Files discovered at the National Archives have revealed how an anti-terrorist unit investigated civil rights activists in Northern Ireland at the height of the riots and sought to charge them with criminal offences.
The files of the special department from 2./3. March 1972 shows Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey-Devlin (then MPs) being reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in London for alleged sedition – speeches inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch – and disregard for the court.
As the national security unit of the Metropolitan Police Force, Special Branch believed crimes had been committed following the publication of a pamphlet entitled “What Happened in Derry”.
Mr McCann told the Belfast Telegraph he was completely unaware the files existed. The pamphlet, an offshoot of The Socialist Worker, details the Army’s killing spree on Bloody Sunday.
A hard-hitting cover showed the names of those shot along with funeral arrangements. Next to each name was a rifle crosshair, signifying that each had been murdered.
At the time, the Socialist newspaper said the pamphlet “rips away the official government-army version of what happened on Sunday, January 30.”
It states: “Filled with exclusive facts and eyewitness accounts, it shows that the Derry massacre was a coldly calculated massacre, authorized at the highest levels in Westminster and Stormont.”
The Socialist Worker said the British press was “gagged” by the Widgery Tribunal after threatening contempt lawsuits. However, the newspaper vowed it would not be silenced for “one of the bloodiest crimes ever committed by the British ruling class”.
The DPP requested that copies of ‘What Happened in Derry’ be sent to him for him to examine and a summary of what was ‘on file’ in relation to the author, Mr McCann.
Eventually, Lord Chief Justice Widgery ruled that the pamphlet did not constitute contempt for the tribunal but that any further publications should be passed on.
Background checks by Mr McCann described him as a “revolutionary socialist and pro-IRA”.
He agrees with the first point, but completely rejects the second claim.
“It would be absolutely wrong to say I am pro-IRA,” he said.
“I’ve never been a member or affiliated with any Republican organization, so I was very far from it. Because I was very anti-state, because I was embarrassing and polemicizing the security forces, a lot of them probably thought from the outside, ‘He’s denouncing the people the IRA is shooting at, so he has to sympathize’ – which isn’t logical at all.”
Curiously, Special Branch also concluded that Mr McCann made his money from a fish and chip business. Such a shop did exist on Lecky Road but was run by a very different McCann family.
The fact that a “branch man” couldn’t tell them apart, McCann said, “says something about their knowledge of the Bogside.”
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McCann said that while copies of What Happened in Derry were confiscated at the time, he “never knew” that Special Branch had investigated and intended to prosecute his writings.
Mr McCann said: “There was a sense of urgency among some of us at the time, I don’t claim great foresight for myself or anyone else, but we wanted to get our version of Bloody Sunday out to the public before Widgery had it released.
“If Widgery was released before we said a word, that would dominate coverage.”
He said the Special Branch’s law enforcement plans came as “a bit of a surprise.”
“But the more I learn about how the Special Branch and British Intelligence worked at the time and what assumptions they had about what was going on…
“What strikes me is that documents show a bewildering ignorance of what the situation in the north was like and what was actually happening on a day-to-day basis.
“They made reports to senior officers that I believe were based on guesswork and wild guesses, sometimes biased, not based on fact.”
Among the stories suppressed in the days after Bloody Sunday were those of Sunday Times journalists Murray Sayle and Derek Humphry, who were sent to Derry for investigation.
They talked to everyone, gathered eyewitness accounts and concluded that it was a classic paratroop operation to deal with the enemy – the IRA – but it was a disaster because they didn’t show up as planned.
Times editor Harry Evans did not publish his findings due to Widgery’s possible contempt of court. Sayle eventually resigned because of the episode.
After Bloody Sunday, parachute regiment soldiers said they were subjected to sustained gunfire and nail bomb attacks.
The day after Bloody Sunday, then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling made a statement to the House of Commons saying: “The army returned fire aimed at them with well-aimed shots and inflicted a number of casualties on those who fired at them with bombs.”
Maudling then announced an inquiry into the circumstances of the march – the Widgery Inquiry.
A prosecution of Mr McCann and/or Ms Devlin in March, a month before the Widgery report was due to be released, would have drawn significant media attention and potentially overshadowed what many now see as a “whitewash” of the day’s events.
“That’s absolutely true,” McCann said. “We were in a hurry to get something out as soon as possible. I remember talking to people on the day of the funerals, they were ordinary brothers off the block like Dermie McClenaghan. I remember a conversation at Micky Doherty’s house on Wellington Street where they said we have to get something out about this because there is propaganda from all sides in the British tabloids.
“Micky said, ‘You’re going to have to write this, Eamonn’ and I did. I walked around and asked everyone I could. This is of course based on my own memories and I also spoke to journalists.”
The Widgery Tribunal’s injustice was only corrected 38 years later when Lord Saville found that the victims were unarmed and innocent civilians, with “the probable exception of Gerald Donaghy”, who was found with nail bombs.
Donaghy’s family has always argued that the items were planted. Saville noted that Gerald “was not shot because of his possession of the nail bombs” but “while trying to escape from the soldiers”.
The Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have both been contacted for comment.
https://www.independent.ie/news/special-branch-sought-prosecutions-following-bloody-sunday-publication-42041790.html Special Branch sought prosecution after Bloody Sunday was published