So… #GerryFittWASaBrit

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“Gerry Fitt Is a Brit” was what used to be said about the founder member of the SDLP and former member of the Irish Labour Party and then the Republican Labour Party. Republicans in the Dock Ward who were contemporaries of Fitt used to claim, based on what they knew of him, that they would vote unionist before they would vote for Fitt. The Irish News (££) today is running a story revealing that Fitt pressed the British government in December 1971 to blame the IRA for the bombing of McGurk’s Bar as part of a pretext for him to join talks without internment being ended.

The Irish News story is based on documents uncovered by Ciarán MacAirt and discussed in more detail here (with a copy of the original document). Briefly, Fitt had a meeting with Secretary of State, Reginald Maulding, on 22nd December 1971, which Maulding recorded in an extraordinary memo which has Fitt suggesting ways the British government could present circumstantial evidence that would support the fabricated story that the bombing of McGurks Bar was an IRA ‘own-goal’. What makes Fitt’s suggestions all the more cynical is the fact that, a couple of weeks before, his presence was widely reported at the funerals of at least one of those he was seeking to have a finger of suspicion pointed at.

It has long been established that the RUC and British Army units had a central role in the disinformation campaign, which the Stormont government and then British government continued against those present in the bar on 4th December 1971, the night it was destroyed. Up until now, it wasn’t publicly known that Fitt had also contributed to the same disinformation campaign which was aligned to a package of activities infamously initiated by Brigadier Frank Kitson and dealt with by Ciarán in his book about the bombing of McGurks.

Kitson has become something of a bogey man for republicans through his role in disinformation and pyschological operations (or, to give it it’s Orwellian name, Information Policy). At the same time, little of Kitson’s work since he first was deployed to Belfast in August 1969 is in the public record or properly documented. John Kelly, who was centrally involved in the IRA during events in Belfast in 1969, described how Kitson sought out meetings with leading nationalist and republican figures in August and September 1969. Not that this necessarily meant that Kitson would also have met Fitt, but it seems highly likely and it would be interesting to know what Fitt told him and how that informed British policy in the north, and Belfast in particular.

Equally intriguing, in this context is a document @JarlathKearney tweeted a couple of weeks ago which was taken from another secret NIO file, from 1976.

We [the NIO] created it [the SDLP]“.

A fairly damning claim. But one that has a bit more traction given what is emerging about Fitt, since he had a central role in the formation of the SDLP in 1970. It now looks like it is time to significantly re-appraise Fitt”s contribution to how events unfolded, specifically in terms of what advice and information he was passing to the British government. It won’t change the past, but it might contribute to a better understanding of how it unfolded.

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  • Drumlins Rock

    There are a whole lot of if, if, ifs in the document, with no-one able to confirm or deny what was an off the record conversation in an extremely tense period of time. You really are scraping the barrel in your attempt to tarnish a man who had more decency in his little finger than the entire Sinn Fein leadership combined.

  • John Ó Néill

    He [Fitt] feels that every effort should be made to pin responsibility for the [McGurks] explosion on the provisionals.

    You couldn’t tarnish Fitt, he had already done that to himself.

  • Mick Fealty

    Fascinating stuff John. Cillian McGrattan argues the SDLP screwed themselves when they walked in July. In Stormont they might stopped it happening. Afterwards their agency was mush.

    I think you are however pushing it a bit to suggest Gerry (this Gerry I mean was some kind British agent. Here’s Ciaran at a critical part…

    < blockquote>Maudling records that Gerry Fitt believed:

    “… that the explosion in McGurk’s Bar was the deliberate work of the provisionals [sic] and that if this could be proved it would produce a dramatic effect on catholic [sic] opinion even to the extent of giving him the excuse to join discussions.”

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – the full sentence is in no way ambiguous in the original:

    He [i.e. Fitt] believes that the explosion in McGurk’s Bar was the deliberate work of the provisionals and that if this could be proved it would produce a dramatic effect on catholic opinion even to the extent of giving him the excuse to join discussions.

    I didn’t say Fitt was an actual British agent, although it does appear he was voluntarily going in to offer what he believed to be intelligence about the provisionals, trying to assist the disinformation campaign (more generally) and trying to influence opinion among Catholics/Nationalists to support NIO policy and even subvert the anti-internment campaign.

  • Mick Fealty

    Like I said John the SDLP lost most of their political agency when they left the old Stormont Parliament. The Provos where – even at this early stage – blowing public places and people to bits.

    In fact: Colm Keena has a piece with some very useful context in this regard, later (after I have cooked the dinner of course).

  • between the bridges

    Interesting link JoN, so both sets of the RA were threatening the stoops and internment was a cash cow for the ‘movement’ and the interned…

  • sean treacy

    Some months ago ,I suggested Fitt was a devious parasite and was subjected to vile abuse on this site from among others “sdlp supporter”.Anything to say now lads?

  • gendjinn

    Like I said John the SDLP lost most of their political agency when they left the old Stormont Parliament. The Provos where – even at this early stage – blowing public places and people to bits.

    But what about Republicans?

    *eye roll*

  • Mick Fealty

    You looking at the yellow Sean?

  • sean treacy

    why

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick, I get the feeling you’re happier deflecting from what Fitt was up to in 1971 than dealing with it directly? :-)

    I think this shows how poorly researched this period is – even the selection of interviews Maillie culled for that Paisley documentary earlier this year included a significant insight into Paisley that is being largely ignored (his citing of Nixon as a major influence). I’ve been trying to reconstruct the chronology of events within the Belfast IRA in August 1969 and not only are most published accounts remarkably unclear about the sequence (and it is covered in quite a few books) but, from what I can see, almost all the participants are hazy as events unfolded so quickly on them. In retrospect (for those of us who weren’t even born yet) from 1969 into the early 1970s appears absolutely chaotic and we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding what happened.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    John,

    It sounds like, for whatever reason, Fitt wanted an initiative with London and needed something new to justify it. So he proposed making a claim that was credible at the time and that he had no information to prove was not the truth. So he was stretching the facts not telling what he knew to be a deliberate lie. Something which is standard practice for politicians.

  • ArdoyneUnionist

    I think the now deceased Mr Fitt is going to take the Gerry Adams defence.

  • John Ó Néill

    tmitch57 – Fitt, like everyone else, knew it was a loyalist bomb (I’ve blogged on this before – the press even reported the loyalist claims of responsibility). The *best* that can be said about Fitt here (and best is a purely relative word) – is that he was trying to curry favour with the Secretary of State by endorsing the RUC/Stormont/Information Policy initiative to misrepresent the loyalist bombing of the bar as an IRA ‘own goal’. That is the very *best* you can say about Fitt here.

  • Mick Fealty

    Not at all John. I’ll stick that other blog up when I get free of mobile devices here then come back to this one in earnest.

  • cynic2

    …shocking …….just like the Brits created nurtured and cajoled SF into life as the vehicle for the peace process…. only that operation was much more successful

  • PaddyReilly

    The cause of Irish Independence from Britain is, if not a lost one, at least a continually uphill struggle, since London has sufficient resources to bribe as many Irish politicians as it wants.

    However, even the most honest politician in the world would have difficulty balancing the wishes of his constituents in West Belfast and the sort of solution the Palace of Westminster would like to impose.

    Lord Fitt conspicuously failed to do this: if it was indeed his intention to be remembered as the leader of his people that he seemed to be in the 60s. Politicians frequently have appalling egos: Fitt was unable to work within the SDLP, became an Independent, lost his seat, and finally found refuge in the House of Lords.

    I do not know if social climbing was his real intention, if so, he did quite well. I think though he felt that he was undercut by the IRA. But that was his failure in balancing his message: there is no use ranting about the evils of the IRA, when your mandate is remove those conditions that gave rise to the IRA in the first place.

    It’s a generational thing, or a hazard of ageing: we start as Revolutionaries and, if we are not careful, end as Tories. That is one reason why, as Enoch Powell opined, every political career ends in failure. This is not actually true: there is the additional option of assassination. I have the feeling that if Gerry Fitt of 1966 had known of the Baron Fitt of Bell’s Hill in the County of Down he was destined to become, he might have welcomed assassination. It certainly shows that Sinn Féin’s policy of never compromising with the Houses of Parliament has sound reasons behind it.

  • Mick Fealty

    I hate to agree with you cynic (you being a cynic and all that), but that is consistent with the logic of John’s reasoning here.

    We must make the Republican Movement see (or what some of them purport to see) that the core of their problem is accommodation with the majority….

    We created it [the SDLP], and now maybe we have to let it die.

    And then go on to make another..?

    Sadly, that ‘second’ memo is missing alongside any record of those Royal Pardons that we’ve only just heard of (or indeed the military activities of the IRA in West Belfast). So we have no ‘proof’, if that’s what we are claiming this memo is…

    In any case it looks like the NIO got its own way in the end, no?

    At least Gerry F already believed this (without being pressured by the Brits) at the outset of the troubles, Gerry A only came around to it after a vvery long time elapsed (and an awful lot of innocent people met their doom at the hands of both Loyalists and Provisionals).

    Also, regarding the timing of memo (let’s take it for granted that the meeting took place close to this date), I don’t recall there being any such certainty that Loyalists did this in this time frame. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

    Malachi O’Doherty’s account in The Telling Year mentions the journalist John McGurk grieving over the fact that his family was deprived of any public sympathy because for years after it was still widely believed it was an IRA own goal.

    This false ignominy is one reason why I think the work of Ciaran and other family members of the victims in recovering documents like this is so important.

    Indeed I quoted Ciaran saying Fitt believed what he told the Secretary of State, and that he thought it would be a propaganda coup for him and his party in their struggle against the provos. It is merely a statement of fact.

    It hardly makes him a Brit in anyway other than the Provo’s sense that he was an opponent of their war (enough to get even the most innocent lumbered with the name, or worse, a summary death sentence in those paranoid times).

    Malachi also recalls an account Fitt made in the House of Lords of pulling victims out of the rubble, in one case with the body of the victim coming apart in his hands.

    Maybe he was just making that up too John? Somehow, given that he was speaking in the public domain, I doubt it.

    Now to that other blog…

  • Comrade Stalin

    If this article had been reporting a discussion between the British and Gerry Adams, the discussion would not be of a snake in the grass, but one of an evil British imperial conspiracy concocted by the securocrats to destroy Sinn Féin and bring down the peace process.

    Reggie Maudling at one point talks of his opinion of Fitt’s idea of pinning the blame. In another part of the document Maudling records that Fitt believes that the IRA were responsible. These two suggestions are not consistent. Fitt may well have believed the IRA were responsible for the crime, being of the disposition that he was in terms of trusting the UK government to some extent at the time.

  • cynic2

    “London has sufficient resources to bribe as many Irish politicians as it wants.”

    Oh do get with the programme. London wants out

  • Mick Fealty

    Wouldn’t ‘pinning the blame’ have perhaps ‘required’ getting something like ‘evidence’?

  • Dec

    Presumably Gerry still believed the IRA blew up Silent Valley and the Kilmore pylon too. Those rushing to Fitt’s defence here might wish to ponder his assertion that internment was a financial godsend to hard-up nationalists

  • Mick Fealty

    You saying he *did* know at that point Dec?

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – I think you are guilty here of burying Fitt when trying to praise him. The idea that it was ‘widely believed’ that IRA planted the bomb doesn’t really do much justice to what actually happened. The next day the press reported the exact circumstances, with corroborating evidence and the actual statement from the Empire Loyalists that they had planted the bomb. Most nationalists/Catholics and I’m sure many others knew the truth alright.

    The lie about who had planted the bomb was a deliberate disinformation campaign by the RUC, Unionist regime in Stormont, British Army and British government to mislead the public as to who had planted the bomb, implicate innocent people inside the bar in their own deaths and assist those that planted the bomb by failing to investigate or pursue them for the act. At no point was there a ‘wide belief’ about who planted the bomb, there were merely people who had been fed a deliberate lie – an important distinction to make since it was no passive belief, it was a deliberately cultivated one.

    Fitt’s intimacy with the circumstances of the explosion, his attendance at the funerals and the fact that he was from the New Lodge and had access to a wide network in the area all merely compound the cynicism of what he did. That he managed to convince Maudling that he believed the IRA planted the bomb amplifies Fitt’s failings even further. Did he just blandly dismiss what he must have heard from his constituents and neighbours in favour of propaganda? Or was he so in need of affirmation from those in authority, be it at Stormont or in the NIO, that he could convince himself to endorse lies that, at some level, he surely knew were just that, lies?

    For the record, that Keena piece provides no context here – it is written solely in the now and concerns SF post-elections and still apparently rising in opinions polls. His apparent grasp of the circumstances around the Civil Rights movement is, to put it mildly, weak.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’d buy the cynicism line, if you could prove it John. How did he manage to ‘convince’ Maudling? Black magic? :-)

    Remember the Provos were doing most of the bombing at this time, the story stuck for ages, because it seemed the more plausible explanation.

    If Maudling knew different, the Memo doesnt record him putting Fitt straight on the matter.

    Fitt hated the Provos having a particular loathing for their bombing campaign: you can check Hansard in both the Commons and the Lords? I’m sure that pulling people out of the rubble at McGurks did little to take the edge off that hatred.

    Keena demonstrates there was two offshoots from the Civil Rights movement: those like Fitt who wanted reform of the NI State, and those who were a priori committed to violent nationalist revolution.

    Distinct, separate and rivals. That is all.

  • aquifer

    Fitt was a socialist who hated the Provos, believing them to be a murderous sectarian gang and a colossal waste of time and political space. History is still sharpening its pencil on that one.

    Did he genuinely believe at one point the the Provos did the bomb, as suggested here, or did he just blame the Provos for displacing peaceful and successful protest with violence, pulling any sort of dirty trick against them he could?

    With the treatment he and his family received from militant Irish separatists, that could be viewed as human.

    Another possibility is that the Brits duped him about who did the bomb.

    God help Eoghan Harris’s reputation when he croaks. But if he exists I expect he will.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick, how do you explain Fitt being in such proximity to events at McGurks and managing to not know the truth of what happened?

    The tenor of his comments about internment as a financial godsend is pitiful, embarrassing and very revealing of how Fitt talked about the community he came from.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I have a similar NIO document that puts Gerry Kelly as a psychiatric patient with psychotic rage syndrome, it’s totally fictional of course.

  • gendjinn

    Mick,

    If the document cited is credible then John’s logic is irrefutable. The only way Fitt could have believed the IRA was behind McGurks is if he participated in deluding himself. He was a very smart man and there is no way for him to be in the position he was, in the place he was, at funerals, personally knowing some of the families not to know that this was black propaganda.

    He knew, he willingly participated in the lie because it would advance his agenda of getting the SDLP into talks.

    One way to gain confidence in the document would be to review other documents by the same author around the same time and see how accurate they are.

    At the end of the day he ended up in the house of lords, so he did some service for the crown. You get knighhoods for the good deeds :)

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    “However, even the most honest politician in the world would have difficulty balancing the wishes of his constituents in West Belfast and the sort of solution the Palace of Westminster would like to impose.”

    @Paddy,

    This is a problem common to politicians representing separatist populations around the world: among the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria; among the Naxalites in India, the Baluchis in Pakistan, etc.

  • Mick Fealty

    John,

    The Provos knew they didn’t do it, so did the UVF. Even Ciaran says Fitt believed they did. I thought they did for years. So did most people outside the area. Maybe he should have known, maybe he heard they had denied it but didn’t believe them (these were the first fatalities by loyalist bombing of 1971, and it was December).

    For an outside observer, what you need (in lieu of evidence) is the belief he was acting cynically..

  • John Ó Néill

    Now Mick, all that shows is you are susceptible to propaganda. :-)

    There is nothing redeeming for Fitt here and I’m pretty sure Ciarán believes Fitt knew it was a lie too.

  • Mick Fealty

    Or resistant… ;-)

  • Comrade Stalin

    The lie about who had planted the bomb was a deliberate disinformation campaign by the RUC, Unionist regime in Stormont, British Army and British government to mislead the public as to who had planted the bomb, implicate innocent people inside the bar in their own deaths and assist those that planted the bomb by failing to investigate or pursue them for the act

    Yes, we now know this is the case.

    But to suggest that this conspiracy was known to Fitt and that he was a willing participant in it, a mere three weeks after the attack, is a a conjecture on your part for which you simply have no supporting evidence. The implication that the British Army and the UK government actively recruited Fitt to participate in their propaganda campaigns – again an implication made by you and others in the complete absence of evidence – is a particularly slimy piece of work.

    Fitt absolutely hated the Provos and in that sense he reflected the views of a likely majority of people, including my long-since-passed grandparents who lived in the New Lodge at that time. It is possible that this may have coloured his judgement to the extent that he believed they were responsible for the attack in the absence of any evidence. It is also possible that Fitt was too ready to believe the version of events the British were circulating.

    But while Fitt could legitimately be accused of bad judgement, it is a leap of logic to jump from there to the conclusion that Fitt knew that the IRA were not involved and conspired with the British to deny justice to the victims, which is what you’re doing. You have absolutely no evidence to support this claim and yet you are suggesting that there is irrefutable evidence in support of this. The circumstantial evidence that you do cite are British government ministers who republicans would in any other scenario regard as being completely untrustworthy.

    I>Republicans in the Dock Ward who were contemporaries of Fitt used to claim, based on what they knew of him, that they would vote unionist before they would vote for Fitt

    Of course, the problem was that too many people voted for Fitt. In the end the Provos dealt with the problem the only way they knew how at the time – by burning him out of his house.

  • PaddyReilly

    In the end the Provos dealt with the problem the only way they knew how at the time – by burning him out of his house.

    No, in the end (1983) the electorate of West Belfast disposed of the problem by assigning more votes to Gerry Adams than Fitt. He was not a martyr: he was a person with no skills for politics. He had suffered uninvited visitors in 1976 but he saw them off at the point of a gun: his house was not damaged.

    His political career as an M.P. ran from 1966 to 1983. It now seems that by 1971 he had decided he was working for Westminster, not the people of West Belfast.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, that’s quite true Paddy, though according to Fitt at the time they had been trying to get him out of there since 1972 (he suggested because of his stance on internment).

    They only managed to burn him out once he’d left it vacant for the sake of his wife’s health after Gerry A took the seat off him in 1983.

    I guess they were taking no chances that he might stay in (or anywhere near) the constituency to try to get his seat back…

  • fordprefect

    To me, Fitt was always a scumbag. I remember McGurk’s happening and everyone around me being shocked. I was only a sprog at the time, but I remember people being in despair and asking could it get any worse? I also remember that an IRA man got shot dead (by accident) in the Markets area of Belfast. McGurk’s happened on the 4th Dec and Tony Nolan was killed (accidentally) by a comrade on the 8th Dec. The Brits then put it about on the media that Tony Nolan was “executed” by the IRA for leaving the bomb in McGurk’s, when everyone and their granny knew that Unionist Paramilitaries had did it.

  • cynic2

    To me, Fitt was always a scumbag.

    |I can understand why. He was a genuine socialist who was far more interested in making life better for working people than what fleg they wrapped themselves in

    Thats why PIRA hated him so much. They were posing as socialists at the time and he was a threat. And after all he talked to Prods too – we could have that

  • David Crookes

    In general GF was resolute and consistent in condemning violence. Ian Paisley praised him in Westminster on account of this fact. I’d beware of sitting in a safe armchair in a nice neighbourhood and judging GF in respect of a single presumption. His life was often dangerous and unpleasant.

    No one had a clue during the Troubles how things would ultimately pan out. Many politicians who put on a brave face in public were often smitten with despair. No serious historian can afford to work without compassion.

    I sometimes feel like declaring this fact whenever I hear Wilson and Heath denounced as representing the nadir of British national fortunes. The Cold War was serious business, the country was pretty well bust, and the unions had an absurd amount of power. I know some people like Corelli Barnett thought it would have been great if all British politicians had been as smart as Corelli Barnett, but when I look back now I reckon that Wilson and Heath played pretty well with a horrendous hand of cards.

    A simple caricature which focuses on a single fault is rarely helpful to the historian. I mean to say, there was far more to Aneurin Bevan than the ‘lower-than-vermin’ line. In the present case I’m not even sure if a fault can be laid for certain at the door of GF.

  • fordprefect

    Cynic 2,
    Are you for real? A “socialist”? Yeah, a “socialist” who went on to accept a “Lordship”. Never mind about the “PIRA” how do you think ordinary C/N/R’s felt when they read what he had done about McGurk’s? I know quite a lot of people who haven’t got a Republican bone in their body and they are absolutely fuming about this.
    David Crookes,
    Yeah, that’s a great commendation for someone, being praised by Ian Paisley! You see, I don’t mind people who condemn ALL violence but you’ll find that Fitt (like Paisley) only condemned violence when it was politically expedient.

  • Comrade Stalin

    cynic2,

    The other reason they hated Fitt because he was friends with influential people in the Labour Party and had a rather more enlightened view of the RUC, all of which was at odds with how the Provos saw things.

    fordprefect

    I know quite a lot of people who haven’t got a Republican bone in their body and they are absolutely fuming about this.

    How can you be fuming about the privately held opinions of a dead man who lost his seat 30 years ago ? Why would they be fuming if they all knew he was a rat anyway ?

    You see, I don’t mind people who condemn ALL violence but you’ll find that Fitt (like Paisley) only condemned violence when it was politically expedient.

    On what occasions did Fitt fail to condemn violence for reasons of political expediency ?

  • fordprefect

    CS,
    “How can you be fuming about the privately held opinions of a dead man who lost his seat 30 years ago ? Why would they be fuming if they all knew he was a rat anyway” ? Because people always suspected that he was a rat and now it’s out in the open that he was even worse than what they thought. Also, how can they be privately held opinions when he suggested to the Brits to blame the IRA on McGurk’s? He knew as well as anyone else at the time that Unionist Paramilitaries did it.
    “On what occasions did Fitt fail to condemn violence for reasons of political expediency” ? Usually when the British army and/or RUC was behind it.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Because people always suspected that he was a rat and now it’s out in the open that he was even worse than what they thought.

    I doubt there is anyone who has changed their mind about Fitt over this.

    Also, how can they be privately held opinions

    He was speaking in confidence to a government minister, not in public.

    when he suggested to the Brits to blame the IRA on McGurk’s?

    It’s mischievous to imply that he did so. He told them his opinion that he thought they were responsible.

    He knew as well as anyone else at the time that Unionist Paramilitaries did it.

    What’s your evidence for this ?

    “On what occasions did Fitt fail to condemn violence for reasons of political expediency” ? Usually when the British army and/or RUC was behind it.

    How could it have been politically expedient for Fitt to fail to condemn state violence directed against his own constituents ? I’m sure you can provide examples.