By Steve Painter
"Maggie Thatcher has used the word 'war' quite often in relation to the north of Ireland, but there is not a declared war. IRA and other paramilitary prisoners are not treated as soldiers but as criminals. But then the British forces behave as if there is a war going on." Father Raymond Murray formed this opinion during 19 years as prison chaplain in County Armagh.
A recent visitor to Sydney, he released a 500-page book last November, The SAS in Ireland, on the activities of one of Britain's elite military units in northern Ireland (and in the Irish republic, as the unit has been involved in illegal cross-border operations).
After years of seeing "terrible injuries on the men when they came into the jail", Murray was prompted to begin gathering information on the SAS by the killing of Peter Cleary, a young man who had come 50 yards across the border from the Irish republic to see his girlfriend in the north.
Troops raided the house he was visiting and dragged Cleary away, beat him insensible, then shot him. "The excuse was that he tried to escape, which nobody believed ... here were elite soldiers with a man who was already very frightened and who had been beaten. They said he tried to take a weapon from one of them while they were waiting for the helicopter."
Raymond Murray is convinced the SAS brought to northern Ireland techniques it had developed in Britain's colonial wars in places such as Malaysia, Kenya and Aden.
Murray points out that between 1986 and 1991 no police officer and only one soldier served time in jail for an illegal killing in the north of Ireland, though 150 innocent people were shot dead by military and police forces in that time.
He adds that the European Commission on Human Rights found the British government guilty of torturing prisoners in the province. One of these tortures was sensory deprivation, developed by the SAS in Kenya.
Gathering information, Murray interviewed many of the victims' relatives as well as witnesses of the killings, and scoured the records of inquests.
"There are always statements that the army and police are not above the law, but that's not true, because killings by the army or the police are not pursued with the same urgency and vigour.
"And when the department of public prosecutions announces that there is no prosecution, it's not required to give a reason why. In difficult cases, which are usually the security forces cases, it often has to consult with the attorney general.
"In the case of six unarmed men shot dead in Armagh, when it went to the attorney general as to the prosecution of the upper-level police who told lies about checkpoints etc, he declared that in the interests of national security a case couldn't be brought."
British forces in Ireland have always operated a shoot-to-kill policy against people they found difficult, says Murray, "but it increased very much around 1977-78, and in the '80s I think it became systematic.
"There were a number of occasions when they used it for revenge, after Airey Neave was assassinated and after the Brighton bombing. It's hard not to conclude that they had been directed to take revenge."
The British forces target people, then "they patiently wait for a compromising situation, then they kill". If a suitable situation doesn't present itself, they often resort to unofficial murder squads.
The SAS in Ireland, published by Mercier Press of Cork, has already sold out of two printings in Ireland and is expected to be available in Australia shortly, when the paperback is released.