Blaming the Brits

An Arkiv review of Lethal Allies by Anne Cadwallader (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013). It initially featured on the Arkiv website on 14 November 2013. It is republished here with Arkiv permission. 

let Lethal Allies British Collusion In Ireland by Anne Cadwallader and the Pat Finucane Centre has received, if a knee-jerk rejection by some Unionists is left out, a largely positive response.  The Irish News commentator Fionnualla O’Connor raised the issue of the book’s ignoring the effects of IRA violence in stimulating Protestant rage and the descent into criminality and collusion but praised the book’s research and findings of security force collusion with loyalist murder gangs in the so-called  ‘Murder Triangle’ during the mid-to-late 1970s. In the Irish Times, Susan McKay’s only criticism was that by looking for the source of murder and collusion in Britain’s colonizing history, Cadwallader failed to locate its true origin in the paranoid sectarianism of Unionism, loyalism and the Orange Order. However simplistic and reductionist this explanation it does at least have the virtue of avoiding the ‘Brits are behind it all’ mentality of which Lethal Allies is the latest example.

As the book’s blurb admits  there is nothing new in claims that loyalist gangs intent on murdering innocent Catholics were being helped by members of the RUC and the UDR. What is new about Lethal Allies, it is claimed, is that it is based on research in state archives and on the reports of the much maligned Historical Enquiries Team (HET) created by the PSNI to investigate deaths during the Troubles.

Without the HET material there would be little to distinguish this book from a number of others that have claimed to uncover an over-arching British state policy to use the counter-insurgency tactics learned in Africa, the Middle East and Cyprus to deal with the IRA. In his A very British jihad: collusion, conspiracy and cover-up in Northern Ireland ( Beyond the Pale Publications, 2004), Paul Larkin claimed the existence of a 30 year old strategy by the British state and its intelligence services to promote and support a campaign of anti-Catholic  terror by loyalist gangs.

Lethal Allies also resurrects the ‘Wilson Plot’ thesis of an MI5 conspiracy to overthrow the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, after he returned to power in 1974. ‘Hawks’ in the Ministry of Defence and MI5 are accused of ‘spoiling for an all-out fight with the IRA’ and colluded with the loyalists and their RUC and UDR supporters  to kill more Catholic civilians to provoke the Provisionals (p.166). The evidence for this are the well-known allegations of dirty tricks by the Security Service and other sections of the intelligence community made by Colin Wallace an MOD information officer from 1968 to 1975 and Fred Holroyd who had served for a year as a military intelligence officer in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. In his history of MI5 (The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, 2010) the Cambridge historian, Christopher Andrew, devotes a chapter to the Wilson plot allegations and concludes that they are without foundation. But, as he points out, ‘old conspiracy theories never die’.

Unsurprisingly there is no reference to Andrews’ book in the bibliography which also ignores most of the serious historical work on the British state and Northern Ireland which has been published over the last decade. Nowhere in the book is there any clear identification of what British policy/policies towards Northern Ireland were in the 1970s. In the conclusion it is argued that there was a ‘confluence’ between the loyalist gangs and British policy: loyalist terror wore down the Catholic working class which made it more likely to embrace the political ‘solution’ cooked up in Westminster and Whitehall.  In fact Catholics did not need to be terrorized into supporting  the sort of deal between Unionists and the SDLP based on power-sharing and an Irish dimension which both the British and Irish governments supported at Sunningdale in 1973. In the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 they voted en masse for the SDLP, which supported the Sunningdale strategy.

Contrary to the book’s analysis the relationship of the British state to loyalist violence and collusion was not based on its alleged sponsoring of counter-gangs. British policy in the early 1970s had lurched from reform to repression; to secret talks with the IRA; to a Sunningdale type deal involving Dublin; to contemplation of withdrawal and then into a prolonged period of talks with the IRA. In 1974/75 there was widespread speculation that after the UWC strike British withdrawal was on the cards. It was in this atmosphere of fevered speculation and fears of betrayal that loyalist gangs went on the rampage. This essential political context is missing from the book. No mention is made of the fact that the British government and security apparatus, claimed to be waging a surrogate war against the Catholic community in order to defeat the IRA, was involved in negotiating an IRA ceasefire that lasted for most of 1975. The ceasefire is not mentioned in the book although it helps to explain why 1975 was the only year in the decade when loyalists killed almost as many people as republicans.

The excerpts from the HET reports do demonstrate a degree of collusion between members of the local security forces in mid-Ulster and loyalist paramilitaries. Some of the reports claim that the investigations of the murders were at times cursory or practically non-existent. The HET investigators  note that applying the standards of contemporary best practise to the chaotic, pressurized and dangerous conditions of the Seventies is anachronistic and unfair but nevertheless  this is precisely what the authors of Lethal Allies proceed to do. Just as the political context is missing from the book so is any serious recognition of the massive challenges faced by the security forces and the RUC in particular in the early to mid-1970s. The sheer level of violence needs to be remembered – to pick just one year as a example in 1976 there were 247 deaths, 1900 shooting incidents and over 1100 bomb explosions or defusings. To investigate these incidents there was a police force with under 5000 personnel with little of the technological or surveillance tools that would later be developed.

In the two police districts that covered the incidents focussed on in the book J District (Lurgan, Portadown, Craigavon and Banbridge) and K District (Armagh) there were around 24 Special Branch officers to cover an area from Lisburn to Omagh. Faced with a war on two fronts their success rate in arresting loyalist terrorists and rogue security force members was not the unmitigated failure depicted here. Overall during the Troubles the RUC solved 50% of murders committed by loyalists compared to 30% of republican murders.

Much is made of the murderous activities of the former member of the UDR Robert Jackson and the allegation that he worked as a hit-man for British Military Intelligence and the RUC. The basis for the allegation is the claim of Colin Wallace that Jackson was working with the Special Branch. The book provides no evidence for this other than quotes from a memo drafted by Wallace at the time. No attempt is made to verify the claim from other sources. Jackson was not the only case of an intelligent and ruthless director of terrorism of whose activities the RUC was well aware but lacked the evidence to effectively prosecute. A number of leading republicans would also enjoy a charmed life throughout the Troubles without this being seen as the basis for claims of RUC collusion with republican death squads.

When the focus moves up from the local to the levels of the Northern Irish and British state the material is much more patchy and inconclusive. It is legitimate to argue that, given that senior figures in the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Defence were aware of evidence of dual membership of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, of the loss of weapons, and other signs of collusion, more could have been done to counter such problems. That London focused most on the threat from republican paramilitaries, given the dire toll exacted by loyalists in mid-1970s, is with the benefit of hindsight, open to criticism. In the longer term perspective of the death toll between 1966 and 1998, when republicans killed more than double the loyalist toll of victims, it becomes more explicable.

However the logic of Lethal Allies, which ends up blaming the alleged crimes of the British state and its surrogates for provoking the conditions which led to the Provisional campaign, leads to some strange conclusions. Thus the blame for the Kingsmill massacre is laid at the door of the British state for colluding with the loyalist murder gangs who, by killing innocent Catholics, provoked a response from the South Armagh IRA. Certainly specific British policies and actions such as internment and Bloody Sunday did contribute the radicalisation of Catholic politics and increased support for the IRA. But this does not justify the refusal to acknowledge the active agency of the Provisionals in prosecuting an armed struggle with no democratic mandate. Just as contemporary republicans now depict their campaign of violence as a natural development out of the civil rights movement, Cadwallader and the PFC claim the IRA’s ‘Long War’ was a product of the British collusion and not the result of the Provisional’s own decision to recalibrate their strategy and to use violence to prevent any restabilisation of Northern Ireland through a deal between Unionists and the SDLP.

The issues of collusion raised in the book are indeed profoundly serious ones. However, despite the fact that the most significant material in the book is drawn from HET reports the conclusion ungenerously rubbishes the HET’s role in dealing with the past. Instead, Lethal Allies argues that the British state owes a debt to the entire Northern Ireland community but is noticeably vague as to what exactly is should do to pay this debt apart from a reference to ‘a truth recovery process that can attempt to lay the past to rest’. (p.372) Whatever that means is left to the reader to work out for themselves. In fact its depiction of the British state as congenitally averse to making its dirty secrets public seem to suggest that this is not really believed to be likely. Rather than making a serious contribution to on-going debates about dealing with the past Lethal Allies is but the latest manifestation of a one-sided ‘blame the Brits’ syndrome.


  1. Seamus,

    as we have told Stuart his review is to run as lead article from 0900 tomorrow morning there would be little point in publishing it as a comment here. But thanks for moving to do so. You happy enough to go with that?

  2. Blame the brit syndrome-

    I suppose its the easiest thing in the world to say that your enemy is the most evil killer army/group/government that ever walked but what is getting more known is how stupid the brits actually were-its as if their hearts weren't in it or maybe they were just that cocky with the stiff upper lips ruling the brains-they sent the Brit army out as loyalists/MRF and they shot catholic civilians for the next 30 years whilst the Loyalist/ SAS was kept for use against armed/un-armed Republicans-And still the brits had lots of casualty's and could not keep London safe-

    Then we have the excuse here on that post saying that the RUC helped to convict 50 per cent of loyalist crimes compared to 30 per cent of Republican jobs despite the fact that the RUC members mostly lived amongst the loyalists and would have heard more local gossip about any attacks- they let the attacks go ahead then arrested the driver or a
    look-out or those hiding the guns after Catholics were killed-

  3. Michaelhenry,

    I hope this review leads to some discussion. Seamus O' C submitted a critique of the review written by Stuart Ross to feature as a comment but things of such length tend to be lost in the comments section. Prior to this review going out we had told Stuart his critique would follow. So the fairest thing to do is to give them an equal run time wise.

  4. Maybe there is a 'a one-sided blame the Brits’ syndrome' in some quarters. While there maybe a collective guilt for what happened in the past. The lions share of that guilt lies at the British doorstep.

    Last week (or the week before) there was two articles on TPQ about Éirígí and what they may or may be getting wrong. Part of the talk centred on Éire Nua and how relevant (if at all) is it today. If people simply 'park' the last 800 odd yrs of British involvement in Ireland for a minute or three, there was already a working Éire Nua in place. Who's to say that without British involvement, it wouldn't have evloved into what RFS talked about..?

  5. TPQ is grateful to Arkiv for allowing this review to be republished here.

    I would need to read the book before being able to weigh the critique made of it.

    Tentative observations would prompt me to suggest that Anne Cadwallader is hardly alone in her indictment of the HET. It was recently lambasted from more 'establishment' sources for its bias.

    Nor would it seem to be the job of Cadwallader to offer in depth political analysis of the time or to share the political analysis of Arkiv. Her task was to bring out material that the British state did not want brought out. I think that was the terms of reference for her work.

    The type of mindset within the British state suggested by Cadwallader is reinforced by the work of Cobain. If it the state did not direct in a hands on fashion it knew about it and lied about it in order to cover up. Which sent a very clear single to those willing to carry on in the same vein.

    The campaign of sectarian assassination against nationalists was well under way prior to Sunningdale so I doubt if the case can be made that it only really took off in response to Sunningdale. Loyalists themselves are fond of citing Bloody Friday as a catalyst rather than Sunningdale.

    As for the 1975 ceasefire - was it ever really strategically predicated on a rush of blood to the head by Harold Wilson? Rees claims it was about setting out to con the IRA in which he claims it succeeded. Also, Rees arguably more than his predecessors Pym and Whitelaw, saw the power of the unionist veto after the UWC strike which limited any strategic flexibility orientated towards withdrawal.

    I think there is a danger that Arkiv might have allowed an academic strain of political unionism to colour the review, something informed by the reluctance of political unionism to accept that its claim to be the law abiding community is crumbling by the disclosure. It supported law and order agencies that were anything but law abiding.

  6. The MRF were horrendous and should be tried in court for war crimes. All my research so far indicates that they were involved in arming loyalists and training them, they did carry out shoot to kill and that is only tip of the iceberg in relation to that group.
    No doubt that England should be held accountable for their crimes as they are just as guilty as others.

  7. The review makes an interesting point about the moderate leanings of the Catholic nationalist population as early as 1973 with Sunningdale, a reality which emphasizes the brutality/depravity of British collusion with sectarian loyalist killers. Didn't need to be, the state sanctioned succor that is. As implied by the reviewer, "the British state (is) congenitally averse to making its dirty secrets public." Sounds about right. I guess there's a danger in thinking, however, that the "Troubles" are done and dusted, that the times we are now living in (you Irish I mean) mark a sweeping of 1968 to Good Friday. In other words, it might be too much to ask that the Brits reveal all in a post-war era when, in the minds of British leaders and intelligence, there's a danger of revealing too much. If the Brits see the scenario of a "hot war" returning to the North (someday, somehow), the revealed secrets could then lend, in future, a propaganda chip or two to militant republicanism.

  8. Maitiu,

    I think Larkin is right on this one. Prosecutions are not going to lead to convictions and the Brit state walks free form the dock again. I doubt that all the material Anne Cadwallader has would be sufficient to convict (many are dead). I think trying to narrow this down to courtroom standards of truth (beyond reasonable doubt) is doing society and the historical narrative a disservice. I think the balance of probability standard of truth based on strenuous research will be much more fruitful. I think that is where work like Lethal Allies can come into its own rather than being suffocated in some courtroom. Bear in mind I have yet to read Lethal Allies.

  9. "Rather than making a serious contribution to on-going debates about dealing with the past Lethal Allies is but the latest manifestation of a one-sided ‘blame the Brits’ syndrome."

    As with Cadwallader's first book Holy Cross, the writer is very balanced and sensitive in her delivery of what is a complex bout confined study. Her book is comprised of various records and sources and I think it is somewhat trite of Arkiv to expect that Cadwallader should have diverted to always refer to what the IRA did; there are a plethora of other books like that if that is what you want. Cadwallader wrote a good reference source on the atrocities of NI that contributes to what is already out there.

  10. " A number of leading republicans would also enjoy a charmed life throughout the Troubles without this being seen as the basis for claims of RUC collusion with republican death squads."

    that side of things has yet to be busted open and fully researched. for now it suits the british interest to keep the lid on that side of their counter-insurgency campaign here. and simultaneously suits the undefeated army buck ejits.

    we can blame the brits: they invaded, they colonised, they sectarianized the situation and they lied through their teeth.

    thatcher took a personal interest and regularly attended the joint intelligence committee meetings where decisions were taken about life and death, quite literally.

    the internet age opens up the world of information in a way never experienced before and the facts of history cannot be buried as easily as they were. hence larkin's floating the idea of amnesty ... the sins of the brits are coming back to haunt them while our sins have been well exposed to the scrutiny of public opinion. pragmatism always wins out over principle when it comes to the unscrupulous.

    up the rebels.

  11. 'Rather than making a serious contribution to on-going debates about dealing with the past'

    The truth is the UK state has absolutely no interest in dealing with the past,their whole agenda on this is based on rewriting the past to sanitize their role. Nothing more, nothing less.

    The British government as far as Ireland is concerned is not in the business of mea-culpa.

  12. I doubt there is blame the Brits syndrome if there was there definitely would be a stronger voice for truth and accountability.
    In the early seventies the Brits had set a precedent with the Ballymurphy and later bloody Sunday massacres.
    What other signal did loyalist Paramilitaries need when the so called peace-makers were with deliberate intent murdering innocent Catholics.

    The Brit attacks on nationalist/republicans/Catholics only served to embolden the loyalists naturally the Brit think tank took advantage of the loyalist Paramilitaries’ not because they seen them as defenders of all things British but as a healthy resource that would remove the need for the BA to take any bad publicity.

    I don’t think the Brit government was planning on a long stay and probably thought a quick fix of sending the troops in restore peace and pull out was on the cards.
    Quite the opposite as their presence had bolstered the IRA and put the extra vertebra in the loyalists’ paramilitaries.

    It was only natural they would enlist the Paramilitaries’ to do the dirty work and if they stiffed the wrong people that was chalked up to one less potential provo/supporter. And more importantly good media for the occupiers as the flak would fall on the warring tribes.

    The Brit war think tank had to be creative as poor media would not be wanted by any sitting government so cultivating the local loyalists would do the job nicely after all many held duel membership in the RUC/UDR and were fighting the common enemy.

    I would agree with Gerard Hodgins as the war progressed the Brit think tank grew more sophisticated in its methods of cultivating insiders within the PRM/INLA for long term use as the five quid tout had its purpose but was nothing they could rely upon.
    Collusion is not an illusion but it is a safe bet that there were those in the upper echelon of the PRM who were working for the Brits and those in even higher places were working for a deal to end the PRM/INLA war.

  13. gerard hodgins-

    " A number of leading republicans would also enjoy a charmed life "

    Says a leading Republican who does a few shifts on TV-did you gerard have a charmed life going around helping in election work in the 80s-

    " up the rebels " in 2013-how did you survive along with others-or is your case special-

  14. Gerard
    Very true about the internet age. Since I started to truly educate myself on the Irish conflict, perhaps 6 years ago via books and of course using the web as a tool. My beliefs were shaken and I progressed towards Socialism and away from the secterian environment i was raised in.
    I honestly never knew the sheer extent and brutality of what the government were doing here. I never knew about the blanket protests or peoples religious items being throen down toilets and ssmashed by the army. It has all been a huge eye opener.

  15. Maitiu, where are you from, from outside Ireland? And why did you become interested in Irish history and politics, in the Troubles? Only curious. I'm an American from Louisville, Kentucky, who first visited Ireland in 1985, went to Belfast for the first time (of many) in 1990, and did an MA at Queen's Univ. Belfast in 1996-97. The latter year of study taught me a lot but not nearly as much as sitting around a kitchen table on Broadway off the Falls. Tutorials were shite compared to West Belfast hedgerow school.

  16. I am from just outside Belfast but grew up in a unionist area so was not exposed to what the other section of society was going through.

  17. I feel as if I.m standing on my head trying to digest all this.

    A loyalist Protestant Police force made 50% arrest of Loyalist Murderers, of whom were made up of UDR/RUC. That I can't even fathom.

    It seems everything is one sided to me. In 1969 it was B-Specials/Ruc/Loyalist attacking Ardoyne and other districts throughout the Norn .

    We all know who done the murders , we all know they were protected.

    As for the HET , That makes me laugh, RUC Special Branch investigating them selves.

    If the book went in depth with information we have never heard of,and ducmentation of proof , then I would read it. Plenty of Books on the market like this

  18. So Anthony's hijacked proposal that John Larkin is asking for (an amnesty<--de facto or other) is given the green light.

    What does/woulld that mean for the likes of Paddy Hill & Gerry Colon who's request for the truth is locked up for 75yrs.

    Does there quest come into play here..?

  19. Nothing we didnt know in this book.After what she wrote about in the aftermath of joe oconners murder how could you listen to her.Then she was getting her yarns from dannybroy what could you xpect.

  20. Billy Brooks,

    I had serious issues with the coverage of the O'Connor case and while it is fair to lay out the stall on that and expect that the wrong be made right, it should not serve as a trip wire to haul down the narrative. The British state is exposed for what it did. It would seem churlish that because of one wrong case another 100 plus can be dismissed. If her work holds up to scrutiny (and it my view given the wider discussion it is doing pretty well) that is the best way to measure it. In circumstances where there is a hunger for clarity we should extract nutrition from all fruit, even the forbidden. I certainly will be reading the book and coming to my own conclusions based on what I find.

  21. Frankie,

    I wouldn't term it my hijacked proposal. I know as a matter of record I suggested it around March 2005 on BBC Radio Ulster. Was in about before? I don't know.

    Here's one for you - the term 'hierarchy of victims' is one I believe I first coined during a Spotlight interview way, way back, so it amuses me to hear it in vogue still!! But if someone else got it before me they are welcome to ownership. Such anecdotes are more for amusement than establishing the record or claiming copyright.

  22. I understand what you are saying Anthony about finding some anecdotes amusing. I'll still come full circle and ask who ever the same question. What good is a truth process to the victims of the 1974 pub bombings when the truth is locked up for 70 odd years?

    As for the hierarchy of victims. One of the best descriptions of what a victim is and how complex the subject is, was partially explained to myself by a former UVF volunteer on the 'longkesh insideout site. Some of the things he (primo) explained to me are

    So some examples. All real. The largest mass rape occurred in Berlin in 1945 as the Russians took over the capital and decided to teach the Germans a lesson. The Russians had experienced the brutality of the Nazis as they invaded Russia. So where the women victims of a sexual crime? Victims of war? Or non-victims as far as the Russians where concerned? Did the rest of the world rush to aid and comfort these ‘victims’? In Belfast a 75 year old man is stabbed in broad daylight by a 25 year old. The knife is plunged some 10 inches into the old man. He survives. The situation changes somewhat when you know that the old man is a notorious sex offender and the young man is one of his victims from many years ago. The old man; victim or not? Many ordinary people will say is he not a genuine victim and deserves what he got. The young man, victim? Or offender in the eyes of the law? Or both?

    Theoretical now. A man serves in a shop he owns and is shot dead by a terrorist. A sociable , hardworking, family man with no convictions. In reality he is a member of a terrorist group who has killed people but not yet come to police attention. Victim or not? Genuine on the surface but guilty all the same?

    All i know is a lot discussions need to had. And the sooner the better.

  23. Frankie,

    there are gradations in it and we continuously recalibrate to take account of it and still come up with no solid answers. You are right about the questions. Primo and other loyalists have been given to thinking about them too.

    I have read a bit about the Soviet move into Germany and the rapes were huge war crimes. For the most part they were not carried out by the front line assault troops, many of whom gave out sweets to German children and treated them with compassion, but by the second wave.

    The big challenge posed by the rights framework is that they are not just for us but against us as well. People have rights against us although that is often not heard in the cacaphony.

    As ever I am short on answers

  24. AM.IMO These books are alright for a read at bedtime people know what was happening.the ruc arnt going to face any charges in fact they are being given medals while a fella today is lifed of over a feg butt in a public carpark.theres a thing about the past called the bandwagon i think a lot of these writers are jumping on it.jmo of course.

  25. Billy,

    people know in a general sense. But these books tend to provide a structure to what we know and add detail. They are o=another straw that break the back of Brit claims to partiality and referee status. The Brit state is being unmasked slowly but surely as a a cornerman in the Loyalist combatant's team. I read Ian Cobain's book on torture by the Brits and found it an absorbing read. I knew that the Brits tortured. It makes it that little bit harder for their apologists to deny it when reading stuff like that. Anne Cadwallader's book has caused such a stir because it hit them where it hurt. Timing has helped.

    Today's verdict was deeply flawed. Without the inference of 'bad character' he would never have went down. Which just means the cops will now find a character to fit every 'crime.' I know him very well; spent the evening drinking with him earlier this month in Belfast during his trial.

    I am very disappointed about the verdict and will be campaigning as vigorously as I can on his behalf.

  26. Family of murdered RUC Reserve Police Man , John Proctor,who was gunned down in hospital car park in 1981 ,Thanks HET for getting a verdict on his so called murderer at a dip lock court.

    So much for HET being impartial.

    Seamus Martin Kearney, sentenced to 15 years

  27. In relation to what is a victim.
    I have a relative who was beaten to death by the UDA back in the late 70's and because it was a local dispute, it has never been recorded as a " victim of the troubles " murder. Another relative was shot dead in a mistaken identity by the UVF in the early 90's and was there for a victim of the troubles. Yet both died at the hands of a paramilitary group.

  28. It's just,

    I seen that early today about Seamus Kearney. What i find daftstupid etc is the cost. How much were the investigating officers paid to look into the murder. As I said in a pervious post, it costs at least 40K to lock someone up each year...Thats at least 100K to lock anyone up for two years..

    A few years back a lot of people got their knickers in a twist when the Eammes/Bradley report floated the idea of paying victims families 12K each.

    All locking him up is going to do is make him, his family & friends very angry and the money to keep him locked up has to come out of the public purse (ie..more tax)..
    It's self defeating. Maybe one day people will cop on.

  29. The crucial part of the evidence is the Cig But.

    13 spent shells were found on the same day of the Murder, the area was gone over with a fine toothbrush.

    Two days later this but just appears from nowhere and low and behold it matches Seamus's dna.
    It doesen't take two and two to add that evidence. But retrieved from somewere else. That's my take on the matter, we all know how corrupt ruc/special branch were.