Previously confidential files released this week in Dublin, Belfast and London under the 30 year ruled provide evidence of the increasing role of the ‘Dirty War’ -- the use of covert intelligence and the SAS shoot-to-kill strategy by the British government.
One letter relating to the SAS, in the files of the prime minister, points to the murderous intention of the covert operations.
It is from the British Ministry of Defence on May 18th, 1978, recording the dispatch of four Heckler-Koch MP machine guns to Ireland, for use by the SAS. The four guns were specially equipped with silencers, a move secretly approved by ministers.
The letter explains how the British Army had intelligence of an attack on an RUC station to be carried out by the IRA in the next few days.
The use of silenced weapons was “strongly supported on the operational grounds that any firings in the first phase should not compromise the second”.
The use of silencers was to be kept secret on the basis that the IRA “have from time to time claimed that the army was engaged in assassinations”.
The escalation of the ‘dirty protest’ at the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1978 is also detailed in the papers,
The files contains lists of prisoners with details of remission lost to date due to the failure to comply with prison regulations. Heading the list was Kieran Nugent, an IRA member and the first prisoner to be sentenced after the abolition of special category status in 1976. Nugent had lost 519 days of remission.
A report on April 4 1978 noted that prisoners in two H Blocks had stepped up the protest and were refusing to work, shower or “slop out”.
This, it was believed, marked a further attempt to support “the men on the blankets” in an escalation of the campaign to restore the previously held special category status.
There had been a series of escape attempts from Long Kesh in early 1978.
In May 1978, leading Catholic churchmen were concerned at the deteriorating situation in the prisons. By that time, 321 prisoners were refusing to wear prison clothes or to work in protest at the removal of special category status.
The minister replied firmly: “I must make it plain that there are going to be no concessions on the question of special treatment for prisoners, no matter how such treatment may be described”.
Emergency status, he said, seemed to imply an amnesty at some stage. This had been firmly ruled out by Direct Ruler Roy Mason, who ordered that protesting prisoners be punished by loss of remission and privileges.
On August 1 1978 Archbishop of Armagh Tomas O Fiaich visited the H-Blocks and issued a strong statement in support of special category status, surprising British officials.
However, the growing international impact of the prison protest is candidly acknowledged in a memo circulated to NIO ministers in May 1978.
“The protest has been the PIRA’s main propaganda cause for the last year. It is also the main reason for renewed American support for the IRA,” one report said.
It was noted that the prisoners’ demands - the right to wear their own clothes, not to do prison work and to enforce their own discipline - amounted to POW status.
This would have “severe” implications for British policy.
“They would thus be prisoners of war and eligible for release at the conclusion of hostilities.
“The courts would be seen as political courts. The RUC would become political police, not the impartial guardians of the law. Terrorism would become respectable.’
A band of RUC heavies known as the ‘Goon Squad’ were responsible for acts of beatings and torture at RUC interrogation centres in the 1970s, previously confidential state papers have confirmed.
Some of the RUC’s own doctors threatened to give evidence to Amnesty International and accused the then RUC Chief Kenneth Newman of being behind the torture. One doctor later resigned from his position.
The papers, released under the 30-year rule, reveal that Newman refused to meet the Police Authority to discuss the issue.
Complaints at the brutal treatment came from the prison board of visitors, politicians, priests and solicitors.
On October 11 1977 it was reported that at a meeting between Kenneth Newman and the Police Doctors’ Association, doctors expressed their “misgivings” over “police brutality”.
On November 10 1977, leading Belfast defence lawyer PJ McGrory wrote a strong letter to Direct Ruler Roy Mason on behalf of a large number of lawyers who shared “the conviction that ill-treatment of suspects by police officers with the object of obtaining confessions is now common practice” and that this occurred most often at Castlereagh interrogation centre, in east Belfast.
“We find it very difficult to accept that this happens without the knowledge of a substantial number of police officers of senior rank,” he wrote.
The crisis deepened on December 9 1977 with a strong letter to Mr Mason from Joe Cooper, a leading trade unionist and chairman of the Armagh Prison Board of Visitors.
Mr Cooper told Mr Mason that the board had interviewed six female prisoners at Armagh Jail who had returned from Armagh Courthouse, having been escorted by the RUC.
“The prisoners were in a very distressed and shocked condition. A couple had torn clothing and others had bruises and marks of having been recently physically assaulted by the RUC escort party,” he said.
One of the police doctor told Dr Maurice Hayes, a future Dublin senator, that he believed the policy of maltreating prisoners had been approved by Newman. He noted that there was a marked increase in the incidence of injuries when Deputy Chief Constable Jack Hermon was on leave.
On April 17 1978 one of the surgeons requested a transfer from Gough Barracks, Armagh. In his letter of resignation a Dr Elliott cited “the intolerable situation regarding the maltreatment of prisoners”.
The incident triggered a frantic damage-limitation exercise by British officials based at Stormont and ultimately helped to bring about the establishment of the Bennett Inquiry, headed by an English judge, which reported in March 1979.
For human rights campaigner Mgr Raymond Murray the released documents contained no surprises.
Mgr Murray, who was formerly chaplain of Armagh Prison and later chairman of Relatives for Justice, authored pamphlets and books on police violence, including The Castlereagh File about the treatment of prisoners at the RUC station.
He said that after internment ended in 1975 the British government “had to find a new way of getting people quickly behind bars”.
“They used a combination of psychological torture, blackmail and violence to make men sign false statements,” he said.
“Castlereagh was by far the worst. It was nicknamed the conveyor belt at the time. The doctors speaking out about the mistreatment about what was happening in holding centres was a breakthrough.”
* The British government was also concerned at attempts to have IRA prisoners in the north awarded ‘prisoner of war status’ by the International Red Cross.
In January 1978 the press reported that the Belfast-based Relatives Action Committee (RAC) -- acting on behalf of republican prisoners in the north -- intended to ask the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva to adjudicate on whether a “war situation” existed in the North of Ireland.
The move followed the signature by both the British and Irish governments in December 1977 of two new protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the conduct of wars and the status of prisoners of war.
The British government had, however, chosen to explicitly opt out of the conventions in relation to Ireland, Rhodesia and in the context of nuclear war.
* A senior British Army officer told a British minister in 1978 that unless radical action was taken to deal with the appalling social conditions in areas such as Ardoyne in north Belfast, the British government might “win the war but lose the peace”.
He called for an initiative “to strengthen the position of ‘moderate’ councillors, to deny PIRA the opportunity to control amenities and to reward the courageous efforts of the dedicated youth leaders by providing them with adequate facilities.”
* A declassified 1978 British military report dismissed claims that the IRA was a major factor in the economic life of Ardoyne.
“To paint a picture that PIRA is in total financial control of all the various businesses in the Ardoyne is totally wrong... If the local PIRA were to depend solely on the sums produced by these various activities to maintain and equip a paramilitary organisation, they would soon be out of business,” wrote Major RM Smith, the military commander in Ardoyne.
The report contradicted the then efforts of the direct rule Labour administration under Roy Mason. His adminstration railed against perceived “criminal racketeering” by the IRA, and the activities of black taxis which they complained “prejudiced the profitable working of Ulsterbus”.
* A confidential document prepared for Taoiseach Jack Lynch prior to his US visit in May 1978 derided Irish-Americans who it said had a “simplistic and emotional view” of the situation in the North.
The document warns Lynch that he might be received poorly by Irish-Americans who cling to “myths of British repression and Irish failure which provides them with a history, an identity and a cause.”
Those Irish-Americans who interest themselves in Irish affairs or who actively participate in Irish organisations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ancient Order of Hibernians, emerald societies and county organisations were mostly Irish-born or have Irish parents, it noted.
This group should not be confused with the “enormous” Irish-American constituency, but comprised a “crucial” proportion of transatlantic passengers each year, and had shown considerable loyalty to Ireland.
“Their loyalty, however, has never extended to Irish institutions of government, especially so far as the issue of Irish nationalism is concerned,” it added.
Their attitude to the government back home was: “We owe you nothing. You could not even provide us with a job.”
“Northern Ireland provides a focus for all of this. Some of them see the Republic, its Government and to a lesser extent its people, as having betrayed their cause.”
* Dublin officials became alarmed when New York politician and former congressman Mario Biaggi sought a meeting with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, at that time a senior Fianna Fail politician and a rival in Lynch’s government.
Biaggi’s ‘Ad-Hoc Committee’ on Ireland at one time had the support of over 100 members of the US Congress. It had indirect links to US-based Irish lobbying and activist groups such as Irish National Caucus and Noraid.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the embassy and consulates of the 26-County government in the US were competing for attention against such organisations and were keen to impress their status in the US.
* More than 30 sticks of gelignite found in the possession of republican prisoners had been smuggled into Belfast’s Crumlin Road jail in packs of butter and tubes of toothpaste, it has emerged. The gelignite and detonators -- believed to have been intended for use in a mass break-out attempt from the prison -- were discovered in C Wing on July 4 1977.
* Eamon de Valera refused a dying wish for him to attend a commemoration of Michael Collins.
Papers from 1957 show that Sean Collins - brother of the murdered republican leader - pleaded for an official presence at his memorial in 1957.
Mr Collins also wrote to the then president, Sean J O’Kelly, saying the attendance of both him and Mr de Valera, the taoiseach, would go towards “healing the sores of the civil war”.
But Mr de Valera insisted, 35 years after the assassination of his former comrade and civil war foe, that his attendance would be inappropriate.
* Ireland’s main cigarette brands claimed that a tobacco advertising ban could plunge the country into disaster by sparking a deadly fusion of Marxists and the IRA.
Cigarette manufacturers argued with former Taoiseach jack Lynch that it would cut back on their sales, leaving them less money to create new employment in other non-tobacco industries.
“They saw the dangers that if employment was not provided for our growing young population, there could be a fusion between Marxism and the IRA, with disastrous effects for the country,” the minutes of the meeting state.
* 26-County intelligence services kept reports of showband singer Joe Dolan’s tour of Russia in a classified file marked “Communist Activities”.
The Mullingar-born crooner, who died last Christmas, was bizarrely believed to be linked to a communist plot.
The unlikely heart-throb became the first western pop singer to play in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1978.
In one of the articles carefully archived by Irish intelligence, Dolan tells an interviewer how the Soviet audiences knew all his hits, and even “went wild about the Westmeath bachelor”.