards that a man had been trapped in the basement. He lost a part of his leg. Then you read that he’s a cyclist and you feel sad. The worst I ever felt was Bloody Sunday. I wandered about stunned, with people crying and looking for their relatives, and I thought of all that about honour between soldiers. The British Army knew right well we wouldn’t fight them with all those thousands of people there, so they came in and murdered the innocent.

I used to worry about being killed before that day, but now I don’t think about death at all.

If there’s a riot on, he sometimes goes and throws stones. “It relieves the pressure, and it’s a way of being with my mates, the ones who have not joined the movement, and I feel just ordinary again.

I suppose,” he added, “you think us Provos have no feelings at all, just because we have no time to talk about it.

Last week he talked publicly, for the first time. His speech, to a wildly cheering crowd in the Brandywell, was very short and to the point. “If Gerry Fitt and John Hume think they are going to sell the people out,” he said, “they’ve got another thing coming. It’s just not on.” He looked very young as he spoke. He was probably not what Austin Currie had in mind, last autumn, when he warned the people that the possible imprisonment of MPs would create a need for a ‘second-tier leadership’. But the influential, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road Derry Centre Citizens Council took sufficient cognisance of this leadership to go and have a talk with him about his ideas. Afterwards they rejected the Provisionals proposals for elections in the city. Martin didn’t mind too much.

“I know they’re wrong,” he said. “I know it and I feel it when I go round the barricades and see the boys they called hooligans and the men they called wasters, and the fellows that used only to drink, doing things now they really believe in. Protecting the area, and freeing Ireland and freeing themselves.

 

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The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.

history

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA).

The 1973 Border Poll

On the 8th March 1973, the British government held a referendum in the north in which it asked voters to indicate their preference between two statements: “Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” and “Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?” To date it is the only formal referendum that has asked voters to choose between these specific options.

The order for the vote, under the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act of 1972, was published on 24th January 1973. It included a provision for only a single counting centre so that results could not be analysed at a constituency level. The number of polling booths to be used for the election was reduced from 900 to around 380. Specific provision was made for postal voting that meant that anyone who was on the 1973 electoral register (for Stormont) was eligible to get a postal vote from an address in the UK only (essentially meaning that anyone who had fled over the border could not use an address in the south).

The poll, which had been vaguely promised when Stormont was prorogued and direct rule introduced (in March 1972), was almost immediately dismissed as a pointless exercise. Even British Labour party MPs had been critical of the reduction in polling stations and suppression of constituency level results. The announcement had followed a Green Paper from William Whitelaw on ‘The Future of Northern Ireland‘, which was to be followed by a White Paper (but not until after the poll). Membership of the EEC and its opportunities for cross-border co-operation were also part of the public debate at the time Whitelaw announced the Border Poll would take place.

As the poll was announced, the Nationalist Party and Republican Labour confirmed that they would be calling for a boycott of the Border Poll. The SDLP followed suit in late January, also calling on voters to register for postal votes to ensure they weren’t impersonated at a polling station. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had followed suit by 30th January criticising the simplified questions being asked in the poll. It also pointed out the position being taken by the Alliance Party in supporting the poll, questioning the wisdom of it falling into the same camp as the Unionists and Ulster Vanguard, although it expected Alliance to do “…much soul searching, leading ultimately to abstentions…” (see The Irish Times, 31st January 1973). Whatever soul searching Alliance did, it openly campaigned for the UK option in the poll. Political parties in the south were also dismissive of the poll. The IRA studiously ignored the Border Poll, with little mention in Republican News.

Like the Alliance, the NI Labour Party openly supported the UK option in the Border Poll, but were taken aback in a meeting with the British Labour Party in mid-February when they were criticised by some for not supporting a united Ireland. In the week before polling, as the extent of the boycott became evident in the numbers of applications for postal votes, the debate shifted on to how a result should be interpreted. Given the lack of official status of any referendum result, the poll became largely an exercise in measuring the unionist vote. In the days before voting, the nationalist MP Frank McManus noted that when a similar poll had been held in Malta, the result was dismissed as the turnout was below 50% (see Irish Times, 6th March 1973). In the same days, Brian Faulkner and other unionists were indicating that they would be disappointed if less than 550,000, or under 50% of the total electorate did not vote for the UK option. John Taylor had suggested on television that they needed to get 100% of Protestants and 20% of Catholics to vote for the UK option to demonstrate support for the union (that would be roughly 725,000 votes).

Given the electorate of 1,030,000, that 550,000 target wasn’t overly ambitious. The parties campaigning for votes for the UK option, the likes of the Unionist Party, Ulster Vanguard, NI Labour had got around 567,500 votes in the 1970 elections to Westminster (when there was 5,000 less on the electoral register). Alliance, which hadn’t contested the election in 1970, were to receive between 66,000 and 98,000 votes in two further elections in 1973 (in both cases overall turnout was lower than it had been in 1970). The paradox for unionists lay in the quasi-democratic nature of the UK where a referendum had not actual standing, and, that the number of actual voters could now be conflated with support for the union, meaning even a sizeable win for the UK option, if below 50% of the electorate, could actually be represented as rejection of the union.

Republican News cartoon, 3rd March 1973.

Just as counting of ballots was undertaken at one centre only, there wasn’t even official reporting of turnout in each constituency. So only some anecdotal references give  hints of the turnout. The day after the vote, The Irish Times suggested that it was believed that 1% of Catholics had voted in Derry and reported that unionists believed that overall turnout among Protestants was at 90%. Given that many people questioned the activity of unionist observers inside the polling stations (in some cases it was claimed they even were openly ‘assisting’ election staff), that figure may reflect detailed knowledge of who was marked as having voted on the electoral registers. The Strabane Chronicle of 17th March 1973 reported that; “In Omagh, several hundred Unionist voters went to the polling booth for the predominantly Catholic West ward, or about one-fifth of those entitled to vote on that day. About 40% of the population had postal votes. There was a very large turnout however at the booths for the other two wards in the town, the mainly Protestant South and North wards. In several areas, namely in the Carrickmore and Aghyaran areas and at some booths in the Strabane district, the turn-out of voters, was in single figures.” The high proportion of postal votes was reflected elsewhere, such as Fermanagh, where a huge number had reportedly applied for postal votes. In both cases, this was presumably to prevent impersonation.

The formal result was that 591,820 voted for the UK option, while 6,463 voted for the United Ireland option. Politically, the number of voters who came out for the unionists later in 1973 didn’t exceed 450,000. The likes of Alliance and NI Labour combined in the later elections in 1973 got between 66,000 and 98,000 votes. The success metrics suggested by likes of Faulkener before the poll appear to have been met only by Alliance and NI Labour supporters bolstering the  mainstream unionist vote. The result didn’t come near John Taylor’s suggestion of 725,000 votes.

Bob Cooper  (Alliance) claimed the result justified Alliance’s stand, and insisted that  substantial number of Catholics had come out and voted for the UK option. In the 1971 census figures, though, the 591,820 would equate to about 91% of the non-Catholic population. While it is obviously too simplistic to insist that voting and the boycott were observed solely along religious lines, it does make Cooper’s justification appear implausibly weak. Ironically, the main outcome of Alliance and NI Labour support for the UK option in the Border Poll was in providing sufficient additional votes to allow Faulkner and the unionists to claim a victory of sorts.

Republican News (17th March 1973) was particularly scathing of both after the Border Poll, referring to them as the “…flag-waverers of the Alliance Party and NI Labour.” It also reported, “Mixed-Up Kids. Once upon a time we had the Unionists. Now we have the Alliance Unionists, Labour Unionists, Democratic-Unionists, Faulkner-Unionists, LAW-Unionists, Vanguard-Unionists, NUM-Unionists.”

The weapons which the Government have at their command: immunity and the Crown Proceedings Act of 1947

In the light of yesterday’s post regarding the provision of immunity from prosecution for soldiers, here is discussion from a parliamentary debate on tidying up legislation to retrospectively legalise the exercise of policing powers by British soldiers in Ireland.

In the middle of the debate (on 23rd February 1972), Jeremy Thorpe gave an interpretation of the Crown Proceedings Act of 1947. Thorpe was a barrister and was leader of the Liberal Party at the time.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe:

I should like to start by echoing what the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) said: namely, that since the troops are in Northern Ireland as a result of a political decision of this House, they are entitled to all the protection and immunity to which they are reasonably entitled under the law. I cannot speak for the whole House, but certainly that is the view of my hon. Friends and, I suspect, of the vast majority of this House…

…The reason why I say that I believe that the Forces of the Crown have immunity in any event is the existence of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947. As the right hon. and learned Attorney-General will know, Section 53 of that Act expressly provided that its application could be extended to Northern Ireland, and by Statutory Instrument No. 1836 of 1949, the Act could apply in the courts of Northern Ireland. Section 11(1) says: “Nothing in Part I of this Act shall extinguish or abridge any powers or authorities which, if this Act had not been passed would have been exercisable by virtue of the prerogative of the Crown, or any powers or authorities conferred on the Crown by any statute, and, in particular, nothing in the said Part I shall extinguish or abridge any powers or authorities exercisable by the Crown, whether in time of peace or of war, for the purpose of the defence of the realm “— and I repeat those words— for the purpose of the defence of the realm or of training, or maintaining the efficiency of, any of the armed forces of the Crown. Subsection (2) says that the Secretary of State may, if satisfied that the act or omission complained of in regard to the Armed Forces of the Crown was necessary for any such purpose as mentioned in the previous subsection, issue a certificate. That is to say, if he were prepared to certify that the acts or omissions were in furtherance of the defence of the realm he could issue a certificate to the effect that the act or omission was necessary for that purpose; and the certificate shall, in those proceedings, be conclusive as to the matter so certified. So we already have a complete protection for the Armed Forces of the Crown where they are acting in defence of the realm and the Secretary of State is prepared so to certify. The immediate panic that there will be a series of actions in tort against the Armed Forces of the Crown seems to me, with great respect, to show insufficient appreciation of the weapons which the Government have at their command under the 1947 Act.

After some interruptions, Thorpe continued:

I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I think he has a point. But we must look at the situation in which a private criminal prosecution can be brought against a member of the Armed Forces of the Crown. Certainly, a public prosecution would be within the discretion of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland and the existence of the certificate issued by the Secretary of State would be for him an indication that these matters could not be proceeded with.

I entirely accept that the Government are right to introduce legislation which will have the effect of clarifying the law and giving an immunity to the Forces of the Crown…

While Thorpe was, in theory, discussing the public suing soldiers for the wrongful use of arrest powers etc, he clearly indicates the extent to which the legal powers existed under which the DPP had discretion in bringing prosecutions. And he is quite specific in how the British government had the legal capacity to provide immunity to its forces. Did that capacity extend to immunity from prosecution for shooting and killing civilians? That isn’t clear and the extent to which the existence of such a certificate of immunity would be publicly disclosed isn’t apparent. What Thorpe’s contribution reflects, at the very least, is a concern to provide the armed forces with immunity.

Why should that be considered significant. This was all said less than a month after Bloody Sunday, and less than ten days after the Widgery Tribunal began its hearings. It is not coincidental.

While you looked down your gun: providing the British Army with immunity in 1972

In 1972, a high level security meeting agreed that the British Army would be indemnified against prosecution for its actions in Ireland. This means, effectively, soldiers (and the RUC) could shoot and kill knowing they would not face prosecution. Many people, including professional historians would summarily dismiss that claim as being purely a conspiracy theory. At least one hundred and forty-nine of those killed by the British army between 1969 and 2001 are regarded as non-combatants while many others were killed that were combatants but often in disputed circumstances. That only four soldiers were ever jailed, none of whom ever served more than a token sentence, demonstrates that in practice indemnification against prosecution was put in place for the security forces. So the question shouldn’t be ‘Did the state indemnify soldiers from prosecution?’ but rather ‘HOW did the state indemnify soldiers from prosecution?’.

In 2012, Relatives for Justice publicised a memo showing that a decision had been taken to protect soldiers from prosecution. The 10 July 1972 memo came from a high level security meeting chaired by Secretary of State William Whitelaw. Decision J of the meeting was that “The Army should not be inhibited in its campaign by the threat of Court proceedings and should therefore be suitably indemnified.” I’d written about the decisions taken at this meeting before (see here). Briefly, all the decisions taken at that meeting can be shown to have been followed up and acted upon, including Decision (I) “Plans were to be produced urgently for the containment of areas harbouring bombers and gunmen“, which was the go ahead to prepare Operation Motorman which took place on 31st July 1972.

Two additional meetings either side of 10th July illustrate how this decision was not an aberration but instead was entirely consistent with wider policy. In June, the Director of Public Prosecutions had complained to the Attorney General that he was not being passed on all the case files by the joint RUC Special Branch/Military Police teams investigating criminal cases. Those teams actually reported to an RUC Divisional commander who, in turn, reported on each case to the DPP. According to Huw Bennett, in the same month, the DPP had indicated his general intention to refuse to prosecute security force members who killed or wounded civilians while on duty (see Bennett 2010). According to Bennett, this advice had already issued as memos from the Attorney General in early June. This was two weeks before the July 10th meeting.

On the 24th July, at a further meeting, indemnification was discussed. While the DPP had already indicated an unwillingness to prosecute and indemnification of soldiers had already been agreed the points made in the discussion are still astonishing (see below). Much of this is detailed and sourced by Huw Bennett in various papers, e.g. Bennett, H. (2010) ‘Detention and Interrogation in Northern Ireland, 1969–75’, in Sibylle Scheipers (ed.), Prisoners in War, Oxford;  Bennett, H. (2010) ‘From Direct Rule to Motorman: Adjusting British Military Strategy for Northern Ireland in 1972‘, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33: 6, 511 — 532; and Bennett, H. (2013) ‘Smoke Without Fire’? Allegations Against the British Army in Northern Ireland, 1972–5. 20th Century British History 24 (2): 275-304.

The British army’s Chief of the General Staff (CGS) was present along with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Attorney General at the July 24th meeting. The CGS thought to provide indemnity “…it was necessary either to find a way of doing what they had to do within the law, or to change the law“. He also stressed the army’s duty to protect its soldiers from prosecution. Those present at the meeting concluded soldiers could not formally be told they were immune from prosecution so a formal ‘Act of Indemnity’ was ruled out.

The cluster of meetings in June and July demonstrate that everyone, the government, civil service, military, prosecution service and Attorney General were all agreed on providing immunity for soldiers, and that it couldn’t be done publicly. This theme was sustained over a number of meetings (and can by shown to have been subsequently implemented in the almost complete absence of prosecutions of soldiers). Coincidentally, this is where the real paper trail seems to end and the implementation took a form that would not then be visible. All of this also happened against the backdrop of the debacles of the Compton Report and Widgery Tribunal in the preceding six months. It is not like the Attorney General, CGS or DPP were not all completely aware that soldiers had killed and were killing  innocent civilians.

At heart, the indemnification took the form of a culture of behaviour that would ensure prosecutions did not happen. When investigations did actually take place, the prosecution rate (even then, generally for assault not firing weapons) was only a small fraction and the conviction rate even less so (some judges openly dismissed any evidence given against soldiers). As Bennett shows, evidence from Catholics was largely disregarded, even in favour of contradictory evidence from soldiers. Out of 502 cases investigated from March 1972 to September 1974, only 56 lead to charges and 17 to convictions pretty much all for minor offences. Complaints against the security forces were to be passed directly to the DPP from November 1972. There were 1078 assault cases looked at by the DPP between March 1972 and November 1974. The low level of investigations carried out is also illustrated by the fact that a higher number of official complaints against the army, 530, was made between December 1971 and February 1972 alone. At every stage of the process the complaints were filtered and the number reduced.

Even where the British Army actually admitted a liability and paid compensation, soldiers were not charged or prosecuted. In 24 cases involving fatalities between 1972 and 1975, the British Army admitted liability for negligence and paid compensation in 22 cases, only challenged two and lost one of those cases. Many of the settlements were out-of-court and were conditional on the army not being required to ‘legally’ admit to the liability. So no-one was ever prosecuted for those cases. The 24 cases were a fraction of the 203 fatalities the security forces were responsible for up to 1975. Indeed, in July 1974 when this culture was firmly established, GOC Lt. Gen. Frank King wrote to Lord Gardiner talking about how investigating complaints and prosecutions were having “… a serious effect on operational efficiency and morale.” Ironically, King was referring to the minimal level of complaints and prosecutions that was taking place.

It seems highly doubtful that some formal methodology was sketched out between June and July 1972 to help soldiers avoid prosecutions. In practical terms the failings of the joint RUC Special Branch and Royal Military Police investigations were already noted by the DPP and Attorney General in June 1972 but not corrected. Extraordinarily, the DPP had signalled an unwillingness to prosecute soldiers for killing or wounding civilians that June. The high level discussions in July affirmed a commitment to protect soldiers from prosecution across the spectrum of politics, civil service, legal system and military. What does seem to have been agreed was that the army’s demand couldn’t be met openly by changing the law. Instead, there  must have been no pressure subjected to those in RUC Special Branch and the Royal Military Police who were supposed to investigate complaints. This had to involve at least the investigating teams, RUC divisional commanders, the DPP and Attorney General and anyone else in an oversight role. Never mind the fact that both RUC and army were investigating themselves, anyway.

What this all created was the necessary culture of non-investigation, disregard of witnesses and failure to observe due process and oversight. This meant soldiers could shoot with almost near impunity, knowing they faced no consequences. This indemnification of soldiers for their actions continued as long as the British army’s deployment.