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8 January 2004 Edition

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Brits proposed giving Army carte blanche - 1973 State Papers: Operation Folklore

BY FERN LANE

A plan to impose British control in the Six Counties through a military assault on nationalist areas has been revealed in government papers released by the British Public Records Office. The plan, codenamed Operation Folklore, was being formulated in late 1973, and envisaged allowing British soldiers to open fire, with comprehensive legal immunity, on unarmed civilians.

This proposed immunity, and the other changes to the already draconian emergency legislation in force at the time required to enable Folklore to go ahead, were discussed in a letter dated 16 November 1973 from Anthony Stephens, the Head of Defence Secretariat at the MoD, to Victor Benham in the Northern Ireland Office.

In an annex to the letter, Stephens sets out a raft of extensions to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, which include, for example, the right to impose curfews and to allow British soldiers to "search dwelling houses without suspicion and without authority from a commissioned officer". However, he also refers to the need for "power of a different sort", which should be considered "separately"; that is, "in the wholly abnormal situation envisaged it would be essential for a soldier to be able to open fire without fear of legal penalty in certain circumstances where under the present law a court would consider that he had acted unlawfully". Such situations, he continues, would include:

"a. opening fire without warning on persons merely carrying firearms (ie without having to be satisfied that they were about to use them etc);

b. opening fire at persons breaking a curfew who failed to halt when challenged; and

c. opening fire in certain other situations, eg. at persons who failed to halt when challenged, in areas designated by the S of S [Secretary of State] or, perhaps, the GOC as 'special areas', which would, typically, be exceptionally 'hard' areas in which the Army needed to regain control and which might or might not correspond with areas under curfew."

Soldiers may well have been able to open fire in any number of other situations because this list "might well not be comprehensive and it will be necessary to ensure that the extent of 'indemnity' from the due process of the law can be amended rapidly".

These plans were, of course, directed solely at nationalist and republican communities. Stephens then goes on to express his desire that an Act of Indemnity be passed as soon as Operation Folklore begins. "The population must know from the outset what to expect," he says, before revealing an awareness of how these powers could be — as indeed they were in the years following — thoroughly abused by the army. "There must not be an implied invitation to soldiers to abuse this sweeping power and shoot on impulse."

Ironically, these plans by the British government for a lethal escalation of the conflict came at exactly the same time as it was publicly claiming -- as shown elsewhere in the released material — to be entirely "neutral" on the question of the Union. Privately, however, it was another matter. A memo written in December 1973 by an official at the Foreign Office observes that "our overriding concern would have to be to safeguard the security of the realm".

Stephens was also aware that his proposals would cause difficulties with the Dublin Government. A handwritten note at the top of his letter notes that "if the situation arose where these proposals had to be implemented the Republic would object. Under the circumstances that would then be facing us in N Ireland, we would just have to ignore protestations from the Republic".

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