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PETER TAYLOR: In the quiet lanes of East Tyrone the most experienced unit the IRA had ever assembled made its way to the village of Loughgall. The attack was to change the face of the 30 year conflict. The target was the police station. But British Intelligence new the IRA was coming and the SAS was lying in wait. Special Branch officers in uniform acted as decoys.
MALE: Just as darkness approached we entered the station along with our army colleagues.
TAYLOR: The SAS?
MALE: The SAS, yes, and we set up a base at the station.
TAYLOR: Undercover soldiers monitored the approaches.
FEMALE: We located the van and in front of it there was this JCV type vehicle and it suddenly became very obvious that this was the team on the way to Loughgall.
TAYLOR: A 200lb bomb was in the bucket of the digger.
MALE: The next minute the JCV stopped directly outside the window I was at.
TAYLOR: Right outside the window?
MALE: Right outside the window. At that stage I just ran to the rear of the station.
TAYLOR: What do you hear?
FEMALE: There's an explosion and almost at the same time you can hear automatic gunfire, a lot of gunfire which went on for a long time.. it seemed a long time.
MALE: I took cover and within seconds a massive explosion. I found myself buried at the corner of the station, in rubble, inhaling dust and in darkness.
TAYLOR: Did you think you were going to survive?
MALE: No. At that stage I thought - I'm dead. Simple as that. I thought I was dead.
TAYLOR: Outside the station the SAS opened up and cut the 8 man IRA unit to pieces. It was the IRA’s heaviest loss in modern times.
And when you heard that there were 8 IRA men dead..?
FEMALE: I think that you could say that we were jubilant. I was amazed that 8 had actually been killed, but yes, we were happy. We thought it was a job well done.
SIR ROBERT ANDREW: My personal first reaction was really one of some satisfaction that we had won one as it were in this continual conflict that it was a victory for the forces of law and order.
TAYLOR: The weapons recovered after the ambush were linked to 8 killings. Gerry Adams threatened that Loughgall would become a tombstone for British policy in Ireland. This series looks at how the British state - ‘the Brits’ - fought the IRA for almost 30 years and finally helped bring them to the negotiating table.
What message did Loughgall and similar incidents send to the IRA?
ANDREW: I hope it sent a message that the British government was resolute and was going to fight them.
TAYLOR: Today, as soldiers patrol the still hostile streets of Crossmaglen, you might not think that the IRA’s guns have been silent for almost three years, even in this untamed land of South Armagh. Peace looks different here, the conflict is not yet over. Few would have dreamt that when British troops intervened in 1969 they would still be on the streets 30 years on. They came to protect the Catholic minority from Loyalist attack.
LT.COL: When I first went there I had considerable sympathy for them. In fact, if one took sides, which of course one didn’t, but one’s sympathies were certainly with the Catholic or nationalist population because I personally think they’d had a pretty raw deal.
Sir Frank Cooper
There was a fear that you were going into an unknown mire, that you didn’t know what was there, you didn’t know what was going to happen to you when you were there, and how you got out at the other side of the bog. So that feeling was there, but I think people were persuaded something had to be done.
We went in there, and they were very nice to us and were very thankful.
TAYLOR: How long did you think you’d be there for?
CORPORAL: Well, I thought that was it, you know, clean the mess up, let people re-build their buildings and get out of it.. you know, as quick as that. We didn’t realise we were going to be there for 30 odd years.
TAYLOR: Few imagined then that over 1000 soldiers and policemen would die.
Did you lack knowledge of Ireland?
COOPER: Oh yes. I don’t know anybody who knew a great deal about Ireland.
TAYLOR: The honeymoon with some sections of the Catholic population lasted barely a year. By the beginning of 1971 it looked like divorce. The turnaround happened when the army was ordered to search nationalist areas for the IRA’s weapons. The IRA, which was almost extinct when the troops came in, gained a new lease of life, regenerated by the army’s actions.
Did you feel the hatred?
CORPORAL: Yes. Yes, God yes, you could feel it. It was like an animal. The whole area was like a... something from hell I suppose really.
TAYLOR: By that summer the IRA had not only blitzed Belfast but killed 14 soldiers and policeman. Sectarian tensions tore communities apart. Reluctantly the government agreed to internment without trial.
Sir Robert Andrew
It was thought that there were several hundred villains who were responsible for most of the mayhem which was going on, the shooting and the bombings and so on, and if these could be picked up and put out of circulation, peace could be restored.
TAYLOR: Nationalist areas erupted as 3,000 troops poured in to takeaway their fathers and sons. Whole communities were uprooted.
As we flew over Belfast it seemed to me whole streets were burning. You could see roads that obviously had been blocked and were barricaded. You could see fires and bonfires from ruined cars, burning cars and burning houses.
TAYLOR: And how did that strike you?
LIEUTENANT: Pretty amazing really. Something that I’d never seen before. I was only 19 and it was a sort of realisation that this was happening in a city of the United Kingdom.
TAYLOR: Over 300 Catholics and not one Protestant were lifted. Many were totally innocent. Intelligence was poor. The IRA had known that internment was coming and its men were not at home.
LT. COL: All, as far as I’m concerned, it did was turn a large number of the nationalist population - who at that time had been firmly on our side, and very sensibly on our side - against us. And to my simple mind, as a regimental soldier, it was lunacy.
TAYLOR: Wasn’t internment a disaster?
Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley
Oh far from it. A number of those who were taken, and not by any means the most junior in the ranks of the IRA, were described by those who were carrying out interrogation as “singing like canaries”.
TAYLOR: The ‘canaries’ were a dozen key IRA suspects identified by British intelligence. Whilst most internees were herded into special camps, the dozen were singled out for special ‘in-depth’ interrogation. It was MI5’s ideas. The IRA suspects were hooded, made to stand against a wall and subjected to what became known as ‘the five techniques’. Liam Shannon was one of the hooded men.
LIAM SHANNON: I continually tried to pull the bag off but it was tied so tightly around my throat and onto the epaulette it was impossible to get off.
FARRAR-HOCKLEY: The IRA call themselves soldiers. They say they’re carrying warfare and so on. They must be prepared to be frightened, if they’re captured, under interrogation and so on.
SHANNON: So that began what was called ‘the five techniques’ for me. The sensory depravation, wall standing, restricted diet and white noise as they called it - ‘white noise’.
TAYLOR: What was white noise?
SHANNON: White noise I can only describe to be liked compressed air or steam hissing from a pipe. The degree varied from time to time. Sometimes it was soft, sometimes it got very loud, almost ear piercing.
TAYLOR: Is it alright to put a bag over somebody’s head, stand them against a wall, subject them to high pitched constant noise?
FARRAR-HOCKLEY: Well you see you come to a limit to whatever you're going to do. I would have thought that that type of activity has overstepped the limit.
TAYLOR: In an unprecedented case the Irish Government took the British to the European Court of Human Rights. Embarrassingly Britain was found guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment. Shannon received £25,000 in compensation.
Sir Robert Andrew
If, by standing someone up against a wall, depriving him of sleep, playing white sound to him, whatever, you can actually get information from him which is going to save lives, then some people would argue that you should do that, and I think this argument shouldn’t be too lightly dismissed.
TAYLOR: These techniques may have saved some lives, but after internment the death toll still soared. On the six months before, the IRA killed ten soldiers, on the six months after, they’d killed 40. Army commanders have little doubt what to do to respond to the IRA’s increasingly bloody campaign.
What was your mission statement?
LT.COL: Oh I had a very simple mission statement from 39 Brigade, that was to destroy the IRA in my area which, as a battalion commander, that was meat and drink to me and that’s what we got on to do.
TAYLOR: What did ‘destroying the IRA’ mean?
Well it means capturing or killing everybody who was killing and maiming innocent people in my area.
TAYLOR: Snipers accounted for most of the army’s dead. Soldiers often faced an unseen enemy fighting on home ground.
TAYLOR: What did you call the area? What was it known as?
CORPORAL: The reservation.
CORPORAL: Well, it was Indian country wasn’t it.
TAYLOR: The soldiers knew what would happen if captured by the enemy. The IRA was ruthless, not bound by any law. An army community relations officer, wearing civvies, ran into a road block manned by Republicans on the Falls Road. He was dragged away and interrogated by a man in a mask.
He said “Who are you?” and I said I’m a British soldier. And he said “Well you're going to be a dead British soldier” and got me up, put a hood on my head and frogmarched me out. The next thing I knew I’m flung into the air and I land down on my knees. It’s 1 o'clock in the morning, I’ve got a hood on my head. I don’t know.. I’ve got no orientation whatsoever what’s happening. I then heard the cocking of the pistol - my pistol probably. I had the good sense to count about 3 while he was taking aim and move, and by moving I think that saved my life because all the bullets - I received 5 of them - were in my right leg. And I then pretended to be dead.
TAYLOR: Did they think they’d killed you?
SERGEANT: I’m sure they did because they didn’t follow it up with anything and they all ran away. I could hear people running away.
TAYLOR: The soldiers’ job had been to improve community relations, but most of his comrades, in hard Republican areas, saw this as a lost cause. Surrounded by an invisible enemy, their priority was survival, not winning hearts and minds.
CORPORAL: If we caught them with a rifle we’d give them a good hiding basically. Oh yes, it did happen, because they were going to kill us and basically it was the law of the jungle. I remember what I said about that area was it was a jungle.
TAYLOR: What was a good hiding?
CORPORAL: Well, a good thumping basically, you know.
TAYLOR: That wouldn’t endear you to the local population.
CORPORAL: You didn’t need endearing to that lot mate. There was no nice people in that area.
Well I know there was a degree of rough handling of certain people, but then one’s got to say that those sort of people were members of the IRA, and we knew - although in many cases we couldn’t prove it - that they had shot at soldiers. They had thrown pipe bombs at soldiers, they had thrown petrol bombs at soldiers, they had caused deaths and injuries to soldiers. So it was perfectly understandable that there was some very rough handling of some very rough people.
TAYLOR: What form did the rough handling of the rough people take?
OFFICER: I think physical manhandling but really not very much more than that.
TAYLOR: Given a hard time.
OFFICER: Given a hard time.
TAYLOR: Guns put to their head?
OFFICER: Not that I know of.
TAYLOR: Crawling over glass?
OFFICER: Not that I know of.
TAYLOR: But these things happened didn’t they?
OFFICER: They might well have.
TAYLOR: By the beginning of 1972 the IRA was well entrenched and convinced it was winning the war. The Army became trapped in a vicious circle. The greater the IRA atrocity, the heavier the military response.
I think probably the way we conducted our operations in those days certainly encouraged those who wouldn’t previously have committed themselves to support the IRA, and indeed would have strengthened the support that the IRA got in the local communities, certainly.
LT.COL: There was in our area the tallest factory chimney I suspect in Northern Ireland. It was a very, very tall chimney indeed. And so that we could make sure that the locals were aware of what was going on in our area we phoned. We got hold of the highest ladder that you could get, or construction in, in Northern Ireland, one of those gantries that put television cameras up to very high heights, and first of all, of course, we stencilled our badge at the top and then put the score board on it. For instance, Gloucester 2, IRA nil, and that used to gradually come down so that we could keep them up to date on what was going on, and many, many, many were the requests. We used to have to get this thing taken down. But sadly, when we got these requests, the gantry was unavailable.
TAYLOR: No single incident did more to alienate Nationalists from the army than what happened one Sunday. Rioters broke away from a peaceful anti-internment march, but the army had a plan. A battalion of paratroopers had been brought in from Belfast to scoop up the troublemakers. As they pursued them, the soldiers said they came under fire from IRA snipers. They fired back claiming their targets were gunmen and bombers. Fourteen civilians were shot dead. None was believed to be armed. None believed to be a member of the IRA. The day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’
LIEUTENANT: Certainly I think with outcry of Bloody Sunday, with the deaths of so many civilians, and the international storm of protest that that caused, we realised then I think a solution by military means alone was no longer possible, no longer possible, even if it was desirable in the first instance.
TAYLOR: Nationalists believed the army had gunned down the innocent in cold blood. The IRA never looked back. With the military option now closed, the government had to pursue other avenues to try and end the bloodshed.
In the wake of Bloody Sunday there were the beginnings of a dramatic shift in security policy that was to have a profound impact on the conduct of the rest of the campaign. With an overt military solution now out of the question, army chiefs devised other means of countering an increasingly sophisticated and formidable enemy. Plans were laid for a range of covert undercover operations that were to play such a critical role in the years ahead. In the shadows the secret war began. The army knew from its vast experience in colonial fields that intelligence was the key. The first weapon in the secret war was a dozen IRA men who had been persuaded to change sides. Once recruited, they toured IRA strongholds fingering their comrades from the security of a military vehicle. They became the eyes and ears of a new covert army unit - the Military Recognisance Force. To Republicans the MRF, following a series of controversial shootings, was a secret unit with a license to kill.
Lt. Colonel, Welsh Guards
There was a curious atmosphere prevailing at the time which we have subsequently described as a slightly piratical atmosphere, and I think that that’s not a bad description actually.
LT.COL: Piratical. I mean there were gaps to be filled and there was no point in sitting back in an ivory tower of any sort and not doing something about it.
TAYLOR: Alan joined the MRF in 1972. The identities of undercover agents in this series are not revealed to protect their personal security.
What did you understand you were being recruited for and to do?
ALAN: I understood that the organisation was a plain clothes military unit which took a rather more robust view of counter terrorist operations.
TAYLOR: What would that rather more robust view entail?
ALAN: Actively seeking out the enemy to do something that was positive to sort the terrorists out once and for all.
TAYLOR: The most novel application of these early piratical ventures was a special laundry service run by the army. The van, that became a familiar sight in Republican areas, was used to spy on the enemy. The enterprise was known as ‘The Four Square Laundry’.
How did the laundry operate?
General Staff Officer
Well they operated from a van and collected laundry from certain estates, advertised their wares, as it were, and collected laundry which was then, I presume, checked over for explosives and forensically and then cleaned and returned.
Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley
The Four Square Laundry was one means of going in to get information about who was doing what in areas without them knowing we were observing it.
TAYLOR: The laundry’s cover was finally blown when the IRA interrogated one of its members it suspected of working for the Brits. He spilled the beans and the IRA planned its attack. It was carried out by gunmen from the unit commanded by Brendan Hughes, known as ‘Darkie’.
How was the Four Square Laundry attacked?
Two men got out of the car. The car was parked waiting on the van to come. The Driver was there and the driver was shot, and the woman who was collecting the laundry round the doors ran into the house and the people in the house, believing that the van was being attacked by Loyalists, helped the woman get away.. the undercover agent get away.
LT.COL: It was an attempt which partly worked and partly failed with disastrous consequences which we all know. But I suspect, in the way of these things, is rather like the sort of.. you know, the first parachute, somebody’s got to have the notion of a parachute, jump out of an aeroplane and be killed before somebody says well I think we’ve got to design a better parachute.
HUGHES: To me it was a very, very amateurish and very badly run military operation.
GENERAL STAFF OFFICER: That incident presaged a change in the way the MRF took part. I think the army authorities were not very about that at all and things changed after that.
TAYLOR: By 1973 the army had set up a new secret unit designed to cause the IRA maximum damage with minimum risk. It became known as 14 Intelligence Company, or ‘the DET’. It’s operators blended into the landscape in Republican areas breathing the same air as the enemy. It was up close and personal.
LT.COL: They really did have to have nerves of steel. I mean as an Englishman or a Scotsman where your accent would give you away instantly on the streets, or to go in and actually buy packets of cigarettes over the counter in a known Republican shop so that you can see who is in there and eyeball them, takes a lot of doing, and there were a lot of people who did that sort of thing. Very brave.
TAYLOR: What did you look like in those days?
JIM: We wore our hair long, we wore scruffy clothes. We certainly didn’t look like British soldiers.
TAYLOR: Jim became one of the DET’s first operators. He served through two decades.
But what about the accent, that’s a dead giveaway isn’t it?
JIM: Absolutely. We didn’t say anything to anybody, and when we did, we spoke in grunts and groans and.. But there was times when.. okay, maybe you had to put on a bit of an Irish accent.
They were often operating individually in potentially extremely dangerous and hostile areas, so an enormously brave organisation who’ve contributed to the conduct of the campaign, well out of proportion to their relatively small size.
TAYLOR: Given the knife edge danger involved, operators are trained to resist an IRA interrogation if caught. It’s brutal and realistic, and women aren’t excluded. Anna became one of the DET’s few female operators. For her the training was a nightmare.
ANNA: A bag was put over my head and I was thrown onto a concrete floor in a very cold location. I was hosed down in cold water. My clothes were taken off me. While this was happening obviously the bag was still over my head, I couldn’t see what was happening. I was kicked, punched, I was being abused by male and female people who obviously I didn’t recognise the voices.
ANNA: Well, physical abuse, about.. well obviously the state I was in, the fact that they abused.. obviously when my clothes came off my body they were sarcastic about how you appeared.
TAYLOR: You were stripped?
ANNA: Stripped and overalls were put on, and then again you were wet through again, cold water, and you were sat down. It was very quiet for a long time.
TAYLOR: Did you crack?
ANNA: I did at the end. I told them my correct name. I just wanted to get out of there. I was just at my limits of endurance. It just got to a point where you just don’t care if you live or die really.
TAYLOR: What was the failure rate?
Well I know out of a thousand applicants in the beginning, 17 of us actually went to Northern Ireland.
TAYLOR: Female operators were a special asset.
A woman can get away with so much it’s unbelievable. We would walk around and I’ve stood next to the main players in a town in Tyrone and I’ve listened to them. I’ve stood there with my shopping bag, as did the other women, and we’ve listened to them, we’ve walked past them, and they’ve never batted an eye. They’ve never realised that they were so sort of close to a surveillance operator. And we also with the flexibility of a man and a woman in the car, it seems the most natural thing in the world, especially at night time, you were the courting couple. If it ever came to something a bit compromising, you just got in a bit of a clinch and pretended you were snogging and often it defused the situation.
TAYLOR: The DET were specially trained in methods of entry.
Did you break into IRA men’s houses?
Yes I did, and if there was a weapon hide to be looked at, then yes, we would try and get in and do it.
TAYLOR: Trained to break into houses.
TAYLOR: Did that strike you as strange that you were being taught how to break and enter?
JIM: Not at all. I’d seen that the situation in Northern Ireland was quite desperate and desperate measures were needed.
TAYLOR: Two of the DET’s earliest targets were Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes, believed to be top IRA leaders in Belfast. The net closed in.
JIM: There had been a major operation going on for some time directly against the Belfast Brigade staff and it was decided at a very high level that the Brigade staff would be taken out and interned.
HUGHES: The house was in front of the Falls Road and so I’d noticed the car passing. I then seen the car again sitting on the other side of the Falls Road, directly facing the house.
JIM: I was sitting in my car, to all intents and purposes I was an insurance salesman and my role really was to trigger the arrest operation. Once all the members of the Brigade staff were inside the meeting house, most of them had gone in, Gerry Adams arrived. He sat on my car bonnet.
TAYLOR: What, while you were sitting there?
JIM: While I’m sitting in it. Gave a wave, I waved back and immediately that gave me a cover.
TAYLOR: And how do you feel when Mr Adams comes and sits on your bonnet?
JIM: Nervous, very nervous, and then he went into the house.
HUGHES: Two or three minutes later the house that I was in was totally surrounded.
TAYLOR: Who do you think the people in the car were?
HUGHES: I have no doubt they were police undercover intelligence officers, I have no doubt about it.
TAYLOR: Adams and Hughes were arrested and imprisoned. It was the DET’s first coup.
Lt. Colonel, Welsh Guards
I think 14 Intelligence Company were actually pivotal and I think that they will prove to have been one of the most significant weapons in the battle against that kind of urban terrorism.
TAYLOR: When operators went out there was no guarantee they’d ever come back.
JIM: It was out on a patrol, we were monitoring terrorist activity one day, I think it was a Saturday afternoon, and one of my team members was shot. He’d probably gone round.. too many times round a certain area and he’d been rumbled and they shot him. Fortunately he wasn’t killed.
TAYLOR: A tape recorder was found in the car. It had recorded the movements of suspects under surveillance. Sinn Fein had a field day. But the DETS were not the only lives on the line. They worked hand in hand with the RUC Special Branch who provided vital intelligence from a network of informers, the state’s most deadly weapon. Mike became one of Special Branch’s most effective agent handlers. Recruiting them required nerve, courage and cheek.
There was no use lying and saying you're a travelling salesman who can make them a lot of money selling blinds. I mean you have to be basically up front about it, and you have to tell them who you are and what you are, and that they may be able to help you. There are many reasons for people to offer information. Some of them are related to money, some of them are related to motive, maybe a grudge against some particular person or organisation. Perhaps a feeling that what was being done wasn’t quite right and they would dispute the tactics of a particular organisation. I know that’s a fact on many occasions.
Some people can be open to pressure, to threats, to financial rewards. There is always that. There is always that danger no matter what organisation there’s always the danger of people being interned.
TAYLOR: Like their DET counterparts, Special Branch handlers have to live on their nerves and survive on the streets. Mike lived to tell the tale - his partner did not.
MIKE: He was working on the Falls Road. We had some intelligence about an operation. He and some other colleagues were following that up. As he got to the junction of Clonard Street, somebody walked across a pedestrian crossing. He braked. Somebody walked up to the passenger window and fired shots through the window and killed him.
TAYLOR: Were you close to him?
MIKE: On a personal basis very close, yes. I was devastated, as was everybody else involved in the operation. But that’s the risk we ran, all of us.
TAYLOR: It was a deadly game of cat and mouse. By the beginning of 1974 the IRA was convinced it had the upper hand. It had pulled off an astonishing coup masterminded from this house in Myrtlefield Park. The IRA had moved up market. Inside, Brendan Hughes, who by now had escaped from prison, was bugging army headquarters, thanks to a friendly telephone engineer. Whilst putting in a backup telephone system for the army, he was tapping military intelligence for the IRA.
HUGHES: I was able to put this device onto lines coming into army headquarters and it was a simple tape that calls would have come in, information would have come in, and every few days these tapes would be delivered to a house in Myrtlefield Park.
TAYLOR: There was, however, a snag. The tapes of conversations between various army intelligence officers were unintelligible. They’d been scrambled. Again, the resourceful engineer was asked to help.
HUGHES: You couldn’t understand, it was like Mickey Mouse type dialogue, and we found out that the only place we could get this was an anti-scrambler device, and there was one on army headquarters. This was stolen out of army headquarters and brought to Myrtlefield Park.
TAYLOR: By the same person?
HUGHES: By the same person.
TAYLOR: Special Branch was finally tipped off about the bugging by an informer. Now they turned the tables. Undercover police officer prepared to move in whilst the DET staked out the house.
On the night of the lift when we had the army and the RUC go into the place, we had a man in one of the bushes in the garden.
TAYLOR: In the garden?
JIM: Yes, in a rhododendron bush camouflaged out.
TAYLOR: Wasn’t that a bit obvious in the front garden?
JIM: He got away with it. Nobody knew. The only problem was he’d been there for 24 hours with only a mars bar and he was an extremely hungry person, and we tried to re-supply him with some fish and chips. Unfortunately the fish and chips got thrown into the wrong bush.
HUGHES: The came in and I was immediately put against the wall and searched. I obviously protested my innocence and indignation that this was happening at my house, and he was a plain clothes Special Branch man actually said to me “Come on Darkie, you’ve had a long enough run”, so I knew the game was up then so...
TAYLOR: What did you say to Brendan Hughes when you knocked on the door?
PAUL: Well he was complaining and I said.. I made some comment to him that he’d had a fair run and he shouldn’t be complaining too much about his arrest.
TAYLOR: To Paul, the arrest of Hughes was one of the highlights of his long career as an undercover Special Branch officer.
What did Mr Hughes say to you?
Interesting. He said “I’m sure you're not going to tell me how you did this operation but congratulations. It’s a good operation.
TAYLOR: Had they swooped five minutes later they would have netted the engineer. He’d stopped off en route for a sandwich. The media was never informed about the bugging. This is the first time the story has been told.
Did you ever try to recruit Brendan Hughes?
TAYLOR: And what did Mr Hughes say when you tried to recruit him?
MIKE: Absolutely nothing.
TAYLOR: What did you say to him?
MIKE: Well I explained to him that he could help us and in his position he was in a great position to help us and to put an end to what was going on, but I fell on stony ground.
HUGHES: Money was offered, yes, he had a suitcase full of money I could have if I turned, and obviously I just brushed it off. I wasn’t listening to him. Yes, but of course I did, yes.
TAYLOR: What did the policeman say to you?
HUGHES: That I could have a suitcase full of money if I turned.
TAYLOR: Did you say how big was the suitcase?
HUGHES: No, I never said a word. I never even answered. I never took a lot of notice.
TAYLOR: By 1974 most IRA leaders were behind the wires of the Long Kesh Prison Camp. The DET and Special Branch had no doubt they were on top. Many operations carried out by the IRA outside were being compromised. The Brits felt they were winning.
What was the state of the IRA in 1974?
JIM: They were on their knees.
TAYLOR: Could the IRA have been beaten then?
HUGHES: I think the IRA was under severe pressure. I think for the first time from early 1970 the police military machine was actually working and the IRA was under severe pressure.
Without putting too fine a point on it we had them by the short and curlies, and if another four months.. if we’d been allowed to get on with it, we would have totally eliminated them, as the army would have eliminated the whole of the IRA as it was well on the way, frankly, to doing so.
JIM: I am convinced that we could have changed the course of history had the political will remained there.
TAYLOR: But victory eluded the Brits for political reasons. To inflict a military defeat on the IRA would have required measures inappropriate in a liberal democracy. A more subtle approach had to be found.
Sir Frank Cooper
You’ve got, in the end, to find some way of stopping terrorism. We are a democracy. We can’t go around shooting everybody we think is a terrorist, which is certainly one possible way of doing it. But I mean nobody in this country would have stood for that, and we are a parliamentary democracy and we did behave throughout as a parliamentary democracy, which is a very, very important point. But if the political situation made it possible, one should never discount the need to have a dialogue, although one should be extremely careful and extremely clear about what you are were trying to do if you did enter a dialogue.
TAYLOR: In 1974 MI6 learnt that some members of the IRA’s army council might be interested in talking. In the utmost secrecy the government put out tentative feelers. The emissary was the MI6 officer stationed in the province, Michael Oatley. This is the first time he’s talked publicly about his role. By the beginning of that year over 200 soldiers had been killed.
I was very conscious of the attrition rate against the British Army. I remember one day picking up a copy of the Observer colour supplement which had a two page spread - I think it was the Observer, of passport photos or perhaps slightly smaller to get them all on the two pages - of all the soldiers who had been shot perhaps in the previous 12 months or perhaps longer, and thinking that if I was going to spend 2 years or longer in Northern Ireland I ought perhaps to try to concentrate on seeing whether my particular skills and background could enable me to find a way to influence the leadership of the IRA, or to make some kind of contact through which they could be influenced. I found, by spending time in Republican areas, what was to me quite a surprise, that the quality of the young people joining the IRA was very impressive and you could go to a street in the Creggan and find that everybody’s favourite son had joined the IRA, and however much their mother’s might disapprove of what they were doing, or be frightened by it, that was what happened.
TAYLOR: Oatley’s link through to the IRA was via a secret contact in Derry who acted as an intermediary with the army council. The communication was highly sensitive.
OATLEY: I had established what you might think of as a hollow bamboo pipe between me and somebody significant on the Republican side down which nothing was being said, but that if one sort of blew down it gently the person at the end could feel the pressure and blow back. So I went to my boss, in effect Sir Frank Cooper, and said look, I’ve done this, I haven’t really stepped very far out of line. I’ve got this bamboo pipe, haven’t said anything down it, but I know that if I do say anything down it it’ll be heard, and in any case it’s quite a nice pipe. Can we perhaps put a bit of material down it to see if we can develop a relationship. Anyway, the net result of this was that over the next....
TAYLOR: What did Sir Frank Say?
OATLEY: You would have to ask Sir Frank what his position was.
COOPER: Well, my own view is that if you're dealing with a terrorist organisation, at some remove you always ought to have a dialogue going with any terrorist organisation because I mean.. well the basic problem about terrorism is it’s very difficult to snuff out.
TAYLOR: Although the messages indicated the IRA was interested in peace, it escalated its campaign, slaughtering 21 civilians in Birmingham pubs. But, despite the atrocity, Oatley persevered. Finally, at the beginning of 1975, the IRA declared an extended ceasefire and serious negotiations began. Astonishingly the British put structures of disengagement on the agenda.
OATLEY: When asked what I was prepared to discuss, I said I’m prepared to discuss anything you like.
TAYLOR: Including structures of withdrawal from Ireland.
OATLEY: Whatever that may mean.
TAYLOR: To the IRA, structures of disengagement meant British withdrawal, British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Structures of disengagement, I assume, meant something different to the British. You weren’t talking about withdrawal from Northern Ireland. By structured disengagement you meant what?
COOPER: We meant, without any dispute, a disengagement of the army, and a thinning down of the army, that’s what we meant by disengagement.
TAYLOR: But the phrase ‘structures of disengagement from Ireland or withdrawal from Ireland is neatly ambiguous, isn’t it. It can mean one thing to them and something entirely different to you.
OATLEY: Well I think that was the nature of our dialogue, and I think that the ambiguity was recognised by both sides, so that each could make what it wanted from it.
TAYLOR: By the end of 1975 the ceasefire was over. The IRA felt they’d been conned. The government, they concluded, had no intention of making a political withdrawal. The Brits had put great pressure on the IRA but not enough to make it give in or compromise. The future looked bleak and it wasn’t lost on an IRA man captured by his enemy. The long war loomed.
CORPORAL: He said to me, he said one day you're going to lose this. He said we’ll keep fighting as long as it takes, he said because one day you're going to get a government - and these are the words he said - “You're going to get a government one day that are going to be soft enough to give us what we want, as long as we keep going”. And it’s come true hasn’t it.
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