New documents uncovered by the human rights group the Pat Finucane Centre reveal that Derry SDLP representative Michael Canavan was at the forefront of moves to expose the collusion between the Ulster Defence Regiment and loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s.
As early as August 1977 Michael Canavan wrote to the Under Secretary of State for the British army highlighting what he described as “the latest disgraceful episode concerning serving members of the UDR”. Mr Canavan also pointed out “the scathing remarks of yet another High Court judge” about the regiment.
At the time Mr. Canavan, who had served in the ill-fated 1974 power sharing executive, was the SDLP spokesman for law and order.
Just over a month later Mr. Canavan was writing again slamming the vetting techniques used by the UDR and pointing out “the grave danger in which a substantial section of the population on Northern Ireland may find themselves in as a result of such failed techniques”.
In this letter the SDLP spokesman referred to yet another case where a serving UDR man was convicted of an offence, in this case being drunk in possession of a weapon and firing three shots. The UDR man in question was fined £35.
Mr. Canavan also called for the immediate ‘re-vetting’ of all serving UDR personnel as he was convinced ‘loyalist paramilitary infiltration’ was continuing.
His comments came at a time when the UDR was being thrust more and more into the forefront as the British government sought to minimise casualties among the regular British army.
Mr. Canavan said in a statement that the use of the UDR “could not possibly make any contribution to stability” and added that “the ever-lengthening list of convictions of former UDR men very often with loyalist paramilitary association is clear evidence of serious infiltration”.
The official response from the British government was to dismiss Mr. Canavan’s allegations and to claim that ‘only a tiny proportion have been convicted of crimes committed while serving’.
The British army also went on to claim that intimidation had reduced the number of Catholics serving in the force from 18% to 2.7%.
In private correspondence between civil servants Mr. Canavan’s allegations are referred to as ‘vague fulminations’.
An assistant private secretary to the Ministry of Defence also wrote to Michael Canavan and pointed out that none of the investigations made as a result of the Derry politician’s letters “have revealed evidence of loyalist paramilitary infiltration into the UDR”.
However, in documents marked ‘Top Secret UK eyes’ which were not intended to be seen by people here a different picture emerges.
In one document it is referred to the fact that initial investigations had revealed “about 200 men who were thought to have connections with extremist organisations”.
This document goes on to say, “it was then believed that not more than 20 of these were actively involved with the UVF, together with a small number who were members of other organisations such as the UDA”. Another internal document written on how to answer Michael Canavan’s queries states that the true position is “a very different impression from that of journalistic analyses handed over by Mr. Canavan”.
In a damning indictment of the UDR the writer states: “There are some very nasty cases, and there are a number of intelligence traces of these men as being members of the UDA, UVF or RHC (Red Hand Commando).”
This document goes on to state ‘there are undoubtedly rotten apples...and there is also a good deal of petty crime’.
It also states that following the Miami showband killings the British army had carried out their own re-vetting procedures but “the army have never announced this review”.
Support for Michael Canavan’s accusations was also revealed in other documents uncovered by the Pat Finucane Centre which show that the British army were aware that 10 UDR based in Belfast had been heavily infiltrated by the UVF.
These documents show that British Army chiefs feared that 70 soldiers in one UDR unit were linked to the UVF in west Belfast, including one member of the notorious Shankill Butcher gang. They also revealed that one UDR unit was suspected of siphoning-off £47,000 to the UVF while UDR equipment was regularly stolen from another unit to support the loyalist terror group.
It was further revealed that UVF members were regularly allowed to socialise at the UDR’s Girdwood barracks social club and that army chiefs considered secretly test-firing UDR soldiers’ weapons to check whether they had been used in sectarian murders.
However, this collusion investigation was then suspended after a senior UDR officer claimed it was damaging morale within the regiment.
Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre said: “These documents reveal all too clearly the sectarian nature of the UDR, something that has been denied by the powers-that-be.
“They also show that Michael Canavan was 100% right in his attempts to expose the true nature of this regiment.”