Roy Greenslade’s distorted version of the history of the Troubles is as shameful as it is naive

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 2 March 2021. © Richard Kemp

Roy Greenslade, the former Guardian journalist, admitted this week that he supported the IRA terror campaign that killed hundreds of his country’s soldiers and police.

He wrote columns for An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein-IRA’s influential propaganda newspaper, which for decades was used to promote and justify Republican terrorism. He stood surety for John Downey, an IRA terrorist believed to have been involved in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing that killed four soldiers and seven horses. He was friends with Pat Doherty, a Sinn Fein politician accused of membership of the IRA Army Council.

I’ll let others question Mr Greenslade’s journalistic integrity, given that he effectively kept his allegiance secret for years while piously judging others on media ethics.

My concern, as a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland, is what appears to be his attempt to rewrite the history of the Troubles, and to insult the memory of those who died trying to stop the violence.

In his article in the British Journalism Review, Mr Greenslade explains his conversion to republicanism took place in part on the basis of what he heard about ‘the security forces’ use of collusion, the deliberate failure by the authorities to act quickly enough in response to phone calls warning of bomb placements, and the willingness of the RUC and army to allow loyalist paramilitaries to bomb and kill with impunity’.

But what Mr Greenslade says he heard was a shocking distortion of the truth, and he should be ashamed of himself for believing it.

IRA terrorists set out every day for 30 years to murder, maim and destroy. Soldiers and police worked tirelessly over those years to save lives and maintain law and order. They risked their own lives to protect the civilian population and many died doing so. One of the most famous examples was Sergeant Michael Willetts of The Parachute Regiment, who in 1971 was killed shielding two children and two adults from a bomb using his own body.

The security forces were not deliberately slow to respond to bomb warnings. We had almost impossible target times, measured in minutes, to get bomb disposal teams into action. Working at lightning speed, we often cut corners and took immense risks, knowing that IRA warnings were frequently used to lure and kill soldiers by placing snipers or secondary explosive devices near by. Many soldiers and police were killed and maimed dealing with IRA bombings, including 23 bomb disposal experts.

The idea that security forces allowed loyalist terrorists ‘to bomb and kill with impunity’ would be laughable if it weren’t tragic. The police and Army worked just as hard to fight loyalist terrorists as republican and 41 were killed in the process.

As for ‘collusion’, the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland was defeated by intelligence. By the time peace negotiations began in earnest, the IRA had been so heavily penetrated by agents and informants, as well as electronic surveillance, that it became extremely difficult for them to carry out successful attacks.

I was involved in that world and witnessed the skill and daring of those who swam in those dirty and dangerous waters, both inside republican and loyalist groups. Sometimes their work involved criminality. How could an agent within a terrorist cell on either side gain trust other than by involvement in their illegal activity?

As in all conflicts, mistakes were made by security forces over the years and there were errors of judgement, some of which cost innocent lives. But vastly more lives were saved by police and soldiers patrolling the streets and operating undercover.

Mr Greenslade’s views about the actions of security services are not only naive or wrong, they are dangerous. They are of a kind with the propaganda of dissident republican groups who maintain the campaign of violence in Northern Ireland today. But perhaps that does not trouble a man who is so obviously unrepentant about his support for terrorism.

Image: Roy Greenslade at a Sinn Féin summer school (Source: Wikimedia Commons)