Dirty War (3)

John Black (2008) Killing for Britain. Frontline Noir Publishing

John Black’s is a loyalist voice. His views, motivations and judgements are far from supportive of the rights of self-determination for the Irish nation.

He was active at the height of “The troubles” in the first half of the 1970s when a military conflict of annihilation was fought. The military wing of Westminster – the British army – applied its colonial experience on the streets and fields of the Six counties.

John Black’s story centres on one element in the arsenal of repression from the ‘dirty war’ – how state and military intelligences colluded to organise and direct what acted as its proxy death squads, loyalist paramilitaries. Black offers an eyewitness account, albeit an increasingly reluctant participant, in state sanctioned murder. His involvement, and account of state sponsored murder was in defence of the protestant community in Northern Ireland. For him, militant republicanism was clearly the enemy. His activities included joining the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) “in order to defend my homeland from the danger of being overrun by republican terrorists.”

Can you believe what you read?

There is a lot of reconstructed dialogue which is often true of a memoir and questions can be raised about verifiable accuracy. There are the asides mentioning information learnt from reading (for example, Martin Dillion) that supports his narrative. Within a wider context, Black’s account of the Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) use of loyalist paramilitaries as their weapon to incite a sectarian conflict is an element in wider supporting evidence of hidden collusion and murder at the behest of the Crown forces shrouded in political deniability.

The British state’s dirty war in Ireland has had it contours and some specifics exposed in memoirs, journalistic accounts and even limited official reports. Even Black’s polished account helps build a more complete picture of the mindset of participants entangled in the nefarious intrigues of different British agencies aiming to crush armed republicanism. His account  is not so much about the British army as about the proxy paramilitaries trained, equipped and supplied target information by their army handlers. What hit the headlines in May 2021 was more about the behaviour of actual soldiers of the state : Soldiers A and C had their murder trial of an unarmed Official IRA commander Joe McCann stopped on a predictable technicality: the prosecution’s only evidence offered was testimony not taken under legal caution, so rejected as inadmissible by the court. That case related to events way back in 1972.

Likewise fifty years after the event, a Coroner’s inquest in Northern Ireland has declared ten people killed in Belfast during a British army operation in 1971 around Ballymurph were unarmed, innocent civilians and posed no threat to soldiers. There had been the typical disinformation efforts to depict most of the dead as IRA members with contemporary media repeating the army lies of “snipers” being targeted. Amongst the victims, Father Hugh Mullan, a parish priest, was hit by at least two bullets as he read the last rites to an injured man.

All of the deceased in the series of inquests were entirely innocent of wrongdoing on the day in question,” said the coroner, Mrs Justice Keegan, dismissing claims by soldiers that some of the victims had been armed and shooting”.

“The Parachute Regiment spent several chaotic days detaining and shooting people in Ballymurphy from 9 to 11 August. There were no TV crews or newspaper photographers to document what happened – unlike in Derry five months later when the same regiment massacred protesters” .  Ten people shot dead in Ballymurphy were innocent, inquest finds | Northern Ireland | The Guardian

The first incident that Black recalls tells of state sanctioned murder when the selected loyalist paramilitaries were trained and supplied for the bombing of McGurk’s Bar on December 6th 1971. Fifteen dead, passed off in the propaganda war as “an own goal” – the supposed result of premature explosion killing the bombers. In 1977, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member Robert Campbell was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the bombing. An official report from February 2011 stated there was no evidence that the RUC helped the UVF bombers; Black says the MRF did. Researcher Ciaran Marsh has written [https:/mcgurksbar.com] on the bombing and the Ministry of Defense’ failure to provide any further information relating to the discovery of a covert military operation close to McGurk’s bar, although it had previously told historic investigators there were no British military units in the area.

The apology for the events to the families of 10 people killed by the British army in Ballymurphy that took five decades to wring out of the British establishment was framed as regrettable “terrible errors” rather than operational policy. It follows on from David Cameron apologising in the House of Commons after the Bloody Sunday inquest in 2010, yet the connivance at the time remains buried, unacknowledged and consigned to an Orwellian memory hole. What were the consequence for Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery and all?

John Black’s account, for all its confusion and caveats of that day’s unfolding events, states senior British officer “advocated the shooting of unarmed civilians” and again the choice to use the Parachute Regiment was deliberate. Black thought “You are forced to conclude that there were plans for mass murder to be committed that day.” [p136]

To speak of a troubled history without assessing what contributed to causing those times, acknowledging “their long and distressing quest for truth” avoids the focus on those who have evaded and obstructed that odyssey. Ministers may talk of the terrible hurt and then quickly move on until the next unresolved killings has its moment in the media spotlight.

In the unsigned letter sent by ‘The Prime Minister’ dated May 12th 2021 to the families of the Ballymurphy victims, Johnson “apologised unreservedly” as if the public acknowledgement fifty years after the event can divert the divergence between rhetoric and state action.

The killings happened in the days following the introduction of internment without trial and the whole sectarian onslaught, Long Kesh, judge only Diplock Courts, rubber bullets on the streets, H-Blocks, repressive laws and policing followed, accompanying what is played down as “The Troubles” with its secret dirty war and shoot to kill. The public relations exercise of an apology without consequences means nothing.

British deception continues. At the same time there was speculation that Britain could stop any future prosecutions over crimes committed by soldiers in Northern Ireland. The leaked proposal would apply to former members of the security forces and possibly paramilitaries too. There are believed to be up to 700 other former members of the military who could be facing possible charges, and seven cases are already “active”. The Times and the Telegraph reported that British ministers are set to introduce a statute of limitations so that no one can be charged for their involvement in any incidents that took place before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Black blends his own (partial) memory of experience with those facts in the public domain, casually repeating and reporting what others said:  his army handle Mike’s comments pepper the narrative putting the official view of a few rouge troopers and Martin McGuiness supposedly firing the first shot on Bloody Sunday. He recounts tales of the gung-ho Captain Robert Nairac and provides illustrations of “protestant solidarity” in the UWC strike of May 1974. There is extended recollection of the torture inflicted in UVF’s romper rooms which Black describes as sights of evil. As Black acknowledges, depending on your point of view you believe what you want however that undermines the messy account of blended testimony that an eyewitness is purporting to provide.

While Black can be described as authentic is his description of the emotions and thinking of loyalists at the time, the specific credibility of his account on the indiscriminate terror inflicted relies on believing his unsubstantiated words. In the catalogue of sectarian murders punctuated by OOB (Out of Bounds call) the main thrust of the narrative is “Although Loyalists carried out the attacks, MRF men were in the background, encouraging and synchronising the mission “ p287   In the strands of sectarian conflict, the argument was if Loyalists were killing Catholics and tit for tat, it was not soldiers being sent home in body bags.

That a faction of British Intelligence existed intent to wage the war on its own terms is common currency in many accounts (including self-disclosure: Peter Wright, Colin Wallace Fred Holroyd leading that pack of practioner’s accounts) . Black has “Mike” claiming talks involving British officials are bugged so as to be able to sabotage any perceived threats of sell-out and deals done. As for the feuds stoked by the murderous intervention of MRF and its successors, Mike claims to be operating with political sanction given by Edward Heath.

Black wrote the book to put the record straight. He was arrested in the latter half of 1975 and a process of disengagement from the paramilitary life occurred (without weakening his loyalist identity or sympathies). Black indicates involvement but presents no personally incriminating smoking gun. Generally Black has crafted an account that identifies the crime without conceding personal involvement in a specific incident. There is detail of the collusion, the training at Palace Barracks, the hush hush involvement and nods and winks, the unfolding operation and protection given by the MRF’s code of practice with OOB (Out of Bounds call) that gave an hour free of security force presence in an area. It all goes to illustrate the process of surreptitious, manipulative and deniable but state sanctioned engagement. He adds to the sorry story of the cynicism that surrounds Britain’s suppression of the Irish nation and its peoples.

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