How British forces colluded in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland

Far from being neutral peacekeepers, a new documentary exposes the involvement of British security members in civilian murders during the Troubles. 

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A few hundred chairs were set in neat rows along a chandelier-draped function room in the centre of Newry on Friday. People lined up their pints as the bar shuttered for the start of the film. In the first minutes of Unquiet Graves, Seán Murray’s recent feature documentary, a recreation shows two men driving home along a country road. They’re stopped at a checkpoint and executed. Gunshots boomed through the speakers. Heads shook and bowed in the darkness. People gasped and cursed under their breath.

This audience knew intimately the fear of those attacks. The Glenanne farm was a short enough drive away from where we sat. As an arms stash and bomb-making site, the farm gave its name to the Glenanne Gang, run by British security force members who were linked to the murders of 120 civilians. Their victims were farmers, shopkeepers, nurses. Two were teenagers on their way to a disco.

Bereaved family members sat in the front row. On screen, Alan Brecknell spoke of his father being sprayed with bullets. Margaret Campbell described watching her husband’s execution. Priests raised the alarm about a “murder triangle,” where attacks were mounting but investigations were superficial.

Desiring to confront the past, director Seán Murray travelled to South Africa to speak with John Weir, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Patrol Group officer and member of the gang. Murray came away with the impression not of a monster but of a man shaped by the conditions of a conflict. Haunting closeups of Weir’s face punctuate the feature-length documentary as he answers Murray’s questions.

In 1999, a sworn affidavit was made public in which Weir admitted his role in loyalist murders and identified the farm, owned by RUC Officer James Mitchell, as the base for planning the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings that killed 33 people. The bombings happened two days after the loyalist Ulster Workers Council strike to collapse the Sunningdale Agreement, which strove to establish a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive and cross-border Council of Ireland.

Weir linked British special branch agent Robin Jackson, known as “the Jackal,” to the 1975 Miami Showband Massacre by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an attack in County Down involving two gunmen who were active soldiers in the British Army and one former solider, which killed three members of a popular cabaret band. Weir says superior officers were aware of the gang’s operations. The farm was eventually raided in 1978; weapons found included two submachine guns. The same year, Weir was arrested for the murder of a Catholic man after fellow officer William McCaughy confessed to their crime.

British forces are often portrayed as neutral peacekeepers in the conflict. This week, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley claimed that killings by security forces during the Troubles “were not crimes,” and that the military were “acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way”. But evidence shows that security force members were involved in loyalist murders and the bombings of civilians.

Alan Brecknell was just seven when his father was killed in a loyalist attack on Donnelly’s Bar in 1975. Unquiet Graves follows his search for answers about his father’s murder, supported by the Pat Finucane Centre, which together with another human rights group Justice For the Forgotten, met with Weir in Paris in 2001 and brought Brecknell closer to the truth. Weir told the groups he believed that intelligence officers had wanted the Troubles to spiral into a full civil war, forcing moderates to take sides so the British military could crush the nationalist movement.

Members of the security forces involved in loyalist attacks were named in the book Lethal Allies, written by Anne Cadwallader, a veteran journalist and caseworker for the Pat Finucance center. The book was a touchstone for Murray’s film. She analyses how British colonial rule attempted to divide in order to conquer; British officer Frank Kitson, who was stationed in Northern Ireland from 1970-72, developed a strategy using “gangs” to fight independence movements, and described the law as “little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.”

This exploitation of sectarian violence is disturbingly present in Unquiet Graves. Weir repeats the claim that British military intelligence tried to manipulate loyalists into shooting up a Catholic primary school outside the small village of Belleeks. Was the aim to kill primary school children? Weir is adamant: “Children, teachers, yes, yes.”

I asked Murray if he faced criticism over the making of Unquiet Graves. “Of course you have people saying you shouldn’t be making these films, it’s only dragging up the past, but I don’t look at it that way,” Murray explains. “We need to listen to each other’s stories, we need to realise there were many truths and many untruths, we need to unpick that for the future.” For Murray, who was raised in a republican family in West Belfast, security forces were a paramilitary threat – the “enemy of the people”. He believes trust needs to be restored.

“If we don’t [restore] confidence in the police it’s going to lead to radicalising young people,” he added. “We don’t want that.”

The film ended with a live reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem The Strand at Lough Beg, delivered by the film’s narrator Stephen Rea, whose cousin was killed in an attack linked to the Glenanne Gang. The audience drew breath. As the lights came on and the room emptied out, three women stayed to finish drinks among the seats.

The youngest said that when she visited England people knew about IRA attacks but nothing about British collusion. Helen Murphy, a woman in her fifties taking drags from a vape, told me that her brother was in the Hillcrest bar when it was bombed on St Patrick’s Day in 1976, another attack linked to the Glenanne Gang. “He held two kids together,” she said, their bodies horribly injured in the blast. It haunted him still.

Caelainn Hogan is an Irish journalist. She writes for the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Harpers and Washington Post.