From James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
The following letter, written at the end of December 1971 by Howard Smith, the UK Representative to the NI government in Belfast prior to direct rule – and later the head of MI5 – to Philip Woodfield, the then head of the NI department in the Home Office, has a double value.
First, it provides confirmation that the MRF was being constructed in the winter of 1971, which dovetails nicely with the theory that the MRF evolved out of the Bomb Squad.
Second, the letter, dated December 4th, 1971, encloses a three and a bit page assessment of the situation in the North written by the British Army’s Belfast commander, Brigadier Frank Kitson which gives us an interesting insight into Kitson’s thoughts on the way forward for British strategists some five months or so after the introduction of internment.
On the MRF, Kitson wrote:
As you know we are taking steps….in terms of building up and developing the MRF and we are steadily improving the capability of Special Branch by setting up cells in each (RUC) Division manned by MIO/FINCO’s (Military Intelligence Officers/Field Intelligence Non-commissioned Officers) and by building up Special Branch records with Int Corps Section.
Just a few months before Kitson’s missive, the RUC Special Branch was a joke in the North’s security universe. The lists of names provided by the Branch to the military to be arrested on August 9th 1971 and interned, turned out to be hopelessly out of date, based largely on Special Branch records of activists involved in the Border campaign of 1956-62, and was politically biased, leaving out Loyalist extremists entirely while including civil rights leaders who had no or next to no paramilitary links.
It is arguable that by giving the Branch such a high profile in MRF operations, Kitson rescued the North’s secret policemen from the dustbin of history and propelled them to an eventual high profile role in the ultimate defeat of the IRA.
His motives can only be guessed at but perhaps he envisaged a day when the military would step back from the front lines to be replaced by the RUC. Or it may be that he borrowed heavily from his experience in Kenya where he was an Military Intelligence Officer attached to the Kenyan Special Branch and he had what he called a Field Intelligence Assistant (FIA) to assist him in the war against the Mau Mau.
On British policy in N.I., Kitson essentially argued that unless and until the British government had a coherent and unified political strategy in Northern Ireland, the British Army might not be able to assist and might even make matters worse.
Internment had initially been a failure – thanks to British mistakes in large measure – but in subsequent months the military had managed to make progress against the IRA, not least because the IRA was over-manned and the calibre of many of its volunteers left much to be desired.
But as things stood in the winter of 1971, the IRA, winnowed of inferior members, had become more efficient and dangerous (hence the need for the MRF); but the military could make no more progress unless the political policy parameters were agreed in Whitehall.
In this sense Kitson was arguing for any policy as long as it was agreed and everyone knew what it was. He posits the two alternatives as he saw them: a ‘Segregated’ policy which would essentially back the Unionists, and an ‘Integrated’ strategy which would be more pro-Nationalist.
But like a good and obedient soldier, the military man showed no preference himself.
Within two years mandarins like Howard Smith would be helping to usher in Direct Rule and paving the way for Sunningdale, arguably backing Kitson’s Integrated strategy.
But therein lies another tale.
Here is Smith’s letter and Kitson’s paper: