A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan report – Part 3

The third in a five part article about the McCord/O’Loan Report. This analyses why Unionism responded in the way it did.So why did Unionism adopt such an approach?

First, there is the fear that acceptance of criticism of the security forces places them on the same moral level as paramilitaries. This is patently untrue. A fundamental organisational aim of a terrorist group is death and destruction. No one can credibly sustain the argument that this was a fundamental aim of the RUC, UDR and Army – the body count would have been in the tens of thousands if it had been. The vast majority of those who served in the security forces can say they did years of service without firing a single shot and where not directly or indirectly involved in causing anyone’s death rather they saved lives. How many members of a paramilitary group can say that?

Second, there is Unionism’s perceived need to defend the state and its actions. As the security forces are instruments of the state/government so criticism of them is criticism of our state. To justify our support for the maintenance of that state we must defend them from criticism. This ‘because of, therefore’ thinking is a mistake on a number of levels:
Unionism and the State – This is a deeply held misconception that the state and Unionism are one and the same. The interests of the national powers and our interests as a regional political community are not automatically the same. Unionism ceased to be the state on 20th March 1972. Unionism was not politically responsible for any of these decisions so which should it volunteer to pick up the can for it? Also take note of some of the individuals Unionism’s desire to defend the state is potentially protecting. John Major, who was the Prime Minster who gifted Unionism the Framework Documents and his successor Blair who gave us the Belfast Agreement. Others with questions to answer or face danger to their reputations are the likes of Patrick Mayhew, Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and John Reid none of whom could be described as poster boys or girls for Unionism. Why should Unionism waste its political capital in protecting these individuals?
State and Government – The actions of a government are grounds for criticising a government not a rational basis for bringing down an entire state. There is a Lockean stream to Unionism, supporting the state’s existence but disagreeing with a government that is worth drinking from now and again. It will not bring the state crashing down round our heads. Furthermore, if Unionism is genuinely interested in our state its failings are not something Unionism should hide but something we should demand a light be shone upon. Our commitment to the British state should mean we want it to always aim for the highest standards.
But here is different – Northern Ireland has experienced things that no other part of the UK has. True. This difference justifies lower standards that what would be acceptable in Great Britain. “NI is different” is a perceived political wisdom that has made Unionism’s task much more difficult. Is it seriously something unionism should be encouraging? If we accept an emergency did justify such lower standards, that does not mean a ‘blind eye’ approach should be accepted. If a robust response is needed it should have been done full measure and publicly. Anything else was an act of political cowardice and why should Unionism encourage political cowardice in its government when faced with a sustained rebellion?

Third, the vast majority of those who served in the RUC were from a Protestant or Unionist background, so apparently community/ethnic solidarity leads to Unionism coming to their defence. For decades the RUC had communicated its desire to be separate from the Unionist community. Hermon would talk of them being the ‘third’ religion in Northern Ireland. This was clearly demonstrated when the RUC enforced the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By word and deed they communicated their desire not to be a Unionist possession and acted against Unionism’s interests. This was particularly communicated from a senior level in the organisation.

Now it is these same senior personnel who are now looking to Unionism for cover. As with the politicians lets look at some of these individuals Unionism is being asked to spend political capital protecting. Freddie Hall was the police commander at Drumcree. Sir Ronnie Flanaghan embracing of Patten pretty much doomed the campaign to save the name and emblems of the RUC. Again why should Unionism waste its political capital to provide cover for these individuals?

This lack of a hard-headed approach is a persistent Unionist problem – the finest example of it being the UUP propping up the Conservatives even after being done over in the 1990’s. The phrase “What goes around comes around” is a nice conciliation after you have been done over. However, Unionism response seems to be “What goes around comes around but don’t worry we’ll take the hit for you”.

This is some electoral justification for Unionism’s position. The Patten reforms proved a useful tool in breaking into the Unionist middle classes and the UUP’s core vote. The number who had served in the RUC through the years, their extended family networks and geographical concentration in East Ulster constituencies were important to anti-Belfast Agreement Unionists. However, this overlooks that within the RUC, Special Branch was not particularly liked. Also many RUC officers are outraged that their years of good service are being potentially besmirched by some in Special Branch apparently acting under orders from on high. A message can be crafted that doesn’t threaten the vast majority of such support.

Furthermore, anti-Belfast Agreement Unionists overlook that past criticism of the process included the claim that a deliberate blind eye was being taken to ongoing paramilitary activity – public references to ‘house-cleaning’, the startling poor conviction rates for post-ceasefire murders by the PIRA, UDA, UVF and LVF, the explosion of other forms of crime etc. In this context the actual findings of the report should not have come as a particular shock.

NOTE: I would ask commentors to stick to the topic, resist ad hominen attacks and not to feed the trolls.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are solely the personal views of the author.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5

  • joeCanuck

    The clarity of your analysis continues Fair Deal.

    Just a quick thought, I think you have done a great service here in drawing a clear distinction between rogue elements inside SB and the remainder of the police service.
    The rationale of some of the unionist knee jerk responders – if you admit some are bad, it leaves them all open to criticism – has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The republican knee jerk response is that if the unionists can’t admit that there were some bad apples, then there must be a lot of bad apples.

    Looking forward to more from you.

  • Kloot

    A thought provoking read again fair deal.

  • Bemused

    Another excellent article. My only unease was with the following – “Freddie Hall was the police commander at Drumcree. Sir Ronnie Flanaghan embracing of Patten pretty much doomed the campaign to save the name and emblems of the RUC. Again why should Unionism waste its political capital to provide cover for these individuals?”

    Surely now with the benefit of hindsight you’re not still suggesting that standing up to the verminous thugs at Drumcree was in some way ‘dis-loyal’? Or that retaining the title of the R.U.C. was ever a serious prospect in a state where nearly half the citizenry found two of the three words in the title wholly objectionable?

    Otherwise – no complaints, more power to your elbow etc…

  • willis

    Very fair, balanced and insightful. However I do feel that the use of the expression ‘unionism’ to cover the spectrum from Terence O’Neill to George Seawright and their heirs misses the tensions.

    I do agree with Bemused that it would be good if you clarified what was so bad about the policing of Drumcree.

  • fair_deal

    Bemused/Willis

    You will hardly be shocked to hear that I disagree with the decisions to block the Drumcree parade or any other one for that matter from either community.

    However, the point isn’t about the validity or otherwise of the decisions these officers took. It is the fact they took such decisions but then seek the protection of those their decision impacted upon with the nudge-nudge we are all really on the same side.

    The actions of the senior officers do not surprise me. I have seen this occur on a few occassions in my professional life by people in public service from either background. They do as they please for years (one treated the political representatives of their origins with open disdain). They make a mess of something and people start asking questions or demanding action be taken against them. They suddenly rediscover their origins, try and sell some sectarian sob story and the politicians buy it. Once the danger goes away they return to form. Political capital was wasted on protected some self-serving bastard who usually should have bounced twice on their way out the door.

  • Nevin

    “However, the point isn’t about the validity or otherwise of the decisions these officers took. It is the fact they took such decisions”

    FD, you seem to be ignoring the possibility that they were simply implementing decisions agreed by the two governments or taken alone by the UK government.

    The Dick Spring briefing on July 10, 1996, indicates that senior police officers were merely asked for their advice. The initiative to re-route was channelled through the Irish government and the UK government more or less rubber-stamped the partisan Irish government proposal.

    This briefing was broadcast yet the leaders of the two main unionist parties as far as I can see permitted the then chief constable to carry the can for decisions taken by those ‘on high’. Would it be fair to describe this lack of support for the police from the political leaders as an example of political cowardice?

  • willis

    “You will hardly be shocked to hear that I disagree with the decisions to block the Drumcree parade or any other one for that matter from either community.”

    I am genuinely bemused. Are you saying you believe in a right to march in a Martini fashion?

  • Michael Shilliday

    Here you defend the RUC for upholding the law, yet you criticise Sir Ronnie for upholding the Police Act 1998. Thats not a very reasoned argument.

  • fair_deal

    Nevin

    If you are correct and they didn’t take the decision, their contentiment in going along with it all is hardly a basis for Unionism embracing them now either.

    Wilis

    I hope you don’t mind but I do not want this thread to become another one about parading. I am trying to keep its focus upon O’Loan.

    Therefore, I hope you would be kind enough to accept this as my definitive answer on this issue of parading on this thread. No doubt other opportunities will arise on slugger were we can pursue this debate further in the future.

    I take a liberal view on freedom of assembly and the associated rights of free speech and association. It is based on the conclusions of the Goldstone Commission in south Africa, it reviewed the practices throughout the western world and it considered the standard to be if someone wishes to organise a march they have to demonstrate they will do so peacefully and if someone objects to it they are free to hold a counter-demonstration with the same responsbility to that they will do so peacefully. I do not claim this interpretation for only one section of Northern Ireland.

    IMO the powers that government have to limit freedom of assembly, like all limitations on the fundamental rights in the ECHR should be interpreted conservatively.

  • Nevin

    “their contentiment in going along with it”

    FD, they’re public servants carrying out government orders, sometimes with limited discretion.

    You might well ask why Annesley carried the can for decisions he appears to have merely offered advice on. He was near the end of his career and perhaps his pension was under threat from ‘on high’.

    Any thoughts on the failure of the leaders of the two main unionist parties, as well as the mainstream media, to highlight the contents and implications of the Spring briefing?

    I heard the briefing and asked a contact in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin to supply me with a transcript. The BBC and CAIN were both invited to add it to their resources on the Drumcree conflict; they declined.

  • fair_deal

    Nevin

    If they had said “No I disagree on policing reasons” or “Politicians are not allowed to order me what to do” etc. This would leave the SoS etc few places to go? They can leak that this is what is going on. They can quit. They can finish their service then expose what went on. None of which these officers did.

    The reaction of the the media is hardly a surprise. They are not in the business of helping the Unionist narrative.

    As for the leaders of Unionism better to ask them.

  • Sean

    The interests of the national powers and our interests as a regional political community are not automatically the same. Unionism ceased to be the state on 20th March 1972. Unionism was not politically responsible for any of these decisions so which should it volunteer to pick up the can for it?

    They may have ceased to have direct control of the power structures and those that commanded them but you can not deny that they still bear the responsibility of having set them up and steared the direction of them from the outset

  • Nevin

    “They can leak that this is what is going on.”

    FD, there was no need for a leak, the Spring briefing was broadcast on the BBC on the morning of July 10, 1996. The next news item contained the Mayhew version of events re. decision taking. As far as I know none of the unionist leaders highlighted the contradictions in the two versions at the time. Another example for your list of examples of unionist impotency?

  • fair_deal

    Nevin

    They could have leaked a confirmation that Spring was right and Mayhew was lying.

  • Nevin

    FD, perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t.

    This still does not explain the failure of the political leaders to challenge the UK government on the contradictory statements that were broadcast by the BBC. The BBC itself failed to explain/explore the contradiction even though one of their own reporters took part in the briefing.