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18 March 2004 Edition

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State collusion and conspiracy in Ireland

A very British jihad is a detailed if not fully integrated study of the relationship between what Paul Larkin identifies as English empire loyalists at the heart of the British establishment and Ulster Protestant fundamentalism, writes LAURA FRIEL

A very British jihad

Collusion, conspiracy and cover-up

By Paul Larkin

Beyond the Pale Publications

Price £10.99

"It may be of interest to recall that when the regular [British] Army was first raised in the 17th Century, 'Suppression of the Irish' was coupled with 'Defence of the Protestant Religion' as one of the two main reasons for its existence."

Paul Larkin, an investigative journalist formerly for Spotlight, the North's current affairs programme, begins his study of state collusion and conspiracy with a quote from Frank Kitson, the British military counter insurgency expert who played such a pivotal role in shaping British policy in the North of Ireland over the last 30 years.

The 17th Century roots of the modern British Army Kitson is referring to is Cromwell's New Model Army, an organisation that brought such appalling brutality to Ireland that, like the Great Hunger, it remains three centuries later part of the Irish collective memory.

The quote is revealing in that it establishes that from the outset of the present day 'Troubles' (and despite the fact that the British Government of the day sent troops into Ireland ostensibly to protect the nationalist community) the British military establishment identified Irish Catholics as their traditional enemy and Protestant loyalism as their natural ally.

Indeed, this identification is so ingrained at the core of the British ruling establishment that any British Government that attempts to develop a different strategy, however modest, will be actively thwarted from within its own body politic, Larkin suggests.

An example cited by Larkin is a televised speech to the nation by Harold Wilson in May 1974. In the original draft, Wilson was to address the nation on the collapse of the power sharing executive and the effect of the unionist strike on the cause for peace.

"The speech contained references to a [unionist] rebellion against the British Crown which would be met by the full rigour of British troops and government. Wilson had given these very promises to Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner who was fighting for his political survival."

In the days leading up to the address, Wilson was advised that no such troop movements could take place and all references to vigorous action by the British Army against the strikers was excised from the speech.

"It seems that just as in the former Rhodesia, which had a white population the size of Stoke-on-Trent in England, Wilson had been advised that the British Army either could not or would not, deal with these right-wing rebels," says Larkin.

"Had the full might of the British Army been used to keep power stations and other essential services running, the strike would probably have collapsed. It was the British Army's policy which ensured that the strike was a success and the unionist leader Brian Faulkner's experiment in sharing power with Catholics collapsed."

Global context

In a dynamically presented and researched study, Larkin argues that we can only understand events that shaped the conflict in the North in the wider global context of "a massive international right wing offensive" — an offensive that included military coups, and attempted military coups, in Argentina, Chile, Greece and Spain and in which extreme right-wing elements within the British ruling elite subverted and gained control over key power blocs within the apparatus of state.

And as Larkin points out, the establishment and utilisation of state-sponsored death squads was a feature of all these right-wing strategists. "The Triple A death squads which stalked the streets of Buenos Aires in the mid-1970s in the run up to the coup in March 1976 carried exactly the same political message as their right wing allies in Chile, where there was a right- wing military coup in 1973.

"These dramatic and momentous worldwide developments carried a political message which was aimed not only at left-wing revolutionary groups but all progressive elements and can be summed up as: 'forget your dreams of equality and justice, we are here to snuff them out'."

Larkin acknowledges that the scale of state-sponsored death squad killing carried out in Ireland does not match the mass slaughter experienced in places like Indonesia and Argentina but Ireland, particularly the Six Counties, where most of the killing has taken place, is relatively small.

"The secret state's war in Ireland was up close and personal, and fed by two voracious types of paranoia which linked that war to worldwide events at the time. The first type of paranoia was the international and consciously created lie that Soviet style 'communism' was set to take over the globe. The second paranoia was the British ruling class's pathological distrust of the Irish."

Larkin names the network of plotters and their military and political allegiances at the heart of the British system and identifies their role in the developing conflict in the north of Ireland. It involves 'gentlemen's clubs' like the Monday Club, the Castlereagh Dining Club and the Clermont set, described by Larkin as British upper class fraternities.

"The membership of these clubs may represent a rare breed but it also comprised the very top of the permanent government."

It involves agencies like MI6's Information Research Department (IRD), opened in Singapore in 1965 to spread disinformation and anti-communist propaganda and the Institute for the Study of Conflict (ISC), set up in 1968 with CIA backing. And it involves some of the most secret units within the British Army, veterans of the Special Operations Executive, the forerunner of the SAS.

It involves pamphlets like "Ireland: Our Cuba" and "The strategic implications for the west of the international links of the IRA in Ireland" which, "despite the total lack of evidence, was to become a major plank in the British state's psychological warfare efforts against the IRA".

And if this still sounds remote from government, Larkin highlights the role of many of these key players in the covert war within the British Government. Robert Moss "who became well known for his attacks on the democratic regime of Salvador Allende in Chile" and "closely linked to the IRD operation in South East Asia, the Middle East and by 1973 in Ireland", went on to become a key speech writer for Margaret Thatcher.

Right-wing conspiracy

Larkin suggests that the right-wing conspiracy at the heart of the British establishment gained control of the conflict in Ireland in 1974. Two significant factors are highlighted by Larkin, the success of the Ulster Workers Strike and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings, both secured with the assistance of the British military.

Indeed, Larkin goes further by suggesting that the strike and the bombings of May 1974 represent a "quiet coup" which eradicated any chance of "appeasement".

For Larkin, this moment defines the point at which the northern nationalist community re-emerged as 'the enemy' and the 'only' British 'solution' to the conflict became the 'defeat' not just of the ensuing armed insurrection but also of Irish Catholic aspirations of civil rights, equality and democracy.

Larkin's use of the term 'jihad' does not refer to the crude notion of a religious war, the traditional view of the conflict as generated by 'two warring tribes' in which the British portray themselves as 'neutral' or 'peacekeepers'. In this 'very British jihad', Britain's interests were pursued by mobilising and supporting right-wing religious fundamentalism, which identified the same 'enemy'. In other words, British anti-Irish racism embraced Ulster Protestant fundamentalism's anti-Catholic hatred. I guess you could say it was a marriage, literally, made in heaven.

"It seems hard now to comprehend that the Protestant religion, even as recently as the 1970s, could present a standard around which English empire loyalists like Brigadier Frank Kitson and Ulster loyalists like the Reverend Ian Paisley could defiantly gather," says Larkin.

"But a new and secret 'model army' was gathered around the same Cromwellian standard in the 1970s, as Margaret Thatcher's supporters devised a 'quiet coup' within the corridors of power in the years before she became Prime Minister in 1979."

Larkin argues that, while the British paranoia of the 'communist' threat in Ireland was largely imaginary, for the local Protestant Ascendancy class "the real enemy was not some mythical monster of the left but rather Catholic emancipation, upon which they had pronounced a 'Holy War' to drive out Catholic 'traitors' as far back as 1920".

Larkin never considers the role of the US in Afghanistan and their initial sponsorship of the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban and (CIA trained) Osama bin Laden. In the late 70s and 80s the USA mobilised Muslim fundamentalists as a weapon in their 'war' against 'communism' in the Middle East.

By dragging the USSR into a protracted war in Afghanistan, America hoped to propel the USSR into financial bankruptcy and political collapse. It is an enduring irony that the greatest current perceived threat to western capitalism has emerged out of the very same extreme right-wing groups mobilised in its own 'defence'.

Britain's Taliban

Larkin may not articulate it quite in this way, but in 'a very British Jihad' the DUP is clearly identifiable as Britain's Taliban. "Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and its Free Presbyterian support base has played a pivotal role in the jihad, maintaining both a murderous armed wing and a permanent resistance to change in the position of 'Ulster' as a bastion of Britishness and Protestantism," says Larkin.

Fundamentalist Protestantism provides the ideological underpinning of the conflict. Larkin illustrates his point with a quote from Paisley's Free Presbyterian newspaper, Protestant Telegraph. The message could not be clearer.

"There are those who mistakenly analyse the Ulster situation in terms of social and economic factors, in terms of politics or philosophies. These theories and analyses collapse because they ignore, deliberately or otherwise, the main key, and to us the obvious factor: Protestantism versus popery."

Within unionism's political leadership there are well-known rabble-rousers but Larkin does not see their role in the conflict as merely rhetorical. In his chapter 'Permanent Resistance', Larkin explores the way in which "the DUP manages its relationship with its paramilitary bedfellows" and the way the DUP "can have its paramilitary cake and yet still be seen to break the consecrated bread of constitutional politics".

Paisley's links

Larkin chronicles Ian Paisley's relationship with a series of loyalist paramilitary fronts, from the 1950s up to the present day. In the 1950s, Paisley helped form the Ulster Protestant Action group and even had a branch of this militant loyalist organisation known as the 'Premier Branch'. This branch was based at Paisley's church in East Belfast.

"A good example of the kind of activities in which the UPA involved themselves was the open air rally in 1959 on the Shankill Road. With fiery oratory at the rally the good Reverend listed a number of houses and shops in this overwhelmingly Protestant area which were occupied by 'Papishers and Popesmen'. Catholic homes were subsequently attacked after the rally and slogans such as 'Taigs Out' daubed on the walls," says Larkin.

Paisley and his followers eventually broke away from the UPA but retained strong links with it and with the group that superseded it, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The UPA became the modern UVF in 1966 but by this time Paisley was forming a new group.

The 'new' grouping, which was to work closely with the UVF, was called the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and its paramilitary wing the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. The UPV was founded by Ian Paisley and Noel Docherty, owner of the Puritan Publishing Press and the publisher of the Protestant Telegraph.

When northern nationalists took to the streets in peaceful protests in support of basic civil rights, violent counter demonstrations were organised by Paisley's UPV. As Larkin points out, violence and the threat of violence did not emanate from the civil rights marchers but from unionism's fundamentalist wing. "In Dungannon Major Ronald Bunting and B Specials who were also members of the UPV were involved in what the Cameron Commission called 'violent and irresponsible' counter demonstrations.

"In April 1966, Paisley drove Noel Docherty and Billy Mitchel, both Free Presbyterians and members of the UPV, to the house of James Murdock, a farmer in Loughgall. "Murdock had good contacts with members of the B Specials who were quarrymen and it was via this relationship that the UPV and UVF in Belfast received its first explosives."

Paisley later claimed he knew nothing about UPV involvement with explosives after it was revealed that a series of bombings carried out in 1969 were the work of the UPV.

Attacks on utilities threatening electricity and water supplies in the north were carried out by Paisley's UPV but the operations were deliberately attributed to republicans. It's a familiar tactic of the extreme right. The tactic was only exposed after a UPV member died in an attempt to blow up a power station in Ballyshannon.

Noel Docherty was subsequently jailed for his role in loyalist paramilitary violence but his colleague Ian Paisley "carried on his traditional tactic of setting up armed groups and then distancing himself from them as and when the moment required", says Larkin.

Ulster Resistance

Larkin traces Paisley and the DUP's establishment of loyalist paramilitary fronts like the Ulster Clubs in which "leading loyalists like John Michael in the UDA were crucial" and Ulster Resistance in which the UVF played a central role.

Ulster Resistance was launched out of the shell of the Ulster Clubs in November 1986. At the time, the Irish News reported 2,000 people marching behind Peter Robinson and another loyalist, Alan Wright of the Ulster Clubs.

"The parade was led by a colour party and flanked by men in military style uniform. Later at a meeting in the Town's Central Markets building the crowd gave a tumultuous welcome to Ian Paisley as he entered the hall and marched to the stage where a maroon beret was ceremoniously placed on his head."

Larkin also traces Ulster Resistance's and the DUP's links in illegal loyalist weapons procurement, particularly in the smuggling of arms from South Africa's apartheid regime. Larkin highlights Noel Little, arrested in Paris along with a UDR weapons instructor and another Free Presbyterian in April 1989. The trio were there to meet a South African arms dealer, Daniel Storm.

In the political row that ensued, the South African Government confirmed that the trio had been in South Africa in 1988. Larkin suggests that there is growing evidence that "there was not just one or two big arms shipments arranged via the Apartheid regime but rather a stream of weaponry of various sizes from Brian Nelson's trip to Durban in 1985 onwards".

Larkin contends that Ulster Resistance and Ulster clubs were centrally involved in illegal arms smuggling long before media exposure forced Ian Paisley to distance himself and his party. The fact that the DUP has largely avoided public scrutiny of its paramilitary activities and links, Larkin suggests, can only be understood in relation to the Protestant Fundamentalist role within the wider right-wing conspiracy.

"What other Irish political organisation would be able to stage open paramilitary displays and openly flout the government of the day with not just 'treasonable' invective but also secret conspiracies like arms smuggling and still be regarded as a fully constitutional party?"

Larkin brings the DUP's relationship with unionist paramilitaries up to the present day by exposing the party's close links with Billy Wright and the LVF. As an anti-Agreement and anti-peace process party, Larkin suggests that the DUP and elements within MI5 and Special Branch actively encouraged a unionist paramilitary split.

"It is no accident that the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party very prominently took Billy Wright's side in the fallout with his erstwhile comrades in the UVF in Belfast. Nor is it any secret that right-wing fundamentalists and elements within the security forces saw Billy Wright as a God-sent champion in the fight against 'appeasement' of the IRA."

The most visible statement of DUP's relationship with the LVF occurred at a rally in Portadown in September 1996, at which DUP Reverend William McCrea shared a platform with Billy Wright. The rally was held in defiance of the Combined Loyalist Command, which had ordered Wright to leave the north. Wright had defied the loyalist ceasefire and ordered the sectarian killing of a Catholic taxi driver in support of the Orange Order's siege at Drumcree.

A very British jihad is a detailed if not fully integrated study of the relationship between what Larkin identifies as English empire loyalists at the heart of the British establishment and Ulster Protestant fundamentalism. Larkin suggests that this extreme right-wing alliance lies at the heart of the conflict in the north and, in the context of the current peace process, the continuing resistance to progressive change.

Larkin offers us an insight into a very murky world and if his proposition, 'a very British jihad', seems initially untenable, by the end of the narrative the reader is left with plenty to consider.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
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