Drawing a line under the Troubles?

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

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James Hughes’s article in this issue on the counterinsurgency theory and practice of General Sir Frank Kitson (pp 44–8) is indeed timely, particularly in the wake of the ‘Panorama’ documentary Britain’s secret terror force (BBC1, 21 Nov. 2013). The documentary dealt with the actions of an undercover British Army unit known as the Military Reaction Force (MRF), active in Belfast in the early 1970s, when Kitson was the area’s operational commander. The MRF practised an unofficial shoot-to-kill policy, and did not seem particularly fussy about who they killed. The records of the unit have long since been destroyed, but a compelling range of testimony was presented from former operatives, former members of the RUC and British Army, republicans, journalists, surviving victims, and relatives of victims (including unarmed civilians) who did not survive. The former MRF interviewees openly stated that their role was as a ‘terror’ force, that they had no compunction in breaking the British Army’s own regulations on lethal force, and that they would do it all again if need be.

The link to Kitson is neither coincidental nor merely circumstantial; the MRF was based at Kitson’s headquarters in Palace Barracks, outside Belfast; his book Gangs and countergangs (1960) had countenanced such covert operations, and his Low intensity operations (1971) would become a British Army manual on counterinsurgency and countersubversion. So these were not the actions of a maverick unit but part of a conscious British policy, and one, moreover, that was applied not just in Northern Ireland but also in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus, and continues to be applied—but with more sophisticated technology—in Afghanistan today.

There’s no doubt that public discussion of the above waned in the wake of the revelations of the Smithwick Tribunal Report (3 Dec. 2013) of Garda collusion in the IRA killing of two high-ranking RUC officers. Before that (early Nov. 2013) there was RTÉ/BBC NI’s The Disappeared concerning the c. fifteen people murdered and buried in secret graves by the IRA over the course of the Troubles. These are matters of legitimate concern, particularly for the families involved (as are the cases of Tom Oliver, Pat Finucane, Lord Justice Gibson, the Dublin/Monaghan bombings, etc.), but how is the wider public to make sense of what can seem serial media ‘what-aboutery’? How are we to make sense of the Troubles? Such is the task facing US Special Envoy Richard Haass. He might start by giving serious consideration to the suggestion of Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin that there be an end to prosecutions for Troubles-related killings before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

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