Cruel Britannia

Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. Ian Cobain

A review of Ian Cobain's book 'Cruel Britannia. A Secret History of Torture' …  (http://amzn.to/TU7TSU)

Britain's public and its government are currently devoting significant attention to the behaviour of the nation's broadcast and print media. Both Parliament and the people are, understandably, concerned to ensure that the powerful Murdoch News Corporation and the equally influential BBC are conducting their affairs properly and with decency. The British people are entitled to know, and indeed demand, that newsgathering is done using correct procedures and that information relating to matters of public concern will be disseminated, whether or not it causes embarrassment to those in positions of power.

It would appear, however, that this commendable degree of scrutiny over Britain's media does not extend to the country's military and intelligence gathering services. Ian Cobain's excellent new book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, reveals with a well researched investigation, that Britain's secret services supported by the military and authorised by successive governments have systematically used torture against enemy personnel and insurgents over many decades.

While Cobain has done an admirable job in providing ample evidence to support his assertion that torture was and continues to be a pillar of British security policy, this is not the most remarkable aspect of his book. It would be strange indeed if, having used torture in every field of conflict the UK has been engaged in since World War II, that there was an absence of such evidence. Cobain does indeed detail at length the sorry history of Britain's use of torture but what his book also reveals is the astonishing lengths that British governments go to in order to deny and cover-up that which is so well known to its many victims (and the UK's allies) across four continents.

Unlike the United States, where former president George Bush has stated publicly that he authorised `water-boarding' suspects (a practice widely recognised as torture), Britain has consistently denied employing what the Americans euphemistically describe as enhanced interrogation techniques.

On some occasions British denials have taken the form of a Jesuitical-like redefining of what constitutes torture. Responding, for example, to allegations of torture in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s, the then British government commissioned Sir Edward Compton to carry out a limited investigation. His conclusion was that physical ill-treatment (hooding, wall-standing, white noise, sleep deprivation, food deprivation) had in fact occurred but that this did not constitute physical brutality and therefore acquitted his employer of torture. Evidence of prisoners being also routinely beaten was apparently overlooked by the inquiry.

More often, though, British governments have simply lied about the brutal methods employed by its security services. By way of illustration, Cobain refers to a statement made by Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram to the House of Commons in June 2004, `We are not aware' he said, `of any incidents in which United Kingdom interrogators are alleged to have used hooding as an interrogation technique'. A claim he repeated to Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights in spite of the fact that he had been aware from the previous September of the use of hoods during interrogation. Evidence of his awareness was to emerge some years later at a subsequent inquiry.

When the issue of torture is occasionally publicly aired in Britain, as in the inquiry referred to above, the discussion tends to be sidetracked into a debate over whether the end justifies the means. Moreover, the conversation to date is usually set in a short-term context and always in the absence of adequate information. Such obfuscation misses the point that torturing an enemy may, at best, deal with the symptoms of a problem but it cannot address the underlying issue. Containing an insurgency is not the same as settling a long running and deeply rooted dispute.

Ian Cobain's book, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, provides the evidence and argument that are essential for a properly enlightened debate to take place about Britain's use of torture. Throughout this work, the author leaves us in no doubt that torture occurs and is endorsed at the highest level. What is not so clear is whether Cobain's shocking exposé will generate sufficient outrage that the British government will be obliged to desist from violating its prisoners' human rights. Worthy though the book is in every other respect, it provides little grounds for optimism that Britannia is becoming less cruel. END

Tommy McKearney 

Neo-liberal Belfast

Neoliberal Belfast: Disaster Ahead?

Brian Kelly

Buried beneath the hype surrounding the launch of Belfast’s ‘Titanic Signature Project’ in mid-April was a small detail that managed to get a brief airing in Belfast’s council chambers a few weeks later: working-class communities across the city had “missed out on the dividend” arising from the project, which failed to meet even the minimal ‘social responsibility’ goals that the city had set in exchange for fast-tracking the project through planning and handing over £10m in ratepayer’s money. The Titanic project, at more than £92m - two thirds of it public money - is the most expensive tourist attraction in Europe. Yet it failed to generate a mere 25 apprenticeships, fell short of creating a pitiful 15 jobs for the city’s long-term unemployed, and to date includes not a single unit of desperately-needed social housing.

Ulster Covenant

The Ulster Covenant 

This article was composed by Jason Burke, a young and progressive unionist. His article is the first in a series on the decade of commemoration 1912 - 1922 

‘We shall not fall alone’

The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant ... 100 years on

The 100th anniversary of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant has raised many questions and many important issues.  Some groups and individuals will strive to mark this historic occasion while others will barely bat an eyelid at the thought of it.  What is the big deal about the Ulster Covenant?  What was it all about?  What were its effects? How does it effect us now?  This article aims to address these points by looking at various aspects from the Covenant text to the events surrounding Ulster Day.  It is hoped that this contribution will prove beneficial to those seeking to familiarise themselves with the events of 1912.

Political background

The United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 led directly to the Act of Union in 1800 and its execution in January of the following year.  Elements of the Orange Order including those of the Protestant ascendancy were in bitter opposition to the union with Great Britain, after all it was they who held positions of power in the independent Dublin government.  Ironically it was progressive sections of Irish Catholicism who supported, in principle, this idea of a union, they viewed Westminster as a potential sanctuary where they could benefit from any potential social and political reforms directed by London.   These roles were reversed two to three decades later when it became clear that concessions were not readily forthcoming, furthermore that Ulster Protestants were benefiting economically from the industrial growth under the union flag.

Use of violence and agitation during the land campaign did nothing to persuade unionism that Home Rule could be an inclusive society, it merely cemented their view that they were under attack not only politically but physically, economically and religiously.  This situation further confirmed the steady demise and decline of the ascendancy class in Ireland, their grip had been loosened ever since the Irish potato famine by a series of measures culminating with the Land Reform Acts.  It was during this bitter period in Irish social history that we witness the emergence of a talented young Dublin barrister who chose to defend the rights of tenants during legal disputes with landlords, his name was Edward Carson... 

Charles Stewart Parnell was the Protestant landlord who led the earliest campaign for Home Rule in Ireland, the bill was defeated by thirty votes in the House of Commons in 1886.  The second Home Rule Bill got a stage further but was defeated by the House of Lords in 1893.  It seemed on one hand that the bill was making some progress but on the other hand that it had been stopped in its tracks. 

The British Liberal Party depended on the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, they held the balance of power, and the deal maker was another shot at a Home Rule Bill.  Its passage to the statute book was ensured this time by the Parliament Act of 1911 which meant that the house of Lords could only delay a bill rather than veto it outright. The seeds of uncertainty had been sown for the years to come...

Unionism began to organise itself in order to challenge the Home Rule Bill on various grounds: Economic progress had been proven under the union, one only had to look at Belfast's thriving shipyards and ropeworks as an example of the prosperity that had been delivered in Ulster.  Protestants naturally feared the rising tide of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, compounded by the fact that any Home Rule settlement would leave them in a perilous minority cut adrift from the rest of Britain. The British Empire was of massive importance to the mindset of unionism at this time.  It was feared that if Ireland's place in the empire was surrendered then other countries might try to do the same (in future years this proved to be the case).  The empire was strong and successful in every way but particularly economically, and unionists felt that if Ulster's prosperity was to be maintained it would only be possible within the bounds of the British Empire.  Perhaps the most crucial element of unionist opposition to Home Rule was their belief in civil and religious liberty for all, and they felt that these liberties would not be protected under a Dublin government.  Opposition to Home Rule in the following years was to take many forms, including the plans for an armed insurrection, but it was one document in particular which has created much debate and attention in the 100 years since its creation.  

While sitting in the Constitutional Club in London drafting a form of words which would embody their belief James Craig was joined by B.W.D. Montgomery, the secretary of the Ulster Club in Belfast.  When Montgomery enquired what he was doing Craig replied “trying to draft an oath for our people at home” he added that it was no easy task.  Montgomery told him to base it on the old Scottish Covenant, and so they went to the library where they fetched a History of Scotland.  A special commission was then set up to construct a new text based on the old Scottish version, this was led by Thomas Sinclair, a Presbyterian Liberal Unionist and wealthy business merchant.  He cleverly constructed it to convey multiple messages and yet appeal to the masses, ultimately it was designed to unite the unionist people against a common foe.  

In August 1912 the Covenant text was forwarded to Homburg to the new leader of Irish Unionism Edward Carson for approval, he replied to Craig on 21 August 1912: “I would not alter a word in the declaration which I consider excellent.” On 19 September 1912 Edward Carson stood on the stone step outside Craigavon House and read the Covenant to the standing committee.  Its final drafting appeared as this blunt yet defiant message:

Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.

This text seemed to capture the fears of unionists in Ulster at that time.  It was a simple document, consisting only of a single paragraph and managed to articulate the unionist opposition in the opening sentence.  By its very nature the Covenant was a defensive document rather than an offensive one, emotive words such as 'disastrous, subversive, destructive, and perilous' paint a deliberate imagine in our minds.  It should be noted that the Covenant was a pledge not a threat, an agreement rather than an order.  There was however one line which will have rattled the cages of local nationalists while simultaneously sending a chill through the corridors of 10 Downing Street; 'and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy...'.  Were unionists really prepared to take up arms against the forces of the crown?  We now know with the benefit of hindsight that the threat was very real owing to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and their transformation from a 'broomstick army' into a well armed militia.  

An Ulster Day rally was taken around the province to such places as Enniskillen and Londonderry, the purpose of which was to create a euphoric and patriotic atmosphere in the lead up to a mass signing of the pledge.  On 23 September, five hundred delegates attended a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in the Ulster Hall where they overwhelmingly ratified the covenant without a single dissenter.  Outside the hall 25,000 people had gathered on the streets to resoundingly endorse and support the plans for Ulster Day.

The rally climaxed at the Ulster Hall on the eve of Ulster Day itself.  Here was unfurled a flag that had been carried before King William at the Battle of the Boyne provided by Mrs Burgess Watson, thus the unionists were providing a powerful link between their present situation and crises of days gone by.  On the morrow, as he went to sign the covenant it would be carried before “King” Carson, and its carrying would be no less significant than that of two hundred and twenty-two years before.  A silver key, symbolic of Ulster (Carson believed that Ulster was the key to the situation; “if Ulster succeeds, Home Rule is dead”) was presented to Carson; and with it a silver pen for the signing of the covenant document.  (Both items are currently on display at the Ulster Museum Belfast).

The Covenant would be signed by a wide range of people, it straddled all classes, all shades of Protestantism and varying degrees of extremity in protest.  Any male over the age of 16 was eligible to attach his name in protest against the passage of the third Home Rule Bill.  Ulster's Women signed an equivalent 'women's declaration' in which no less a sacrifice was asked and they were motivated by the same ideals.  The Ulster women desired to associate themselves “with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill now before parliament”.  In this sense Unionism was progressive in terms of promoting the role of the female in society, for example the Ulster Women's Unionist Council.

Ulster Day 28 September 1912

Saturday 28 September began and finished with a tense atmosphere.  The people of Ulster woke up to largely fine weather that morning while the majority of men in Belfast enjoyed a day off work owing to the fact that all labour in Belfast had been suspended to allow the men to sign the Covenant..  Labouring clothes were swapped for their 'Sunday best' and a Sunday vibe hung over province as the Protestant population readied themselves to attend the 500 or so religious services held prior to the main event,  Edward Carson played his part by attending a religious service in East Belfast, it is likely that he enjoyed a final poignant cigarette before going to commit himself to the Ulster struggle.  Belfast was by no means the only location to host a mass signing of the Covenant.  Makeshift stations were used across Ulster in order to accommodate the huge demand to sign the pledge of defiance.  Ballymena, for example, decorated the streets with flags and arches containing loyal mottoes.  On the streets there was no jubilation, it was a day of reverence and focus.  Under the dome of the City Hall sat hastily made table draped in the union flag, a flag that meant so much to so many.  It was on this table that Edward Carson led the masses by writing his name, he became the first signatory of the Ulster Covenant, significantly James Craig was not among even the first ten signatories.  At any one time in the City Hall 540 people could simultaneously sign the document.  Some of those who signed, like Fred Crawford, did so in their own blood in order to testify their determination, this was yet another connection to the Scottish Covenanters.  Once an individual had signed the Covenant he was offered a souvenir copy on parchment paper.  

These souvenirs can no doubt be found today in homes across Ulster,  At the end of a day which turned out peaceful across Ulster the crowds had dispersed and the business of counting signatures began.  In all, 237,368 men (accounting for a majority of adult Protestant males in Ulster) and 234,046 women pledged their determination to resist Home Rule including in other parts of the world 19,161 Ulstermen and 5,047 Ulsterwomen.  In Edinburgh, a group of Ulstermen proceeded to the Covenanter's Stone in the old Greyfriars burial ground and signed it there just as the Scottish Covenant had been signed in the seventeenth century.  The total number of signatories was 471,414, an astonishing figure by any standards and a clear message of intent to the British government, thus in terms of what the covenant had set out to do it appeared to be an initial success. That night Carson returned to London via Liverpool where 50,000 people had gathered at the banks of the Lagan to see him go.  Rockets were shot into the sky and bonfires burned in Down and Antrim as one of the most momentous days in the history of Ireland headed towards a conclusion.

The Irish News did not view the events of Ulster Day with the same favourable attitude.  In the typical fashion of the local newspaper press at that time they described it as a 'silly masquerade', it seems this was the sentiment of a majority of nationalists in Ulster.  To knowledge not a single Catholic signed the Ulster Covenant, the reason being that it was so obviously a Protestant document as opposed to simply a unionist one owing to the expression of religious fears.  It seems that nationalists may have endured an awkward Ulster Day, Ballymena Council for example requested that all households display a union flag regardless of political persuasion or religion.    Nationalist opposition seems trivial when compared to the actions of a group of liberal minded Protestants in the north of Ulster.  They arranged a counter-covenant on the basis that they were pro Home Rule, anti Carson, anti violence, and had pledged to strive for peace.

In the following days and weeks those who had signed the covenant could purchase a framed copy of the document for as little as one shilling from W & G. Baird's in Belfast.  They could read reports and see photos of Ulster Day in their local paper but the Belfast News Letter and Belfast Evening Telegraph gave particularly favourable reports.

Ulster Day and the Ulster Covenant undoubtedly changed the English mindset on Home Rule, the Liberal government were seriously agitated by the situation.  Not even the Liberal government could possibly ignore or misconceive the importance of the Ulster Day demonstration.  However, making the government sit up and take notice is one thing, making them change their course would be a lot more difficult, essentially the Covenant could not and did not halt the passage of the Home Rule Bill.  Though St. John Ervine viewed the covenant as the starting point of the lengthly journey of protest, its clear that he feels the covenant was a success when he said; “The Ulster Unionists swore in the presence of Almighty God that they would not be ruled by a Dublin Parliament.  They are not ruled by that parliament.  Such is the fact.  No jeers can alter it”.

There has never been any such example of mass public support for a political campaign in any part of the United Kingdom before or since.  It also dramatically shifted the political debate, from then on much of the wrangling revolved around whether Ulster might be excluded from any Home Rule settlement and the term 'Ulster unionists' became more widely used.

A covenanter's hymn was published on 28 September 1913 presumably to mark the first anniversary of Ulster Day.  The third verse was particularly militant:

God is our Strength.  Though man betray

Kinsmen and comrades, blood and bone;

Though all forsake us-even they

Who share our Faith, our Flag, our Throne-

We shall not flinch; we will not bend.

The oath that our forefathers swore

Is ours to carry to the end,

Confident on the God of War.

Having avoided a civil conflict and been battered by a brutal war in Europe Ireland was severed in two by a border and ironically both new states were granted Home Rule measures by Westminster.  For Ulster Unionists in the north it meant they were in control of their own destiny and of their own identity, for nationalists in the south it was a similar situation.  Unionist fears of a 'stepping stone' approach towards complete Irish independence were confirmed when Republicans turned up the heat on the British government over the next few years.  These same fears exist today within unionism as Sinn Fein have controversially described the Good Friday Agreement as a 'staging post' towards a unified Ireland.  It is important however to view the covenant in the context in which it was set.  Curiosity encourages us to try and place it in our present situation which is ill-advised due to its differing nature.  Today's unionism is in a much different shape with different strands, different aims, objectives, and protests while more importantly we live in a different type of society than that of a century ago.  People are less likely today to be caught up in mass political movement  or be led by the rhetoric of a select few, and with this in mind I would argue that we will never again see anything like the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant.  

Jason Burke is a graduate historian and researcher specialising in early 20th century Ireland.  At Queens University he wrote a paper/dissertation titled 'East Belfast, the UVF, and the Great War, 1911-1919' which scored well, he has continued on with this research and hopes to publish it in the future.  Other articles include 'A Question of Culture' regarding Protestant/unionist culture in Ireland.

Books that were consulted during the construction of this document can be provided by the author upon request

Uniting Ireland

On Thursday 22 March Tommy McKearney participated in a debate organised by Trinity College Dublin’s Philosophical Society on the merits or otherwise of uniting Ireland. The panel debating the motion included

Dolores Kelly, Deputy Leader of the SDLP
Tommy McKearney, Irish republican, socialist, and former hunger striker and volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army

David McNarry, Unionist MLA, former Chief Whip of the UUP, member of the Orange Order
Jim Allister QC, Leader of Traditional Unionist Voice and former MEP

Tommy’s address is included belo

That this would reunite Ireland

Speaking of unity without a definition is similar to architects talking of design without reference to buildings or a composers chattering excitedly about music yet never naming a tune. 

Without defining parameters and at least outlining its content and shape, unity could mean, as it did prior to 1920, one island under the British crown. Alternatively, some might interpret it as a 32 county republic governed by pro-consuls Kenny and Gilmore on behalf of the Troika. There are other possibilities but enough is enough. 

Unity cannot be a nebulous concept, sufficiently elastic to meet the needs or aspirations of every constituency or interest group that wishes to promote a woolly objective instead of developing the type of defined plan or campaign policy that could be examined and subjected to possibly embarrassing scrutiny. Nor can unity be the mere bolting together of two currently different jurisdictions on this island. 

Unity must have at its core, its own inherent logic and meet an identifiable need. That logic and need exists. Ireland of the collapsed economy (north and south) can ill afford two different currencies, separate phone and postal systems, uncoordinated health and education services, competing economic strategies and contending retail sectors and more damaging still – two populations unable to coordinate their resources and talents seamlessly.  All that before we begin to speak of the destructive potential arising from fratricidal conflict that is all too often still simmering under the surface of northern society. 

Objectively speaking, there is a strong case to be made for unifying Ireland. Let me say, incidentally, to those who view Irish unity as an outdated, slightly passé concept that it strikes me as somewhat strange that many who share this notion are devotees of the European Union. 

Unity, if it is to address the issues referred to above, cannot be either a woolly aspiration or an attempted exercise in political welding. Uniting Ireland must involve meaningfully addressing the needs of contemporary society.  Indeed it would be worth considering creating a society of united Irish to carry out this task. 

Of course the phrase society of united Irish is a loaded phrase but it is used deliberately. We should not wallow in the past nor should we be prisoners of history. Yet we should not be so arrogant as to distain the thoughts and deliberations of people of genius and insight from previous generations. Among such giants were alumni of TCD – Citizens Tone and Emmet. 

Should you now fear a repetition of some of their well-worn phrases, rest easy please. My point is not to recall their oratory but to examine one of their most precious insights. That was that we cannot build a new and better political entity with the deformed or flawed structures of the past. Let’s not forget that in spite of their failures and their flaws and their ‘being of their time’ they opened a door to the Enlightenment.

Those United Irish who first sought to unite the people of this island realised that it was an imperative that they did not attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable but to offer a different template of governance  to all. They recognised the futility of attempting to bring Jacobite and Williamite together in common purpose. They could see clearly that there was little point asking  Roman and Reformed Churches to review their positions and merge. And they understood the risk in trying to undo the past, regardless of injustices.

The invaluable insight that emerged from that period was to understand the need not to waste time and energy attempting to repair old and broken structures and practices but instead to recognise the imperative to build anew. 

Is this a fanciful or idealistic ambition? Yet when the old is not working – and it’s plain to be seen that it is not – human kind must look for a better option. 

The French Left is now openly demanding a 6th French republic. A state where the inequalities and deprivations and the lethal hostilities of the 5th French republic would be overcome. Why should we not again look to France for inspiration once again and seek to build something similar in Ireland.

We need a new republic, one qualitatively different from the old. Where the economy is organised to serve all and not just those new age aristocrats who through good fortune or criminal rascality can harness the market to their own ends. A republic where all have an opportunity to participate in society by having the opportunity to work. A republic where the employment of all allows us to properly care for the elderly, educate the young, tend to the sick and provide a society fit for humanity to develop.

This poses two crucial questions. 

Can such a proposal work in practice or is it mere Utopianism? Well of course this proposal can work. We are not discussing economics in detail on this occasion but let  us take a look at one scenario. One billion Euro could employ an extra 83,612 people at €12 per/hour in this state. €3.1 billion would employ 259,197. Economics, remember, is not just about mathematics but is also about making choices and this is possible is we choose that path. 

Can such a proposal unite the people of Ireland? 

Several years back I had a conversation with an early member of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force, a man who had enjoyed the confidence of Gusty Spence and acted as a confidant to the late David Ervine. He spoke of the need to ‘re-define the Union’ in light of;

a) The UK government’s concentration of its economic focus on the finance sector in the South East of England and this to the detriment of the periphery especially Northern Ireland. 

b) The eventual departure of Scotland from the union, something that is keenly felt by those northern Irish who have a close affinity with Scotland.

c) The clearly changing and changed attitudes of the southern Irish to religion and the Roman Church

Most powerfully, he said that the world has changed since 1912 and we can no longer act as if it had not.

This then is what can and will unite Ireland, a newly built society with its economy structured to provide for the common good of all and a society willing to explore a radically new system of governance taking into consideration the changing conditions and circumstances in Ireland (north and south), in Britain and abroad.

Our partitioned island has its roots in many issues, the rearranging of which will not unify the people or our society. We could do worse than heed the advice of that doyen of common sense, Tom Paine when he said

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’. 

We shall unite Ireland through beginning again with a new republic

Shady People


Britain has finally accepted publically that its agents tortured and abused Kenyans during that country’s struggle for independence during the 1950s. Guy Mansfield QC, acting for the British government, told the High Court in London he did not want to dispute that torture and ill-treatment had occurred at the hands of the colonial administration. Mr. Mansfield was, in effect, merely acknowledging what has been widely known for decades, and more recently described with painful clarity by Professor Caroline Elkins in her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.

In spite of being forced to acknowledge the veracity of the accusations of torture and ill-treatment, the British government is resisting demands for the culprits to be brought to trial, insisting that too much time has passed for a fair hearing to be conducted. The British may indeed have a point in relation to staging criminal trials. The passage of time has undoubtedly contaminated or diminished much of the evidence and also means that many of those involved at a senior level have passed away. 

Nevertheless, Britain shouldn’t be allowed to simply pay financial compensation to a few elderly Kikuyu and thereafter dismiss the case as closed. Nor should the seriousness of the events be downplayed, as Nigel Farage of UKIP attempted to do on Tuesday evening’s Channel 4 News when he first argued that this generation of Britons should not have to pay for the misdemeanours of their grandparents and then pointed to the difficulty of making imperial powers responsible for atrocities committed in their names over many years. Why should the UK alone be pilloried, he asked, when the USA, Belgium, France and others were equally brutal.

the fact is that it is imperative that Britain be made answerable for what happened half a century ago in Kenya in order to stop the prolongation of torture and ill-treatment by the Crown’s military agents now and into the future. There is an obvious continuity of British military personnel operating across different campaigns and often they form the core of covert intelligence departments. General Frank Kitson, for example, cut his teeth in Kenya where he organised ‘pseudo gangs’ and a decade later guided British Army strategy in Ireland. Towards the later part of the IRA insurgency, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Kerr led the Force Research Unit (FRU) between 1987 and 1991 and has since moved on to emerge carrying out a similar role in Afghanistan. It would require a heroic degree of gullibility not to see a connection between Britain’s military practices across the generations and in different theatres of operation. What occurred in Kenya cannot be passed off as an isolated aberration to an otherwise lilywhite record.

General George Erskine, who commanded Britain’s army during the Kenyan insurrection, described the colony as, ‘… a sunny place for shady people …’. Unless Britain is forced to being an end to its long established counter insurgency practices of torture and atrocity, this phrase will now apply to those populating the state’s ruling corridors rather than to the denizens of a long gone colony.

Tommy McKearney

IRA merger

The merger of physical force republicans 


Organisations with strong centralised and hierarchal structures, especially the conviction driven, are usually prone to splitting or the breaking away of factions. Often this occurs at periods of significant political development or societal transformation when direction-changing decisions are required. This happens in religion, in sport and with unending regularity in the world of militant Irish republicanism. Three of the largest parties in the present Irish parliament, for example, had their origins in bitter divisions within the country’s republican milieu. Such a history, therefore, makes the news of a merging of certain forces within the present day republican underground, an interesting and indeed surprising development.

A small number of journalists were briefed on Thursday 26th July that three strands of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘physical force’ element of Irish republicanism had amalgamated. The Real IRA (best known to British readers for carrying out the 1998 Omagh bombing), a vigilante group called Republican Action Against Drugs and a low profile group of armed republicans still calling themselves ‘the IRA’ have united under the, hardly original, title of the Irish Republican Army. In its communiqué to the press, the group repeated its commitment to militarism when it spoke of the ‘… necessity of armed struggle in the pursuit of Irish freedom …’

In spite of its newsworthiness, this development should be kept in perspective. In the first instance, this new IRA group will be confronted with a challenge experienced by every revolutionary organisation; that of maintaining security and secrecy in the face of energetic surveillance by the state. There is little doubt that this merger will simplify MI5’s task of monitoring and foiling the new group’s activities. 

Secondly, there are two other bodies, still calling themselves the IRA that remains outside this merger. Therefore the fractious and divided nature of armed Irish republicanism remains as poisonous and debilitating as ever. The particular school of Irish republicanism represented in this new group is often more certain of what it opposes rather than what it stands for. This makes it difficult for them to build the type of broad support base necessary to influence the political process.

Most pertinent of all, though, is the fact that the new formation is unlikely to change significantly the balance of forces within Northern Ireland. Trying to estimate membership strength for the various militant groups is difficult because the level and depth of support can fluctuate widely depending on the time and circumstances. One of the anomalies of the current situation is that while Sinn Fein voters are strongly opposed to further armed action, many are unwilling for historical reasons to cooperate with the authorities. Acceptance for all aspects of policing remains ambiguous within most republican circles.

Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to any resumption of the violent battle of the final quarter century of the 20thcentury. Every election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has returned, from within the wider republican constituency, an overwhelming majority in favour of ending armed conflict and an equally strong rejection of those indicating any intention of recommencing insurrection. While there is no mechanical correlation between electoral support and ability or capacity to carry out direct action, the presiding officer’s count provides its own message. When people are unwilling to vote in secret for an insurrectionist candidate, they are unlikely to endure the unavoidable hardships and risks of war against the state. In practical terms there is insufficient water in which armed radicals can swim in Northern Ireland of the present day.

This low-key assessment notwithstanding; there is a message to be taken from a coming together of previously separate entities. It is rare for divisions in republican Ireland to be repaired or for groups to coalesce in this fashion. The significance of what has happened may not lie, therefore, in the new group’s potential for increased military capacity (and that is questionable hypothesis by any assessment) but in the fact that there is a new strategy in play and the process is towards unity rather than remaining separate.

Bear in mind that all is not well in Northern Ireland. Global recession is embedding economic and social hardship in areas that have experienced little improvement in their level of material prosperity over the last two decades. Sectarian divisions remain at a toxic level, especially in working class districts. Local devolved government performs a basic function of any parliament in that it is a substitute for civil war, yet it hardly makes any other obvious difference in the population’s day to day lives. Ominously, this new IRA is concentrated in the very areas where deprivation is most acute.

There is, in a nutshell, a space for dissenting voices to question the status quo and Irish republicanism is, after all, more a response to material conditions than it is an aspiration to a form of government. Five years ago a sense of estrangement manifested itself in France with youths burning property in the suburbs. Last year something similar happened in Britain when rioting broke out across urban centres.

Protest in Ireland sometimes follows an indigenous pattern and therein lurks the one great unknown factor in this latest ‘new departure’. Is this a huddling of desperate men determined to hang together rather than hang separately or is it an indication, even subconsciously, of a societal change that is encouraging direction-changing decisions?

Tommy McKearney

Civil Rights

A Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon was organised on Sunday 26 August 2012 to commemorate a similar demonstration 44 years earlier and to highlight existing abuses. The march finished in Anne Street, Dungannon with speeches from Councillor Barry Monteith, Rev Fr. Raymond Murray and trade union representative Gareth Mackle. 

The contents of Gareth Mackle's speech is carried below.

Friends, comrades, citizens, a dhaoine uaisle

Let me begin by saying that I think today’s minute’s silence for the recent victims of state violence in South Africa is a very appropriate gesture given the circumstances that bring us together here in Dungannon today. 44 years ago the marchers who walked that first historic civil rights march  and whose footsteps we followed in today were inspired by the courage of African American Civil Rights leaders in the United States, and by their example of peaceful non-violent protest against political and economic discrimination, injustice and state repression.

The civil rights marchers in 1968 were part of an international movement challenging the right of minority wealthy elites to oppress and divide the ordinary mass of the people.

In the US, despite the election of a black president and the rise of a wealthy black elite, the ghettoes, slums and prison systems stand as testimony to the huge amount of work that remains to be done in order to achieve economic and political justice for the masses of black people in that country.

The white ruling elite in South Africa has been replaced with a new black ruling class but life for the ordinary population has changed little as witnessed by the recent slaughter of the strikers in Lonmin’s Mairikana platinum mine.

Under the rule of the African National Congress, a few blacks have grabbed power and riches, joining the ranks of the white capitalist elite. Ironically, they include Cyril Ramaphosa, first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), now a millionaire businessman and Lonmin director.

The majority of his fellow Africans remain impoverished and living in squalor.The amount of poverty is excessive. In every township there are still shacks with no sanitation and electricity. Unemployment is hovering at around 40%. Economic inequality is matched with political inequality. Everywhere activists in South Africa are facing serious repression from the police and from local party structures.

South Africa and the USA are still two of the most unequal countries in the world.

Back here on our own streets, right here in Tyrone, a series of events took place in the 1960s which in some ways changed the face of this statelet irrevocably. These events were the culmination of attempts since the early 1960s by a number of different organisations and individuals to highlight injustices in the sectarian state of Northern Ireland. The local Homeless Citizens League here in Dungannon, the Brantry Republican Club, the Wolfe Tone societies, the Campaign for Social Justice, the Derry Housing Action Committee and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster were examples of early pressure groups highlighting injustices. They later united under the umbrella of NICRA – the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association - and were joined by Peoples Democracy, Trades Councils from around the north, the Republican Labour Party, the Communist Party and others.   The immediate concern for many was not with the great constitutional issues which had dominated political debate up to that point, but with the everyday issues which dominated people’s lives.

Their objective was to bring an end to injustice in the system of public authority housing provision, injustice in public and private employment practices, injustice in voting and representational rights, and the arbitrary and oppressive powers available to the state to suppress dissent. The things that happened during that pivotal year of 1968 had a profound effect upon our society, and precipitated an expectation of change which left no part of our community untouched.

How much has changed in the intervening 44 years? People power and a thirty year war of attrition finally brought an end to the Orange state and the naked sectarian privilege that sustained it but what have we replaced it with? The Orange state has given way to a sectarian state where naked economic and political injustices are still rampant.

In 2012, the housing waiting list in the Dungannon area is now longer than it was in 1968. For many of those who are fortunate enough to own homes, the fear of mortgage default, unemployment and repossession looms large. Young people and couples struggle to gain their first home in which to raise a family as the banks bailed out by our money restrict the flow of credit to all but a privileged few.

Social housing sold off during the Thatcher revolution has never been replaced and young people in this area faced with no prospect of a home, faced with unemployment or low paid work inevitably turn once again to emigration as a solution. The talents and energy of our young talented people in Tyrone and throughout our country are exported to Sydney, Perth and Adelaide while the economy and society in Ireland goes into familiar decline.

After a brief period of economic boom built on spiralling credit and an unrealistic property price bubble, youth unemployment has returned to staggeringly high levels. Swingeing cuts of £4 billion from the British Exchequer have been implemented by a servile Stormont administration. A right wing neo-liberal consensus in Stormont has dictated that the weakest and most vulnerable in society must pay the price for the excesses and failures of the capitalist ruling classes and robber baron elites.

Stormont politicians’ solution to the economic crisis is to propose lower corporation taxes in order to further shift the tax burden from the super wealthy to the ordinary working citizens. Stormont also retains Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws to prevent workers fighting for improved living standards and better conditions of employment.

To protect the profits of the wealthiest in society, there are huge attacks being carried out on the benefit system resulting from the Welfare Reform Act. Sickness benefit, disability living allowance, housing benefits must be slashed say our political leaders. It is proposed that under 25s are to get no housing benefit at all!

We are in a deep economic recession, our political leaders tell us. Oh we know and we know who caused it. And we know who they are asking to pay for it. We can see our hospital and health care services being hollowed out and privatised. Indeed, here in Tyrone and in mid Ulster, we can see them disappearing altogether.

Local schools have been closed without consultation while newly qualified teachers sit on the dole. Fees for third level students leave many graduates and undergraduates with years of crippling debts. Universities are once again slipping beyond the reach of the working class. Stormont administrators may call them efficiencies but we know the impact that rising fees, budget slashing, savings and cutbacks have on the standard of our children’s education. We also know that this disproportionately affects children from working class backgrounds. Grammar schools and the 11 plus are still in place as better off unionists and nationalists fight tooth and nail to segregate their children from children from working class homes. 

The literacy gulf between grammar and non-grammar schools continues to widen.On a weekly basis peoples human rights are being eroded, whether that be the closure of another hospital ward or the internment of Irish citizens.
This march upholds the age old right of ordinary people to demand that their voice be heard on the wide array of matters that are close to their hearts. The issues of mass emigration, lack of jobs, lack of affordable housing, denial of sovereignty, erosion of welfare rights, internment without trial, student fees and the continued erosion of civil and human rights, among others, plague Irish society in 2012. The march will end in Ann Street, Dungannon where in 1963 the Ann Street Homeless Citizens League organised the first squat as those denied their right to public housing engaged in very peaceful and effective protest. The fact that in 2012 more people are on the waiting list for housing in Dungannon than there were in 1968 speaks volumes. 
This march provides a perfect opportunity for everyone to come along and make their voices heard. Whether you are campaigning against the closure of local Hospitals, against the wide range of repressive legislation, against the forced emigration endured by thousands of young people or whether you are demanding affordable housing for all, accessible healthcare for all, social justice and welfare rights for those feeling the real human cost of economic cutbacks or the right of the Irish people to decide and control their economic and political sovereignty then join us in Coalisland at 2.30pm Sunday 26th August 2012.

Let me give you one or two other statistics and facts of life from the new Northern Ireland. Despite Olympic torches, Titanic buildings, Giants Causeways, Royal visits, UK Cities of Culture and despite all the media hype that we hear constantly about this wonderful utopia in which we live, many aspects of life for ordinary citizens have actually got worse during the period of what they refer to as ‘the peace process’.

The poor in Northern Ireland are now ten times more likely to die from a stroke than the rich and seven times more likely to commit suicide.

Over the last ten years the overall suicide rate for men has risen by 31 per cent, compared to 5 percent in Southern Ireland and a drop of 11 per cent in England and Wales. 80 per cent of Northern Ireland’s full time employees earn less than £28,000 a year. Some 20 per cent earn less than £12,000.There has been a doubling in the usage of prescribed anti-depressants since the start of the peace process.

While the Civil Rights marchers in 1968 sought progressive change for all citizens regardless of race or creed, some 90 percent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland remain segregated along ethno-religious lines. And the poorer you are the more likely your estate is to be segregated. There are 17 segregation walls in Belfast alone — seven of them have been built since the start of the peace process.

On a weekly basis peoples human rights are being eroded, whether that be the closure of another hospital ward or the internment of Irish citizens.

This march upholds the age old right of ordinary people to demand that their voice be heard on the wide array of matters that are close to their hearts. The issues of mass emigration, lack of jobs, lack of affordable housing, denial of sovereignty, erosion of welfare rights, internment without trial, student fees and the continued erosion of civil and human rights, among others, plague Irish society in 2012. The march will end in Ann Street, Dungannon where in 1963 the Ann Street Homeless Citizens League organised the first squat as those denied their right to public housing engaged in very peaceful and effective protest. The fact that in 2012 more people are on the waiting list for housing in Dungannon than there were in 1968 speaks volumes. 
This march provides a perfect opportunity for everyone to come along and make their voices heard. Whether you are campaigning against the closure of local Hospitals, against the wide range of repressive legislation, against the forced emigration endured by thousands of young people or whether you are demanding affordable housing for all, accessible healthcare for all, social justice and welfare rights for those feeling the real human cost of economic cutbacks or the right of the Irish people to decide and control their economic and political sovereignty then join us in Coalisland at 2.30pm Sunday 26th August 2012.

A recent ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion’ report, carried out on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, highlighted the growth of poverty in the north of Ireland during the peace process. It describes poverty as a condition where people cannot afford to participate in society. The report also highlights that poverty is rapidly increasing – that’s before the public sector cuts currently being eagerly implemented by the Stormont administration have really begun to take effect.

These cuts will impact on Northern Ireland more severely than elsewhere, as the public sector makes up more of the job market than in Britain and Ireland. Women make up the majority of public sector workers, so the progress on female employment could be threatened.

From a poverty perspective, though, the big issue is the low pay in private sector jobs in Northern Ireland. Private sector pay in Northern Ireland is 16 per cent lower than in Britain.

So if, in accordance with Neo-liberal orthodoxy, which all the Stormont parties advocate, the local economy should ‘rebalance’ away from the public and towards the private sector, there are two main concerns. First, where will these private sector jobs actually come from; and second, will they pay enough to lift a family out of poverty?

The entire recent rise in poverty has come in working and retired households. Poverty among children has risen to 28 per cent. Around half of children in poverty live in working households. 21 per cent of pensioners in Northern Ireland live in poverty.

Not surprisingly, poverty is higher west of the Bann than the east. In the west 24 per cent of people are in poverty. The figures for east of the Bann is 17 per cent. Poverty is a crippling experience no matter which side of the Bann you are on. Civil Rights protestors in 1968 sought an end to sectarianism and social division. Unfortunately, the peace in Northern Ireland is not based on drawing Protestants and Catholics and Dissenters together, but on policing people apart. The consensus reinforces segregation by insisting that opposed “communities” must be represented by politicians who fight for one group against the other.

On top of all this, the ruling class continues to use a few old and favoured tactics to repress political dissent. Internment and administrative detention without trial has raised its ugly head again in the case of Marion Price, Gerry McGeough, Martin Corey and others detained at the whim of the British Secretary of State. No jury Diplock courts, 28 days detention orders (seven days was regarded as an affront to civil rights under the special powers act) brutality and strip searching of prisoners, dirty and no wash protests in Maghaberry against inhumane treatment. No inquests after 20 years for families who lost loved ones. Supergrass trials have re-emerged.  These issues are of grave concern to all humanitarians and decent minded people alike.

Stormont politicians famously and repeatedly tell us that there is no alternative to simply putting up with these things and meekly casting a vote every four or five years for the political classes who will register our concerns. The Civil Rights campaign illustrated that there is an alternative to servile parliamentarianism. Reflecting on what the Civil rights movement set out to achieve,  Tyrone’s former MP Bernadette Devlin, stated “Our function in marching…was to re-launch the CRM as a mass movement and show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

Now that the military conflict in the north has subsided, the dirt under the carpet has started to stink again. If anything, the history of the civil rights movement teaches us that there are no short-cuts to social revolution. It requires sustained organising and agitation among ordinary people, independent of their politicians and political rulers.

In June 1963, direct action and civil disobedience in politics here had begun. Five years before the people took to the roads of Tyrone, a demonstration by the Homeless Citizens’ League in Dungannon was held to publicise discrimination in housing allocation. In August of that year 17 families moved into a squat in Dungannon. Thirty-five houses were taken over. The local council illegally cut off electricity and water supplies.

In 1968, members of Brantry Republican Club squatted a house in Caledon, Co. Tyrone, that they felt had been unfairly allocated. Members of Derry Housing Action Committee continued the campaign for impartial allocation of housing by blocking Craigavon Bridge; seventeen members were arrested. Here in Tyrone thousands eventually took to the streets. In Dungannon a hundred members of NICRA picket a meeting of the local council in protest against its housing policy. There was a stepping up of civil disobedience, including non-payment of television and radio licences, ground rent, and water rates.

NICRA was also the focus of a campaign to end internment. The core of the campaign was a programme of civil disobedience, which involved the withdrawal of representatives from public bodies and the refusal to pay rent, rates or other financial dues to local councils or the Stormont authorities. Through hundreds of pickets, street demonstrations and publicity drives, NICRA was able to develop a politics that brought them to the attention of the world. The civil rights demands were widely understood and easily communicated. This helped to popularise them among the people.

Belfast Telegraph, 19 January 1972

‘This civil disobedience campaign will cripple unionism more surely than any bombings of city warehouses and stores’.

It has been widely recognised by now that the campaign failed to build solidarity with a significant layer of the protestant working class despite the fact that many of these class issues highlighted by the CRM affected everyone and not just the ‘catholic community’. The main reason for this failure being the fear and mistrust whipped up by the unionist junta to protect their own interests. The challenge of building cross community alliances to resist inequality is still a challenge for those of us campaigning for social and economic justice in the north today.

Electoral disengagement is now at an all time high since the foundation of the northern state. In the 2010 General Election just over half the electorate in Northern Ireland - 57.6% - bothered to vote. This was the lowest turnout for all of the UK regions and the lowest turnout for a Westminster election since records began in 1945.In the Assembly elections, turnout was even worse.

Since those elections, nothing has been done to address this problem. Our politicians are behaving like nothing is wrong; that we still have a proper political discourse and that party politics can go on as before. But they can't. In fact, there is now a yawning gulf between party politics and the needs of the population.

In short, the political system that created vast turnouts of the electorate in the past is no longer fit for purpose for a present, and future, that requires a different type of politics.

The events in 1968 again expose the myth that social change is impossible, that it will not be built on appealing to and lobbying politicians and experts. The broad CRM won reforms through mass direct action on the streets. By conceding reforms the government also sought to pacify social discontent and channel demands along harmless routes via parliament. To some extent the state was very successful in their ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Many of the original civil rights protestors went on to find comfort, privilege and even title in the Dáil, the Commons, the Lords and in Stormont.  

Meanwhile, today, ordinary people are once again taking to the streets of Tyrone to demand the right to a decent standard of living for all regardless of race, class, creed or gender. We have a different society here in Tyrone today. The North of Ireland in 2012 is not the same as it was in 1968. Some aspects have changed. Many workers from other countries have come to our country to look for a decent standard of living for their families. Their struggle is our struggle. Their fight is our fight.

One fact remains unchanged, however. We must continue to fight for justice – social, economic and political. Let’s fight that fight together and to quote our predecessors, we shall overcome!

Gearóid Ó Machail

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com