Digging for documents in the National Archives in Kew, London, at the start of the year, a “personal and confidential” letter dated 30th December 1971 caught my eye.
It was from Howard Smith, Whitehall’s UK Representative in Northern Ireland, to leading civil servant, Philip Woodfield CBE, head of the Northern Ireland department at the Home Office. It began:
“I think you will you will be interested to see the enclosed copy of a paper written by Frank Kitson”
I was very interested as Brigadier Frank Kitson is a renowned author and counter-insurgency expert who was commander of the British Army in Belfast at that time. The impact of his short tenure here is still debated by historians as I discussed in my book, The McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth.
I argued though that he laid the foundations for the British military strategy in the north of Ireland for years thereafter, especially with regards to armed contact with Britain’s enemy and the management of information. On our streets, this meant he oversaw Britain’s deployment of in-depth interrogation techniques, psychological operations, pseudo-gangs and covert Special Force units who murdered civilians with impunity.
The Military Reaction Force (MRF) (1) was one of Kitson’s creations and he actually records the importance of this covert death squad in the paper which is dated the 4th December 1971, the day of the McGurk’s Bar massacre. The paper is entitled Future Developments in Belfast:
“The main interest of the paper”, Howard Smith writes, “is that it shows how the man on the ground is feeling the lack of policy guidance on matters going wider than the redevelopment of Belfast… You will also see that the first paragraph expresses a cautious view about the prospects of success in dealing with the IRA”.
The main body of the paper draws on Kitson’s experience of counter-insurgency and community relations in the likes of Cyprus. Whilst he warns that his analysis is a “gross over simplification”, he can be insightful – if not at times prescient – as the problems he highlighted continue to blight us today: sectarian housing, segregation, the acceptability of policing and the lack of political direction. Nevertheless, it is this first paragraph of Kitson’s paper that I find most resonant. The very first sentence gives his – and by inference, the British Army’s – mission with regards to Internment:
“Operations in Belfast since 9th August have been carried out on the basis of so weakening the IRA that a future political initiative can be launched under favourable circumstances”
What a mess that turned out to be. Kitson recognised the “clumsiness of the Security Force machine” and that any success it had enjoyed in the months after Internment was “largely because both wings of the IRA were also clumsy, and indeed much too big for the purpose for which they were designed to fulfil”. The counter-insurgency theorist was mindful though that a slicker, leaner IRA would prove problematic for a lumbering British Army but he had prepared to develop just like his enemy:
“It is likely that having fined down the enemy organizations to the extent we have done, future successes will be increasingly hard to achieve from an operational point of view, unless we are able to make our own organization very much more efficient.”
Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, wrote hundreds of years before the birth of Christ “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy”. Kitson may have had this in mind when he wrote:
“As you know we are taking steps to do this in terms of building up and developing the MRF and we are also steadily improving the capability of Special Branch… by building up Special Branch’s records with Int Corps Sections.”
Armed contact and information gathering are the foundations of Kitson’s low intensity counter-insurgency theory, and this is evident in this very sentence. So too is the importance of the MRF in his future plans. This is the earliest record of the MRF which I have found and here written by Frank Kitson on the day of my grandmother’s murder.
It may have been a ghost force for generations but the MRF was evidently the spearhead of Kitson’s campaign to eliminate the IRA. Indeed military reaction and military reconnaissance represented the two masked faces of the MRF – contact and information. We now know from this letter and paper too that the top brass of the British Army and the cream of Britain’s political class in the north of Ireland at the time also knew of its development and importance. Therefore, they cannot shirk the responsibility for the crimes the MRF carried out with impunity and in Britain’s name.
Lawyers representing the families of civilians murdered by the MRF, such as Daniel Rooney and Patrick McVeigh, should demand that the PSNI question 88 year old Brigadier Frank Kitson as the police have done elderly suspects of Loyalist and Republican killings carried out at the same time. Frank Kitson is allegedly as much a director of terrorism as any paramilitary leader as he records here the development of a clandestine unit at the cutting edge of British military plans which killed ordinary civilians.
As one former member of the MRF admitted to journalist John Ware in a recent Panorama programme:
“We were not there to act like an army unit. We were there to act like a terror group.” (2)
If the Police Service of Northern Ireland is truly impartial, Frank Kitson would be arrested and interrogated about these taped allegations. The PSNI may even take this paper as proof that he was instrumental in the initial development and direction of this death squad.
Unfortunately, though, we know that the PSNI does not deal with our past impartially. The police refusal to investigate filmed allegations of MRF criminality proved that.
Then again, none of these old soldiers – Frank Kitson included – have ever needed to go on the run or worry about amnesty, so why should police inaction surprise any of us.
Read the archive Future Developments in Belfast by Commander 39 Airportable Brigade (PDF 3MB)
Read more about the book The McGurk’s Bar Bombing
Footnotes: (1) The MRF is also recorded as Military Reconnaissance Force but both may be correct as reconnaissance and reaction are two sides of the Kitson coin: information and contact; one section for each.
(2) Reported in the online Irish Times, 21 Nov 2013 (subscription link)