After the release of colonial records - what about Ireland?

Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the process of British decolonisation were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review in London has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they remained hidden in a secret archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.

Some that have now been released include monthly intelligence reports on the “elimination” of the colonial authority’s enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the Mau Mau murders in Kenya; and details on the lengths Britain went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Writing for the Guardian, Huw Bennett says the British suppression of historical papers on the north of Ireland should also now be ended.

The release of a vast number of files from the Hanslope colonial archive started on Wednesday, causing considerable outrage. But there are thousands more to come. Over 1,000 further colonial files are still retained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, while large numbers of military documents - including those on the insurgency in Cyprus - are missing. And official attempts to manage the image of Britain’s rebellions extend beyond events in the colonies: the evidence on our most important internal conflict, Northern Ireland, is being suppressed.

The Northern Ireland files, despite having passed the 30-year mark laid down in the Public Records Act, have not been listed with the National Archives. But we can get a glimpse of their content from what has seeped into the public domain about the army’s conduct in 1970s Ulster. It gives a hint of why thousands of Ministry of Defence records from the era are locked away: the British preference for claiming to operate within the law, yet bending the meaning of the law to allow repression - as documented in the colonial archives we have now seen - carried on into Northern Ireland. The commanding general, the late Sir Harry Tuzo, quoted in an article in the 20th Century British History journal in February, said allegations against the army were merely “smoke without fire”.

The criminal courts supported Tuzo’s belief: between March 1972 and September 1974, only 17 soldiers received convictions. But as in the colonies, there were problems in bringing soldiers who harmed civilians to justice. Much of the investigative work was done by the military police. Judges noted soldiers “stonewalling” questions about their comrades, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary used “their own discretion ... very liberally” when deciding whether to send cases for prosecution. Judicial rulings in 1974 and 1977 allowed a number of soldiers to continue employing the “shot trying to escape” defence when confronted with allegations of state-sanctioned murder.

Facing a rigid criminal justice system, people pursued the state through the civil courts instead. The first claims came from those illegally arrested during internment in 1971 and those subjected to “deep interrogation”. The MoD decided to settle out of court when crown counsel advised them that they would be likely to lose if a case was brought before a judge. New evidence from the National Archives shows the army continued harming civilians even after the disasters of internment, deep interrogation and Bloody Sunday.

By January 1975, the MoD had reached 410 out-of-court settlements - even though it did so without admitting liability. By early 1976, compensation had been paid for 13 fatal shootings (excluding those shot on Bloody Sunday). Twelve non-fatal shooting cases were settled, plus another seven for injuries inflicted by rubber bullets. One family was compensated for a man who was shot dead in May 1972 by an undercover army patrol, which also wounded four others. Numerous assault claims were settled. By December 1974, the MoD faced another 1,147 claims.

The army’s Northern Ireland headquarters worried about the effect all this was having on military morale. General Frank King, Tuzo’s successor, thought soldiers would fail to act aggressively if they feared prosecution. The attorney general told King that he and the then director of public prosecutions (DPP), having been army officers themselves, “were by no means unsympathetic or lacking in understanding in their approach to soldier prosecutions”.

King noted that “directions not to prosecute had been given in more than a few cases where the evidence, to say the least, had been borderline. The case of the shooting of Joseph McCann, a well-known IRA leader, in April 1972 was cited as an example”. In January 1974, HQ Northern Ireland arranged for regular consultations with prosecutors to ensure the army’s concerns were grasped. Less than 10% of all cases alleging shootings or assaults by soldiers submitted to the DPP reached court. At least King’s lobbying for military jurisdiction was resisted.

It is vital that the public is granted access to files like these. From conflicts in Malaya to Northern Ireland and now to Iraq, it has often taken legal interventions to force the release of records that revealed what really happened. Should we go on relying on costly, lengthy public inquiries and trials to confront our own history? The laws that allow important records to be destroyed, retained or whitewashed by Whitehall urgently need revision. In the past, they have often allowed the government to conceal the distasteful aspects of British colonial and military history. The sooner these troubling dimensions are revealed, the sooner they can be placed within a wider context and debated openly. We should not allow the MoD’s secret archives to be concealed or destroyed in the same way as the colonial records.

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© 2012 Irish Republican News