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7 August 2008 Edition

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The Parachute Regiment and Britain's licence to kill

AS INTERNMENT was imposed in the Six Counties this week in 1971, the British Army’s Parachute Regiment carried out a massacre of nationalist civilians in Belfast. Other such killings followed in the months before Bloody Sunday in Derry. PEADAR WHELAN looks at the background and the continuing quest for truth and justice.

THIS AUGUST marks the 37th anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial in the Six Counties. Internment started on 9 August 1971. It was the Stormont Government’s military response to  a popular uprising against a politically bankrupt unionist regime.
Operation Demetrius, as it was called by the unionist authorities and the British military, saw thousands of British soldiers descend on nationalists areas, kick their way into homes and drag hundreds of men away to be incarcerated in prison camps without charge or trial. The message of internment to Northern nationalists was clear: the Stormont regime and their Westminster overlords were not interested in finding a political solution to the crisis in the North.
Brian Faulkner’s unionist regime opted for military repression in line with the military mindset that was the cornerstone of the British and unionist governments’ strategy for dealing with Northern nationalist aspirations of progressive change. In the week after the introduction of  internment, the British Army shot dead 20 people across the Six Counties. One of the most notorious British regiments, the Parachute Regiment (‘The Red Devils’), was behind the majority of these killings. It was the decision of senior British Army commanders to deploy the Parachute Regiment.
The Paras were, in the words of even Lord Widgery, shock troops “trained to take a hard line... they shoot to kill and continue to fire until the target disappears or falls... They show no particular concern for the safety of others in the vicinity.”
Widgery headed the discredited inquiry into Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972 when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead and more were injured when members of the Paracute Regiment opened fire on a peaceful Civil Rights demonstration.
When the British Government deployed British soldiers to the streets of the Six Counties in August 1969, it presented this move to the international community as a peace-keeping operation aimed at bringing law and order to the streets of Derry and Belfast. The British Government had been embarrassed by the exposure of the sectarian corruption of the unionist regime by nationalist agitation for civil rights. The images, beamed around the world, of the RUC attacking peaceful Civil Rights protesters in Duke Street in Derry in October 1968 further exposed unionist intolerance and heightened Britain’s unease.
The situation reached breaking point in August 1969. But rather than addressing the modest nationalist demands of the Civil Rights movement, the British Government decided to reinforce the crumbling Stormont regime and deployed British troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Initially, the British army’s presence on the streets of the North was welcomed by many nationalists whose distrust and fear of the RUC had been reinforced by that force’s unholy alliance with loyalist mobs and UVF gunmen attacking Catholic areas. However, as the conflict deepened, it was clear that the British Army had been deployed not as peace keepers but in the classic colonial role to ‘quell the natives’.
The words of  a key British Army counter-insurgency strategists, General Frank Kitson, clarified the British Army’s function in the North of Ireland: “One commitment will inevitably remain, which is the obligation for maintaining law and order within the United Kingdom.”
Kitson elaborated:
“Recent events in Northern Ireland serve as a timely reminder that this cannot be taken for granted and in the historical context it may be of interest to recall that, when the regular 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.”
Kitson, a veteran of Britain’s military campaign in Aden, was the author of  a series of books concerned with military intervention in colonial and post colonial situations. His book, Low Intensity Operations, became the blueprint for the British Government’s strategy in Ireland.
As commander of the British Army’s 39 Brigade, based in Palace Barracks in Holywood, County Down, Kitson  advocated an aggressive role for the British Army in dealing with nationalists. He actually trained the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, who carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, to develop a reputation for brutality “so that when things went wrong they came and were tough”.
Clearly the British Government anticipated that its troops would be using lethal force on the civilian population in the North and established mechanisms by which soldiers could shoot and kill with impunity.
As early as 1970 the British Army and the RUC had reached an agreement whereby during any investigation into the use of lethal force by military personnel, interviews of British soldiers would be carried out not by members of the legally constituted police force (even though it was the RUC) but by the British Army’s own Military Police. A submission to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal from solicitors Madden and Finucane on  Criminal Conduct and Non-accountability of Soldiers in the North of Ireland states that this procedure consituted “an illegal transfer of control over policing the security situation from the police to the military”.
According to the submission:
“As a consequence, lethal force incidents involving soldiers were inadequately investigated and soldiers in uniform engaged in the use of lethal force operated outside the controls of the legal system, and were in every sense above the law.”
This was the context in which the British Army dealt with the situation on the ground throughout the North.
As Madden and Finucane say in their submission to the Saville Inquiry:
“There was a willingness to engage in the use of lethal force which would not have existed had soldiers been subjected to the normal rigours of the criminal justice system.”
British soldiers knew, effectively, that they could kill with impunity and they did so.
The internment raids and the subsequent torture of detainees provoked a reaction within the nationalist community not seen since August 1969 with the Battle of the Bogside and the Belfast pogroms. This time, however, the Stormont Government, aided by the British Army’s military planners, were not caught on the back foot by the ferocity of nationalist anger.
In the early hours of 9 August 1971, the internment raids began. The 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment was deployed to the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast and in the following 48 hours they had taken the lives of 11 people.
All 11 were civilians. One of the dead was a parish priest, Fr Hugh Mullan. Another, Joan Connolly, was the mother of eight children.
Paratroopers killed another two people in Belfast in the same period. The 1st Battalion killed Desmond Healey, aged 14, in Lenadoon; the 2nd Battalion shot John Beattie, who was 17, dead in the Clonard area. Clearly, the knowledge that they could kill without sanction was a great incentive to British soldiers increasingly imbued with a racist hatred of the Irish.
It was the 1st Battalion of  the Parachute Regiment who went on to Derry five months later and, in the space of 20 minutes on 30 January 1972, shot dead 13 men while another 14 men and women were injured, some seriously (a 14th man died later of his wounds).
Speaking about Bloody Sunday, Briege Voyle, whose mother Joan was killed in Ballymurphy, maintains:
“Had the soldiers who killed my mother been investigated properly and held to account, Bloody Sunday would never have happened.”
Bloody Sunday became the high watermark of the Parachute Regiment’s brutality in Ireland but it wasn’t the last massacre they would be involved in.
Six months after Bloody Sunday, on 9 July 1972, the Paras left their bloody mark on another Belfast community. In the ‘Springhill Massacre’, five people were cut down by paratroop snipers hidden in Corry’s Timber Yard.
Among the dead was the second Catholic priest to be killed in greater Ballymurphy: Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, like Fr Mullan, was administering the Last Rites to men who had been shot when he himself was cut down.
Of the four others killed, Margaret Gargan was 13, David McCafferty was 14 and John Dougall was 16. Paddy Butler (38) was the father of six children.
On 9 March 1973 the Parachute Regiment arrived for duty in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Within days they had killed 28-year-old Eddie Sharpe and in the following weeks had shot dead a further four people from the area.
One of those killed was 12-year-old Tony McDowell. Tony was in a car being driven by his uncle when paratroopers opened fire, hitting the child in the back.
South Armagh schoolgirl Majella O’Hare was another victim of the Paras’ violence.
The 12-year-old was cut down in the churchyard at Ballymoyer, near Whitecross, on 14 August 1976.
As with so many of these shootings, the killers, to justify their actions, claimed that the people they killed were armed and posed a threat. They attempted to cover up their deliberate targeting of civilians by saying the casualties were hit in crossfire.
Needless to say, the judicial process – which was corrupted by the so-called “tea and sandwiches agreement” made between the British Army’s GOC and the RUC’s Chief Constable – was the cornerstone of this defence.
In truth, the 1970 agreement ensured there could not be an “effective official investigation when individuals have been killed as a result of the use of force”, as was outlined by the European Court of Human Rights in its ruling on the British Government’s refusal to hold an inquest into the 1992 killing of unarmed IRA Volunteer Pearse Jordan.
The law governing the use of lethal force by the British Army in the North allowed British soldiers to kill with impunity. The legal framework for this impunity was described by Kadar Asmal (the noted South African human rights lawyer) who chaired the Report of the International Lawyers Inquiry into the British Shoot to Kill Policy:
“We find that judges in Northern Ireland and in the British House of Lords have interpreted the law in a manner which allows too much scope for members of the security forces... The attitude of some judges amounts virtually to the endorsement of martial law.”
These findings nailed the lie that the British Army was ever intended to play a peace-keeping role in the North. The British Army, as the military wing of the British state, was implementing British policy through the force of its arms.


The Paras’ trail of blood

TWO DAYS before the internment raids of August 1971, paratroopers shot and killed 28 year old Harry Thornton, from Crossmaglen, on the Springfield Road in Belfast.
•    In the 48 hours after internment was imposed the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment killed 11 people in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast. One of the dead was a Catholic priest and another a mother of eight.
•    Six months later, in Derry, the Paras shot 13 men in a 20 minute killing spree that saw a further 14 people wounded. A 14th man, John Johnson, died later of his wounds.
•    On 9 July 1972, another Belfast community, Springhill, was left reeling as paratroopers cut down five people, including the second Catholic priest to be killed in the greater Ballymurphy area.
•    Ardoyne in North Belfast, regarded as ‘a hotbed of republican activity’, became the third Belfast community to be targeted by the Paras. Within three days of their deployment, on March 9 1973, they had killed Eddie Sharpe. In the weeks that followed, a further four people were shot dead. One of these was 12-year-old Anthony McDowell, (above).
•    12-year-old Majella O’Hare, (above) from Ballymoyler, near Whitecross in south Armagh, was also killed by a member of the Parachute Regiment. The British soldier responsible for the killing was charged with her manslaughter but was acquitted.


Ballymurphy families call for support

THE FAMILIES of the 11 people killed by paratroopers in the Ballymurphy in the aftermath of the internment raids are calling on people to support their demands for truth by attending the Walk for Truth this Saturday, 9 August.
‘The Walk’ is assembling at Springfield Park at 3pm and is making its way through the Upper Springfield area.
Earlier on Saturday, at 12 noon, the families will be unveiling a mural at the old bus terminus at the Whiterock and Springfield Road junction.
An exhibition depicting the events of the time will be on show in the Drop In Centre beside the Whiterock Spar between Thursday and Saturday.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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