Operation Motorman: British said in 1972 that IRA could not be beaten ‘unless they were removed from the streets’

British soldiers swarm into Creggan during Operation Motorman, July 1972.
British soldiers swarm into Creggan during Operation Motorman, July 1972.
  • Great care was taken by the British Army to ‘manage’ the media
  • The military were a lot more concerned about Derry than Belfast
  • Documents relating to arrest procedures are completely blanked out

A batch of top secret British Army documents relating to the incusrion in Derry and Belfast on July 31, 1972, contains an assessment that the military believed the IRA could not be beaten.

The documents are in relation to the historical inquiry into the killing in highly controversial circumstances of 19-year-old IRA man Seamus Bradley in Creggan in the early hours of the morning. Seamus Bradley was unarmed at the time.

Operation Motorman took place almost exactly six months to the day after Bloody Sunday.

One of the documents dated July 24, 1972 and released in relation to the killing of Seamus Bradley initially listed that the British Army regiments to take part included the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Parachute Regiment. The 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment were to accompany the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards, with the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to remain on standby.

No mention is made of the potential outrage of the broader nationalist community in either Derry or Belfast about the potential return of the Parachute Regiment who had killed 11 civilians in Ballymurphy in August, 1971 and of course 14 more in Derry on January 30, 1972.

As it transpired the Parachute Regiment were not deployed in the operation but it is noted that “the public relations line will be that owing to recent events certain battalions in Great Britain have put at notice to move to Northern Ireland as a precautionary measure in case they should be required over the next weekend.”

A British soldier operating a JCB digger to remove barricades in the Bogside during Operation Motorman.

A British soldier operating a JCB digger to remove barricades in the Bogside during Operation Motorman.

The documents also contain a British military analysis of the current state of play within the various paramilitary organisations in operation at the time. A truce between the IRA and the British had broken down on July 9. On June 20, a secret meeting between the IRA and representatives of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State had taken place at a house in the Ballyarnett area of Derry and the”bi-lateral” cessation of violence began on June 26. Further talks between the IRA and the British took place in London on July 7. But, a dispute over allocation of housing in Belfast saw the IRA ceasefire fold just two days later. Bloody Friday followed on July 21.

The summation of the IRA position in the documents asserts: “In Belfast the Provisionals were probably busy hiding away their arms, and establishing new hide areas. They were thinning their ranks, going for quality rather than quantity.

“In Londonderry however, were they had long posed as the protectors of the Catholic population, they might be less inclined to fade away, some feeling that for prestige purposes they must stand and fight.

“Although they were perhaps likely to lower the tempo of their shooting, they might not stop their level of bombing; however our increased force level would have the advantage of decreasing this bombing and increasing our intelligence about the bombers themselves.

“As far as the Provisional leadership was concerned there were signs that (Seamus) Twomey was increasing his standing. Despite what other leaders might feel or wish, Stephenson (John Stephenson who was Chief of Staff of the PIRA and used the Irish version of his name Seán Mac Stíofáin) and Twomey had sufficient command and control to be able to turn events off and on at will.”

The analysis of the loyalist organisations was much more succinct. “The UDA appeared to be trying to establish a more realistic position. The UVF were a lunatic fringe, who were not open to reason, and who would have to be dealt with,” said the document.

An overriding theme of the documents is that the military were significantly more concerned with how the operation play out in Derry rather than Belfast. Until the final operational details were put in place it had been argued strongly that Derry be ‘dealt’ with first and Belfast later. However, it was in the end decided that the operation would be launched simultaneously in both cities to prevent giving nationalist anger time to rise in Belfast if Derry was to be placed in the firing line before Belfast.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland thoughts on this situation are summarised in one of the secret briefing documents. It says: “The Secretary of State began by saying that all his political advisers had agreed that now was the time to take action, particularly against the Bogside and Creggan, which was a much more important objective than Belfast in the current political climate. The operation should be mounted as soon as possible, as the mood which was current in all quarters, to support such an event in view of what happened on July 21st (Bloody Friday) could fade.”

“The Chief of the General Staff said that there was never any doubt that a political follow-up was required whatever military course was adopted. There were however people who had shot at soldiers and who were have known to have done so, against whom charges could not be pinned; unless there was some way of removing them from the streets the IRA could not be beaten. A decision must therefore be made, before the operation, as to what should be done with those who were picked up-there were after all 500 IRA in Londonderry, and not all would be shot or escape.”

Debate was also heavy on whether or not a prior announcement about Operation Motorman should take place. In the end it was concluded that “it is very doubtful whether complete surprise is feasible anyway, in view of the arrival of reinforcement units and, in particular, the difficulty of landing the AVRE’s (Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers, i.e. tanks) at the last minute.”

Whilst in the end the IRA had decided not to engage the British Army during Motorman in the build up the military seemed to have, in terms of Derry at least, vastly over estimated the material available to the IRA.

The document continued: “Even if surprise could be maintained almost until the last moment, it could probably not be absolute-since the IRA maintain an elaborate system of sentries who would be expected to spot-even at night-the first appearance of troops and vehicles approaching their barriers. The IRA have probably already made all their defensive dispositions that they would want to make around the barricades-sniper positions, claymores etc; and the present state of intelligence about the IRA is such that-especially in Londonderry-we could not be sure of looking in the right places for leading terrorists and for caches of men and arms even if we had complete initial surprise.”

There was also an eagerness to make sure the operation appeared to be directed equally against extremists on both sides of the community. One document asserts: “The areas of greatest difficulty would probably be the Bogside and Creggan areas of Londonderry, and the enclaves dominated by the IRA in Belfast; nevertheless it was important that the operation should be clearly seen to be directed against extremists of either community.”

The press too were singled out for attention in the secret documents. One page is devoted to how they should be ‘handled’ as Motorman unfolded.

One directive states: “Disabuse any journalist who interprets the operation as a “search for a military solution. Obviously any solution must be political, but recent experience has shown that reconciliation can be wrecked if the men of violence go unchecked. What we aim to do is create conditions where negotiations can prosper. (The people who have been seeking a military solution are the IRA: anyone with a grain of sense knows that this is an impossibility).

“It is generally in our best interest to allow friendly journalists and TV crews to participate in parts of the operation, thus viewing the events from the soldiers’ angle....If journalists are attached they come entirely at their own risk and CO’s are not responsible for providing special protection. they must obviously be placed where they can see the action.”

The next five pages in the batch of documents, Pages 147-451 refer to ‘arrest procedures’ but are totally blanked out.

The attitude of the British Government in the immediate aftermath of Operation Motorman is captured in another document which takes the form of a letter from the Assistant Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the General Officer in Command in Northern Ireland, General Sir Harry Tuzo at some point on July 31, 1972. It says: “The Secretary of State would be grateful if the following message could be sent to GOC-NI as soon as possible.

“Your success in completing the first phase of Operation Motorman exactly as planned and with so few civilian casualties is a splendid achievement which augurs well for the equally tricky stages that lie ahead. All ranks who were involved have earned the gratitude of the Government and the country. Well done and good luck.”