Files uncovered in the National Archives have revealed how a counter-terrorism unit carried out investigations into civil rights campaigners in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles and attempted to charge them with criminal offences.
Special Branch file dated March 2/3, 1972, shows that Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey-Devlin (an MP at the time) were reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in London for alleged offences of sedition — speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch — and contempt of court.
As the unit responsible for national security in the Metropolitan Police force, Special Branch believed offences had been committed following the publication of a pamphlet entitled ‘What Happened in Derry’.
Mr McCann told the Belfast Telegraph he was completely unaware the files existed. An off-shoot of The Socialist Worker, the pamphlet detailed the Army’s killing spree on Bloody Sunday.
A hard-hitting cover displayed the names of those shot dead along with funeral arrangements. Beside each name was the crosshairs of a rifle, signifying that each had been murdered.
At the time, the socialist newspaper said the pamphlet “tears away the official government-army version of events on Sunday, January 30.”
It stated: “Armed with exclusive facts and eyewitness reports, it shows the Derry massacre to have been a cold calculated massacre authorised at the highest levels in Westminster and Stormont.”
The Socialist Worker said the British press had allowed itself to be “gagged” by the Widgery Tribunal following threats of action for contempt of court. However, the paper vowed it would not be silenced over “one of the bloodiest crimes ever committed by the British ruling class”.
The DPP requested that copies of ‘What Happened in Derry’ be posted to him to consider and a summary of what was “on record” regarding the writer, Mr McCann.
Ultimately, Lord Chief Justice Widgery decided the pamphlet did not constitute a contempt of the Tribunal, but, any further publications were to be passed on.
Background checks on Mr McCann described him as a “revolutionary socialist and pro-IRA”.
The first point he agrees with, but he rejects the second assertion entirely.
“It would be absolutely wrong to say I was pro-IRA,” he said.
“I was never a member of or associated with any republican organisation, so I was very far distant from that. Because I was very anti-state, because I was exposing and polemicising against the security forces, I suppose from the outside many of them thought, ‘He’s denouncing the people that the IRA are shooting at so he must be in sympathy’ — which is not logical at all.”
Strangely, Special Branch also concluded that Mr McCann made his money from a fish and chip business. Such a shop did exist on the Lecky Road, but was run by a different McCann family altogether.
The fact a ‘Branch man’ couldn’t distinguish between them, McCann said, “tells you something about their knowledge of the Bogside”.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McCann said that while copies of ‘What Happened in Derry’ were seized at the time, he “never knew” Special Branch had carried out investigations and intended to prosecute over his writings.
Mr McCann said: “There was a sense of urgency among some of us at the time, I’m not claiming any great prescience for myself or anyone else, but we wanted to get our version of Bloody Sunday out into the open before Widgery was published.
“If Widgery was published before we said a word then that would dominate coverage.”
He said that the Special Branch plans to prosecute came “as a bit of a surprise”.
“But the more I learn about the way Special Branch and British intelligence were working at the time, and the assumptions they had about what was going on…
“What strikes me is documents show a bewildering ignorance of what the situation was in the north and what was actually happening on a day-to-day basis.
“They were making reports to senior officers, which seemed to me, to be based on supposition and wild guesses, sometimes prejudiced, that were not based on facts.”
Stories suppressed in the days after Bloody Sunday included those from The Sunday Times journalists Murray Sayle and Derek Humphry who were sent to Derry to investigate.
They spoke to everyone, gathered eyewitness accounts and had concluded that it was a classic paratrooper operation to engage with the enemy — the IRA — but it was a disaster because they did not appear, as anticipated in the plan.
The Times editor, Harry Evans, would not publish their findings due to possible contempt of court from Widgery. Sayle ultimately resigned over the episode.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Parachute Regiment soldiers claimed to have come under sustained attack by gunfire and nail-bomb.
The day after Bloody Sunday, Reginald Maudling, then Home Secretary, made a statement to the House of Commons saying: “The Army returned the fire directed at them with aimed shots and inflicted a number of casualties on those who were attacking them with firearms and with bombs.”
Maudling then went on to announce an inquiry into the circumstances of the march — the Widgery Inquiry.
A prosecution in March of Mr McCann and/or Ms Devlin, one month before the Widgery Report was due to be published, would have attracted significant media attention and may have overshadowed what many now consider to be a ‘whitewash’ of events that day.
“That’s absolutely true,” McCann said. “We were in a rush to get something out as quickly as possible. I remember talking to people on the day of the funerals, these were ordinary brothers from the block like Dermie McClenaghan. I remember a conversation in Micky Doherty’s house in Wellington Street saying we’ve got to get something out on this because there’s propaganda coming from all sides in the British tabloid press.
“Micky said, ‘You’re going to have to write this, Eamonn’, and I did. I went around asking everybody I could. It was of course based on my own memories and I spoke to journalists too.”
The injustice of the Widgery Tribunal was only corrected 38 years later when Lord Saville found victims were unarmed and innocent civilians with “the probable exception of Gerald Donaghy” who was found with nail bombs.
Donaghy’s family have always argued the items were planted. Saville found Gerald was “not shot because of his possession of the nail bombs” but “while trying to escape from the soldiers”.
The Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service were both contacted for comment.