THE Pat Finucane Centre last week published a previously secret Army report from September 1971 about its operation to take control of the streets in west Belfast. According to the report – written by the British Army Commander of Land Forces, General Robert Ford, for the attention of the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Michael Carver – four soldiers died in the ‘successful’ operation and 10 people were killed, although only two were in the IRA, republicans say. The Andytown News covered the document in some detail from a Belfast perspective, noting that the Army was preparing for direct rule nine months before its introduction, the military’s desire to station a full battalion of troops specifically in Andersonstown to counter dangerous levels of IRA activity and the need for ‘in-depth’ interrogation to obtain information (as there was little coming from informers at the time). What is perhaps as interesting, particularly following the weekend riot in Derry, is how the military viewed the city’s ‘no-go’ areas as a future target for decisive force – just months before Bloody Sunday.After the Belfast operation, the Army reported decreasing levels of violence, ‘but in Derry the situation was very different. The inherent hatred of the Catholic population and the arrogance of the hooligans produced a steady deterioration in the situation. The credibility of the Army and the whole system of law enforcement and government was being challenged. There was an urgent need to demoralise the hooligans and reassert the full range of military and police activities throughout the city.’
The Army admits it was overstretched, and waited until the Belfast operation was over before deciding to tackle Derry (the report doesn’t refer to ‘Londonderry’). The Army’s analysis at this point in time is interesting, as it gives an insight into how the military mindset regarded Derry as a completely different situation from Belfast. The Army decided to set a trap.
‘Accordingly, as soon as the forces became available after the Belfast battle, we mounted an operation with three battalions. As you well know, Derry is a very different problem from Belfast, and I felt that it was not practical, even with this force, to remove all the barricades and prevent the population of the Creggan and Bogside to from re-erecting them. This would have demanded a strong military presence for the long term, possibly as much as five battalions tied to the ground for some weeks or even months. We therefore decided that the aim of the operation should be to demoralise a large proportion of the hooligan element, if possibly by ensnaring them into a trap and arresting a good number of them, whilst at the same time removing barricades. We hoped that if the hooligans were really sorted out and whilst the memory of Belfast was still fresh, there was a chance that the local population would be prepared to at least allow the situation to return to thte status quo we had up to the shootings in early July. We knew that the IRA backing was minimal – half a dozen gunmen.
‘Unfortuantely, despite our precautions, the hooligans were deterred from venturing out – possibly because they realised our strength despite our efforts to conceal it. We were very successful in the early stages of the operation in sorting out the IRA gunmen – we killed one and wounded at least two more. But it now became clear that the hooligans intended to devote their efforts to re-erecting barricades as soon as we moved on. The GOC (General Officer Commanding) therefore decided to attempt to take the barricades down themselves. For this purpose he met what has become know as ‘The Committee of 30′ and on 20th August it was agreed to give them 30 days in which they would try to persuade the population to do this.’
Towards the end of the report, the author returns to consider Derry, ‘because our course of action there could affect our force level requirements’.
‘The time decided upon to allow the ‘Committee of 30’ to influence the population of the Creggan and Bogside to pull down the barricades will run out during the third week in September. Present indications are that there is little hope of this committee achieving any real influence over the population in these two areas. If they do not pull the barricades down, we must decide what we are going to do and, incidentally, there are indications of a considerable IRA/Blaney build up. If this goes on and they launch a bomb ofensive into the city and the Protestant areas, we shall have to go into the Bogside and get them. As long as our intelligence is good, this should be practical. the consequences of this are likely to be that the hooligans will launch out and we shall therefore have to take them on once again. The net result wil probably be a fairly major operation into the Creggan and Bogside. We shall be unable to prevent them putting barricades up again but we could certainly patrol through both the Creggan and Bogside so that they will be in no way ‘no-go’ areas.’
The author continues:
‘But if the IRA do not launch an offensive we shall be faced towards the end of this month with the alternatives of either leaving these two areas as they are, or launching an operation to remove the obstacles and restart patrolling. We cannot leave a military presence inside these areas other than at Blighs Lane because any presence is to be a hostage to fortune it would have to be of such strength that the existing force levels of the Province could not sustain it. At the moment there seems little doubt that we shall have to consider mounting some form of operation there at the end of the month, having judged very carefully the reaction in the rest of the Province by so doing and the overall political implications.’
The report also identifies ‘the three main lessons of the period up to this time’. The first was PR, and while the Army recognises it was on the back foot, it saw the importance of propaganda:
‘There was and is an urgent need for someone at Lisburn (Army HQ) level to hit back, plan and coordinate all our propaganda and psyops activities – overt, covert, defensive and offensive. I am glad that this requirement will be shortly filled.’
Secondly, the Commander for Land Forces saw the need for improved civil liaison, as commanders had ‘little time’ to simultaneously direct operations and liaise with civil leaders. He proposed a ‘proper civil adviser’ who ‘should be from the UK’. He added that ‘a Whitehall man rather than a Stormont one will not only be more likely to be successful but would also be invaluable in the event of direct rule when he might become a proper “Civil Commissioner”.’
Finally, the author suggested re-evaluating ‘force levels which have been agreed in our contingency plans for direct rule’ – Stormont was prorogued the following Spring, and while there were 17,000 soldiers available for duty at the start of 1972, there were 29,000 by the end of it.
The Army author did not seem particularly impressed by the RUC, which was putting pressure on his resources in its demand for military protection for police stations. The Army saw the increase in applications to the UDR as a means to alleviate resource pressures while providing a visible, locally-based military presence to provide rapid response to events, vehicle checkpoints and so on. While recognising that the vast bulk of recruits would be Protestant, the Army seems to have believed the UDR would be able to ‘retain its non-sectarian identity’.
The regiment’s later disbandment and other later Army documents stating the military’s own belief that the UDR was widely infiltrated by loyalist paramilitaries and involved in the supply of weapons to them suggests the opposite.
The report concludes that, if the Army can make the changes the author recommends, ‘I am sure we can contain [the word is underlined in the report] the IRA threat in the forseeable future’.
‘Of course the real question which is posed at this time is – is containment over the next few weeks and possibly months going to be enough?’
What the report indicates is that, five months before Bloody Sunday, the Army considered Derry ‘a place apart’, one that would require decisive and brutal military action. Indeed, in December, the author wrote another document “Future Military Policy for Londonderry”, which stated:
“Apart from gunmen or bombers, so called unarmed rioters, possibly teenagers, are certain to be shot in the initial phases. Much will be made of the invasion of Derry and of the slaughter of the innocent.”
He added (also in December): “I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry Young Hooligans. In other words, we would be reverting to the methods of IS [internal security] found successful on many occasions overseas.”
The bloodbath that ensued was subsequently regarded as a failure. Militarily, Operation Motorman succeeded in clearing all no-go areas, but the civilian slaughter helped increase resentment against the Army’s presence in Northern Ireland, both at home and abroad, created sympathy for republicanism, and probably help prolong and exacerbate the Troubles. Its effects, in the form of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, are still felt today. The document is revealing and can now be seen in its historical context as the Army’s statement of intent regarding Derry.