Counter-terrorism history

New article in Terrorism & Political Violence: ‘Creating the National/Border Security Nexus’

Terrorism and Political Violence have just published my article, ‘Creating the National/Border Security Nexus: Counter-Terrorist Operations and Monitoring Middle Eastern and North African to the UK in the 1970s-1980s’. It is based on research funded by the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ David Phillips Travelling Fellowship. The abstract is below:

This article looks at an earlier episode in the history of the UK border security apparatus by examining how the immigration control system was used in the 1970s and 1980s to detect potential terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa. Using recently opened archival records, it shows that the UK government introduced a strict system of visa checks, interviews, and other measures to nearly all Middle Eastern and North African visitors to the UK to prevent the entry of suspected terrorist personnel. By using these highly arbitrary measures, it became the modus operandi of the UK authorities to treat all Middle Eastern and North Africans as potential terrorists until convinced otherwise.

You can find the full article here. If you would like a PDF, do let me know.

New policy paper at History & Policy: Brexit and the history of policing the Irish border

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This is just a quick note to let you all know that History and Policy have just published a policy paper by me on the history of policing the Irish border and the possible impact of Brexit upon how this border operates. It is based on this earlier blog post.

Policing the Northern Irish border in the 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

With the debate about ‘Brexit’ heating up in the final week before the Referendum, there has been more and more debate about what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the British, Northern Irish and Irish authorities were also concerned about this border, and how travel across it would be monitored. The British were most concerned about potential terrorists crossing the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and Northern Irish terror suspects fleeing to the South. Throughout the 1970s, the British, as well as their local counterparts, attempted a series of different tactics to prevent border crossings, starting with an explicitly militarised approach to the experimentation with a more traditional immigration control system. As Vicki Conway wrote, it was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreements in the mid-1980s that the Irish border was effectively controlled from both the British and Irish sides.

Since partition in the 1920s, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (the Republic of Ireland after 1949) had been porous, with relatively free movement on both sides of the border. Before the outbreak of the conflict in August 1969, the only republican activity seen across the border area in the post-war era was the short-lived ‘border campaigns’ of the Irish Republican Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon after it began, the border area became a focal point of the conflict – for the movement of republican fighters between the North and the South, and for attacks by Republicans upon the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary patrols situated at the border. A 1971 report outlined the problem as such:

The security problem in Northern Ireland is influenced by the relative ease with which men with subversive intent, with or without arms, ammunition or explosives, can enter Northern Ireland; and wanted men can escape. The movement occurs over the land border with Eire; though normal sea and air points of entry into Northern Ireland; and by illegal movement by sea and air.[1]

In August 1970, a car bomb killed two RUC members at Crossmaglen, which resulted in a partial closure of the border, blocking ‘unapproved roads in South Armagh, Castlederg Salient and Londonderry [sic[ Salient’.[2] According to a 1971 report on the border closure, 51 roads were closed, using spikes, but over the next two months, there were 83 recorded incidents of the blocks being removed from 29 different roads.[3] The report found that:

Resistance to the blocks was so determined and the result so ineffective that it was decided to abandon the operation. Spikes and other blocks were gradually removed during the period Oct – Dec 1970, and the sites tidied up.

As the violence in Northern Ireland increased over the next few years, various sections of the British and Northern Irish authorities attempted to devise ways of preventing Republican fighters from crossing the border, or from attacking border patrols inside Northern Ireland. The British Army attempted to transform the border into a militarised checkpoint, relying on a combination of blocking off ‘unapproved’ roads and vehicle/personnel checks at others. Central to this was an emphasis on vehicle and identification checks. However there were several problems that the Army and the RUC encountered when trying to enforce this policy.

Firstly, they found that there was too much border to guard at one time. A 1973 Home Office report stated:

There are 303 miles of the border. There are 20 approved roads, 187 approved roads and 17 concession routes… The facilities for crossing the border are much greater than the number of cross-border roads. In particular there are 30 miles of water, numerous lanes and smugglers’ pads and border lands which are easily negotiable on foot.[4]

The Northern Ireland Office found that if the entire border was to be guarded, the burden would fall to the RUC and proposed ‘strict control along a limited sector only’, based on where the border was most likely to be traversed by ‘subversive’ elements.[5] Stormont’s Government Security Unit proposed in March 1972 that there were two solutions patrolling the entire border. The first option was a ‘sealing’ of the border, while the second was a partial prevention of entry, particularly along ‘unapproved’ roads.

‘Sealing’ the border was seen as the ‘nuclear’ option as it entailed converting the entire border into ‘a militarized frontier, with a continuous glacis, minefield or other impenetrable barrier under constant surveillance’.[6] ‘The only points of entry’, the Unit then proposed, ‘would then be by the way of the 20 approved crossings, with 100% checks on all persons, vehicles and loads’.[7] This was an extreme option and the Unit warned:

It may be necessary to bring home to members of Parliament and the public what the ‘sealing’ of the Border really implies. Any measures on the lines of those described would be enormously costly in time, money and manpower; they would involve a dislocation of all legitimate cross-Border activities; they would have to be supported by a defensive blockade of the entire coastline; and their political and economic implications would be entirely unacceptable within the context of [the] EEC.[8]

More favourable was the partial prevention of entry, which would mean the blocking of some more difficult to police roads and the interception of vehicles on the remaining roads. However this still presented problems, with the Unit stating that any road closures would need to be weighed against ‘the hardship likely to be caused, the resistance to be encountered and the tying down of manpower to ensure that closures remain effective.’[9] The Unit warned that partial closures still required a large amount of manpower to guard both the closed and open routes. Furthermore, it was warned that ‘[p]ermanent check-points at vehicle crossings [would] also present shop window targets’ for attacks by Republican fighters.[10]

With the focus on intercepting vehicles crossing the border and the use of checkpoints, there was also disagreement over how these interceptions would function. At first, there was a push for compulsory ID checks on all of those who crossed the border, but it was acknowledged that this was ‘a valuable aid to the identification of drivers, but that this did not help in relation to passengers’,[11] as non-drivers in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were not required to hold identification papers at all times. Adding to this was confusion amongst the different agencies over whether Republic of Ireland driver’s licenses had photographs or not.[12]

A proposed alternative to the checking of driver’s licenses was the checking of vehicle registration papers. However it was deemed that this raised too many obstacles, particularly as numerous vehicles crossing the border (delivery trucks, hire cars, etc) would not necessarily have these registration papers in the vehicle. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there was ‘a well-founded objection to keeping registration books in cars because both can be stolen together.’[13]

To get around these specific problems, it was floated whether all people living or working within a designated border zone could be issued with a special vehicle permit.[14] In the same document, it was suggested ‘if there is a case on security grounds for imposing this requirement, it should be applied over the whole province and not only in a specified border area.’[15] However with both suggestions, it was felt that this would be an onerous requirement and that permits could not quickly issued. The conclusion to these proposed checks was that ‘[t]he imposition of a requirement to carry vehicle documents would not necessarily bring about any substantial improvement in border security’ and that ‘[e]nforcement would present considerable difficulties’.[16]

Alongside the push for a greater insistence on documentation for those crossing the border, the Army also pushed for greater powers of search and seizure of suspected vehicles. As a 1973 Home Office document stated, ‘’[t]he army would like a clear power to seize vehicles so that they could be removed for close scrutiny’, and called for an expansion of the Special Powers Act 1922 to cover this demand.[17] While the requirements for compulsory carriage of documents were not followed through, greater powers of search and seizure were incorporated into the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

After much deliberation, it was debated whether the intense scrutiny placed upon cross-border travelling had brought many tangible benefits, particularly considering the amount of manpower involved. For example, one report stated:

In the first four months of 1971, over 200,000 cars have been searched in Northern Ireland and in only about 10 have wanted men, arms or explosives been found; some 25 or more evaded road checks.[18]

However the report also qualified that there were some gains to this approach, adding:

Nevertheless the security dividend from a tighter control of the border area must not be underestimated: a reduction in cross-border explosive attacks and the interception of wanted or wounded men escaping from Belfast are typical potential gains. (My emphasis)

After 1972 (the deadliest year in the 30 year conflict), the Provisional IRA shifted tactics to attacking targets on the British mainland, while Loyalists targeted civilians in the Republic of Ireland. Although there were two bombings at the Old Bailey in 1972, it was not until the following year that the British mainland campaign began in earnest, with retaliation by Loyalists through the bombing of civilian areas in the South. At the same time, the British authorities believed there was an increase in the number of incidents in Northern Ireland perpetrated by Republicans crossing the border from the Republic. The British Army estimated that ‘terrorists based in the Republic have been responsible for at least 497 incidents in 1973’.[19] The spread of the conflict from Northern Ireland to Britain and the Republic of Ireland worried the British and Irish authorities, although there was little Anglo-Irish co-operation at this stage.

The bombing of two Birmingham pubs in October 1974 led to the newly installed Wilson government to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. As well as extended powers of detention for those suspected of terrorism offences in Britain, the Act also gave powers to regulate the travel of people from Northern Ireland to England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) and exclude/deport those suspected of being involved in terrorism offences (related to the conflict in Northern Ireland – the PTA did not extend to the other forms of international terrorism on the rise in the 1970s). In 1976, the Act was amended to cover people travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, but crucially neither act dealt with suspects travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British authorities still relied on policing the border though a series of checkpoints.

In the same year, the Northern Ireland Office warned that policing the border in this manner was still involved massive amount of manpower, with a report stating:

Since 1971 nearly 20% of regular Army manpower in the Province has been devoted to maintaining the integrity of the Border areas and the Border itself. Experience has shown that because of the length and nature of the Border, the Army, no matter how many men they deploy cannot ensure total security.[20]

Furthermore, the report argued that border area was not topographically ideal for surveillance and certain technologies, such as radar and unattended ground censors, had limited success in helping the authorities detect subversives crossing the border.[21]

To overcome this, the report revisited the idea of laying mines, erecting wires or some other kind of immovable physical obstacle across the border to restrict illegal crossings. However it was felt that the use of either mines and wires had ‘an unpleasant “East German” connotation and would be indicative of a siege mentality’, with the added problems that ‘[m]ines would be dangerous and wire would be unsightly’.[22]

In 1977-78, Lord Shackleton undertook a review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1976 and despite suggesting that exclusion orders be subject to periodic review,[23] there was little revision on the issue of cross-border terrorism and subversion. At the same time, the temporary provisions of the 1976 Act were up for renewal. At this point, the Home Office briefly considered whether the transformation of the checkpoint system into a more formal border control system across the Irish border would help in the fight against Republican (and Loyalist) violence. However it was soon concluded that, like the checkpoint system, control of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would still require a large amount of manpower.[24] A report prepared by the Home Office stated categorically, ‘A system of full immigration control would be costly, most difficult to administer, and of limited effectiveness’.[25]

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland has, for the most part, ended, it would be wise heed this warning about the difficulty of implementing an immigration control system between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, there have been no immigration restrictions between the UK and Ireland and the only controls have been applied have been the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (which were made redundant in 2000 by the Terrorism Act). To establish a new border control system at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be a blow to the peace settlement forged in 1998, and to wider Anglo-Irish relations.

British Army base in South Armagh

British Army base in South Armagh

[1] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders: Preliminary Report’, 17 May, 1971, p. 1, CJ 4/424, National Archives, London.

[2] ‘History of the Partial Closure of the Border in 1970’, 17 May, 1971, CJ 4/424, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control: Vehicle Documentation’, p. 1, 1 February, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[5] Letter from Northern Ireland Office to Northern Ireland Command, 30 March, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[6] Government Security Unit, ‘Control of the Border’, p. 1, 30 March, 1972, CJ 4/424, NA.

[7] Ibid,

[8] Ibid, p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 2.

[10] Ibid, p. 2.

[11] Central Secretariat (Stormont), ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, 13 November 1972, p. 4, CJ 4/424, NA.

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Central Secretariat, ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 7.

[18] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders’, p. 1.

[19] Lt. Colonel Reynolds, ‘Border Security’, 30 January, 1974, p. 1, CJ4/810, NA.

[20] Northern Ireland Office, ‘’Picquets and Unmanned Devices on the Border’, 2 December, 1976, p. 1, CJ 4/1758, NA.

[21] Ibid., p. 4.

[22] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[23] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts of 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO 1978) pp. 39-41.

[24] ‘Difficulties Over Proposal for Immigration Control Between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland’, n.d., HO 344/336, NA.

[25] Ibid.

The border/national security nexus: Detecting Middle Eastern & North African ‘terrorists’ at the UK border in the 1970s-80s

In May 1980, two terrorist incidents involving Iran and Iranians led to a major overhaul of the UK’s border control system for counter-terrorism purposes, ordered by Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington. The below post is how the UK border control system was increasingly used to identify and monitor potential ‘terrorists’ from the Middle East and North Africa from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. It is based on an article that is currently under review, so any comments are welcome (as usual). 

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The intersection between national security/counter-terrorism efforts and the agenda of the immigration/border control system is not just a recent phenomenon, with the national-border security nexus having a well-established historical precedent. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the threat of international terrorism was at its peak, the immigration/border control system was viewed as a frontline defence against terrorist activities occurring in the UK. The immigration control system was used to prevent ‘potential terrorists’ from entering the country, as well as detecting and monitoring people from certain national/ethnic groups who were thought to be ‘potential terrorists’. Similar to the situation in the contemporary era, the external terrorist threat was believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa. It is the purpose of this paper to show how this anxiety over Middle Eastern/Arab terrorism informed border control practices that profiled certain national/ethnic groups.

In the course of trying to achieve the UK’s counter-terrorism objectives, the actions of the border control system placed blanket restrictions on certain nationals in order to prevent a minute number of potential ‘threats’ entering the country. From a counter-terrorist and border control perspective, it seemed that the procedure was to treat all Middle Eastern and North African nationals seeking to visit the UK as potential terrorists until considered otherwise.

Visa restrictions on Iraqis and Libyans

For the control of non-European migration, the interview at the potential migrant’s place of origin was a fundamental part of the border control process and one of the most significant tasks under taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within the border control system. Not all visitors to the UK had to obtain visas or entry clearances before travelling and fewer of these visitors had to go through the process for a formal interview with FCO staff to obtain said visa or entry clearance, but the FCO and Home Office both felt that it was necessary to conduct widespread interviews with potential visitors from the Middle East and North Africa on the grounds that this was a necessary counter-terrorist measure.

The first time that security checks at the visa application stage were placed upon Middle Eastern or North African national groups for counter-terrorist purposes was in 1972 after the attempted assassination of the former Iraqi Prime Minister, General Abdul Razzaq Al-Naif. After this assassination attempt, a decision was agreed upon by the FCO that ‘all Iraqi visa applications accompanied by photographs should be referred to London for security checking’, with the purpose being ‘to identify and refuse visas to known members of the Iraqi intelligence service who have sought and still seek to enter the United Kingdom’.[1]

By the end of the 1970s, the number of national groups that were subjected to mandatory security checks and interviewing had grown. Similar to the action taken against Iraqi nationals after the attempted assassination of Al-Naif in 1972, in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohammed M. Ramadan, a Libyan Gadaffi oppositionist and BBC employee, in April 1980, the UK government implemented security checks, including substantial interviews, for all Libyan nationals applying to enter the UK. A report prepared by the British Embassy in Tripoli stated that the new process, implemented in July 1980, required ‘full documentation for, and thorough interviews of, almost all Libyan applicants for visas’, with the main exception being wives and children.[2]

The reasoning behind these strict instructions was summarised in an FCO telegram, which argued that ‘[f]urther serious incidents here [the United Kingdom] involving Libyans would be intolerable breaches of law and order, damage Anglo-Libyan relations and endanger both the British community in Libya and our commercial interests’, and therefore, ‘[t]ighter precautions against entry of potential terrorists’ were ‘essential’.[3] The FCO emphasised that tighter precautions could ‘only be achieved by personal interview in each case… by a UK-based officer to enable him to be satisfied beyond any doubt as to the genuineness and purpose of the visit.’[4] It was hoped that this process would ‘help to deter, or failing that, to identify and weed out… potential terrorists’ and ‘complicate Libya’s task if… she is determined to try to send terrorists to the UK’, as well as ‘help to reduce the total number of Libyan applicants for visas’.[5]

Broadening the process

In mid-1980, Lord Carrington requested, upon the urging of the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, that the FCO explore measures using the border control system to prevent Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK and the possibility of expanding the widespread interviewing and security checks to a greater number of countries known to be involved in terrorist activities. The catalyst for this request was the siege at the Iranian Embassy by dissident Iranians (who entered the UK on false Iraqi passports) and explosion at the Queens Garden Hotel in Bayswater (near the Iranian Embassy) which killed one Iranian, both occurring in May 1980. The request by the Foreign Secretary asked the following questions:

in what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation?[6]

Although some reservations about effectiveness were raised by FCO staff, it was impressed upon those working in the British Embassies that the visa application process was the frontline in the fight against Middle Eastern and North African terrorism. In a draft document, it stated that this process was ‘one line in the defence against undesirables [with an emphasis on Middle Eastern terrorists] entering the UK and pseudo-visitors whose real intention is to settle in Britain’ and while it was recognised that it was not ‘an entirely water-tight system’, it was ‘nevertheless… a deterrent’.[7]

The FCO believed that the interviews at the embassies acted as a deterrent and ‘make it more difficult for terrorists to switch identities’ and maintained that ‘[w]ithout an interview system posts cannot… make the best use of the intelligence available nor can they provide feedback and early warning of doubtful cases the security services need.’[8] Another advantage of the visa system and the interview process, a secret report expressed, was that it allowed time for checks to be made, ‘for refusal to be made in doubtful cases with less aggravation and protests than when the visitor has already travelled’ and ‘for detailed interviews to be conducted wherever appropriate without the pressure of time which arises at a port where the choice is admission or detention.’[9]

In order for this interview process to be effective, the FCO required embassy staff to be hyper-vigilant in their efforts to detect and ‘weed out’ potential terrorists and as with detecting ‘bogus’ migrants, visa-issuing officers were to be sceptical of all applicants and required a significant level of proof to be consider an applicant to be ‘genuine’. A background paper highlighted the fact that ‘[t]errorist organisations make use of false travel documentation, either forged passports or genuine passports in false names and nationality’ and noted that it was ‘only occasionally that operational terrorists travel in their own name.’[10] The FCO argued that the interviews were a necessity, stating that the interviews were:

an essential part of the process of establishing an applicant’s bona fides and of attempting to identify members or supporters of terrorists organisations by questions concerning the applicant’s reasons for visiting the UK and about their background.[11]

Although nearly all applicants of certain Middle Eastern and North African nationalities were to be interviewed by visa officers, with corresponding security checks, some applicants were to be more closely interrogated. Those to be more closely interrogated were to be selected on the basis of whether they fit the ‘terrorist profile’ drawn up by the security services. Like other ‘offender’ profiles circulated by the immigration control system, this profile of the potential terrorist was broadly defined and was likely to cause many innocent people to be scrutinised and interrogated on the grounds that they fit this very generalised profile. A note circulated within the FCO stated the ‘chances of recognising efficient terrorists when they apply for a visa are evidently limited’, but asked all visa officers to ‘study carefully’ the profile that had been created and use it in their interrogation of visa applicants.[12] The profile of the potential Middle Eastern and North African terrorist, in its entirety, was outlined as follows:

Of either sex, between 18 and 35 (often looking older than the age claimed, if this is in the lower half of that age bracket). Travelling most frequently in pairs but occasionally singly or in a small group, sometimes using travel documents from the same batch. Fit appearance (even if applying for a visa for medical treatment), often giving an impression of mental toughness; not easily discomposed, even in circumstances which might make others irritated or impatient. Unlikely to be official visitors: more likely to apply as students or businessmen (or for medical treatment) but may (a) display vagueness over courses proposed, appointments with firms etc, and (b) appear to lack elementary knowledge of a professed speciality. Some terrorists have in the past sought to avoid interview eg by making visa applications through agents or by post – this tendency may grow. Posts should be cautious in presuming that particular categories can be exempt from interview and careful scrutiny of each application will in any case be needed to determine whether there are factors which suggest that an interview should nevertheless be insisted upon in any individual case.[13]

Detecting terrorists at the ports of entry

The other point in the border control system where Immigration Officers were able to ‘detect’ and prevent the entry of potential terrorist were at the ports of entry into the UK. In the 1970s, the major ports of entry into the UK were Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, as well as the ferry ports on the South and Western coasts where boats from mainland Europe and Ireland respectively docked. Immigration Officers (as well as Special Branch officers) were expected to use the terrorist profile created by the security services to detect potential terrorists from the Middle East and North Africa and scrutinise their reasons for entry from the UK. Interviews at the port of entry were seen as another line of defence after the visa interviews at embassies, but at these entry ports, Immigration Officers were under much more pressure to quickly assess whether a visitor was ‘genuine’ and thus more likely to rely on stereotypes and racial profiling than embassy visa officers. The FCO encouraged that decisions regarding interrogating and refusing entry to potential terrorists ‘be taken at the visa stage’, but did recognised that ‘nationals from sensitive countries are questioned at port and on occasions refused admission.’[14]

One of the ideas that the FCO, Home Office and the security services considered in trying to identify ‘bogus’ visitors from the Middle East and North Africa (possibly including potential terrorists) was to require that nationals visiting from these regions to hand over a specially designated landing card with additional photograph, which could be compared with the information and photograph provided when the visitor applied for the visa originally. This idea of a landing card with additional photo to be kept by the Immigration Officer on arrival into the UK was referred to in several FCO documents with several people being enthusiastic or supportive of a photograph being kept for reference by the authorities. A report from late 1980 outlined that there were three main benefits of this. Firstly, it was argued that this would ‘make it more difficult for passports to be used by someone other than the applicant’. Secondly, it was proposed that it would be beneficial for the security service and the police to have a photograph of the person ‘who actually entered the UK’ and that ‘a failure to match would in itself be grounds for investigating the individual’. Thirdly, it was noted that the photograph could be used by the authorities to ‘identify and investigate an individual, for instance, after a terrorist incident.’[15] In the end, it was decided that an additional form and photograph were to be required from certain applicants. A FCO circulated note from December 1980 explained:

This will make it marginally more difficult for a visa’ed passport to be used by someone other than the applicant to enter the UK. But the main purpose is to give those concerned here a photograph of the person who actually enters the UK (the form and photo will be collected at the port of entry). This can subsequently be checked against the photograph attached to the normal visa application and would be used to help trace an individual in the UK after a terrorist incident.[16]

The same circular outlined that this was an additional requirement for visa applicants from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan (except holders of Diplomatic Passports), Lebanon, Libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Yemeni Arab Republic, Syria and ‘Palestinians travelling on a stateless person’s document issued by any third country.’[17] The circular also warned embassy staff that they ‘should not be drawn by enquiries as to the purpose of the new form’ and ‘say simply it is a requirement imposed by the British immigration authorities.’[18]

Conclusion

Many scholars have recognised that Muslims entering the UK, as well as the Muslim communities inside country, have been regarded as a ‘suspect community’ over the last decade. This has a much longer history, particularly through the screening and interrogation of Muslim visitors to the UK from the Middle East and North Africa. After small-scale terrorist incidents in the UK (such as assassinations) occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the UK government, advised by the security service and implemented by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, chose to place restrictions on all visitors from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries. Although there was little evidence of this process having an effect on catching suspected terrorists trying to enter the UK, blanket restrictions that placed all visitors from places such as Iraq, Iran and Libya under suspicion were utilised as a frontline defence against Middle Eastern terrorism occurring in Britain. These compulsory and wide-ranging security checks were first implemented against Iraqis in 1972, then against Libyans and Iranians in 1980, and as the perceived threat of ‘international terrorism’ grew in the early 1980s, were extended to nationals of most countries in the Middle East and North Africa. By the mid-1980s, the intersection between national and border security seemed almost complete, with many of these border security measures still in place in some way today.

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

[1] J.H. Mallett, ‘Visas for Iraqi Business Visitors’, 3 July, 1974, FCO 8/3245, NA.

[2] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 1, 29 September, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[3] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980, FCO 93/2356, NA.

[4] Telegram from FCO to British Embassy Tripoli, no. 131, 1 July, 1980.

[5] British Embassy Tripoli, ‘UK Visas for Libyans’, p. 2.

[6] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, 4 July, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[7] ‘Entry Clearance Policy: Requirements and Resources for the Issue of Visas and Entry Certificates – Comments to First Draft’, n.d., p. 1, FCO 50/685, NA.

[8] Letter from A. E. Stoddart to Sir J. Graham, 12 August, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[9] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventive Action’, n.d., p. 3, FCO 50/685, NA.

[10] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[11] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[12]FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control: Anti-Terrorist Measures’, 29 December, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA.

[13] ‘Terrorist “Profile”’, FCO 50/686, NA.

[14] Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain [final version]’, p. 5.

[15] ‘Background’, n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[16] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[17] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

[18] FCO Circular, ‘Entry Control’.

Removing the barriers to deportation from the UK: Lord Carrington and counter-terrorist efforts in the early 1980s

A story has appeared in The Guardian today that the UK Appeals Court has ruled that it is legal for foreign convicted criminals to be deported without their chance to appeal from the United Kingdom. The right to appeal before deportation was originally enshrined in the Immigrants Appeals Act 1969 and was long considered a problem by the Conservatives to an effective border control system. The following post is based on my research into the UK border control system and counter-terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s and the efforts by Lord Carrington in 1980 to speed up the deportation process for those suspected on being involved in terrorist activities.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

The Iranian Embassy Siege on May 1980, which caused Lord Carrington to enquire about tighter border controls to prevent further terrorist acts in the UK.

In 1980, the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington requested, upon the urging of the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, that the FCO explore measures using the border control system to prevent Middle Eastern and North African terrorism in the UK and the possibility of expanding the widespread interviewing and security checks to a greater number of countries known to be involved in terrorist activities. The catalyst for this request was the siege at the Iranian Embassy by dissident Iranians (who entered the UK on false Iraqi passports) and explosion at the Queens Garden Hotel in Bayswater (near the Iranian Embassy) which killed one Iranian, both occurring in May 1980. The request by the Foreign Secretary asked the following questions:

in what ways can we tighten up on the issue of visas; how can better checks be made; what categories of people should be most closely examined? Can controls at the ports in Great Britain be effectively tightened to improve screening?… What of conducive leave to enter and deportation?[1]

One of the questions that arose out of this discussion of monitoring potential terrorists in the UK concerned what could be done to visitors from the Middle East and North Africa who had been granted leave, but were considered ‘undesirable’ to remain in the country. In several internal documents, FCO and Home Office staff voiced their frustration with the delays involved in deporting someone from the UK, as the Immigrants Appeals Act 1969 allowed the deportee to appeal the decision to deport them. As one report explained:

The power to deport on security grounds has been used very rarely and has proved cumbersome and difficult to operate… The Security Service have gained the impression that Ministers would be reluctant to utilize this procedure.[2]

Douglas Hurd wrote to the Minister for Immigration, Timothy Raisom that it was ‘desirable… to try to limit the extent to which foreign officials, who are found to be using this country as a base for involvement with terrorist activities, are able to exploit legal procedures to delay their deportation’.[3] Hurd warned that ‘[a]ny delay in removing them increases the risk that their government may take action harmful to UK interests or UK citizens as a way of putting pressure on HM Government’ not to deport them, and identified the ‘advisory procedure’ rule (‘whereby a person may make representations against his deportation in a case where he has no statutory right of appeal’) as a significant cause for this delay.[4] Hurd suggested to Raisom that a way around this delay was to make an amendment to the Immigration Rules that only allowed non-patrials to make representations against deportation ‘after they had been removed from this country’.[5] In an earlier draft of the same letter to Raisom, Hurd noted that changing the Immigration Rules would not ‘be too controversially received in this country’ if it was to be ‘restricted to those cases in which the deportations were ordered on grounds of national security’, but did note that any further amendments to right of appeal against deportation would require a legislative change to the Immigration Act 1971, nor could the government ‘prevent such people resorting to Habeas Corpus and the Prerogative Orders.’[6]

Another report reiterated the thinking that the public would be more willing to accept the deportation of foreign nationals and limitations put on appealing these deportations if it was emphasised that they were in the name of national security and focused on a minority national group. The report stated:

It may be that difficulties [with the deportation process] have been over-emphasised and that where intelligence suspicions concern terrorism, particularly by Arab nationals, public opinion would be less critical of the exercise of the security provisions and Ministers would readily consider exercising them. The real constraint however seems likely to remain the availability of intelligence about an individual to justify action.[7]

A similar report enthused that the authorities could deport foreign officials from countries such as Iraq, Iran and Libya (including diplomats) by declaring them persona non grata if there was a suspicion that they would be involved in terrorist activities. The report advised the government ‘could declare a person p n g if we found out that he had links with organs of state terrorism and… [it] would be a punishment to those concerned and would also have a deterrent effect.’[8] The benefit of this, the report continued, was that ‘[n]o reason need be given for declaring a person p n g so the risk of compromising our sources of information would be lessened.’[9] A letter to Hurd’s Chief Clerk from the Maritime, Aviation and Environment Department claimed that the power to declare a foreign official or diplomat persona non grata was ‘clear, straightforward and unilateral’ and was granted under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, but warned that this might result in retaliatory actions against UK representatives in other countries.[10]

This discussion reached the top levels of the government, with Peter Carrington imploring Willie Whitelaw to ‘consider more extensive use of your existing powers under section 15(3) of the Immigration Act 1971’, and argued that the it was view of the FCI that ‘these powers could be a useful weapon against suspected terrorists as well as other undesirables’. Carrington also suggested that Whitelaw proceed with limiting the legal procedures that can delay the deportation of a foreign national, ‘once this has been ordered in the interests of national security as conducive to the public good.’[11] This was tied to Carrington’s private concerns that the ‘entry clearance system cannot be a fully effective barrier’, particularly if the sponsors of state terrorism were ‘intent on getting a terrorist into this country… or chooses to employ someone already here’.[12] A letter from the FCO to Gerald Hayden Phillips, Assistant Secretary in the Home Office, stated that Carrington was ‘inclined to think there would be more substance in changing the immigration rules so that the Home Secretary could swiftly deport suspected terrorists without running into the Agee/Hosenball difficulties[13] and in extending the Prevention of Terrorism Act.’[14] Whitelaw’s response was that for the Immigration Act to be effective in deporting suspected terrorists without appeal, ‘the legislation would have to be in sweeping terms, giving the Home Secretary the right to deport instantly without right to appeal’ – a legislative move that he described as ‘highly controversial’.[15]

The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 only covered terrorism offences related to the political situation in Northern Ireland, and there was discussion, prompted by Carrington, into whether the Act could be extended to cover all forms of terrorism – particularly the powers of detention and exclusion. A report outlined that the advantage of the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was that they ‘were quick and it obviates the necessity for going through the appeals procedure which accompanies deportation under the Immigration Act’, but warned that these orders were of ‘little practical use… unless the power under the Act to make an exclusion order from this country on the authority of the Home Secretary is extended to cover any terrorist.’[16] This, the report noted, would need legislation to amend the Act, which would be a difficult task for the government. Willie Whitelaw, in a letter to Carrington, made a similar claim, stating that amending the Act ‘would be a focus for criticism unless this was done in the context of a dramatic increase in the level of international terrorist incidents in Great Britain.’[17] Whitelaw suggested that the only change ‘which might be made overnight’ related to the ‘extension of the power to arrest and detain suspect terrorists’, but cautioned that ‘[a]ny extension of the power to exclude… would require amending legislation.’[18]

In 1983, a report by Lord Jellicoe into the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 recognised that Middle Eastern terrorism was an increasing threat to the UK, writing ‘[m]any fear that London… could become a battleground for warring Middle East terrorist factions’, and recommended extending the powers of arrest and detention at ports under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to ‘suspected international terrorists of any group, cause or nationality’.[19] The subsequent amendments in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) 1984 was the first legislative step for the UK authorities to create a generalised counter-terrorist response, rather than a focus on Irish terrorism with other forms of terrorism as a side concern.

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1981

[1] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, 4 July, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[2] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventive Action’, n.d., p. 5, FCO 50/685, NA.

[3] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version], n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[4] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version].

[5] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [second version].

[6] Draft letter from Douglas Hurd to Timothy Raisom [first version], n.d., FCO 50/685, NA.

[7] ‘Near East, North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 5.

[8] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 6.

[9] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 6.

[10] Letter from M St E Burton to Mr Adams, 20 November, 1980, p. 5, FCO 50/686, NA.

[11] Letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Home Secretary, 5 December 1980, p. 4, FCO 50/686, NA.

[12] Letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Home Secretary, 5 December 1980, p. 4.

[13] Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball were two American nationals who were deported after a very lengthy process from the UK in the mid-1970s. Philip Agee was a CIA officer based in the UK, who was suspected by the US authorities (who allegedly put pressure on Merlyn Rees and James Callaghan to deport Agee) of exposing CIA activities in the Caribbean. Hosenball was a journalist who had written a piece for Time Out magazine on the UK security services. There was considerable public support for both men to remain in the country, but were eventually deported in 1977. See: R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Hosenball [1977] 1 W.L.R. 766; [1977] 3 All E.R. 452; Duncan Campbell, ‘Official Secrecy and British Libertarianism’, Socialist Register (1979) pp. 75-88; Duncan Campbell, ‘The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold’, The Guardian (10 January, 2007),

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jan/10/usa.duncancampbell (accessed 17 April, 2013)

[14] Letter from M St E Burton to G.H. Phillips, 26 August, 1980, FCO 50/685, NA.

[15] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington, 6 November, 1980, FCO 50/686, NA.

[16] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain’, p. 7.

[17] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington.

[18] Letter from Willie Whitelaw to Peter Carrington.

[19] Rt. Hon. Earl Jellicoe, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 (London: HMSO, 1983) p. 27.

The Prevention of Terrorism Acts and exclusion orders: 40 years since their introduction

This week it will be forty years since the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) 1974, passed quickly in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974. The POTA was a broad piece of counter-terrorism legislation and many of the controversial elements of contemporary legislation concerning counter-terrorism and national security can be traced back to this 1974 Act. Many have written about the dramatic powers of the POTA, including the extensive powers of arrest and detention, but this post will focus on exclusion orders, which were granted under the POTA and the first piece of border control legislation to inhibit travel between the UK and Ireland. Although abolished in 1999, the national/border security framework created by the POTA and its exclusion orders have informed how terrorism is “countered” at the UK border in the 21st century. Part of this post is based on a paper on monitoring potential ‘terrorists’ coming from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1970s and 1980s currently under review, which is why there are references and comparisons to this in the post. If you would like to read a draft, please get in touch.

border-control

The major terrorist threat to the UK during the 1970s was from the Provisional IRA and other Irish nationalist groups. Although most of the attacks during the 1970s occurred in Northern Ireland, Irish terrorism was always seen by the UK authorities as an internal or domestic terrorist issue. This was in contrast to the terrorist threat from the Middle East and North Africa, which was seen as an external threat, with an internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office report from 1980 stating ‘The main, continuing external threat of terrorist activity in Great Britain still comes from the Palestinian groups’.[i] As Kathryn Fisher has written, ‘International terrorism was positioned as non-domestic and non-British, an enemy from outside’.[ii] From a border security perspective, the irony of the Irish nationalist terrorist threat was that Irish citizens were free to enter and reside in Britain without restriction,[iii] while the much less immediate threat of Middle Eastern and North African terrorists entering Britain was heavily regulated.

In 1973, the Provisional IRA shifted its focus from merely targeting the British in Northern Ireland to a wider bombing campaign on the British mainland. This began with a bombing at the Old Bailey at March 1973 and continued throughout 1974 until November that year, when two Birmingham pubs were bombed, killing 21 people, and the UK government, blaming the Provisional IRA (the group has never claimed responsibility for it), hastily formed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the police and the security service wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention to counter terrorism extending from Northern Ireland. Of particular importance are the exclusion orders that could be delivered to potential terrorists under the Act to prevent people under suspicion of terrorist activity from entering Great Britain (as opposed to the United Kingdom, which included Northern Ireland). Part II of the Act gave the Secretary of State the power to exclude persons from entering mainland Britain if they were suspected of preparing terrorist acts ‘designed to influence public opinion or Government policy with respect to affairs in Northern Ireland.’[iv]However UK citizens who had been living for the last 20 years or born and ordinarily resident in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) could not be excluded. This meant that people could not travel to mainland Britain from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland if they were suspected of taking part in Irish nationalist terrorist activities and were excluded under the new legislation.

The 1974 Act did not prevent people from entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain if suspected of being involved in acts of terrorism. The reason that Northern Ireland was not included in the legislation was because it was believed by the UK government that ‘terrorist attacks in Britain inevitably tend to be committed by people who have travelled here from Ireland, while those that take place in Northern Ireland tend to be committed by those already living there, or by those who have come over the border from the South’.[v] If a person who was not a UK citizen, they could be prevented from entering the whole of the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland), but this was only for people suspected of being involved in terrorist activities designed to impact upon the politics of Northern Ireland, which became a problem for the authorities in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they tried to formulate ways in which the border control system could prevent potential Middle Eastern and North African terrorists from entering the country.

Exclusion orders were, as Josephine Doody has argued, symbolic that ‘an explosion or death from terrorist activities in GB was intolerable or unacceptable to the House of Commons but such an explosion or death in NI was of little concern.’[vi] But Doody also points out that exclusion orders were ‘viewed in NI as a second best option’ because the powers of arrest and detention were far greater in Northern Ireland under Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.[vii] Between 1974 and 1999 (when the legislation allowing exclusion orders was repealed), 448 people had received such orders.[viii]

In 1976, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was revised and strengthened, with exclusion orders now able to be used to prevent people travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but this was a rarely used loophole by Irish terrorists. But the 1976 Act also, for the first time, introduced (under Section 13) checkpoints at ports of entry between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even though both regions belonged to the United Kingdom and travel between them by UK citizens was completely allowed. Because the monitoring of travellers in between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was implemented under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and not the Immigration Act 1971, immigration officers did not work at these port entry points, with the control points actually staffed by the police (often Special Branch officers). The police, in some cases, used landing and embarkation cards similar to those used under the Immigration Act for all non-UK passport holders and for many who travelled between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the line blurred between border control official and police officer. In his review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Lord Shackleton wrote, ‘a passenger may thus be in doubt whether he is speaking to a police officer, an immigration officer or some other official’ and that ‘[h]is attempts to find out may not always meet with success’.[ix]

——————————————————————

[i] ‘Near East/North African Terrorism in Great Britain: Possibilities for Preventative Action [final version]’, n.d., p. 1, FCO 60/685, National Archives, London.

[ii] Kathryn Fisher, ‘From 20th Century Troubles to 21st Century International Terrorism: Identity, Securitization, and British Counterterrorism from 1968 to 2011’, unpublished PhD thesis, London School of Economics, 2012, p. 19.

[iii] There has not been much research into the policing of the UK-Irish Republic border and counter-terrorist efforts against Irish nationalists, although Henry Patterson’s recent book uncovers a lot of new material regarding this. See: Henry Patterson, Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[iv] Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974, Part II, s. (3) 1.

[v] Cited in, Josephine Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities: Exploring the Use of Exclusion Orders in Northern Ireland’, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 4/1 (January 2012) p. 82.

[vi] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 83

[vii] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 83

[viii] Doody, ‘Creating Suspect Communities’, p. 80

[ix] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO, 1978) p. 30.

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left

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Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.