Heath ignored lessons of history and we’ve been paying for it since

ARE the British learning, or is the charging of the British soldiers with war crimes in Iraq just a cosmetic exercise? In this country it seemed the British did not learn from their mistakes.

Some of the British media accused former Prime Minister Ted Heath, who died this week, of having engaged in the longest sulk in British history. He never forgave Margaret Thatcher for ousting him.

He seemed to be remembered more fondly as the man behind the Sunningdale Agreement, the first real attempt to settle the problems of Northern Ireland.

The truth is that Heath was often obstinate, rude and obnoxious. As far as Ireland was concerned, he was a slow learner. He ignored the lessons of history, and we have been paying for his mistakes ever since.

Back in 1919 Michael Collins devised a plan to undermine British rule in this country by emasculating their intelligence system.

He considered detectives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to be the eyes and ears of the Dublin Castle regime, and he believed if the republicans knocked out those detectives, the British would retaliate blindly, hit innocent individuals, and drive the Irish people into the arms of the republicans.

“The sooner fighting was forced and a general state of disorder created through the country,” Collins told the Sinn Féin executive in March 1919, “the better it would be for the country.

Ireland was likely to get more out of a state of general disorder than from a continuance of the situation as it then stood. The proper people to take decisions of that kind were ready to face the British military, and were resolved to force the issue. And they were not to be deterred by weaklings and cowards.”

Collins was not asking his colleagues to back his plan; he was telling them what he was going to do. “For himself he accepted full responsibility for the announcement, and he told the meeting with forceful candour that he held them in no opinion at all, that, in fact, they were only summoned to confirm what the proper people had decided. He was certainly candour itself,” Darrel Figgis noted. “For all the hostility between us, I found something refreshing and admirable in his contempt of us all. His brow was gathered in a thunderous frown, and his chin thrust forward, while he emphasised his points on the back of a chair with heavy strokes of his hand,” Figgis added.

The British retaliated against the shooting of policemen by sacking a number of towns and villages around the country.

The blind reaction reached its nadir on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, when in reaction to the killing of 11 undercover agents and three others that morning, the Auxiliaries raided Croke Park during a football game between Dublin and Tipperary and fired into the crowd. Major-General GF Boyd, the officer commanding the British Army in Dublin, concluded that firing was both indiscriminate and unjustifiable. Fifteen people were killed, or fatally wounded, including a 10-year-old boy, Jeremiah O’Leary, who was shot in the head; John Scott, a 14-year-old boy was also killed, along with Jane Boyle who had gone to the game with her fiancée. They were due to marry five days later.

There were ugly scenes in the House of Commons next day. Joe Devlin, a Nationalist MP from Belfast, provoked uproar by asking why members, upset about the deaths of the officers in the morning, were ignoring what had happened in Croke Park in the afternoon “Sit down!,” members shouted.

“I won’t sit down,” Devlin replied. “I want to know from the prime minister why the House had not been made acquainted in this recital with the entrance of the military into a football field of 15,000 people, the indiscriminate shooting, and the ten men killed. Why have we not heard of this?”

Members were on their feet shouting at Devlin to sit down. When he said something to Major John Molson on the Conservative bench below him, the major grabbed him around the neck and tried to drag him into the row below. A violent scuffle ensued as Devlin broke loose and traded punches with government MPs.

“Kill him, kill him,” members from all sides of the house shouted. Other members rushed to break up the scuffling. Devlin’s coat was pulled off him in the struggle as two members tried to restrain him from behind.

“This is a fine specimen of your English courage and chivalry - to attack one man among 600,” Devlin taunted his attackers. The speaker suspended the session amid the uproar.

FEW remember those events, but many remember Bloody Sunday in 1972 when British soldiers fired into another crowd. They, too, claimed they were fired on that day. There was a comparatively similar ugly scene in the House of Commons next day when another Devlin - the diminutive Bernadette Devlin - mauled Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, when he defended the behaviour of the British troops in Derry.

Jack Lynch had tried to warn Ted Heath of the likely consequences on the night of the killings, but Heath did not want to know. When he did develop the good sense to listen in the following months, it was too late. The damage had been done; the British had driven the nationalist people into the arms of the Provisional IRA.

This week the British announced that Col Jorge Mendonca and six of his men will stand trial in relation to the death of Baha Mousa, a young hotel receptionist who died while in British custody in Basra in September 2003.

A post-mortem found strangulation marks on Mousa’s body; he also had a broken nose and three broken ribs. But instead of being tried by the war crimes court in The Hague, the accused are being tried by courtmartial in Britain. Why?

Members of the British security forces were charged with crimes, even murder in Ireland in 1920s and the 1970s. For instance, James Murphy and Paddy Kennedy were arrested on February 9, 1921 by Auxiliaries, brought to Dublin Castle and slapped around, before being taken to Drumcondra, put up against a wall and shot.

The Auxiliaries said both were “trying to escape,” even though the evidence indicated their backs were to the wall.

Murphy survived long enough to make a death-bed statement in hospital. They were not IRA members.

Three Auxiliaries were charged with murder, but they were acquitted when the courtmartial refused to admit Murphy’s statement in evidence.

Unless the British courtmartial convicts the soldiers, it will look like a whitewash, which will only add insult to injury in Iraq, as it did in Ireland. That is no way to run a system of justice. If the Blair government is serious about tackling war crimes, the men should be tried in The Hague, like others suspected war criminals.

Will they ever learn?

Ryle Dwyer’s new book, The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins, will be published next week by Mercier Press at €12.99.

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