David Cameron must remember the lessons of Bloody Sunday

In the aftermath of the riots that swept across England last week, the UK government must not rush to adopt draconian policing tactics.

I learned of the London riots last week when I got back from a night out in Belfast only to be greeted by scenes of riot police and burning buses in Tottenham on the TV news. It felt like an uncanny vantage point from which to be watching part of my hometown in flames.

The sense of cognitive dissonance only grew the following evening on my return to a London that was witnessing calls for plastic bullets, troops on the streets and other measures whose disastrous consequences I had spent the previous week learning about.

This August marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland, perhaps the most draconian attempt to suppress civil unrest by a British government in modern times.The Féile an Phobail festival in West Belfast last week witnessed testimony from internees and the families of civilians killed during the period. The picture that emerged was one of a disastrous policy that exacerbated the Troubles for decades.

In a new departure, the Féile also heard from two ex-soldiers visiting West Belfast for the first time since the early 1970s as part of a delegation organised by the Tim Parry - Johnathan Ball Peace Centre in Warrington.

One of the visiting soldiers told the Andersonstown News:

“I understand probably I’m the first ex-Para to do such a thing as this  and I’m doing this partly as I feel there needs to be greater understanding in England as well as here as to what happened 40 years ago and to work with the communities and provide some answers and support to people who still have a lot of questions they wish to ask.”

It was a courageous step, largely unreported in Britain, which brought the ex-squaddies face to face with some raw and powerful emotions from the families of civilians, such as that of Joan Connolly, a 45-year-old mother of eight shot dead on 9 August 1971.

Connolly was one of 11 people killed by the Parachute Regiment in a single area of Belfast in the 36 hours following internment, an event that has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. Six months later the Paras would be deployed to Derry, over the objections of local security chiefs such as the RUC's Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan, for the operation that resulted in Bloody Sunday.

That disastrous decision is a precedent that David Cameron would be wise to consider before imposing militaristic solutions over the heads of policemen like Met Commissioner Tim Godwin or ACPO Chief Hugh Orde. Orde, it should be noted, was the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland when it finally won broad support from nationalist politicians, a fragile achievement of a significance that is perhaps not fully appreciated at Westminster.

Of course, it would be easy to exaggerate the parallels between the riots that have swept London for the past week, and the chronic political violence that has shaped Northern Ireland thoughout its history. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned.

Another significant event at the Féile, again largely ignored in the British media, illustrated the dangers of endorsing a vigilante backlash.

The Pat Finucane Centre presented the results of a trawl through the National Archives, which showed how the history of the Ulster Defence Regiment was shaped by an official desire to co-opt militant loyalism.

The policy of using the UDR to contain the danger of a "Protestant backlash" was such that little attempt was made to weed out loyalist paramilitaries from the Regiment, even when infiltration was recognised. Indeed, the decision to form full-time UDR battalions was actually made as a result of a meeting with the Ulster Workers Council in which the main loyalist paramilitary organisations were represented. 

The official documents show that the UDR in Belfast was heavily infiltrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force, at a time when one of its soldiers was operating as a member of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang.

England's cities have nothing approaching Northern Ireland's stark sectarian divide. Nevertheless, the episode underlines the danger of any official connivance in the kind of vigilantism promoted by the English Defence League in places like Eltham.

Having received widespread acclaim for his reaction to the Saville report, it would be a tragedy if David Cameron were to make the same mistakes as Ted Heath and Brian Faulkner in imposing politically-inspired security policies that could make a bad situation worse.

About the author

Tom Griffin is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Bath and a freelance writer. He is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.