Confronting Northern Ireland's toxic legacy

Professor Maurice Punch
Friday, 27 June 2014

A grim legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles is some 3200 unsolved murders. Understandably relatives and others desire certainty and closure regarding these deaths. But there is a quagmire of secrecy and lies which handicaps resolution.

There has, moreover, been no Truth and Reconciliation Committee offering immunity as in South Africa, while there is no statute of limitations. Many para-military activists from both sides did receive amnesty following the Good Friday Agreement and, to further the peace process, around 200 nationalist activists on the run were informed they would not face prosecution.

The PSNI's “Historical Enquiries Team” and the Police Ombudsman’s “Historical Investigations Directorate” are endeavouring to resolve cases. This work is often frustratingly time consuming, expensive and fruitless. Also both have come in for strong criticism around their independence, along with allegations of selective attention to cases. Hence when that work leads to an arrest – as with Gerry Adams regarding the abduction and murder of Mrs. McConville – it inevitably leads to accusations of bias, and the settling of old scores, given that he is a high-profile republican figure. The authorities will obviously deny this vehemently and claim impartiality.

Exposing state-sponsored violence

The killing of Mrs. McConville was truly awful: the circumstances of it – and other nationalist killings – make for grim reading. But there is another murky pool of contentious cases which remain to bedevil the Province following a “dirty war”. When what was essentially a one-party, Protestant “state” was threatened by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s – the IRA was then almost defunct – it was supported in one of the gravest miscalculations in modern British history. The British and Northern Ireland security establishments then expended a huge effort to bolster that rump state by unleashing a counter-insurgency campaign based on colonial strategies which came to focus almost exclusively on nationalist activists.

For instance, in recent years journalists, academics and also researchers from the Pat Finucane Centre, which works on behalf of families, have unearthed convincing material on a covert campaign of illicit violence against nationalist activists and catholic communities. Anne Cadwallader, for example, meticulously details umpteen murders by one particular gang in one area. Its members were loyalists who belonged to legal and/or illegal loyalist (Protestant) associations but were also serving in the Ulster Defence Regiment, Territorials, RUC Reserve or RUC. They used military weapons, often stolen from arsenals; typically attacked socially mobile Catholics in their homes or bars; and employed extreme violence with sub-machine-guns, grenades, explosives and multiple shots to the head and body. Their victims almost exclusively had no connection to nationalist activism. The gang could usually rely on lax security and weak investigations to wage terror aimed at destabilizing catholic communities and to get Catholics to move out. Hence members of the state’s security forces used the state’s weapons and resources to conduct attacks and evade capture. Released official documents make plain that the authorities were well aware of this infiltration of loyalist activists into the security forces.

Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that during the Troubles the police-security establishment used special counter-insurgency units of the RUC and Army, along with the SAS and covert intelligence units, to target nationalist suspects – and their alleged sympathisers and associates – who were then killed under suspicious circumstances. Loyalist activists were once more used to conduct assassinations. And again there was a notable pattern of weak investigations, evidence disappearing, documents being “weeded” and of any court cases leading to weak sentences or acquittal. Throughout the Troubles, then, there effectively developed a pattern of informal immunity for state offenders as if this was a war zone permitting violence. Officials high in the establishment must have been aware of this.

Given that background any single case will appear biased and opportunistic but especially if it is aimed at a nationalist, which only reinforces the apparent favouring of loyalist activists or members of the police-security establishment. Moreover, any case seen as selective and politically motivated could have a destabilizing impact with serious repercussions in a society still rent by sectarianism but which has reached a state of uneasy equilibrium. One solution could be some form of amnesty even though it conflicts with norms of natural justice and the rule of law.

However, there is much at stake and not just in the Province. For part of that legacy of hundreds of unsolved murders is those killings of ordinary Catholics, and of unarmed nationalist activists under highly dubious circumstances, by members of the security forces or their accomplices. Unlike IRA activists those concerned were the formal, or surrogate, agents of a democratic state espousing the rule of law. But that use of counter-gangs in combatting insurgency had long been a strategy in Britain’s post-colonial conflicts and was imported into Northern Ireland by influential military figures, including Brigadier Kitson.

Developing peaceful solutions

The question will inevitably be raised, then, as to how determinedly such state related cases are being pursued when they are likely to expose collusion between the security forces with loyalist activists. Indeed, the audit trail might reach to high levels of the security and political establishment with serious repercussions in Whitehall.

There is no question here of downplaying nationalist violence: but many activists – from both sides – have abandoned violence and some have taken positive roles in society. Former victims of IRA violence, including soldiers who suffered severely and the relatives of victims, now argue for reconciliation and forgiveness. And one of the activists involved in the Brighton bombing now shares a platform with the daughter of one of the bombings victims, with both powerfully arguing for non-violence. In Ireland, North and South, there are diverse advocates of non-violence: these include Colin and Wendy Parry whose young son was tragically killed in the Warrington bombing and who have set up the Warrington Peace Centre to enhance peaceful solutions to conflicts. These voices deserved to be heard.

But given that years ago crime scenes were contaminated, investigations were inadequate, witnesses were not interviewed and leads were not followed, the likelihood of a resolution in many cases is weak. Furthermore, in cases classified as “national security” – typically involving informants, double agents, prior knowledge of IRA activities and police/military collusion with loyalist militants – the evidence has doubtless been embargoed, shredded or “lost” while those involved are mostly not talking. Furthermore, as participants and witnesses start to pass away, there is a decreasing chance of a successful investigation. Hence any new individual case will stand in shrill contrast to the informal amnesty the state has granted to those who fought its dirty war.

If some form of amnesty was tied to supplying information about the unsolved deaths it could provide certainty to families about the fate of their relative or relatives. However tough that might be, they might, especially given the lapse of time, settle for certainty rather than see someone prosecuted when others, guilty of graver offences, will never face trial. Unfortunately, the proposals of Dr. Haass, the American mediator endeavouring to steer reconciliation, for a Historical Investigations Unit and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, remain stymied in adversarial political bickering.

The UK government should now step in and announce a major effort at reconciliation to prevent that past feeding the resilient sectarianism and undermining the hope for a healthy future in the Province. The balance should now shift from blame to the needs of all victims of the Troubles, their relatives and those who still suffer – including the injured who await compensation. The work of the Pat Finucane Centre and other agencies for victim’s families illustrates graphically and movingly how devastating it was to lose a loved one under these circumstances and how permanent the suffering remains for them. For many there never will be “closure” but certainty could offer some solace. Perhaps like the persistent mothers of the Playa Majo in Buenos Aires, women should regularly demonstrate in Belfast and London to keep reminding the expedient British state of its obligations to families and others regarding those historic cases that have effectively been made to “disappear”.

There is, then, a deep and toxic legacy that remains to scar Northern Ireland’s society and threatens to unhinge much of what has been achieved. Tragically, this failure to resolve the issues of truth and reconciliation hinders attempts to bring closure and tranquillity to the people of Northern Ireland who have suffered too much for too long.

Maurice Punch’s State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles was published by Pluto Press in 2012.