Northern Ireland Information Service: Misinformation

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This page consists of an extract from David Miller Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London: Pluto Press, 1994, p. 123-4 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

It is now well established (and has been admitted by the government), that the task of the Information Policy branch of Army headquarters in the early to mid 1970s was disinformation. False stories were spread in order to discredit the IRA as well as other enemies of the Intelligence services, such as Loyalist politicians and the Labour government (See Curtis 1984a; Foot 1990). Information Policy was closed down in disputed circumstances in the mid 1970s and it seems that such a large scale active disinformation operation has not existed since. However, the carefully drafted government statement acknowledging disinformation left a number of questions unanswered:

It has not, since the mid-1970s, been the policy to disseminate disinformation in Northern Ireland in ways designed to denigrate individuals and/or organisations or for propaganda purposes (Hansard 30 January 1990:111)

Later, Defence Secretary, Tom King, specifically drew attention to the wording of this statement, inferring that disinformation was still being used for other purposes:

I did not say that it has not been the practice to use disinformation where it is necessary to protect lives, and for sound and absolutely honourable security reasons (Hansard 1 February 1990:456)

Some might agree with Conservative MP, Julian Amery, that 'it is perfectly appropriate and right to use disinformation to protect ordinary military operations' (Hansard 1 February 1990:456), but they might be less sanguine if the object of the lies were simply to protect the image of the government, obstruct the due process of law and manipulate public opinion.

The use of disinformation in Northern Ireland is intimately connected with the use of force by the state. If the strategy of successive British governments since 1974 has been to redefine the actions of the 'security forces' as consistent with social democratic criteria, then it is essential that the police and the army be seen to act within the law. When this became difficult, the avenues taken have included changing the law, obstructing and controlling the justice system and lying to the media.

Allegations that the police and Army have engaged in the illegal use of force are vigorously denied. The investigation of six killings by undercover units of the RUC in 1982, by Merseyside Deputy Chief Constable, John Stalker, concluded, however, that:

The circumstances of those shootings pointed to a police inclination, if not a policy, to shoot suspects dead without warning, rather than to arrest them. Coming, as these incidents did, so close together, the suspicion of deliberate assassination was not unreasonable (Stalker 1988:253).

Between 1969 and 1990, 'security forces' in Northern Ireland have been responsible for the deaths of over 350 people. Over half of these were uninvolved civilians (Irish Information Partnership 1990). In the early years of the troubles a pattern of public relations responses to such incidents emerged. The pattern was not changed by the closing down of the Information Policy unit in the mid 1970s. The cases of two of the civilians killed by the SAS in 1978 became widely known examples of Army disinformation. In the first case. William Hanna, a Protestant civilian, was killed during an SAS ambush of three unarmed IRA members. 'Following the incident the Army press office at Lisburn distributed versions of what had happened which some people at headquarters knew to be inaccurate, suggesting deliberate deception rather than mistakes made in haste'(Urban 1992:61). The Army statement on 21 June, the day of the shooting, alleged that 'The men were challenged, and there was an exchange of gunfire. Four men were shot dead' (cited in Murray 1990:221-222). The SAS soldiers also maintained that Hanna had 'moved as if to go for a gun' (cited in Murray 1990:225).

The next month the SAS killed 16 year old John Boyle, the day after Boyle had stumbled upon an arms cache in a local graveyard. He rushed home to tell his father, who phoned the police. It seems that Boyle returned to the graveyard the next day out of curiosity, whereupon he was shot by the SAS, who had the graveyard staked out.

The first statement [from the army] said a patrol spotted three men acting suspiciously and when challenged one pointed a rifle at them. One of the soldiers then fired five shots killing John Boyle. The second statement said only one man was present and he pointed a rifle at the soldiers when challenged; later two other men came to the scene [these were Boyle's Father and brother] and they were arrested and handed over to the police. The third statement said no challenge was made to the man, that this was impracticable as he was 10 yards from them pointing a rifle in their direction (Murray 1990:232).

The Army statement added that 'the rifle was later found with its magazine fitted and ready to fire' (cited in Curtis 1984a:77). In fact, the Boyles had no paramilitary connections and the rifle was unloaded. The SAS men were tried and acquitted of murder, but the judge, Lord Lowry, declared that he was unable to decide if Boyle had picked up the rifle. Lowry stated that the SAS statement was 'self justificatory, and, in the context of the Boyle family's reputation, untrue' (cited in Urban 1992:65).

These examples are good illustrations of the Army's PR response when soldiers wound or kill civilians or paramilitary personnel. It is generally agreed by journalists and critics that RUC PR has been much more reliable than that of the Army. But while they have not engaged in organised 'black propaganda' operations and their reputation and credibility for journalists has been relatively high (Curtis 1984a; Hamilton-Tweeddale 1987; Ryder 1989), when it comes to explaining deaths caused by their own personnel they have been less than reliable. As one Northern Ireland Office official sardonically observed: 'the RUC itself was not beyond reproach in these matters' (Interview, Belfast July 1990).

Perhaps the best known examples of RUC disinformation are the 'shoot-to-kill' operations of 1982 which resulted in six deaths and one wounding. In the first case IRA members Eugene Toman, Sean Burns and Gervaise McKerr were said to have been killed after their car had driven at speed through a checkpoint. The story changed the next day when the RUC said that the car had stopped briefly at the checkpoint before accelerating towards the policeman who had waved it down knocking him over and driving off. The police statement continued: 'Other police opened fire on the vehicle which drove off in an attempt to escape. In doing so, it careered of the road, down a bank. When police arrived at the scene it was found that the three occupants were dead' (cited in Curtis 1984a:78). But in fact no police officer was knocked down and the car was riddled with over a hundred bullets many of which had been fired from the front or side of the car rather than the back as would have been the case if RUC officers had fired from the alleged checkpoint. In addition Toman stumbled from the car when it came to rest and was shot through the heart by a police officer (Curtis 1984a; Stalker 1988; Urban 1992). Within a few weeks the RUC also killed INLA members Seamus Grew and Roddy Carroll. The RUC press office again alleged that the INLA members had broken though a random police road block injuring a police officer. In fact Grew and Carroll had been under surveillance for some time and were waved down by police just after they had crossed the border into Northern Ireland. An unmarked police car pulled up behind them and an undercover police officer got out and 'walked towards the passenger side of the suspect vehicle, where Carroll was sitting. He fired his pistol through the window, killing the INLA man. Constable Robinson then walked around the front of the car, reloading his pistol as he went, and fired four times at Grew, slaying him as well. Neither of the INLA men was armed' (Urban 1992:152). In between these killings the RUC also shot and killed seventeen year old civilian Michael Tighe and wounded his friend Martin McAuley. The official police story was that on a routine patrol an armed man had been seen entering a hayshed . The police approached and heard voices and the cocking sound of a rifle mechanism. Two warnings were shouted and then McAuley and Tighe were both seen pointing weapons at the RUC officers. The police later admitted that they had been keeping the hayshed under surveillance and they had seen no armed man. The guns recovered in the hayshed were pre-war Mauser rifles, but they were unloaded and there was no ammunition in the shed. According to McAuley, who survived, there was no initial warning and no chance to surrender (Stalker 1988). According to the RUC these cases were examples of honourable disinformation to protect informers (See Stalker 1988).

RUC disinformation has not, though, been confined to incidents in which informers might play a role. They have also consistently issued statements at variance with independent evidence in other situations. In the 1970s the RUC press office refused to acknowledge that suspects were being ill treated in interrogation centres in Omagh, Gough barracks and Castlereagh (Taylor 1980). They also spread unattributable smears against a police surgeon who had worked at Castlereagh and had confirmed that he had seen between 150 and 160 suspects with injuries inflicted by police officers (Curtis 1984a:63-67). The circumstances surrounding injuries and deaths as a result of plastic bullets have also be routinely disputed (Curtis 1982). One prominent example is the killing of John Downes in August 1984. American journalist Sally Belfrage was present on the Internment commemoration march on 9 August 1984 and contrasts what she saw with the RUC statement on the death. After some stone throwing and a police response with plastic bullets the march reached its destination:

Gerry Adams' voice came amplified from the rostrum to plead for peace and calm. The police lowered their guns and the marchers dribbled back into the street... Though depleted, the crowd still filled the square. The people had recovered in a second; even little children weren't sent home. Adams asked everybody to sit down to show their pacific intentions and to provoke no more reaction. They obeyed immediately and became a sea of sitting families, ringed entirely now by armed and helmeted police backed up by their vehicles (Belfrage 1988:58).

Adams went on to introduce Martin Galvin the Noraid leader who had been banned from entering Northern Ireland by the government:

As Galvin took the microphone, the police charged. They came in from all sides, ramming and running into people with armoured cars, bludgeoning them with truncheons, loosing hundreds of plastic bullets point-blank into the crowd. The air was full of puffs of smoke and cracking reports as spectators went down. There was nowhere for most of them to run, and they were beyond screaming: it was a matter of huddling in knots and praying and crying. Television cameras recorded the brutality. John Downes, attending the rally with his wife and eighteen-month-old baby, was shot in the heart in full view of the lens of the man from the Daily Mail. The press people themselves were manhandled, threatened and hit... In moments the square was still but for the police with their smoking guns and knots of hysterical, weeping people who were shot at if they tried to move. The injured lay bleeding everywhere. One man had a gaping hole in his cheek which spurted every time he breathed. A seven-year-old bled heavily from one ear; and elderly man lay unconscious, shot in the back of the head. Medics were frantically trying to revive John Downes, but he had already turned blue (Belfrage 1988:58-59)

The RUC statement was, according to Belfrage, 'so at variance with the witnessed, documented, photographed experience of the world's press that you could only wonder at the effrontery':

They [the police] were attacked and obstructed by groups within the crowd, which numbered in excess of 2,000, obviously determined to prevent Galvin's arrest and who had been instructed from the platform to do so. To Protect themselves from those throwing missiles and to effect entrance to Connolly House, the door of which had been barricaded after Galvin had entered, a total of 31 plastic bullet rounds were discharged - a number of them in the air to disperse the crows... Initial reports indicate that 20 persons were taken to hospital, and a 22 year old man, who was identified as a rioter, was found dead on arrival at hospital (cited in Belfrage 1988:59).

Translated into the language of official public relations this comes out as 'we are not required to lie down and let people walk all over us' (Interview with senior RUC press officer Belfast July 1989)

The use of disinformation is not, however, just a matter of generic 'British lies'. Internal rivalries also have an important bearing on public relations tactics. Such rivalries can on occasion reveal that disinformation is used to cover mistakes. For example, after the first Army statement on the killing of John Boyle in 1978, the RUC press office told journalists that the story was untrue. 'The RUC was furious with the army, which it considered to have behaved in an irresponsible manner' (Urban 1992:64). Rivalries also seem to have been a factor in the PR response to the killing of Protestant civilian Kenneth Stronge. He happened to be in the vicinity when the IRA launched a mortar attack on North Queen Street police station in Belfast in July 1988. The RUC issued a statement claiming that Stronge was killed in crossfire. However, it was later confirmed he was killed by security force bullets (Irish Information Partnership 1990:210-211). Statements also alleged that RUC officers had returned fire from within the station, but in fact the operation was run by the SAS. Their handling of the operation apparently allowed the IRA team to escape and greatly annoyed the RUC who had themselves passed the intelligence information that the stations was about to be attacked onto the SAS. According to David Hearst of the Guardian:

The commanding officer of the [SAS] team insisted on having full operational command of the station and turfed out the police reservist who operated the gold coloured levers which activated the steel doors. The plan was to leave the doors slightly ajar, so that when the [IRA] unit struck, the SAS would rush out and engage the car in rapid fire. When the attack came, the SAS pulled the wrong lever, closing the door instead of opening it. By the time they got out, it was too late (cited in Murray 1990:438).

It is not difficult to see that such treatment by the SAS might lead disgruntled RUC officers to talking unofficially to the press, while at the same time the RUC press office is supporting the official line that the 'terrorists' were to blame for the death of Mr Stronge.

One question which arises from these examples is who knows about the lies? Merlyn Rees, for example has claimed that he knew nothing of the Information Policy Unit when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Hansard 1 February 1990:450-452). At Army HQ, Information Policy staff were aware that some of the material they produced was untrue, but it seems that at least some of the ordinary Army press officers were not. John Stalker found that false stories about the 1982 killings were given to the CID officers who investigated the killings as well as to the media, and then 'finally and disastrously, the fabricated stories surfaced at the Crown Court' (Stalker 1988:59). The stories originated not with the officers who carried out the killings but with 'a handful of Special Branch officers':

They were senior enough to carry a great deal of authority. After each operation, one or more of them gathered as a group with others, in what one of them described as a 'Chinese Parliament', which meant that everyone made a decision but no one was responsible for it. The prepared story would be refined to fit in with the events as they happened, and a jointly agreed account arrived at. A press statement was then prepared and released (Stalker 1988:59)

The drama-documentary 'Shoot to Kill' shows a RUC high level committee including the head of the press office as taking the decision to issue the press statement. The director of 'Shoot to Kill', Peter Kosminsky, has confirmed to me that this reconstruction was based on information from Detective Chief Superintendent John Thorburn, Stalker's Deputy, who had in turn derived the information from interviews with members of the committee (Telephone interview May 1990). BBC journalist and ex member of the Royal Tank Regiment, Mark Urban suggests that such killings were allowed to go unchecked because of a lack of real political control over the Army and the police. According to Urban, during the 1980s at least, senior civil servants:

did not consider themselves to be in real control either of the RUC's or the Army's special operations. The chief constable, as overall director of security operations succeeded in ruling specific discussion of undercover units and their activities off the agenda. A senior Stormont figure recalls, 'We just tended to hide behind the operational independence of the RUC. We couldn't be responsible for detailed operational matters, only for broad policy'... The result was one of those compromises, typical of British government, in which real power is exercised by those who are not responsible to Parliament or the electorate who, in return shield those who are responsible from painful decisions (Urban 1992:167-168 his emphasis)

We have already noted that from the mid 1970s, the Army, and then the police press offices were required to communicate statements on security incidents to the NIO for a 'view' to be taken on them. This system was still in place in 1982 and the false statements issued by the RUC were relayed to the NIO before being released to the media. According to a senior Information Service source:

I had become more and more suspicious of some of the facts or statements being issued from Army and RUC sources and we had agreed at one of the meetings with the RUC and Army information people that any statements to be issued had to be factual. For example 'three men were shot dead at a road check in Co. Armagh' Until we knew what the facts were, the only statement that the RUC could issue - and I personally had to clear it - was that there had been a shooting incident... They could say an incident had occurred, no Security forces had been injured, three people were believed to have been hurt. Until it was absolutely and clearly established that those three people had been killed, nothing could be said except for those bare facts. Then subsequently, a statement would have to be issued which would say that the police had been involved in a road check, that an incident happened and three men had been killed but it had to be factual at all times. Now what actually happened was that I was telephoned about an incident... - it must have been well after midnight - and I was told the RUC intended to issue a statement that a policeman had been knocked down by a car, the police had opened fire on the car and I said 'are you absolutely certain that those are the facts? That somebody was placed in danger by this car and that the police did open fire on it and that as a consequence of that three men were killed?' 'Pretty Sure'. So I said 'Not good enough. Go back and say nothing until you get the facts'. Quite clearly what then happened is people got together and created a statement to fit the consequences of the action. And so when they came back to me I said: 'you have checked with senior officers?' 'Yes'. 'And those are the facts?' 'Yes'. And so a statement was issued to that effect. But when one then saw the car, in which people were killed, it didn't quite gel with the statement. And so there was an example where the Information Service was improperly used... But there is a point beyond which you cannot go, because if you say 'are those the facts?' 'Yes'. 'and those been approved and authorised by senior officers?' well that's a point beyond which you can't go (Interview, Belfast July 1990).

It seems clear from this statement that at least some senior NIO officials were aware that the RUC was releasing information to the media which was untrue, but it is possible that they did not know about it officially.

Since the 1970s it has become commonplace for killings to be followed by statements that the victims variously made suspicious movements, were armed, pointed a gun at the 'security forces' or opened fire. It is also important that statements imply that 'security forces' came across the suspects by accident rather than admitting fore-knowledge. This is important both to protect informers and to deflect allegations of a deliberate ambush. Between 1982 and June 1991 there were at least 67 killings by security forces in disputed circumstances:

A large proportion of the victims were unarmed when they were killed. Twenty six, or 39%, had no weapons when shot while four were carrying imitation handguns or rifles. Of the 37 who had access to arms there were claims afterwards that nine were in no position to use weapons, mostly because they were on their way to arms dumps when killed... Nearly two thirds had not been directly involved in violence when they met their deaths (Moloney 1991b)

RUC and Army press offices have regularly issued statements in which the victims of shootings are alleged to have caused injury to soldiers or police officers or have driven through a checkpoint (Armagh killings of Sean Burns, Eugene Toman, Gervaise McKerr, Seamus Grew and Roddy Carroll in 1982. Killing of Joyriders Karen Reilly and Martin Peake in 1990; Cullyhanna killing of Fergal Caraher and wounding of his brother Míceál also in 1990), were armed (killing of Desmond Grew and Martin McCaughey in October 1990), made movements as if for a weapon or to detonate a bomb (1988 Gibraltar killings), were challenged (Michael Tighe and Martin McAuley, Armagh 1982, Gibraltar killings, 1988), opened fire or were believed to have opened fire (1982 Armagh killings) or were believed to be on active service (Pearse Jordan November 1992). Security sources have also regularly claimed that they had no foreknowledge and just happened to be in the vicinity by accident (Daniel Doherty and William Fleming, in Derry in December 1984, three would be robbers carrying imitation guns at a Bookies on the Falls Road in January 1990, UVF member Brian Robinson, 1990, Gibraltar killings, 1988).

The issuing of manifestly false on the record statements by the RUC has become less common since the mid 1980s. The use of unattributable disinformation has, however, continued. This has been described by some as an increase in sophistication (Committee on the Administration of Justice, forthcoming). The advantage of unattributable 'steers' is that they can then be denied by the RUC press office. This might be thought to be acceptable were it only related to protecting informants or the lives of members of the security forces, but it is hard to see how some of the false stories emerging from official sources can be connected with either operational security or the public interest. Unless, that is, the concept of public interest is stretched to include automatic protection of state personnel from the due process of the law.

It is difficult to see, for example how false stories about 'terrorist suspects' making movements, opening fire, breaking through road blocks etc. could be calculated to protect the lives of informants. It is also difficult to account for false stories about the victims of plastic bullets, such as John Downes and others (Curtis 1982) in terms of operational security.

The purpose of 'honourable' disinformation is said to be to protect informers by pretending that encounters with 'terrorists' happen fortuitously. But when statements are issued in which events such as road blocks, are fabricated, it is difficult to see how any IRA personnel involved in such an incident will be fooled since they will actually be present when the shooting occurs and will know if there has been a road block. Such considerations do not of course apply if the IRA members are killed. It is repeatedly alleged that security personnel have 'finished off' wounded suspects by firing a series of single shots at their heads from close range. This would certainly be one way of ensuring that first hand accounts of shootings do not reach the IRA.

It seems likely that in addition to the protection of informers and military lives there are two functions to such disinformation, both of which concern the legitimacy of state actions. Firstly there is the immediate impact of official killing on public opinion, both in the nationalist community and internationally. It is here that media management is most important. Urban cites officers at Lisburn as 'readily' admitting to have misled the media. Various Army and RUC officers privately acknowledge that 'it is not illegal to lie to the press' (Urban 1992:77).

By the time any killing is investigated by the courts, the media tend to be less interested. The courts and the legal process are the second arena in which legitimacy is important for the government. The legal process has however been systematically eroded by successive governments and the Inquest system to determine the circumstances of controversial deaths is regarded by Civil Liberties organisations as 'flawed from start to finish' (Committee on the Administration of Justice 1992):

The role of the inquest in Northern Ireland has been radically curtailed by Government legislation in 1980 and extensive legal hearings since. The jury can no longer deliver a verdict nor add riders to its findings. Currently the sole function is to ascertain who died where and when, and how the death was caused. Thus the jury has been effectively precluded from making any comment on the actions of the security forces and in particular coming to a decision as to whether the death was lawful or unlawful. The inquest system suffers from a further major flaw: the coroner cannot compel any person to attend who may have been responsible for the death (Committee on the Administration of Justice 1993)

The existence of the courts and the appearance of due process is, though, important for information management. According to Urban senior army officers and politicians are

aware of the importance of maintaining an appearance of the rule of law. Some believed that the best way to do this was to soothe nationalist unease after an incident by allowing inquests or outside police inquiries to proceed but to limit the damage which could be done by restricting the information given to outsiders attempting to scrutinise sensitive operations (Urban 1992:76).

The public relations and court statements made by the security services are not only intended to protect informers, but also to preserve the 'myth of the "clean kill" - that IRA members lost their lives because they were encountered, armed and in the middle of an operation, when the security forces had no choice but to engage them' (Urban 1992:200). Urban concludes that: 'As one incident has followed another, the ability of lawyers to examine them in the courts has been drastically reduced, the authorities have felt progressively less need to justify their actions by deliberate disinformation' (Urban 1992:246).