Politicians kept in the dark

The British parliamentary system places great store in its respect for the House of Commons - but the files being revealed by The Irish News show how MPs who asked questions about UDR activity, were told half-truths…  Nationalist communities who believed security forces were conspiring with loyalists demanded that their elected politicians raise the alarm. But now two sets of documents reveal - for the first time - how questions on paramilitary crime inspired 'sterile' political answers.

Frank McManus was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1970, having successfully stood as a nationalist 'unity' candidate. In August 1972 he asked a parliamentary question of the minister for defence, and a written record has emerged. The document records that Mr McManus asked: "How many guns have been reported stolen from members of the Ulster Defence Regiment in the last six months; and how many have been recovered following investigations." The written answer to his parliamentary question, reads: "Since 1 February 1972 49 weapons of different kinds have been reported lost by, or stolen from, the UDR. Five of these weapons have been recovered to date."

However, a second page was filed along with the answer. It is marked "Confidential - Background note", and lists three points:

- firstly, it lists the weapons as including 14 pistols, but also 31 semi-automatic rifles and four sub-machine guns
- secondly, it reveals weapons were stolen from UDR members' homes, but also from "UDR armouries or guard rooms"
- the crucial third point reads: "In a number of cases collusion is suspected."

This additional information was never made public, until today. Mr McManus, who still works as a solicitor in Fermanagh, said he asked his question against a background of concerns over the UDR. Surprised to hear of the file's existence, he said it was clear that important information had been kept from him. "Everyone knew that there was collusion and of course the government was always at pains to cover up," he said yesterday. "A number of very close friends of mine were killed and it was common knowledge that it was men in uniform who did it." He added: "Technically the answer I received is, in some respects, correct but the real point is that they were concealing the essential parts. They wanted to conceal it."

Bernadette Devlin MP raised her concerns over the UDR on the floor of the House of Commons in a July 1972 debate with then secretary of state William Whitelaw. He told the House: "The honourable lady makes a very serious accusation about the connection of the Ulster Defence Regiment with the Ulster Defence Association. "If she has specific evidence she owes it to me to send it to me in writing... in fairness to everybody concerned."She sent Mr Whitelaw a list of allegations of UDR violence. "Should you require a 'blow-by-blow' account of intimidation in the areas concerned, I suggest you contact the RUC in Cookstown, Magherafelt, Coagh and Moneymore, where the files are currently gathering dust," she wrote.

A reply from the secretary of state's office arrived in October, 1972, reading: "The thefts of eight UDR weapons in Co Tyrone are being investigated. In none of these cases has any proof been found of collusion between members of the UDR and paramilitary organisations. The appropriate action would of course be taken if such collusion was proved." But the new files contain the letters sent between the officials who drafted the reply. One considers allegations that UDR soldiers shot at the home of a Catholic man: "Police enquiries have failed to implicate members of the UDR, although they were suspected..."

Another writes: "Nine self-loading rifles are missing from the UDR in County Tyrone. In none of these cases has collusion been proven between the UDR and paramilitary organisations, although in some cases there are suspicions of such collusion (perhaps in association with intimidation) and investigations are in hand. East Tyrone is an area where we believe that certain UDR members may be sympathetic towards the UDA." Crucially, the civil servant advises a colleague: "I suggest that the reply to Miss Devlin should not quote specific figures but should say: 'Certain thefts of UDR weapons in the Tyrone area are being investigated. In none of these cases is there any proof of collusion between members of the UDR and paramilitary organisations. The military authorities would of course take severe action if such collusion were proven'."

As in the case of Frank McManus MP before her, Bernadette Devlin, Westminster representative for Mid Ulster, raised concerns, but heard nothing of the official suspicions of collusion.