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'The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland' by Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth (2000)

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Text: Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh
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The following chapter has been contributed by the authors, Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth, with the permission of the publisher, Pluto Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:

Policing Northern Ireland
by Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth (2000)
ISBN 0-7453-1393-0 (Paperback) 318pp £14.99
Cover photograph: Joanne O'Brien/Format

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This publication is copyright Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth (2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Pluto Press and the authors. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:


The Crowned Harp provides a detailed analysis of policing in Northern Ireland. Tracing the history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Ellison and Smyth portray an organisation burdened by its past as a colonial police force. They analyse its perceived close relationship with unionism and why, for many nationalists, the RUC embodied the problem of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. Ellison and Smyth argue that decisions made on the organisation, composition and ideology of policing in the early years of the State have had consequences beyond the everyday practice of policing.

Ellison and Smyth provide an extended discussion of policing after the outbreak of civil unrest in 1969. They ask why policing was cast in a paramilitary mould, and look at the use of special constabularies and the way in which the police dealt with social unrest which threatened to break down sectarian divisions. Examining the reorganisations of the RUC in the 1970s and 1 1980s, the authors focus on the various structural, legal and ideological components, the professionalisation of the force and the development of a coherent, if contradictory, ideology. The analysis of the RUC during this period sheds valuable new light on the problematic nature of using the police as a counter insurgency force in a divided society.

Examining perceptions of the police in Northern Ireland, the opinions of rank-and-file members, and the various alternative models of policing such as community policing and local control this book offers important lessons about the nature of policing in divided societies.

Graham Ellison is a lecturer in the Department of Criminology at Keele University. Jim Smyth is a lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Queen’s University, Belfast.






1. Policing Nineteenth-century Ireland


2. Policing After Partition: Constructing the Security Apparatus


3. Policing Under Stormont


4. The Impact of Civil Rights on Policing


5. Criminalisation and Normalisation: The Counter-Insurgency Solution


6. Legitimacy, Counter-Insurgency and Policing: The Legacy of the 1970s


7. Shooting to Kill?


8. Collusion and Death Squads


9. Symbolism, Surveys and Police Legitimacy


10. Epilogue: The Patten Report on the RUC








6 Legitimacy, Counter-Insurgency and Policing: The Legacy of the 1970s

Criminalisation, Interrogation and the Bennett Report

In December 1977, the Irish police seized an IRA document during a house search in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin; the document outlined the organisation’s concern with the success of the RUC and British Army in arresting and convicting volunteers and in disrupting operations. The document, which outlined measures to counter security forces’ successes, was frank in admitting serious weaknesses in the structure and organisation of the IRA:

The three-day and seven-day detention orders are breaking volunteers, and it is the Republican Army’s fault for not indoctrinating volunteers with the psychological strength to resist interrogation. Coupled with this factor, which is contributing to our defeat, we are burdened with an inefficient structure of commands, brigades, battalions and companies. This old system with which Brits and Branch are familiar has to be changed. (Taylor, 1980, pp. 345-7)

The counter-insurgency measures put in place between 1974 and 1976 had, by the following year, begun to have a severe effect on the operational capabilities of the Provisionals. During 1996, over 2,000 suspects, the majority charged with IRA-related incidents, were convicted through the non-jury Diplock courts. Most of those arrested confessed within two days (it was said that if a suspect could resist the RUC interrogators for two days, the next five days of the detention period could be managed without breaking), and were swiftly convicted on the basis of their confession. Such confessions were often used to implicate others, who were then interrogated leading to an almost assembly-line process of arrest, interrogation, confession and conviction. Arrests were generally made on the basis of intelligence gathered through undercover operations or the use of informers. Both the British Army and the RUC were involved in these types of operation with the Army concentrating on covert operations and the RUC Special Branch focusing on the use of informers. According to one source, by 1980, there were some 300 specially-trained British Army surveillance operators, supplemented by another hundred from the RUC (Urban, 1992, p. 47). The military structure of the IRA was traditionally modelled on the British Army pattern of brigade, battalion and companies and members were invariably recruited from specific geographic areas which made it extremely vulnerable to the intelligence-gathering operations of the security forces. The main advantage of the traditional military structure - that it gave the IRA a high profile in nationalist areas ensuring credibility through visibility - was now transformed into a fatal weakness. The RUC and British Army used their successes to undermine the morale of suspects. Clearly and visibly placed in security forces’ installations, ready to greet a suspect dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night, were charts of the local IRA organisation with photographs of the members, or suspected members, of the unit. The photos of those already imprisoned were crossed out in heavy black ink.

The security establishment seemed convinced that the war was almost won. The Secretary of State, Roy Mason, who had little time for political initiatives, was backed up by a team of military and RUC commanders (Chief Constable Newman and Assistant Chief Constable Hermon) who favoured an aggressive security response to the problems of Northern Ireland. Mason was fond of soundbites, and comments such as we are squeezing the terrorists like a tube of toothpaste’, or that 1977 was the year that the ‘noose tightens on the terrorist’, are indicative of the extent to which the authorities thought that the ‘war’ had been won. Newman, too, was convinced by August 1977, that they had the ‘terrorists on the run’. However, by December of that year, Mason was being a little more cautious, talking only of ‘considerable progress’ having been made.

The IRA document mentioned above had pinpointed the weaknesses of the IRA, and also proposed solutions. The unwieldy military structure was to be replaced by a cell structure, ‘we must gear ourselves toward long-term armed struggle based upon putting unknown men and new recruits into a new structure. The new structure shall be a cell system’ (Taylor, 1980, p. 346). In addition, and equally important for the IRA, was the introduction of training in anti-interrogation techniques. The reorganisation of the IRA had both political and military implications, with the latter defining the former. It was essentially a defensive move based upon the awareness that the British Army could not be defeated militarily and that Britain could not be forced to withdraw from Ireland by the combined efforts of the IRA and a popular mass movement. In effect, the reorganisation was a de facto recognition of the success of the new security tactics in bringing the IRA to the verge of defeat. The new political reality, flagged up in the reorganisation document, was publicly articulated during a speech in June 1977 at the Bodenstown commemoration, an annual occasion (ostensibly to honour the memory of Wolfe Tone), which has been traditionally used by the republican movement to signal changes in policy and tactics. A new strategy of the ‘long war’ was put forward: instead of following the textbook model of guerrilla warfare, the IRA was to reverse the process to achieve the same ends. The size of the military membership was to decrease, command was to be decentralised, and preparations were to be made for a long, slow war of attrition. It has been estimated that the number of active IRA operatives decreased from about a thousand in 1975 to less than 250 a decade later (Bishop and Mallie, 1987, p. 264). In addition, Sinn Féin was to become the propaganda and political arm of the IRA. The reorganisation was successful in stemming the successes of the security forces. The introduction of the cell system led to a decrease in arrests and convictions, and although operations were curtailed, those that were carried out were more carefully planned and more economically damaging. In addition, the IRA had effectively rearmed with modern weapons and improved their bomb-making capabilities by 1978. However, despite the increased efficiency of IRA operations, it is doubtful if the bombing campaign in the North had any significant economic impact other than to prepare the city centre for the wave of property development which took place from the 1980s onwards. The decision to launch a bombing campaign in England may well have followed from this realisation.

However, it was not the military dimension of the conflict that was to dominate the scene after 1978, but rather political questions concerning the direction and execution of security policy and, in particular, the role of the RUC in the latter. The successes of the security forces prior to 1978 were based upon a number of interlocking factors: the inefficiency of the IRA as a organisation, the success of the Diplock system, the use of undercover units, the suppression of dissent in nationalist areas, and the ideological erosion of the nationalist domination of the propaganda war through the rhetoric of terrorism and the policy of normalisation. The role of the RUC had become central to this effort. Special Branch interrogation units ensured the flow of confessions to the Diplock courts, the liberal use of plastic bullets and riot squads in nationalist areas suppressed overt expressions of dissent, and special police units were taking their place alongside the SAS and other British Army undercover squads.

It is quite clear, both from the public statements of senior RUC officers, and the findings of any number of commentators, that the RUC enthusiastically embraced its counter-insurgency role, and indeed fought numerous turf battles with the British Army to achieve primacy in counter-insurgency operations. Yet the optimistic scenario of a quick victory over the IRA began to unravel almost as rapidly as the republican hope that ‘one more push’ would drive the British out of Ireland. From the end of 1977 onwards, the tactics involved in the policy of criminalisation came under increasing scrutiny and criticism from groups other than the IRA and Sinn Féin.

Allegations about the mistreatment of suspects under interrogation by the RUC Special Branch gathered momentum during 1977. The allegations, which were originally confined to Sinn Féin and other republican groups and well known to local lawyers dealing with Diplock cases, began to gain support from the SDLP, some Catholic priests and a few Westminster MPs. The RUC and the Northern Ireland Office emphatically denied that any ill-treatment had taken place. The Chief Constable suggested that the injuries were self-inflicted with, for example, the plastic knives and forks supplied to prisoners. It was not until the screening of a television programme about the allegations of ill-treatment in October, followed by statements by members of the medical and legal professions, followed by the Churches and a damning investigation by Amnesty International in 1978 that the state began to show signs of embarrassment. The Amnesty Report was blunt: ‘Maltreatment of suspected terrorists by the RUC has taken place with sufficient frequency to warrant the establishment of a public inquiry into interrogations’ (cited in Taylor, 1980, p. 286).

In June 1978 a limited inquiry under Judge Bennett was set up with restricted terms of reference which excluded any investigation of allegations of brutality. The terms of reference were to investigate ‘police procedures and practice relating to interrogation rather than to look at the question of ill-treatment. In March 1979, nine months after the Bennett Report had been commissioned, two police doctors felt constrained to speak out publicly and confirm that suspects had been ill-treated while in custody. Within days of the appearance of one doctor on LWT’s Weekend World, the Bennett Report was published and, although hampered by its terms of reference, the report made clear that evidence of ill-treatment was overwhelming.

The Chief Constable and the Secretary of State refused to admit that ill-treatment had occurred, the latter being somewhat economical with the truth when responding to questions in the House of Commons: ‘The Bennett report has not said that ill-treatment has taken place.’ Since MPs had been given no time to study the report before the debate, they were not in a position to ask the Secretary of State how he reconciled his statement with Paragraph 163 of the report: ‘There can, however, whatever the precise explanation, be no doubt that the injuries in this last class were not self-inflicted and were sustained during the period of detention at a police office’ (Taylor, 1980, p. 324).

The system of interrogation was a crucial link in the chain between the initial identification of suspects and the extraction of a confession, and conviction in a Diplock court. The first link was managed by Special Branch and military intelligence on the basis of information from covert surveillance and informers and the second was totally in the hands of the RUC. According to Peter Taylor, one of the doctors who had spoken out, Dr Elliott, in his letter of resignation to the Chief Constable, said: ‘... he had been driven to two conclusions: results were expected and were to be obtained even if a certain degree of ill-treatment were necessary, and that a degree of ill-treatment was condoned at a very high level’ (Taylor, 1980, p. 334).

Dr Elliott seems also to have been convinced that ill-treatment had continued between the publication of the Amnesty Report and the publication of the Bennett Report and this was admitted, with qualification, by the Police Authority (Taylor, 1980, p. 335). Peter Taylor’s own research shows clearly that complaints of ill-treatment decreased during the visit by Amnesty International representatives, but swiftly rose again, to decrease on publication of the report. A further rise ensued, to be followed by a drop on the publication of the Bennett Report. Perhaps those in charge of operational policy imagined that the process of rolling up the IRA would be sufficiently rapid and successful to counter and silence any criticisms that might be made of interrogation procedures. The Bennett Report was essentially an attempt to defuse the questions surrounding detention and interrogation without having to confront the more basic questions inherent in the strategy of depoliticising and delegitimising the aspirations of large numbers of nationalists, whether supporters of the IRA or more moderate constitutional nationalists. Despite the overwhelming evidence of ill-treatment, no police officer was charged with an offence related to the events in the interrogation centres and the Chief Constable probably saw no reason to revise his statement, made when allegations of brutality first began to surface:

In recent months I have found it necessary to issue instructions to the force warning them that they must take precautions to prevent self inflicted injuries by prisoners. There have been incidents of prisoners wounding themselves with eating utensils, a nail, a tin of lemonade or by butting their heads against a wall or smashing a window. (Irish Times, 24 June 1977)

The ill-treatment of suspects during interrogation was only one aspect of RUC tactics designed to defeat the IRA. The emergency legislation used to arrest suspects had effectively become the primary means of policing republican areas. The refusal of Sinn Féin and the IRA to participate in the political process and their policy of not standing for election played into the hands of the state propaganda machine. Central to the policy of normalisation was the contention that the IRA had little support, and only survived by intimidating the Catholic population into silence. This approach gave the RUC, in particular, a basis on which to build its own claims to legitimacy: in the absence of any clear evidence to the contrary, they could maintain that they had considerable support among the Catholic population, but were unable to engage in ‘normal’ policing because of the activities of the terrorists (Mulcahy, 2000).

This left the IRA essentially in a no-win situation. Although they had managed to restrict the damage done to their organisation during 1976-78, their military campaign had been contained and they had no organisation capable of capitalising on the widespread unease created by the British government’s single-minded obsession with a security solution. The levels of popular protest existing during the civil rights campaign were a thing of the past and any attempts at popular protest were swiftly repressed by the RUC. The northern leadership of the IRA was acutely aware of the problem of translating the war with the security forces into political capital. The IRA ‘Staff Report’, which fell into the hands of the Irish police, outlined a more active role for Sinn Féin:

Sinn Féin should come under Army organisers at all levels ... Sinn Féin should be radicalised (under Army direction) and should agitate about social and economic issues which attack the welfare of the people. Sinn Féin should be directed to infiltrate other organisations to win support for, and sympathy for, the movement. Sinn Féin should be re-educated and have a big role to play in publicity and propaganda departments, complaints and problems (making no room for RUC opportunism). (Taylor, 1980, p. 347)

Although short on detail, there is a clear acknowledgement here that the ‘securocrats’ were winning the propaganda battle, and that a political dimension to the struggle would have to be developed particularly with regard to attempts by the RUC to present an image of ‘normal’ policing. Those living in middle-class areas, and towns and villages not affected by the conflict, were presented with a police force that was polite, reasonably efficient and careful to present an image of an organisation that was making every effort to restore normality, even in the midst of a murderous IRA campaign.

The picture in many nationalist areas was radically different and the reality of policing far from ‘normal’. The exigencies of the political situation and the use of emergency legislation replaced any pretence at normal policing and anyone living in a republican area was a likely target for police attention. In a twelve-month period during 1977-78, 2,800 people were arrested under the three-day detention powers, of which 35 per cent were subsequently charged, usually on the basis of confessions extracted during interrogation. Of those arrested under all the various pieces of emergency legislation - four-hour, three-day or seven-day detention - 90 per cent were released without charge. Anyone, whether a resident or not, found frequenting bars, clubs, or even visiting friends in republican areas was automatically suspect and likely to attract the attention of the security forces. (Boyle and Hadden, 1980; Walsh, 1983; Scorer and Hewitt, 1981). Effectively, emergency powers were used to impose blanket policing in republican areas. The usual police practices for gathering intelligence, information and evidence were replaced by the use of emergency powers of arrest, detention and interrogation to gather information. Incidents of normal crime were dealt with in this fashion: 40 per cent of those charged before Diplock courts were charged with ‘ordinary’, that is, non-terrorist related, crimes. The evidence against most of those charged (75 per cent) was based upon confessions made during interrogation, many of which would not have been admissible under common law (Greer and White, 1986).

The attitude of the RUC was to treat all Catholics as potential IRA supporters, until they could prove otherwise. Such markers as address, occupation, dress, age, gender and general demeanour were used by officers on the ground to make decisions which could lead to the immediate arrest and detention of anyone, particularly young males, who might have aroused the slightest suspicions in the mind of the police officer. Such police practices were rendered invisible by a generally compliant media and the constant barrage of state propaganda (Curtis, 1984).

Policing the Hunger Strikes

However, events were to overtake the hesitant steps of the republican movement towards developing a more political stance, and were simultaneously to undermine a central tenet of the normalisation strategy: namely, that the IRA enjoyed no significant support. The hunger strikes by republican prisoners in 1979-80 had the unintentional effect of changing the political landscape (Guelke and Smyth, 1992; Smyth, 1988).

The decision of republican prisoners to embark upon a hunger strike had its roots in the abolition of special category status for prisoners in 1975. Those convicted of an offence committed after March 1976 were to be treated as ‘ordinary criminals’ with no special privileges and committed to a cellular regime. This was an essential element in the policy of criminalisation, since it denied convicted members of illegal organisations any claim to political legitimacy through special concessions - such as rights of association, right to wear their own clothes, etc. - because of the political nature of their offences. Although this decision struck at the heart of republican ideology, and the perception of being engaged in a legitimate armed struggle, reaction to the prisoners’ decision to refuse to accept the new regime was slow. The first prisoner to reject the new regime, by refusing to wear prison issue clothing, did so in September 1976. Three hundred others, imprisoned in cells less than three metres square and clad only in blankets soon joined him.

The republican movement was hesitant in offering significant support to the prison protest. The IRA leadership saw the protest as a distraction from the armed struggle, and feared that any attempt to mobilise mass protest would fail, thus further demoralising their supporters. Their response to the protest was to kill prison officers: 18 died at the hands of the IRA between 1976 and 1980. In the meantime, conditions in the prison worsened significantly. Attempts by the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Ó Fiaich, to mediate with the British authorities came to nothing. After a visit to the prison in August 1978, Ó Fiaich described the conditions he had seen in the following terms:

One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of people living in the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench of filth in some of the cells with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls was almost unbearable. (Irish Times, 2 August 1978)

In the following year, relatives of protesting prisoners formed themselves into the Relatives Action Committee (RAC), which led to the calling of a conference against repression in Coalisland attended by a large number of people from fringe political groups. An attempt by the Provisionals to take over the meeting was frustrated, which led to their refusal to take part in any broad-based campaign of protest. As one commentator put it: ‘The prevailing militarism and authoritarianism of Republicans does not predispose them to collaborating on a basis of equality with those who are not under their discipline, much less those who do not share their views’ (Magill, April 1981).

It became clear that the Provisionals had seriously underestimated the support for an anti-repression agenda when one of the leaders of the RAC, Bernadette McAliskey, stood for election to the European Parliament on an anti-repression platform, and got over 30,000 votes, despite the determined opposition of the Provisionals. The decision of the prisoners to embark upon a hunger strike in response to the refusal to meet their demands in October 1980 came from within the prison, and was opposed by an unlikely alliance of the Provisionals, the Catholic Church, political parties north and south and many family members of the prisoners. Once the strike got under way, it tapped a huge reservoir of support across the island. Demonstrations in support of the prisoners were the largest ever seen since the civil rights demonstrations of a decade earlier. There were numerous marches and demonstrations throughout the country, most of which went unreported in the press. The larger marches, in Belfast and Derry attracted many thousands of protesters, moving one seasoned commentator on the Irish scene to write:

Many of the demonstrators are painfully poor ... a lot of women with strained tired faces, dressed in thin clothes against the biting wind and rain. Many of them walk with young children or stand silently watching on the pavements, putting coins and notes into collection boxes that pass by. For the past decade they have borne the brunt of the suffering, the violence, and in recent months the economic cuts in some of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom. (Mary Holland, New Statesman, 5 December 1980)

The first hunger strike ended in confusion in December, with little or no progress having been made by the prisoners in pursuit of their demands. The position of the British government on the question of political status was unyielding, and a second hunger strike began on 1 March 1981. The sudden end to the first strike might possibly have opened the way to changes in the prison regime, without loss of face, but instead there is evidence that a harsher regime was introduced. A section of the political and security establishment viewed the facing-down of the hunger strikers as a new opportunity to defeat the IRA once and for all (Mary Holland, New Statesman, 5 December 1980), reasoning that a defeat would demoralise both IRA supporters and volunteers, thus opening the way to a final military solution. The Sinn Féin and IRA leadership on the outside shared this view. In a communication to Gerry Adams, the IRA leader in the prison wrote: ‘I know you are strategically opposed to a hunger strike, but you are not morally opposed to it.’ To which Adams replied: ‘Bobby, we are tactically, strategically, physically and morally opposed to a hunger strike’ (Magill, August 1981).

At the height of the hunger strike, some three weeks after the death of Bobby Sands (who had been elected MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone in April) the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, visited Belfast and stated her attitude towards republicanism in general and the hunger strike in particular. In her view, the hunger strike represented the ‘last card’ in the IRA campaign. In spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, she persisted in the belief that there was little support for republicanism among the nationalist population. As she was to argue:

Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death ... In so doing the PIRA have put the Catholic community on the rack. Our heart goes out to those who are finding themselves in an increasingly intolerable position especially perhaps to the parents. Our encouragement goes to the many including the clergy of the Catholic Church who are urging the rejection of the arguments of the extremists. (Irish Times, 28 May 1981)

The situation on the ground was rather different. Support for the prisoners was surprising in its depth and intensity. However, it was still possible to see this support as being of an emotional and transitory nature. Even the massive turnout for Sands’ funeral - over 70,000 according to the Irish Times -could not dent the optimism of the British state. The Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, in a statement made to coincide with the funeral, commented that Sands may not have made the decision to die himself, but rather ‘under the instructions of those who felt it useful to their cause that he should die’ (Irish Times, 8 May 1981).

The hunger strike eventually came to an end at the beginning of October 1981, as a consequence of pressure from the relatives of those remaining on the strike. The British government had won a pyrrhic victory. Although the term ‘political status’ was avoided, the concessions given in the aftermath of the hunger strike came very close to the original five demands of the prisoners. Far more important, however, was the effect of the protest on the political landscape, so long dominated by a single-minded war between the state and the IRA. As the then northern editor of the Irish Times, Ed Moloney, wrote in the wake of the strike:

From the hunger strikes have flowed nor only the deaths inside and outside the prisons, but a regenerated IRA and a growing INLA. There has been friction in Anglo-Irish relations, instability on both sides of the border, increased polarisation, a weakened SDLP, and internationally a changed perception of the problem. The Government’s criminalisation policy has emerged from the experience barely intact. Indeed the growth in support for the Provisionals, electorally or otherwise, which resulted from the 10 deaths has given them a political profile and importance which would have been unimaginable before. (Irish Times, 5 October 1981)

The hunger strikes, and the massive unrest in nationalist areas, tested the doctrine of police primacy. The RUC, for the first time since 1969, was now in the front line in confronting unrest across the North, but particularly in Belfast and Derry. The British Army acted as back-up to the police, who set about their public order function with a will.

Some 30,000 plastic bullets were fired during the protests, leading to the death of eight people, three of them children under the age of 15 Jennings, 1988a, p. 135). RUC tactics were brutally effective. Nationalist areas were effectively sealed off - often for days at a time - and police in armoured Land Rovers undertook high-speed patrols through nationalist areas, firing plastic bullets through gun ports at any semblance of trouble. These tactics were successful in containing the rioting and restricting damage, death and injuries to the Catholic ghettos.

This tactical success was far outweighed by the long-term damage done to the policy of criminalisation. The IRA had forged new links with the Catholic community and the mass mobilisation undermined the contention that the organisation had little or no support. The success of hunger-strike candidates in elections convinced Sinn Féin that it could achieve a legitimate mandate on both sides of the border. The role of the RUC during the hunger strikes convinced many Catholics that the force could never change or be trusted: ‘It was an irony of the episode that it began with the Government attempting to impose on the prisoners the status of prisoners and ended with the IRA restoring their credentials among sections of the Catholic community as freedom fighters’ (Bishop and Mallie, 1987, p. 299).

The Consolidation of Police Primacy

The decision to remove the British Army from ultimate control of the counter-insurgency operation in favour of the RUC was ratified by a joint directive signed by the new GOC, General Creasey, and Newman in January 1977. Newman’s task, after his appointment in 1976 was effectively to militarise the RUC. There were a number of reasons behind the policy of police primacy, one of which was concern over the effects on British public opinion of the sight of young soldiers - more often than not, teenagers - being transported home in coffins for military funerals. The fear that the British presence in Northern Ireland would become a domestic political issue was reinforced by concern over the image presented of heavily-armed British troops patrolling the streets and country lanes of the North. This image was one that served to reinforce the republican movement’s interpretation of the conflict as a colonial one, fought out on Britain’s own doorstep. The British government was keen to present the war as one between two internal factions, with Britain playing the role of honest broker, ultimately responsible for preventing the situation in Northern Ireland from descending into bloody civil war. The RUC were presented as a force representing the eternal verities of justice and the rule of law, fighting a battle against terrorism on behalf of the ‘vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland’. The then Secretary of State, Roy Mason put this point of view in his usually trenchant style:

No one who views the situation in Northern Ireland from close at hand, the influence seven years of bloodshed have had on the minds of the young people there, the paramilitary on both sides who would like us to get out so that they can get on with the slaughter, the ingrained nature of the violence and the racketeering associated with it, and, last but not least, the Irish temperament, would give much chance for peace if British soldiers were pulled out. (Workers Research Unit, 1982)

The transition to police primacy was not achieved without considerable friction with the Army hierarchy. From its initial deployment in 1969, the Army had a very low opinion of the abilities and skills of the RUC and suspicion of the political allegiances of some police officers went right to the top of the military establishment. The Chief of the British General Staff in the mid-1970s, Lord Carver, voiced his suspicions in his memoirs:

The Army’s frustration ... led to a gradual and increasing pressure that it should rely less on Special Branch and do more to obtain its own intelligence, a tendency which I was initially reluctant to accept, all experiences in colonial fields having been against this and in favour of total integration of police and military intelligence. However, the inefficiency of the RUC Special Branch, its reluctance to burn its fingers again, and the suspicion, more than once proved, that some of its members had close links with Protestant extremists, led me finally to the conclusion that there was no alternative. (quoted in Urban, 1992, p. 22)

The situation was complicated by Roy Mason’s close relationships with the British Army hierarchy. He had been Secretary of State for Defence and during his tenure had taken a strong interest in the campaign against Marxist guerrillas in Oman (Daily Telegraph, 31 December 1975). Coincidentally, the post of General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland (GCONI) had gone to General Creasey in 1977, who was one of the British Army’s leading counter-insurgency experts and practitioners (Bloch and Fitzgerald, 1983, pp. 141-2). Creasey was a strong advocate of undercover operations against the IRA as a means both of restricting Army casualties and demoralising the movement. Although the RUC had misgivings about the use of British Army undercover units particularly the SAS - the argument that the key to success was the collection and collation of intelligence was hard to counter since, although the Special Branch ran informers, the RUC did not yet have the capacity to mount sophisticated surveillance operations. The nearest thing the RUC had to a specialised anti-terrorist unit was the Special Patrol Group, which was expanded from 100 to 300 officers by Newman. The SPG was given upgraded weaponry and training in riot control and then dispersed in units across the North. The British Army was not happy with the increasingly active role being give to the SPG, as their semi-official historian makes clear:

It [the SPG] operated province wide, was totally autonomous and the Army felt that it was too paramilitary in nature. The Army believed those resources, particularly manpower, should not be committed to a paramilitary organisation when troops were in the province to carry out a similar function, and felt the group should be disbanded. (Barzilay, 1981 p. 12)

British Army undercover units operating in Northern Ireland have gone under a bewildering number of names to cause deliberate confusion and disguise the destination of soldiers transferred to such units. However, the three-tier system of undercover units put in place in 1977 remained the operational model for the next decade or so. A specialised surveillance force, known as 14 Intelligence Company, was set up for the purpose of covert observation from fixed positions or unmarked cars. In addition, close observation platoons were recruited from resident Army battalions in the North to collect basic intelligence information through stop and search powers, house searches, checkpoints, etc. The SAS had the function of setting up operations, particularly ambushes, designed to disrupt the activity of IRA active-service units.

The use of the SAS during 1976-78 was less than successful. In the two years after 1976, the SAS was responsible for the death of three innocent civilians and seven members of the IRA, all of whom died in disputed circumstances (Asmal, 1985; Urban, 1992). The operations involving the death of the civilians were a public relations disaster and may have led to the downturn in SAS operations over the next five years and the emergence of similar specialised RUC units. The experience of SAS-style undercover operations during this period was to bolster the case of the RUC for its own undercover squads, but was also to expose weaknesses in this particular anti-terrorist tactic, weaknesses which were to come back to haunt the RUC in the early 1980s.

The killing by the SAS of three IRA men and an innocent passer-by in Belfast in June 1978 was followed by a particularly inept attempt at media management. The killings had taken place during an ambush on an IRA unit about to bomb a Post Office installation and the initial version of events from the Army press office was that the passer-by, William Hanna, had been killed in crossfire: a few hours later the admission was made that no weapons were found at the scene. Some days later, press reports appeared claiming that a fourth IRA member - who had escaped - had opened fire. At the inquest in 1980 no evidence of the use of weapons, apart from by the SAS, was produced. Army press officers also claimed that the target of the bombers had been under surveillance prior to the attack. This was a mistake that the security forces were to avoid making in the future, as they refined both the tactics of ambush and their news management skills. To admit to foreknowledge of such paramilitary activity is to raise the question of whether the use of force was necessary or whether the suspects could have been apprehended. A month after the Post Office depot incident, the SAS shot dead a Co. Antrim teenager in Dunloy, Co. Antrim. The teenager, John Boyle, had discovered hidden weapons in a disused graveyard and had told his father, who in turn had contacted the RUC. Four SAS men staked out the graveyard and subsequently shot the teenager dead as he returned, out of curiosity, to the cache of weapons he had found.

Coming so soon after the Post Office incident, the shooting of John Boyle was to prove another public relations disaster. Initially, the story was that the soldiers had intercepted three terrorists in the vicinity of the arms dump. When this version collapsed, it was claimed that John Boyle had pointed a loaded Armalite rifle at the soldiers, who then shot him in self-defence. At the subsequent trial of the soldiers, it transpired that the rifle was unloaded and that no warning had been given. As was to become the norm in cases of soldiers charged with murder, they were acquitted.1 In September of the same year, a man out duck-shooting in east Tyrone was shot by the SAS. He had returned from duck-shooting to find the tyres of his car slashed. When he asked a nearby British Army patrol for an explanation, they shot him dead. No prosecutions followed, although it was later admitted that he had been shot in error.

The shooting of an IRA auxiliary, Patrick Duffy, in Derry in November of the same year was to further demonstrate the need - as far as the security forces were concerned - to produce an immediate and credible story. Duffy, a 50-year-old man, was shot in an unoccupied house in Derry that contained an arms cache hidden in a wardrobe. Duffy himself was unarmed. The initial Army story was that Duffy was shot after picking up a gun from the arms dump and turning around to confront soldiers who had hidden themselves in the house. At the inquest it emerged that the SAS unit involved had entered the house before the arms had been hidden. No reason was given why those who had brought the weapons to the house were not apprehended, nor why the house had been staked out in the first place. The autopsy report showed that Duffy had been shot 52 times and the entry wounds were consistent with him being shot while he faced the wardrobe where the guns were stored.

The embarrassment caused by the antics of SAS undercover squads gave the RUC the opportunity to reorganise its own units and become lead agency in this area, thus cementing the reality of police primacy. Criticisms of the Special Patrol Group, which was generally seen as something of a cowboy outfit, led to the establishment of ‘Bronze Section’ within the SPG, combining observation and disruption operations. The unit seems to have been modelled on the MRF (Mobile Reaction Force) introduced by Brigadier Kitson, and enjoyed a similar lack of success. Subsequently, the RUC followed the lead of the British Army and set up separate intelligence-gathering and operational units. These were put under the control of E Department (as the revamped Special Branch was now officially known), which was itself subdivided into five sections. The operations unit is E4, which comprises two sub-units, E4A, which carries out surveillance, and E4B, the operational unit involved in ambushes, etc.

A further element in the transformation of the RUC into a counter-insurgency force was the establishment of Divisional Mobile Support Units (DMSUs). These units receive riot control and special firearms training. In addition, HMSUs (Headquarters Mobile Support Units) were established as a back-up to rural units, with training in ambush techniques and other undercover skills. HMSU members generally operate in plain clothes, under the control of Special Branch. The disbanded Bronze Section was replaced by a secretive and little-known unit called the SSU (Special Support Unit), which was subsequently trained by the SAS and organised on similar lines.

These covert-action teams were to replace the SAS from late 1979 onwards: it was to be five years before the SAS killed again. Between January 1979 and December 1983, eight people were killed by undercover units, six by the RUC and two by an undercover surveillance officer in Derry when confronted by an armed IRA team. It was the questions raised by the shooting of six people by the RUC within a space of three weeks which were once again to raise the spectre of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy and to have long-term consequences for the RUC which have still not played themselves out.

In 1979, those elements within the British military establishment opposed to police primacy made one last effort to return the military to a lead role against the IRA. In the wake of the killing of 18 soldiers at Narrow Water in Co. Down in an IRA ambush on 27 August (on the same day that Lord Mountbatten was killed by another IRA bomb), Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher flew to Northern Ireland for a series of meetings with the RUC and the military. General Creasey and his staff made a concerted effort to reassert control over the security operation by calling for a ‘security supremo’ -presumably a person of military background - to be appointed. Such a move would have effectively removed the RUC from operational control of security, at least for a period. The arguments of Newman and his staff, who met separately with the Prime Minister on the same day, proved to be more persuasive (Urban, 1992, p. 85). Newman played upon the political implications of an increased military role, arguing that the whole point of the exercise was to decrease the numbers of soldiers on the streets, not increase them. He argued further that the situation on the border - where the ambush had taken place - was not typical and that he could contain the situation if given more policemen. Thatcher agreed with Newman, and gave the go-ahead for a thousand new RUC recruits. As a sop to the Army - as well as an attempt to clean up the rivalry over intelligence information which existed between the police and military - she appointed Maurice Oldfield, a one-time director of M16 brought out of retirement from All Souls College, as security co-ordinator. This was not a new position, but previous incumbents had the limited and inefficient brief of tasking’ - defining the operational role of the different agencies - and arbitrating disputes between rival outfits. Oldfield was given the brief of taking overall control of all intelligence gathering and collation and he swiftly established a directorate known as ‘The Department’. The head of this department was to chair a committee drawn from the various security agencies: SAS, military intelligence, MI5, M16, the RUC Special Branch, and the Bronze section of the SPG. The Committee was to organise and co-ordinate tasking for the RUC Special Branch and the Army (Sunday Tribune, 5 April 1981).

Oldfield lasted six months in Northern Ireland before he was quietly removed. Despite Oldfield’s departure, officially because of ‘mental fatigue’, the tighter liaison between the undercover units of the RUC and British Army was to continue and during the 1980s there seems to have been a merging of units at the operational level.

Telling Tales: the Supergrass Years

The modification of the legal system to combat threats to the state from militant republicanism has been a feature of policy in both parts of Ireland since partition, carrying on a practice long established under British rule. Since 1922, practically every known legal modification has been practised: military courts, exile, non-jury courts and internment have all been given an imprimatur in emergency legislation. Such modifications to the legal system cause a special type of problem for the state. The very terminology used ‘special’ or ‘emergency’ legislation - is based upon the assumption that the problem is a passing or transitory one, not endemic to social or political structures, and that such extraordinary measures are aimed at eliminating small pockets of dissent. Unfortunately, temporary measures of this nature have a tendency to become permanent in themselves, both affecting the general body of law and corrupting the institutions charged with their implementation. A case in point is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, enacted in 1974 in the immediate wake of the IRA bombings in Birmingham, in which 21 people died and a further 164 were injured. A strong case has been made that this particular piece of legislation has been used by the state to gather information on large numbers of people, who, if the figures on convictions under the Act are anything to go by, have had no involvement in terrorist-type activities (Scorer and Hewitt, 1981). For those in charge of the operational end of security policy - as the RUC has been since 1978 - there is a strong temptation to extend the powers given to them through informal practices designed to increase their success rate. For the policy makers in the Northern Ireland Office, the problem has been to strike a balance between the need for legitimacy and at least a semblance of normality with the need to eliminate militant dissent as swiftly and as surgically as possible. It was on the rocks of this contradiction that internment foundered as a weapon against the IRA, since it could not be made legitimate in the eyes of either domestic or international opinion.

The use of Diplock courts ran into the same problem as allegations of ill-treatment in police custody began to mount and gain credence. By confining the investigation to police practices and procedures, the Bennett Report attempted to restrict the problem and, indeed, the judiciary emerged from that particular scandal untainted. The Diplock system was carefully constructed to give the appearance of legitimacy and normality to extraordinary judicial processes. The fact that confessions were extracted with the use of torture and intimidation, or at best the use of dubious interrogation procedures, did not directly taint the judicial process itself. Indeed, it could be argued with some justification that the Diplock courts were an improvement on the previous practice of internment without trial and a far cry from the option of military tribunals used not only by openly repressive regimes such as Turkey, but also by the Irish Republic for a considerable period of time and in the face of a very limited IRA threat. (On the use of emergency legislation in Ireland, see Farrell, 1986.) However, the effects of the controversy over interrogation and the impact of the Amnesty and Bennett reports deprived the RUC of a potent weapon in their battle with the IRA. Combined with the increased efficiency of the IRA as a result of reorganisation, anti-interrogation training and a more focused military campaign, the need for more caution during interrogations led to a significant decline in convictions. It was also not clear that the increased use of undercover operations was having any effect other than to offer a propaganda weapon to republicans.

The next phase in the security operation was set in motion with the arrest of an IRA member, Christopher Black, in late 1981, who, when promised immunity from prosecution, made statements which led to the arrest of 38 people. The following year saw the emergence of some 25 other informers, or ‘supergrasses’ as they were commonly known, leading to the arrest of more than six hundred suspects. It is not clear whether the use of informers in this way was part of a conscious strategy on the part of the RUC or whether the apparent success of Black’s information in leading to the arrest of such large numbers led to the decision to embark upon a strategy of actively recruiting informers in this manner.

In any event, as a consequence of the Bennett Report, the number of suspects complaining of ill-treatment dropped dramatically, as did the numbers charged on the basis of confessions made during interrogation. Although Bennett did not confirm the reality of ill-treatment in Castlereagh interrogation centre and elsewhere, the suggestions he made to curtail the opportunities for abuse seem to have had a significant effect. The report recommended increased access to a solicitor, medical checks at least once every 24 hours, measures to inform prisoners of their rights, and the installation of closed-circuit television cameras in interrogation rooms.

Given the reality of a declining success rate in convicting suspects on the basis of confessions, it is not surprising that the RUC viewed the use of supergrasses as a viable alternative. The RUC denied that there was a deliberate policy of recruiting informers for the purpose of launching mass trials on the basis of their information, preferring to talk of ‘converted terrorists’ coming forward of their own free will. In his 1982 Report, the Chief Constable, Jack Hermon, who had taken over from Newman in January 1980, wrote: ‘[The] emergence of the supergrass phenomenon was due to a combination of public recognition of the true nature and futility of terrorism and of the growing disillusionment within the ranks of paramilitary organisations’ (Chief Constable’s Annual Report, 1982).

However, the available evidence points towards a high-level decision to embrace the use of informers in this particular fashion. Dermot Walsh, in his analysis of the use of emergency legislation found that 35 per cent of his survey of 60 individuals detained between September 1980 and June 1981 and subsequently released without charge were put under pressure by their RUC interrogators to become informers (Walsh, 1983, p. 68). It has also been pointed out that the levels of expenditure and staffing resources necessary would have had to be sanctioned at the highest level (Greer, 1988, p. 85).

The attitude of the judiciary was crucial to the strategy of using supergrasses. In effect, the judiciary and the courts were integrated into the counter-insurgency campaign in a more direct manner than before. The judiciary was left relatively untainted by the controversy over ill-treatment under interrogation, as judges were able to distance themselves from the question of how confessions were obtained and confine their role to the sentencing. The use of supergrasses drew the judiciary, the majority of whom came from unionist backgrounds, uncomfortably close to acting as direct agents of state policy in the war against terrorism.2 Two aspects of the use of supergrasses were crucial in this process: first, the acceptance of evidence from supergrasses which, by its very nature is questionable whether because of a promise of immunity from prosecution, a short sentence, financial inducement, or a combination of these factors. There is evidence that the police supplied at least some supergrasses with a script to memorise (Gifford, 1984). The judge, sitting alone, decided on the credibility of the evidence presented and convicted individuals on the basis of those parts of the evidence he accepted. The irrationality of many of the subsequent judgments is well documented. Such irrational and inconsistent judgments were inevitable as long as the judiciary failed to question the moral and evidential implications of the process of granting immunity and the police practice surrounding it.

Second, convictions on the word of a supergrass necessarily involve the acceptance of uncorroborated evidence and although this practice had been abandoned in British courts, the Diplock judges did not regard corroboration as necessary. The judges decided what parts of the evidence were ‘tainted’ or had a ‘ring of truth’ and convicted accordingly. It can hardly have been accidental that those convicted were generally regarded by the RUC to be dangerous and guilty. The RUC exerted great pressure to extend and justify the use of supergrasses claiming that the system might well deal a ‘death blow to the terrorists’ in the words of the then Deputy Chief Constable when asked if the use of supergrasses was the first major turn against the IRA:

Probably. It is probably the most significant. We have a long-term strategy, and we have a short-term strategy. In the short term we are looking for something that will deal a death blow to the terrorists, and certainty this is probably the most significant that has appeared on the scene from the outset ... After all, maybe tomorrow we will get a converted terrorist who will put the finger on the top people who are now very worried. (Irish Press, 8 August 1983)

This confidence echoed that of the Chief Constable in his Annual Report for 1982: ‘Terrorist organisations regard the supergrass technique as a fundamental threat to their continued existence ... The outcome [of the supergrass process] is crucial to the well being of Northern Ireland’ (Chief Constable’s Annual Report, 1982).

Even as the Deputy Chief Constable was affirming the success of the ‘supergrass technique’, the process was beginning to unravel. More than half the number of those agreeing to become supergrasses retracted their evidence before the cases could be heard, or during the trial itself. The performance of the others in court often verged on the farcical, and left a lot to be desired as far as the quality of evidence was concerned. Public disquiet was also growing. During 1982-83 relatives of the accused formed protest organisations on both sides of the community; bishops, politicians, community groups and even the Criminal Bar Association of Northern Ireland joined the protest. A pamphlet written by a leading English lawyer, Lord Gifford, did much to undermine the process by pointing to legal problems with the court procedure itself (Gifford, 1984). The judiciary also began to have a change of heart after an initial willingness to convict on the evidence of a single informer as in the first three cases to come to court. Subsequently, convictions became rarer as the courts looked upon the evidence of informers with an increasingly jaundiced eye. It is impossible to pinpoint with any certainty the exact factors which led the judiciary to abandon its initial uncritical stance, but judges may well have thought that they were being sucked into the implementation of a discredited counterinsurgency strategy. They may also have recognised that the process had alienated large numbers of loyalists as well as nationalists and while alienating the latter was not problematic, to foster a Protestant disenchantment with state policy was potentially very dangerous (Greer, 1988). The freeing of most of those convicted on appeal effectively ended the use of supergrasses. In the final analysis, the use of supergrasses did little to influence the course of the conflict in the North. Of the six hundred or so individuals arrested on the word of an informer, some two hundred came to trial. Fifty-three of these lost their appeals and of these, fifty had made confessions, or alleged confessions, of guilt.

The central, and purely pragmatic, argument put forward by the RUC in support of the use of supergrasses, that it had resulted in a reduction in the level of politically-motivated violence, is questionable. The general level of violence had been decreasing steadily since 1976, but this had more to do with changing tactics on the part of both the security forces and paramilitary groups.

The other side of the equation is perhaps more intangible but of considerable long-term importance. The legal system was called into further disrepute and the integrity of the judiciary questioned and the sight of members of the legal profession earning vast fees by engaging in supergrass trials was not a pleasant one. The alienation of the Catholic community from the system was given a further twist as opinion polls taken at the time show (see Fortnight, no. 209, 1984; Belfast Telegraph, 6 February 1985). The security forces, in particular the RUC, had once again embarked upon a highrisk strategy to defeat the IRA with no appreciable success apart from damaging their own battered reputation.


Chapter 6


Twenty-one members of the security forces were prosecuted for killings using firearms while on duty in the North between 1969-91. Nineteen were found not guilty, one was convicted of manslaughter and given a suspended sentence. One was convicted of murder and released after 27 months. He was subsequently reinstated in the British Army (Amnesty International, 1994).


There has been little research into the background of judges in the North. The now-defunct Belfast Bulletin is the only publication of which we are aware to examine the issue (see Belfast Bulletin, No. 10, Spring, 1982).

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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