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Truth was the first casualty of the Army's mind games

The Army's 'psychological operations' were a law onto themselves in the early 1970's writes Alan Murray

We say “You couldn’t make it up” to emphasise the ridiculousness, or grotesqueness, of an event or set of circumstances. In the era that saw atrocities such as the McGurk’s bar bombing, quite a bit of “it” was made up — by the spooks and the Army’s psychological operations practitioners.

Tales of Russian submarines surfacing off Donegal to assist the IRA and the concealed deaths from cancer of IRA bomb-makers were among the more colourful of stories floated and gleefully gobbled up by journalists anxious to impress London editors and secure huge fees — which they repeatedly did.

Within the media clique that transmitted fantastic terrorist stories, generating the spin that the McGurk’s bar bombing was an IRA ‘own goal’ was relatively easy.

A year later, in May 1972, eight people lost their lives in the Short Strand area of east Belfast when an IRA bomb detonated prematurely during construction.

It was the Army Press desk staff who coined the phrase an ‘own goal’. Lieutenants or captains would say “Don’t quote me, but it looks like an own goal to me.”

Working with Army intelligence officers, they created a hierarchy of ‘trusted’ journalists who. like Moses, could be relied upon to accept the Tablets and propagate the suggested lines.

Inserting the propaganda line in the London tabloid Press ensured that the IRA was on the back foot by mid-morning, frantically trying to redress another unfavourable Press report, none worse than the ‘own goal’ explanation. The black propaganda skillfully woven by practitioners like Colin Wallace, at the Army’s Lisburn HQ, was designed to cause distrust within the IRA.

What if it wasn’t true that IRA bomb-makers were dying in hospitals across the border because the gelignite they were handling contained a cancer-inducing chemical. Nobody was hurt by the lie and the IRA would have to reassure nervous activists that there was no such risk, went the reasoning.

An assurance that it wasn’t true because there hadn’t been any big republican funerals for the departed didn’t dispel the concern of a bomb-maker in an era when people frequently ‘disappeared’ for reasons usually not explained.

Exploiting internal jealousies and inter-organisational animosities — particularly on the loyalist side — was an area of fertile activity for the Army ‘psy ops’ (psychological operations) operators, while planting seeds of doubt about operational practices and the IRA leadership’s adherence to a ‘Catholic’ ethos and values was key to attempting to separate the nationalist community from the Provisionals.

Hence the planted story about a fictitious Soviet submarine surfacing off the Donegal coast to deliver armaments for the Provisionals — a clear attempt to suggest that the IRA leadership was Communist-inclined and, therefore, ultimately anti-Church and as anti-Rome and as anti-Catholic as Ian Paisley.

Those of us who worked for the local media, or for a Dublin-based newspaper as I did, weren’t entertained to such national and international ‘scoops’. Such juicy exclusives were reserved for the ‘useful idiots’ among the many tabloid hacks corralled in the Europa Hotel whose powers of deduction on matters related to Northern Ireland were neither developed nor sound.

Amid such eagerness for an Army ‘line’ to feed the London editions, it wasn’t difficult to plant the suggestion that the McGurk’s bar bombing was an ‘own goal’ — that the RUC didn’t refute the suggestion was neither exceptional or unusual.

Combating Army Press briefing excesses wasn’t possible in 1971 — or for a considerable period after the McGurk’s bar atrocity.

Alan Murray worked for the Irish Press in Belfast from 1973 to 1990

Belfast Telegraph