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British hypocrisy and
brutality in Northern Ireland




Jonathan Power

April 9, 2003

LONDON - When Prime Minister Tony Blair met President George Bush in Belfast earlier this week there was highfalutin talk on the British side of the hope that Bush would take home the lesson of Northern Ireland: that even the most intractable conflicts can be peacefully resolved. The British, even as they walk in America's shadow, love to cock a snook at their transatlantic kissing cousin - whether it is the British soldiers in Iraq jeering quietly at the American soldiers' affected wearing of sun-glasses or the boasting of unique skills the British supposedly possess, after years of counter insurgency work in Northern Ireland, in dealing with urban warfare. Or the treatment by U.S. forces of captured Iraqi fighters.

Much of this is a bowlful of self-serving hypocrisy dealt out by those with short memories. The initial decision in 1971 to send into Northern Ireland the British army, supposedly to protect the Catholic population under threat from Protestant extremists was an ill-advised one. Untrained for conflict in its own land, it was too easily provoked by a newly reconstituted Irish Republican Army. It didn't take long before the memories of those early welcoming cups of tea were replaced by hatred as the army repeatedly overstepped the mark and became itself a major provocative element.

Later this month John Stevens, London's police commissioner, will present the results of a long inquiry into charges of collusion between army intelligence and Protestant terrorists.

According to Philip Stevens writing in the Financial Times, who has access to the report's contents, "the conclusions, and there is no exaggeration here, are horrifying". Stevens reports that "the undercover Force Research Unit, which reported directly to the senior British commander in the province, colluded systematically with loyalist [Protestant] terrorists in the murder of Republican [Catholic] sympathisers‚"They gave loyalists all the intelligence they needed for their brutal murder spree."

It has taken a long time for the truth to out. As long ago as 1976 the European Commission on Human Rights found the British government guilty of "torture, inhuman and degrading treatment." From 1972 onwards when Amnesty International published its path-breaking "Report of an Enquiry into Allegations of Ill Treatment in Northern Ireland" the organization has maintained a fairly continuous drumbeat of revelations and recommendations. As long ago as the early 1980s it accused the British government of complicity in political killings of IRA activists. As a result of a good deal of public protest, in May 1984 a senior police officer, John Stalker, was asked to investigate the cover ups. Stalker was later to allege that he was obstructed from carrying out a full investigation and that he had discovered evidence of unlawful killings by police. He was removed from duty. The inquiry was completed by another police officer and in 1988 the attorney-general announced that Ulster police had "attempted or conspired to pervert the course of justice". However, because of "national security considerations", no officer was prosecuted.

The outcry did have the effect of the government deciding to return the main responsibility for covert operations to the army. Between 1976 and 1992, Amnesty believes, soldiers from the army's elite regiment, the Special Air Services, killed 37 reported members of the IRA. There were no reports of SAS actions against Protestant paramilitaries. Amnesty said many times over the years that the British government had evaded its responsibilities by "hiding behind an array of legal procedures and secret enquiries which serve to cloud the issues".

Moreover, the deeply flawed inquests worked to obstruct the victims' families from obtaining the full facts. There was the non-disclosure in advance of forensic and witness statements. Inquests were often delayed inordinately, eleven years in one case.

Until very recently Amnesty's words fell most of the time on deaf ears. Only now over thirty years on is the truth being allowed to emerge.  Of course the torture, brutality and murder dealt out by the British army and the Ulster police cannot be compared with that inflicted by their counterparts in, say, Chile and Guatemala. Nevertheless, by the self-imposed standards of a long-standing, mature state, governed by the legislation of freely elected parliamentarians and enjoying an independent judiciary, it has been a serious falling short.

Human rights standards are not meant for periods of harmony in society, but for situations of conflict and stress in the body politic. Successive British governments ignored the gospel they regularly preach to the outside world.

Many of us asked more than once: how could the country that gave birth to Amnesty International become itself a state that bent the rules, subverted the law and undermined the world-wide raising of standards it was intent on promoting?

If Britain couldn't behave better, why should anyone else?


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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