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 Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Inside the Troubles: Ask Peter Taylor
Award-winning journalist Peter Taylor's new BBC TV series "Brits" gets to the very core of the 'secret war' the SAS waged against the IRA in the 1970s.

Peter was given unique access to undercover British soldiers, police officers and even an M16 agent, who all tell of their hair-raising experiences of being on the front line of the Troubles.

Hundreds of BBC News Online users emailed their questions in and Peter answered a selection of them in a LIVE forum. Click on the link to watch it, or read a transcript of the highlights below.


Mark, Switzerland: Does Peter Taylor think that the Loughgall ambush (May 1987) was a pre-meditated act designed to remove key hard-liners from the IRA?
It would seem that the ambush (along with other events at the time) represented a watershed that leads directly to the current political process.

Peter Taylor: It certainly was premeditated in that the British security forces and intelligence services knew that the IRA was coming, they weren't quite sure of the details but certainly had a good idea that some of the IRA's key players were involved in it and the SAS were ready.

I think it was recognised that there was no way that the SAS were going to arrest eight heavily armed IRA men and therefore their deaths were pretty inevitable

Peter Taylor
It was extremely bloody, it was extremely violent and as a result eight IRA men were shot dead by the SAS, so it was premeditated. Whether the actual ambush was premeditated is a good point. I think it was recognised that there was no way that the SAS, that the British soldiers were going to arrest eight heavily armed IRA men and therefore their deaths at the hands of the SAS was pretty inevitable.

It was a watershed in fact, it was the most dramatic and violent confrontation between the SAS and the British army in the 30 year history of the so-called 'Troubles'. And it was a watershed because it was the British Government putting out a marker that it was going to meet fire with fire, it wasn't simply going to roll over and get out of Northern Ireland, it was going to meet the IRA on its own terms.


Dave, United Kingdom: When the SAS and Security Forces were in NI, what was their most successful operation in the fight against the terrorists?

Peter Taylor: I think the Loughgall ambush was the most successful in military terms because you had the SAS taking on a heavily armed IRA unit and killing all eight members of it. The hope was that it would teach the IRA a lesson and they would stop doing what they did. Of course they didn't, and no doubt it did deter many young IRA or potential IRA men from joining up and being killed in the same very violent way.

But equally I think it found the resolve of many young men in that area of East Tyrone to carry on the fight as it were, and that's part of the story of Irish Republican history. So it didn't deter, but it was a watershed and it was really the British laying down the line and saying we will meet you and give you as good as you get.


DCB, United Kingdom: Was the Book Nemesis true in describing how the SAS would assassinate Unionists and Republicans to stir up trouble?

Peter Taylor: The straight answer is no. The SAS would go out to kill Republicans if they were members of the IRA and if they were armed like Loughgall and many other incidents - no question about that. They would not go out to kill Unionists.

The SAS wouldn't go out to kill Unionists just to stir up trouble, the SAS would go out to take on armed 'terrorists'

Peter Taylor
This is all part of the vast conspiracy theory that surrounds much of what has happened over the past 30 years, most of which I simply do not subscribe to. The SAS wouldn't go out to kill Unionists just to stir up trouble, the SAS would go out to take on armed 'terrorists'.

DCB, United Kingdom: Was the SAS supplying arms, training and intelligence to the Unionists and/or RUC?

Peter Taylor: The SAS certainly didn't supply arms to Unionists. The training of the RUC was partly done by the SAS - that's no secret. But the RUC developed its own anti-terrorist capability, its own SAS if you like, but it was domestically based, was made up of members of the RUC, and they were trained at Hereford, which is the SAS HQ in England.

The government supplied them with weapons, that's part of the job of government. The RUC is a legitimate British police force, but they certainly didn't go round arming Unionists as Unionists.


Brendan Doherty, England: Were you shocked to discover how high the "shoot to kill" policy went within the British Government?

Peter Taylor: I don't believe that the so-called "shoot to kill" policy went to the top of British Government. On the contrary I don't think there was such a policy in the way it is regarded by Republicans. They believe that the whole thing is orchestrated, motivated and driven by the very top - by the Prime Minister, by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, by the Secretary of State for Defence and the orders go down "Kill them, take them out". It doesn't work like that in my view, it's not a policy in that sense.

I don't believe that the so-called "shoot to kill" policy went to the top of British Government

Peter Taylor
However, when you actually come to what happens on the ground, and you're facing a situation where you have armed soldiers facing armed IRA men, the soldier has to make the decisions in a twinkling of an eye. He's trained to do it and the odds are that the IRA people would not be arrested.

The SAS say that warnings will be given where possible. But warnings did not have to be given legally, so that's how the notion of "shoot to kill" arose. It's not as simple as many people like to think.


Pedro Morell, Spain: Is there a hidden presumption by the heads of armed forces and government, that to wage a secret war is ok, as long as you don't get found out?
I mention this with special reference to the secret war waged by the Spanish government against ETA, using the GAL, and which ultimately brought down the government and led to government ministers being jailed.
Using this criteria there would be an argument for prosecuting everyone involved up to the Prime Minister of the UK.

Peter Taylor: GAL was actually covertly set up by the state, by the Government. It was financed and armed by the state. Its purpose was to take out, to remove ETA activists and terrorists, and that it did very effectively. They would kill them - it didn't matter whether they were armed or not.

It wasn't like SAS encounters, it was done covertly and there's no doubt that the hand of the Spanish Government was behind GAL. It was a very dirty war and ministers did go to jail. I interviewed one of them, and of course he denied it all. Despite what people may think and want to think, it really didn't happen like that here. I don't think orders went out from any British Prime Minister to go out and deliberately kill people who were suspected of being in the IRA.


Dave Cox, UK: How far, do you think, a government of an elected country is allowed to go in response to very violent terrorism?

Peter Taylor: I think it really depends on your government and the kind of liberal democracy that you are. If you look at how Israel has countered its enemies, which it regards as terrorists, it has done things that I don't think our government would do. Israel took out those it believed to be responsible for the Munich massacre - it takes draconian action and makes no apology for it.

I think in a liberal democracy such as ours, there are limits beyond which the government could not go. In some cases in the past 30 years I think we have overstepped those limits, like the so-called torture of Republican suspects in 1971 for which we brought before the European Court and found guilty not of torture but of inhuman and degrading treatment.

It's very very difficult for a democratic society to defeat and counter terrorism because, the 'terrorists' aren't bound by the laws and restraints that we are

Peter Taylor
It's very very difficult for a democratic society to defeat and counter terrorism because, the 'terrorists' aren't bound by the laws and restraints that we are. It's a very unequal struggle. I think we've gone about as far as we can. We've changed the law, we have no jury trials in Northern Ireland, we have exclusion orders, people searched at ports - fundamental civil liberties have been eroded in our country because of what has happened in Northern Ireland.


Roly Ryan, Great Britain: Regardless of the principles regarding the right to free speech and public knowledge, to what extent does Peter Taylor think that he is right to expose and publicise the perhaps "undemocratic" and unlawful actions of our soldiers and agents in Northern Ireland when we were and are trying to defeat a savage terrorist organisation?

Peter Taylor: This is a very fair question and one that I'm often asked - you know, "why do you make these programmes that are critical of the actions of 'our boys', 'our security forces' when they are trying to do a very difficult job?" I totally accept the difficulties that they face and how one-sided it is to the extent that their hands are tied and in my view quite properly tied by the law.

A sign of the health of any liberal democracy such as ours is the ability and freedom of the media to investigate these sorts of areas

Peter Taylor
But I think that if our security forces, or our police officers or our politicians do break the law then they should be brought to justice. A sign of the health of any liberal democracy such as ours is the ability and freedom of the media to investigate these sorts of areas. If we didn't the democracy to which we all belong would be the weaker for it.


James Boardwell, England: Were there any aspects of the story which you were unable to tell because of national security? Did the programme get MI5 clearance?
British counter-intelligence seemed very amateurish in the early 70s: who was the key figure in changing and improving the role of intelligence?

Peter Taylor: Certainly the programme didn't have MI5 clearance, government clearance, MOD clearance or anything. Nobody outside of the BBC previewed the films, people may have like to have seen them but they certainly did not. And that is quite right and proper, because the BBC is an independent organisation and that is its great strength and its integrity depends upon it. We are not pawns of anybody, be it MI5, MI6, the government or any state organisation. It was not censored by anybody.

Nobody outside of the BBC previewed the films, people may have like to have seen them but they certainly did not

Peter Taylor
There were one or two things my colleagues and I would have like to have included, but couldn't because we couldn't quite tie the knot on it. Unless you are absolutely sure of what you say, that you can prove it and you are convinced that it happened we don't do it. We don't speculate, we don't say things that we can't stand up.


Geoff Hutton, United Kingdom: Have you encountered opposition/threats from say Sinn Fein over your portrayal of the Provisional IRA, Loyalist factions for 'Loyalists' and Government for 'Brits'? In other words what has been the reaction from those portrayed?

Peter Taylor: The short answer is no, not really. You can only make these kind of series with a degree of assistance from those involved. The Republican movement, which is the IRA and Sinn Fein gave us a degree of assistance to make 'Provos'. By and large I think they thought it was a pretty fair report on the history of their movement - and the same with the Loyalists.

What you have to do is tell people what you're going to do and you have to remain true to what you say, you can't pull fast ones. If you do you don't survive - very simply.


Ralph Lawson, UK: I understand that the IRA sent a message to the British government in the mid 1990s saying "The war is over and we need your help in bringing it to a conclusion".
How much is known about who sent this message, and indeed, is it true that the IRA would say this?

Peter Taylor: A message certainly was sent from Republicans, it was alleged to have come from Martin McGuinness. Indirectly it came through that channel if you like, but I don't actually think McGuinness actually said those words and sent that message as such. But it was, I believe, a pretty accurate reflection of the feeling of IRA and Sinn Fein at that particular time. They had recognised that weren't going to defeat the British, they would have to talk. The gist of that message was the conflict is over, we recognise there's a stalemate, but we need to talk about how we're going to end it.


Brian Ross, N. Ireland: This TV series obviously inflames the situation in Northern Ireland Politics. Why does Peter Taylor feel he should heighten the tension at this critical time of NI Politics? Stories like these from the past only distance the conflicting sides apart.

Peter Taylor: Well we had the same kind of criticism, it isn't often voiced, but I'm conscious that it's always there. Our view, and I think it's shared by my colleagues who have made all three series', is that the single most important service that it provides is that far from making things worse, it reminds everybody of precisely what we've all come through over the past 30 years and how horrendous it has been.

Memories are short unless you happen to have been a member of a family who has lost loved ones

Peter Taylor
Memories are short unless you happen to have been a member of a family who has lost loved ones. I think it's a very timely reminder, in particular at this critical point historically, to people of where we have all come from and why we cannot go back to it. I think that is the single most important purpose of the trilogy.


Rebecca Noon, England: I would like to ask Mr Taylor, if he feels in his opinion, that the peace process will in fact be a success? Or will the resentment and the anger fuelling the rift in Northern Ireland, continue to dominate, irrespective of the peace process? Will there always be those extremists who will continue to cause violence?

Peter Taylor: I have believed for the past five years that in the end this was the only way to resolve the problem. We always knew there'd be huge obstacles on the road and I think David Trimble will find it very difficult to get the majority he needs on Saturday - I don't want to predict it.

I think we are on the road finally to sorting it out

Peter Taylor
There will be set-backs but I think in the end it's still quite a long way to go, yet there will be peace. There will always be dissidents for Irish Republican historical reasons, but I think we are on the road finally to sorting it out.

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31 May 00 | N Ireland
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