When criticism is made from both directions it’s often said that the subject of the criticism must be doing something right. I suspect that’s what Matt Baggott is thinking now over the rows about recent arrests on both sides of the divide. There is an alternative view of course; he may be getting it wrong across the board. Either way a small storm of whataboutery is blowing. It must not get out of hand.
Willie Frazer is a hero to many and a pain in the neck to many more. But there is something vaguely troubling about his arrest, cold, as a ring leader. I sort of see the point of refusing bail as there are reasonable fears he would raise the temperature and play the noisy martyr all over again. On the other hand it isn’t the darkest conspiracy theory to suggest his arrest is political in the sense that it could be seen as a response to nationalist charges of appeasing loyalists. I recall Paisley’s arrest and summary trial just after the Action Council strike in Ballymena when he was successfully defended on the grounds that he prevented trouble not incited it ( Arguably he did both, at different times). His arrest was discussed in advance by senior civil servants and army and police officers – no question of complete police operational independence then. His prosecution and was seen (in my view rightly) as a demonstration to emphasise a loyalist defeat. If the situation on the streets had still been hot, they would never have lifted him.
The arrest of Sinn Fein member Sean Hughes in connection with the murder of Robert McCartney was immediately stigmatised by Conor Murphy as a balancing move to the loyalist arrests. Hughes’ grant of bail contrasting with Frazers’ refusal has of course been denounced by Jim Allister. Who’s next to serve?
The offences concerned were at least post 1998. But on dealing with the past too much is left to the police in default of political consensus. The police’s efforts to acquire the Boston College tapes, the arrest and the trial of Gerry McGeough for the attempted murder of Sammy Brush and decision to reopen the books of Bloody Sunday are all arguably against spirit of the GFA and are misjudgments which will do little for with truth recovery or reconciliation. All they do is stimulate sectarian reflexes and expose the glaring lack of agreement between the parties to cancel old and terrible debts. But crime is indeed the common factor and left to themselves the police feel obliged to take action. But where will the cycle end and how can the police avoid the charge of either arbitrary or political treatment unless every charge is followed up – which is impossible?
Apart from insisting on their good faith, an overarching defence of their conduct in recent cases is equally unfeasible for the police to make. They can only explain themsleves case by case in court, if proceedings go that far. If their credibility is challenged continually, public confidence so painstakingly built up over the past decade will decline. This is not an argument for cover up. But fair criticism and valid questions that politicians and others level at the police will be devalued for as long as leaders refuse to live up to the responsibilities of government and persist in acting mainly as sectarian lobbyists.
In this respect, Martin McGuinness has again struck a better note, rising above the whataboutery this week over the Derry arrests of dissident republicans, than has Peter Robinson over the loyalist arrests. The first minister is only reinforcing the dubious impression that these days, the dispossessed are mainly unruly loyalists. One up to Sinn Fein on the law and order front on the eve of the mid Ulster by-election.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London