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28 October 2004 Edition

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Revisionism exposed as recycled propaganda

"You may remember me in connection with chemical warfare in France. I am now running a variation of this sport, ie propaganda in Ireland."

So wrote Colonel Charles Foulkes, who was part of a group of British propagandists during the Tan War in Ireland. Basil Clarke, an ex-journalist from the Manchester Guardian and Daily Mail, headed the department whose job it was to spread misinformation across the globe.

New research by Dr Brian Murphy OSB reveals how this propaganda reappears in revisionist history. After examining documents in the British Public Record Office, Murphy has shown how historians like Roy Foster and Peter Hart rehash and recycle propaganda.

Brian Murphy delivered a lecture recently to an electrified audience in The Teachers Club.

'News' not 'views'

Clarke's policy was highly sophisticated and could be put to use today. After the revelations of Colin Wallace (see Who framed Colin Wallace by Paul Foot) similar British methods of black propaganda were exposed in the 1980s.

Clarke said that British propaganda was to be propagated "by news" rather than "by views".

Journalists wanted fact-based reports of events, not overt British propaganda. Reports of battles and ambushes could become "our version of the facts", said Clarke. He said that the British view would contain "verisimilitude", or "the appearance of being true".

Clarke's team produced "official" reports of incidents that were handed out to correspondents gathering each day in Dublin Castle. In this way, the British tried to dominate the reporting of the war in Ireland.

Whatever about then, British propaganda on the Tan War has become part of the "historical narrative" today, said Murphy.

Damage limitation

A good example is British 'damage limitation' after Dublin's Bloody Sunday, on 21 November 1921. Michael Collins had ordered the assassination of British Intelligence agents that morning. Later that afternoon, British troops mowed down 12 members of the public and GAA player Seán Hogan in Croke Park.

Clarke concocted a report suggesting that those shot by Collins were mainly involved in 'legal' work. Murphy described how the lie was constructed and disseminated. Murphy said that Roy Foster's reference in Modern Ireland to "unarmed British officers" being killed "on suspicion of their being Intelligence operatives" was Clark's version of events. Even the official British Record of the Rebellion stated: "The murder of 21 November temporarily paralysed the Special Branch. Several of its most efficient members were murdered." Roy Foster preferred British spin over British fact.

Killing Kilmichael

Murphy also discussed a controversy that has been simmering for six years, since the publication of Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies (Winner of the 1998 Ewart Biggs prize). Hart published 'evidence' that Tom Barry 'lied' about the Kilmichael Ambush. Hart also alleged that Protestants were shot because of their religion in Dunmanway in April 1922. In his new history of Ireland Diarmaid Ferriter regurgitated both the Kilmichael and the Dunmanway allegations.

Hart's allegations were promoted by Eoghan Harris, Kevin Myers (who Hart thanks in his book), and anyone dimwitted or predisposed enough to take Hart's work seriously.

Hart discredited

The publication of Meda Ryan's Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter (Mercier 2003), saw Hart exposed. The media ignored her book, unlike Hart's.

Meda Ryan examined Hart's evidence in minute detail and found it wanting in several respects. She also exposed for the first time the role of a paramilitary group around the town of Bandon that engaged in collusion with the RIC and Auxiliaries, going out on raids to identify, torture and shoot suspected republicans. In a forerunner of the collusion seen in the North of Ireland, sectarian loyalists were left high and dry by British troops, who left informers' and spies' names behind after they evacuated Dunmanway Workhouse.

Meda Ryan sensationally reveals this hidden history and points out that Tom Barry even moved to protect these British loyalists after the Truce. Both Murphy and Ryan have pointed out the strong Protestant support for the independence struggle. Dunmanway Protestant republican volunteer, Sam Maguire, after whom the All-Ireland GAA football championship trophy is named, exemplifies it.

Cherry picking

Murphy pointed out in 1998 how Hart cherry-picked his 'evidence'. Hart quoted British intelligence documents stating that Protestants in the South did not give information "because they did not have it to give". Hart deliberately omitted the next passage, stating that the area around Bandon was an exception. The omission was deliberate. Hart wanted to give the impression that the Dunmanway killings were purely sectarian. In fact, they were a product of anarchy in a three-day period in April 1922 — after the killing of an IRA officer by British loyalists who later themselves disappeared, feared killed.

The IRA moved immediately to end the killings. Sinn Féin-dominated Cork County Council condemned the killings, as did IRA units, the first being the Belfast Brigade. Both pro and anti-Treaty sides in the Dáil did likewise. The IRA under Tom Barry ended the Dunmanway killings by posting IRA guards on loyalist and informers' houses.

Hart could have reported this episode accurately. He chose instead to falsely portray the IRA as a mirror image of sectarian unionism, the Tan War as 'ethnic' violence. Hart set out to portray the war as a conflict based on sectarian hatred of Protestants.

False surrender and false history

Peter Hart commented on a British report purporting to describe what happened at Kilmichael, where three IRA members and 17 British Auxiliary soldiers were killed. Hart declared that the report "should not be so completely dismissed".

Brian Murphy went through the evolution and perfection of British reports on Kilmichael, ending up with the one Hart favoured.

Hart also accepted a forged battle report that claimed to be by Barry. This unsigned typed report discredited the infamous 'false surrender', in which British troops faked their surrender and shot dead three volunteers who stood to accept it. Hart alleged that Barry made up the surrender story in the 1940s. Ryan demonstrated beyond doubt that Barry did not 'invent' the false surrender story in the 1940s and that it was published in the 1920s.

Meda Ryan's Tom Barry, IRA Freedom Fighter, is an unquestioned masterpiece of anti-revisionist historiography that should be read by all republicans.

Disinformation and forgery

Undermining republican support today is aided by distorting the level of republican support in the past. Sinn Féin's election victory in 1918 has been undermined in order to try and create the impression that there was a popular alternative.

Recently, it was suggested that Sinn Féin had only 47% electoral support in 1918. The British actively promoted the 47% figure. The only way the figure is justified is by discounting 25 of the 75 seats Sinn Féin won, where there was no vote because the opposition did not stand. The opposition was too marginal and minuscule. By any reasonable reckoning, Sinn Féin had the overwhelming support of the Irish people in 1918. Diarmaid Ferriter promotes the 47% figure - as did Kevin Myers in the Irish Times, the day after it was rubbished in the letters page (13, 14 October).

HBC Pollard, one of Clarke's team, was openly racist about the Irish. The cynical Clarke depicted the IRA as sectarian and racist. Forgery, distortion and misinformation were Clarke's methods. He did not succeed at that time. The revisionists and a compliant media are Clarke's tools today.

Irish information

Brian Murphy also talked about the production of the Irish Bulletin. This was the information service set up by Arthur Griffith and staffed by Desmond Fitzgerald (Garret Fitzgerald's father) and Frank Gallagher, Robert Brennan and Erskine Childers.

The Irish Bulletin justified the following headline:

"The Organisation of Murder by the English Government — 18 in 21 days."

After the abolition of coroner's courts, British forces killed 18 in the 21 days. Each of the deaths was detailed. Information was given to friendly British MPs who asked parliamentary questions. It was used in the USA and elsewhere and helped swing world opinion against Britain.

Murphy itemised how Collins discovered the real story, how he fed the information to Griffith, discussed its importance and passed it on to the Bulletin. It was successful in refuting British disinformation. In addition Murphy dealt with British misinformation surrounding the torture of Tom Hales; and the cases of Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune, who died "while trying to escape" from Dublin Castle.

Misinformation and the truth

The same disinformation has emerged to appear in modern historical commentary of the conflict. That is why republican information is still necessary to counter British disinformation. A west-British media is promoting the securocrat view of the conflict in the North. Our weapon today, as during the Tan War is accurate information.

  • Only the truth shall set you free, that and An Phoblacht.

Brian Murphy's talk should be published in the next six to eight weeks. We will keep readers posted.

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