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Bloody Sunday and how the British empire came home

The events of 30 January 1972 in Northern Ireland weren’t an aberration. Britain has been in the business of killing dissenters across its former empire for decades.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
15 March 2019
Families of those died on Bloody Sunday marching yesterday
Families of those who died on Bloody Sunday marching yesterday
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Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A crisp winter day in Derry. Fifteen thousand gathered to protest against detention without trial. At ten past four, British paratroopers opened fire. Twenty-eight people were shot, some in the back as they fled. Fourteen were killed: seven, teenagers.

Some, like Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley and defence secretary Gavin Williamson, think there’s nothing to see here, saying that British soldiers in Northern Ireland were “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”, and should be above the law.

Others take Bloody Sunday more seriously. It has been the subject of inquiries and prime ministerial apologies and, now, a prosecution. Still, the events of that day are treated as an aberration, pathologised like a weeping mole on smooth skin.

If only. In truth the sickness is spread throughout the UK and began long ago. The massacre in Bogside offers a rare window into what the UK really was, only a generation back. And so it helps us to understand what we have become.

To do that, we need to unpick a tangle of tears and torture. This story is one thread in that knot; a strand of barbed wire that winds its way through the late British empire, from Ireland to Kenya to a small island in the Gulf.

It includes a very British cast of characters, including an Englishman at the heart of the British army, an Irishman who threw himself on a grenade to save his colleagues and a Scotsman who spent thirty years as “the butcher of Bahrain”.

Most of all, it’s a story about two teenagers, called Kevin and Ali, and how they came to be shot dead.

The story ends with the announcement yesterday that one soldier, Soldier F, has been charged with the murder of James Wray and William McKinney; and for the attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahone and Patrick O’Donnell on Sunday 30 January 1972.

But it starts five thousand miles away, in Kenya, with our Englishman and our Scotsman.

Frank Kitson and British counter-insurgency from Kenya to Ireland

During the 1950s, the British tried to retain control of lands in Kenya that they had violently stolen from the Kikuyu and other groups. Native Kenyans fought back in the Mau Mau uprising. Historians have documented widespread torture by British forces, including crushing testicles with pliers and the internment of up to 320,000 people in concentration camps where they endured slavery, starvation, murder and rape with blunt objects. Meanwhile, 1.5 million Kenyans were confined to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages, as documented by the historian Caroline Elkins in her Pulitzer-winning ‘Britain’s Gulag’.

A cartoon from an underground Bahraini opposition publication showing Henderson as the Genie of the Bahraini ruler Shaikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifah

A cartoon from an underground Bahraini opposition publication showing Henderson as the genie of the Bahraini ruler Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifah.

According to Kenya’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Nation, a man named Ian Henderson was known in Kenya as the “torturer in chief”, and was “the prime mover in the preparation of bogus evidence in the 1953 trial at Kapenguria”, where six leading Mau Mau figures were convicted, including the future first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. Henderson, from Aberdeenshire, is our Scotsman. He died in 2013.

The Daily Nation discusses how Henderson and his colleagues managed to recruit a significant number of people to a network of underground ‘countergangs’, and says that one of the key techniques at the time was the use of summary courts through which more than a thousand Kenyans were executed for crimes such as "consorting with terrorists" and "illegal possession of firearms". As the paper puts it:

The psychology underlying the treatment prescribed by Ian Henderson for the recruits for the pseudo-gangs… was to trump the fear of betrayal by an even more powerful fear of instant death by hanging.”

Ian Henderson was awarded the George Medal – Britain’s highest civilian award – on 28 September 1954 for his work in Kenya.

But he didn’t earn this dubious honour on his own. During Henderson’s time in Kenya, according to the Daily Nation, he was “part of the small team developing the pseudo-gangster techniques”. The other person the newspaper names as a member of this team was our Englishman: Frank Kitson.

Kitson later wrote about the techniques developed in Kenya in a book entitled Gangs and Countergangs’. It launched his reputation as a counter-insurgency expert whose theories – including in how to use “countergangs” – shaped British and United States military strategy for decades to come.

On New Year’s Day 1955, Frank Kitson was awarded the British Military Cross “in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Kenya”. Three years later, he gained a bar to that medal for his work in the Malayan ‘Emergency’. During Britain’s brutal war in Malaysia – waged in part so that Clement Attlee’s government could continue to plunder the country’s rubber, despite a famine, to fund Britain’s post-war reconstruction – half a million Malaysians were forced into concentration camps through a process known as ‘villagisation’.

Writing about this campaign, Kitson borrowed tactics from Mao Zedong and learned from his own experience with the Mau Mau, describing the relationship between army and insurgents as like that between a fisherman and fish: “If a fish has got to be destroyed it can be attacked directly by rod or net... But if rod and net cannot succeed by themselves it may be necessary to do something to the water.” In theory, he said, this could include “polluting the water”.

Kitson’s career then took him – via Bahrain, Aden and Cyprus, all places where the British state is accused of widespread use of torture – to Northern Ireland. There, Michael Jackson, who went on to be the professional head of the British army during the Iraq war, described him as “the sun around which the planets revolved”, saying that he “very much set the tone for the operational style in Belfast.”

According to Paddy Devlin of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Kitson “probably did more than any other individual to sour relations between the Catholic community and the security forces”.

The notorious Military Reaction Force (MRF), which has been accused of being behind a string of illegal shootings of Catholic teenagers in the early 1970s, was based at Kitson’s headquarters outside Belfast.

One of the units under his command was nicknamedKitsons Private Army’. Its official name was 1 Para. On that crisp day in Derry, 30 January 1972, it was ‘Kitson’s Private Army’ who fired all 108 shots[1] .

One of the victims was our first teenager. Kevin McElhinney, age 17, was shot from behind while trying to crawl to safety. Mike Jackson, later head of the British Army, was present on that day. According to his autobiography, Kitson, who was on leave at the time, later berated the acting commander for not having gone far enough.

A fortnight later, on 15 February 1972, Frank Kitson was knighted by the Queen for “gallant and distinguished” service in Northern Ireland.

But his story doesn’t end there. Despite the huge attention given to Bloody Sunday, it’s not the main reason Kitson is known in Northern Ireland.

The British grenade

The following year, a Catholic joiner named Eugene Heenan was driving his colleagues to a job when a British-army-issue hand grenade was thrown into their minibus. Heenan threw himself onto the grenade, and was killed saving his colleagues. The murder was put down to Loyalist paramilitaries – but the man found guilty of it, Albert Baker, was a former soldier who claimed links to British intelligence.

In 2015, lawyers representing Heenan’s widow began civil proceedings against the British Ministry of Defence, naming Kitson as a respondent in the case. They said that they were seeking to “obtain truth and accountability for our clients as to the role of the British army and Frank Kitson in the counterinsurgency operation in the north of Ireland during the early part of the conflict, and the use of loyalist paramilitary gangs to contain the republican-nationalist threat through terror, manipulation of the rule of law, infiltration and subversion all core to the Kitson military doctrine”. Mark Thompson from the Belfast-based campaign group Relatives for Justice has told openDemocracy that the case will return to court later this month.

It’s not the only active case involving Kitson. A group of men who say they were tortured – known as the Hooded Men – announced legal proceedings against him earlier this year.

We still don’t know the truth of these cases, and Kitson denies any knowledge of the death of Eugene Heenan. But documents released in recent years have confirmed stories of collusion between the British Army in Northern Ireland and Loyalist paramilitary gangs responsible for murder and torture. One government memo from the 1970s, uncovered in 2006, says that up to 15% of soldiers in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – then the biggest regiment in the British Army – were linked to Loyalist terrorist groups, and that the UDR was the best source of weapons for Loyalist terrorists.

Relatives for Justice accuse Kitson of being one of the “architects of collusion” and allege that he brought his counter-gangs doctrine from Kenya to Northern Ireland – one of his books on the subject was published while he was serving in Northern Ireland. However, Frank Kitson has always denied that collusion was a product of his theories on the use of ‘counter-gangs’.

At the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, Kitson said:

It has been suggested that I might have had some special influence in Northern Ireland because of my earlier experiences of counterinsurgency and peace-keeping and because I had recently prepared a report for the army on these matters, which was published as a book called ‘Low Intensity Operations’ in November 1971. I had also written an account of my personal experiences during the Kenya emergency published in 1960. I do not consider that either my experiences or my books would have been of much interest to my superiors at the time, most of whom had been involved in these sorts of operations themselves. Furthermore, ‘Low Intensity Operations’ was only published towards the end of my time in Northern Ireland and did not become very well known until some months after I had left the Province. I very much doubt whether the GOC [general officer commanding] or the CLF [Commander Land Forces] had read it by January 1972; indeed they may never have read it.

James Hughes, an expert in conflict and reconciliation at the London School of Economics, has a different perspective, and it’s worth quoting him at length about Kitson’s tenure in Northern Ireland:

Kitson favoured shock troops like 1 Para and the SAS, and the undercover MRF... The MRF not only murdered suspects and unarmed Catholic civilians but also colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in a campaign of sectarian murder of innocent Catholics. The 30-year duration of the conflict in the North is the most obvious evidence of the military failure of these tactics…

At the Saville Enquiry [into the Bloody Sunday killings] Kitson’s memory of events was poor, but he was sure that there was no insurgency when he arrived in Belfast in late 1970. By the time of his departure in April 1972 the Catholic community was in all-out revolt.

Kitson went on to be commander of UK land forces in the early 1980s. In the 2000s, he was a key adviser on US military strategy during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As The Daily Telegraph recounts, “David Petraeus, the American general who commanded coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, drew heavily on Sir Frank’s work when he devised the US Army’s new strategy for confronting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even making the time to visit the 88-year-old retired general at his Devon home.”

Frank Kitson, now in his nineties, still lives in Devon and continues to be treated by the military establishments of the western world as an expert in counterinsurgency.

Bahrain: a British island in the Gulf

To place Bloody Sunday in its proper context, we also need to look at what British officials were up to elsewhere. In 1963, Frank Kitson’s former colleague Ian Henderson was deported from newly independent Kenya. He moved to Bahrain, bringing with him his experience as ‘chief torturer’. If it seems odd that a British policeman would be given such a job, it’s worth briefly reviewing the history of this island in the Gulf.

The government of British India took control of Bahrain in 1861. In the 1920s, the UK founded the Bahraini police force, and the island remained a British protectorate until 15 August 1971 – six months before Bloody Sunday. From the 1950s, the regime struggled to contain an independence movement and Britain used violent crowd control techniques to prop up its puppet government. Pro-independence leaders were eventually deported. In 1965 the Royal Navy used helicopters to drop tear gas on Bahraini protesters.

As Marc Owen Jones wrote for openDemocracy in 2013:

Charles Belgrave, a British official who worked in Bahrain between 1926 and 1957, and whose multiple roles included financial advisor to the Ruler, commandant of the police, and judge, used torture on detainees in a number of high profile cases, as did his British colleague Captain Parke. Methods included beatings, sleep deprivation, and on one occasion the placing of lighted pieces of paper between the toes of a detainee.

In the 1970s, the country’s police force was headed by a British officer, Jim Bell. Alistair McNutt, a former police officer in Hong Kong under British rule, was a colonel in the interior ministry until 2002. And from 1968 until 1998, the head of the Bahraini secret police was our Scotsman, Ian Henderson, who became known as the 'Butcher of Bahrain'. “During this time”, according to the The Guardian, “his men allegedly detained and tortured thousands of anti-government activists.

“Their activities are said to have included the ransacking of villages, sadistic sexual abuse and using power drills to maim prisoners. On many occasions they are said to have detained children without informing their parents, only to return them months later in body bags.”

In 1984, Ian Henderson was awarded a CBE for “services to British interests in Bahrain”.

When he stood down as head of Bahrain’s secret police in 1998, Henderson was replaced in the role by another British ex-serviceman – a colonel, Thomas Bryan. After the Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner John Yates resigned as Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer over the phone-hacking scandal in 2011, he, too, went to work for the Bahraini government for six months. He was to oversee reform of its police force. While there, Yates dismissed some criticism of Bahrain’s police as “malicious propaganda”.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Foreign Office spent significant sums training Bahrain’s security services, including arranging a number of visits to Belfast so that Bahraini officials could learn about crowd-control techniques from Northern Irish colleagues and have a tour of Northern Ireland’s only high-security prison. During one visit to Northern Ireland, Bahraini officers were trained in “community intelligence” and “how to use dogs”.

Until then, our second teenager, Ali al Singace had survived in hiding in Bahrain. Ali had been a teenage protester during the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. Shortly after this visit to Northern Ireland, Bahrain’s Ministry for the Interior managed to locate him.

Ali was taken to Jau prison, where staff from the Foreign Office-funded company Northern Ireland-Co-operation Overseas were training 400 prison officers. During specific periods that NI-CO staff were training guards in Jao prison, Ali reported being raped and tortured by his prison guards, as did dozens of fellow inmates.

In January 2017, he was shot dead.

Despite its history, Bahrain has managed to retain a positive reputation internationally, to a significant extent because of the British PR firms Bell Pottinger and Weber Shandwick. In the latter case, the country’s account was for a while managed by Priti Patel, who went on to be a Conservative minister, and continued to visit the country as an MP – funded by its government – and advocate for it in Parliament. Patel was sacked as a minister in 2017 for her off-the-books relationship with the Israeli government.

In 2013, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain – whose family has long been propped up by the British – summarised his regime’s relationship with the UK government:

The first Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1820, nearly 200 years ago, and it remained until replaced by a new one in 1971 on Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf – a unilateral decision of which my father said – ‘Why? - No one asked you to go’! In fact for all practical and strategic purposes the British presence has not changed and it remains such that we believe we shall never be without it.

In April last year, 47 years after the UK left its original HMS Juffair base in Bahrain, Britain opened a new naval base in the country. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson explained why, saying "Our Armed Forces are the face of Global Britain and our presence in Bahrain will play a vital role in keeping Britain safe as well as underpinning security in the Gulf".

It’s not the only new military base in the region: in 2015, the UK announced a major expansion of its military presence in Oman, where the current Sultan is a former UK army officer who secured his role in a British coup in 1970. He already hosts the only permanent SAS base outside the UK and three GCHQ bases which tap the undersea cables running from the Gulf under the Strait of Hormus. His regime, like that of Bahrain, relies on the use of torture to maintain its control. The UK’s biggest corporation, Shell, owns 34% of Oman’s state oil company – with 60% owned by the government. According to Mark Curtis, the two bases will provide the UK with its biggest capacity for military intervention in the Middle East since the 1960s.

What it means to be a person from these islands

If Britain had a functional media or a sensible government, the debate about the prosecution of a soldier for alleged murder on Bloody Sunday would be a chance to talk about our imperial history: how it’s shaped our post-imperial present and how it’s led us to the chaos of today. It would be an opportunity to explore what we did to people across the planet and ask questions about where we are now; to challenge the way that we’ve started to sell the lessons of empire to the world.

This should be a chance to talk about the tragic fact that the events in Derry that day weren’t nearly as unusual as we like to think.

It would be an opportunity for national catharsis, for the start of a process of truth and reconciliation with the peoples across the world who were subjugated by the British state. This is our moment to talk about what we can make it mean to be a person from these islands.

But instead, we get delusion from the Northern Ireland secretary and praise for the chaps at the top. We get mawkish empire sentimentalism, and our reporters rarely examine the fact that we’ve become the world centre for mercenary companies, nor think about how that influences our politics. And we rarely discuss the fact that, for millions of people, the feeling of Britishness is still, to this day, the feeling of cold steel on soft flesh.

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