When’s a war, not a war…

Eric Waugh answers his own rhetorical question:

“Probably when it’s with the IRA. In a real war, practically anything goes, Geneva Conventions or not. Remember Rwanda or Vietnam; or Oradour-sur- Glane; or Lidice; or Malmedy. But the IRA? Its members went to war only on condition that their human rights would not be infringed, although it might deny those rights to others. In a real war, though, there are no human rights. But it is the IRA kind of war – war with conditions – which lies at the root of the controversy over the Police Ombudsman’s report.

He lays out a plausible scenario in the context of that ‘war with conditions’:

Short cuts were taken with the law, often in matters of life and death. When evil was done, minders looked the other way. Read now, in the politically-correct greenhouse of the new century, the record is shocking, often callous, cavalier and unscrupulous. To say that it was all the product of desperation in confronting the so-called war is not to excuse, still less condone: by no means. But remember it is true.

In the shady, secret world of intelligence, those charged with enforcing the law needed agents who could easily merge, assuming the natural colours of the quarry. The quarry was criminal, so the lawmen hired criminals to hound it. How much rope to give them was difficult to decide. When they gave them too much, they only found out when it was too late.

But it was absolutely vital that the flow of intelligence was maintained. As for the senior officers, their sin seems to have been that they asked too few questions. So long as the detection rate went on improving (which it did), they looked the other way.

He lays out the long term political considerations conditioning all of this activity:

The Loughgall engagement of 1987, when eight IRA members attacking the police station were ambushed and killed by the SAS, was the direct result of the free flow of intelligence to the Special Branch. Their IRA informant, never identified, was among those who died at the scene. It was a time when additional feedback was coming from listening devices planted in the homes of IRA suspects and the dump from which the explosives were drawn was being watched by MI5.

Army helicopters, by this time, were able to fly along the border and log members of the Provisionals removing the gloves they used for handling explosives as they emerged from arms dumps in the Republic. In fact, as is well known, there was an element in Army and police which was pressing for the go-ahead to move in and finish the job.

But ministers knew this would conflict directly with their underlying aim, active on and off since the early contacts made by William Whitelaw, first Secretary of State, in 1972, to settle the situation round the table. So the SAS was reined in. Shoot-to-kill incidents were declared off-limits. After 1990 the chief constable had to give his personal consent before the SAS was deployed anywhere in Northern Ireland. [Emphasis added]

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty