on July 16, 2014
Profoundly disturbing, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland exposes the central role of British 'security forces' and their agents in a murder campaign that resulted in at least 120 deaths. The campaign was centred in an area of Counties Armagh and Tyrone that became known as the 'Triangle of Death', but its reach extended beyond this area to an equally lethal effect.
The book raises two main trains of thought in my mind.
The first is in the content of the book itself.
The author sets her store early: the book focuses on the British security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries who combined to visit death and destruction on the Catholic population of the area. The book does not attempt to catalogue the activities of all the combatants active at that time. The Irish Republican Army and the mainstream British Army were engaged in their own campaigns, in this area and others, and their actions and histories have been recorded elsewhere - reported in the contemporary news media and in retrospective studies.
Cadwallader was previously a news journalist for BBC and RTÉ, and was a case worker for the Pat Finucane Centre for Human Rights at the time of writing this book. Her book has benefited from her access to research undertaken by the Finucane Centre and others which accessed official records at National Archives in both London and Dublin and from direct contact with the Historical Enquiries Team - a specialist police unit established after the Good Friday Agreement to review all the conflict-related deaths of the Troubles.
The first part of the book follows the sequence of killings from 1972 to 1978, and links official records and ballistic evidence to the the individuals who comprised, at various times, the 'Glenanne Gang'.
As well as the regular British Army forces on the ground at the time,(that is, Regiments recruiting and based in Gt Britain that were posted to the north of Ireland as part of their scheduled touring commitments)there was also a strong presence of locally recruited British Forces eg the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary and the RUC Reserve) and a local, home-based British Army regiment, Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).
The most striking feature of this section is the identification of 24 members of the 'security forces' who were convicted of murder and other serious terrorist crimes. Others remain un-named because of the need not to prejudice any possible criminal cases, and in some cases the identities are unknown.
The next most significant feature to emerge is from the ballistic evidence. An internal British Army intelligence report indicates that loyalist paramilitary groups relied almost exclusively on weapons stolen from, or lost by, various UDR bases. Some of the weapons stolen from the UDR were subsequently used in multiple killings and attacks, sometimes featuring on 10 or more occasions.
Even at this far remove, it seems incredible that British Army weapons could be 'stolen' and then used in multiple attacks in a campaign that killed at least 120 citizens of the State by former and serving members of the British Security Forces over a 6 year period and yet the combined might of British Army and Police intelligence could remain unaware of either the gang or individuals.
Cadwallader's book identifies many of the failings of the police investigations at the time; evidence ignored, leads not followed, charges made for minor offences when charges of murder would have been more obvious. The police officers in the existing Historical Enquiries Team, again and again, cannot account for the appalling deficiencies in the police work attendant to the murders perpetrated by their security force colleagues.
That there was collusion between British Security Forces, both in the British Army and the local Police force, the RUC, is now beyond any credible doubt. The cases of collusion here in Cadwallader's book and in Belfast and other places highlighted by reports of the Police Ombudsman and others are not contested by any but the most obdurate apologist for state-sanctioned murder.
The question that remains unanswered, though, is how far up the chain of police, military and political command that collusion goes, in terms of turning a 'blind eye', or actively instigating and facilitating the foot soldiers on the ground. I suspect those answers may never be revealed.
The second train of thought arises from how this sordid tale departs from the mainstream representation of those days in the north of Ireland; in TV and other news channels, and in dramas, movies and novels that use that era and place as a setting.
The standard Troubles tale goes something like this: two fanatical Irish tribes at war, the British (usually English) as the force of civilized good keeping the nihilist Irish apart, a hero (SAS? MI5?) arrives to save the day, usually with the love interest of a terrorist's sister or some other cause for crisis of conscience (conflicted between tribal loyalty and love across the barricades, etc).
That was basically the plot for Gerald Seymour's Harry's Game in the 70's and has been more or less the template for the majority of novels and movies ever since. The variation on a theme may be something like a vulnerable, fragile loser being manipulated by 'Armchair Generals' who are actually criminal or political opportunists on the make.
Even the great Belfast writer Brian Moore, in his Lies Of Silence'Lies of Silence', follows the basic convention that there are good guys (police, army, security force of some kind) and there are bad guys (fanatical Irish 'terrorists', irrational purveyors of tribal hate and scorched earth revenge).
Most of these books, if they mention collusion at all, place the errant security forces people as an exception that proves the rule, an aberration, 'a few rotten apples', and the central tenet of good guys = official security forces and bad guys = fanatical terrorists still holds true.
That simple narrative, although convenient, seems a lot less palatable after reading Cadwallader's book even if the obvious question, of how high up the ladder the rot rose, is unlikely to ever be satisfactorily resolved.