Collusion is a term which tends to produces concern within unionist circles. It is something which unionists fear and at times try to ignore: a position which is in actual fact detrimental to the unionist position. It is feared that the problems around collusion will detract from the clear high moral ground which unionists (and constitutional nationalists) hold over republicanism (and loyalism) and make it rather a hypocritical high horse. Unionists fear that the issue of collusion will dishonour the sacrifice of the security forces and bring closer to reality the claim that they were simply protagonists along with the republicans and loyalists in a war, rather than what they actually were, decent people trying desperately to stop and prevent the murder and mayhem unleashed upon our society by those motivated by sectarian bloodlust and now having swoped their balaclavas for Armani suites seek to rewrite history with themselves as something other than the murderers and cheerleaders they were..
Collusion has come to be used as a term to describe many issues. The “noble” Lord Eames once through the cowardly medium of a “source” stated that unionists would be surprised by the amount of security forces penetration of republican terrorist organisations. Now clearly Eames has a track record of gross distortions of the truth for his own ends and was at the time working to his own pernicious agenda in the Eames Bradley group. As such whatever he says can be dismissed as the spin of a man so completely denuded of moral authority and integrity that his views need be paid no attention. However, the fact that Eames says something (surprisingly) does not by definition make it an untruth. It is clear that the security forces did have some penetration of the terrorist organisations both republican and loyalist. This is actually nothing to be remotely ashamed of. The police have always been willing to use informers within criminal gangs and these people can gain the police a useful advantage over criminals. It may offend slightly against the Dixon of Dock Green view of the police but the simple reality is that if one wishes to apprehend the drug dealers of Manchester or Nottingham then one is going to have to use informers.
This issue was of course magnified yet further in Northern Ireland: the organised criminal gangs were larger and better organised than those of the drug gangs of mainland GB (or indeed the RoI). Hence, informers were vital to allow the police to infiltrate these organisations, frustrate their plans and prosecute their crimes. At times that will inevitably have meant allowing more minor crimes to be ignored at least temporarily and again although that may make some uncomfortable it is the simple reality of stopping organised criminals. Far from running informers being wrong under such circumstances; failing to make use of such intelligence if that then resulted in worse crimes being committed would be the immoral thing to do.
It has been suggested, however, that at times loyalists managed to commit more serious crimes and the police might have been able to stop these crimes beforehand. That will undoubtedly make people uncomfortable and is without doubt a failure. However, the RUC managed to foil the overwhelming majority attacks. In addition it is by no means proof of collusion in the sense of a deliberate failure. The police cannot have always been there and may have had to take a chance that a given crime would not be attempted on a given day. As the IRA stated to Margaret Thatcher after their failure to murder her in the Brighton bomb, they only had to be lucky once and the same is true of loyalist terrorists. Still when judgement calls were made and made wrong which resulted in terrorists managing to murder someone then that must be admitted to and apologised for. That does not make the police guilty of the murder: the loyalist terrorist organisations are the guilty ones, nor does it make the police immoral and colluding; it simply means that at times they got it wrong. That requires an apology certainly but does not imply malice or criminal activity on the part of the RUC or Army intelligence organisations.
The most serious possible collusion which does seem to have happened occasionally is that of members of the security forces assisting terrorists in getting away with their criminality. The murder of Robert Hamill in Portadown does appear to be a case in point where a police reservist seems to have attempted to assist one of the murderers in getting away with his criminal acts. That is clearly utterly wrong. However, the clear disgust from the police officer in question’s colleagues and the desire (sadly unfulfilled) to prosecute that officer is interesting. If this were such a widespread phenomenon then why is it that this case and one or two others are so noteworthy? In addition it seems pretty clear that most of the police officers involved in the case had no desire to participate in assisting an offender. What happened to Mr. Hamill was a dreadful failure on the behalf of the police. However, they seem not to have intervened early enough and have failed but again this was a mistake, an error of judgement and one with utterly appalling results but not, with a solitary exception, a criminal act and not a criminal conspiracy by multiple police officers.
The most serious allegation against the security forces is of course that they deliberately set up republicans for murder by loyalists. However, the evidence for this is slim to say the least. No credible member of Army intelligence or Special Branch has ever come out and admitted to any of this, nor have any of the assorted writers on the subject obtained good evidence of it. Since keeping secrets is notoriously difficult and many of those involved would have been aware of the immorality of their actions, the absence of such evidence although not evidence of its absence, makes a fairly strong argument against wholesale collusion.
Those on the other hand who have claimed that collusion did occur on a grand scale are of course those with a strong incentive to make such claims. The assorted loyalist criminals (people who have been shown time after time to have as close a relationship with the truth as Gerry Adams) who claim widespread collusion want to explain away their wicked crimes as having been ordered from the state. This is of course a frequent defence “Only following orders” and has been used by criminals form time immemorial. When one thinks of the sorts of people on the loyalist side who have claimed that collusion was widespread or have claimed to have been involved in collusion, they are people whom one would be dubious about believing if they told you the sun comes up in the morning. When someone claims honesty for the likes of David Ervine that says a great deal about their agenda (usually bashing the forces of law and order) or else shows a level of naivety which would make them believe in the tooth fairy or that Gerry Adams did indeed write “Always look on the bright side of life” (maybe it is the royalties from that song which bought him the holiday house in Donegal).
Probably the strongest argument against widespread collusion is the utter uselessness of loyalist terrorists in targeting republican terrorists. The number of significant republican terrorists murdered by loyalists is remarkably small. It seems pretty clear reading any of the Historical Enquiries Team’s reports on murders that usually the police knew exactly who had committed the murders but did not have the evidence to prosecute. The fact that so few of these killers were themselves murdered by loyalists is extremely powerful evidence against widespread collusion in the context of setting people up to be murdered by loyalists.
The other extremely powerful argument against widespread organised collusion between loyalists and the state is the number of loyalist terrorists gaoled by the state during the Troubles. It is generally agreed that there were considerably more people involved in republican than loyalist terrorism yet more loyalists were imprisoned and frequently for longer gaol terms than republicans. If the RUC or any other arm of the state was secretly colluding with loyalists it is difficult to see why they so frequently caught loyalist criminals and ensured their prolonged imprisonment.
When all is said and done, however, unionists do need to accept that the police and security services did, at times, have to do or accept highly distasteful things and people for the greater good. That is not something which should make us feel comfortable but is something which should be accepted. In addition it may be that there may have been a small number of occasions where true collusion did occur. That is completely unacceptable and needs to be prosecuted. Unionists should not be afraid of dirty linen being washed in public because if those events are to be exposed then the evidence the government holds of collusion in the other direction also needs to be brought out.
Please note if you want to comment please do so after part 2: the blog was so long I felt it should be split
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.