How British Intelligence manufactured a Satanic Panic in Northern Ireland

The British government once launched a PsyOps campaign against the Provisional IRA that attempted to frame them as devil-worshipping Cultists. They even went as far as having Intelligence Agents research Crowley and other occultists in order to accurately replicate "black masses" and other rituals, which they staged throughout the Northern Irish countryside.

I learned this while listening to a BBC Podcast from 2010 about the propaganda wars during the Troubles in Northern Ireland:

Mike Thomson presents the series using documentary evidence to throw new light on past events. With the Bloody Sunday Inquiry due to submit its report to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Mike investigates how the tragic events of 30th January 1972 sparked a murky propaganda battle which was fought in the world's media. Mike discovers how a secretive foreign office department working alongside a covert army intelligence unit spun stories against Republicans and Loyalists in the years after Bloody Sunday: stories which are now known to be untrue. He hears how this black propaganda campaign included tall tales of devil-worshipping among paramilitary groups and deliveries of Soviet weapons to the IRA. Through documents from the time and eyewitness testimonies, Mike finds out just how far this blending of fact and fiction went to distort what was really happening in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

While it uses the Bloody Sunday Inquiry as a jumping off point, host Mike Thomson speaks with a wide range of people about how the PR game changed after Bloody Sunday. This includes professional propagandists from the British government as well as from the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Voluntary Force (who, it's now been well-established, were often in cahoots with the British military anyway). There are also journalists who admit their culpability—people who reported on the events at the time they were happening, naively trusting the government's word. In hindsight, they admit they should have known better; but at the time, they genuinely believed that the military had a civic duty to tell them at least some version of the truth, rather than outright lies.

Overall, the podcast offers an interesting look at propaganda/PR machines during times of conflict. While the "Black Mass" story is a small part of that, it's also the detail that stood out the most to me—because it's absurd, and also, because it was probably effective. Captain Colin Wallace, one of the officers behind the smear campaign of painting a far-left Catholic paramilitary rebellion as a Satantic cult, explained his approach in interviews for Richard Jenkins' book Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-74. From The Guardian:

Wallace told Jenkins that they deliberately stoked up a satanic panic from 1972 to 1974, even placing black candles and upside-down crucifixes in derelict buildings in some of Belfast's war zones.

Then, army press officers leaked stories to newspapers about black masses and satanic rituals taking place from republican Ardoyne in north Belfast to the loyalist-dominated east of the city.

In Jenkins's book, Black Magic and Bogeymen, Wallace admitted that the "psych-ops" branch of military intelligence exploited public fear of satanism stoked by films such as The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out.

Wallace told Jenkins that by whipping up devil-worshipping paranoia, they created the idea that the emerging paramilitary movements and the murder campaigns they were engaged in had unleashed evil forces across Northern Irish society.

Wallace said his Information Policy group, based at military headquarters in Thiepval barracks, Lisburn, hit upon the idea of summoning the devil as a way to discredit paramilitary organisations.

"It was quite clear that the church, both the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant church, even for the paramilitaries, held a fair degree of influence," Wallace said. "So we were looking for something that would be regarded with abhorrence really by the two communities, and at the same time would be something that paramilitaries couldn't justify, and also would be in many ways seen as a reason why some of the outrages were taking place.

"That sort of degree of activity was lowering the value of human life. And so eventually it came to the point where we looked at witchcraft … Ireland was very superstitious and all we had to do was bring it up to date."

Wallace said the manufactured hysteria was also useful in keeping younger children in at night and away from buildings that the military and police might have used for undercover surveillance.

Satanic Panic: it works every time!

Propaganda in Northern Ireland [Document / BBC Sounds]

Satanic panic: how British agents stoked supernatural fears in Troubles [Henry McDonald / The Guardian]

Image: 826 Paranormal / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)