A Negative Peace: 50 Years Since Bloody Sunday

It is impossible to understand the Bogside Massacre without acknowledging the colonialist nature of British occupation in Ireland.

26 min read

This article contains descriptions of torture and paramilitary and state violence

On 30th January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, twenty six unarmed civilians were shot by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment during a march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Thirteen were killed immediately; a fourteenth victim died four months later, from complications relating to their injuries. In many cases, both the killed and the injured were fleeing from the troops. Some of them had their backs turned. Seven were teenagers. This did not deter the Paras—under the command that day of Lt. Col Derek Wilford—from opening fire.

Only one victim—Gerald Donaghey, a seventeen year old member of Na Fianna Éireann—is recorded as having had any involvement with organisations linked to militant republicanism. The British Army and John Chartres, a former Territorial Army major turned client journalist for the Times of London, claimed that Donaghey was carrying nailbombs; the Saville report into the killings also concluded that this was the case. But the Pat Finucane Centre has provided a persuasive rebuttal of these accusations, and it is worth noting that they are in direct contradiction to eyewitness reports.

Between the shootings themselves and the carnage wrought by shrapnel, the concentrated use of rubber bullets, and baton charges, at least twelve more people were seriously injured. This weekend, has seen a series of events held in Derry, across Ireland, and elsewhere in the world to commemorate the victims and renew calls for justice and the prosecutions of those responsible.

1 Para was one of ten companies under the overall control and direction of Brigadier General Frank Kitson, a man steeped in the tradition of unforgiving colonial suppression across the British Empire. Kitson was also the chief theorist and engineer of a military and propaganda machine that used collusion with loyalist paramilitaries as a core tactic during Britain’s dirty war in Ireland. The findings of the recently published Police Ombudsman report into collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the RUC has identified at least 19 murders that involved “collusive behaviours”—a reality openly acknowledged by the paramilitaries themselves.

In Britain, the propaganda machine operates at full tilt. As Matthew Leslie points out, in a recent article for Derry Now:

Children across the water are rarely taught why many had to leave Ireland because of an engineered famine by Britain that starved a million Irish people or why Ireland rebelled against Britain during the First World War one Easter in 1916 or why 14 Irish people in Derry were killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday.

It is impossible to fully comprehend the events of Bloody Sunday without attending to this context. We need to understand not only Kitson’s approach to counterinsurgency, but also the foundation and functioning of the Northern Irish state, and its position within British imperialism. The anniversary of Bloody Sunday is just the latest landmark in a series of events since the end of last year that should have led to widespread reckonings with (and reassessments of) Britain’s military occupation of Ireland. Any such efforts have been disregarded and resisted at every turn by a Conservative government that has, instead, long mooted an amnesty for British soldiers accused of unlawful killings during the Troubles.

The anniversary of Bloody Sunday is just the latest landmark in a series of events since the end of last year that should have led to widespread reckonings with (and reassessments of) Britain’s military occupation of Ireland.

Ballymurphy, Internment, and The Hooded Men

While the British press is happy enough to acknowledge that those present on Bloody Sunday were assembled to march under the banner of civil rights, they are generally less willing or able to outline the specific and serious violations of those rights that the marchers were opposing that day. While ‘civil rights’ was always an umbrella term for a variety of injustices, the main focus of the marchers was the introduction of internment without trial for republicans by then-Northern Irish Prime Minister Brian Faulkner—against the advice of even some senior officials in the Army—in an attempt to subdue a resurgent IRA.1

At 4.30am on 9th August 1971, British troops hurtled into nationalist communities across the Six Counties in a series of dawn raids. 342 people were interned—arrested and imprisoned without trial—during the first wave of incursions. The claim was that these raids targeted only armed militants. But British intelligence was often poor or otherwise outdated, with the result being the violent arrest of swathes of non-combatant, civilian nationalists guilty of nothing more than having a postcode located in a majority Catholic district.
In Ballymurphy, Belfast, 1 Para—who were referred to internally by other British Army companies as “Kitson’s Private Army”—perpetrated a massacre. Over two days, ten civilians were killed outright, while another died from a heart attack brought on by intimidation and harassment from a soldier. Just as they would after Bloody Sunday, the Paras justified their actions by claiming to have been responding to the threat of attack from republicans, despite there being no evidence to back up this claim. It was a chilling omen of what was to come.

A significant number of active IRA volunteers, alerted by their own intelligence, had got wind of the raids and had quietly gone into hiding before the operation began. This meant that, in the first phase of the operation, many detainees who self-identified as republicans were either inactive, retired from active service, or not involved with any political or armed resistance campaigns. In many cases, the Army simply refused to distinguish between peaceful civil rights protestors, politically non-involved civilians, and paramilitaries.

The building of the notorious Long Kesh prison, complete with observation towers and barbed wire fences enclosing prefabricated prison huts, was a clear signal that internment was looming. As targets were dragged from their homes in the early hours of the morning, their front doors smashed in, relatives and neighbours witnessed abuse, property damage, and violence. 14 men were identified for so-called “special treatment”. They were taken to a secret location, later revealed to be in Ballykelly, County Derry, for interrogation. This location was a centre for the torture of those identified as republicans—whether real or imagined, and regardless of whether their republicanism consisted merely in holding an opinion—a process firmly in keeping with the British Army’s counterinsurgency tactics.

The men were subjected to sustained and humiliating verbal abuse, death threats, and beatings. They were forced to wear hoods to deprive them of their senses, and were bundled into helicopters, from which, they were told, they would be thrown to their deaths. When the terrified men were pushed out of the helicopter doors, the fact that they were actually hovering close to the ground did little to lessen the trauma of this sadistic ordeal. And the brutalisation was not yet over. Next they were subjected to what the Army referred to—with a chilling blandness—as “The Five Techniques”: more hooding, the forced adoption of stress positions, denial of food and water, denial of sleep, and subjection to blasts of harrowing white noise. Not a single one of the fourteen tortured in this way were ever convicted for a criminal offence.

In 2014, after years of campaigning by survivors and relatives, the PSNI finally outright refused to continue its investigation into what happened to these men. The victims took their case to the Supreme Court, and on December 15th 2021, the PSNI’s decision was ruled “wrong” and “irrational”. While welcome in one sense, the verdict disappointed many in its failure to question the suitability of the PSNI to conduct any further inquiry. Although now nominally a cross-community, representative policing initiative, the PSNI was launched in 2001 as a rebrand, and supposedly reformed, version of the RUC—the police force notorious for their record of violent sectarianism and collusion with loyalist paramilitaries throughout the decades-long war in the north of Ireland.

The PSNI, RUC and the Negative Peace

As Liam O’Ruairc has cogently argued, though few in the north of Ireland support a return to armed hostilities, the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions spawned from it operate on a frustratingly ill-defined and deliberately diffuse remit of creating “shared institutions” for a “shared Ireland” celebrating a “shared history”. This approach elides the deliberately embedded breaks in the agreement on concrete issues of transformative societal and economic justice, which can be viewed as having solidified the neoliberal order in the north of Ireland. For Tommy McKearney, the former East Tyrone Provisional volunteer and hunger striker, and a Marxist republican now active in the Independent Workers’ Union, it is possible to view the post-GFA state as having entrenched the supremacy of a “new cross-sectarian political class”, which has resulted in an cementing of social and cultural divisions. Amid vapid exhortations around identity, and the lack of any meaningful, democratic efforts to establish truth and justice processes since the agreement was signed, the reality is that what O’Ruairc refers to as a “negative peace” has been established. People are thankful for peace as the absence of war, but remain needful of reconciliation and resolution for the traumas of the past, whether directly experienced or inherited.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that more than half of the ‘peace lines’ in the Six Counties were established after the conflict had formally ended. The PSNI, as one of the most visible symbols of the supposedly post-colonial Stormont, seems to have little interest in revisiting the historical crimes and inadequacies of the RUC, the institution it was born from (and remains, for many, inseparable from). The Supreme Court’s assertion that they saw no reason why the PSNI might be compromised in any future investigation of the Hooded Men case is considered naïve by various campaigners and many republicans of a radical or traditional bent.

These suspicions are waved away especially loudly by those—such as the Justice Minister, Naomi Long—with a level of financial comfort and social status afforded to them by a peacetime capitalist economy, regardless of the presence of a party within its power sharing initiative that once sought to destroy the state itself. Sinn Féin’s landmark 2007 commitment to supporting the PSNI was hailed as the ultimate symbol of the political wing of Provisionalism having renounced the last vestiges of its anti-state militancy. Yet, for both republicans of the socialist left and more traditionally minded activists (those primarily focused on the achievement of national sovereignty ahead of the establishment of a socialist republic), the move triggered an exodus, whether into so called “dissident” organisations, community- or workplace-focused struggles, or independent republican activity.

This has often been exploited by commentators and analysts to foster the erroneous presumption that criticism and suspicion of the PSNI is the result of that age-old commentariat catnip: a “political agenda”—as if it is possible, or even desirable, to criticise a repressive arm of the state without recourse to the political. If this sort of analysis is taken at face value and in good faith (which is to give it rather more credit than it deserves), we might want to ask: why has the British government mooted legislation to quash historic prosecutions of British soldiers who served during the Troubles, prosecutions which might further bring to public attention the role of collusion in Britain’s dirty war in Ireland? Furthermore, if the PSNI really is the symbol of a post-conflict, better integrated, and less sectarian society, why are the Hooded Men so adamant that the PSNI is unfit for purpose? Why does the organisation still struggle to recruit Catholics? Why do polls indicate that, despite the party’s commitment to the PSNI, Sinn Féin voters do not share the enthusiasm of the leadership for the police force? Unpacking these political realities requires an exploration of the origins of policing in Northern Ireland, and its relation to sectarianism and British militarism.

If the PSNI really is the symbol of a post-conflict, better integrated, and less sectarian society, why are the Hooded Men so adamant that the PSNI is unfit for purpose?

The Orange State: Origins and Formation

The neutral framing of the British Army’s presence in the north of Ireland during the Troubles belies the fact that its operations were not conducted as a paternalistic ‘peacekeeping force’—despite the protestations of Conservative MPs—but as a counterinsurgency operation designed to prop up a statelet kept afloat by the suppression of a minority. There is sometimes a misconception that the Ulster Unionist Party, ensconced as rulers after partition in 1921, were motivated only by a reactive, purely provincial politics: constituency MPs and prominent Unionist community leaders catapulted into prominence by historical circumstance. Yet James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, had served in government at Westminster, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Pensions, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty. Edward Carson, the Dublin-born Unionist and figurehead of the Ulster Covenanters was Attorney General in Asquith’s multi-party coalition cabinet at the height of the First World War. These were bourgeois politicians, steeped in the ideologies of empire, who lived and worked at the very heart of the traditionalist Conservative establishment.

The Ulster Unionist leaders were bourgeois politicians, steeped in the ideologies of empire, who lived and worked at the very heart of the traditionalist Conservative establishment.

Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative leader during the turmoil triggered by the Third Home Rule Bill of 1912, was, even by the standards of the time, outspoken in his enthusiastic support for the Ulster Volunteers (the paramilitary group established, in reaction to the Bill, to oppose home rule by force of arms). Irish nationalists countered by founding the Irish Volunteers, members of whom would participate in the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. These volunteers formed the nucleus of what would become known as the Irish Republican Army. Bonar Law was instrumental in advocating the arming and funding of the Ulster Volunteers. It was the Tory party that was the first nationwide British political party to fund and arm a paramilitary organisation of this nature, with Bonar Law going as far as to openly threaten insurrection against parliament when he famously declared: “there are things stronger than parliamentary majorities”.2 In this light, Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 insistence, at the height of the Hunger Strikes that, “crime is crime is crime and there could be no question of political status for the republican prisoners of war in the H Blocks” was ironic in the extreme.

The onset of the First World War saw the Ulster Volunteers, now organised under the banner of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), enlist en masse in the Ulster Division and Irish regiments of the British Army. The 36th Ulster Division alone would lose 2000 men during the horrors of the Somme, a sacrifice which loyalists felt certain would secure their status within the Empire. Many participants in both constitutional and armed loyalist politics felt that such a large number of deaths could not possibly be ignored by the British establishment, and this ‘contribution’ to the war effort remains a potent symbol within the community.

During the war, the British government had made a number of blunders that rapidly increased sympathy for the cause of Irish independence—not least the summary execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the attempt, in 1918, to introduce conscription to Ireland. The general election of that year definitively ended the grip of constitutional Irish nationalism (as embodied by the Irish Parliamentary Party and its leader at Westminster, John Redmond) over nationalist politics on the island.

Forgoing the constitutional route, a majority in Ireland had instead voted for Sinn Féin: a party whose candidates included a significant number of veterans of the Rising, many of whom campaigned in the fatigues of the defeated rebel army. This was a clear democratic mandate for independence—one that went unrecognised by the British, directly resulting in the establishment of the separatist Dáil Éireann and the outbreak of the War of Independence during the opening months of 1919.

In the summer of 1920, the north of the country exploded in what many nationalists referred to as anti-Catholic pogroms. In Belfast and other urban centres, thousands of Catholic workers (along with a tremendously courageous minority of so-called “Rotten Prods”—Protestant anti-sectarians, trade unionists and socialists in favour of cross community working class solidarity—were ejected from their workplaces, forced out of their homes, and attacked on the streets by loyalist mobs. At least 20 Catholics were killed, 7,000 workers were out of work, and numerous Catholic homes and businesses were destroyed.

UVF members played a key role in these events, leading James Craig to formally request that the organisation be taken under the umbrella of the British state and used as a colonial police force. Despite some press opposition, and serious misgivings from members of his own party, David Lloyd George (then leader of a Tory-dominated coalition government) agreed to the formation of a “special constabulary”. UVF Commander Wilfrid Spender was duly appointed to oversee the process, and on 1st November 1920, the Ulster Special Constabulary was officially announced by the British government. A few weeks later, Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act 1920; the following May, when it came into force, Ireland was formally partitioned.

Ever since the 1918 election, which returned such a decisive mandate for republicanism across the island, key loyalist figures had been mooting the idea of partition. One problem remained, however: the continuing existence of IRA activity in the north, which posed a threat both to pre-existing colonial domination, and for loyalist plans to enshrine unionist hegemony after partition. The Ulster Special Constabulary was the solution: a localised, specific police force that would discipline the north, leaving Royal Irish Constabulary free to focus purely on subduing the IRA in the south.

What this meant in practice was that many of those most aggressively active in the pogroms were deliberately given arms, status, and state validation. A force drawn from the most violent elements of loyalism was now licensed to police the minority Catholic community (around a quarter of the population) of the new ‘nation’ of Northern Ireland. This was no pragmatic rearguard action. It was an ideological decision on behalf of the state’s founders, who far from being the loyalist analogue of republican separatism of the British press imaginary, were deeply embedded within the traditions of British imperialism and conservatism. These loyalists sought to gerrymander and police the new state along colonial lines. The 1924 Boundary Commission, established to demarcate the geographical and political borders of the new state, offered loyalist grandees the opportunity for a larger territorial section of the island’s north west: nine counties instead of six, with the addition of Monaghan, Donegal, and Cavan. The loyalists rejected this offer, preferring instead to rule over the six counties within which they could guarantee both their political domination and the systemic oppression of the nationalist populace.

Many of those most aggressively active in the pogroms were deliberately given arms, status, and state validation. A force drawn from the most violent elements of loyalism was now licensed to police the minority Catholic community.

This is the pre-history of the Troubles, the foundational logic of the state which republicans sought to destroy and loyalism sought to maintain at all costs. The position of revisionist historiography, which generally concludes that the British state was a neutral arbiter, besieged by the mawkish militancy of sectarian blood-and-soil nationalists, disintegrates upon even the mildest inspection, and is in fact a direct inversion of political reality. James Craig, the millionaire descendent of a whisky magnate whose cultural mores were indistinguishable from his English Tory peers, was the exemplar of the loyalist ruling class in this regard. He was imbricated completely within British imperialism, and employed precisely the same divide-and-rule tactics and in-built discriminatory structures as could be see in any other British colonial outpost.

While the relationship between the two is complex (sometimes resulting in violent confrontation), we must nevertheless view collusion between the British Army and loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles as more than simply a rearguard response to an escalating conflict. Rather, it should be seen as the continuation of an ongoing process of colonial occupation.

Frank Kitson, Normalisation and Collusion

By the late 1960s, the Catholic minority in the north had embarked upon a large-scale struggle calling for civil rights and the dissolution of what was, in practice, a one party state at Stormont. The arrival of British troops on the streets was far from a simple peacekeeping operation, and was correctly viewed by republicans as the start of a collaborative, if often tense, approach to colonial policing by the statelet and the imperial core.

Frank Kitson was schooled and deeply embedded in colonial counterinsurgency. In his book Low Intensity Operations—essentially a manual on how to both physically and ideologically suppress counterinsurgency movements—Kitson emphasises the importance not only of effective repressive force, but on the construction of a colonial hegemony. For Kitson, the successful implementation of occupation and extraction is reliant on “normalisation”. In the Irish context, this resulted in the construction of a “common sense” narrative that British involvement in policing was a regrettable fact of life. In this framing, the conflict played out between two permanently warring tribes on an ethno-religious (and certainly not political or economic) basis, because, it was inferred, the working class of both communities were incapable of integration.

This was a cynical and ahistorical distortion. The unity of working class Catholics and Protestants during the great industrial unrest of the 1920s, when more votes were received for socialist republicans on the Shankill than on the Falls, was still within living memory. Far from policing and arbitrating between sectarian elements, the British presence only embedded essentialist categorisations further. Within this context, the likelihood of an increasingly dirty war in Ireland increased markedly.

Far from policing and arbitrating between sectarian elements, the British presence only embedded essentialist categorisations further.

Yet Kitson’s tactics are not now viewed as an outdated model for a nation of dwindling geopolitical relevancy and power. They continue to inform British military operations to this day. Despite the extremely contestable outcome of his operations in the Six Counties, his influence can be seen in modern counterinsurgency doctrines. Sympathetic historians and other academics seem happy to overlook the fact that he had overall responsibility for some of the worst atrocities committed during the conflict, and was personally implicated in formalising and instituting networks of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

By the time of Bloody Sunday, Kitson had been Brigade Commander for just over a year. Another product of the pipeline from elite British educational institutions (in this case Stowe School) to command positions in the military, he had written Low Intensity Operations during a visiting fellowship at University College, Oxford. Ireland offered Kitson not only a laboratory within which he could update his experiences of counterinsurgent repression, but also a place to road test his modifications.

Kitson had already played a part in several shameful episodes in British imperial history: he received the Military Cross for his role in the brutal suppression of Kenyan Mau Mau rebels, and was further decorated in 1958 for “the virtual elimination of two communist party branches in a difficult area” during the Anti-British Liberation War in Malaya. He was also involved in the suppression of anti-British uprisings in Cyprus. What he learned from these experiences, and brought with him to Ireland, was the necessity of normalising the British occupation. If the British presence could be framed as ‘peacekeeping’—as the only thing preventing a bloody civil war from breaking out—any insurgency would come to seem like an overreaction at best, and at worst, something foolhardy and dangerous. The end goal of this strategy was the undermining of material and community support for the Provisional IRA. As the writer and literary critic Deaglán Ó Donghaile observes, the aim “was to ensure that the interests served by state violence should become so normalised as to be obscure, untraceable, unidentifiable, even invisible.” This involved a direct policy of the co-option of “local organisations… to create compliant front-groups (Kitson called these ‘pseudo-groups’) that were loyal to the deep state.”

The main aim of the pseudo-groups was to infiltrate both republican and loyalist communities with the aim of flipping the adherents of political violence into state agents (a process many radical republicans today would argue, pointing to the political evolution of Sinn Féin and its record as a party of government, was a thorough success). Kitson established interrogation centres (“operational bases”) in which large scale “information gathering” was carried out. For republicans, these centres became one of the most blatantly provocative visualisations of the occupation. Many of the centres were public knowledge, although some, such as the former airstrip in Ballykelly to which the Hooded Men were taken, were not. Anybody interned in one of these centres was likely to be subject to the harshest treatment; Kitson himself argued in favour of the use of the Five Techniques in these institutions. The Five Techniques were later adopted by the US military during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Misinformation, Obfuscation and Spin

Kitson’s efforts were not purely directed at combatants. He was an efficient and flagrant practitioner of what now be referred to as ‘spin’. This mostly involved active campaigns of misinformation and the deliberate planting of false or irrelevant information within sections of the media. It was reliant on the establishment of friendly client journalists—such as John Chartres—who were rewarded with first access to statements, stories, and interviews. In the case of the McGurk’s Bar bombing, Kitson’s model of media manipulation was deployed to not only blame victims for their own demise, and to shield elements of the British Army, the RUC, and loyalist paramilitaries from justice.

McGurk’s was actually called the Tramore Bar, but everybody called it McGurk’s, after its owners. Patrick and Philomena McGurk lived with their children above their pub on North Queen Street, located in the New Lodge district to the north of the city centre. Just before 9pm on 4th December 1971, a masked UVF volunteer emerged from a car outside the pub—which was open at the time—and planted a 50lb gelignite bomb in the doorway. One patron died immediately from the blast; fourteen more would perish in a horrifically drawn-out fashion, crushed or trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsing building. Seventeen more patrons of the bar—all of whom were non-combatant civilians—were injured. Two of the dead were children.

This was the most deadly incident in an escalating series of reprisal pub bombings that year. In 1971, the Provisionals had upped their offensive campaign. British soldiers were lured from and targeted in civilian pubs—a tactic that led to Protestant civilian deaths and casualties, and prompted escalating acts of response in kind from loyalists. These events have to be read within the context of internment and its grossly unjust planning, implementation, and undergirding motivations. There was a conscious, separate policy created for those suspected to be engaged in extremist political violence on the pro-British side, such that not a single loyalist was interned until 1973—by which time, as Ciarán MacAirt, whose grandparents were killed in the bombing, has pointed out, they had already killed hundreds of Catholics, the vast majority of whom were not involved in republicanism at all. While there were rumblings of discontent of a purely pragmatic sort from the British political elite, the Northern Irish prime Minister, Brain Faulkner, insisted that internment be targeted at the Catholic community only, for fear he would lose the backing of his own MPs, not to mention his own police service—which, as we have already seen, was the direct product of imperial British conservatism. While the Provos themselves engaged in no-warning pub bombings during this time, the tactic was to become a hallmark of the UVF’s use of explosive weaponry during the conflict, with the massacre at McGurk’s remaining the loyalist organisation’s deadliest bomb attack of the entire Troubles.

Almost immediately after the attack had occurred, Kitson’s policy of spin and misinformation was put into action. Rumours began to circulate that the bombing was the work of the Provos—implausibly accusing an IRA which was at that point deeply embedded within its own community of an ‘own goal’. MacAirt has (along with other survivors and relatives), pieced together evidence that the true nature of the bomb was deliberately obscured, that witness testimony was ignored and witnesses intimidated, and that many of those responsible were bound up in Kitson’s web of informers and agents, and thus able to evade justice. When a British bomb expert concluded the bombing had been caused by the explosive device left in the bars doorway by loyalists, the British Army censored the findings from public consumption, maintaining the line that the explosion was the result of a Provisional bomb handover gone wrong. This was not only a falsehood—it directly blamed the victims, criminalising them in the eyes of the wider world as Provisionals by association.

According to both MacAirt and David Burke (in his recently published book, Kitson’s Irish War), Kitson, as the Brigade Commander with regional responsibility at the time of the McGurk’s bomb, could easily have prevented this damaging, hurtful lie from circulating. Instead, he chose to direct any public information that contradicted the British Army line to the RUC. We now know that the RUC colluded with the UVF, UDA, and RHC paramilitaries throughout the conflict, and that there was significant crossover in terms of membership between the state police, the UDR (the Northern Irish buffer regiment of the British Army) and the UVF/UDA, with RUC officers sometimes directing and running entire UVF units. The RUC was, therefore, only too happy to peddle the ‘own goal’ myth.

According to an eyewitness cited in the 2011 Police Ombudsman’s Report, RUC and Army checkpoints near the pub had been removed around an hour before the attack. The report also stated that no records of such checkpoints having ever existed could be found in military or police archives.

The Miami Showband Massacre

Bombing campaigns during the Troubles were largely synonymous, at least in the British imaginary, with the Provisional IRA. Although far less frequent, both the Official IRA and the INLA also carried out explosive attacks on English soil during the conflict. The UVF—more organisationally secretive and traditionally militarised than the larger UDA—were responsible for all major loyalist bombings. As the historian of loyalism Iain Sinclair has pointed out, on his essential Balaclava Street blog, the UDA “had neither the knowledge nor resources to sustain a serious bombing campaign”, their explosive arsenal after the early years of the conflict being largely limited to “primitive pipe bombs”. This is in part reflective of the origins and function of the two respective major loyalist paramilitary groups. The UDA emerged out of various local mass membership community defence associations in direct response to events as they developed after 1969. The UVF—whose founders adopted the name of the early twentieth century militia—started life as a diffuse, interrelated web of overlapping allegiances within a broad militant opposition to the civil rights campaign spearheaded by NICRA (though republicans and IRA volunteers were involved in civil rights organisations, they certainly did not dominate them to the extent that loyalists have claimed). The assemblage that would give rise to the new UVF included the Paisleyite Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and its paramilitary wing, the Ulster Protestant Volunteers.

The first leader of the UVF was Gusty Spence, a former police sergeant in the Royal Ulster Rifles. The paramilitary UVF mythologised itself from the earliest days of the conflict as a disciplined military body of well-trained, professional volunteers, distinguishing themselves from the amateurish street fighters of the UDA. The UVF combatant and PUP politician David Ervine once said he’d “rather have been a private in the UVF than a general in the UDA”.
From the very start of the Troubles, the UVF was involved in explosive attacks, although at the outset these were crude and unsophisticated affairs. On 7th May 1966, 77 year old Protestant Matilda Gould was the first victim of such an attack when a UVF unit missed their intended target (a Catholic-owned bar and off-licence) in Upper Charleville Street on the Shankill Road, and instead petrol-bombed her home. While the UVF’s bomb-making expertise never reached the sustained effectiveness and frequency of that managed by the Provisionals, in 1974, it was responsible for bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan that claimed the lives of 33 and injured 300 more in the deadliest combined attack of the Troubles (only the 1998 Real IRA bomb in Omagh would claim more victims in a single bombing incident than the McGurk massacre).

On 30th July 1975, the intersections between loyalist paramilitarism, the British Army, and the security state claimed even more victims. This time, the dead were members of the popular Miami Showband, a mixed group with a cross-community fanbase and a touring schedule that took in all of Ireland. They were travelling back south to Dublin after a gig in County Down, when they were waved down by what appeared to a British Army roadblock. But it was a ruse. The uniformed soldiers were, in fact, UVF members—some of whom also served in the UDR (the unit of the British army dedicated to Frank Kitson’s normalisation policy). Instead of checking the van for suspicious materials, the UVF attempted to plant a bomb in the vehicle. When the device exploded prematurely, killing two of their number, the surviving UVF members turned their guns on the band. Musicians Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty were killed. Their bandmate Stephen Travers was also shot, but survived by playing dead as the killers fled.

Travers filed a civil case on behalf of himself and the families of other survivors, accusing the British state of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries—particularly Robin Jackson, who is known to have been an agent of British intelligence, and whose fingerprints were found on one of the guns used in the attack. Jackson was charged of nothing other than owning the silencer that was used, and was acquitted even of that; meanwhile, two other members of the gang were charged with, and convicted of, murder. On December 13th 2021, the British government settled with Travers out of court for the sum of £1.5m. It is hard to take this as anything other than admission of guilt—and is especially chilling when taken in the context of proposed legislation to prevent any further retrospective prosecutions for British soldiers accused of historic crimes in Ireland.

One anniversary and two court verdicts of this nature should have led to widespread reflection in British politics, media, and wider civil society around the British occupation of Ireland. But to do this would require us to have serious discussions about colonialism and militarism that often feel impossible. The dominating British right, of course, deems any such reflection entirely unnecessary. Meanwhile, liberals fear that a close inspection of events will reveal the hollow cowardice of the “neutrality” thesis they have helped to foster over decades of parroting back the government’s framing. The occupation and the Troubles, we should remember, endured through the governments of both major political parties;3 meanwhile, as Sam Porter and Denis O’Hearn pointed out in 1995, “between November 1970 and October 1994 the New Left Review did not publish a single article on Ireland…the leading theoretical journal of the British Left either failed or refused to engage the issue.” Many in Britain struggle to understand the anger and grief of those who have for centuries been occupied, starved, brutalised, and slaughtered in our name.

So it was that, while the right wing press decried the “witch hunts” of British soldiers, on the Guardian’s website front page, the Miami Showband verdict was relegated to a tiny block, ¾ of the way down the page, that contained various other stories presumably deemed low-interest. The Tree of the Year Competition 2021 got a higher billing: unlike Travers or his murdered friends, the Tree of the Year was deemed important enough for a photo.

While the British media’s insistence on suppressing these stories is predictable, readers outside of Ireland will perhaps be surprised to learn the extent to which the survivors, victims and families of these historic injustices have been under-served by the media in the 26 counties. There is a feeling among republicans that the Irish media have long neglected and played down the crimes of the British state, blaming northern Catholics and nationalists in the north for what has been done to them. This was neatly encapsulated by the recently reaction to a viral interview with GAA commentator Joe Brolly, who articulated the feelings of a significant portion of northern nationalists, who feel neglected and looked down on by the ascendent middle class of the Republic. (This class dynamic is touched on further in Brian Hanley’s excellent history of the impact of the Troubles on the Irish Republic, which recounts refugees from the north being derisively referred to by the names of the budget lager and burgers they enjoyed consuming.)

Similarly, much ink and outrage was spilt when Gerry Adams appeared in a Christmas charity fundraising video featuring him dressed as Santa, riffing on the Irish republican slogan “Tiocfaidh ár lá” and referencing his famous refusal to “confirm or deny” IRA membership. A Sinn Féin spokesperson was quoted in the press as calling for Adams to apologise. For many republicans, the attention given to the Adams and Brolly events, in comparison with the media treatment of the McGurk’s anniversary and the verdicts in the Hooded Men and Miami Showbands cases, is indicative of precisely the problem to which Brolly referred. While some view the likelihood of a Sinn Féin-led coalition forming the next Irish government as the evidence of a slow shift in these sorts of attitudes, the willingness of the party in the north to fully embrace the pacification process is a cause for concern for many more.

What the Bloody Sunday, McGurk’s and Miami Showband massacres demonstrate is that the British state in Ireland—whether through collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, the creation of pseudo-military units to manage and direct UVF and UDA agents, or the detention and torture of innocent civilians—was far from the neutral arbiter it presented itself as. Instead, it was propping up an apparatus, a set of relationships of domination, that had been rendered in its own image and was responsible for the internal suppression of its minority. The nation of Northern Ireland was founded with the express encouragement and support of the British political class, with its founders inseparable, in politics and in attitude, from the ideologues of high empire at Westminster. To this end, it oversaw the subsumption of loyalist paramilitarism into the very fabric of the security state—a bloody legacy of which the atrocities and collusion of the Troubles were a direct result.

The idea that criticism of a police force can ever be disentangled from the political is a nonsense, as is the notion that anti-PSNI sentiment can be seen as an automatic indicator of a commitment to political violence. Such assertions are nothing less than a crude disciplining tool, a method of deflection and delegitimisation that conveniently casts the north of Ireland as not only a post-conflict society, but a post-colonial one. The proposed legislation for an amnesty on the prosecution of British Army veterans should remind us that this characterisation is very far from accurate.

The idea that criticism of a police force can ever be disentangled from the political is a nonsense. Such assertions are nothing less than a crude disciplining tool.

  1. In January 1972, both the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA were engaged in an armed campaign; the latter having split from the former in December 1969 and carrying out its first offensive operations in the months thereafter. 

  2. See Tim Pat Coogan. 2002. _The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, p.17. 

  3. For example, Roy Mason, Secretary of State in the Callaghan Labour government, aggressively pursued the Kitson-derived ideology of ‘Ulsterisation’. 


Daniel Baker (@handloomlament)

Daniel Baker (@handloomlament) is a writer, FE worker and trade unionist. He writes about the history of Irish republicanism on his blog The Echo of the Thunder. His writing on film and music can be found at Hand Loom Lament