Irish Republican News · April 5, 2006
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Uncanny parallel to Tan War

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

In the early days of the conflict letters would frequently pop up in the local papers from ‘Catholic Mother of Ten, Bogside’, ‘Disillusioned Republican’ and ‘True Patriot, Crossmaglen’ attacking the republican movement and overtly or implicitly praising the ‘peace-keeping’ efforts of the RUC/British army. The letters were so gauche and written in such a strange idiom that they fooled few republicans who correctly assumed that they came from the British army propaganda unit based at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn.

Other stories appeared in the media alleging that IRA explosives officers could get cancer from handling nitro-benzine (a major component of home-made explosives) and that the nylon underwear worn by women IRA Volunteers was prematurely setting off detonators. A Sunday Mirror in 1973 headline read, ‘Danger in those frilly panties’.

Colin Wallace, a full-time public relations officer based at Lisburn, later admitted conjuring up most of the black propaganda stories of this period.

Another of his stories was one about Czechoslovakian snipers whom the IRA hired at #1,000 a hit. The subtext, of course, was that an IRA volunteer was not really a guerrilla because he/she couldn’t fire straight; that there was a connection between the IRA and east European communism; and wasn’t it both ironic and a disgrace that the money raised by republican/Catholic sympathisers in the USA was financing communists/atheists.

My favourite story was the one about those topless women in west Belfast’s Turf Lodge housing estate. The British army would be out on patrol when an upstairs bedroom curtain would suddenly be drawn back and there would stand at the window a naked woman baring her voluptuous breasts. The young, courageous squaddie (it would either be his first day of duty or his last - never in between) would understandably feast his sore eyes on this comely maiden. Having temporarily dropped his guard, the wicked plan had fallen into place and an IRA sniper’s bullet would ring out and strike down the young soldier (undoubtedly, this represented a tragic reversal of that old saying, he died and went to heaven).

Yes, the nonsense and lies and black propaganda we had to listen to was incredible. This shite, to which we were subjected throughout the conflict, actually bears an uncanny parallel to the propaganda offensive by the British during the Tan War.

A new book, written by historian Brian Murphy, titled The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920, was launched last Friday in Dublin. It focuses on Basil Clarke, a former English journalist with the Daily Mail, and a number of his colleagues, who came to Dublin Castle to streamline the propaganda offensive against Sinn Féin and the IRA which the British felt were winning the publicity war. Furthermore, the author demonstrates how British lies and distortions of that period have been treated as credible primary sources by some contemporary historians for what he states are anti-republican purposes.

The press relied heavily on Dublin Castle’s Summaries of Official Reports of Outrages which accentuated the alleged successes of the Crown Forces against the IRA, whilst omitting British crimes against civilians and civilian property, and blackened the IRA at every opportunity through inventions, distortion and lies.

Journalists - long before the term ‘embedded’ was invented - were invited to visit and meet with Auxiliary Companies.

One story had an IRA Volunteer shoving a revolver down the blouse of an innocent woman in the seat in front of him when the omnibus is being searched by auxiliaries. He retrieves it from her cleavage after the search and commuters are either so intimidated or supportive that they say nothing.

On a more serious level, Murphy details the planting of false stories (that Terence MacSwiney, for example, had planned to kill the Bishop of Cork); the Brit use of sympathetic journalists; and the recruitment of the Catholic hierarchy to the British side.

It is impossible not to see the resonances with the recent conflict.

What happened in 1920 was repeated in the ‘70s. The British claimed that prisoners were inflicting injuries on themselves to denigrate their interrogators. They claimed that the IRA was “a bloody-minded coterie of criminals’ that intimidated the community for support. The British abolished jury courts, denied inquests, suppressed evidence, and if you think Public Interest Immunity Certificates are something new, think again. It had its precursor in the powers of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. Divisional Inspector Colonel Smyth of the RIC correctly boasted that no “policeman will ever be held up to public odium by being pilloried before a Coroner’s Jury or other such inquiry”.

Hunger strikers were impugned: their families encouraged to induce their loved ones to end the strike.

In another episode British forces murdered John Lynch, a solicitor’s clerk (and Sinn Féin supporter), having previously attempted to kill his employer, John J Power, because he legally defended IRA volunteers.

Commenting on the propaganda work of Basil Clarke, author Brian Murphy says: “By shaping and refining the news in the British interest, Clarke not only produced a propaganda message for his time, but also laid the foundations for an historical narrative for all time.”

In particular, Murphy challenges two historians, Roy Foster and Peter Hart. He upbraids Foster for appearing to be unwilling to accept that Michael Collins (who was acting on inside information) got the right men when volunteers wiped out the ‘Cairo Squad’ - the foremost undercover British spies in Dublin - in November 1920. He also gives an example where Foster omits to use a damning quote by a brigade major about the burning of civilian homes. He takes Hart to task over his presentation of the IRA attack at Kilmichael when 16 auxiliaries and two volunteers were killed.

The British falsely alleged that their soldiers had been wounded, surrendered and then shot multiple times, and that their bodies had been hacked and mutilated and then rifled for personal valuables, including clothes. While Hart does not support the accusations of mutilation he, according to Murphy, places his confidence in the ‘official report’ in order to query IRA Commandant Tom Barry’s account of events (“lies and evasions”) and to claim that the attack “turned into a massacre”.

British and newspaper reports deceived many people at the time, not just the British public or people abroad but some people in Ireland also. However, to have modern historians and journalists regurgitate these lies - in my opinion, for contemporary political motives - is something to which we need to be alert. Murphy - one of a regrettably small number of historians who vigilantly scrutinise the way revisionists use or abuse historical documents and sources - has done us all a valuable service by publishing this work.

The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920 by Brian P Murphy can be ordered through

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