Today, when we hear of the intransigence of some extremists in Northern Ireland, it may help to look at where we were just 40 years ago this month and realize how far we’ve come. Back in 1973, the Nationalist command structure in Belfast was losing the support of people once sympathetic to their cause. It was as a result of the slanted coverage distributed by the British-controlled press to the media around the world. Even the people in the Republic to the south were being insulated from the true story and, as a result, had lost much of their enthusiasm for the cause. Reports of IRA bombings, violence, and fund-raising bank robberies were everyday news. It mattered not that the IRA denied all knowledge of some of these incidents; their denial was rarely published. Then, in August 1972, Kenneth Littlejohn and his younger brother were jailed in Dublin for the largest bank robbery in Irish history netting £67,000. When faced with imprisonment, they claimed to be members of British Intelligence sent to Ireland to infiltrate the IRA and commit acts in the Republic that would cause government legislation against the IRA and alienate public support. The British government denied the allegations as preposterous, claiming that they had never heard of either brother. Then, on March 12 1973, after an unsuccessful attempt by the British government to secure their release, Kenneth and Keith Littlejohn escaped from Mountjoy by cutting through the bars with tools that no one knew how they had received. Keith was immediately recaptured but Kenneth remained at large. Since the escape had not been totally successful, Kenneth was now forced to secure his brothers release by other means.
The object of a nationwide manhunt, he was being sought by more than just the Irish police for, two days after his escape, his home in England was mysteriously burglarized. He decided that the only way to protect himself was to make his story public. Unfortunately, very few people would hear the story because of the slanted coverage that was being given to news from that part of the world. The day after the Littlejohn breakout, for example, Protestant Senator William Fox, seized by 12 armed men at a farmhouse where he was visiting, was found shot to death at Clones. A Loyalist gang called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claimed responsibility but the police discounted that and publicly blamed the IRA. Though the IRA announced that it had no part, in the killing, their disclaimer was not reported in the press. Then, on March 21, 2 British soldiers were killed and 2 others were wounded in separate incidents in Armagh by the Ulster police. The soldiers were part of the crack Counterinsurgency unit of the Special Air Service and part of a plainclothes patrol employed against the IRA. The police saw the men in civilian clothes in an IRA neighborhood and assumed that they were IRA men. The incidents underscored the “shoot first and question later” attitude of the police, but they were reported in the press as merely a tragic accident.
Kenneth Littlejohn threatened to reveal the story unless the Dublin government released his brother, but the government, believing the British denial, refused. Littlejohn called a press conference! When the story broke publicly on March 30, despite attempts to hush it up, there were some red faces. Authorities were embarrassed as British spy Kenneth Littlejohn, unravelled accounts of criminal activities performed for British Military Intelligence in the Republic of Ireland in an attempt to discredit the IRA. He and his brother had pulled Ireland’s biggest bank robbery in the name of the IRA to force the Dublin government into more repressive measures against that organization and the Dublin government played right into their hands. Littlejohn also revealed that he had been assigned to assassinate IRA leader Sean MacStiofain but had failed and that he had been given permission to shoot British soldiers if they interfered with his mission. He revealed lengthy conversations with British officials, as far back as the IRA bombing of Aldershot on February 23, 1972. British authorities finally, shamefully, admitted that Littlejohn was their agent. British MP Marcus Lipton called for an in-depth investigation of the entire affair but, on April 3, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson formally rejected the proposal. Local news accounts of the action credit former British Security Advisor, Lord Wigg, as the key figure in the decision not to investigate.
Then, to compound matters, Kenneth Lennon was found slain in Surrey, England on April 17. Lennon, just before his death, had revealed to Great Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties a story of intrigue and deception by Scotland Yard in its fight against the IRA. He charged that the British Special Branch had pressured him into becoming a police informer by threatening him with criminal prosecution on an earlier incident in Northern Ireland. His orders were to persuade those sympathetic to the IRA to commit crimes for the cause and then to reveal those crimes to Scotland Yard. Arrangements were then made with the courts that he would not be prosecuted. Lennon had been in great fear that he would end up in the middle – hunted by both the police and the IRA. His death, coming on the heels of the Littlejohn affair, further embarrassed the authorities who, nevertheless, suppressed the truth and released the story that it was an IRA execution, and called for still tougher measures against the IRA.
On May 5, bombs planted in 3 cars exploded on a Dublin street during rush hour, killing 28 and critically wounding 80 more. Immediate reaction was to blame the IRA and the world press carried that assumption. However, when the cars were traced to Belfast’s Loyalist community and it appeared that the bombing was really the work of Unionist extremists, there was no world-wide press coverage for the revised version of the story or for the IRA denouncement of the bombing as “vile”. But the Dublin government knew; they requested the United Nations to release 340 Irish soldiers from the U.N. Middle East Peace Force in order to intensify security along the Ulster border and along Dublin’s outskirts. The bombing of Dublin was executed by Orange extremists timed to support a Loyalist protest strike just underway in Ulster.
Loyalists had called a general strike to protest the provisional government’s liberal attitude toward Catholics and the existence of Catholics on a new power-sharing Executive. The strike brought Belfast to a standstill. Finally, on May 28, the power-sharing Executive Council of Northern Ireland collapsed and Britain resumed direct rule. On May 29, the Ulster Workers Council which had engineered the industrial shutdown of Ulster and toppled the power-sharing Executive officially terminated their strike. They had won again and the minority population of northeast Ireland fell deeper into despair.
Now, forty years later, we can see that a new dawn is breaking in Northern Ireland and it may partly be due to the age of digital communication, cell phones and cameras that a biased press can no longer be used to hide oppression.