On Friday, 2nd June, a protest was held at the so-called “Museum of Free Derry” in opposition to its memorialization of British forces killed in Derry during the early 1970s. I refer to this institution as the “so-called Museum of Free Derry” because, with its commemoration of the British state’s highly paid, heavily armed and judicially-protected professional murderers – agents of state violence whose brutality peaked (but did not end) with the massacre of 14 Civil Rights demonstrators on January 31st, 1972 – it has distanced itself irrevocably from the concept and philosophy of liberation that Free Derry stands for in the popular imagination. As one protestor suggested, we should rename it “The Museum of Unfree Derry”; I would add that the title, “The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry”, will reflect even more accurately the ideology that this institution serves and promotes.
Free Derry was the part of Derry City, comprising the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan districts, that had been liberated from police control following the decisive defeat of heavily-armed RUC, B-Special and Orange Order attackers by an unarmed popular insurgency, known as the Battle of the Bogside, that took place in August, 1969. Notwithstanding the efforts of Paddy Doherty to have barricades dismantled and the RUC redeployed in the Bogside, Free Derry persisted until the entire city was overrun by British troops during Operation Motorman in July, 1972. During this three-year period, Free Derry became recognized globally as a site of intense resistance to British political, military and police control.
Last week’s protest was called because the museum, which many people regard as a Sinn Féin-controlled front organization, has installed an exhibit recording the names of British troops and police killed in Derry. This has outraged a broad spectrum of people who have confronted the issue because they recognize it as contributing to the wider, decades-long policy of “normalization”: the policy whereby the aberration that is the British presence in Ireland is represented as normal, even natural. A fundamental policy of modern imperialism, normalization (also referred to during the 1970s and 1980s as “Ulsterization”) was also the key strategy behind the 2003 Iraq invasion and occupation, where it became known as “Iraqi-isation”. (1)
Power and Its Discourses: From Burke to Kitson
These ideas and policies can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s conservative political theories, as outlined in his 1790 book, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Here, Burke described the authority of kings as “the natural order of things”, and claimed that the subjugation of people by imperial and monarchical authority was an organic, and therefore just, phenomenon. (2) In his earlier work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke also argued that the natural human response to displays of power should be one of surrender because power and terror, the basic currencies of political authority, were inseparable from one another.
While these ideas have influenced British imperialism and guided its coercionist policies since the late eighteenth century, they were very significantly modernized by the British army brigadier, Frank Kitson. Having participated in and directed counter-insurgency efforts in Kenya, Malaya, Oman and Cyprus, Kitson updated the sublime object and function of imperial power by urging the state to facilitate its flow through every circuit of military, police and civilian organisation in a thoroughly integrated pattern of oppression and violence. The key to controlling entire populations, Kitson urged in his 1971 book, Low Intensity Operations, was to ensure that the interests served by state violence should become so normalized as to be obscure, untraceable, unidentifiable, even invisible.
In doing so, he brought Burke’s theory of the invisibility of power into the modern imperialist age: “To make anything very terrible,” Burke advised, “obscurity seems in general to be necessary”, (3) and state violence is no exception to this very basic rule. Whereas, for Burke, power was best administered from the Olympian position of the aristocracy, Kitson, by 1971, saw the need to co-opt local organizations directly into its grid and to create compliant front-groups (he called these “pseudo-groups”) that were loyal to the deep state. As we have seen since the ceasefire of 1994, these state-funded front organizations have spawned very rapidly, although study of their boards and memberships reveals very familiar patterns and networks of interest.
2017: A New Start for Counter-Insurgency
Kitson’s policy eventually succeeded with the total integration of Sinn Féin and its party militia into the British establishment, and this is most apparent (for those who look beyond the obscuring veil of Stormont power) in the fusion of their pro-British terror tactics with official policing. However, while this objective has been achieved, total control remains the final objective and, as every reader of Orwell knows, controlling the present depends very heavily on exercising dominion over the past: this is what every colonial power pursues through means of coercion, violence, manipulation and co-option. Through various fronts disguised as “community groups” controlled by Sinn Féin, which is itself controlled by MI5, this policy has been intensively pursued since the mid-1990s on political, economic and cultural fronts. Those who remember the various “peace groups” that emerged to serve British interests during the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were directed by the Officials and their political front, the Workers’ Party, will recognize an emerging pattern here.
The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry is the latest addition to this long line of front organizations working in the service of British state power. Its inclusion of British military and police personnel in its exhibitions is a significant move towards normalizing the brutality and violence unleashed on the people of Derry from the late 1960s (and, indeed, since the inception of the state in 1922), and their present activity should be considered against this longer history of normalization.
Indeed, the museum’s spokesman, Robin Percival, has a long record of service to Sinn Féin front organizations since he first joined the party. Since then, he has been appointed to prominent roles within the Pat Finucane Centre, The Bogside Residents Group (from which he graduated onto the Parades Commission), the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum, the Gasyard Centre, Cunamh and the Bloody Sunday Trust, as well as this museum. His close friend and colleague at the Pat Finucane Centre, Paul O’Connor, participates in Sinn Féin electoral videos, exposing that organization’s very close ties to the party. During last week’s protest, Percival took photographs of those who had come to voice their opposition to the memorial, and it can only be assumed that these images will be shared with his friends in Sinn Féin (these associations can be seen by checking the organizations’ boards and memberships on the Companies House website).
In a letter sent to the Pensive Quill website in 2014, Percival responded to criticism of the museum’s earlier but unsuccessful plan to build a garden that would commemorate crown forces personnel. He stated: “there never was a plan to construct a memorial garden to include British soldiers in the Bogside…. Nor are there any plans to construct a memorial to include British soldiers now or in the future. The focus of the Bloody Sunday Trust (which manages the museum) is about civilians killed by the state.” Percival publicly announced that he had “no plan to construct a memorial… to include British soldiers in the Bogside.” (4) However, things can change very rapidly in the world of colonial doublethink, and now he is defending the projection of the names of British personnel on his museum’s walls.
The Long Line of Cooperators
Frank Kitson argued that co-option and cooperation are the basic requirements of colonial political control. Percival is among a long line of cooperators, ranging from Paddy Doherty and Brendan Duddy to the present class of professional, managerial “community representatives” and mysteriously-appointed “spokespeople”. While these figures have, largely, been involved in the political and economic management of the people of Derry on behalf of Sinn Féin, Stormont and the British establishment in London, what is novel about this museum it is dedicated to controlling the present through its representation of the past.
The normalization policy outlined by Kitson and the principles that he first proposed in 1971 are very relevant today. The museum operates entirely into line with British policy and represents a watermark of what he termed “civil-military relations” – the conscious fusion of military and civilian interests through long-term “popular projects” serving the occupier’s “single effective policy” : “the necessity for close co-ordination between the civil and the operational effort is apparent to everyone”, wrote Kitson in 1971. It remains so today because it is through this “unity of effect” that oppression becomes normalized and authority internalized by the target population, and how a people’s sense of their own selfhood is softened and eroded. It is the latest manifestation of psychological operations (still abbreviated by militaries, police forces and governments as “psy-ops”): the use of psychological means to distort and undermine a population’s sense of its own place in the world and in history, and to subvert its own understanding of itself. (5)
Identifying with the Oppressor
The museum has a single purpose: encouraging people to identify psychologically with the British army and police, and with the colonial violence that has repressed them for centuries. The British army’s infamous Bloody Sunday Massacre of January 1972 was key to the wider counter-insurgency policy that began in August, 1969, and its impact can still be felt in Derry, over four decades later. The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry is dedicated to convincing the people that they should see something of themselves in the very murderers who shot down children, women and men during this period of particularly brutal state violence. It symbolizes a false and misleading ideology of reconciliation based on the assumption that we have much in common with these professional agents of colonial violence and the structures that they serve.
Last week’s demonstration registered popular refusal to conform to this ongoing process of normalization. The philosophy and practice of liberation that was practiced and displayed four decades ago by the people of Free Derry showed the world that refusal is a very powerful weapon. This protest articulated and renewed that refusal by addressing the still current problem of state violence and the ideological coercion that accompanies it, exposing its acceptance by organizations such as this museum, all of which, ultimately, act in the interests of the state.
The fundamental strategy of any empire is invasion, and this requires a considerable degree of integration on a number of levels, particularly within the cultural, political and psychological spheres. Imperialists occupy the physical territory of the countries that they invade with their military and police forces but they also work hard to colonize the minds of those whose lands they occupy with the relentless propaganda and distortions of the past that are circulated by their local agents. In Derry, however, this is being resisted because there are plenty of minds and imaginations that still remain free.
1. See Paul Reynolds, “Rush to Iraqi-isation”, BBC News, 12th November, 2003 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3263545.stm), accessed 8/6/1017. See also “Letter (declassified): Rycroft to Baker”, 3rd June, 2003, The Iraq Inquiry (http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/212061/2004-06-03-letter-rycroft-to-baker-iraq-prime-ministers-meeting-3-june.pdf), accessed 8/6/2017.
2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, The Works of Edmund Burke, Vol. 3 (London, John C. Nimmo: 1887), p.296.
3. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ibid, Vol. 1, pp.131-2.
4. Robin Percival, “No Plan to Construct a Memorial Garden to Include British Soldiers in the Bogside,” The Pensive Quill, Friday, 8th August, 2014 (http://thepensivequill.am/2014/08/no-plan-to-construct-memorial-garden-to.html, accessed 31st May, 2017).
5. Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971, reprinted 1991), pp.51-3, 71.