Recently uncovered minutes of a secret meeting attended by the Secretary of State, senior civil servants and MI5 officers just before Operation Motorman in 1972 show that the government believed British soldiers should be protected against prosecution.
The document, which was discovered in the national archives at Kew by Relatives for Justice, contains minutes of a meeting held at Stormont Castle on Monday July 10, 1972 - less than three weeks before Operation Motorman, when thousands of British soldiers stormed into the ‘no-go’ areas of the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan, shooting dead two people.
The minutes of the meeting, which were marked ‘Secret,’ record that the upcoming operation to take back the ‘no-go’ areas was discussed and that plans were made to ensure that British soldiers would not face the threat of prosecutions for their actions.
This meeting was held amid escalating violence in the North, just six months after the massacre of Bloody Sunday.
It was attended by some of the most senior figures in the British government and the security services. Among those listed as present are William Whitelaw, the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was appointed after the old parliament under Brian Faulkner at Stormont was prorogued.
Senior politicians Lord Windlesham, Paul Channon, and David Howell were also present alongside senior Stormont civil servant Kenneth Bloomfield.
The Deputy Chief Constable of the RUC and the GOC of the British army, the most senior soldier serving in the North, also attended the meeting.
MI6 officer Frank Steele, who had opened up clandestine talks with the IRA in the same year, was also at the Stormont Castle meeting.
The meeting was held just three days after secret talks took place between IRA leaders and representatives of the British government. Those talks had taken place at Paul Channon’s Cheyne Walk home and involved senior republicans including Provisional IRA Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain, and Martin McGuinness. The talks, which took place during an IRA truce, failed to find a solution and the truce ended with the IRA bomb attacks in Belfast on Bloody Friday.
The document records that the meeting began with an security update, including a review of more than 200 shooting incidents from the previous weekend, during which the Provisional IRA ceasefire had ended.
During the ceasefire, a number of barricades surrounding the Free Derry areas of the Bogside and Creggan had been removed and were replaced with a white line painted across the road. However, with the ending of the truce, the secret minutes noted that “barricades were beginning to reappear in Londonderry”.
The document also set out the view that moderates in Derry were in favour of the peace proposals suggested by the Secretary of State. “There was still evidence of Catholic support in Londonderry for the Secretary of State’s general policies.”
The secret document said that the British government would announce its intention “to carry on the war with the IRA with the utmost vigour”.
The minutes also include a strong indication of Operation Motorman with the reference to plans “to be produced urgently for the containment of areas known to harbour bombers and gunmen.”
Controversially, the meeting also discussed protecting soldiers from possible cuort action as a consequence of their actions. “The Army should not be inhibited in its campaign by the threat of Court proceedings and should therefore be suitably indemnified,” the minutes state.
Elsewhere in the minutes, details of meetings between senior British army commanders and the UDA are revealed. the minutes record; “The GOC would see UDA leaders that afternoon and impress upon them that while their efforts as vigilantes in their own areas were acceptable, their presence in any riot or shooting situation would not be tolerated.”