Scandal of 1970s terrorist murders uncovered

Friend or foe? Belfast children in 1972 joking around with British soldiers © Getty Images

Shock revelations that a secret British army unit was eliminating terrorists in Northern Ireland in the 1970s have revived debate about whether the Troubles can be consigned to history.

If you are caught, the soldier was told by his superiors, we will deny all knowledge of you.

Speaking to the BBC this week as part of a Panorama investigation, the former soldier admitted that his undercover unit, known as the Military Reaction Force (MRF), probably never existed on paper. It was disbanded in 1973. But during its 18 months of operation, this group of soldiers were sent out in unmarked cars, wearing civilian clothes, to infiltrate areas known to be home to terrorists. Their job was to hunt down members of the IRA and kill them: ‘If they needed shooting, they’d be shot,’ explained one, claiming their eliminations had probably saved many lives.

But the revelations have caused widespread alarm across the UK, because they appear to show the British army used techniques, at least for a time, that put them on a par with their terrorist foes. Speaking only on condition that their identities are completely disguised, the soldiers who were once part of the 40-man secret unit admitted that their work had included shooting unarmed civilians.

During the three decades of political violence known as ‘the Troubles’, there were atrocities on both sides, with republicans pitted against self-styled ‘loyalist’ Protestant terrorists. And there are terrible examples of the British army behaving in an inexcusable way – the Bloody Sunday massacre is the most infamous.

But by 1972, the year in which the MRF was operating its campaign of summary executions, there were an average of five terrorist bombings every day in Belfast. The origins of the Troubles were social and political, but the scale of the violence had effectively turned it into a civil war in one corner of the United Kingdom.

We are the laws

To some, these circumstances will explain why the army set up the MRF. In an extreme situation, faced with violent internal insurgency, the forces of the state had to find methods to, as one of the anonymous soldiers interviewed by the BBC put it, ‘minimise the activities’ of the bombers. Insisting that every terrorist be brought to justice rather than ‘taken out’ is just squeamishness.

That way of thinking is the beginning of the end of the rule of law, others protest. Even in the most extreme situations, those who are paid to defend a nation must uphold its standards. Certainly this happened many years ago, but the wounds are still raw in the communities where family members were murdered by both sides. Finding that the state was also adopting terrorist methods is shocking, and the revelations must be as fully investigated as crimes committed by either side.

You Decide

  1. Is there any justification for the actions of this undercover unit?
  2. Should there be an amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles? If so, how long afterwards?


  1. Make a timeline of the history of Northern Ireland.
  2. Collect examples of conflicts in other countries which have parallels with Northern Ireland, and how they have been resolved.

Some People Say...

“The past is never dead. It is not even past.’William Faulkner”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely this is a small scandal in a small corner of the world?
Well, you could also argue it is a long time ago – the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles in 1998. But in many countries there are confrontations between separatist groups and the state: the example of what happened in Northern Ireland, both what went wrong and how peace was achieved, is examined across the globe.
And this is an example of something wrong?
Yes. This week a senior lawyer in the province argued that the Troubles should be consigned to history, and that a blanket amnesty should apply to violent crimes carried out by either side during that period. But others, including human rights groups, rejected the idea, arguing justice must be part of the reconciliation.

Word Watch

Irish Republican Army. The main paramilitary group waging war against the British state in pursuit of its goal to unite with Eire was the provisional IRA (or the provisionals, who splintered off from the official IRA). Its political wing, Sinn Fein, became part of the power-sharing government set up after the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles in 1998.
The Troubles
Troops were sent onto the streets of Northern Ireland’s cities at the end of the 1960s to quell violence between the province’s Protestant majority, and the Catholic minority, who were facing discrimination. At first, they were welcomed into Catholic homes as protectors. But as the clashes worsened, London took back political control and all representatives of the British state, including the soldiers, became the target of terrorist attacks by groups including the IRA who wanted to leave the UK and become part of the Republic of Ireland.
Because of historical wrangles, parts of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland saw themselves during most of the 20th century as loyal to the queen but not to the government of the British state, who they believed would betray their interests.
Bloody Sunday
The killing of 14 unarmed Irish civilians by the British Parachute Regiment in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry on Sunday January 30th 1972 became known as Bloody Sunday. The Saville Report said the killings were totally unjustified. David Cameron apologised on behalf of the British nation.
In this case, drawing a line to prevent the pursuit by police or the law of anyone accused of crimes during a particular period of the past.

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