A briefing document written almost four decades ago by the British army’s then head of information, Colonel Maurice Tugwell, accused The Irish News of being an “organ for printing IRA propaganda”.
The document – dated November 9 1971 – was uncovered by the campaigning families of the victims of the McGurk’s Bar bombing in Belfast.
Just weeks before the loyalist bomb that claimed the lives of 15 innocent civilians exploded on December 4 at the North Queen Street bar, Tugwell prepared the confidential document. It gave his views on how to beat the IRA, not militarily but on the propaganda front by influencing public opinion.
The document said the IRA had been engaged in attempting “the destruction of public morale in Northern Ireland by a campaign of terror”. “At times it has came close to succeeding,” the colonel wrote.
Tugwell also listed a number of organisations and individuals he claimed were used as “front organisations”. “Republican sympathisers who, having themselves been taken in by the propaganda, are willing to spread the word,” he wrote. Among them Tugwell listed the Association for Legal Justice and several Catholic priests including the late Fr Denis Faul. He also said The Irish News was “a newspaper that has for long represented republican opinion in Ulster and is now an organ for printing IRA propaganda”.
Tugwell was known for his controversial insurgency tactics. Following the murder of 13 unarmed civilians by the Parachute Regiment on January 30 1972, Tugwell claimed four of the Bloody Sunday dead were IRA members. He went on to retract the statement in 2002 under questioning at the Saville inquiry. “Later, I am not sure when, I discovered that the allegation that four men were on a wanted list could not be sustained. It was an honest mistake,” he said.
Following the bombing of McGurk’s bar in December 1971 the British army and RUC released false information claiming the bombing had been an IRA ‘own-goal’ and that the bomb had been placed in the bar for transportation to another target. Last year Secretary of State Shaun Woodward was forced to issue an apology to the victims’ families for the “erroneous” information circulated at the time by the British army and RUC.
Yesterday Irish News editor Noel Doran said Tugwell’s comments were “ludicrous”. “While at one level the comments from the British army source are amusing, it still has to be alarming that such ludicrous attitudes could be found at a senior level in the security establishment of the period,” Mr Doran said. “This was a time when The Irish News was holding the line for constitutional politics in very dangerous circumstances and being castigated by republican and loyalist extremists as a result. “Our office was wrecked by a republican bomb in 1971 and it was also separately entered at night by members of another republican group who threatened journalists at gunpoint precisely because the paper refused to carry their propaganda statements in the way they demanded. “I think that the Irish News staff of the era deserve the highest credit for their dedication and professionalism against the most challenging of backgrounds.”